Tag Archives: early release

VHS Review: TEXAS TERROR (1935; 1985 Vintage Video Release)

“Say, that cover looks kinda sorta familiar!”

If you’re saying a variation of that phrase to yourself right now, it means you’ve read this article. And if that’s the case, it also means you’ve probably got too much time on your hands. That’s okay though; so do I.

Yes, Vintage Video makes a return to my stupid dumb blog, and while the subject this time around is admittedly less eye-popping than Al “Grampa” Lewis hosting Night of the Living Dead, it’s no less rare; old school Goodtimes/Congress/UAV/ etc. budget VHS releases of certain titles are (relatively speaking) a dime-a-dozen, but Vintage Video? These tapes show up far less often, though there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference in value –  it takes someone with the same arbitrary whims as I to go after them, and fortunately for me, I appear to stand alone on that front. (I.e., no one else seems to care as much as I do.)

No joke, more than once I’ve gone out of my way to pick these videos up, regardless of title. I’m not sure if the company was always a subsidiary of Amvest Video, or merely became one later, but either way, I’ve become incredibly fond of their releases. Sure, most (all?) of them were just the public domain staples that nearly every company took a shot at releasing, but there’s a quirky aura about these Vintage Video tapes that I can’t resist. Or maybe it’s just that whole eventual Grampa thing, I don’t know. (If none of this is making sense to you, and there’s a good chance that it isn’t, go read the some 900,000 words I wrote about the subject in the article linked above.)

Anyway, I’m excited for today’s subject for three specific reasons: 1) It’s a pre-fame John Wayne B-Western, his 1935 Lone Star (aka Monogram) entry, Texas Terror, as you can plainly see above. Let it be clearly stated: I love these Lone Stars. You ask me to put together a list of my favorite Wayne flicks, guess what? Blue Steel is going right up there with Stagecoach – a statement I make without hesitation despite the probable destruction of my street cred. I’m a B-Western junkie, and a Wayne fan, so these Lone Stars are directly up my alley.

2) I grew up watching B-Westerns. I talked about this recently; in the late-1990s, our local independent station WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35 regularly ran syndicated content from the America One Network, and each weekday (and often on weekends, too) they’d play an afternoon “Western Theater.” You wouldn’t be seeing things like The Searchers on the program; oh no, it was the B-Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s that they presented, and at 11/12-years old, I quickly grew to love them – a love I carry with me to this day. America One often seemed to have unique prints of their films, too; not necessarily wildly different prints as far as the actual content of the movie went, but the picture and sound quality of their features could vary quite a bit from more ‘common’ versions found on other networks and/or home video. Coincidentally, and fittingly, the same often goes with these Vintage Video/Amvest releases!

3) I didn’t know this company (these companies?) ever even released any westerns. I mean, it was a safe guess that they did, but listen, I’ve spent far too much time researching these titles, and in the course of that research I’ve seen comedies (Movie Struck), dramas (The Blue Angel), silents (The Gold Rush), mysteries (The Woman in Green), sports biopics (The Joe Louis Story), even action (Fists of Fury), and of course the sci-fi and horror of the Grampa series. But until Texas Terror, never a western. I mean, I assume they put out The Outlaw and/or Angel and the Badman, because nearly every budget VHS manufacturer did, but if so, *I’ve* never seen them. So, when I discovered they not only released a western, but a B-Western, and that B-Western was a John Wayne Lone Star, I got far more excited than an ostensibly-reasonable adult should have. I mean, we’re talking unacceptably giddy here. Needless to say, it had to become mine, and as you may have surmised by now, it did.

In relation to the other Vintage Video titles, this one is a little unique: usually (but not always) for their covers, they’d go with the original poster art, merely flanked with the “Vintage Video” border you’re seeing above (they eventually dropped the border). But here, it’s an original composition; a stock (I guess) shot of Wayne, made to look appropriately old-timey. I dig the ‘western’ font of the front cover cast-credits, though I feel the graphic used for the actual film title is wildly inappropriate; to me, that’s more befitting an 80s horror movie or something. Totally belies the comparatively-quaint creaker (alliteration?) contained within the video, man. But then, that’s that quirky aura I was talking about earlier!

As for the back cover, it follows the general layout of the other Vintage Video products of the period. Sometimes, some of the pertinent information demonstrated the era from which it came; that is, hey, the internet wasn’t around yet! Texas Terror was not made in 1940; it’s absolutely from 1935. Doesn’t sound like that big a deal, I know, but there’s a world of difference between the John Wayne of 1935 and the John Wayne of 1940. (In the same vein, my VV copy of Black Dragons lists the release date as 1949, when in actuality it’s definitively a poverty row product of 1942.)

Also, some of their descriptions could be a little…off. Not bad, just…off. I made the same point in that Night of the Living Dead post. Here, there’s a mention of Wayne’s “great style,” but what exactly that style is is never specified, so it just comes off random. The synopsis would have flowed better had they dropped that part entirely. The “of course” near the end kinda stops the rest of the summary dead, too; the whole thing would run smoother had those two instances been cut. Still, they got the point across, so mission accomplished anyway I guess.

Also, I just realized that the entire description is only two sentences long.

Also also, they spelled “thieves” incorrectly.

Bear in mind, I’m not intending to come off negative here; this tape, and others in the same line, positively exude a budget label charm. Indeed, as the video industry progressed from the 1980s to the 1990s, you saw the major studios evolve, but the budget labels? That quirky charm never really left, and to an extent it continues today with cheapo DVDs, though to me those feel inherently less special; pressing a disc just ain’t the same, bro.

I guess what I’m getting at is collecting these public domain titles on old school budget video labels is endlessly fun. You get a peak at that early (or at least earlier) era of home video, and you often get fairly unique sleeve art, front and back, which is the case here.

(Also, if I ever find out Vintage Video/Amvest/whoever released a version of Blue Steel, I will legit flip my beans.)

So, on to the movie itself…

Lone Star Productions was, from how I understand it, a division of Monogram Pictures. Or was it merely Monogram under a secret name, not unlike Konami with their Ultra Games label? (I’m reasonably sure I’m the only person on the internet to make that reference in regards to a Monogram/Lone Star movie, and if you don’t get it, that’s because there’s not much of a comparison between the two entities at all.) Monogram was, for those not in “the know,” a poverty row purveyor of cheap theatrical entertainment, in pretty much any genre you could think of. Westerns were big business at the time, so needless to say, their output in that field was not inconsiderable.

From my first glimpse of Blue Steel so, so long ago, the thing I found immediately striking about these Lone Star pictures was their introductory sequence; a gigantic sheriff’s star, stampeding towards the viewer, the company’s name boldly emblazoned in the center of it. All of sudden, the thing stops, then transitions to the respective title and credits of the feature, all still contained within the star. And of course, this was always accompanied by a heroic, appropriately-western score.

If you’re wondering just why I find/found these intros so fascinating, it’s because, quite frankly, you didn’t always get such hype at the start of these poverty row westerns. For films that were, more often than not, pretty chintzy (in a good way), the opening fanfare exhibited by the Lone Stars was really pretty unique in the field.

While on the subject, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-John Wayne Lone Star western. Maybe that’s because these are so widely available today due to the star power involved. At any rate, did Monogram give Lone Star flicks to other actors? Yes? No? I dunno.

Actually, it’s the John Wayne factor that makes these Lone Stars so (relatively) well-known nowadays. Just like our tape today, budget releases on VHS were myriad, and that continues with DVD releases from every manufacturer under the western skies. (See what I did there?) I mean, when you’ve got American film icon John Wayne in a bunch of public domain movies, that’s the sort of thing a company looking to get cheap-but-eye-catching product on store shelves has to take advantage of.

Indeed, some of my favorite budget movie releases, on both VHS and DVD, are those of these John Wayne B-Westerns; not necessarily all of them, but rather the ones that use later-era shots of Wayne and/or appropriately ‘epic’ or ‘majestic’ backdrops for their cover art. The intent with these is clear: to make the unsuspecting consumer think these are “real” Wayne movies, and not the creakers they actually are. Oh don’t get me wrong, I love these Lone Stars, and I’m such a B-Western junkie that truth be told I’d head for them over some of Wayne’s later, big time stuff. Still, aside from the fact they feature the same star and are technically moving pictures, there’s just no real comparison between the two. Therefore, the more misleading the cover art for a release of one of these cheapies is (or was), the more appealing it is to yours truly. Go figure!

So anyway, Texas Terror. Through various compilations, I undoubtedly own it approximately 97,000 times over – give or take a couple thousand. Still, until I picked up this neato Vintage Video release, I wasn’t all that familiar with the movie. Blue Steel I know backwards and forwards, and I’ve at least seen a chunk of the others, but Texas Terror? For all intents and purposes, this was a new one on me.

Going in, don’t expect an early prototype of Stagecoach, okay? This is John Wayne, but also sort of, uh, isn’t. Frankly, it’s kinda fun seeing him outside of Hollywood and, I don’t know, ‘raw’ I guess would be the best term for it. The actor is the same, but the acting isn’t. Does that make any sense?

Soooo, all that said, ignoring the young John Wayne factor, and my love of B-Westerns and Lone Stars in general, I gotta admit, after watching it, Texas Terror really isn’t all that good of a movie. I mean, as a B-Western, I guess it’s alright, but as far as these Lone Stars go, there were much, much better flicks. If you’re looking at B-Westerns in general, Texas Terror ranks somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. “Mediocre” seems to sum it up pretty succinctly.

The plot centers around John Higgins (Wayne), the local sheriff, who mistakenly believes he’s killed his best friend Dan Matthews. During a shootout between Higgins and some robbers, Dan is killed by one of the hoodlums; upon discovery, Higgins thinks he plugged him (right screenshot), and subsequently resigns as sheriff and goes to live in the wilderness.

A year later, Dan’s daughter is heading into town to take over her late father’s ranch, when she is, naturally, beset by outlaws (it must run in the family). Higgins, now quite a bit scragglier, rescues her. Despite his heroism, she thinks he was one of the outlaws. Eventually, Higgins cleans himself up and comes back to town, his goal being to take down the gang once and for all. In the course of doing so, there’s a blossoming romance, a huge misunderstanding, and perhaps improbably, a square dance that devolves into a cow-milking-contest.

Oh, and George Hayes is also in this, minus the whole “Gabby” persona. Can’t forget to mention that!

Texas Terror, as previously stated, it isn’t all that good, but there are some interesting aspects to it that help set it apart. First of all, Wayne’s Higgins (I can’t type that without thinking of Magnum, P.I.) grows a beard during his exile period, and this is the only film I can think of where Wayne’s character features full facial fiber (alliteration). Sure, he had a mustache (and quasi-soul patch) in The Shootist, but this is the only instance I can think of where he had a legit beard. (I’m not saying it is the only instance, I don’t claim to have seen every single John Wayne movie ever, but this is certainly the only instance that comes to mind).

Random Thought: is it just me, or does Wayne kinda look like Kevin Love in this screencap?

Also, I appreciate the usage of Native Americans as heroic characters. Here, they’re friends with Higgins, and come to his aid in grand fashion during the film’s climax. Sure, their ‘accents’ may not be politically correct now, but Texas Terror bucks the frequent western trend of treating Native Americans as antagonists. I like that.

These Lone Star westerns often featured cool, though slightly generic, titles, and Texas Terror is no exception. Is the title an indication of Wayne’s character, the outlaws, or the plot in general? Blue Steel was the same way; no in-film reference ever related to the title, but it sure sounded neat.

As for the print and tape quality of Vintage Video’s presentation, this copy is in SP, which is always welcome, though it’s kind of a wash since the source material is so battered. I’m not saying this is the worst Texas Terror has ever looked, but this particular print certainly saw better days prior to VHS release. Besides the not-inconsiderable amount of dust, dirt and scratches, accumulated via untold trips through the projector and who knows how many generations removed, the bigger issue is that this version is pretty blasted. No joke, some of the images are far, far too bright. Look at the screenshots to the right here; the upper-image features a positively ghostly John Wayne, whose face seems to be a part of the wall behind him. And the lower-image? You’d be forgiven for not immediately realizing our heroine is even in the scene!

Still, like the sleeves these sorts of tapes were housed in, seeing the varying picture quality of these budget releases was/is part of the fun with collecting them. No, a major studio probably wouldn’t have put a print in this condition out (unless, say, there was only one known extant copy existing; definitely not the case with Texas Terror), but that’s why there were budget VHS tapes back then. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” could and often did come into play here, but I prefer to think of it more like, hey, the company got their hands on the only print they could, so let the chips fall where they may. Or something like that. Look, it was a different time in home video, and better sources might not have been available, or at least easily accessible. Especially if the manufacturer was a relatively minor player in the game.

So, there you have it: Texas Terror, as presented by Vintage Video, the (eventual?) alter-ego of Amvest Video, from 1985. I still haven’t seen another western put out by either company, and while I can’t really recommend the movie for B-Western and/or John Wayne fans (seriously, Blue Steel is pretty good; go with that one instead), it’s certainly an interesting, and for now, unique, addition to my collection. I’ve got more than a few cheapo John Wayne tapes littering my “archives” (ha!), but this one has automatically become one of the more-notable entries. I don’t say that lightly, either.

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VHS Review: Frankenstein (1931; MCA Videocassette Inc., 1980)

Happy Halloween!

Once again we come to the big day! This entire month (well, most of it), I’ve tried to keep things adequately “spooky,” and it has all been leading up to this showstopper. We’re gonna throw things waaay back with what is quite possibly the very first home video release of what is also quite possibly the greatest horror film ever made: 1931’s Frankenstein! If it’s not the first release, it’s at least certainly among the earliest, not counting home super 8mm copies and whatnot. (I’m talkin’ VHS and Betamax here, man.)

In the realm of horror movie royalty, Frankenstein resides way, way near the top; if it’s not #1, it’s at least a top ten’r, maybe five’r. And even if its ability to scare has almost-certainly diminished in this more-jaded movie-going age, it still easily and aptly holds up as a genuinely great, great film, one that supports more than a few iconic moments and has basically become the veritable symbol of Halloween (you know, today).

This was put out my MCA Home Video (then billed as MCA Videocassette Inc.) in 1980, and while Frankenstein was by no means a ‘new’ film even then, it’s wild to realize it hadn’t even hit 50 years old by that point. It’s now 86 years old, and this tape itself is closer to 40 than it isn’t. I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. It’s an old VHS of an old movie that wasn’t quite as old 37 years ago as it is today, okay? There, wrap your mind around that!

When this was released, home video was still very much in its infancy. These tapes weren’t exactly cheap, never mind the VCRs required to play them. As such, rentals were the main order of the day, but even so, don’t underestimate what a revolution in movie-viewin’-at-home this was. No longer did someone have to wait for their favorite flick to show up on TV, if or when it ever did; nope, all it took was a quick trip to the video store to net them a rental, or ownership if they felt like really prying open the wallet. (Full disclosure: I have no idea how much this tape originally retailed for.)

Although they’re a more-protected species nowadays, at the time these Universal classics were still widely seen on local stations, regional horror hosted programs, and so on and so forth. But to actually own an official copy of the film, to pull it off the shelf whenever you darn well felt like it? That’s something we totally take for granted nowadays, but for classic horror fans in the early years of home video, I’m just not sure it got much cooler than that!

‘Course, while there are some differences in the print here, which we’ll get to, it’s not like this movie was unique to one specific era of home video; nowadays, you can get the film itself or the entire series on DVD or Blu-ray. I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this post hasn’t seen Frankenstein, but if by some chance you haven’t, you really owe it to yourself to pick up a minty fresh new copy right quick.

Anyway, this tape. Anyone familiar with the later video releases of not only this movie but the other Universal classics will recall how elaborate and striking their covers often were, sometimes even utilizing original poster art. Gene Shalit could even show up, too. As such, the relative sparseness of this release is a little striking; it’s the kind of tape that really could have only come out in those first few years of home video.

Not that it’s bad, mind you. The mostly-purple & black color scheme is attractive and gives off the appropriate vibes one would associate with a movie of this nature. Ditto for the tinted close-up of Frank’s mug. I like the semi-Gothic (?) font used for the title, and I’m by no means a “font guy.” It’s just, like I said, the whole thing feels a little sparse compared to what was to come, though that’s no one’s fault; video covers would soon become increasingly eye-catching – the simpler, earlier days of the format soon gave way to big ol’ boxes and legitimately striking artwork, all in an effort to entice prospective buyers/renters (obviously). I guess what I’m saying is that this release could have only come out in those first few years of video. Wait, I already said that! Well, it still holds true.

If not the film as a whole, then at least the actual character of Frankenstein (or “Frankenstein’s Monster,” for all you technical types) has become, arguably, the most famous of Universal’s many many monster movie (alliteration) creations. It stands to reason this original flick (along with fellow-perennial-favorite Dracula) was among the first released on home video by MCA. Frankenstein‘s sequels had to wait a bit longer to come to VHS, however; for example, The Ghost of Frankenstein didn’t show up until 1993!

The back cover continues the color scheme, along with two shots from the movie and the expected description. Be happy there even was a description; some early video releases used the back cover primarily to hawk other titles from the company. The description here is pretty good, giving just enough exposition to draw the buyer-renter/whoever in and nailing the hype without ruining the movie. And look! Says right there: “The greatest horror film of all time!” Told ya!

Here’s what the back cover doesn’t tell you, though its not at fault by any means: Frankenstein is a movie that has been released numerous times on numerous formats – but not quite this version. I’m a little unclear whether certain scenes were excised before the original theatrical release or upon a subsequent re-release (I’ve heard both), but either way, Frankenstein was seen for years in a (slightly) truncated form. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Frank’s inadvertent drowning of little Maria; an edit to the print made the monster seem much more sinister than the original cut intended, and that’s all viewers knew for decades. The missing scene was rediscovered and rightfully added back to the film in the mid-1980s (video releases from the time notated this fact right on the front cover), and that ‘fixed’ Frankenstein is what we’ve had on home video for years. (There were a few other fixes, but unlike the King Kong I linked to a bit ago, the film wasn’t extensively chopped up.)

HOWEVER, since the footage hadn’t been rediscovered (or at least added back in) yet, of course the first few video releases were of the older, non-restored print, and needless to say, that’s what we have here. Now, naturally I’d never argue that Frankenstein should definitively be seen in this form, but it’s absolutely fascinating to see the version that was it for decades, and which is now, you know, not.

While on the subject of the print, Frankenstein has been restored and remastered over the years, and the result is that the version we have today looks pretty stunning; Universal has treated these films well! Even if you just watch one of them on Svengoolie, you’ll usually see something pretty crisp and clean – Universal does good work, and as far as Sven goes, they often provide upgraded prints as they come along, too.

But for a 1980 VHS release of Frankenstein, well, what could you really expect? The print is good, it’s certainly watchable, and probably better than what would have been airing on TV around that time. But, there’s an amount wear, dust, etc. to the print that just wouldn’t fly nowadays. Maybe it’s not that surprising; it is an early video release of a movie from 1931, after all. Don’t get me wrong; this Frankenstein doesn’t look ‘bad’ by any stretch of the imagination (I mean, you can’t even tell from the title screen screencap there), It’s just that, frankly, I’m so used to these Universal horror films looking so…so clean. But hey, you gotta start somewhere, huh? And yes, I know the remastering technology wasn’t then what it is now. (By the way, for a VHS tape that’s closing in on 40 years old, it looks and plays quite well on that particular front.)

So, do I really even need to describe Frankenstein? Even if someone hasn’t seen it (yeah, uh huh), they know the basic storyline. Even though this film was adapted from Mary Shelley’s 1818 book, this Universal adaptation, which deviates wildly from the source, has become the iteration burned into the synapses of the public. When people think “Frankenstein,” 99.9% of them think of Boris Karloff’s immortal portrayal here. And the plot? The story has become a horror staple; people know the background and the monster even if they haven’t seen this 1931 masterpiece.

The plot concerns one Henry Frankenstein, a scientist who believes he has discovered the secret to reanimating life. As such, he, along with his hunchbacked assistant, go about stealing dead bodies and piecing them together. You know, an arm here, a leg there. (As I said before, we live in a more-jaded age, but worded like that, it still sounds pretty grisly.) Things take a wrong turn when, as the final piece of the puzzle, the assistant steals an abnormal brain. (You’re thinking of the Young Frankenstein gag right now, aren’t you?) Henry, via lightning storm, succeeds in giving the mass of body parts life, bad brain and all. If there’s one image from this movie that can be considered the most iconic in a film full of iconic moments, it has to be Henry’s exclaiming “IT’S ALIVE!” when the creature begins to stir. Trouble, of course, soon follows.

And that brings us…Boris Karloff. His portrayal of the monster is an absolute marvel; a creature capable of death, destruction and vengeance, but at the same time, also humanity. The fact he does this with no real dialogue is amazing. Yes, the monster has a deranged mind, he kills, but there’s also a real gentleness about him; watch early on, soon after he’s first reanimated, and sunlight is let in through the roof – the creature futilely reaches up towards it, and it’s just an incredible moment. Indeed, one of the great tragedies of this older print is that some of that humanity is obscured – the scene where he accidentally drowns Maria is a chief example, and though only a very small moment in the overall film, it’s a very important one, which is why the later, restored versions of Frankenstein are such a triumph.

And how about that make-up! There have been numerous depictions of Frankenstein’s monster over the years, but only one that continually sticks in the mind of the people, and that’s Karloff’s portrayal here. Sunken cheeks, flat head, bolts in the neck, the whole shtick; c’mon, you already know how he goes!

Many people point to 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein as topping the original. I can understand that thought, but I still gravitate to this first film, though the monster’s newfound power of speech in Bride makes for some iconic screen moments. At any rate, the first three movies in the series (this, Bride, and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein) feature Karloff as the monster, and he’s fantastic in each one. Those are terrific movies in general, though I love this series as a whole (and have a particular soft spot for 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein).

Still, it all comes down to this original Frankenstein. This is the kind of movie horror films are built upon. No joke, it’s quite possibly the perfect Halloween movie, rivaled only by Night of the Living Dead. But whereas Dead is a gritty, nihilistic late-1960s social commentary, Frankenstein is, in my mind, the definitive horror film of Hollywood’s golden age. Both are great, but for pretty different reasons, even if they do both share the whole “reanimated corpse” theme.

Frankenstein, to me, is the horror film of that era in Hollywood; evocative sets, a fantastic storyline, unforgettable acting, a budget. Everything about it is just right. It draws you in from the first scene and never lets you go. How can anyone not love it?

So, to have the movie here in what is probably the first edition released on VHS, it’s not just a cool collectible, nor is it just a cool relic of home video’s past. I mean, it is all that, but it’s also a piece of horror movie history; the first time consumers could own the movie for home use, authorized and officially. As I said before, I’m not sure it got much cooler than that!

And with that, our big Halloween update comes to a close. Have a happy and safe holiday, everybody! And hey, why not throw 1931’s Frankenstein on at some point, whatever version you may have?

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – Crown Movie Classics VHS Release

metropolis1

I haven’t talked much about Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis on this blog, but in the league of my all-time favorite films, it is way, way near the top. I like a lot of movies, but we’re talking a top five’r, here. Not only is it a genuine silent masterpiece, but it’s also a movie I just never get tired of.

Kino’s 2004 DVD release of a terrific restoration and, even better, their 2010 DVD and Blu-ray release of a virtually complete version have obviously made earlier editions obsolete, but during the VHS-era, there were a myriad of different releases of the film, exacerbated by a public domain status (that apparently no longer holds). Needless to say, this Crown movie Classics edition (undated, but almost certainly from the mid-1980s) is one such release.

Y’see, following the original 1927 theatrical release, for various reasons the movie almost immediately began being cut down, the end result being that for years the complete original cut of the film was considered lost, and by the time of the home video era, there were a ton of differing prints out there, in varying degrees of quality and completeness. Barring few exceptions, most of these releases weren’t all that good, suffering from poor print quality, incompleteness, and so on.

By the late-1990s/early-2000s, the conventional Metropolis wisdom was that the two best releases to have were 1) the then-out-of-print Vestron Video release of the 1984 Giorgio Moroder restoration, which for all of Moroder’s tampering (modern tinting and effects, subtitles instead of intertitles, a then-modern rock soundtrack, even a few newly-filmed bits), had beautiful print quality and more scenes restored that any other version up to that point. It was a polarizing restoration, for sure, but just from a viewable footage/coherent story standpoint, it was worth the high prices used copies were regularly commanding on Ebay at the time (it has since been released on DVD and Blu-ray). 2) The 1989 Kino VHS release. It wasn’t as complete as Moroder’s, but it was absolutely the best ‘traditional’ version of Metropolis out there, in glorious black & white and fantastic print quality. The only downside was a semi-jazzy soundtrack that didn’t fit all that well and actually dragged the whole film down.

Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to find a good print of the film (and make no mistake, for years the quality of a print made all the difference as to whether a viewer ‘got’ the movie or not), but back then, Moroder and Kino were the ones to go after. The thing was, by the late-1990s/early-2000s, the Moroder version had been out of print for years, and while it was readily available used online, the popularity frequently made prices range from $30-$60 (depending on condition) for the VHS release, and if you wanted the Laserdisc edition, you were going to have to really pry open the wallet (contrary to what many claimed, the VHS was never that rare, just very highly sought-after, but the Laserdisc was a whole different story). And, to make matters worse, the ’89 Kino VHS was becoming increasingly harder to find around this time, too. Over time, these tapes began costing more and more to acquire, but they were worth the effort, because while neither was perfect, they were the only ones to do Metropolis any kind of justice in the home video market (in regards to the mainstream home video market, I mean; there were probably some specialty mail-order retailers that released decent VHS editions, but most people shopping in the video stores never saw those kind of copies).

So, besides Moroder and the 1989 Kino VHS, there were tons of varying video releases out there, and the differences between them could be pretty drastic. Metropolis had long since attained “legendary film” status, and with the movie then in the public domain, it was an easy target for low-budget releases. Many (most?) people may have been satisfied picking up one of these releases and calling it a day, but personally, after acquiring Moroder’s (and having already had a bargain-bin version), I began buying as many variants of the film as I could come across. Sure, most of them were crummy, but it was actually kinda fun to see how they differed from each other. From quality to beginning/end cards to soundtracks to completeness, they could vary wildly from one copy to the next. I still have all of my different VHS copies I’ve acquired over the years (in a box dedicated almost entirely to just Metropolis), and while my collecting has become more sporadic in recent times, I do still pick up obscure releases or ones I otherwise haven’t come across before, even though it goes without saying that I own all of the new, definitive restorations.

And that brings us back to the Crown Movie Classics VHS (remember when this article was supposed to be about it?). Oddly enough, despite my being aware of it for years through online searches, this Crown Movie Classics release is actually a newer acquisition of mine. In this day and age it’s not particularly rare, maybe uncommon at best, but much to my surprise, it’s one of the more interesting video releases from the era.

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As previously stated, there’s no date anywhere on this tape, but the mention of it being released in theaters on the back of the box (they probably should have said “re-released,” but I nitpick) points to around 1985. Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 release wasn’t just a great restoration, it also brought the film back to movie theaters, which is almost certainly what the summary on the box is referring to.

My own quick synopsis: Metropolis is a seminal silent sci-fi (how’s that for alliteration?!) classic from Germany, enormously influential, not only in the science fiction genre, and not only in silent films, but in film making period. Falling into the German expressionist category, it details a futuristic city in which the rich and privileged live in a towering city above ground, while workers keep the city running through endless manual labor below ground. Plotlines involving the son of the man who runs the city, a girl from below ground who wants to unite the two classes of people, a robot created by a mad scientist, as well as some simply phenomenal special effects that are still impressive, it all combines into a not only a terrific sci-fi movie, but one that works as a social allegory, even today. Not only was Metropolis ahead of its time in many ways, it’s also still frighteningly prescient.

That’s an extremely streamlined rundown of the film, which is intentional. My reasoning? if you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you are already familiar with it. However, if by some chance you haven’t seen Metropolis and are reading this, go watch it. Nothing can replace experiencing this film for yourself, even more so now that we have practically the complete film restored and available.

I first actually saw the movie in the summer of 1998 (July 4th or thereabouts, as I recall), when I found a budget video release of it at Best Buy, back when their budget VHS sections could yield untold numbers of “good stuff.” Metropolis played into my love of both sci-fi movies and silent movies, so it was a no-brainer purchase. Unfortunately, the tape I bought was the version released by Madacy, which unbeknownst to me at the time was widely considered one of the worst versions to have. Madacy, who were no strangers to such things, repackaged this particular print endlessly in the VHS era, and in the late-1990s it was by far the most commonly found edition. Combining abysmal print quality and a score comprised entirely of classical music with no attempt whatsoever to sync it with what was happening on screen, well, it wasn’t exactly Metropolis as it was meant to be seen.

While I appreciated the film for what it represented and the achievements it made, truth be told, it wasn’t until I caught a TV broadcast of Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 restoration that I truly fell in love with the film, and I’ve been there ever since.

One thing about collecting Metropolis: the more differing copies you’d get, the more you’d start running into the same prints over and over again after awhile. I’ll explain more in a bit, but that aforementioned Madacy release actually shares some heritage with this Crown Movie Classics one, though one isn’t a carbon copy of the other. Read on, you’ll see.

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Ignore both the 120 minute running time on the back of the box and the 139 minute running time printed on the tape’s label, because the movie as found here only runs about 95 minutes. Not so unusual, since the running times of these earlier, lower-budget VHS releases generally ranged from 90 minutes to 120 minutes. The running times were rarely a gauge of how complete a respective print was, though; rather, this being a silent, the speed at which the film was run varied from version to version, and that more than anything dictated the total running time of a particular release.

Also, this release is recorded in SP, which of course is preferable to the EP and LP recordings of a good many other copies out there at the time.

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W-w-what’s it say?! The various problems of this release are immediately evident as soon as the movie starts. The introductory card is so blurry, it’s basically unreadable! This does not inspire confidence in the product that’s to follow.

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As I mentioned, this Crown Movie Classics VHS actually has quite a bit in common with that old Madacy release that was my first Metropolis. It clearly comes from the same source, though the two are hardly identical. Because Madacy’s was such a widely distributed version, comparisons between the two are, for me, inevitable.

Madacy presented one of the worst prints out there, but Crown Movie Classics’ release, well, it’s not exactly good either. The picture quality is uniformly terrible; blurry, washed out, off-center (just look at the title above!), it’s pretty rough going. Madacy’s version was pretty terrible looking, too, though I’m honestly I’m not sure which is worse here. Both present pretty poor versions of Metropolis. I never thought I’d say it, but based solely on that introductory text we saw, I may have to give the edge to Madacy as far as better print quality goes! At least the intro was kinda readable in that one!

Besides some editing differences, the chief example of which you’ll see in the next screencap, Madacy’s took the beginning cards, end card (in fact, Madacy’s end card looks to be some modern, cheesy cartoon-like thing; it’s completely different from the one on this tape) and intertitles and freeze-framed them, ostensibly so they’d be more readable. It ends up looking incredibly cheap, especially with all of the dust and scratches frozen in the frame. Crown Movie Classics’ version, however, leaves all of these unchanged, which if nothing else looks much more natural.

Soundtracks: Madacy decided to use random classical music with no connection to what was happening on-screen. Crown Movie Classics, on the other hand, used a soundtrack that seems like it would be more at home in a Laurel & Hardy short than Metropolis. It’s almost funny to hear happy-go-lucky music during some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie, except that it’s effectively taking you out of a scene instead of drawing you into it. Like the print quality, I can’t really decide which is the worse soundtrack, though I think I’d take Crown Movie Classics’ over Madacy’s…by a hair.

(To be fair, the same exact same print as what showed up in the Madacy VHS’ also appeared on tapes from other companies, and I really have no idea who the actual originator of the offending print was, but Madacy repackaged and released the version so many times that in time it appropriately became known as the “Madacy version.”)

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For as crummy as the print quality and soundtrack are, there is a factor that, believe it or not, puts this version of Metropolis above most others on the market from the mid-1980s up through the 1990s, and you’re looking at it above: it’s the “stadium scene,” one of the hallmark “restored scenes” found in Moroder’s restoration. It wasn’t exactly exclusive to that restoration, but it turned up so rarely in other home video versions that it might as well have been.

It’s not really a long scene, just a fairly short moment of some of the upper-class citizens having a quick race at the start of the film. It’s placement in this print is a bit out of order from where it should be, and quality is so poor that a first-time viewer would be forgiven for not knowing what exactly was going on, but the fact that it’s here at all is a pleasant surprise. It’s amazing how stuck-in-2000 my Metropolis sensibilities are, because I got pretty jazzed upon finding this scene in this VHS release, even though I already have, you know, the complete restoration of the movie on DVD.

When DVDs were just starting to take off in the late-1990s, Metropolis began finding a presence in that format just as it had on VHS. But for a time, there were only two real DVD releases out there: Madacy’s, which was just a DVD version of their poor VHS, and one put out by a company called Classic Media Holdings, which was the same print as this Crown Movie Classics VHS – except the picture quality was infinitely better (I have a copy somewhere, but I don’t remember if the soundtrack is the same or not). Until the 2004 Kino release, it was really the best DVD version out there. It came out around 1998/1999, and by 2001, it was out of print and not easy to find. When a copy did turn up on Ebay, it went for pretty big bucks (in the summer of 2001, a copy popped up there, and I had a pocket full of dough from my recent grade school graduation party; it still wasn’t enough to win the auction. We’re talking well over a hundred bucks here. I finally got a copy some years later, though truth be told, it wasn’t much cheaper). The relatively excellent picture quality was certainly a selling point of the DVD release, but this stadium scene, this one little short scene that happened to be included, was also a big part of that.

Which brings me to this point: if someone, back in the glory days of the late-90’s/early-2000s Ebay when these types of tapes were actually selling, had listed a copy of this Crown Movie Classics edition and specifically mentioned this stadium scene, preferably in the auction title, there’s a good chance that not only would they have made a sale, they also would have made a bit more money than usual. That’s how starved some Metropolis fans (myself included) were for better, more unique, more complete versions of the movie at the time.

And despite sharing the same source, no, this scene is not in the Madacy release.

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There are some scenes that, no matter how terrible the print and/or sound quality are, that remain amazing. Despite the blurriness of the picture, the early scene of the underground workers walking zombie-like to work is unbelievable. The machine-like dehumanization of the scene is unmistakeable, and it has become one of the defining images of Metropolis.

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Ditto for the scene in which the scientist Rotwang (save the snickering, please) gives the image of heroine Maria to his robot. The special effects used, particularly as the persona is being grafted to robot (consisting of animated rings moving up and down the robot and growing progressively in number), is remarkable for a 1920s film.

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The print quality obscures many of them in this version, but the panoramic shots of the city itself are still pretty awe-inspiring. According to legend, the various shots of the city were inspired by the towering skyscrapers of New York as Fritz Lang first entered the city via boat. The inspiration shows time and time again in Metropolis.

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Even though you almost can’t read it, according to the end card, this was a Thunderbird Films release. I don’t know when they first put out their version of the film, but they released a lot of movies like this. I’m pretty sure I have a copy of Buster Keaton’s The General by them somewhere. Or maybe that was Blackhawk Films, I don’t remember.

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It’s not really a ‘good’ version of Metropolis, but it is an interesting one. In fact, for those curious to see one of the cheaper, varying prints of the film out there when there wasn’t (much) better available, well, I guess you could do worse. The abysmal print and sound quality, clashing with the more-complete print (relative to other similar releases), the whole thing is entertaining in spite of itself. Though, to be fair, Metropolis is such a monumental film that even these old, disrespectful prints, despite trying their best, can’t completely hide what a masterpiece the movie is. If nothing else, it’s worth having just to see what fans by and large had to put up with in the home video market until things were more widely done right by Fritz Lang’s classic.

Geez, there’s an essentially complete DVD/Blu-ray release out there, and I just spent 47 hous talking about an incredibly obsolete VHS version. I have, how do you say, too much time on my hands.