Tag Archives: early vhs

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?

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The Nostalgia Merchant’s 1978 VHS Release of 1933’s King Kong

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Happy Thanksgiving!

We are now at quite possibly my favorite point in the whole year: right smack in the middle of the holiday season. The three-pack of Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas is the genesis of some of my fondest memories, and every year I look forward to this three-month stretch.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, not only do you have the excitement of Halloween just behind you and the anticipation of Christmas literally right around the corner, but you have a holiday that really gets by on just its own merits; all you have to do is eat and be thankful. That’s it! The absence of the crass, mega-commercialization that has come to define Christmas is something I really like about Thanksgiving (early bird sales on turkey day notwithstanding), though Christmas has the deeper symbolic meaning (at least, it’s supposed to). But then, both of those holidays can entail visiting with relatives you may or may not be able to stand, in which case Halloween gains the upper-hand in the “mental well-being” department. (Ironic, huh!)

In all seriousness, I really do love all three. Why am I not including New Years in that lot? Meh, New Years has always been kind of a downer to me. I see it as heralding the end of the holiday season I have just enjoyed so much, which of course is exactly what it is. Just doesn’t do it for me, man.

Anyway, Thanksgiving. It really is a simple concept (well, unless you’re the one hosting dinner), consisting mainly of eating copious amounts of food, being thankful, however one may personally go about doing that, and in more modern times, watching a whole lotta TV, which of course is the facet of the holiday that this post takes residence in. The annual Macy’s parade and football garner the most attention, but movies can be, and often are, a big, big part of it too.

In that regard, Thanksgiving’s unofficial movie mascot is none other than King Kong and his ilk. Maybe not so much anymore, but for years King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young were staples of Thanksgiving Day television broadcasts in markets all across the country. Indeed, a few years back we took a look at a complete 1979 broadcast of Son of Kong on New York’s WOR-9, and this year, we’re going to see Papa Kong himself in action.

For Thanksgiving this time around though, we’re not going to look at Kong via an old television broadcast, but rather through, quite possibly, the first home video release of the original 1933 film. From 1978, here is King Kong on The Nostalgia Merchant label, and from top-to-bottom, it’s one of the coolest tapes in my collection (I don’t make that statement lightly, either!).

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This is not an easy tape to come across. In fact, it’s pretty darn rare. So when I saw a copy for sale online (the first one I had ever seen, actually) and fairly-reasonably priced to boot, I jumped at it. Money well, well spent, and that’s coming from me, a guy that’s almost perpetually broke!

Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now: “Well, gee, Northeast Ohio Video Hunter, I’m seeing a buncha Nostalgia Merchant Kong tapes for sale online!” Okay, finding the movie on the Nostalgia Merchant label itself isn’t even remotely hard; beginning around the mid-1980s, Nostalgia Merchant had a wide range of films out on video store shelves, complete with pretty cool, eye-catching slipcases. Heck, I’ve had that respective VHS release of King Kong for years now.

This tape, however, isn’t one of those. This is from before all that. From how I understand it, and I’m the first to admit I’m no expert here, Nostalgia Merchant first began life in 1976, at the dawn of the home video era as we now know it. They first specialized in 16mm and Super 8 films and the like, and then, near as I can tell, began releasing their movies on VHS and Betamax starting in 1978. Considering pre-recorded home videos didn’t come on the scene until 1977, Nostalgia Merchant was in the game waaay early on. I have no idea if these were mail-order only releases or how long they were available before the more well-known iteration of the company (apparently after it affiliated with Media Home Video) began re-releasing many of the same movies in their subsequently more-common form, but I do know that these 1978-copyrighted tapes are (at the very least) highly obscure nowadays.

Indeed, I had no knowledge of these super-early Nostalgia Merchant releases at all until I happened upon one at a nearby thrift store some months back. It was volume 3 in Nostalgia Merchant’s line of Laurel & Hardy shorts releases, which was cool enough on its own, but it was the copyright of 1978 that figuratively raised my eyebrows; in this day and age, I really don’t come across tapes of such vintage all that often. When I do, I tend to snap them up, so in the case of Laurel & Hardy, I had no problem plunking down my three big bucks.

Still, for as much as I like Stan & Ollie, which is quite a bit, when I looked at that generic die-cut sleeve emblazoned with all the stars ostensibly available on the label, and especially at the list of other titles available on the back, I couldn’t help but feel that getting some of them in the ‘format’ would be even cooler. Make no mistake, King Kong was way, way at the top of that list. So again, when I happened upon a copy for sale online, I had to take the plunge.

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Now that I’ve got my precious, precious King Kong, I’m seeing several more “gotta haves” listed on the back of the box. In the same vein as the subject for today, Mighty Joe Young is probably now at the top of that list. Furthermore, apparently the only legitimate video release of Return of the Ape Man was on an early Nostalgia Merchant tape like this, so needless to say that’s also something I need in my life, as well.

Believe it or not, I had to order this movie from a Canadian seller, but as the sticker on the back of the box attests, it originally hails from Chi-Town. Whether the tape eventually arrived in Canada due to something such as the owner simply moving there, or instead due to a more convoluted history, I couldn’t say. No matter, it’s in my hands now, and that’s where it’s going to stay.

I find the old video store sticker itself incredibly interesting, too. Since the national Hollywood Video chain was started in 1988, it’s a safe bet a tape this old wouldn’t be showing up at a Chicago chapter. Rather, methinks this was an early video store that happened to share the same name but was otherwise unrelated to said national chain. If someone had more info on this Hollywood Video, perhaps a more exact time-frame for the release this King Kong tape could be deduced (as in, how long it was, roughly, out there).

Anyway, some may see this old school video store sticker as a detriment to the original tape sleeve. Not me. I’m a sucker for remnants of the early video era, and this Hollywood Video of Chicago sticker fits that bill nicely. Besides, these generic early Nostalgia Merchant sleeves were all the same; someone could always switch it with another tape’s sleeve, should they wind up being overly concerned about this sort of thing.

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Like I said above, and just like my aforementioned Laurel & Hardy tape, this sleeve is a one-size-fits-all variety. In other words, it be generic. Anything pertaining to the movie contained within is on the tape label itself, rather than the back of the sleeve as would become common in short order. And actually, that’s not uncommon with these super-early video releases; for example, the very first pre-recorded videos on the Magnetic label eschewed any kind of description (beyond the basic facts of running time, stars, etc.) in favor of a list other titles available.

It wouldn’t take very long for that sort of thing to morph instead into a product that was really trying to sell the prospective buyer on the movie, both in fancy-shmancy artwork and descriptions so vivid they’d practically punch you in the face repeatedly until you decided to just rent the damn tape already. So, seeing these early examples of the format hold some interest beyond that whole initial “thas an old copyright!” exclamation you undoubtedly shrieked, either vocally or mentally.

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Also just like my Laurel & Hardy tape in the same format, the tape kicks off with a static, very “filmy” logo. I really have a hard time explaining it, it has a real home-made feel to it, like it was copied from an actual film reel or something. This site calls it a grainy, 16mm, Film-O-Vision style, and that explains it better than I ever could. See that up above? Thas the early Nostalgia Merchant logo, is what it is.

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I love everything about this movie. Should I ever be required to absolutely, positively name my top 10 favorite films, this original King Kong  is safely, safely on that list. It’s quite simply a film I’ve never gotten tired of.

You know, even though I own the movie many times over, old VHS releases are, to this day, still a severe weakness of mine. This one, I had to have it obviously, but really, any Kong tape I come across and don’t already own, it simply must become part of my collection. And therein lies a tale…

It all stems from when I first saw the 60th anniversary edition (with the swanky roaring chest box) for rent in 1996. I knew only the most basic details of Kong beforehand, but as soon as I laid eyes on that tape (and pressed that oh-so-cool roarin’ button), it became a film I had to see. It doesn’t hurt that I was just getting into horror and sci-fi films and general tape collecting around that time, either. I was with a friend and his mom at a kinda far-off video store when I saw that rental tape, so it couldn’t really come home with me right then, and besides, I wanted to own the film outright.

Problem was, the tape was released in 1993 (1933, 1993, 60 years, dig?), and in the three years since, for whatever reason, it was impossible to find for sale. Remember, this was before Amazon, eBay, and such. You were basically limited to the brick-and-mortar stores around town, and if Blockbuster couldn’t order it, guess what? Y’all was outta luck. (Oddly enough, I later did ask mom to call that store about the Kong tape, and they seemed to have no idea what we were talking about. The hell?)

So, being a young video taper, I banked on a TV airing. Even then I knew Kong was a Thanksgiving movie. But as luck would have it, it didn’t air that Thanksgiving. Figures. It didn’t really air anywhere at all, truth be told. So, I settled for whatever Kong did show up on TV. Before I was actually able to see the original, I recorded, watched, and became a Kong fanatic via the 1976 remake (which was, in retrospect, pretty bad, but I didn’t know any better at the time), the Japanese entries (King Kong Vs. Godzilla & King Kong Escapes), even the Son of Kong sequel I wound up seeing before I saw the movie that started it all.

Anyway, eventually Turner Classic Movies ran the original, I taped it, and here we are. But like I said before, to this day, when I come across a Kong tape, I pretty much need to buy it. Simply because it was so hard for me to see for so long. Doesn’t hurt that it’s a terrific movie that I appreciate more and more as the years go by.

That’s the title screen up above, by the way.

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I can’t imagine anyone stumbling upon this post that hasn’t seen the original 1933 King Kong by this point. When it comes to classic giant monster movies, it’s pretty much the cream of the crop. From storyline to special effects to pure excitement, it’s incredible just how well this movie has held up. Some of the acting and attitudes date the film to the early-1930s, but those are easily forgotten thanks to the overall aura of timelessness that is the hallmark of genuinely great movies from the time period. Remember my similar sentiments regarding Undercurrent? They’re even more apt in regards to King Kong.

(Some spoilers ahead)

The plot concerns filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), famous for his many jungle movies, who wants to make the biggest and best jungle flick of them all. He needs a pretty face though. So, he heads out into New York to find the perfect girl for the part. He comes upon Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who has some acting experience, albeit limited.

Ann is everything he’s been looking for. So, he enlists her for the picture, and he and his crew set off on the high seas, headed towards the mysterious “Skull Island.” The natives there supposedly worship a god they call “Kong,” an idea that hopefully promises to be the very spectacle Denham needs to make his film the massive success that he wants it to be.

When they finally arrive at the island, they stumble upon the native ceremony featuring their latest “bride of Kong.” The natives are initially angry at the interruption, until they notice Ann, and begin making offers for her (Denham: “Yeah, blondes are scarce around here.“). Denham and his crew obviously make a hasty retreat back to the boat.

That night though, the natives sneak aboard the ship and kidnap Ann. Her absence is quickly noticed, and the crew sets out to rescue her. When they arrive back on the island, they find that Ann is set as the new bride for Kong.

As per the screencap above, that’s when King Kong himself makes his grand entrance. Kong is a gigantic ape, the king of his domain, and he is instantly enamored with Ann. He grabs her and runs off into the jungle, leaving her would-be rescuers with little choice but to go into the unknown after her.

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Kong ain’t the only big giant thing on Skull Island, though. Turns out numerous prehistoric creatures call the place home as well. Dinosaurs, pterodactyls, snakes, they’re all humongous and they all have to be dealt with along with Kong. Kong not only thwarts his pursuers, he’s also a scrapper; he fights (and defeats) every creature that comes his way, both to protect Ann as well as to further assert his dominance. This is Kong’s turf and he rules it completely.

The special effects here are largely of the stop-motion animation variety. Despite being from 1933, they, against all odds, hold up wonderfully today. Even with all the CGI trickery of modern movies (including Peter Jackson 2005’s version of King Kong, which was really far better than a remake has a right to be), stop-motion has such a, I don’t know, more natural look to it, I guess. It’s amazing how special effects from the early-1930s can still portray so well the emotions of the creature they’re animating. Somehow, you really believe Kong is excited, happy, angry or hurt. It’s uncanny!

Willis O’Brien was behind the stop-motion animation, and one viewing of King Kong is all it takes to know why he was such a master at his craft.

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Ann is eventually rescued and Kong is captured and brought back to New York. A spectacle such as Kong is even better than the picture Denham intended on making!

For as great as the entire movie is, this is my favorite part of the film, when Kong escapes, re-captures Ann, and goes on a rampage throughout the city. The contrasts between the real jungle and the concrete jungle are obvious here, and just like on Skull Island, Kong is nearly unstoppable. He wages a path of destruction everywhere he goes, probably just as much out of fear and confusion as it is anger and protection of Ann.

For me, one of the most memorable parts of Kong’s trek through New York is his wrecking a passing train. The shots of the passengers unknowingly hurtling toward Kong and then the looks of shock and fear on their faces when he attacks drives home a point that may be hard (or even unfathomable) for some modern viewers to grasp: there was no instant communication back then! Kong could stomp around the city, surprise people in their apartments, even wreck a train, and no one would be the wiser until he’s upon them. No cell phones, no texts, no news update. I don’t know why this little aspect stands out to me, but it does.

The rampage through New York is actually fairly short, especially when compared to the amount of time spent on Skull Island, but it basically acts as the prototype for every “big huge monster causing havoc in a major city” film that was to follow. King Kong wasn’t quite the first movie to tackle this or other plot points featured in the film (1925’s The Lost World basically served as a test-run for much of this), but few, if any, films ever did it better.

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And that all leads to one of the greatest moments in cinematic history: the climatic sequence of Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and battling oncoming airplanes sent to shoot him down so Ann can be safely rescued.

I think we all know how it ends: Kong puts up a valiant effort, but in the end, the bullets take their toll and Kong tumbles off the building to his death. And yet, even though the ending is common knowledge nowadays, it still manages to be absolutely thrilling. And, despite the carnage, you actually feel for Kong here; you can actually see how he realizes he’s not going to win this fight, and you actually feel sympathy when he, in his own way, says goodbye to Ann before he gives up the ghost. The whole sequence is just fantastic.

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And that ending scene! Even if you’re just limiting yourself to giant monster movies, it’s hard to top it: after Kong has met his demise, Denham pushes his way through the crowd and looks sadly at the creature. His response to the statement that the planes got him? “It wasn’t the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast,” one of the great final lines in movie history. That coupled with that last image and then the fade-out, man, it’s just fantastic.

Yeah, I know, I just gave away much of the film, but even so, if you haven’t seen this movie, go see it! I can’t possibly do it the justice it deserves in just this article alone.

A couple points about this particular release of King Kong:

First off, it’s pretty scratchy and dirty. Some scenes are way too bright, and some scenes are way too dark. It looks more like an old television print than it does a home video release; heck, this might be an old television print, though it’s missing the identifying hallmarks of such (i.e. the old “C&C Movietime” logo that vintage TV prints often carried). Most people probably didn’t care at the time though; it was such a novel concept to be able to own and watch a movie at home whenever you wanted that the print quality of the movie wasn’t that much an issue. Still, it’s probably safe to say that this is the roughest looking print of Kong ever released to home video proper (excluding pre-VHS/Beta releases, of course).

Also, the label states the run time is 105 minutes;  Ignore that. The running time is closer to 97 minutes. Yes, this is an older, cut print of King Kong!

Lemme explain: when Kong was first released in 1933, it was a Pre-Code film. That is, it was released before the infamous Hays Code was rigidly enforced. But, the film was so monumentally popular that it was re-released numerous times throughout the years when the Hays Code was rigidly enforced. Thus, scenes that passed muster the first time around were steadily excised for subsequent releases. Segments featuring Kong ripping off Wray’s clothes and sniffing his fingers, stomping and chewing on natives, and dropping a woman to her death during his New York rampage were all deemed inappropriate and eventually edited out of the movie.

Those scenes were later rediscovered and added back to the film, and most home video releases (to the best of my knowledge) are of the complete King Kong…but not this one. That’s right, many (or even all) of those ‘controversial’ segments are missing from this early Nostalgia Merchant release! Whether this is a result of this being an old print prepared for TV or just a pre-restored print in general, it’s still pretty surprising to see this cut version of the movie, especially since every home video version I had seen prior had all of the footage. Even the later Nostalgia Merchant releases specifically touted the film as the uncut version.

I’m not complaining though. In this and age, it’s nearly impossible to find a version of the film that isn’t complete. But to watch one of the older variations, one that several generations of movie lovers probably grew up with, and in its probable initial home video release, no less? That’s pretty cool!

By the way, the long-lost spider pit sequence isn’t in this one, either.

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It’s tough for me to find words adequate enough to portray just how cool this tape is. Sure, at heart, it’s just an old, scratchy, edited print of King Kong. It wouldn’t be the choice of purists, I know.

But that’s not really the point. This was, in all likelihood, the first release on the then-fledgling VHS home video format. It’s not even just that this was probably the first, either; rather, it’s what that represents (and this goes for the early years of home video in general). That is, no longer would someone have to wait for their favorite film to show up on TV, which in the case of King Kong, could conceivably not be until next Thanksgiving. With a tape like this, any day could be Thanksgiving.

And that’s yet another reason why I do what I do and collect what I collect. It goes beyond the movie, beyond the copyright date, and deeper into what it all represents as a whole. Man I love this hobby.

Plus, it is a really, really old release of King Kong. I can analyze all day if need be, but when it comes right down to it, that’s just neat. No way could I have envisioned owning this when I first set my eyes upon that roaring box edition way back in 1996!

Have a great Thanksgiving, everybody!

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – Crown Movie Classics VHS Release

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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.