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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?

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VHS Review: The Little Shop of Horrors (1960; Video Treasures’ 1990 Colorized Version Release)

We’re coming to the home stretch gang; Halloween is next week! By now it should be obvious that when it comes to seasonally-appropriate movies, I prefer the old stuff: The classics of the 1930s, the poverty row works of the 1940s, and the cornball drive-in fare of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the flicks I dig are generally perceived as less-than-great, while others are widely considered legitimate classics. Today, we’re looking at something from the latter end of that spectrum.

1960’s Roger Corman opus The Little Shop of Horrors is somewhat of an anomaly. Based on the plot and production values (it was filmed for figurative peanuts in only two days!), by all means this should have been little more than a cheap and cheesy horror quickie; fun and entertaining perhaps, but not something particularly good. That’s not how it turned out though. Everything lined up perfectly for Shop, the result being a genuine classic. It’s fast-paced, well-written, and thanks to some terrific dark humor, pretty funny. It may very well be Corman’s best movie. I certainly consider it to be.

As it turned out, a fate that befell other ‘big’ horror films also happened to befall Shop: It lapsed into the public domain, and that, coupled with its status as a “cult classic” ensured that the movie would be readily available at pretty much any given moment. No joke; you’d almost have to be trying to avoid The Little Shop of Horrors in order to not see it!

Enter the mid/late-1980s, the booming home video market, and the then-new (and then-controversial) process of colorizing black & white films. It stands to reason that some of the more legendary grayscale movies would be prime candidates for colorization, and that’s where our subject today comes in: The Little Shop of Horrors was given the color treatment in 1987 and released by the much-missed Vestron Video.

The tape we’re looking at now, however, is not that Vestron release, but rather a 1990 re-release by the industrious Video Treasures. Video Treasures put out a lot of tapes around that time, and there’s some legendary titles amongst its ranks. I’m not sure how they came to own the rights to the colorized version of Shop, but as far as I’m aware it’s the exact same print as Vestron’s. And so here we are.

First off, look at that cover art! Just look at it! Yes, for those unaware (all three of you), Jack Nicholson is indeed in The Little Shop of Horrors, though it apparently wasn’t his very first appearance in a motion picture. Still, it’s certainly one of his earliest, and the acclaim garnered by the film as a whole means that everyone involved was/is for the better, Jack included.

Though, the cover art points to a popular trend among releases of Shop: They like to play up the Nicholson angle, even though he’s not in it for very long. I mean, it’s understandable; he’s a name draw, an uber-recognizable face, so of course you gotta take advantage of him. But in reality, Jack isn’t even close to the star of the film (he was still a few years away from Batman, man).

The cover art used here is some of the more-famous artwork to be found gracing the front sleeve of a Shop release; it was used on no less than four separate VHS releases of the movie. Maybe even more, I don’t know. Three of those were for this colorized version: The 1987 Vestron release, this 1990 Video Treasures version, and one by Avid Home Video in 1992. The fourth one was United American Video’s 1987 VHS of the original black & white print, and that’s the one I had back in the day (still do, actually). Found in Best Buy’s fabled $2.99 VHS section, I was immediately drawn to that cover art, and actually picked up two copies: One to watch, and one to keep minty sealed fresh. That well-drawn picture of Jack, dressed to the nines and happily pointing at a presumably-killer plant, was and is immediately eye-catching, and as far as I’m concerned, some of the coolest cover art of the late-1980s/early-1990s VHS era.

The synopsis on the back cover is word-for-word the same as what appeared on the Vestron release. Actually, it was the same on the 1992 Avid VHS release, too. It seems that whoever gained the copyrights kept the particulars and only changed up the formatting and appropriate criteria (i.e., manufacturer etc.) somewhat.

That’s okay though, because the description does a pretty good job of selling the movie. Why fix what ain’t broken? I do take a few issues with it, however: 1) Calling it a “trash masterpiece” doesn’t work for me. It’s a cheap comedy-horror film, yes, but I’ve never thought of it as “trashy.” 2) Audrey wasn’t the daughter of the flower shop owner, was she? 3) That final line kinda gives away the conclusion of the film, though not definitively, and I suppose it could be taken either literally or figuratively. Still, I would have left that part out.

(Also: Hey, Video Treasures was situated in Ohio! Cool winnins!)

Needless to say, the fact that this is the (then) newly colorized version of the film is touted more that once, and why wouldn’t it be? You could get a regular ol’ black & white version anywhere! And speaking of the colorization…

Wikipedia says the movie has been colorized twice: This one, and a 2006 version by Legend Films. That Legend version was well-received, but this one less so. First off, Legend does good work, so that part doesn’t surprise me. As for the reception of this initial colorized version, I get that was released relatively early in the colorizin’ game, but even so, I actually didn’t mind it. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer that movies filmed in black & white stay in black & white, but as a relic of a time when the coloring process was still quite controversial, I can’t help getting a small nostalgic kick out of the proceedings.

And I’ve certainly seen worse colorized films. A trained eye will certainly be able to tell this wasn’t originally filmed in color, but to me, it’s less jarring and “in your face” than it could have been. Actually, some of the colors looked a little muted to me, though that may have been a combination of the tape’s age, the LP recording speed, my cheap beater VCR, and/or my eyes playing mind games with me. I don’t have any real complaints concerning the colorization process, but then again, it’s not like I don’t have the original version readily available to me at any and all times; maybe it would have been a different story if this was the only print accessible, which of course was one of the fears regarding colorization as a whole in the first place, but it’s not so it isn’t. (IMDb says this colorization was authorized by Roger Corman himself, but it also mentions there were several continuity errors in the coloring process, so I’m guessing that was probably more a reason for the poor reception than anything.)

I will say that the movie’s intro was a cause for concern, however. Look at that title screen above; see those “colored boxes,” for lack of a better descriptive term? As the opening scrolls to the right, those boxes just sort of remain stationary (for the most part), and it’s not a great effect. It reminds me of those old school color “screens” people used to place on their black & white TVs. Methinks they would have been better off giving the opening credits a single, solid color, but things settle down once the movie proper starts.

So, The Little Shop of Horrors. Is there anyone here that hasn’t seen this movie? Raise your hands as if I could possibly see you please. No? No one? Thas what I thought. The critical acclaim and public domain status have both ensured that this is one of the most widely-seen classic horror films going. It doesn’t top Night of the Living Dead in availability, but then, what movie does? Shop can still be mentioned in the same “ain’t no copyright on dis flick” breath though, and that’s pretty impressive nevertheless.

The plot, for all six of you who haven’t seen this, concerns one Seymour Krelboyne, a lowly worker at a skid row florist. Seymour is a screw up, and at the threat of being fired, Seymour saves his job by presenting an odd plant he has grown as an attraction for the shop, named “Audrey Jr.” (after fellow florist Audrey, who Seymour is in love with). The plant is unusual; it’s a hybrid with some venus flytrap genes in it. Unfortunately, Audrey Jr. doesn’t like to eat; attempts at ‘normal’ plant nourishment don’t do anything for it. It’s only after it accidentally gets a taste of Seymour’s blood that the truth is revealed: This thing craves humans! After pricking his fingers dry, Seymour knows that more is needed to keep the thing alive. Soon after, Seymour accidentally, and fortuitously (ha!), causes the death of a stranger. In order to cover his tracks, he scrapes up the body and feeds it to Audrey Jr. (above), and from there on, well, you can see where this is going. Seymour must satisfy the plant’s cravings with more and more human morsels.

There’s a healthy dose of humor in The Little Shop of Horrors. Jewish humor, to be specific. Jewish names and lingo are thrown about liberally. Further laughs are found in Seymour’s constant unwitting acts of murder; he never means to kill, it just sort of happens, though of course the curiosity of the cops is aroused nevertheless. Indeed, the film plays out somewhat like a morbid spoof of Dragnet, with Joe Friday and Frank Smith parodies found in Sgt. Joe Fink and Officer Frank Stoolie, who are on the case of the missing persons. (On a side note, the Dragnet-ish feel is something I really appreciate about the film, being a big fan of the actual TV series, and totally adds to the charm of the movie. It’s not unique to Shop, though; the 1956 Lon Chaney Jr. “epic” Indestructible Man used the same device, and even though for years I gave that movie short-shrift, a recent viewing found me reappraising it, not just due to the general entertainment factor but also thanks to the Dragnet-esque framing used.)

So what about Jack Nicholson’s role in the flick? As I said, he’s not in the movie very long, but his sequence is very funny. Jack plays masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force, who Seymour works on while posing as a dentist (after killing the real dentist – in self-defense, mind you). Jack doesn’t become a meal for Audrey Jr., but he gets one of the funniest moments in the whole film. As a masochist, he actually enjoys the visit to the office, with the final gag being him happily walking out and displaying his new trainwreck of a smile. Funny stuff! Jack would later get bigger roles (duh!), and even starred in Corman’s The Terror alongside Boris Karloff some three years later, but when it comes to his uber-early work, well, it’s tough to top his small bit here.

The Little Shop of Horrors is a movie that really holds up. Unlike a lot of horror/sci-fi films that have lapsed into the public domain, Shop is genuinely good. Sure, it was cheap and quickly filmed, but in my opinion that just adds to the charm. The horror elements are legit, but the film is largely a goof, and it all comes together perfectly as a whole because of it. Clearly it did something right; besides the unending fandom attributed to it, the flick also served as the basis for a popular musical, which in turn became the 1986 theatrical adaption/remake.

Like any colorized movie, I’m not sure I could ever recommend the altered version over an original black & white print, but as a supplement to the real deal, I’m fine with it. Colorization has obviously advanced in the years since, but there’s something about taking a trip back in time and watching a work from the earlier years of the process that’s a lot of fun. It’s not always perfect, but as a late-1980s/early-1990s throwback, it’s worth a watch. It makes for good, fairly-harmless Halloween viewing, if nothing else.

(By the way, for a print apparently authorized by Corman, I was a bit surprised to see that this particular version did not include the original ending credits. Many black & white copies lack them as well. My very first viewing of the movie, off of good ol’ 29/35 way back in like 1997, featured them, but few, if any, I’ve seen since have.

Speaking of 29/35, last night channel 29 said goodbye. The station will live on, without any line-up changes, as Cleveland’s channel 16, though unfortunately Spectrum doesn’t currently carry that feed. This means yours truly is going to need a real antenna to pick it up. Even though the channel isn’t really gone, to me this truly feels like the end of “The Cat.” No other station, local or otherwise, was quite as important to me while growing up than The Cat, and as such, it feels like another piece of my childhood is lost forever. Such is the way with life, however. The memories will live on, and I suppose that’s the best any of us can hope for.)

Movie Review: Wild Horse Phantom (1944)

“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?! A western movie review – in October?!

Yes, it’s true: Right in the heart of Halloween month, we’re looking at a 1940s poverty row western. But wait! Don’t go closing the tab just yet! This fits, trust me!

Back in the 1940s, Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC for short, made movies with, erm, not a lot of money. They were, you know, a cheapie outfit – just one of the many poverty row studios that littered the cinematic landscape in that era. At the time, westerns of the budget variety were churned out nigh-continuously by these poverty row players; no joke, westerns were perhaps the preeminent “poverty row product.” So, it stands to reason there wound up being more than a few horse operas sporting the PRC branding. (See what I did there? “Branding!” Because it’s a…oh never mind.)

On that front, PRC had a long line of “Billy the Kid” B-Westerns, the first few with Bob Steele but the vast majority starring Buster Crabbe as the titular character. (Unlike the real-life outlaw, this Billy the Kid was a bit more of a heroic figure; this was matinee material, after all.) Crabbe was no small potatoes at the time, having portrayed Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and even Tarzan. Dude even made it to the Olympics – twice. Of course a studio would be all for him headlining an action-packed film series such as this! (Al “Fuzzy” St. John also starred in these as the comic sidekick, and truth be told, I had forgotten what a spaz his character could be.)

And that brings us to today’s subject, Wild Horse Phantom. Title cards to the left, yo. Released in 1944 (according to Wikipedia and its IMDb page, on October 28 – right before Halloween!), this entry falls, roughly, in the middle of the series – by which point “Billy the Kid” had become “Billy Carson.”

Now look, I really, really love B-Westerns; they’re some of my favorite movies to watch. BUT, I’ll never claim they could vary a whole lot. I mean, these were old west stories filmed on the cheap; how many plot lines could there be? Watch enough of these, and you start to see the same basic story lines repeated over and over, though when the action was good and the stars engaging, it didn’t really matter – bills that seemed to fit Crabbe pretty well, actually.

All that said, when you’ve got a long-running series such as this one, well, sometimes things had to be shaken up a bit, and that’s just what PRC did with Wild Horse Phantom – this is not your typical B-Western! The usage of “phantom” in the title isn’t really an indicator of horror-themes in a western (lotsa them used it), but make no mistake, our movie today has unmistakable horror movie undertones – and overtones! This one really breaks out of the mold, and it’s a lot of fun because of it. Read on!

The movie starts out normally enough: A fellow named Daggett, along with his gang, break out of prison. These guys were busted for robbing a bank, and, it turns out, the breakout has been orchestrated by Billy so he can trail them and recover the stolen money. (Along for the ride is another prisoner, an acquaintance of Billy and Fuzzy, who is unwittingly dragged with the gang; Daggett shoots him dead soon after. While it provides a moment for Fuzzy to grieve early on, it seems to be forgotten in fairly short order.)

At this point, I’d like to mention that this is a “modern day western,” meaning it was (ostensibly) set in the time it was produced. Sure, there’s still six-shootin’ and horses and whatnot, but there’s also then-modern automobiles present. When I was growing up and discovering B-Westerns on WAOH/WAX, I was always put off by these. To me, a western should be set in the old west; in the 1800s, maybe early-1900s tops. While I still prefer my westerns to adhere to my arbitrary standards, I will say I’ve softened on these “modern day” efforts – somehow the 1940s matinee charm is made all the more visible when then-modern accoutrements are present. Does that make any sense? No? Well, whatever.

Anyway, after that non-eyebrow-raising start, the setting get dark – literally. Billy and Fuzzy track Daggett’s gang to an old mine, where Daggett hid the stolen money before their incarceration. As seen here, our heroes skulk about in the dark (right), and eventually wind up spying on the gang as they futilely try to find the dinero. (Daggett can’t remember where exactly he hid it.) It’s at this point where things take a turn for the spooky; y’see, for all intents and purposes the mine here is the equivalent of a haunted house.

No joke – there’s mysterious, cackling laughs, provided by a “phantom” (our titular character, duh!) with a knife. This phantom seems to be on the side of good, even helping Billy and Fuzzy when they’re captured by the gang in surprisingly short order. Still, can you ever really trust a guy that runs around a dank mine and cackling? It’s gotta be a little unnerving, even if you are Buster Crabbe.

Eventually Billy makes it outside (while Fuzzy waits in the mine; more on that momentarily) and does a little investigating. The town in which the mine is located has been essentially wiped out by the aforementioned bank robbery, as the nefarious banker in charge is threatening to foreclose on everyone. You can probably see where things are going here. This moves the plot along, of course, but really, the best scenes are all in the mine. They really do manage to attain an aura of, I guess, an old dark house thriller – an intriguing and nice change of pace for a budget western!

Wild Horse Phantom probably can’t be deemed a ‘famous’ movie; B-Western fans might know of it, but it’s not like you’ll hear it spoken of in the same sentence as, say, Stagecoach. Still, there is one scene that almost has to come up when Wild Horse Phantom is mentioned, not only because it takes the horror elements of the film from a mostly-background presence to front and center, but also because it’s just so, well, PRC.

Because the scenes in the mine are, by necessity, dark, and the object in question was (almost) constantly in motion, capturing satisfactory screenshots was all but impossible here. I tried over and over, too. What you’re seeing to the left is The Devil Bat. Yes, that Devil Bat. As in The Devil Bat, the 1940 PRC horror flick starring Bela Lugosi. To showcase the hidden dangers of the mine, PRC reused the prop!

The scene: Fuzzy is wandering around the mine when he stumbles upon something lurking in the shadows, eyes glowing menacingly. That’s the top image on the left, and believe it or not, it manages to come across genuinely creepy!

The bat of course attacks Fuzzy, though the shots of him scuffling with it are incomprehensible in screencap-form, so the bottom image is the bat showing off its impressive wingspan. How does Fuzzy repel the creature? By biting it. (Don’t ask.)

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the bat doesn’t get much screen time. His scuffle with Fuzzy is it (though there’s a semi-related incident at the conclusion of the film that’s too dumb to not love). And why exactly is it there? Are we left to surmise that they just get that big in the mine by natural means? Or do we assume it’s one of Bela’s escaped experiments? Questions like this keep me up at night. No matter though, because the fact PRC reused the creature is just too awesome, and really sets Wild Horse Phantom apart from other B-Westerns.

As a whole, it’s a fun movie, and at under an hour (normal for these B-Westerns), it’s fast-paced by necessity. Granted, the breeziness of the film doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for further fleshing out of the story. For example, there’s what seems to be a love interest here, except the whole plot point just kinda peters out and goes nowhere after the initial germ of the idea. Plus, there’s that whole giant bat thing, too.

Still, B-Westerns weren’t high art, and they weren’t meant to be. This was matinee entertainment for the kids, not a serious horse opera. There’s perhaps no better evidence of that than Wild Horse Phantom, a movie that mixes the western, horror, and comedy genres far more adeptly than it should be able to. I really liked it! It’s harmless 1940 poverty row cinema, with plenty of action and, for our purposes today, horror to make it fit during the Halloween season. It’s not the kind of movie that would come to mind first for sure, but it’s a nice, unexpected option if you’re looking for some offbeat entertainment for your Halloween party.

Wild Horse Phantom gets your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter’s full-approval, and as we all know, my full-approval is of tantamount importance. Check it out!

(By the way, where’d I get this movie? This copy comes from Mill Creek’s 20 movie DVD set dedicated to the Billy the Kid series; however, as I haven’t been able to fully devour the entire collection yet, I’m labeling this as a “movie review” instead of my usual “DVD review,” as notating it the latter implies, to me anyway, a review of the whole set – something I can’t satisfactorily do yet. I take solace in the fact that anyone reading probably doesn’t care about trivial matters like this.)

VHS Review: Bowery at Midnight (1942; Goldstar Video Corporation’s “Tales of Horror” Series, 1992)

Welcome to October! Fall! Halloween month!! I essentially took September off so I could get one ostensibly-spooky post up per week. Or at least that was the plan; who knows if it’ll actually work out that way. If nothing else, I’ve got the start and end of the month covered, okay? Stop pressuring me.

To kick things off, I’ve got the return of Goldstar Video’s Tales of Horror series, a 1991/1992 line of budget tapes that, thanks to their extreme early-90s vibes and cool packaging, I have become fond of. We saw their version of 1947’s Scared to Death back in August, but today we have one that just may be my favorite of their line-up: 1942’s Bowery at Midnight.

It’s not because of the packaging, or a particularly unique print of the movie, either; the cover art for all of these was pretty similar, and as for the print, well, I don’t really know, because the tape is sealed and I refuse to open it and ruin the minty freshness. Nope, this is a biggie for me because I just really, really love this movie. It stars Bela Lugosi, so it’s automatically worth checking out anyway, but then it goes one better by having a genuinely engrossing plot. It’s a Monogram production, so the story ain’t exactly high art, but boy did it turn out to be a good flick anyway.

No joke, when it comes to Lugosi, I’m definitely a fan. Sure, Dracula, that’s an easy call. But, because Bela spent so much time on the poverty row circuit after Drac typecast him somethin’ awful, it’s a lot of those cheapie movies from the 1940s that I come to first when I think Lugosi. The Devil Bat? Great flick! The Corpse Vanishes? That too. And amongst those personal vaunted ranks: Uh, Bowery at Midnight, obviously. And don’t think that just because these were quick paychecks for him that his performances suffered; Bela always gave a role his all.

Because it’s long been in the public domain, Bowery at Midnight has had more than a few budget VHS, and now DVD, releases. It’s not one of his more ubiquitous films to be found in this arena though, and that’s a shame, because as far as I’m concerned it’s one of his best cheapies.

The cover art here follows the same template as all of Goldstar’s Tales of Horror entries. That is, white background, accented by a series title that’s dripping blood, a grainy filmstrip screenshot of the movie down the middle, and a volume number at the bottom-right (which is housed in a pool of the blood). This was the set template for the line, with only the specifics changing (movie title, volume number) changing from release to release.

This particular entry was volume 12, of which there were at least, at least 24 volumes. Anyone know exactly how many were released? The screenshot used actually isn’t a single still taken from the movie, but rather a composite; Bela plays a dual-role in the flick, as a college professor by day, nefarious soup kitchen operator by night, and both personas were aptly placed into the scene. Good move on Goldstar’s part!

The only thing I really find suspect here is the misspelling of Bela as “Bella” on the packaging. Hey, it was a budget video, typos happen, but it’s not like his name isn’t at the start of the movie, and besides, they got the spelling right on the Scared to Death cover. (In Goldstar’s defense, I’ve seen this misspelling from other manufacturers, as well.) Oh, and it’s Bowery at Midnight, no The, but that’s small potatoes, yo.

(Also, dig the remnants of a Kash n’ Karry sticker on the front! This tape hailed from a Florida seller, and there’s the proof!)

The synopsis on the back isn’t bad. Bowery at Midnight is, for the most part, more of a crime thriller, though Goldstar did well to point out the legit, albeit somewhat inexplicable, horror twist. Though, referring to Bela as the “night manager” of the mission is, uh, no. He owns and runs the joint; he’s not some underpaid clerk at an all-night convenience store somewhere! “Let me get you your lottery tickets, my friend…” Also, his offing of (most) of the people he enlists isn’t so much because he’s threatened by them as it is a precautionary measure.

I’m not trying to rag on Goldstar’s summary, though; compared to many budget labels and the synopsis on the back sleeve (if there even was a synopsis), this is practically a cornucopia of information!

Plus: 1992 – a 25 year old tape! The sad fact of the matter is that’s a bit newer than much of the stuff I bring home, VHS-wise. I don’t know when any of these were released (the line apparently started in 1991, and I would guess the tapes continuously floated around for a few years afterward), but I’m assuming they were more readily available during the fall months, in which case I was 6 years old for Halloween ’92. Can’t remember what I went as that year, but there’s a good chance it included a mask I couldn’t stand wearing for longer than 12 seconds.

I didn’t have any of these tapes as a child. I was more into cartoons and video games at the time; my love of vintage horror and sci-fi would flourish about 5 years later.

Fun Fact: Freehold, New Jersey was the childhood home of Bruce Springsteen. Also, the Grampa tapes were manufactured in Rahway, NJ. So, was Jersey like the unofficial capital of low-cost VHS or something?

(Yes, I totally used that exact paragraph in my Scared to Death review. You can’t improve on perfection, so I’ve straight-up copied and pasted it here. Stop pressuring me.)

As I said, I can’t bring myself to crack the seal on this. It’s just too cool having it new; I could set up a little rack in my house and continuously pretend I’m at a grocery store circa-1992, if I wanted to be as arbitrary as humanly possible. If my Scared to Death is any indication, this is probably recorded in EP, and the label probably implores you adjust the tracking as needed. And boy was it needed with Scared to Death. (Though in all fairness, I ran that through an old beater VCR, so the fault may very well have been more on my part.)

Bowery at Midnight. Why do I like this movie so much? Besides an undying affinity for poverty row horror of the 1930s and 1940s, and my Lugosi fandom, it’s just a genuinely good movie. I gave it a cursory glance for the first time only a few years ago, admittedly without much enthusiasm, and yet, quickly found myself positively engrossed in it.

It’s also a solid example of 1942 wartime matinee entertainment. It just feels like something that could have come out in the early-1940s, though I’d be hard-pressed to fully explain that feeling. Maybe it’s the fast pace (there’s only a little over an hour to work with here) and dark-yet-also-kinda-wacky plot. Furthermore, I love the NYC setting of the film (though I have no idea if it was actually filmed there or not). I guess what I’m haphazardly getting at is this is a real time-capsule of poverty row cinema, though I guess poverty row cinema is a time-capsule in and of itself, huh? I totally lost where I was going with this paragraph.

With Monogram at the helm and “Bowery” in the title, it’s impossible to not think of the East Side Kids, which truth be told, was initially what I took this for. Bela did two of those, but in my opinion, this is so, so much better  – though aside from the studio and setting and star, there isn’t much comparable between the two (or three). Like I said, Bowery is primarily a crime thriller, but with a random horror twist.

Brief plot rundown: By day, Bela is a mild-mannered college professor. By night, he’s a criminal mastermind using his Bowery-based soup kitchen as a front. He likes to enlist patrons of the kitchen for his robberies, and then off them before they can get too comfortable in their positions. He also has a wacky-jack scientist living in the basement of the soup kitchen, who requires corpses for his experiments, so it’s a win-win for him, even if Bela don’t give him no respect. Add to it a kind volunteer at the mission, her nosey boyfriend (who happens to be one of Bela’s college students), a just-promoted cop, some comic-relief bums, and an ending that’s too head-scratching to not love, and you’ve got a really fun hour or so of entertainment.

The film briefly hints at Bela actually having a legit split-personality, though it never really goes anywhere with the idea. The “daytime professor” plot element as a whole is kinda undercooked too, though with only 60+ minutes to play with, the movie made the wise choice of mainly focusing on the mission.

I really do love this flick, and to have it in this early-1990s, budget VHS form, it just seems so perfect. These Tales of Horror tapes have a very Halloween-ish look and feel to them; they seem like the kind of thing consumers would be stumbling upon not only at video stores but also supermarkets and the like come the fall months.

Needless to say, these Tales of Horror tapes are all way, way out of print, and as mentioned, somewhat obscure in this day and age, though none of them command very much. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. That’s not to say you can’t get your Bowery at Midnight on, though; it’s public domain, so there’s no shortage of options out there, though the best I’ve seen is the terrific Roan DVD.

And so, with that, the post comes to a close and Halloween month has been kicked off here at my stupid dumb blog. Stay tuned, more ostensibly-spooky stuff to come! Hopefully.

Blockbuster-Branded (and Subsequently Autographed) Godzilla 2000 VHS

The time is right for this one.

I guess I got the inkling for this a few weeks back, when I covered that widescreen ’98 Godzilla VHS. As a follow-up to that post, I initially planned on dragging out a copy of the regular, full-screen edition of the movie; not so much for the sake of comparison, but rather because it was a used VHS, re-sealed and branded by Blockbuster video, as was their habit back in the day. Found for only 60 cents at a thrift store, it was an impossibly cool artifact of the late-1990s video store era, one that I was going home with the instant I found it. I’m a sucker for tapes with old Blockbuster stickers all over ’em.

That post obviously never happened, though it still could at some point, depending on how industrious I feel.

Instead, for several reasons, not the least of which being personal memories, I’m going with this tape today, the US VHS release of Godzilla 2000. It’s got the same late-1990s/early-2000s-ness about it, and the same Blockbuster-factor, but it’s a different movie – and it’s signed. Take note of that, because that’s where the personal memories part come in.

First though, the tape (and movie) itself. Godzilla 2000, was released in Japan at the end of 1999 and in the US in August 2000. Unlike many (most?) of the then-new entries in the series, Godzilla 2000 was released theatrically here, and coming off the controversial ’98 Hollywood product two years prior, it almost seemed like a “here’s your real Godzilla!” move. Maybe it was intended that way?

For my part, I did indeed see the film in the theater. The chance to see my first “real” Godzilla movie on the big screen? I almost never went to the movies then, or now for that matter, but I made an exception for ‘Zilla.

My fandom, which was only a few years old at that time, was still evolving, and the sad fact of the matter was that it was probably around that point that I realized I just wasn’t real big on the “new” entries in the series. The Columbia/Tristar VHS releases of movies from the 1990s (heretofore unavailable in the US, to the best of my knowledge) were coming out, Godzilla 1985 had been re-released on tape, there was 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante (released by HBO with absolutely stunning cover art), and the one thing I took away from all that was this: They just didn’t do much for me. I’m an “original series” guy; that is, I dig the entries from the 1950s through 1970s, but after that, I must admit my interest wanes. That’s probably anathema to admit to any serious kaiju fan, I know, but I can’t lie to you, my bored reader. (In all fairness though, I haven’t seen the film since that visit to the theater back in 2000; maybe it held up better than I’m expecting?)

So anyway, Godzilla 2000. It was neat, it was cool to see in theaters, but truth be told, it didn’t blow me away. As such, I committed the previously-inconceivable act of not picking up the VHS release as soon as it came out.

As you can see, I eventually wound up with a copy, the circumstances of which I’ll get to momentarily. Say what you want about the film, you can’t deny it was given a positively striking release on VHS. I had to tilt my camera a bit when taking the picture, lest the flash overwhelm the artwork, and that’s why the image above isn’t “straight on.” Still, this worked out; it gives you a good impression of the textured front cover. The regular edition of Godzilla 1998 featured a textured cover too, but this one is so, so much cooler; it’s got the real ‘Zilla on it, amidst the carnage you’ve come to know and love from him, and let’s be honest, adding “2000” to a title makes anything sound cooler.

The only part I personally would have dropped is the “GET READY TO CRUMBLE!” tagline. Yes, I know it was used in the promotion for the film’s US release, but it’s too pun-y; it sounds like something that would’ve wound up on a low budget, direct-to-video release. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. (Full Disclosure: I can’t get “REST IN…BEAST” via 1996’s Werewolf out of my head here.)

There’s the back cover. Ah, that tagline again!

My (probably arbitrary) qualms with that aside, it’s a perfectly serviceable back cover and synopsis. It’d be even more serviceable if Blockbuster hadn’t obscured ‘Zilla’s head and Lou Lumeni-somebody’s quote with their big huge used VHS sticker. The price? Uh, “$*”. I no longer recall what that means, if I ever did, but it probably meant “cheap.”

The synopsis certainly sells the movie adequately. It’s exciting, hyperbolic, and it’s got that little registered trademark thing after every utterance of “Godzilla.” Though, it does point to one aspect that I later became increasingly irritated with: The usage of UFOs/aliens/etc. as antagonists. By the 1970s, nearly every movie in the series used that to drive their plot, and the trend seemingly continued in the revived series. Once in awhile is fine, but frankly, I grew tired of it. That’s probably another arbitrary qualm on my part.

(The outstanding Toho Kingsom site features a gallery of Toho VHS art, and in their section for this tape, they state this was the last ‘Zilla flick to see VHS release in the US – which I have no problem believing.)

The Blockbuster sticker sez this was placed out for sale on April 16, 2001. That’s not when I got it though. In fact, this tape doesn’t even hail from Northeast Ohio. So where did it come from?

Chicago, believe it or not. I wasn’t there all happenstance, either. Nope, it was Godzilla himself that got me to Chi-Town back in the summer of 2001.

How so? G-Fest 2001, that’s how!

G-Fest is an annual Godzilla and general kaiju convention celebrating, uh, Godzilla and general kaiju. My fandom for all things ‘Zilla may have tapered off somewhat from its late-1990s zenith, but I was (and am) still a huge fan of this stuff. So no, there was no need to resort to blackmail to get me there; I was no regular convention-goer by any means, but this was too neat to pass up!

It was a neat show, with plenty to see and do. I was mainly interested in the memorabilia, of course, and I picked up some cool tapes (we saw one before), both there and at a nearby Japanese mall, as well as some other assorted bits; indeed, the original lobby card for Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster I scored for $15 was a particular boon. (We also stopped at a yard sale one night; I picked up a couple old comics and a vintage Mattel handheld Basketball.)

By the way, the show was actually held July 13-15, 2001, and had I been on my game, I could have posted this on the anniversary date. But, I wasn’t so I didn’t.

I didn’t pick up this Godzilla 2000 at the show, though. Nope, we actually sought out a local Blockbuster, who just happened to have a used copy – which needless to say is why this article is happening. Somehow we found the place, the Godzilla 2000 VHS finally became mine, and I was prepared for the next day…

This section from the official program, which I dug out just for this post, explains all. They had special guests, and I wanted autographs.

I already had a copy of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, the 1991 flick that had only seen a VHS release in the US in, I don’t know, 1998 or so. So, I was ready to get Robert Scott Field’s signature on it (he played M-11 in the film), but I was woefully unprepared for Shinichi Wakasa, who as per the program, was responsible for the Godzilla suit in 2000.

The trip to Blockbuster solved that problem, and I met both guys on the Saturday date of that convention, ready to roll.

I want to say we got pictures with both. Either way, both were super nice guys I’m glad to have met. I was more familiar with Robert Scott Field, simply due to his on-screen presence in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, (I’ve still got my signed VHS, but that’s a subject for another post, another time), but there’s no denying it was cool to meet Mr. Wakasa, the man behind the Godzilla of Godzilla 2000. Even if I wasn’t huge on the movie, there’s no doubt his suit, and the special effects in general, were darn impressive.

So anyway, that’s Shinichi Wakasa’s signature you’re seeing at the bottom of the front cover of my Godzilla 2000 tape. I’m not sure anyone other than kaiju fans would know that unless I pointed it out, but I’m absolutely glad it’s there.

In summation, it was a neat experience, and the story of how I came to get the tape to be signed is, to me, even more interesting than if I had just picked it up brand new upon release. I’ve got a tale to tell along with the signature on it, and in addition it still exhibits the remnants of a now-gone video rental era. I dare say it’s a pretty cool piece of my collection thanks to all that!

VHS Review: Godzilla (1998 Widescreen Version)

You know, I originally had a whole different post planned for a late-July update. It didn’t happen, with the result being that now I’m scrambling to get something up before the end of the month, lest the blog become, uh, update-less. Or something like that.

This actually works out perfectly though, because recently I’ve been mega-nostalgic for the late-1990s of my youth, and since we are now in the thick of summer, things from these months in particular. In that arena, I’ve got something that strikes more than a few chords.

Behold: To your left, it’s the 1998 US remake of Godzilla, that product of Hollywood that, for a few months at least, dominated the American entertainment front. (And yes, I know the movie actually released in May, but I still think of it as a late-90s summer blockbuster, and thus, that’s where I’m coming from with this article. May counts, right?) I had already fallen in love with the original Godzilla movies by the time this came out, so to be around for a brand new theatrical adaptation? Too cool! (Nostalgic Bullet Point #1 = CHECK!)

‘Course, this isn’t just the ’98 Godzilla, it’s the ’98 on Godzilla on good ol’ VHS, and therefore you should be having visions of Blockbuster Video right…about…now. (Nostalgic Bullet Point #2 = CHECK!)

‘Course, this isn’t just the the ’98 Godzilla on VHS, either; it’s the widescreen version. Cool winnins! Now, while I’ll never claim this particular release to be rare, anyone that regularly hits thrifts stores and whatnot up like I do knows there’s at least a 90% chance you’ll find the regular full-screen edition on any given visit. No joke, it’s uber-common. The widescreen edition, however, is not as commonly found.

This tape strikes particular chords with yours truly not only because it’s ‘Zilla and it’s VHS, but also because of my dad. No, he didn’t take me to see this in theaters; I didn’t see any of the film until it hit home video. (Not for any particular reason, I just never went to the movies all that often; still don’t, truth be told.) Rather, it was the “home theater” TV set-up dad put together. Hi-Fi 4-Head VHS VCR, surround sound, the whole deal. Even though we generally (always?) went the full-screen route with the VHS tapes we bought, it was a darn impressive home theater, especially sound-wise. I could be in the other room or downstairs, and as soon as I heard that booming rumbling, I knew someone was watching a movie! (Nostalgic Bullet Point #3 = CHECK!)

So yes, this tape, even though we didn’t have this particular version then, it absolutely takes me back. I’m not sure how much nowadays, but back in the 1990s, getting the theatrical “experience” at home was a pretty big deal. And that’s where these widescreen releases came in. Judging by their relative scarcity, I’m assuming they were more of a niche market, but for those that wanted the whole picture (as in aspect ratio) with their movies, they were a must.

Like I said, anyone that regularly scours the VHS sections of thrift stores undoubtedly comes across the normal full-screen Godzilla on a regular basis, and as such, should be familiar with that textured (embossed) dark green sleeve peering out at them, probably sandwiched between 19 copies of Titanic and that one sports bloopers tape you can’t believe anyone ever wanted. Whatever your thoughts on the movie itself may be, you can’t deny Columbia Tristar gave it wildly attractive packaging. Well, you can deny it, but I won’t believe you. Either way, it’s a perfect artifact of late-1990s home video. (Nostalgic Bullet Point #4 = CHECK!)

This widescreen edition, however, changes things up a bit. Many widescreen releases of the time had the same general layout of the full-screen editions, often with only a banner along the top or similar, relatively minor, notation regarding the aspect ratio. Not so here; there could be no mistaking what you were getting with this one, with declarations not once but twice on the front cover alone. And, if you somehow missed the “Widescreen Presentation” at the top, the gigantic “WIDESCREEN” running down the right side of the cover had to have slammed you like the foot of ‘Zilla himself.

This comes at the expense of the full-screen edition’s textured cover however, and that hurts me deep. Instead, the artwork is, as you can see, squeezed into a box, and without said texturing. The black-and-green color scheme is attractive, and the overall presentation feels like something special, but to me it’s not as visually stunning as the more-common full-screen edition.

(The back of the box, except for the expected alterations to the aspect ratio information, is identical to the regular release, so if you live in some weird world where you immediately identify video tapes by the back cover first, that ain’t gonna fly here man.)

Oh, by the way, you can actually play the video! Go figure! Dig this…

Any kid growing up in the VHS era has to remember the strings of trailers and whatnot that often preceded the movie on major studio releases like this one. I mean, for people my age, there was Batman rushing out for a Diet Coke, that kid playing baseball before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Hulk Hogan’s smash hit Suburban Commando trailer lurking before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II. This stuff is indelibly burnt into my mind and, I’m sure, the minds of countless others my age. Sure, we could have fast-forwarded through them, but the fact so many of us grew up knowing Suburban Commando was a thing means we usually didn’t. Or at least, I usually didn’t. To me nowadays, these additional bits stand out to me as much as the movies they were preceding. And yes, I totally have “Right Field” stuck in my head now…

Anyway, Godzilla was no exception to this. Before the movie, you’ve got some previews! There was some trailer for The Mask of Zorro, but the main areas of interest for our purposes today are the two Godzilla-related bits.

First, an ad for Godzilla: The Series, an animated continuation of this very movie that aired on Fox Kids back in the late-90s. No, not this series, this series. I was a little too old to watch Fox Kids by the time this debuted, though from I understand it it had a more mature artistic style, and was probably aimed towards somewhat older audiences, but the fact remains I only caught fleeting moments of it. (Still, according to Wikipedia, it was a direct follow-up to the film, which I think is cool.)

After that, an ad for Godzilla: The Album, the official soundtrack to the movie that was about to start. I won’t say this soundtrack is as ubiquitous as the full-screen VHS Godzilla, but it’s up there. Wikipedia sez it was heavily focused on alternative-rock, and one look at that line-up of artists to the right seems to bear that out.

I never owned the soundtrack, though my cousin did. All I know is that the cover of “Heroes” was inescapable around that time, and naturally it shows up in this ad, which means it has now replaced “Right Field” in my head. Since I’m not a fan of even the original version of that song (“Heroes,” that is, not “Right Field”), I’m not especially enamored by this, though even I will admit that hearing it instantly places me in 1998, so far-reaching was the song back then.

So, Godzilla, the movie itself. That’s the title screen to the left, yo. As I said, I didn’t see it in theaters during release, though I was certainly excited for it. The Taco Bell tie-in promotion was sampled, and toys were collected. Even better, the wave of promotion brought forth reissues of many of the original Godzilla movies on VHS, some of which had become pretty hard to find prior. I think only Godzilla Raids Again and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster remained MIA, though Destroy all Monsters got a first-ever US video release around that time, as did many of the heretofore unavailable (domestically) installments from the 1990s. It was great, and I fondly recall going to Blockbuster one night, seeing 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah on the shelves along with a slew of other new-to-me entries, and just being blown away. This was completely unfamiliar territory to me!

(Of course, we saw the same wave of merchandising here in the DVD era when 2014’s Godzilla came out, and in the same wheelhouse, 2005’s King Kong remake, as well. I love these releases that show up whenever Hollywood puts out a new, mega-hyped remake! Indeed, they’re some of my favorite things about these updates!)

Anyway, Godzilla 1998. It featured a totally-new, iguana-like Godzilla, with extensive CGI animation to match, and since it was by the same guys who did Independence Day, the flick was a special effects extravaganza. In short, the kind of movie that instantly comes to mind when you (well, I) think of the American summer movie season.

All that in addition to a plot in which ‘Zilla stomps all over New York City, chases Ferris Bueller and the voice of Moe Szyslak around, and has a ton of baby Godzillas cause he’s now capable of asexual reproduction, well, it didn’t take long for negative word-of-mouth to strike the film. The longtime G fans naturally hated it, and because it was a loud, special-effects laden Hollywood product, the critics weren’t especially kind to it, either. Of course, the reactions from casual moviegoers, who were probably just looking for some entertainment and didn’t necessarily care whether the flick was faithful to the source material or not, varied as you’d expect.

Truth be told, in previous years I’ve been more on the negative side of the fence in regards to the film, though as of late I’ve taken a more positive stance on it. I don’t really see it as a legit “Godzilla movie,” but I think that’s just the trick needed. Taken on its own merits, yes it’s big, yes it’s loud, and no, it’s not exactly an exercise in intellectual stimulation, but for what it is, a product of late-90s Hollywood, it’s perfectly serviceable entertainment. Your mileage may vary of course, and I can certainly see someone being unable to forgive it for the Godzilla mythos it ignores and/or destroys, but me personally? Aw, it’s not so bad. I look at it the same way I do 2006’s theatrical Miami Vice; as an adaption of the original material, it’s not so successful, but as a standalone film taken on its own merits, it works.

You know, I spend so much time looking at ancient budget VHS tapes, it’s easy for me to forget that the format can look and sound really, really nice. Relatively speaking, of course; it’s still not digital quality, but as a product of a major studio, this widescreen version of Godzilla could (and probably did) show off entertainment centers equipped only with VHS pretty adequately. Also, an SP recording never hurts.

Here, you can see ‘Zilla busting out of what remains of Madison Square Garden. (His discovery that the lil’ baby Godzillas are now dead really irks him, by the way.) Maybe my screenshot isn’t the greatest in the world, but if nothing else, it gives you an idea of how this appears in action, not only due to the letterbox format, but also the quality in general. Trust me, it looks nice, though not without the expected VHS ‘grain’ (which only adds to the old school vibes of the tape, in my opinion – it’s a good thing).

Also, the sound; it has that booming quality I mentioned earlier! But then, why wouldn’t it? It’s a Hi-Fi stereo tape, played in a Hi-Fi stereo VCR. And bear in mind, I played this on my crappy beater VCR; had I run this through a high-end, or at least higher-end, deck, this would have all came off even better! Still, as it stands, it’s pretty impressive to me eyes (and ears).

Look, it’s 2017. Obviously my widescreen Godzilla VHS is now wildly, wildly obsolete. Not only format-wise, but also because there’s a new, mega-deluxe 4K Blu-ray release of the film. Have at it over on Amazon! That said, for the time this tape came out, unless you were a Laserdisc loyalist or an early adopter of DVD (I assume this released on DVD right away, anyway), this was the best version of the film for the common man-about-town, on a format basically anyone and everyone owned by that point. Laserdisc was still niche, DVD hadn’t taken off into the stratosphere yet, and VHS was king; that’s 1998 home video in a nutshell.

So, the next time you’re out thrifting, and you’re looking for a Hollywood special effects extravaganza by way of VHS, Godzilla, widescreen or otherwise, isn’t a bad choice, despite the infamy it has garnered over the years. You can sit back, let the sound and CGI envelope you, and turn off your mind for 2+ hours. Pretend it’s 1998 again; you’ll be happier that way. I know I am. (Though, you may have to contend with the hopes that the VCR doesn’t eat the tape; hey, I’ll never say 1998 was perfect!)

Episode Recap: The Son of Ghoul Show “Mr. Wise Guy” (March 6, 1999)

With Son of Ghoul’s big 31st anniversary show this weekend, and indeed, his actual 31st anniversary today right now yo, what say we take a look back at a vintage episode? I always like doing these. (My wi-fi currently hates me and wants me dead, so if I blaze through this, particularly in the second-half, that’s why.)

31 years is unbelievable for any television personality, but especially so when it’s the endangered-species known as “horror host.” Ironically, 31 almost seems a little, I don’t know, anti-climatic, I guess, after the massive hype that surrounded his big 30th last year. I certainly covered it, and was even present when SOG was fittingly honored at Monsterfestmania.

I thought of a couple different topics to post in honor of his 31st continuous year on Northeast Ohio television. I could’ve covered the earliest episode I taped (The Vampire Bat, in 1997), or his 12th anniversary show, or even the episode featuring the first piece of mail I ever sent in to him. I even briefly considered an article detailing a lot of the SOG memorabilia I’ve amassed over the years. I decided against each one of those, however, for a variety of reasons: I’ll save my earliest taped episode for the 20th anniversary of the broadcast this fall, I didn’t feel like covering Frankenstein’s Daughter during his 12th anniversary, and I’m not ready to detail my cringe worthy (yet nostalgic) first letter to him. As for an article focused on SOG memorabilia, I just couldn’t muster up the moxy to drag all that stuff out for a picture-taking session.

Nope, I decided on our subject today for one very simple reason: I just plain like the movie, 1942’s Mr. Wise Guy. Heck, I just plain like the episode in general, and to me that speaks more about my Son of Ghoul fandom than any ‘special’ occurrence I could dig up. After all, this was how the show usually was (is) to me each weekend: A fun, kick-back-and-chill movie showcase.

So, join me now as I detail The Son of Ghoul Show, as aired on WAOH TV-29 in Akron and WAX TV-35 in Cleveland (“The Cat”) and taped by yours truly waaaay back on March 6, 1999…

(Also, I’ve been on a real kick for The Cat lately, even more so than usual. This comes from that late-90s sweet-spot of the channel, so I’m happy with the choice. And, if that kick keeps up, I may dig something else out from the station to cover. You keep pushing me and I just might, pal.)

I vividly recall this being a surprise episode. Y’see, SOG was on twice-a-week at that point: 8-10 PM, Fridays and Saturdays, same episode. This was handy, because you could sample on Friday, and tape-as-needed on Saturday. But, for whatever reason, he was only on Saturday that week, a fact he briefly mentions in his intro (above).

I think (think) he was preempted totally the night before due to some women’s college basketball tournament The Cat was broadcasting/simulcasting/whatevercasting. So because he was only on Saturday that week, I couldn’t risk missing a must-have episode, especially with no knowledge of what the movie would be. Because said basketball tournament was concluding that Saturday, there was no telling when SOG’s show would actually begin; I had to start the VCR recording waaaaay ahead of time, which was why I wound up with like an hour of that stupid basketball game on the tape before the episode started.

This obsessiveness proved fortuitous. That night, we were at my aunt’s house for some party I was quite probably miserable at, and I flipped to The Cat to see what episode I was capturing. When it finally started and Mr. Wise Guy was revealed, I was pleased as punch. SOG had ran this film, I don’t know, a year or so prior, and I had regretted not capturing it then. I actually liked the movie!

And I wasn’t the only one; SOG himself mentions that he likes it as well during his intro. How often did (does) that happen?!

The reason I initially liked this film so much largely had to do with what it represented: A trip back to a more innocent time in cinema. This is pure, early-1940s matinee entertainment. It’s an East Side Kids (you know, the Bowery Boys, except not) film, so there’s some light hooliganism about, but even with that, an escaped convict, a murder, a death-row sentence, and a real-life war going on, it’s all so light and breezy that it never seems too heavy. I’m hesitant to ascribe the term “innocence” to a film that contains all that, but like I said, this is matinee entertainment; it’s not exactly a weighty, socially-conscious drama.

The idea of an East Side Kids film showing up on a horror hosted program may seem odd, but as SOG states during his intro, Ghoulardi himself used to run these (and fittingly, on Saturdays!). If these were good enough for Ghoulardi, they should be good enough for any other host, too. And somehow, to me they seem to ‘fit’ just fine. Maybe that’s because I grew up with SOG showing them occasionally (still does, in fact), but looked at objectively, they still work. It’s not like a b-western, which unless it shared some horror influence or other odd quirk (Terror of Tiny Town, anyone?), just wouldn’t seem to fit. Look, I can’t really adequately explain why it works so well, it just does.

And, in a trend that continues to this day, SOG doesn’t tamper with these kinds of films; no drop-ins, no sound effects. Just the movie straight. Evidently he has some real appreciation for these flicks, and we’re all the better for it. Even when missing those elements so well-known to SOG fans, it flows perfectly.

The title of the film comes from a moniker given to (and approved by) Leo Gorcey’s character “Muggs” McGinnis (first name: Ethelbert), who is deemed so several times throughout the picture.

The simple synopsis of the plot: The East Side Kids are sent to reform school. There’s a bit more to it than that, though. Unjustly accused of stealing a truck (a truck that, unbeknownst to them, houses an escaped convict), they’re sent to a reformatory run by a kind warden, a cruel guard, and a couple of troublesome inmates that are secretly in cahoots with aforementioned cruel guard. Also on the docket: Bill Collins, older brother of cast member Bobby Jordan’s Danny Collins, is accused of murder and sentenced to death row. Eventually these plotlines unbelievably though perhaps predictably, collide. And since this is from 1942, it all ends on a relatively happy note. ‘Cept for the dude who died, anyway.

Needless to say, much of this is played for laughs. Even while incarcerated, Gorcey’s gang never seems too concerned with their situation. Even as Danny frets over his brother’s predicament back in the real world, the other guys just sort of blow it off – which admittedly does play out a little strange. I can’t imagine that being realistic even back in ’42.

Still, as a whole, the movie is entertaining. Indeed, I wasn’t sure if I’d still get a kick out of it when I sat down to convert my VHS to DVD for this review, but it greatly held my attention throughout. I was even genuinely amused by certain moments, which can’t always be said of semi-comedies of this vintage.

Look, the movie is in the public domain, so don’t just take my word for it; check it out for yourself. Since SOG didn’t add any sound effects, you’ll see it (almost) as it aired here!

(Fun Fact: Some years ago at a thrift store, I stumbled upon a 3-VHS boxset of East Side Kids films. Included were both of their Bela Lugosi collaborations, Spooks Run Wild and Ghosts on the Loose, as well as the title that really spurred the eventual purchase: Mr. Wise Guy. I never watched any of them, don’t think I even played any of the tapes, and subsequently the set became buried in my mound of crap videos. It should still be around here, somewhere, which is good, because unknown to me at the time was that the company who put it out, Passport Productions, was spawned from the ashes of Amvest Video, who we’ve seen here before. Cool winnins!)

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have much to do with plot, but rather stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. Ernest Morrison, often known as “Sunshine Sammy,” is the victim of some unfortunate racial jokes, as his character “Scruno” is the outlet for some now-wildly-inappropriate stereotyping. Look, I don’t claim to be a super-PC-advocate, but man, even I was uncomfortable with some of the gags at his expense.

That said, I am an advocate of not editing things of this nature to reflect current social attitudes. Yes, some of the jokes have aged terribly, but they reflect the time in which the film was made; you can’t rewrite history, only learn from it. And besides, the jokes are incredibly dated, but never really mean-spirited, if that counts for anything.

And with all that said, we now come to the rest of the show…

The first skit proper is actually an old bit from the WOAC TV-67 days, and I love it because it perfectly sums up SOG’s sense of humor, which very often syncs up with mine.

In a parody of the whole “carrying the Olympic torch” thing, here SOG dutifully marches with a plunger triumphantly raised, only to enter the studio bathroom and begin plunging! That’s all there is to it, and it’s great!

Truth be told, SOG doesn’t feature heavily heavily into this episode. I mean, he does, he shows up after each commercial-break, but it’s not new bit after new bit after new bit. His hosting duties, while prominent, maybe aren’t quite as prominent as they usually were, and I think that has much to do with this spot right here.

In a segment that takes up a healthy chunk of running time, SOG and guest Carl Thompson speak extensively on the Frightvision convention, coming later that month. Yes, Frightivision, the SOG-hosted horror convention; we’ve talked about it before! Here, SOG and Thompson thoroughly go over the list of guests and events coming to the show, and it goes on for around 8 minutes, which is pretty much a lifetime in horror-show-time.

That’s not a complaint on my part, though; I could not be happier this segment is present! I talked more extensively on the convention in the piece I just linked to (another SOG episode, Plan 9 From Outer Space, which aired later that same month), but Frightvision was a BIG deal. It was also my very first horror convention of any kind. Long story short: I positively loved it. I got to meet Ben “Gill Man” Chapman, Mark “Lost in Space Guy” Goddard, SOG’s own Fidge (who was great), saw Tom Savini (but didn’t meet him until the following year), and came home with some very cool loot (including a vintage SOG TV-67 promo card, which I still have to this day). All of the fanaticism that manifests itself in me for each and every Ghoulardifest began at the very first Frightvision, and for that I hold the fondest of memories.

So yes, seeing the segment that so aptly demonstrates the swirling hype surrounding Frightvision in the weeks leading up to it, that’s the sort of thing that can take me directly back in time. And movie aside, to me this is the defining moment of this particular episode.

An email segment. More (!) information on Frightvision is presented, and a spider glove that apparently belonged to Fidge is shown. Unless y’all want me to go email by email, there’s not much more I can say about it.

I would love to show the old school, wildly obsolete SOG email address, back when having an email address was still semi-innovative, but in the interest of avoiding confusion, I’ll refrain.

In the second mail segment, the reading of letters devolves into a long, drawn out explosion of fake fart noises, which has SOG and his crew dying with laughter. SOG: “Can you tell we’re so easily amused here?” Like the toilet torch earlier in the show, it’s a juvenile, and therefore riotous, moment. This is the stuff that helped cement my sense of humor, gang. You want someone to blame? Blame SOG.

Because my wi-fi is in a seemingly-perpetual state of precariousness, there were two other bits amidst all this insanity that I’m choosing to skip. One, a “Captain Kanga-Ghoul,” and the other, an on-location interview at a liquor store that happened to be one of Frightvision’s sponsors, were fun, sorta-filler bits, but frankly, I don’t have all that much to say about them. Also, I’d like to punch my wi-fi in the face.

Also, here is the point where I’d usually look at interesting (or so I think) commercials that aired during an original broadcast. I’m going to skip that feature this time around. Why? Because basically all of the ones I would have chosen were already covered in that previously-linked Plan 9 From Outer Space SOG episode recap. And the other, a goofy homegrown promo for a showing of Reefer Madness, was briefly looked at in the The Cat article I linked to way at the start of this post. I love it when I do my own work for me!

It all works out though, because I can end this article in accordance with the way this show itself ends: As the outro opens, SOG is seen jokingly patting his phony beard back into place, along with a “We’re not done yet!”

But, it’s what he says right after that that sums up not only the conclusion to this particular episode, but also the continuing 31 year odyssey his show has been on: “They say you’re not done till the show’s over! Or until you’re out of toilet paper; then you’re done!” I think I can speak on the behalf of SOG’s many fans when I say I hope SOG never runs out of toilet paper.

Boy, that sounded so much more philosophical in my head.

Happy 31st anniversary, Son of Ghoul!

(PS – I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to my legendary, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, trendsetting interview with the man himself!)

(PPS – They may not have been able to repeat this year, but man, I still love the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ll stick with you guys win or lose! Just thought I should mention that somewhere, since the loss is naturally still on the mind of so many Northeast Ohioans right now.)