Tag Archives: film

REVIEW: Mill Creek’s 16-Movie John Wayne “The Duke” DVD Set (2010)

Hey, know what it’s time for again? If, without glancing at the title of this post, you guessed another budget DVD compilation of public domain movies, you’re, uh, right. I love collecting these DVD sets, but there’s only certain instances where they enamor me enough to, you know, give them a review. Needless to say, this is one of the good’uns.

This is the cover of the set, if you couldn’t figure that out. Keep your eyes peeled for it, pardner!

Dig this: it’s a John Wayne comp featuring a load of his pre-stardom poverty row westerns. On the surface that may not seem so unusual; there are countless releases like this out there, after all. The difference here is that the line-up of movies included in this one is, well, pretty stellar. (For those of you with long memories, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a budget western DVD set here on the blog.)

No joke, I don’t think I’ve come across one of these sets with such an “all killer, no filler” movie selection. Put out in 2010 by Mill Creek (a company I love, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen them hit it out of the park), this particular release, while still focusing on works that have loooong been in the public domain, forgoes the inclusion of later, sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb flicks or earlier, non-western features and/or serials (or, as some sets include, documentaries on The Duke).

Nope, instead this collection focuses solely on Wayne’s poverty row oaters of the 1930s. Again, that may not sound so unusual on the surface, but in this case, at a whopping 16 movies spread over two DVDs, Mill Creek has included nearly all of Wayne’s output for Lone Star Productions (which was really just Monogram), and while they didn’t include every one of them, instead filling out the line-up with a couple of his other B-Western efforts from the 1930s, they got most of them here.

Garnering nearly all of Wayne’s Lone Star flicks in one fell swoop and without having to sift through a bunch of stuff I quite honestly have no interest in is, for me, what puts this one over the top. I’m considering this one comprehensive-yet-concise, if that makes any sense. I’m no stranger to public domain movie compilations of John Wayne, but given the solid, ‘unbroken’ line-up here, I dare say this is the best I’ve come across.

I explained my fascination with the Lone Star series in my article covering an old VHS release of Texas Terror, a movie we’ll see again in this set. Check the link out for a more-detailed explanation if you’re so inclined, but real quick: these Wayne Lone Stars are less “John Wayne movies” and more “poverty row westerns that happen to star John Wayne.” He’s not really The Duke as we’ve come to know him, but rather more of a generic B-Western star – and that’s what’s so fascinating with these. A raw, unformed, but undeniably captivating John Wayne, post-The Big Trail and pre-Stagecoach (which is to say, pre-stardom).

Don’t get me wrong; the reason these films have so endlessly been released over the decades is obviously due to the namesake of their star. In action they’re really not so different from a thousand other cheapie westerns of the period – but if you love the budget oaters like I do, that’s just part of the fun!

(Also, the Lone Stars have terrific opening fanfare for their flicks, complete with a charging-towards-the-screen sheriff’s star, exciting music, and neato titles. Indeed, it was this opening that first captivated me when I came upon a television airing of Blue Steel some 20 years ago.)

I first stumbled upon this DVD set about two years ago. I was out Christmas shopping with my mom, she looking for a good gift for my presumably movie-lovin’ uncle. When she showed me this, I used my powers of useless knowledge to inform her that the movies included made for a pretty strong line-up. (Though I imagine I wasn’t as verbose about it in reality.) Well, there was only one copy left, and I technically didn’t need any of these films again, so on my recommendation she bought it for him. I wound up wanting such a decent all-in-one collection for myself however, and eventually, as you may deduce, said collection became mine. And so here we are.

The famous Lone Star opening fanfare.

There are 16 Lone Star features in Wayne’s oeuvre. As previously stated, there are 16 movies present on this set, and two of them ain’t Lone Stars. West of the Divide and Randy Rides Alone (both 1934) were omitted in favor of Winds of the Wasteland (Republic, 1936) and Hell Town (Paramount, 1937). I’m not quite sure what I want here; on one hand, a complete collection of the Lone Stars would be pretty baller (and neither of the missing films are even remotely hard to find – they’re even on other Mill Creek DVD sets). But on the other hand, the two non-Lone Stars are flicks I’m always happy to see included in collections like this and do provide nice, albeit brief, changes of pace here. Maybe we could have had an 18 movie set instead? Though that may have bumped this to a three disc collection instead of two, though in that case Frontier Horizon (released in 1939 – after Wayne hit it big with Stagecoach) could have then been included, along with perhaps one other public domain western of his from the same rough time period to make it an even 20 movies. Yeah, I don’t know what I want here.

Like most DVD collections of this nature, the sound and picture quality varies from feature to feature, but they’re all watchable. I’ll point out aspects of the prints used that I feel need, uh, pointed out, but unless otherwise noted, consider these to mostly look like your common, garden variety old public domain movies. That is, there will be scratches, splices, dust, dirt, too bright, too dark, etc. etc. etc. Typical, but like I said, they’re all watchable.

(You may wonder if I, your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter, have stumbled across consistently good prints of these films. I’d say that disregarding later colorized efforts and/or releases that added newly-implemented scores to the soundtrack – so they could be more easily copyrighted I’d imagine – the best ‘traditional’ versions of these movies I ever saw were the copies AMC would occasionally run in the morning back in the late-90s/early-00s. They weren’t pristine, but they were very, very good. I wonder what happened to those prints? Were they ever officially released?)

Also, being B-Westerns, none of these were intended as high art; these are breezy (typically less than an hour) poverty row matinee outings. Don’t go in expecting Red River, okay? Taken for what they are though, these are still fun, entertaining films! Some Lone Stars are better than others, I have my own personal “Lone Star spectrum” that I’ll occasionally make reference to, but really, even the weaker ones are worth watching. They’re all so charmingly cheap, sometimes so scatterbrained, and despite featuring plenty of shootin’ and whatnot, somehow so innocent, that they’re all worth your time here. Once again, Mill Creek has knocked it out of the park, I say!

So, what say we now go through the set, movie-by-movie? As in, I’m going to watch each and every one here and provide my stupid thoughts on ’em. Hunker down gang, this is gonna be a long, loooong read. I want this to be the budget John Wayne DVD set review to end all budget John Wayne DVD set reviews!

(Oh, by the way, there’s going to be a few spoilers present. I’ll give a warning here and there, but hey, you’ve had 80+ years to watch these movies, so I darn well better be in the safety zone by now!)


DISC ONE

(There are no special features on either disc in this set; a scene selection is your only option. Besides the movies proper, I mean.)

Blue Steel (1934) – I’m going to say right up front that, for as much as I love these Lone Star outings, I hadn’t seen every film in this set beforehand, and even with some of the ones I have, well, it’s been awhile. That’s not the case with Blue Steel, however; this was the flick that introduced me to this series long, long ago, and I’ve watched it numerous times over the years. Y’all need to recognize that I know my Blue Steel; no joke, I practically know it backwards and forwards. Even though from an objective standpoint it would probably be generally considered only “pretty good,” I don’t care; it’s far and away my favorite film in this set, and my favorite Wayne B-Western period. And you can’t change that.

Wayne, Gabby, and some pretty decent print-quality.

Wayne plays Cahill John Carruthers, U.S. Marshal, who finds himself teamed up with Sheriff Jake Withers (George “Gabby” Hayes, minus the whole “Gabby” persona – that came later). Together they must save a small town that is being intentionally kept short of supplies by a nefarious would-be landowner. He wants to buy up all the property to get to the sweet, sweet gold found just below the surface (unbeknownst to the actual landowners, as you may well imagine). Also, thanks to a case of wacky mistaken identity, Withers spends the majority of the film thinking Carruthers is “The Polka Dot Bandit,” a subplot that converges with the main plot in a manner worthy of Seinfeld.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mill Creek got one of the better prints of Blue Steel I’ve seen. Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t pristine; I doubt Criterion winged this copy over Mill Creek’s way. Sure there’s some dust and scratches and such, BUT the picture is *relatively* clean, and with fairly good balance and depth. It’s not exactly HD, but I could actually make out some fine details that I wouldn’t have expected to. You can actually see Carruthers and the heroine riding off into the sunset (because of course) at the end.

The fairly nice picture quality comes with a caveat, however: splices. Not that there’s a ton of them, or at least not really any more than you’d typically expect for a picture of this age and nature, but they do rear their head. Indeed, Blue Steel should run around 52-54 minutes, but the print here only runs about 50. There’s one pretty big splice early in the film that cuts out Withers’ entrance into Carruther’s abode and sharing some beans with him. They just automatically appear ‘teamed up’ to take on some bandits that enter the picture (literally and figuratively) at about the same time. To a first time viewer, this would naturally be a “wait, say what?” moment.

That aside, I was pleasantly surprised by the print quality otherwise. As far as budget releases of Blue Steel go, Mill Creek has released one of the better ones I’ve come across.

The Dawn Rider (1935) – These films weren’t placed in chronological order across the two discs, and therefore what is the second feature in the set was in actuality the penultimate John Wayne Lone Star western. Not that it really matters, I guess; it’s not like there’s an ongoing arc to these films. They ain’t the Hill Street Blues of the western set. Anyway, this is one I’m almost positive I’ve never seen before.

First things first: it doesn’t hold the same “hey, that’s pretty good!” picture quality standard as the preceding film. Indeed, The Dawn Rider looks more like you’d expect a public domain movie on a budget DVD set to look: either too dark or too bright, and quite a bit blurrier than Blue Steel. There’s also some frequent jittery video artifacting throughout that, I guess, is a fault of the master tape, I guess? I don’t know, but it’s kinda distracting.

Getting held-up, early in the film.

Wayne plays John Mason, who has just come into town to visit his father (appropriately deemed “Dad Mason” throughout; was that his birth name?), who is some big muckity-muck in the freight industry. And wouldn’t you know it, Mason walks in on pops being robbed. His father is shot and killed, and Mason injured in the ensuing chase. Obviously, there’s gonna be some vengeance at play once he recovers.

Further complicating matters is a love triangle that develops between Mason, leading lady Alice and Ben, Ben being the guy to get into a drag down brawl with Mason at the start of the film, which (inexplicably?) leads to a friendship. Oh, and Alice’s brother is the guy who killed Dad Mason, so yeah, it ends up being kind of a mess. There’s a happy ending for Mason and Alice (because of course), but honestly, getting to it is a bit of a guessing game, with how much of the film plays out. That’s to the film’s credit.

This really isn’t a bad movie, but in my eyes it’s a little uneven. The revenge plot and love triangle held my attention, but it’s – ironically – an action sequence in roughly the middle of the flick that kinda stops things dead. It picks back up afterwards, and there’s what looks like it’s going to be a very cool climatic shootout in town that doesn’t end up as satisfying as it could have been, but it all still manages to work more than it doesn’t.

Some humorous bits are found in The Dawn Rider as well. The local undertaker is the comic relief, and his dismay at the start of the film (apparently the town is “too healthy” for his liking) and obvious interest when it looks like someone is about to die (never mind when someone does die) is darkly funny. And at the end, there’s a too-long laugh shared between the undertaker and local doctor that, in conjunction with the undertaker’s stilted way of laughing, is pretty funny. Seriously, it goes on just long enough that I’m not convinced it wasn’t made to be intentionally awkward – in which case The Dawn Rider could be argued as the precursor to all of the ‘awkward humor’ single-camera comedies of today. If, you know, you wanted to perform enough mental gymnastics to make it fit, that is.

Oh, and apparently this film was remade in 2012, which honestly kinda blows my mind.

The Desert Trail (1935) – Obviously I’m not watching all of these films all in one single sitting; there are exceptions now and then, but generally speaking I can’t “binge watch” any show – or in this case, movie series – for hours on end. One or two of whatever a night is usually my limit.

You know, after The Dawn Rider, I found myself genuinely looking forward to some more new-to-me cheapie oater action the next night, which needless to say was The Desert Trail. Unfortunately, I chose to watch when I wound up having very little sleep the night before. I wasn’t exactly dozing off during the movie, but my general level of exhaustion kept me from getting as much from the flick as I could, and that was something I recognized as I was watching it.

Under normal circumstances, I *hate* re-watching a movie soon after, erm, watching it. Doesn’t matter if I loved the flick or not, I don’t like to ‘repeat’ a film in short order. Some people can do that, but I can’t. (While on the subject of my movie-watching habits, I firmly believe films should be watched at night; there have been exceptions, but generally, the idea of an afternoon movie viewing just does not sound right to me, which is ironic since the subjects of this DVD set were probably seen mainly as matinee offerings.)

So, I watched The Desert Trail again a few nights later. I probably didn’t need to, I got the gist of it the first time around, and while I liked it well enough then, I came away appreciating it a bit more after watch #2.

Scott and Kansas Charlie, typically competing for the affections of a lady.

This one is a bit unique as far as these John Wayne Lone Stars go. Instead of the usual law enforcement agent/vengeful loner/ etc. etc. etc. that Wayne usually played in these, here he’s John Scott, a rodeo rider. (Wait, a rodeo rider? Is that what they’re called? Look, he’s a rodeo guy, okay? Buckin’ broncos and all that.) He and his partner “Kansas Charlie” (who’s a gambler, not a rodeo rider/guy/dude) are falsely accused of murder in one town, which is trouble that follows them to another. They also get blamed for robbing a stagecoach, and are after the man who robbed them, as well.

Plot-wise this all may not sound too out of the ordinary (though perhaps a bit convoluted), but what sets The Desert Trail apart is just how comical it is. It’s not technically a comedy, but large portions of it are played for laughs. Scott and Charlie, while buddies, are also constantly at odds, fighting with each other, competing over women, insults, that sort of thing. And it’s to the film’s credit that some of it I did find pretty funny. Early in the film, after Charlie has sworn off going after women (he proclaims himself “deaf and dumb” to them), Scott takes the opportunity to rag on him in the presence of one they both find attractive, until Charlie can’t take anymore and blows up. Funny stuff!

One other difference: Wayne, well, he kinda plays a jerk here. Oh, he’s the protagonist alright, but his jousting with Charlie does occasionally approach being mean spirited. And heck, he basically robs a guy (who, granted, was trying to rip him off), and later, actually fires at a sheriff and his posse! They don’t know any better, but they’re still, you know, the good guys! Yikes! Naturally he still gets the girl in the end, because of course.

By the way, the titles of these Lone Stars often don’t make a lot of sense. I mean, we can assume there’s some steel that is blue in, uh, Blue Steel, and I guess John Mason could be referred to as “The Dawn Rider” for some reason. Point is, though they sound cool, there’s often little in the movies to directly connect them to what they’re titled. The Desert Trail is unique in another way there; the titular desert trail is actually referenced in the movie, albeit only once and briefly at that. Still, it’s there, and that’s…something.

The Lawless Frontier (1934) – In stark contrast to the jokey Desert Trail, The Lawless Frontier is a much more serious movie, with some seriously dark undertones – and overtones.

The villainous Pandro Zanti (a half-white/half-Apache who poses as Mexican, so you decide which group the character is most insulting towards) and his gang are terrorizing the land. One of the first things we see is Zanti busting out a window and shooting a pair of homeowners in cold blood so his gang can steal their cattle. We don’t see the homeowners shot, only their cries; the scene takes places with the camera focused solely on Zanti breaking the window and firing his gun. It’s an unsettling start to the picture.

As it turns out, Zanti has killed the parents of John Tobin, naturally played by Wayne. Yep, he’s back to playing the vengeful loaner. His distraught discovery of his parents is effectively filmed; like how we saw Zanti kill them, the camera is focused entirely on Wayne and his reaction upon discovering their bodies.

(Also, notice how he’s played a character with the first name “John” in each film so far? Such things were common with B-Westerns, Ken Maynard tended to play a “Ken” after all, but it’s something that would have made including Randy Rides Alone in this set a small-but-nice change of pace.)

Tobin’s pursuit of Zanti crosses paths with Dusty (Gabby’s back!) and his daughter Ruby, who are being pursued by Zanti. Zanti wants to kill Dusty for his cattle or land or something like that, but for a film of this nature, the more shocking aspect is that he wants to kidnap Ruby to be his new “romance.” It doesn’t take too many mental jumps to figure out what that means, and wow is that dark for a B-Western.

Tobin doggedly pursuing Zanti across the desert terrain.

This is a very good movie. Some of the usual Lone Star elements are here, such as Wayne’s character being mistaken for one of the baddies (by the town’s incompetent sheriff, who takes unearned credit for the capture of Zanti and then all but lets him go), but the overwhelmingly serious nature of the film really makes it stand out. Zanti is a vicious, brutal outlaw in a way that most bad guys in these cheapie oaters aren’t. He’s an unlikable dude, that’s for sure. You always want the good guys to win in these flicks, but here, you’re also really, really wanting to see Zanti get his comeuppance.

(Here comes a big spoiler where Zanti’s comeuppance is concerned: he doesn’t go down in a hail of bullets or John Wayne opening up a righteous can on him, but rather by accidentally drinking poisoned water! It’s…unexpected, that’s for sure. The scene leading up to his demise is a very cool panning long shot of Tobin doggedly pursuing the dazed Zanti across the desert. Along with the aforementioned scenes of Zanti killing Tobin’s parents and Tobin’s discovery of such, this is probably about as artsy as these Lone Stars get. Also, the film concludes with a rather abrupt ending: it’s revealed that John has married the heroine, because of course, and is now the new sheriff – thankfully. The old one was a dunce.)

Watch for the scene where Dusty gets a knife in the back, appears totally dead, and then shows up later claiming it was only a scratch! Ah, poverty row logic!

The Lucky Texan (1934) – Here’s my personal story regarding The Lucky Texan: waaaay back in the day, 1998 or so, after I had first discovered and become enamored of these Lone Stars via Blue Steel on WAOH TV-29, Best Buy’s $2.99 VHS section was also a big part of my movie-goin’ life. As luck would have it, they had a copy of Blue Steel, and it became mine. Oh how happy I was to have it for my very own! During that same trip, as we traipsed through Target next door, I looked at the newer, big budget ‘real’ John Wayne movies on their VHS shelf, thinking to myself “why have that when you could have Blue Steel?” Hey, I was like 12. I was one proud papa!

So I get home, immediately and happily watch Blue Steel, and then suffered extreme  heartbreak – the tape wouldn’t eject! This wasn’t a fault of the VCR – I hadn’t run that into the ground just yet – there was something wrong with the tape itself. Eventually it was removed without harm to the deck, but needless to say the tape had to be returned as defective to the store. It’s not like I could, or would, watch it again! Too much risk, man!

Anyway, I can’t remember if it’s what I got in return in that instance or if I found it there later, but eventually The Lucky Texan, via that same $2.99 VHS section, was my Lone Star consolation prize. This one played and ejected just fine, but still, it wasn’t Blue Steel. Either that tape was sold long ago or it’s seriously buried somewhere in my parent’s basement, but either way, I’ll always remember the movie for being Blue Steel‘s also-ran. In my eyes back then, I mean; this viewing here was my first since back in about 1998. (Some 21 years ago as of this writing!)

I spoke too soon about that Randy Rides Alone thing last entry; here Wayne plays Jerry Mason (any relation to The Dawn Rider‘s John Mason???) who along with old family friend Jake Benson (Gabby!) finds a rich vein of gold in a riverbed. Their frequent big money hauls attract the greed of the local (and quite shady) assayers, who trick Jake into signing over the deed to his ranch and set out to find this gold deposit to net the big big profits for themselves.

Skiing (?) down an aqueduct (?)

I remembered very, very little of this film beforehand, though certain scenes did reemerge in my memory as I watched. Jake’s big ol’ mustache, Jerry digging grime out of a horse’s shoe (this leads to the discovery of gold), Jerry skiing down an aqueduct (I guess that’s what it is) and Jake masquerading in drag to fool the assayers during Jerry’s wrongfully-accused-of-murder trial, all jogged my faded memories.

There’s a sequence in the body of the film in which Jake is accused of killing the local banker (who turns out to be alive) and Jerry apprehending the real culprit, who turns out to be the sheriff’s loser son. It feels like filler, and really, the film would have flowed just fine (albeit shorter) without it. Its main purpose seems to be adding some suspense for Jerry to get Jake out of prison without Jake’s just-arrived-in-town granddaughter finding out.

That bit aside, it’s a decently-paced flick. It held my attention, it wasn’t bad, but it probably falls more in the middle of the Lone Star spectrum, though that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining; it is. It’s nice seeing Wayne play a slightly different character from what we’ve been seeing – excepting The Desert Trail. He still gets the girl in the end though, because of course. (Thus far we haven’t seen a flick here in which Wayne’s character isn’t at least engaged to the leading lady by the film’s conclusion, and I’m going to keep making that “because of course” quasi-gag until we do. There’s a strong possibility I’ll be saying it for each and every entry.)

While watching, I did remember something that didn’t sit well with me then, and actually still doesn’t sit well with me today: the appearance of power lines and and an actual automobile near the end points to this being a more ‘modern day’ western, if not set in 1934 then at least somewhere in the earlier years of the 1900s. I always preferred my westerns to be in the old west, somewhere in the 1800s. Just feels more authentic and westerny to me, and that feeling goes back to when I was around 12 years old and discovering all this stuff for the first time. Arbitrary? Well sure it is!

By the way, the title implies this is set in Texas, but boy, there’s an announcement during a courtroom scene that sure sounded to me like “Omaha County.” Maybe I heard wrong (entirely possible), or maybe the title was added later without regard to the movie proper. It’s not like B-Westerns weren’t thrown out to the public quickly.

Anyway, The Lucky Texan is certainly no Blue Steel, but methinks I just didn’t appreciate it enough on its own merits back in the late-90s. A solid, watchable Lone Star outing. (Strangely, the opening “Lone Star” card is omitted here, instead starting directly with the title.)

The Man From Utah (1934) – Okay, the first thing you’ll notice with this one is that the title credits music has been very obviously replaced with something of a more-recent vintage. A ‘bigger’, more-dramatic theme that clearly wouldn’t fit with a movie this old. Say what?! A background score has also clearly been added throughout as well. The later colorized versions of these movies from the 1990s (more info on those in the next entry) replaced the credits music and added a score (these movies don’t normally feature any kind of music beyond the opening and closing titles, as was typical of B-Westerns in the early/mid-1930s), so was this the colorized version reverted back to black & white? And if so, WHY? It’s not even remotely hard to locate the original cuts of these movies, so yeah, I’m puzzled with the alterations here, especially since none of the other movies in the set feature these additions.

Wayne with a guitar that he really shouldn’t have.

The surprises don’t end once the movie starts proper, either. As soon as the story starts, we’re treated to John Wayne riding along – and singing! That’s right, he plays a singin’ cowboy in this one! Okay, so it’s just one song at the beginning, and his voice is very obviously dubbed by someone else, but nevertheless, putting John Wayne in the same arena as Gene Autry or Roy Rogers is highly eyebrow-raising.

Here, Wayne plays John Weston (I like to imagine him as the great-great-grandfather of Dr. Harry Weston), who rides into town, is almost immediately deputized, and is put in charge of figuring out if a big-time rodeo is being fixed by the people running it. To do this, he goes undercover by entering said rodeo, besting every event, and naturally running afoul of the gang behind the whole thing. (Apparently the bad guys have injured or killed outsiders who’ve done too well in the past.)

The added background music really takes me out of things with this flick; not that it’s bad, it’s not, but it just doesn’t fit. It sounds too new, and lays ‘on top’ of the film rather than being part of it. (The composer does get a credit at the very end though, which is nice.) Besides that, while I found the rodeo scenes fairly interminable (they were probably fine for the kiddies back in 1934, but for me they just drag things to a halt), the rest of the movie isn’t bad. I found the plot fairly engaging, though like the last movie, it’s probably more of a middle-of-the-road Lone Star entry than a top-tier feature.

Something I found odd: at the very end, right before it’s revealed they’ve become engaged (because of course), the leading lady forgives Weston for going off with another woman, who unbeknownst to her was part of the gang Weston was investigating (which was also unbeknownst to her). Didn’t they put the cart before the horse a bit there? I mean, wouldn’t they have solved this issue before pledging to spend their lives together? From what I know of women (which admittedly isn’t much, given my constant inability to relate to them), spending time with another girl would probably be an obstacle needing cleared before getting engaged. But hey, I’m no expert in these matters, so what do I know?

Unlike most of our other movies seen so far, there are several references to Weston as “the man from Utah,” so that was a factor of the film deemed important enough to be shared with the title of the movie. (Or maybe vice-versa.)

The Man From Utah got a pretty clean print. There’s expected dust and scratches present, but by and large it’s a fairly clear picture, albeit one that’s not as sharp as you’d hope. Also, some odd video ‘interference’ is seen throughout, though not enough to be distracting, and certainly not to the extent of The Dawn Rider‘s picture issues. Overall it looks pretty nice. I just wish I didn’t find that newly-implemented musical score so distracting.

(By the way, the copy of this DVD set I’m reviewing was still sealed new when I got it, but I found it at a thrift store, and judging by the amount of dirt/dust on the shrinkwrap, I’m guessing someone got it closer to 2010 than not, and obviously just never did anything with it. As such, I’m not ruling out the possibility that some of the video issues seen in this movie or The Dawn Rider weren’t fixed in subsequent pressings of the set. But, I can only review what’s in front me.)

The Star Packer (1934) – This is one I had the colorized VHS edition of looong ago. Still have it actually, though I haven’t watched it, or this movie in any form, in probably 20 years. The Star Packer was my second colorized Wayne Lone Star; the first was The Trail Beyond (which we’ll be seeing next, as the last movie on disc one), and naturally both came from Best Buy’s $2.99 VHS section.

The colorized VHS editions of these movies (not to be confused with the new colorized DVD editions) were neat, but even back then kinda head-scratching. I mean, did these movies really warrant the expense of colorization? Not to mention the newly-added musical scores? From how I understand it, these full movie releases were taken from a syndicated TV series that used edited versions of them to make up the installments, but don’t quote me on that. Anyway, VidAmerica first released these on VHS in the early-90s, and UAV re-released them in the late-90s. For me, The Star Packer was the former while The Trail Beyond was the latter, not that it really matters, since I *believe* the content was the same regardless.

That was pretty much my only personal recollections of The Star Packer; I couldn’t remember anything specific about the movie itself, so I essentially went into this one ‘fresh’. Though like The Lucky Texan, certain scenes jogged my memory when I saw them.

Wayne plays Cahill John Travers, U.S. Marshal, who is after the murderin’ scoundrels responsible for, uh, thievery and the like (you know how it is). He becomes the sheriff of a town where this gang of hoodlums happens to be headquartered. They’re led by a mysterious head honcho known only as “The Shadow,” who speaks through a fake wall safe.

Getting instructions from “The Shadow.”

I’m going to be honest with you; I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one. The movie tries to add a novel twist by adding mystery elements regarding the identity of The Shadow, but it’s so painfully obvious who it is early on that it doesn’t really count. He turns out to be – (spoiler!) – local rancher Matt Matlock (besides his slightly redundant name, I like to imagine him as the great-great-grandfather of…oh you know who I mean). Well, someone who has assumed his identity, anyway.

The usage of the name “Matlock” is delightful, and it along with Travers’ faithful Indian companion Yak (played by stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt, who we’ve been seeing all throughout these Lone Stars), who is fairly insensitively portrayed but at least he’s a good guy, well, there’s not a whole lot else that really stands out about this one. The whole “Shadow” aspect is a real missed opportunity for a stronger mystery element to the movie, or possibly even a (light) horror element.

Not really a bad movie, but fairly run-of-the-mill as far as the Lone Stars go; a real programmer, even for a series that was, by definition, made up entirely of programmers. Though, Gabby Hayes playing a villain and the conclusion featuring Travers married to the leading lady (because of course) but several years after the events of the movie proper (by then they’ve got a kid that’s old enough to walk and talk), that’s all kinda unique…I guess.

The Trail Beyond (1934) – Like I said last entry, this was my introduction to the world of the colorized Lone Stars. I still remember the night I found it: it was the summer of ’99, and the next day my brother and I were off with my dad and his friend to the Brickyard 400 in Indy. The race was on Saturday, August 7, and we got there the day before, so the night The Trail Beyond in blazing color came into my life had to be Thursday, August 5, 1999. It was a banner night at Best Buy’s $2.99 VHS racks, netting me not only this but the restored-to-original-color Zorro opus The Bold Caballero, and not one but two (single episode each) VHS releases of the black & white Dragnet. Having only heard of the 1950s iteration beforehand but being a rabid fan of the 1960s revival that was then-running on TV Land, the Dragnet tapes were the big finds of the night, but it was pretty cool winnins all-around.

Like The Star Packer and The Lucky Texan, I remembered little of this flick beforehand, though a bit more than the those. Probably because the novelty of having a colorized Lone Star was so great at the time, more of it stuck with me.

In what seems like the first time in ages on this “Lone Star Journey” (as dictated by the line-up of this DVD set, I mean), George “Gabby” Hayes is not in this one…but two Noah Beerys are! That’s right, Noah Beery Sr. and Jr. are both in this one! Neato!

The surprises don’t end there, either. While the plot isn’t too out of the ordinary, the setting certainly is; The Trail Beyond primarily takes place in Northwestern Canada! Oh sure, there’s plenty of gunfightin’ and horses and such, but just the presence of a different backdrop alone really helps set this one apart.

Wayne and Beery Jr., extricating a map from a skeleton’s hand (!)

Wayne plays John Rod Drew, who is enlisted by an old family friend to find out what happened to his estranged brother and never-met niece. (The friend’s brother and niece, I mean.) So, off to Canada Ron goes! Along the way, he runs into old college chum Wabi (Beery Jr., and yes, that’s really the name of his character), who is almost instantly blamed for a murder. Rod helps him escape, though luckily they’re in the general vicinity of where Rod needs to be anyway. Thanks to poverty row logic, almost as quickly as Wabi was blamed for murder, they discover what happened to the brother (and his mining partner): their bone-dry skeletons are found in a cabin, along with a map to a gold mine. That part of his mission near-instantaneously complete, it’s off to find the niece.

As you may well imagine, the revelation of the mine map draws the attention of the local hoodlums (one of whom is Lone Star regular Earl Dwire, though he adopts an exaggerated French-Canadian accent for this role), and don’t forget, that murder rap is still hanging over Wabi’s head.

Even without the scenic locales it’s a pretty captivating plot, as far as these B-Westerns go. I really liked this one, far more than I did back in the day. Some of the dialogue is pretty eye-rolling; the family friend positing that it’s likely his niece is named Marie since that was her mother’s name is a real “huh?” statement, though it provides for a red-herring moment later that, truth be told, doesn’t really go anywhere.

Just one of the scenic backdrops in this movie.

Of course, the pine trees, cabins and rivers (and Mounties; this movie’s got Mounties!) of what was supposed to be Canada are what help things stand out even more. The scenery is beautiful! Indeed, while the print here isn’t bad, mostly good-not-great, this is a movie that would really benefit from a crystal clear transfer. As I recall it, my old colorized version featured a pretty nice base print…

And that brings us to the end of disc one. By and large, it’s a fun line-up. I’d say the first half is stronger than the second, which dips a bit before finishing strong with the excellent Trail Beyond, but there’s no true dud movie in the bunch. Considering this is a budget DVD set and thus probably not commanding much dough wherever you may find it, disc one is worth the price of admission alone, but disc two is certainly no afterthought; there’s more neat stuff just ahead!


DISC TWO

Hell Town (1937) – The second disc kicks off with a real gear shift from we’ve seen so far! Originally released by Paramount as Born to the West, Hell Town, while still decidedly a B-Western, has something resembling an actual budget. In stark contrast to the Lone Stars, which are fun but can be a kinda creaky, Hell Town just looks and feels so much more professional. There’s even background music throughout, which makes a huge difference.

Dare and Dink, after some bar-brawlin’.

Wayne is Dare Rudd (yes, really), who along with his lightning rod salesman buddy Dink (yes, really) wander into Wyoming and wind up working for Rudd’s cousin Tom (Johnny Mack Brown!)…but not before running afoul of some cattle rustlers. Rudd already doesn’t have a great standing with his cousin, further exacerbated by his brawling and generally wild ways. Rudd also falls for Tom’s maybe-fiancee Judy – an attraction that is evident to Tom but weirdly never seems to concern him as much as you might think. (Judy is played by Marsha Hunt, who as of this writing is still with us – how neat is that?!)

Rudd is eventually promoted to heading a cattle drive for Tom (think of a proto-Rawhide, minus Clint Eastwood, cause, you know, he was only like seven years old at the time of this film), lands in a crooked poker game, and gets in a big ol’ shoot out. Eventually it all works out for the better, because you don’t expect a nihilistic ending in a B-Western. Rudd winds up with Judy (because of course…and basically at the behest of Tom, so you know it ain’t exactly a flick grounded in realism) and Dink continues to babble about lightning rods.

This is a goooood movie! Not that I haven’t been enjoying the Lone Stars but the higher budget and better script here, needless to say, make a big, big difference. And what’s more, whether it’s due to the script or simply because a few more years of experience had elapsed, but Wayne exudes an easygoing charm and style that makes him seem more like the ‘real’ John Wayne people tend to think of, instead of the generic B-Western John Wayne we’ve been seeing and are about to see more of.

This, my friends, is a very entertaining B-Western, real fun matinee stuff; I like it a lot!

‘Neath Arizona Skies (1934) – Back to the Lone Stars. I taped this one a zillion years ago but I’m pretty sure I never actually watched it, so I’m basically going in fresh here.

The good guy, the bad guy, and the leading lady – who happens to be the sister of the bad guy, who switched clothing with the unconscious good guy prior, unbeknownst to the leading lady but known to the good guy. (Got all that?)

Wayne plays Chris Morrell, who is in charge of a little half-Indian girl that stands to inherit some big oil money – provided he can find her father, or provide proof that her father is dead. Needless to say, this attracts the attention of local hooligans, who want to find the father or kidnap the girl or both so they can steal them big big bucks. Complicating matters is a hold-up in which the robber switches clothes with an unconscious Morrell – and who happens to be the brother of Morrell’s destined-to-be love interest. The little girl’s father is eventually found, and relatively easily, and naturally he runs headfirst into this mess, as well. Look, the way this stuff all intersects isn’t very realistic, but hey, Seinfeld got away with that sort of thing all the time, right?

(Also, I assume this all takes place, say it with me, beneath Arizona skies.)

Oddly enough, despite being in the film and having a fairly visible role, Gabby is uncredited in the, erm, credits. I hope he still got paid! Naturally, Wayne gets the leading lady in the end (because of course), but for once there’s no mention of automatic engagement or marriage, so there’s that. (Hell Town had no mention of marriage either, but that wasn’t a Lone Star so my babbling doesn’t apply there.)

Coming off such a big change of pace, and with an annoying little kid in the cast, I wasn’t expecting to like this one very much. To my surprise though, I found this one pretty entertaining. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not bad either. But boy, coming off Hell Town, the poverty row-ness of ‘Neath Arizona Skies really stands out more than it probably would have otherwise. Much more stilted, much creakier.

(Also, while not as frequent as The Dawn Rider way back early on disc one, there are some moments of heavy compression/artifacting/pixelated break-up in this one.)

Paradise Canyon (1935) – Like I said before, these Lone Stars aren’t in order of release on this set; we haven’t even seen Wayne’s first Lone Star entry yet. But here, we have the last Lone Star picture Wayne made. Were all the stops pulled out for one last grand shoot-’em-up at Monogram, or did the series unceremoniously peter out like a spent river bed in some dry dusty gulch somewhere?

Unfortunately, it was the latter. I found Paradise Canyon, while not terrible, to certainly be on the lower end of the Lone Star spectrum.

Wayne is government agent John Wyatt (just once I’d like his last name to be “Hiatt” in one of these, simply because it would amuse me) who is sent to stop whoever is passing counterfeit money. Wyatt follows and later joins a traveling medicine show he suspects of the crime, only to run smack dab into the real counterfeiters.

You know, this one initially looked like it was going to be a manhunt-type film, with Wyatt following the medicine show from town to town, progressively closing in on his target. Even when the typical Lone Star three cent budget is factored in, that plot, to me, shows some promise.

Trick-shootin’ with a mirror.

That’s not what we got though. In short order, Wyatt finds Doc Carter’s medicine show, helps them escape the local law (he’s a government agent, I guess he can get away with that?), and then joins the show under an assumed name. Did you ever want to see a long, interminable demonstration of the medicine show’s entertainment? If so, you’ve come to the right place! Complete with trick-shootin’, terrible songs and pitching of Doc Carter’s supposedly-Indian-concocted medicine (whatever it is, it’s 90% alcohol), in short order you’ll be tempted to shout at the top of your lungs “hey, this is total filler!” And you’d be right!

Much about this one, to the plot to the dialogue to even the sound effects, filled me with, if not disgust than at least a vague forming of disgust somewhere in the back of my psyche. Or something like that. It kinda annoyed me, okay? I’m not totally sure why either, since one thing I love about B-Westerns is their reliable predictability, but there’s not much that worked for me with this one. And to top it off, the medicine show used a real drivin’ truck to get around; if necessary, go back and read my Lucky Texan take to see how I feel about that. Also, despite the title, I’m not sure if any of this takes place in an actual canyon. But then, admittedly there were points where my attention was slipping and I just didn’t care, so maybe?

The conclusion has Wyatt and the leading lady waiting for the Justice of the Peace to wed them (because of course), only for the film to reveal that he and Doc Carter are off getting drunk on the ‘medicine’ somewhere. What a way for Wayne’s Lone Stars to go out!

I wonder if Wayne and/or Monogram knew this would be it for his Lone Star series? Yes or no, it wasn’t a great way to end things. (By the way, there’s an odd solid border around the screen for the opening credits, which disappears when the movie proper begins. Why?!?!)

Rainbow Valley (1935) – I’ve been looking forward to this one. Y’see, back in the day, some time after that initial Blue Steel caused my VCR to explode and The Lucky Texan became the consolation prize, I found a four-VHS John Wayne box set at Best Buy. It wasn’t a $2.99’er, but it finally gave me a copy of Blue Steel I could hold onto, along with Randy Rides Alone, The Lawless Frontier and this film, Rainbow Valley. Rainbow Valley never overtook Blue Steel in my eyes, but became one of my go-to Lone Stars back then nevertheless.

Every single print of Rainbow Valley I’ve seen has shared the exact same maladies, namely that the quality is pretty wasted and scratchy, as if there was only one extant copy out there and everyone keeps passing it around. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but my curiosity was peaked as to whether the trend continued with this Mill Creek set or not.

In short, it did. Unfortunately, it’s not a unique print of Rainbow Valley here, and by this point I’m not convinced there is another print of the flick out there. Prove me wrong? And oddly enough, something I noticed on this viewing: you can often hear shouting/talking/action in the background of the soundtrack, and it doesn’t correlate to what’s happening on screen. A mistake with the existing print, or was Monogram filming something else nearby which Rainbow Valley got some residual audio evidence of? I wouldn’t be surprised in either instance, honestly.

Wayne and Gabby, sitting in “Nugget Nell” the automobile.

John Martin (Wayne, duh) is an undercover government agent (again), sent to protect the residents of the titular location from the local gang, who are, as you’d expect, terrorizing the populace. They want to drive people out and buy the land up cheap, again, as you’d expect. Martin must put a stop to this. Along the way you’ll get the usual misunderstandings as to who Martin really is, and a leading lady who hates him until she doesn’t. (Because of course.) Oh, and Gabby; Gabby’s in this one too.

Not gonna lie, all I really remembered about Rainbow Valley, besides the trashed quality of the print, was that dynamite played a big role, and I remembered correctly; at one point Gabby drives around in his rickety automobile (grrrrr…) and lobs sticks of dynamite at bad guys, which sounds like it’d make for a cool mission in an original Xbox game, truth be told.

Rainbow Valley is…alright. Re-watching it with a more objective eye nowadays, I wanted to like it more than I did, but, it’s strictly mediocre. I found it to be a better movie than Paradise Canyon (I compare both because that’s the movie immediately preceding this on the set and because both titles share similar a motif, which I only now just realized), and I like the general idea of the film, but in practice it’s pretty by-the-numbers. And yet, I’d still be interested in seeing a cleaned up, or at least better, print of the film.

The unique billing of Wayne as “Singin’ Sandy” on the title card.

Riders of Destiny (1933) – This was actually the very first Lone Star picture Wayne did, and it differs from later productions in a few ways. In contrast to later programmers for the studio, Wayne is specifically billed as “Singin’ Sandy” on the title screen; this is the only time his character is given such a shout-out. I assume Lone Star/Monogram was attempting to create a film series around this character, something which obviously never happened.

Wayne is indeed “Singin’ Sandy” Saunders, and as the feature opens, he lives up to his namesake, riding along and singing a cowboy tune – one of the very first singing cowboys of the movies! It’s an achievement not typically credited to Wayne, and for good reason; we saw him sing in The Man From Utah earlier on this set, and like that film, his singing voice is very obviously dubbed here by someone who sounds absolutely nothing like Wayne.

Anyway, the opening song here isn’t the usual paean to love or lonesome cowpoke lament; no no, this song is all about brutality. No kidding, Saunders sings a tune about total bloodshed. Seriously, it’s all about gunning his enemies down; only a pre-Hays Code flick could get away with something like that in what was probably considered mainly kids fare. It’s a really dark “say what?!” moment, and it’s even repeated later in the film, like a vocal calling card. Yikes!

Saunders is a gunman with a Billy the Kid-like reputation, though in actuality he’s a government agent sent to rid a local town of bad guy Kincaid, who is using both a near-total control of the water supply and the usual strong arm tactics to drive the other ranchers out and buy their land up for cheap. This, needless to say, won’t do, and so it’s up to Saunders to help the townspeople out of this mess.

The plot may not sound all that unusual, but it’s handled pretty well here; Riders of Destiny seems to generally be considered the best of Wayne’s Lone Stars, and while it may not *technically* be my favorite, I think I have to agree with that. As these things go, it’s excellent. After watching the last two movies for this review, I was wondering if I was simply burning out on these flicks, but the more I watched Riders of Destiny, the more I found my attention focused on it. This is a good, good poverty row oater!

Shootout in the street…

Although there’s the usual temporary case of mistaken identity and stabs at comic relief found (they’d be no stranger to later Lone Star entries), what really sets Riders of Destiny apart is how surprisingly dark (as in tone, not lighting) it can be at times. Sandy’s aforementioned song, of course, but later in the film there’s a scene where he lassos two inept baddies together and drags them along the ground behind his horse! Even more shocking, Riders displays the typical shootout in the middle of town at one point, but rather than just having Sandy blow the guy away, he instead quick draws and shoots him twice, then declares that the guy will never handle guns again. There’s then a quick close-up of the baddie with blood trickling down both his hands; Sandy put holes through his wrists! It’s not particularly graphic in this day and age, but for a B-Western it’s shockingly brutal, and almost unthinkable in later Lone Stars, never mind later 1930s poverty row westerns in general.

Even the conclusion of the film, in which Sandy kisses the heroine and promises to be back in time for dinner before riding off, is a little different. It’s a happy ending, but with, to me, a vague, bordering-on-bittersweet undertone. I’m not even giving this a “because of course” declaration this time around, because the romance, while not much (if any) of a focus during the film proper, at least doesn’t conclude with a random engagement and/or marriage.

For as much as I love Blue Steel, objectively I have to admit Riders of Destiny is the premier (as in best) Lone Star flick. Kinda funny that it was also the premiere (as in first) Lone Star flick, though that’s not to say later entries were all wastes. As we’ve seen throughout this review, there were a few dips, but by and large these are still movies worth watching!

Sagebrush Trail (1933) – In a nice bit of continuity with the preceding movie, this was the second Wayne Lone Star. Methinks this was a coincidence; I was trying to figure out if there was any rhyme-or-reason to Mill Creek’s placement of these movies on this set, and then I realized that, per disc, the movies are in alphabetical order.

Like Riders of Destiny, this is an excellent film. Just as good? Maybe, maybe not; I can’t decide. It’s close. It’s certainly a less brutal movie, and Wayne doesn’t fake sing in it, so there’s that. But like Riders, Sagebrush Trail plays out a little differently from how most of these Lone Stars went, or eventually went. And, even though there’s a scene early in the film that places the events in a then-more-modern setting, that doesn’t even really bother me this time around, because I enjoyed the rest of the movie so much.

Wayne is John Brant, and as the film opens, he’s an escaped convict. Seems he was put away for murder, and since we know how these B-Westerns generally go, it can reasonably be assumed that he didn’t do it. We don’t know that right away though, not for sure, and it’s a nice change of pace to have Wayne playing someone who isn’t a sheriff/marshal/government agent – he’s just some guy, running for his life, trying to find who committed the murder he’s been blamed for.

Utilizing the “world is only populated by a couple dozen people” economy that these poverty row oaters, or at least Lone Stars, practically turned into an art form, Brant stumbles upon a gang of thieves and befriends the real killer – unbeknownst to him at first, or course. It seems like the kind of place he should be searching anyway, so he joins up with them, both to find the real baddie and to thwart whatever crimes they hatch.

Broken eggs and Sally, the former being an object of comedy and the latter being the object of Brant and Conlon’s affections.

Lane Chandler plays Joseph Conlon, the man Brant becomes buddies with. The rapport between the two is evident; during a scene in which they goof on each other in a general store, I caught me genuinely smiling to myself! And even though Chandler is technically a bad guy (he was in the store to scope it for a robbery later that night, after all), he never really seems totally bad. He likes Brant, and even towards the end of the film when he finally becomes convinced Brant is a good guy and sets him up for an ambush by the other gang members, there still seems like something redeemable in him. There’s a likability in Chandler’s Conlon that I wouldn’t have expected beforehand!

Naturally (spoiler!) Conlon gets plugged and spills the beans to the law before expiring, thus exonerating Brant once and for all. Then, with Conlon’s body only feet away and still warm, Brant kisses leading lady Sally (because of course), the object of both Brant and Conlon’s affections. It’s kind of an awkward, inappropriate way to end the film, honestly. That aside though, Sagebrush Trail is a terrific movie as far as these Lone Stars go; attention-grabbing and generally fun, it’s among the upper-echelon of these flicks in my opinion.

(I was also pleased to see that Sagebrush Trail got a pretty decent print here. The quality of the preceding films on this disc have varied but mostly stayed in a standard, expected PD movie camp. Sagebrush Trail, however, while not exactly Criterion-quality, is relatively sharp and balanced. I’d say it falls safely within the realm of “good,” as opposed to the usual “well, it’s watchable.”)

Texas Terror (1935) -We’re nearly done with this journey through Mill Creek’s set. The penultimate movie on it is also the last Lone Star we’ll see; the final movie is a Republic offering. If you remember 600 years ago during my intro to this article, you’ll recall my link to my VHS review of this movie. Here, have it again.

I wasn’t real big on the flick following that viewing, and the print used was pretty wasted, which didn’t help matters. But because I’m firmly in “Lone Star” mode right now, Texas Terror can (probably) only go up in my opinion.

And the print? Luckily, Mill Creek does have a different and better print of the movie here.  Like Sagebrush Trail before it, Texas Terror looks surprisingly nice! Granted, it would be hard to look worse than that old VHS copy I reviewed. But while I’m not claiming Texas Terror to look pristine on this set, it sure looks better than I expected it to. It’s relatively good, at least on the higher end of the public domain Lone Star spectrum. It has its issues, no doubt (there’s an annoying ‘pop’ on the soundtrack whenever a scene/camera angle changes, for example), but nevertheless, Texas Terror doesn’t look too bad here. (Something I didn’t notice or don’t recall noticing last time, during an early scene with Wayne’s character and his friend sitting in an office: look close, there are flies noticeably buzzing about, landing on their hats, etc.)

Higgins, thinking he’s accidentally killed his friend Dan.

The plot: John Wayne is John Higgins, and not the one that was always yelling at Magnum, either. No no, this one’s a sheriff, ostensibly in Texas, and apparently a pretty good one – until he believes he’s accidentally killed his friend and father-figure Dan. This causes Higgins to leave the job and became a loner, friend only to Indians. Of course, he didn’t really kill Dan, and after a year-long (!) sabbatical, he returns to town to help Dan’s just-returned daughter Bess run the family ranch as well as find out the whole truth behind Dan’s death. Bess winds up loving Higgins until she doesn’t until she does again, because of course.

Did my opinion of Texas Terror go up this viewing? Well…not really. I want to like the plot so much more than I do; there’s the germ of a decent idea there and the usage of Native Americans as dependable and heroic characters is a plus (even if their dialog is rendered a somewhat offensively), but man, after an okay start, the film devolves into typical Lone Star  fare. A long dance and cow milking contest (!) sequence provides a few moments to further the plot but is really more filler than anything, for example. Even the grand climax with the Indians coming to Higgins’ aid, I found my mind wandering. After that decent opening, the movie is either by-the-numbers or outright dumb. Oh, and there’s another then-somewhat-modern automobile present, which doesn’t help matters in the eyes of yours truly.

Texas Terror is strictly mediocre, probably middle-of-the-road as far as B-Westerns in general go, but probably in the lower-tier as far as these Lone Stars specifically go.

Winds of the Wasteland (1936) – And so we come to the last movie on Mill Creek’s 16-movie “The Duke” set. Like the flick that kicked off this second disc, this isn’t a Lone Star film, but rather one of Wayne’s other pre-Stagecoach B-Westerns that also subsequently fell in to the public domain. Released by Republic less than a year after the final Lone Star, the differences are, like Hell Town, pretty striking. Mainly as far as the budget goes; I have no idea what any of these films cost, I’m assuming Winds of the Wasteland was substantially higher than any of the Lone Stars, but less than Hell Town. Don’t quote me on any of that though.

At any rate, like Hell Town, Winds of the Wasteland has something resembling a budget. Decently filmed action sequences, a good plot and an actual background score, Winds looks less like an uber-poverty row oater and more like a, uh, run-of-the-mill B oater. Or something like that.

Like Sagebrush Trail, Wayne is teamed with Lane Chandler as his buddy. There’s no hidden agendas or secret identities between them this time around though, and oddly enough, I didn’t see the same chemistry here. Maybe they needed that ‘torn between two worlds’ thing? Oh well, it’s nice to see them partnered up again anyway.

Wayne is John Blair, who along with his friend Larry Adams (Chandler) decide to go into the stagecoach business together. Instead of buying fresh though, they wind up purchasing a coach and line for “Crescent City” from the unscrupulous Cal Drake; you can pretty much tell he’s unscrupulous from the get-go, but Blair and Adams evidently can’t, because they buy into it all sight unseen. Naturally they’ve been ripped off; there is indeed a stagecoach and city, but the coach is rickety (and home to a skunk), and the city is almost entirely uninhabited.

The climatic stagecoach race.

Using ingenuity (and a little B-Western luck), they start turning the stage into a success, progressively drawing more people into the city and, naturally, attracting the ire of Drake – who they still owe some installments on the deal to. It all culminates in a stagecoach race between Blair and crooked Drake for a $25,000 mail subsidy, which is of course the final push Crescent City needs to put things over the top. Also, the daughter of Crescent City’s doctor hates Blair until she doesn’t, because (for the last time) of course.

The final action sequence goes on a bit too long for my tastes (I found my mind wandering more than it should have, though the matinee kiddies of 1936 probably loved the whole thing), but for the most part, Winds of the Wasteland is a pretty good flick. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hell Town or some of the higher-ranked Lone Stars on this set, but it’s a very solid Republic offering. (It’s interesting to note that Wayne displays a bit more “John Wayne-ness” here than he did with the Lone Stars, but not as much as he did with Hell Town, where he came off much more like the John Wayne people think of when they think “Duke.” Experience or scripting or both? You decide!)

(Oh, and that border around the screen during the opening credits of Paradise Canyon? It’s back for this one.)


So there you have it, Mill Creek’s big ol’ 16-movie John Wayne DVD set, “The Duke.” No, as far as his public domain works go, it’s not the most comprehensive set out there. Even Mill Creek themselves have released 20+ collections that not only include all 16 Lone Stars but a bunch of his other PD stuff as well. But like I said at the start of this review, I like the quick, all killer no filler approach of this set. I just don’t want to wade through a John Wayne serial, His Private Secretary or a documentary on The Duke! Sure, I could always just skip those entries, but there’s something to be said for a no-nonsense, concise two disc approach to these things, and that’s what attracted me to this collection in the first place.

Would I have preferred that this set stuck to all 16 Lone Stars, preferably in order of release, and left things at that? Well, yes, I think so. But, Hell Town and Winds of the Wasteland are such enjoyable B-Westerns, and they do provide a nice change of pace, that I can’t really complain too much.

And you know what? Even though some of the Lone Stars dip in quality or fall into the trap of ‘sameness’, the fact of the matter is that I genuinely enjoyed going through this collection, film by film. Like I said before, B-Westerns weren’t/aren’t high art, nor were they intended to be. This is real matinee stuff; fast, simple and easy to digest. By and large this is a very good collection in demonstrating that, with even the weaker films being worth a view.

Mill Creek’s “The Duke” DVD set gets my enthusiastic recommendation, and as we all know, my recommendation is of tantamount importance. Pick it up and let the pre-stardom waves of a young John Wayne take you on a trip to depression-era filmdom!

(Boy, that last line borders on being outright stupid, but this review is now over 11,000 words; I’m spent, man!)

EPISODE REVIEW: The Ghoul’s Presentation of THE TERROR (September 8, 2000)

Happy Halloween!

*sigh* But Halloween this year comes with a caveat; it’s our first without Ron “The Ghoul” Sweed. As is well known by now, the horror hosting legend passed away on April 1st of this year. For countless fans, including yours truly, it was of course an incredibly sad event; I’ve sorta gotten used to it by now, but for months, it was so hard to realize, and sometimes still is, that he’s really gone. It’s a strange feeling; even though we’re now over 20 years for much of his WBNX TV-55 run, time has passed by so fast, and by and large those shows don’t feel that old to me, that yeah, sometimes it feels like “but he was just on TV, he can’t be gone!”

Our Main Maniac (and nemesis Froggy)!

So, as a final tribute to the host that colored the lives of so many in Northeast Ohio and Detroit, let’s do one more Ghoul Power post before the year is out. Is there a more appropriate time than October 31st? I posit that there is not.

You may be looking at that header and wondering “why do an episode from September 8 for a Halloween post?” A fair question, to which I have two answers: 1) I strongly feel that horror host material from any date on the calendar works for a Halloween post because, uh, it’s a horror host. 2) Even though this originally aired in early September, there’s a strong Halloween vibe to the proceedings, even beyond what there would normally be, which we’ll see as we go along through this episode recap.

There’s an additional reason, too: there was no proper Halloween episode for the show that year. Indeed, this was the penultimate show of his ‘prime’ run on 55; from his debut on the channel on July 10, 1998, The Ghoul ran at 11:30 PM Fridays. At the time of this airing, that would continue for exactly one more week, and then starting on September 24, he’d be moved to Sundays at midnight (technically Monday mornings, so September 25 if y’all wanna get technical), and his movie selections greatly (but not always) altered drastically. As such, this was one of the last times Northeast Ohioans would be able to see him on the day/time that was a natural fit for him. (I could review his final show at 11:30 PM Fridays on September 15 for this article, but I’ll save that for a theoretical 20th anniversary post next year. No promises though; there’s always the chance I’ll have tired of this blog by then.)

You wanna know what The Ghoul got to run for Halloween 2000? Alice in Wonderland. As in, the Disney movie. No sound effects, no drop-ins, just the movie straight; obviously it was in 55’s movie package and subsequently foisted upon the Main Maniac. Even though there were some Halloweeny host segments, they still didn’t really make the episode feel ‘right’.

That was all in the future however; for the time being, all we knew at home was that The Ghoul was where he belonged, running the kind of movie that belonged, and all of it marinating in the vibes that was and is Northeast Ohio in the fall. (Okay, okay, technically it wasn’t fall yet. It wasn’t officially fall until September 22, 2000; yes, I looked it up. But c’mon, August was over, schools were back in, for all intents and purposes that’s fall!)

So anyway, this episode. After the show’s opening theme, the episode started with a computer animated sequence in which a Ghoul-shaped spaceship…flied through a black hole? I’m really not sure how to describe it, and screencaps won’t be of any help. So instead, let’s first talk about the movie: 1963’s The Terror. We’ll get to The Ghoul stuff afterwards.

THE TERROR’s title screen, obviously.

The Terror has long been a public domain staple. Over the decades, there have been countless home video releases, and needless to say, numerous television airings. With a big name cast and crew and colorful Gothic scenery, it’s a natural fit for horror hosting. A Roger Corman product, the movie was hastily filmed to take advantage of the still-standing sets from The Raven (the story goes they were basically being torn down *during* filming), so it sure looks better than it has any right to. The plot leaves something to be desired, but there’s something oddly entrancing about the movie nevertheless.

Jack Hill and Francis Ford Coppola (!) were apparently among the uncredited directors for the flick, but it’s the two stars that really raise the figurative eyebrows (and make this a natural for releasing/televising over and over and over…not to mention that whole public domain thing): Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson! Easily the most immediately visible aspect of the film, the two big name stars (well, later-to-be big name star, in Jack’s case) basically carry a film whose plot is kinda awful.

Nicholson and Karloff, in the roles they were born to play?

Set in the 1800s, the movie concerns Napoleonic officer Andre Duvalier (Jack, in a role I like to imagine he’s pretty proud of), who, while following a mysterious girl, happens upon the mansion of one Baron Von Leppe (Karloff). It seems the girl Duvalier was following is some sort of apparition, the consequence of the Baron’s murdered wife 20 years prior…or something like that. Also the Baron isn’t really the Baron, and then there’s a flood in the mansion’s crypt, a witch that gets struck by lightning, and…and… Look, just go and read the the summary in that Wikipedia link, okay? It explains things better than I ever could. (Luckily, since the movie’s public domain, I don’t have to fret too much about fair use and details here!)

For years I hated The Terror, for the simple fact that it was seemingly everywhere. Too many TV airings, enough VHS releases to trip me as I walked down the street, and a movie I didn’t like enough to make me okay with any of that. The Terror was an ever-present thorn in your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter’s side, man.

But you know, in more recent times I’ve come to gain some kind of appreciation for the film. No, it’s not very good technically, but somehow, it manages to be entertaining nevertheless. The plot is what it is, but that sumptuous early-60s color, terrific Gothic scenery, generally ‘spooky’ atmosphere, and of course Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, it all combines to create a film that just works, inexplicable as that may sound. To me it’s more of a flick that you let ‘wash over’ you than one you seriously sit down to watch (if that makes any sense), but that’s to its benefit, not detriment.

(And besides, no matter how bad you think The Terror may be, Karloff made worse. Seriously, I watched House of Evil – one of those U.S./Mexican productions released after his death – a few months back, and bluntly put, that film is unwatchable crap. The Terror manages to attain a weird level of endearment, if for no other reason than because of who it stars, how it looks and the fun backstory behind it. House of Evil has no such qualities; even Karloff couldn’t save it, and that’s not a statement I make lightly. The Terror is a five star tour de force compared to that garbage.)

Whatever plot issues The Terror may have had in the first place were only exacerbated when this film showed up on The Ghoul Show. I’ve said this before, but at that time, you didn’t really tune into The Ghoul to watch a full-fledged horror flick. With all of the editing that could hit a given movie, and with numerous (and often quite lengthy) host segments littering the breaks, the film sometimes seemed like an afterthought. Add in all the sound effects and drop-ins and such that The Ghoul employed, and frequently you got less of a movie and more of a random patchwork of scenes – and rest assured, that was part of the fun!

The Terror certainly didn’t make it through unscathed, either. Why would this film be an

One of The Ghoul’s many “fact bubble” gags from his 55 run.

exception? The plot, or what there was of a plot, was made even more incomprehensible with all the cutting to fit more Ghoul stuff in. (Good!) One sequence, a somewhat-disturbing falcon attack, was excised entirely, for example.

But like I said, that was part of the fun. And, things were made all the better with the sound effects, music, and as you can see here, humorous “fact bubbles” (not unlike Pop-Up Video; remember that show?) that The Ghoul would throw at a given feature. That was also, needless to say, part of the fun, too!

The Terror isn’t exactly Night of the Living Dead when people think of “classic Halloween movies.” At least, I don’t think of it as one. And yet, it somehow still ‘fits’, even beyond the genre it’s a member of. The look, the feel, heck, even the title, it just seems like the kind of flick you’d have playing in the background of a Halloween party, or as you wind down the night in front of the TV, or what have you. Like I said before, this episode aired on September 8, 2000, but given this film and some of the Ghoul material we’re about to look at, it feels like a good match for today. Well, it does to me, anyway.

Okay, now it’s time for The Ghoul stuff!

Cooling it wit da boom booms!

All though they could be mixed in at any time in the show, typically the first commercial break lead-out sketch was a blow-up segment – one of the chief hallmarks of The Ghoul. Going back to the Ghoulardi days, people would send in models and the like to be blown up on-the-air. I wasn’t around for Ghoulardi, but in The Ghoul’s case, usage of “the boom-booms” was practically an art form. A noisy, destructive, funny art form.

This time around, someone sent in a werewolf riding in what appeared to be a hot rod (and complete with a cool full moon back drop to boot). As would occasionally happen, the first boom boom was a dud, leading The Ghoul to come back in the shot to try again. The second one worked, obliterating the wolf, but the rod seemed relatively unscathed. I always kinda preferred it when every part of whatever was being blown up was, erm, blown up (i.e., leave no piece un-destroyed!), but the werewolf was obviously the main attraction here, so mission accomplished.

This shot just screams “fall in Northeast Ohio” to me.

The first proper host segment was an example of my favorite kind of Ghoul bit; there was an actual purpose behind it, but mainly The Ghoul was just messing around. I always like it when a host is more ad libbing and shooting the breeze with the crew than ‘doing’ something, and, well, The Ghoul was pretty good at that sort of thing. Here, he takes the opportunity to superfluously throw a (lit) boom boom on the floor, dance around, take some good-natured digs at Wilma Smith (the channel 8 anchorwoman was a favorite target of The Ghoul), mention an article on Jungle Bob, comment on the bottle caps used for bottles of Ghoul Brew (evidently they weren’t all twist-offs!), all before getting to the real point of the segment: that coming October 7th, The Ghoul would be appearing at the 3rd annual “Pumpkin Chuckin'” event in Madison, Ohio, in which pumpkins were catapulted high into the air to the delight of all. Evidently this is a real, nationwide thing, which I honestly did not know until I went looking to see if this Madison, OH event still happens. (I couldn’t tell. I don’t think so?) In addition to showing some footage of the chuckin’ from the previous year, The Ghoul mentions he and the crew would be there all day, there would be a Ghoul lookalike contest for the kids, and a pumpkin eating contest. I imagine a general air of frivolity, too. Honestly, it sounds pretty awesome and something I’d actually consider going to. As you can plainly see, despite the September air date of this episode, the Halloween festivities were already in motion.

Footage from The Ghoul’s appearance at this Pumpkin Chuckin’ event would air on the show that October…after it had been moved to Sunday nights. What was the movie that night, you ask? A 1990 made-for-TV drama starring Rue McClanahan and Patrick Duffy titled Children of the Bride. Yes, really. If you read my 20 year Ghoul Power tribute article (linked at the start of this article), you’d know the Sunday/Monday era of the show could hold some surprises, some of them pleasant, but then, there were other times when movies like that had to be shown. No sound effects or drop-ins either. Suddenly Alice in Wonderland don’t seem so bad no more!

An impromptu (?) basement sale visit…

Even though this episode is more of an autumnal piece, because it took place so soon after summer, there’s a lot of looks at places The Ghoul went and things he did during that time. (It was also a reminder that the school year had just started, not an ideal situation for kids like me!) Much of this footage is interesting, if for no other reason than to see The Ghoul out and about – something that sadly can’t happen anymore – but it’s not very conducive to an episode recap. So, I’ll probably power through much of it.

First off, The Ghoul and crew stopped at a basement sale, which appeared to be not unlike your common yard or garage sales…except in a basement. From sounds of it, this was a genuine surprise to (I surmise) the home owner, who nevertheless got a kick out of it. The Ghoul also carried the big giant “Kielbasi of Wisdom” (a big plush kielbasi) around for much of this on-location stuff, which is just such a Ghoul thing to do. They got a big kick out of the home owner’s ecstatic declarations that this is “the real Ghoulardi,” so much so that they repeated the audio as the segment fades to break.

Having fun with a pair of wax lips.

The next segment found The Ghoul fiddling with a pair of wax vampire lips, because according to him, “Halloween comes and goes so fast, you better start celebrating while you can. So that’s why we’re doing it now!” (See, told you this review was a fit for today!)

That’s followed by declarations of “Osaka!” which then led into them playing of “Who Stole the Kishka?” not unlike whenever “Parma?!” was yelled. (Something else that went back to the Ghoulardi days.) According to The Ghoul, this was for the benefit of their new viewers that were now seeing the show in Japan; I forget the genesis of this but methinks this was just a running gag. I mean, unless there was some wacky satellite hookup or something, could they really get the show in Japan? I don’t think the show reached outside of Northeast Ohio, let alone Japan! (Still, the “Osaka!” declarations are funny, and again, such a Ghoul thing to do.)

There’s some footage of The Ghoul performing on-stage at some event (I’m a little unclear on where, but it looks like an actual house party that The Ghoul & Mr. Classic (of WNCX’s Saturday Night House Party program) showed up to. The Ghoul did a little emceeing and performing, and it’s fun but not really conducive to screencapping.

No kidding, I *love* this idea!

HOWEVER, the next bit of personal appearance footage, from the Parma location Daffy Dan’s, has a really great moment that I wish I could have simulated. Someone actually asked The Ghoul to sign their car! Now that’s awesome! I wonder what happened to the car? Do they still have it? Did they put a protective coating over the signature? I’d hope that if they got rid of the vehicle later, they at least kept the door!

Froggy pummelin’!

There was more fun to be had at Daffy Dan’s too, this time at the Lakewood location. (There used to be several Daffy Dan stores, though near as I can tell there’s only one left, which is a shame considering what a Cleveland institution it was/is. The only one left seems to be in Lakewood; same as this one here?)

It seems like this appearance is where he first got the giant “Kielbasi of Wisdom,” so of course he took the opportunity to pummel Froggy with it. (Footage of The Ghoul tossing the kielbasi at Froggy and knocking him down was later used in the intro to the Sunday/Monday shows, later in 2001 if I recall correctly.)

The Froggy abuse is fun, but what I’ve really got my eye on here is in the top screencap: lookit all that Ghoul merch! Daffy Dan’s was one of the local places they got to regularly stock his stuff back then, and just from this clip alone I’m seeing bottles of Turn Blue Ghoul Brew and Froggy Squeezin’s, plastic travel mugs, and t-shirts. *sigh* If I could only go back in time…

(No kidding, I collect broadcasting-related mugs and glassware and such, as you well know, so my failure to get one of those plastic travel mugs, or swanky glass mugs they also sold around that time, was a serious mistake on my part.)

A new stool and bumper stickers.

Next segment had The Ghoul with the kielbasi on the set, waxing on the possibilities it opens up. “It just sort of, uh, creates a plethora of adventures to do stuff with!” Funny!

Also on the docket: The Ghoul got a new stool. “It swivels?!” He seemed pleased by the addition.

There was also a very brief look at the then-new Ghoul Power bumper sticker, which I believe was still available up until maybe a year ago or so? Again, if I could only go back in time…

(This is all followed by more on-location footage, including some at the start of the next commercial break, that quite frankly I don’t have much to say about. It’s neat, it’s interesting, but out of context, I’m sort of at a loss for words. The abundance of location shots is, I’m guessing, why some of the regular features of the show at the time, the vintage clips via The Vault of Golden Garbage and Jungle Bob’s animals segments in particular, weren’t present in this episode. The Vault would occasionally be skipped when there was a lot of extra material, but Jungle Bob rarely was. Or maybe JB was just busy that week, I don’t know, it’s not like I was there.)

I so wish they still made Ghoul Brew…

Interspersed throughout all of the personal appearance bits is one more legit host segment, including a reminder for Pumpkin Chuckin’ (I wonder if they knew the show was heading towards Sunday nights, and that’s why they were pushing the event so much, even though it was just under a month in the future? Take advantage of the more visible slot while they could?). Also something that’s really, really cool, despite being beyond common at the time: The Ghoul showing off Turn Blue Ghoul Brew. Not one, but two this time. The Ghoul: “Drinkin’ in stereo, boys and girls!”

(For those unaware, Turn Blue Ghoul Brew was, obviously, The Ghoul’s very own beverage, a non-alcoholic concoction that was basically blue root beer. It was tasty, and it really turned your tongue blue! I still have some unopened bottles, which I liken to expensive wines but far cooler, cause, uh, blue. Later, Froggy Squeezin’s were released, which was a green lemon-line drink, also non-alcoholic, and also tasty, though I only had it one time. The story behind that is in my 20 years tribute article that was linked to earlier.)

Bouncin’ on out of the studio for the week.

And finally, the outro segment. It’s a pretty long one, over 8 minutes, and after showing off the giant sub the crew had for after the show, some random goodies, and yet another reminder for Pumpkin Chuckin’, it was time for The Ghoul to bounce on out of there for the week, as he customarily did at the end of each show.

It was never fun seeing the show end, but it takes on an added, bittersweet air now. Not just because The Ghoul has since passed, but also because, frankly, we just wouldn’t be able to watch the show like this for much longer. Next week was it. (The following week’s movie was 1940’s The Ape, also starring Karloff, but unlike The Terror is a film I genuinely love – though it took me years to warm up to it, as well.) While there were definitely some highs to the Sunday/Monday era (and, though I had stupidly checked out for virtually all of it, I assume the Friday night/Saturday morning 3:30 AM era that started in fall 2002, too), this was pretty much it for ‘prime’ Ghoul Power. Despite having the longest run of any of his stints on Cleveland television (about 5 1/2 years), The Ghoul’s stay on WBNX as people think about it was just about over here.

I didn’t know about the move to Sundays beforehand; it was announced the following week, almost casually, though The Ghoul obviously wasn’t happy with it. Did they know about the slot move, was it something they were hoping could be resolved in time, or was it sprung on them like it was the viewers? I just don’t know. I was gutted when it happened, though time and nostalgia and an objective mind has allowed me to greater appreciate much of what came after, much more than I did back then. Nevertheless, something special was in the process of passing on September 8, 2000, whether anyone knew it or not.

All that said, this was a good, ‘solid’ episode. Maybe it didn’t do anything earthshaking in the context of the series as a whole, but the on-location footage was a nice reminder of when The Ghoul really got around town. Furthermore, the in-studio stuff was, as always, entertaining. I’m guessing there was a loose framework to what he wanted to talk about, but it seems that The Ghoul would just ad lib most of his material, which of course was a big part of the atmosphere. Add to that a classic (well, “classic”) movie that lent itself well to the program, despite the butchering it received, and yeah, a real solid example of Ghoul Power. There’s an additional note of sadness: just over a year later, the world would go mad, and that indefinable aura of innocence we had beforehand would be gone forever. But that was in the future; for the time being, no such worries haunted the general populace. Or at least, they didn’t haunt the grade school kids like me who rabidly looked forward to these Friday night sojourns into lunacy.

And with that, our big Halloween post comes to a close. Have a happy and safe holiday everybody! Depending on how industrious I feel in the future, well, I’ll see you when I see you!

DVD Review – RING OF FIRE III: LION STRIKE (1995)

While in recent times the habit has reached a level that would (should) probably be cause for concern, back in the early-2000s my tendency to be a night owl was a bit more manageable, less regulated by what was on the DVR (since DVRs barely existed at the time and we didn’t have one yet besides) and driven more by what local channels burnt off in the wee hours. Don’t get me wrong, I was staying up late no matter what (particularly during the summer months), but if a new-to-me movie was running somewhere, it could very well determine whether I went to bed late or I went to bed uber-late.

Today, with a seemingly-endless stream of infomercials and/or cookie-cutter sitcom repeats, local stations seem a lot more homogenized, much more “by the numbers” to me (though the rise of the digital subchannels has been a figurative lifesaver and major contributor to my current state of night owlery). Granted, this was an issue even back in the early-2000s, but around here, even at that late date channels could still occasionally display a bout of quirkiness – something that seems utterly inconceivable nowadays. I remember WEWS channel 5 running old black & white flicks, East Side Kids and obscure 1950s dramas and stuff like that late late at night around that time on weekends (I’m pretty sure), and trust me, for a ‘big’ channel that was pretty outside the status quo at the time.

Leo Gorcey was all well and good, but you know what I really wound up enjoying during those late night sojourns? Action flicks. Some of them were ‘big’ action flicks (Big Chuck & Lil’ John ran First Blood once!), while others were more second-tier fare (Big Chuck & Lil’ John ran Iron Eagle II once!), but it didn’t really matter how ‘esteemed’ a movie technically was; I found myself becoming hooked on the genre, and watching each film for its own merits. The thrill of ‘discovering’ a new-to-me action film was enough in and of itself. The fact I was up late, all alone and watching in the dark only added to the, I guess, immersive thrill of it all. Or something like that.

Channel 5 (I think it was) would occasionally run some of the relatively-obscure stuff from the 1990s; that’s how I discovered the Brian Bosworth epic One Man’s Justice, which I loved (MC Hammer was in it, too). But, at the time, the place to go for low budget, oftentimes direct-to-video fare was WBNX TV-55. These kinds of movies, along with syndicated shows such as Viper and The Lost World, were easily found on the station for years. And, as I explained back in August, when they moved horror host The Ghoul to Sunday nights/Monday mornings and largely altered the movies featured, he became a repository for just such action movies. (And unlike many of the films foisted upon him in that era, the action flicks actually did work on the program – provided The Ghoul was allowed plenty of host segments to litter the commercial breaks, anyway.)

It was all but impossible to stay up and watch The Ghoul during the school year, those Sunday night/Monday morning shows were on a week night after all, but things obviously opened up during the summer months, and in mid-August 2001, it was his show that introduced me to our subject today: 1995’s Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s action opus Ring Of Fire III: Lion Strike. The movie stuck with me (it probably held a lower rank in my eyes than One Man’s Justice did at the time, though that has since flipped considerably), and thanks to the magic of this newfangled digital video technology (that’s DVD to you), it’s available for all to enjoy!

Here’s the DVD itself. Well, the cover, anyway. The disc doesn’t present much in the way of extra features; no bonus kickboxing tips by Wilson, no commentaries, no trailers, no wacky behind-the-scenes bloopers. Nope, all you get is the movie – full screen and in revolutionary stereo – and scene selection. You want more than that? Well ain’t you highfalutin! I really like that tagline, at any rate.

As you may surmise through the power of deductive reasonin’, Ring of Fire III is the third in a series of movies. I have not seen the first two entries. Madacy released these films individually and together as a box set, but they’re all seemingly long out of print. Indeed, the first two films seem to have gotten less distribution over the years than the third entry has overall; even on eBay, old VHS copies of one and two are somewhat scarce whilst the third is readily found. Indeed, as of this writing III is the only one still easily available on DVD, courtesy of Echo Bridge Entertainment and their 2005 release, and it’s that very release we’re looking at today, right now as we speak.

If you ignore that whole third designation in the title, it works just fine as a standalone feature. I’ve only read synopsis’ of the first two movies, but I didn’t need to do even that; Ring of Fire III gets by on its own. (Actually, while I’m going by what I’ve grown up knowing it as, never mind what’s on the DVD cover, the actual on-screen title for this particular release is simply Lion Strike, which only helps matters honestly). It’s not high art, nor was it intended to be, but as a low budget action thriller – hailing from the mid-1990s direct-to-video era no less – it’s a lot of fun.

World kickboxing maestro Don “The Dragon” Wilson plays Dr. Johnny Wu, an everlastingly kind, gentle physician. In addition to that, he also has a  young son (played by Wilson’s actual son Jonathan), who is motherless; Wu is a widower, his wife having been killed by a drunk driver prior to the start of our film today. (She evidently figured into the first two films, which, as previously stated, I ain’t even seen.)

Our hero, early in the film, in mid-lightnin’ quick kick!

Oh, and Wu also happens to be a first-class kickboxer, because Don “The Dragon” Wilson. This is demonstrated aptly by, apropos of nothing, an opening sequence featuring the attempted escape of a mafia figure from the hospital in which Wu works. Wu of course puts the hurt on all perpetrators involved all by himself. This open has nothing to do with the rest of the film, except to let you, the viewer at home, know that Wu can deliver a serious beat down. This is further demonstrated by him later pummeling an entire group of uppity bikers single handed, including one who suddenly bursts through the hospital doors and down the hallway riding his motorcycle, which again, doesn’t have much to do with the story proper other than let us know Wu is a force to be reckoned with when pushed.

Look, was the big boulder that chased Indiana Jones ever referenced again after the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark? No? So why can’t you afford Don “The Dragon” Wilson the same consideration you give Harrison Ford? (Unless that big boulder was referenced again; I haven’t seen Raiders in full in a long, long time. Just go with me here, okay?)

Because constant pummelin’ has to wear on even the most hardy of heroes, Wu is offered the use of a cabin in the mountains by one of his colleagues, which he accepts. Spend some quality time with his son, catch some fish, not have to beat the daylights out of people, it seems like a well-earned vacation for Johnny Wu.

Except things don’t go as planned. We wouldn’t have much of a movie if they did! Through a series of circumstances, Wu finds himself smack dab in the middle of a nefarious plot: organized crime has gone global, with figures of an international variety (including famous character actor Robert Costanzo’s villain at the head of it all) conspiring together to sell nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union to the highest bidder. Plans detailing this dastardly scheme are housed on a floppy disk, which is fortuitously stolen from the bad guys by other, otherwise-unrelated bad guys – much to the chagrin of the original bad guys. Through a plot point worthy of The Brady Bunch, it eventually finds itself in the hands of Wu, which of course only further draws ire of the global mafia. Ah, the days when the fate of the world could hinge on a 3.5 floppy!

Eventually Wu finds himself and his son chased by legions of baddies, but he’s not alone; park ranger Kelly (Bobbie Phillips) is along for the ride. And guess what? She’s no slouch with the punchin’ and kickin’ and shootin’ either! (Wu joins her in beating the stuffing out of an entire group of poachers early in their acquaintance, and naturally the germ of a romance is planted, too.)

As I said before, Ring of Fire III isn’t high art, but again, it wasn’t intended to be. It apparently went straight-to-video back in 1995, and the easy-to-follow plot, relatively low budget, and mounds and mounds of fisticuffs totally point to this being a weekend renter back in the days of the video store. And given that criteria, it’s perfect. No joke, Ring of Fire III is a lot of fun!

Of course, it’s not a perfect movie. Some of the dialog is eye-glazing (You’ll hear the question “Where’s the disk?!” asked approximately 900,000 times over the course of the film), and there are a few moments that don’t quite make sense (when Wu and Kelly fight the poachers, a cowboy rides up and watches them intently, and it keeps cutting between the fight and the cowboy as if he was of some importance to the situation, but when it’s all over, he simply rides off and is never seen again. Say what?)

Furthermore, the acting is…well, it is what it is, okay? WIlson wasn’t hired to win awards in that area, (when he’s caught kissing Kelly by his son, he makes a face better suited to dodging a thrown pie, and later when it appears the baddies have killed said son, his reaction comes off somewhat less aggrieved than you might expect), but he projects a boyish, almost innocent charm…which is pretty funny considering the amount of pain he’s capable of doling out.

Which leads me to this: there’s no moral ambiguity in Ring of Fire III; the good guys are good, and the bad guys are really bad. There are no torn feelings on the part of the viewer; there are no antiheroes. Wu and Kelly are so utterly nice, and the bad guys so utterly ruthless, that you can’t help but root for the forces of good.

Despite the presence of a little kid, the overarching “good always triumphs over evil” theme, and some violent bad guys who are also presented in a loud, stereotypical, scenery-chewing manner that often comes off pretty funny (I assume intentionally), Ring of Fire III ain’t exactly for the children. As you may expect, it’s pretty violent, with lots and lots of punching, kicking, and shooting. The bad guys aren’t adverse to killing innocent people to get what they want (except when sparing them advances the plot, of course).

And there’s lotsa ‘splosions too. Helicopters blowing up, cabins blowing up, cars blowing up, cars flying through the air and then blowing up. Ring of Fire III may not tax your mental capabilities with complex character studies, but it’s certainly never boring!

Funny enough, compared to the action movies of today, or even just prime time television, it’s actually a somewhat tame movie. There’s a little bit of gore but it’s not particularly graphic in that regard. There’s no sex, no nudity, and except for some unsavory language, I really don’t think anything was edited at all when I first caught this on The Ghoul so many years ago. Indeed, bleep the salty talk and this could easily run on prime time network TV today. (Hey NBC, how about bringing back the movie of the week…with Ring of Fire III as the inaugural revival feature? Please?)

In the end, this is a pretty meat-and-potatoes action flick. The plot is simple, the kickboxing is plentiful, you know who to root for, you know who to root against, and it’s often even a little funny. They really don’t make ’em like this anymore, but then, I’m not sure they were still making ’em like this even when I first saw it in 2001. It’s a real artifact of not only the mid-1990s video store era but also a (seemingly) bygone era in late night television broadcasting, when stuff like this could actually show up on the schedule; hard to imagine nowadays. And yet, even though it’s a throwback, it’s one that still holds up – maybe I’m just easily pleased, but no joke, I’m continuously entertained by this one. It’s a breezy 90 minutes, it won’t tax the synapses, and it features Don “The Dragon” Wilson as a kickboxing physician. Sounds like a fun night at the movies to me!

(And yes, I totally stayed up late just last night and watched this; just felt right that way. )

A Ghoul Power Journey, 20 Years On…

APRIL 2, 2019 EDIT: It is with a heavy heart that I must report Ron “The Ghoul” Sweed passed away last night, following a massive heart attack he suffered several months ago. Let this article be an enduring tribute to the man that shaped so much of my sense of humor and outlook on life. I could never thank him enough for the many nights he kept me company, even if it was just from the television screen. RIP, Ron; your Ten Star Ghoul Power Generals will never forget you.

CAUTION: Long, drawn out personal memories forthcoming! (Also, it will probably help if you have at least some working knowledge of The Ghoul beforehand.)

The man himself, during a 1999 book signing.

July 10th marked the 20th anniversary of The Ghoul’s return to Cleveland airwaves, courtesy of our WBNX TV-55. (Yes, I’m well aware the majority of August is now over.) 20 years?! It’s almost shocking how quickly time has passed; it (figuratively) seems like only yesterday that I was writing about the 15th anniversary of the occurrence. I don’t know what troubles me more: the fact I’ve kept my silly blog going for five years now, or that I’ve let 20 years slip by without accomplishing anything of lasting importance.

Nevertheless, allow me now to do some reminiscin’ of Ron Sweed’s legendary late night horror host. The time is right, and besides, while I’ve related some of these tales before, it’ll be nice to present them again in an updated (i.e., better written) manner. Bear with me here group, this’ll be a long one…

Backstory:

Ron Sweed was a young associate of the legendary Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson (he of Cleveland horror hosting legend) in the 1960s, and it was by Anderson’s permission that Sweed resurrected the character in the 1970s, albeit with a change in name. Sure, with the fright wig, one-lens sunglasses, fake beard and mustache, and button-adorned lab coat, they looked the same. And yes, with declarations of “Stay Sick,” “Turn Blue” and “Ova Dey” and a similar penchant for blowing things up with firecrackers and adding various drops-in, video and audio, to the (admittedly) terrible movies he ran, they even shared some of the same traits. BUT, The Ghoul developed his own manic persona. His was wild, he was wacky, he was destructive, and his sense of humor was decidedly warped. With his declarations of “Ghoul Power!” he was hero to kids and the hip and enemy to those with supposedly “good taste.” The Ghoul was something special.

He first started hosting horror movies in Cleveland in 1971, on the independent WKBF TV-61, and through the magic of syndication also hit in other markets around the country. Indeed, he was just as big in Detroit as he was in Northeast Ohio. Thanks to viewer complaints and a station on the brink, his first run here came to an end in 1975, though he came back on 61’s successor, WCLQ, in 1982 and enjoyed a few more years in the Cleveland market. Add to that various runs outside of Ohio, and you had a host that really got around across the decades.

That was all before my time, however.

Despite having a vague knowledge of Ghoulardi, knowing of Superhost in my formative years, and having occasionally watched Big Chuck & Lil’ John prior, I was really just learning about the fine art of horror hosting in full in 1997, when I was 11 years old. It was actually a nationally broadcast show out of Minneapolis, Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the Sci-Fi Channel, that introduced me proper to the concept of bad-movie-mockin’, and which in turn led me to The Son of Ghoul Show on The CAT 29/35.

Now, the internet was around then, and we had it (ah, the days of slow, clunky, will-it-or-won’t-it-connect dial-up!), but it wasn’t nearly what it is now. As such, I was very much discovering all of this stuff for myself first-hand, as it beamed from the cathode ray tubes of our television and directly into my brain. In other words, if I didn’t see it aired, I may have had, at best, only the most passing knowledge on a given local subject. To think, there was a time when I wasn’t aware of The Ghoul!

Fast forward to the summer of 1998, when a relative passed along a newspaper clipping that she thought I might find interesting…

The Discovery:

My first glimpse, indeed my first knowledge, of The Ghoul came from an Akron Beacon Journal article covering his return to Northeast Ohio TV. This was fascinating stuff! A new (but not really) host for me to check out! As a 12 year old heavily into this sort of thing by then, this was exciting news! I was also curious; obviously I didn’t know what to expect. How could I? Like I said, this was all new to me.

The fateful newspaper article that led me to Ghoul Power…

You know, one of my favorite things in my entire horror host collection is actually that old Akron Beacon article. As you can see here, it’s yellowed a bit; that’s because it hung on the fridge for awhile. And the picture used wasn’t originally in color; I did that myself some time later prior to, obviously, having him sign it at a personal appearance somewhere (more on those later).

No, it’s not in “mint condition,” and it’s not archival quality in the slightest. I tend to be a perfectionist when it comes to collecting this stuff, but here, none of that matters. Why? Because this article and the history that goes with it, that’s all part of my personal Ghoul Power story, that’s why! Today, it proudly resides in a scrapbook I have dedicated to these sorts of things, and there it shall remain.

ANYWAY, thanks to that article I now had some background knowledge on the man, but I still didn’t know how this was going to play out. I was used to a certain way of local horror hosting, so how exactly was this going to work? It was a curious anticipation, to be sure.

A still from WBNX’s original promo spotlighting The Ghoul’s return.

In the days (weeks?) leading up to the July 10 debut, WBNX began running a promo for the return, and this was my first glimpse of The Ghoul “in action.” There he was, hopping down the street on a bouncy ball, waving at cars, all while the expected “I’m back!” type voiceover gave the pertinent details. Okay, this was different!

So Friday, July 10, 11:30 PM rolls around, and I was…well, actually, I can’t remember if I was there watching it live or if, thanks to the magic of VHS, I first checked it all out the next day. Honestly, I’m remembering it both ways, and I’m not sure which scenario is the truth and which is just my mind playing tricks on itself. And I’ve got a pretty good memory, too!

The first episode was 1993’s Ghost in the Machine, not really my kinda movie but a bit of “B” movie fare typical of WBNX’s offerings at the time. The Ghoul’s segments were a mix of old and new material, mainly his new segments introducing old ones. The following week (1983’s Up From the Depths) continued the trend.

Annnnnd that’s kinda where I dropped off. Over the following months, I’d check in occasionally, but the sad fact of the matter is I wasn’t an instant fan of The Ghoul. It was more of a progressive fandom; the more I watched, the more I appreciated. The good news is, when I finally ‘got’ it, man, I really got it!

The Fandom:

It was in the waning months of 1998 that I really started finding my Ghoul Power voice (I even went as him for my grade school’s Halloween party that year), and by early ’99, I was a young-but-dedicated “Ten Star General in the Ghoul Power Army.”

At a time when I was still very much developing my own sense of humor, The Ghoul displayed to me a “chaotic absurdity.” The destructive tendencies, firecracker-induced or otherwise, humor that was often positively non-sequitur-ish, it was all incredibly appealing to a 12/13 year old kid. (More than a few G.I. Joes met their demise in my backyard thanks to the influence of The Ghoul, by the way.) There was a warped sense of humor running throughout the entire show; even something as simple as using a toilet as a regular seat on his set was, to me, fantastic. Still is!

The man himself, staying sick and turning blue on set!

Like Ghoulardi before him, The Ghoul would often mock fellow local television personalities. News anchorwomen Denise Dufala (and her then-recent CD) and Wilma Smith were regular targets, as were Big Chuck & Lil’ John, who were running directly against The Ghoul over on WJW TV-8 at the time. It’s important to note that this was all in good fun; there was no real animosity there.

Some of my favorite moments were the simple ones, when he was merely sitting on the set, ostensibly talking about something but really just goofing around and cracking the crew up. Like Soupy Sales used to do, when The Ghoul had the crew laughing at something he said or did, it just made things all the funnier. And add an almost “familial” touch to the proceedings, too!

Indeed, one of my absolute favorite examples of this was “egg in a bottle,” from March 1999.

Some weeks prior, The Ghoul had demonstrated a trick in which an egg was sucked into a milk bottle by lighting a piece of paper and setting the egg over the opening – and it worked! Well, a few shows later, he revisited the bit, this time with the goal of not only getting the egg in the bottle, but then getting it out as well.

The problem was that nothing went correctly that second time around. The lit paper would be dropped in, and the egg would start to ‘go’ but then stall. Multiple failed attempts soon devolved into throwing the eggs around between him and the crew and lotsa ad-libbing. After several minutes of failing to achieve the first part of the goal, The Ghoul coolly stated “I don’t care if we don’t show the rest of the movie…” which caused the crew to crack up. And when the paper wouldn’t stay lit afterwards, he wondered aloud if they had any lighter fluid, which got another boisterous response.

Finally, he just pushed the egg down into the bottle and then sucked it back out with a straw, which was the purpose of the bit in the first place. It wasn’t so much the activity itself that was funny, but the interplay and goofing around between The Ghoul and his crew that summed up exactly how much fun this show could be. Even today, the whole segment is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Froggy being bombarded with some “raven residue.”

Oh, and how could I forget The Ghoul’s nemesis, Froggy! A small frog doll with a red coat and bow tie, Froggy was originally a 1940s & 1950s children show character, and who was later appropriated by The Ghoul for any number of destructive purposes. Summoned by being implored to “plunk you magic twanger, ova dey” and continuously spouting “hiya hiya hiya,” over the years Froggy was subject to being fried, chopped, blown up, immolated, thrown, kicked, stomped, and any other number of indignities The Ghoul reveled in bestowing upon him.

(There was also a full-sized Froggy, as in costumed adult, that appeared frequently on the show.)

It’s also to The Ghoul’s credit that, in the more-jaded late-90s/early-2000s, a lot of the stuff that would have raised eyebrows in the 1970s and even 1980s but would seem tame in the 1990s (especially when compared to, say, professional wrestling or whatever was airing on MTV or Comedy Central) still managed to work. Of course, the guy had been doing this sort of thing since 1971, it was probably all second-nature by that point, and The Ghoul went about it all with such a zeal that even some bits that didn’t quite work were still worth watching.

But you know, I fully realize that The Ghoul was/is a phenomenon that not everyone would get. (Same goes for Ghoulardi, Chuck & John, etc. etc. etc.) Unless you’re from Northeast Ohio or one of those areas that ‘got’ the humor (as Detroit wisely did), there’s a chance that if I were to show you an old episode right this moment, you’d watch and then say “okay…?” The declarations of “Boffo Socko,” “Zowie Scowie,” “Turn Blue,” and constant jabs at news anchorwoman Denise Dufala (“The secret word is DUFALA!”) probably would have left most outsiders scratching their heads.

That was the beauty of regional horror hosts though; their humor was aimed at a specific target audience. Someone in L.A. most likely wouldn’t get it, but they weren’t supposed to. This type of programming instilled a connection, and dare I say local pride, with the audience that, outside of nightly newscasts, seems to be a dying art form nowadays. The Ghoul excelled at it though.

And he fit so well into the vibes of late-90s Northeast Ohio, at least from the perspective of a 12/13 year old. Ernie Anderson’s passing in 1997 and The Drew Carey Show being a comedic force on a national scale, there seemed to be a renewed local interest in all of this stuff that made us, well, us. That feeling seemed to subside as the 2000s dawned and television in general went through increasingly radical changes (even Drew, for his last two seasons, was first moved to a terrible Monday night time slot and then burned off during the summers), but it was a wonderful ride while it lasted.

Over my years with The Ghoul, there were lotsa memorable moments. Beyond the surface stuff of anticipating a new old bad movie and seeing what he had in store for a given week, there are particular high points that stick out in my mind, both from back in the day and in retrospect.

When it began, The Ghoul Show had new host bits with the main maniac, but much of the focus was on the old material from the 70s and 80s. The Ghoul would come on in newly-filmed segments, and then introduce a clip from the past. I was entranced by these moments, and my early reluctance towards the show was almost-certainly due to the fact that the new stuff didn’t look like the old stuff. The material from the 1970s and 1980s, to me, it just looked like how a horror host show should look. The new Ghoul stuff (obviously) had a more modern look, with computerized titles and graphics. These graphics have aged well for the most part, but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. Anyway, luckily, I came to my senses and realized that all Ghoul Power was good Ghoul Power. That’s why we’re here right now!

When new material took precedence, the 1970s & 1980s sketches were relegated to (usually) a single moment during the show: The Ghoul’s Vault of Golden Garbage. The Vault was a feature going back decades, and given its possibility to introduce me to old bits I wasn’t around for the first time, it quickly became one of my most-anticipated moments each week. (As the years went by, newer 1990s/2000s segments could occasionally show up in the Vault feature; that was always disappointing to me, because, hey, I was probably around for them the first time!)

The Vault, both in that early going and later when it was a separate segment, introduced me to the original usage of the “Ghoulzooka,” Chef Curdle, C. Miller, Froggy destruction, The Ghoul’s MDA telethon Jell-O jump, and other assorted bits of wackiness. I loved so much of it. But, being a Japanese giant monster movie fan, I think my favorite examples were the ones in which The Ghoul interacted with Gamera.

The Ghoul with Gamera, on two separate occasions…

Gamera movies were evidently well-known entities on The Ghoul Show in the 1970s, and The Ghoul took it upon himself to give them some extra-skewerin’ at least twice. The first known to me was the top image to your right: some fans sent in a “rocket powered” Gamera model, which The Ghoul and crew then launched across the studio. It was a very funny bit, mainly because it involved more joking around than anything, including The Ghoul losing it when Gamera’s head fell off during a demonstration of what was going to happen prior to launch.

The second occurrence known to me (but apparently happened first, given The Ghoul’s early set) was even ‘bigger’ and is what you’re seeing in the bottom-right shot: The Ghoul “interviewed” Gamera himself! Another very funny moment, mainly because The Ghoul had to tell Gamera how bad his movies were, much to Gamera’s embarrassment. The segment then ended with The Ghoul pulling Gamera around the set on a dolly, as if to mimic his flying. Simple, goofy, and irresistible. I loved (and love) stuff like that.

Ah, but probably the most memorable moment for me was a then-new one. Understandably, it was the time he opened a package I sent him on the air. I later wrote him emails that made it on, but the first was definitely the biggest and best.

The setting was July 23, 1999, the movie Bride of the Gorilla (a new one to me at the time; bonus!), and following one commercial break, I got probably the biggest thrill I ever got watching the show.

This particular life goal? ACHIEVED.

I had loaded this package up. First was what I deemed a “Parma Yo-Yo,” which was just a cut-out from a box of pierogies with a string taped to it, and which you were supposed to lamely bounce up and down. The Ghoul cracked up, seemed to get a big kick out of it (“And if it don’t do that, you got a bad one!”), but surprisingly I never saw it on the show again.

Then, there was a big “Ghoul Power” banner. I found a huge piece of paper somewhere and had decorated it with a whole bunch of phrases from the show. I think my hope was that it would make it onto the permanent set, and while The Ghoul seemed to like it too, I never saw it again, either.

BUT, the piece de resistance came at the end: I had gotten a cheap, terrible Jackie Chan movie from Best Buy’s fabled $2.99 VHS section, and despite two attempts at enjoying it, it was just too awful. So, what better way to dispose of it than by asking the main maniac to blow it up?

The Ghoul happily obliged, and in spectacular fashion.

I was positively flipping out during all of this. I was cracking up, literally jumping and down, I was so excited. (Hey, I was 13.) It, along with the time Letterman read one of my letters on the air, was probably one of my biggest “TV moments,” even if the two aren’t comparable on a viewership scale. It was, and is, certainly among my top favorites anyway.

Lotsa Time Slots:

As noted, The Ghoul debuted on Friday, July 10, 1998 at 11:30 PM, in what was a 2 1/2 hour time slot. For a good part of that first year, that was how long he ran, and let me tell you, by the time the show ended in the wee hours, it almost felt like you had finished running a marathon or something. It was like a bit that had happened at the top of the show felt like it had taken place eons ago by the time it was all over. It was pretty great.

At some point in 1999, I want to say slightly before the 1st anniversary but maybe slightly after, the time slot was shortened to a straight 2 hours (I recall the 1st anniversary special being 2 1/2 hours and thinking that it was a nice throwback). While this sort of took away the aforementioned “marathon” aspect, the truth is it didn’t hurt the program all that much at all. The Ghoul still packed a ton into those 2 hours, and you know, probably the only real difference was more editing to the movies!

The number of running gags, recurring jokes, and general momentum was a lot of fun to watch build and grow week after week, and by September 2000, the amount of things that had been built upon, expanded, and so on was not inconsiderable. But it was all about to take a serious hit.

Announced on September 15, 2000 (the movie was Karloff’s The Ape) and commencing on September 24, WBNX moved The Ghoul to Sunday nights at 12 AM (technically Monday morning). I had lived for those Friday nights, The Ghoul was such a great way to kick off the weekend, and now, it was being taken away from me! Summer and holidays were one thing, but during the school year (when you needed that dose of Ghoul Power the most!), my staying up for the show just wasn’t feasible. I had a hard enough time getting up in the morning as it was! Still, that’s why they invented VCRs. I was unhappy with the situation, but this was livable – I guess.

Until I saw that first Sunday show, anyway. The movie was 1993’s direct-to-video comedy Remote. There were no sound effects, no drop-ins, and The Ghoul’s host segments were severely scaled back. I was crushed. All that momentum, seemingly gone in one fell swoop. I still remember the day I discovered this; I had to run out to the garage for something, and I have this memory of being in there, sun streaming through the windows, and just feeling totally deflated.

An example of The Ghoul’s changing movie fare and time slot when he was moved out of Friday nights.

If you’ve read this old article (and if you haven’t, don’t bother; it sucks), you’d recall I was pretty down on the “Sunday era.” Now of course it wasn’t like it was when The Ghoul was on at 11:30 PM Fridays, but in retrospect, it wasn’t all bad. While a wider-range of movies was the norm (cheapo action flicks, comedies, dramas, more-modern horror and sci-fi, even the occasional animated fare, most of it without his famous during-movie-drop-ins), some of these actually worked pretty well on the show, especially the “B” action flicks from the likes of PM Entertainment and such. And when The Ghoul got a healthy amount of host segments throughout, it was all the better.

And, once in awhile, he’d do an “old style” show. That is, an old cheapie ‘classic’ loaded with drop-ins and plenty of Ghoul segments. Despite the lack of this happening on a regular basis, when it did occur, The Ghoul hadn’t lost a step.

It was in the midst of that Sunday night/Monday morning era that the world forever changed. I very much tend to look at many things as pre-9/11 and post-9/11, especially things (in this case, television) from the few years both immediately preceding and immediately following the travesty. It seems that pre-9/11, there was an undefinable air of innocence, I suppose, that was taken away afterwards. It was in that darkest of times that comfort was found in those aspects of our life that had become, well, almost a part of us, I guess you could say. I wish The Ghoul hadn’t been so inaccessible to me, a freshman in high school, at the time, because it was shows like his that helped bring a temporary comfort to a world gone mad.

I actually dug out one of my old Ghoul tapes recently, and it featured the episode right before 9/11, and what appeared to be the first one after. The first one was normal enough, but then the one after, where there’s the appropriate tributes and shows of solidarity during the commercials, it was and is heartbreaking. How quickly things can change.

The Ghoul on his “Breakfast Club” set.

It was in that post-9/11 world that the “Ghoul Power Good Morning Breakfast Club” experiment began. On October 8, 2001 to be exact, after the show moved to 1 AM Monday mornings the week prior. Technically a worse slot, though my circumstances didn’t really change one way or the other; I still couldn’t stay up to watch it. The movie was Street Crimes, a low budget action flick from PM Entertainment and starring Dennis Farina that was a good example of what made up a good chunk of The Ghoul’s fare during that time period. It actually worked pretty well with the show – though I suppose your viewpoint on that would largely depend on how tolerant you are of “B” action flicks in the first place.

The gag of the “Breakfast Club” was that at 1 AM, it was Cleveland’s earliest morning show, thus starting your day off right before anyone else. Filmed on a different set and with humorous looks at traffic and weather and guests sharing coffee (typically associates and characters that tended to be on anyway), it was an interesting idea that worked far better than it had any right to, but it only lasted for maybe 6-8 months; certainly by the summer of ’02, the show was back to its normal set and structure.

In September of ’02, The Ghoul was finally moved out of the Sunday/Monday hole and back to Friday nights/Saturday mornings…early Saturday mornings; it was slotted at 3:30 AM! I can’t decide if this was more or less accessible than before. On one hand, it didn’t coincide with a weekday, but man, depending on the movie, you’d be finishing up at around 5:30/6:00 AM. Look, I’m a habitual night owl, but even that goes a little too far for me.

(The final “Sunday era” broadcast was on September 2, 2002 with House on Haunted Hill; one of those “old style” Ghoul shows, loaded up with drop-ins and host segments. When he resurfaced in this new, uber-late time slot, the movie was 1996’s Yesterday’s Target.)

Sadly, and I hate to admit this, it was around that time (fall 2002) that I fell away from watching. Well, taping; the sad fact of the matter was that I kept recording for years, but rarely got around to watching the shows. Heck, I rarely got around to even checking/labeling the tapes! They just kept piling up! Teenagers do dumb things, and in hindsight, I’d have stuck with the program till the end (2003 or 2004, depending on the source), but at 16 years old, I guess you’re not that forward-thinking.

I never stopped liking The Ghoul though. Some of my happiest TV-viewin’ memories are of those Friday nights at 11:30 PM, watching him fool around against that black backdrop with the hazy border or goofing off on that junk-laden set. Indeed, I still have this very clear memory: summer of ’99, relaxing to The Ghoul on a Friday night, all alone, the window behind me open, cool breeze filling my nostrils with the scent of nearby bonfires. It was such a great feeling.

I have memories of tuning in on Sunday nights as well, but they’re not as numerous or as, erm, memorable, for obvious reasons.

I really have no idea why WBNX moved The Ghoul out of Friday nights 11:30 PM or why his movie choices were, to a large degree, altered. Was it a ratings-issue, an attempt at giving him the all-around of Big Chuck & Lil’ John, or…? I just don’t know.

The Ghoul in a local Norton Furniture ad.

A fun addendum to The Ghoul’s 1990s/2000s Cleveland revival: in the mid-00s, he appeared in a few local commercials for Norton Furniture, an establishment that specialized (specializes?) in late night advertising. Often of a surreal nature anyway, the two (I think there were only two) spots featuring The Ghoul had him chasing around store owner Marc with the intent of cutting off his ponytail for a new phony beard. (The second spot featured a cameo by Froggy, too!)

Airing around 2004/2005, these Norton Furniture ads were some of the last times, to the best of my knowledge, that The Ghoul appeared on Northeast Ohio television in a regular capacity. (And lest you think commercials shouldn’t qualify as “regular capacity,” bear in mind Norton Furniture ads were all over late night TV in these parts at the time; if you liked staying up late as I did/do, you’d almost have to be trying to not see one!)

The Movies:

Because The Ghoul was on a channel that regularly picked up movie packages (and was affiliated with the WB Network to boot), his movie choices could really run the gamut. Sure, the usual public domain cheapies from the 1930s through the 1970s showed up, as is typical of horror hosted shows, but ‘real’ movies were also part of the regular rotation. A lot of newer, “B” grade flicks popped up on the station, even outside of The Ghoul. Because I was (am) a movie fan as much as I was (am) of the show itself, it was a real trip seeing so many new-to-me flicks week after week, and the announcement of the next week’s movie was a moment of high anticipation for yours truly. The possibilities were (seemingly) endless!

Of course, you didn’t really tune into this show to see a full-fledged movie; the film was just part of the experience. Because The Ghoul would pack so much material into a show, there were times when a movie would be edited beyond comprehension, and indeed, there was so much insanity going on, the movie sometimes seemed almost like an afterthought. Make no mistake though, that was all part of the fun! For 2-2 1/2 hours, it was like you were tuned into an incredibly weird televised circus – and I mean that in the best way possible.

And naturally, one of the main draws as far as the movies were concerned were the various audio and video drop-ins. Inappropriate and/or nonsensical music, sounds effects (who could forget “OW OW OW! when someone got hurt, or the loud BURP whenever a character took a drink?), silly old film clips inserted into the film, and funny “facts” that would pop-up not unlike VH1’s then-popular Pop-Up Video, all were regularly featured throughout a given movie during the earlier years of the show.

My tastes in movies were all over the place around that time. I liked the pioneering silent films in the horror and sci-fi genres (some of them, anyway), the classics and poverty row flicks of the 1930s and 1940s, and the cheesy sci-fi of the 1950s and 1960s; that’s the stuff I ‘started’ with. By the time of The Ghoul, those tastes were expanding to also include the grindhouse and Eurotrash junk of the late-1960s, 1970s and beyond, and even though it wouldn’t peak until the mid-2000s, looking back I guess I had a slight inclination towards the slashers, too. The Ghoul covered them all, in varying degrees of visibility; only one silent I can think of (Metropolis, appropriately the first show of 2000), a healthy dose of 1940s through 1960s stuff, lots of obscure 1970s garbage, and plenty of low-rent 1980s & 1990s fare.

An example of the type of film The Ghoul would show during his stay at 11:30 PM, Fridays…

Nowadays, I pretty much like what I did in the first place: some silents, the classics and the poverty row offerings of the 1930s and 1940s, cornball 1950s/1960s sci-fi and horror, the giant monster flicks out of Japan. My interests wane considerably after Night of the Living Dead, both because NOTLD is a masterpiece and legitimate contender for greatest horror film of all-time (in other words, how y’all gon’ top it?), and more importantly because later, more ‘extreme’ horror films may have been bloodier, nastier, but they didn’t have the brains or heart behind them, barring some exceptions, such as the original Dawn of the Dead (though I still prefer Night…)

Yep, The Ghoul’s movie selections of the late-90s/early-00s were certainly wide-ranging, and I have plenty of favorites from those years. The 1930s and 1940s flicks featured (alliteration), some being staples of these types of shows, are movies I particularly enjoy. Three Bela Lugosi films come to mind: The Devil Bat, Invisible Ghost, and White Zombie. Also, Boris Karloff’s The Ape (a movie I didn’t much care for at the time but have really warmed up to in recent years) and the 1941 Monogram wartime poverty row opus King of the Zombies. 1950s cornball drive-in fare like Indestructible Man, The Screaming Skull and The Giant Gila Monster and ultra-cheap trash like 1966’s Curse of the Swamp Creature also get high marks from yours truly.

There weren’t many Japanese monster movies shown, and those were/are a favorite genre of mine. But, Attack of the Mushroom People made it on, and that was a big, big one (a far darker film than that American title implies). The 1956 Daiei opus Warning From Space (the second anniversary show movie) also stands out.

From later years, Best of the Best 3, Ring of Fire III, and Street Crimes stick out as favorite low budget action flicks; I genuinely enjoyed all three. And, my first full viewings of Deliverance, Cocoon and Poltergeist came via The Ghoul. Even with the appropriate editing-for-television, they made for great Ghoul Power features.

And when it came to Christmas, The Ghoul went all out, especially in 1999, when the entire month of December was dedicated to the holiday. 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is my go-to “bad Christmas movie” flick, and that’s the only time I saw him run it. Also, 1935’s Scrooge, my personal favorite movie version of A Christmas Carol.

Oh, my least favorite films featured (alliteration) on the show? Of the “classics,” try as I might, I could never really get into Gorgo, which was the subject of his first anniversary show. The special effects are terrific, granted, but as a whole it’s nowhere near as fun as a comparative Japanese release. Frankly, Gorgo bores me. Also, and this may be anathema to admit, but House on Haunted Hill (which I believe The Ghoul ran at least three times over the course of his run) is a movie that has just never done much for me. I don’t actively dislike it, but I don’t really like it, either. Even when I first saw it at 12/13 years old (after much hype from family members and when I was an easy audience for this sort of movie), I was left severely neutral on the subject. If it wasn’t for Vincent Price, well…

Nowadays, I don’t like slasher movies at all, so the Leprechaun flicks (if they’re even considered slashers; I think of them in the same territory, if nothing else) are in retrospect not to my personal tastes – though I kinda liked them back then. (The Ghoul ran several entries over the course of his run.) And a lot of the newer movies that made it onto the show such as Pumpkinhead II, Hellraiser IV, Pinocchio’s Revenge, Doppelganger, Ghoulies, the 1989 Phantom of the Opera, my views on those range from severe disinterest to outright dislike. 1985’s Eternal Evil is also a terrible, terrible movie – and not in a fun, Ghoul Power way, either.

A lot of 1970s stuff hasn’t worn well for me, though I took an interest in them then. Mainly the European films; Lots of people love ’em, but I’m not one of them, not anymore. Flicks like Lady Frankenstein were/are so covered in depressive grime, forget wanting to take a shower; I feel like I should go soak in some 91% isopropyl for 17 hours after watching that one.

Also, I know he has his fans, but from a strictly personal standpoint, I just don’t get the love for Paul Naschy movies; every one I’ve seen has been essentially unwatchable. The Ghoul ran Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, and even he couldn’t save it! And isn’t that considered a top-tier Naschy film? *shudder*

Personal Appearances:

I had the great benefit to meet The Ghoul in person not once but several times. I can tell you, each and every time, he was absolutely phenomenal with the fans. Not only was he energetic and ‘on’ the entire time, but he really spent time with his admirers; he’d talk, he’d joke, he was everything you hope for when you meet a celebrity.

There’s yours truly with the main maniac in 1999; evidently I wasn’t always the suave hepcat I like to imagine myself to be.

My first meeting with him was in 1999, at the Chapel Hill Borders Books where he and Mike Olszewski were signing copies of The Ghoul (S)crapbook, a terrific collection of old photos, information, hate mail and general wackiness. As you’d expect of The Ghoul, basically. (While very informative, it also came off as the warped counterpart to the 1997 Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride book – again, as you’d expect of The Ghoul.)

There was quite a line to meet him that night, and while it wasn’t like I had to stand in it for 8 hours or anything, there was a bit of a wait. When I finally got to meet him, it was obvious why: The Ghoul really gave you his attention, spoke with you, all while staying in character. And you know what? The saying “you can be anything you want to be” is endlessly repeated to us in grade school, but I can tell you from experience that it means so much more when it comes from The Ghoul.

Truth be told, I can’t remember how many times I met The Ghoul. It feels like more than what I’m writing about here, but that might be my memory playing tricks on me – or maybe I really am forgetting an appearance or two. Anyway, the next one that comes to mind is his appearance at B-Ware Video in Lakewood, OH, on April 14, 2000. B-Ware was run by “Sick” Eddie and his wife, both of whom worked on The Ghoul’s show. Man, in those days before anything and everything had been issued (or reissued) on DVD, B-Ware was a haven of weird, out-of-print, obscure horror and science fiction titles on VHS, some for sale, some for rent. Seriously, the only place to get some of this stuff was eBay – and certain titles were selling for mighty dollars at the time. Even though I was only there once, B-Ware was amazing.

In addition to Mike Olszewski, there were even more of The Ghoul’s crew there at this appearance. Froggy, Jungle Bob, Jeff “The Sickie,” even Dinky, the big pink flamingo mascot of Destination, the heavy metal band who did The Ghoul’s opening music at the time (he even gave me a free CD of theirs!). Aside from The Ghoul and Olszewski, it was my first time meeting all these people, and everyone was ridiculously friendly. And The Ghoul, who as I recall it had had not one, not two, but three personal appearances that day, of which this was the third, showed no signs of running out of gas.

I’ll never forget this: he didn’t know me in the least, but when they brought the camera in to film for the show, Olszewski implored me to get up front and get on. I’ll never forget how nice that was of him, and thanks to his insistence, I showed up in the crowd when the bits aired a few weeks later during Indestructible Man (and one of them repeated during the second anniversary special that summer, as well). You don’t get to see a screenshot because I was a goofy lookin’ 14 year old (even goofier than the pic you just saw of me a bit ago), but nevertheless, it was a thrill.

Next: the grand opening of High Point Furniture in the Midway Plaza in Akron, where I met him one night, and then again the next. I could be wrong, but I think it was the fall of 2000; I’m pretty sure this was where I asked him about the whole move to Sunday nights. (His suggestion was a VCR, which, you know, what else could he say?)

[EDIT: This appearance was apparently in the fall of 1999, not 2000, which means I couldn’t have asked him about the Sunday move, as it hadn’t happened yet. I definitely did ask him about it once, and I sure *remember* it as being inside High Point, but unless it was at the appearance you’ll read about after this one, there was another time I met The Ghoul that is otherwise totally slipping my mind.]

This isn’t a pic from that grand opening; I went and snapped it specifically for this article. This Midway Plaza location still stands, but has been closed for a number of years now.

I don’t remember a whole lot about that first night, other than they had free Domino’s Pizza, pop, and a KISS tribute band in the parking lot. I sure remember the second night though, when I went back. (This wasn’t exactly a four hour round trip; Midway Plaza was pretty close by.)

I had a box of stuff for the show that would have been prohibitively expensive to ship (and I had even less money then than I do now), so I brought it all direct to The Ghoul. It really was a bunch of junk, I don’t think any of it made on the show (I wouldn’t blame him if none of it made it beyond the dumpster that night!), although methinks the replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker” mocked up to sorta look like The Ghoul was at least semi-clever.

I wasn’t expecting him to open the box there, but he did, and when he was done sifting through it, he stood up and presented me to the sizable line of people waiting to meet him. Right then and there, he declared me to the crowd as a Ten Star General in the Ghoul Power Army – and they cheered for me! It was an incredible surprise, and to me it sums up just how fantastic The Ghoul was with his fans. He didn’t have to go that extra mile, but he did, and I will always be grateful for it.

The Ghoul promoting Frightvision 2001 on his show.

Finally, there was Frightvision 2001. Now, truth be told, I don’t know if I met him there, I don’t recall doing so, but having been to the previous two Frightvision conventions held in Akron, it was still pretty cool when The Ghoul was announced as host of the third (in Cleveland). Frightvision was my first horror & sci-fi convention in 1999, and by 2001 I had long realized what a bastion of collectibles it was. If I didn’t take advantage of the numerous celebrities in attendance that year (and I didn’t; I don’t think I met any of them at the show), it’s only because I was so focused on netting me some cool winnins from the dealers there.

Speaking of cool winnins…

Memorabilia:

I’m a collector of pop culture, especially as it pertains to broadcasting, television broadcasting specifically. Mugs, glasses, shirts, keychains, assorted promotional memorabilia related to this sort of thing, I’m almost always interested in that – especially when it hails from the 1960s through the 1980s.

While I take an interest in television in general, local broadcasting is a facet that really perks up my ears. I don’t necessarily mean local to me; local TV from across the U.S. is something I find endlessly fascinating. BUT it goes without saying that the area of my greatest interest lies in Northeast Ohio’s television history. And since I’m a big fan of horror movie hosts, that’s the sort of memorabilia I’m always, always after.

That was my long-winded way of saying I’ve amassed a sizable Ghoul collection over the years, both first-hand and online. T-shirts, autographed photos promo flyers, articles, assorted things like that are littered throughout my collection. Here now are just a few of the items that help keep the Ghoul Power burnin’.

Endlessly pushed on the show for much (all?) of his WBNX run, Turn Blue Ghoul Brew was The Ghoul’s very own beverage, and it really turned you blue! Well, your tongue anyway. I got this bottle during the Borders Book appearance, and since he signed it to me, I never had the heart to open and drink it. I did try the stuff though; it was basically blue root beer. Non-alcoholic and pretty tasty, I wish they still made it. They later came out with “Froggy Squeezins,” a green lemon-lime drink. Besides personal appearances, you could only get these at select locations in Northeast Ohio.

Luckily, one of those locations was mere minutes away from me: DeVitis & Sons Italian Market. In fact, during our 8th grade fundraiser for a trip to Washington DC, one of my grade school’s stops was the Acme that was next to DeVitis at the time (it’s a Save-a-Lot now). Ostensibly we were supposed to be selling hots dogs and hamburgers, but I don’t remember really having all that much to do. At one point, I broke away to DeVitis, where I purchased my first bottle of Froggy Squeezins. It was pretty good, but I unfortunately never got another, and I stupidly didn’t keep the bottle. Mistake! I didn’t really like that trip to Washington, but at least I got a bottle of Froggy Squeezins out of the deal.

Turn Blue Ghoul Brew’s bottle went through a couple label variations. Originally it had a simpler label and was in a brown bottle (it looked like a beer), which was then switched to the variant you’re seeing here. (They occasionally sold old “brown bottle” variants, as collectors items, at personal appearances; I’m this sure I got one at Frightvision 2001, but if I did, I can’t find it. EDIT: Of course I found it after this article had been published!) The third label variant (that I know of) switched up the font and added a hypnotic swirl behind the Ghoul caricature.

I really wish they still made this stuff.

Hey, remember how I told you I loved the Vault of Golden Garbage segment on the show? Well, in the late-1990s, The Ghoul released a VHS tape that was nothing but the Vault of Golden Garbage! I had to have it, and as you can see, I did.

I haven’t watched this since probably 2000 and I can’t remember if it was all 1970s material or a mix of 1970s and 1980s, but I do remember it as being terrific. My only complaint? I don’t recall there being any Froggy skits included! I guess I could play it, but knowing my luck, that would be the exact moment my VCR decides to start eating tapes, despite having never shown an inclination for such things prior.

As you can see, I got this signed by the man himself at a personal appearance somewhere. I don’t remember which one, but I’m positive it wasn’t Borders or Frightvision. It might have been B-Ware Video, I know had some stuff with me to get signed, but I’m guessing this was the first night at High Point Furniture. (I take solace in the fact none of this really matters to anyone but me.)

Hey, dig this: an original program and wristband for Frightvision 2001! Yes, as proof that I always saved everything pertaining to this sort of thing (except that Froggy Squeezins bottle apparently), I still have the wristband from this show. Call it hoarder-ish if you like, but since there’s a real possibility that the number of people who still own these number in the single digits and I’m one of them, that means I win. Right?

I’m not going to go through it page-by-page, I don’t think anyone that has stayed with me this whole time (yeah, sure) will care, but I will say they had a pretty great line-up of guests that year. I wish I had taken advantage of that, but I didn’t, and now I have to live with it.

“Hiya gang! Hiya hiya hiya!”

This little (4 or 5 inches in height) Froggy doll isn’t an official Ghoul product, but rather something hailing from 1948! A whopping 70 years old! Yes, this is an original Froggy, made of rubber and fittingly manufactured in (where else?) Akron. Rempel put these out in conjunction with Smilin’ Ed McConnell’s Buster Brown Show, which is what Froggy is originally from. There were two versions of this doll that I know of: this smaller one, and a larger 9″ model. Both were made of rubber and squeaked when you squeezed them, though the squeaky feature of mine is long gone. Not that I really care about that; I just want my own Froggy to plunk his magic twanger whenever I come calling.

My brother actually bought this for himself years ago, and knowing what a Ghoul fan I am, gave it to me for Christmas sometime later. In the years since he first purchased it (it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t unreasonable either), these things have really gone up in price, especially if they still squeak and are in decent shape. And if you’ve got the original box, the pricey meal is on you tonight! The larger 9″ one is my new personal chaser; I could pathetically reenact Ghoul skits all by my lonesome with it if I so desired! (Minus the destruction, of course; these guys cost too much!)

This item is something I myself found in an antique store several years ago. They had gotten a load of old magazines, newspapers, and the like. Man, I cleaned up. Music mags with Springsteen on the cover, M*A*S*H final episode tributes, and the big find, this: a 1983 Scene Magazine featuring The Ghoul! This was one of those cases where you find something, and you’re so excited that you immediately become overly-protective of it, as if someone is gonna take it away from you. At least, I tend to get that way. (Is it just me?)

Oddly enough, I still haven’t read the Ghoul article in it; I’ve spent all my time finding a safe, flat place for the issue, with an eye towards getting it framed at some point in the future. Plus, with old newsprint, especially large-sized as in this case, I like to handle with the figurative kid gloves.

I have old promo cards from the WKBF days, but this artifact that popped up on eBay about two years ago is interesting enough to share here. I’ve never seen one before or since, so I had to snap it up. According to the seller, this flyer hails from the Halloween season and the gimmick was for kids to pin them to their costumes while trick-or-treating so they’d be more visible in the dark. Not a bad idea, and since it was The Ghoul, you know, it just fit with the season!

And dig that: “Courtesy of Clarkins.” Talk about a blast from Northeast Ohio’s past! I have no idea what year this flyer is from or how many times The Ghoul appeared at Clarkins (that or any other location), but the WKBF-TV notation is obvious proof it hails from somewhere in the 1970s.

And finally, a small piece of memorabilia, but one that gets more ‘use’ than anything else I’ve just shown you: a 35th anniversary Ghoul keychain, which proudly hangs with my keys. (As you’d expect of a, uh, keychain.) It’s about the size of a quarter, maybe a little larger, and man is it snazzy! (Of course, I have two of them; this one, and one still sealed brand new in its cute lil’ baggie.)

My pic makes it a little hard to see, but these were released in 2006, in conjunction with The Ghoul’s (say it with me) 35th anniversary. He was unfortunately no longer on local airwaves by that point, but nevertheless, he certainly came out with a boffo socko keepsake!

Looking Back:

The Ghoul really exemplified what I like to call “Cleveland Style Horror Hosting.” Sure, there was a general ‘spooky’ look and feel to the proceedings, but unlike many other hosts nationwide who tried to play into the vibes of their look and/or movies they were presenting, here it was all just a vehicle for wacky comedy. Not that comedy was anything new to horror hosting, it goes back to its earliest days, but just like there was a style of Polka music commonly deemed “Cleveland Style” (yes there was), around these parts there was a specific set of ingredients. Yes, there were the sets and the films presented, but underneath it all was a cacophony of (innocent) ethnic jokes, wild behavior and homemade lingo that gave our guys a specific “flavor.”

Sure, that can be leveled at other hosts outside of Ohio, but you know what? We’ve had such a preponderance of them, going back to the revolutionary Ghoulardi, that I’m calling it our own. Your mileage may vary, naturally.

Even though he’s out of Chicago, Rich Koz’s Svengoolie actually does a good job of presenting to a nationwide audience what I’m talking about. Sure, he has the look and movies down (better movies than anyone else, in fact), but comedy is the ultimate goal. It makes sense though; there’s a very real Ghoulardi/Cleveland connection with Sven. The original Svengoolie, Jerry G. Bishop, was a Cleveland disc jockey when Ghoualrdi ruled the town, and when Bishop started Svengoolie in Chicago in the early-1970s, the influence was apparent. He wasn’t a beatnik vampire, he was a hippie vampire. Instead of “Parma,” it was “Berwyn.” And so on and so forth. (I don’t mean to claim Bishop was a copy or rip-off of Ghoulardi in the least, just that Ghoulardi’s influence reached wider than the Northeast Ohio area.)

In fact, while I don’t find much of the current Svengoolie’s humor to my personal tastes, I appreciate that he keeps these ideals in play. Underneath that horrific exterior is a mostly-comedic interior. Also, the fact he keeps things relatively-light (whereas many current internet hosts go for an ‘extreme’ look and feel) recalls the “classic era” of horror hosting, of which he hails from anyway, and that I certainly like.

Anyway, The Ghoul, perhaps more than any other save for Ghoulardi, was a “Cleveland Style” host. At first glance, you’ve got this guy in an appropriately ghoulish get-up, but then you start really watching; he’s wild, he’s wacky, he’s got his own language, his own madcap style, and you realize there’s so much more to him than a “mere horror host.”

I would have loved to have grown up with him in the 1970s and 1980s, when his style of humor wasn’t only hip and dare I say subversive, but also capable of eliciting complaints from certain viewers in that more-staunch time period. When I began watching in the 1990s, no one was going to pitch a fit over blowing up a model car with a firecracker or making a gigantic mess of food as Chef Curdle.

What he instead attained was a level of, as I like to call it, “comforting mania.” It was a welcome respite from the real world, from school life, from more conventional comedy. Tuning in each week was a carnival of fireworks, wacky catchphrases, and terrible movies, and it was irresistible.

I couldn’t be there beforehand, but I’m appreciative of the years I did spend with The Ghoul. He mangled my medulla on a regular basis, and as a Ten Star General in the Ghoul Power Army, I’m grateful for that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some glass to scratch and walls to climb…

Video Rental Artifact: ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991; 1992 Blockbuster-Branded VHS)

Sometimes when I’m out hunting for this or that and I find a VHS tape that strikes my stupid dumb fancy, it’s not always just about the tape itself. I mean, yeah, it helps when I have at least some vested interest in the release proper, but oftentimes there are ‘supplemental’ features that will take a a tape from “well, alright, I guess” to “must must must buy and you can’t stop me and if you try I’ll throw down legit.” Today’s subject is a definite example of the latter.

(HINT: I’ve been down this route before.)

Before we get to that, let me provide a little backstory first: It’s 1991, I’m five, and the big budget Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is seemingly aimed directly at me and my kind. Kenner put out a neato toy line that, unbeknownst to me then, was chock full of re-purposed molds. (Y’all get genuine props for reusing the Ewok village as Robin’s forest fortress, Kenner!) There was even a Nintendo game that, I discovered years later, was actually pretty good (a rarity in the world of NES movie-based carts).

The marketing worked, and just like a year earlier when I jumped on the Dick Tracy bandwagon hardcore (or at least as hardcore as is possible for a four-year old), little me was all about the Hood. Erm, Robin Hood, I mean. Dad took me to see the film in theaters, and frankly, I don’t remember much about it, but it was probably a bit too dark for a five-year old.

Nevertheless, there’s some definite nostalgia on my part now when I look back at Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It’s not a film I’ve revisited in the 27 years that have elapsed, but yeah, nostalgia. Plus, it’s a film I can conceivably see myself revisiting nowadays, which is no small feather in its cap, or arrow, or [insert further Robin Hood-themed pun here].

The VHS release of this movie is not even remotely hard to find. Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of movies from that era, which for the longest time were seemingly ever-present used, are not as commonly found nowadays. I’m not saying they’re rare, not at all, but unless it’s ’89 Batman, Jurassic Park or (looking ahead a bit) Titanic, you’re not always guaranteed a quick find while out hitting up the thrift stores and whatnot for VHS. (It’s not a dead format thing – yet – either, because I still come across a lot of VHS during my travels.)

No kidding, it took far longer than I care to admit to stumble across Cop and a Half, another one I saw in the theater back in the day, until I finally, finally did, several weeks back. It was a moment of triumph, flourish, and bravado that, quite frankly, I probably shouldn’t be so ready to admit. Of course, once I finally found that copy, some two weeks later I came across another one; I picked that one up too, on principle alone.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is, in my mostly-useless experience, not one such release. Hardly a thrift run goes by that I don’t come across one or more copies of the flick on VHS. As such, nostalgia notwithstanding, I’ve never felt much need to throw one in the cart when I’m out and about and picking up too much crap I don’t really need, because it’s pretty much always available.

But then, this copy came into my life, and that all changed.

Several weeks back, during a fairly impromptu thrift trip, the location of choice had somewhat refreshed their home video shelves, which meant there was a decent selection of obsolete media for yours truly to gawk at. I didn’t see much worth buying at first glance, but then I happened to take a closer look at the copy of Robin Hood that was laying there, of which I had previously paid little attention. This was fortuitous because, man, I had inadvertently stumbled upon not only something that tied into my formative years, but was also a legitimate artifact of the video rental-era – an era that was also a part of my formative years!

Behold! It’s a vintage Blockbuster Video-branded copy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves! Cool winnins!

I’m always on the lookout for tapes like this, and while Blockbuster-emblazoned stuff isn’t very hard to find, in my (again, mostly-useless) experience, tapes prior to 1995 or so show up much less frequently. (This is from 1992; hold your water, you’ll see proof in a moment.)

Of course, as far as the sleeve goes, this branding extends only to the shrinkwrap; the jacket itself is your common, garden-variety Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves VHS sleeve, what with the title and Kevin Costner with his flamin’ arrow and whatnot. If I were to be foolish enough to remove said shrinkwrap, outside appearances would belie the real history of the tape.

And that history, the very fact this is such a relic of the video rental-era (at or very near its height, no less), when Blockbuster was veritable king of the VHS world, that alone makes this tape worth the 60 cents the thrift store was asking for it. You could claim that I’m flippin’ my beans over that swanky old school “previously viewed” sticker, and I am weird enough to buy a tape just for something like that, but it’s really the whole package with this one. Like I said, this is a legitimate artifact of early-1990s home video! The fact I have real history with the movie just makes it all the better; I wouldn’t be as happy if this were a copy of Curly Sue, for example. (Sorry, Jim Belushi.)

That particular “special price sticker” on the front isn’t something I come across often at all when it comes to used VHS buying; usually, it’s those square yellow stickers from the mid-90s or circular red ones of later years that I find affixed to my obsolete video formats.

But it’s the sticker on the back of the sleeve (well, shrinkwrap) that puts this one over the top, though. Dig this: this copy of the movie was placed out for sale on February 9, 1992! And look, it was only $9.95! This was a time when you could get away with charging that much for a used VHS tape! (Though, granted, wasn’t $9.95 like $600 in 1992 dollars?)

In a nice turn of events, there was no description on the back of the sleeve for the sticker to obscure, though the fine technical print wasn’t so fortunate. Still, you get the typical ballyhoo of quotes and taglines and whatnot. And look, recorded on BASF tape!

I’m not sure when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves debuted on home video. In the U.S., it hit theaters on June 14, 1991, and while home video releases didn’t move as quickly then as they do now (or so it seems to me), I would assume it was out in time for the Christmas season. At any rate, by early ’92, this particular Blockbuster location had a used copy out for sale. I’m going to guess that this was a holdover from an initial “rental push,” after it first debuted on VHS. That’s my theory, anyway; early-92 seems pretty close to when this would have initially hit rental shelves. Or not; what do I know?

As I said, remove the shrinkwrap (not that I ever will), and that video rental lineage mostly goes away, but slide the tape out of the sleeve, and there’s a piece of evidence a bit more solid…

Ah, the famous “y’all betta rewind” reminder! As per the norm, slapped right over the left window of the tape! Thas adorable. And look, the previous owner did NOT rewind all the way to the start! Despite that being the benefit of owning a tape yourself, I still demand restitution. But from whom?!

I’m not sure why the title “label” on the tape, which is actually just printed right on the casing itself, is upside down though. Was this normal, or a mistake? I come across plenty of Robin Hood tapes, so I really should know this, but I, uh, don’t.

Actually, during a thrift trip just two nights ago, one store had not one but two copies of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on VHS for sale. Well, technically, one plus a sleeve; the first copy was legit, but the other one had what appeared to be a blank tape mistakenly (?) housed in the sleeve, and severely molded to boot. The ‘real’ one, however, I checked, and it had an actual label on the tape, placed right side up. Maybe a later pressing? I don’t know, but my attempts at sleep later were relatively tortured, and there’s the slight possibility that it was a subconscious reaction to this Robin Hood conundrum.

None of this really matters and I’m clearly just babbling now.

(EDIT: The label as seen here is normal; I’ve since verified it with yet another stumbled-across copy while out thrifting. I didn’t buy it, but maybe I should have…)

Anyway, I’m not going to play this; what would the point be? I can get a “watching copy” at essentially any time I please; heck, I had yet another chance just the other evening! And probably another one later today! And besides, for the purpose of this article, what could I really say? “It’s Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, on, uh, VHS…” The quality will be fine, SP, not up to the standards of DVD, but then, would you expect it to be?

No no, this particular copy hath been deemed my “collector’s copy,” and as such deserves a place of honor. Like a shiny display case or something, maybe with a rotating stand. You know, like how they show off rotisserie chickens at the grocery store. No, wait, that might end badly…

Really, I get a big kick out of this find. As mentioned, I have childhood memories of not only the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but also the associated merchandising hype that went along with it. Add to that definitive evidence of Blockbuster Video’s heyday, which lends an even more decidedly early-90s ambiance to the proceedings, and you’ve got something that could really be considered special. If you’re into old home video, anyway.

On a final, related note: you can almost be guaranteed that if I ever come across a copy of 1989’s Batman, or even 1992’s Batman Returns, with similar Blockbuster-branding all over it, there’s a good possibility you’ll hear my giddy exclamations from wherever you may currently be situated.

DVD Review: A BIG BOX OF COWBOYS, ALIENS, ROBOTS AND DEATH RAYS (S’more Entertainment, 2011)

You know how much I love budget DVD compilations of old movies; I’ve gone to that well more than once here on the blog. I don’t claim to own, or even seen, all that the “genre” has to offer, and so, it’s always a thrill to find a new, unbeknownst-to-me set – especially one that makes my eyes figuratively pop out. S’more Entertainment’s A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is absolutely, without a doubt one such DVD collection.

This was released in 2011, seemingly to cash in on the hype surrounding a movie I have practically zero recollection of: Cowboys & Aliens. I haven’t seen it and I have no intention of seeing it.

Still, I always love it when a new home video release plays into the vibes of a then-current Hollywood product; we saw this big time with Sons of Kong, and in the same vein comes A Big Box… That is old, public domain movies, in this case B-Westerns with elements of science fiction and/or horror, put together to “ride the wave.” All four of my regular readers will recall how much I love B-Westerns, and when they broke out of the mold and included elements not commonly associated with the genre (that is, sci-fi and horror), as we saw this past Halloween season with 1944’s Wild Horse Phantom, well, that’s just double-interestin’ to yours truly.

Given the title, I was expecting an actual box set, but when my copies arrived (that’s right, copies. I had to order these, and I got two; one to watch watch/review, and one to keep minty sealed fresh cause that’s how I roll), but in reality, what arrived was a four-disc, eight-movie set (two movies per disc, giving them a nice “double feature” feel), all housed in a standard-size DVD case with four hubs inside. Rest assured, I prefer this packaging; it’s a sleek, compact design that doesn’t take any extra space on the figurative DVD shelf, but with enough weight to it to really feel like a product, if that makes any sense. I dig it, is what I’m saying.

I like the cover art. The robot on the horse seems to be a modified version of the ‘bots seen in the first movie of the set (more on that momentarily). As you can see, the graphic artist in charge put him on a horse, threw him in a western village, and gave it a flying saucer to loom overhead – complete with big ol’ explosion! This art is also found (in slightly animated form) on the DVD menu screens, and I like it a lot – even if there are no actual flying saucers in any of these films. It absolutely gets the point across, and appears competently made to boot. Well done, me says!

So now, let’s check it out, disc by disc. Being such old films, the print quality obviously varies movie by movie, as (I hope) you’d expect. Yes, there are splices, scratches, dirt, dust, and quite often the edge of the frame is plainly visible. I don’t mind any of that one bit. The print quality lends these films an added air of old-time matinee charm, and besides, scratches or not, they’re all uniformly watchable.


Disc One: The set kicks off with a bang, with Radio Ranch, a 1940 feature version of the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire. This film alone basically sums of the title of the collection as a whole. Starring Gene Autry (in his first lead outing), the flick combines the singing cowboy sub-genre of B-Westerns with a legitimate science fiction bend, and from start to finish, it’s pretty wild.

Gene hosts a daily radio program from the aforementioned “Radio Ranch,” a showcase in which to sing his songs. He’s amassed quite a following; he even has his own fan club on the premises. Unfortunately, not everyone loves Gene’s show; a group of scientists want him off the land so they can harvest the valuable radium deposit right underneath.

Oh, and also located directly beneath the ranch? A lost underground civilization, and guess what? tThey want Gene outta there too. (These are the “aliens” of the collection’s title; no outer space fellas in this one!) The underground city is a trip; it’s a sprawling underground city (think of a cut-rate Metropolis), complete with goofy-lookin’ robot servants, citizens that can’t breathe our air and thus need oxygen masks (we can breathe okay down there, though), and a really icy (as in disposition) queen ruler.

Since it’s a condensed version of a 12-chapter serial, it stands to reason the flow of the film is a somewhat disjointed, but you know what? It’s a lot of fun, and a good summation of what this DVD set is supposed to be about.

Nearly any film is going to appear tame by comparison, but even so, the next feature on the disc, 1936’s Ghost Patrol, seems really tame, which is too bad because the title of Ghost Patrol is pretty cool. But in actuality, it’s a talky Tim McCoy vehicle, and while there is a legit sci-fi element to it, it doesn’t appear in full until the last 15 minutes of the feature, and even then nothing much happens until the last 4 minutes. As such, this is more of a straight B-Western than anything.

In it, a scientist has been captured by baddies and forced to perfect a death ray, capable of causing a plane’s engine to fail. Said baddies use this to bring down planes carrying the, as you would say, big money. Tim McCoy is a government agent out to put a stop to such shenanigans. Also present is the scientist’s daughter, who…doesn’t do much of anything, honestly.

Ghost Patrol isn’t a bad film, but a little slow and definitely a huge step down from the wackiness of Radio Ranch. Still, neat title


Disc Two: For the sake of full disclosure, I muse admit that when I first dug into this set, this was the disc I started with. Under normal circumstances, I steadfastly refuse to enter in the middle of things, as it were. Nope, I like to start at the beginning and go in order until it’s finished. So why the deviation this time around? Two words: Ken Maynard.

No joke, Ken Maynard is my favorite B-Western actor, and quite possibly my favorite western star period. I haven’t seen a film of his that I haven’t liked to some degree, and the first feature here, Tombstone Canyon, is a flick I’ve been jonesin’ to watch. I actually already owned it, as both a standalone DVD and an old VHS release, but for one reason to another, I just never got around to checking it out, despite its cool concept.

(In fact, the whole reason I stumbled upon this DVD set in the first place was because I was researching different releases of Tombstone Canyon.)

Tombstone Canyon falls much more on the horror side of things than the previous two films. In it, Ken rides into town at the insistence of an old friend, but to get there he has to pass through the titular location, and that’s where the trouble starts. Not only are there some villains running rampant right from the start, but more distressingly, there’s someone dubbed “The Phantom Killer” roaming the canyon. He makes weird howling calls, he’s really strong, and he has no qualms about killing people. The character lends a creepy, engrossing air to a film plot that would have been standard western fodder otherwise.

The ending is also slightly abrupt, but in a good way. Think of some of those shocking endings in certain episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O or Miami Vice, where there’s some violence, and then it just ends. It’s a little like that, and it works really well. The entire climax of the film is terrific, come to think of it.

Tombstone Canyon also boasts the best film print of all 8 movies in this set. Oh, there’s scratches and dirt and such, but the image itself is beautifully sharp and clear. It even looked good while being unnaturally stretched to widescreen on my HDTV. (I refuse to fiddle with the picture settings.) Add that on top of an already phenomenally entertaining flick and first-rate star, and you’ve got easily my favorite movie in the entire collection.

The second disc starts strong and finishes strong, with 1937’s Riders of the Whistling Skull. I’m not sure if this or Radio Ranch is the more famous example of the “weird western” sub-genre, but it’s certainly a heavy-hitter. An entry in the long-running Three Mesquiteers film series, Riders… may be a little (but just a little) less overtly nutty than Radio Ranch, but it’s still pretty out there.

Here, the Mesquiteers get involved with an expedition into a lost city, where a fortune in gold resides. A scientist had previously traveled there but never returned, so it’s up to his daughter and crew to try and rescue him. Along the way, there’s a weird Indian cult (complete with a guy dancing around in a skull mask), murder, some double-crossin’, a skull-shaped mountain (not that one!), even a temple with some mummies! A standard B-Western this most certainly is not!

A ton of action, too. In comparison to how the first disc ended, Riders… is incredibly action-packed. It’s a pretty good movie as a whole too, and since I’m not a big Three Mesquiteers fan, that says a lot.

I dare say that of the four discs, this second one is the strongest of the lot. Two excellent films that are pretty much worth the price of admission alone.


Disc Three: The second half of the collection opens with an entry in the “Renfrew of the Royal Mounted” series, 1940’s Sky Bandits. As you may surmise, Renfrew was a Canadian Mountie, and with the Yukon setting, this isn’t technically a western film, but these Renfrews are (seemingly) usually lumped in with the genre anyway, and besides, it has all the other correct ingredients.

Another reason this inclusion fits perfectly? According to Wikipedia, it’s actually a remake of Ghost Patrol! The plots are strikingly similar; both feature a scientist under the thumb of some unscrupulous types, both feature a death ray that is used to bring down airplanes in order to extract valuable cargo, and both feature the scientist’s daughter showing up to get in the way.

Sky Bandits is a better movie by far, however. It moves much faster, with more action, more usage of the death ray, and with some real comedy relief provided by Dave O’Brien as fellow Mountie. Even the daughter actually has a real bearing on the plot here. Throw in a couple inexplicable-but-fun musical numbers, and you’ve got a fun, breezy flick. I had never seen a Renfrew before, but I genuinely enjoyed this movie! More than I was anticipating, quite honestly.

Next: 1938’s Gun Packer, which is the most ‘normal’ western movie in the entire collection (though it’s a close call between it and Ghost Patrol). Honestly, it’s practically a straight B-Western. Oh, there’s a scientist on the premises, and he’s devised some weird method for making gold “disappear,” as well as created a highly-explosive liquid substance, but the science fiction threads aren’t overt at all here.

Unfortunately, Gun Packer also demonstrates the era in which it was produced. Our hero has an African-American sidekick, played by Ray Turner, and, well, he portrays the kind of stereotypical comedic character that was common in movies at the time. It’s pretty uncomfortable, and it’s in cases like this that a film has to be watched with a historical context in mind.

Fun Fact: Dave O’Brien and Louise Stanley are in both of the third disc’s offerings, making me wonder if the pairing was intentional. Stanley is the usual female lead in both, but O’Brien’s roles are polar opposites; goofball comedic relief in Sky Bandits, one of the bad guys in Gun Packer.


Disc Four: The final disc of the collection starts with 1941’s Saddle Mountain Roundup, an entry in the “Range Busters” series. Another one of those trio films like the Three Mesquiteers, (Max Terhune plays the jokey ventriloquist member in the examples of both found in this collection), there are very strong horror overtones in this one.

In it, cranky land owner Magpie Harper is convinced someone is trying to kill him and, well, he’s right. The Range Busters, already hired to watch over his property, try to figure out who done did it.

Sadly, like Gun Packer, the racial stereotypes of the era rear their head again, this time in the form of Chinese cook (and occasional suspect) Fang Way, played by Willie Fung. His sometimes-shifty behavior, nearly-incomprehensible English and scatterbrained demeanor are wildly unacceptable today, so again, this is a case where you have to view with historical context in mind.

That’s the only serious blight on the movie though, because otherwise, I genuinely enjoyed it. Creepy cinematography, rain storms, a murder mystery, cloaked figures, a cave that is essentially the fill in for an “old dark house,” horror vibes are found throughout. The plot is fun and at less than an hour, breezy enough.

And that brings us to the final movie of the collection, 1935’s The Vanishing Riders, and boy is creeeeeeaky. B-Westerns weren’t exactly high-budget items anyway (hence the “B” branding), but even so, the cheapness of this one really shines through.

Bill Cody (not the Buffalo one) and his real-life son Bill Cody Jr. (also not the Buffalo one) star as a (former) sheriff and his adopted child, respectively. There’s a deserted town, a marauding gang of thieves, a crotchety old man, a lovely leading lady and a plot to rustle some cattle, but I’m going to be honest with you, only two things stick out to me about this one: 1) Cody Jr., roughly 10 years old, has a role comparable to the other adults, and he gets a lot of screen time doing ‘heroic’ stuff. We’re talking Gamera-movie levels of importance for the kid. Frankly, it’s pretty annoying. 2) At one point both Cody men dress both themselves and their horses up in skeleton costumes in order to scare the thieves.

It’s those skeleton costumes that lend a horror flair to The Vanishing Riders, so it fits the theme of this DVD fine, but for as much as I love B-Westerns, the kid-friendly nature of the flick drags this one down for me.


A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is a pretty consistent collection of horror and science fiction-tinged B-Westerns. The overall theme of the set is just so neat that you (well, I) can’t help but love it. Radio Ranch, Tombstone Canyon and Riders of the Whistling Skull are terrific and worth the price of admission alone, Sky Bandits and Saddle Mountain Roundup are fun, solid inclusions, and Ghost Patrol, Gun Packer and The Vanishing Riders, while not up to the level of the other movies in the collection (in my opinion), are if nothing else watchable examples of the B-Western genre and the matinee vibes said genre exemplifies.

Aside from the few noted and unfortunate racial stereotypes that were products of their time, it’s a pretty easygoing set; for fans of B-Westerns, vintage horror and/or science fiction, or all three, it’s not a bad choice. It appears this compilation is out of print, or at least, Amazon currently has no new copies for sale, but methinks it’s worth hunting down; it certainly stands out from the numerous other budget DVD compilations that have hit the shelves over the years!

Atari 7800 Review: DOUBLE DRAGON (Activision, 1989)

Double Dragon on the Atari 7800? Time to rock!

Look, we need to get one thing straight right up front: I’m a Double Dragon fanatic. If there’s a console with an installment of the series found on it, I want it. I don’t claim to own every release for every system and/or handheld, but Double Dragon and its sequels do take up a relatively significant amount of space in my not-inconsiderable video game collection.

The series should be immediately familiar to anyone that was into video games in the late-1980s and early-1990s; the original 1987 arcade game basically launched the beat-’em-up genre. You know, side-scrolling fighting games in which you fought numerous enemies, typically but not always on a 3-D plane (that is, a foreground and background you can walk between). It was a smash, and naturally sequels followed. The original entries were eventually ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, though they were only ports in a technical sense; they used the same street fighting motif and general plotlines, but basically did their own thing. Nevertheless, Double Dragon and its sequels, particularly those NES conversions, were seemingly ever-present on the video game scene of the early-1990s, which was when *I* was coming into my own as a young gamer.

Despite popularizing the beat-’em-up genre (though it wasn’t the first such game), looking back, it’s a little surprising how quickly Double Dragon‘s style of walking around and beating up bad guys was superseded by following games in the genre, and not just graphically, either. Only four levels (called “Missions”) and a relatively low number of enemies quickly appeared quaint when compared to longer, all-out fighting extravaganzas like Capcom’s Final Fight some two years later – a template beat-’em-ups largely followed in the early-1990s before the whole idea of a “fightin’ game” was steadily replaced by Street Fighter II and the like.

Actually, despite being wildly unfaithful to the arcade source material, the NES Double Dragon games probably hold up better than other versions nowadays simply because they lengthened and/or added original elements to the ports – additions that help them stand up against the subsequent, more-advanced games in the same genre.

The original Double Dragon arcade machine from 1987. The face that launched a thousand beat-’em-ups!

Still, taken on its own, the original Double Dragon (and at least the first sequel, Double Dragon II: The Revenge) remains a lot of fun today. Aside from some ugly slowdown when too many sprites are onscreen, it’s a fantastic beat-’em-up, though those accustomed to Streets of Rage and such may have a tough time getting into it. Nevertheless, for its time Double Dragon was quite the trendsetter. I mean, simultaneous two-player street fighting action, all in an effort to rescue a kidnapped girlfriend? A bevy of combat moves you could pull off? Colorful, detailed stages to traverse? A variety of enemies to pummel? Of course people would continuously throw quarters at it!

(Even if the period of revolutionary success was relatively short-lived, Double Dragon continued to be a name draw well into the 1990s, eventually spawning, besides the sequels proper, a Battletoads spin-off, a couple one-on-one fighters, an inexplicable board game, those ever-present Tiger handhelds, an animated TV series, and a terrible live-action movie that I, thankfully, only have limited experience with. The brand’s “oomph” sort of tapered off as the second half of the 1990s dawned, but there’s no denying how recognizable the franchise was in the years immediately preceding. A good deal of this popularity can probably be attributed to the series as it appeared on the NES, such was the visibility of both them and it at the time.)

It was also in this late-1980s setting that the 8-bit console wars came about. Perhaps calling it a “war” is a bit of a misnomer since, in the U.S. anyway, it was all about the NES. Seemingly every kid had Nintendo, and growing up, I initially wasn’t aware there even were other 8-bit consoles beyond it. I mean, sure, there were the home computers, but to me, it was basically those and the NES. In actuality, there were three viable 8-bit consoles at the time: besides the NES, there was the Sega Master System, and then there was the Atari 7800. Neither did much comparatively in the States, though the SMS was a force to be reckoned with in much of the rest of the world. (No kidding, the European and Brazilian SMS scene was, and is, fascinating!)

The 7800 was an interesting case; initially intended to right the wrongs that the Atari 5200 had ostensibly committed, the 7800 was meant to come out in 1984, restore Atari’s good name and blow the competition (namely the ColecoVision) out of the water. It was a pretty powerful system for the time, with terrific graphics, a sleek design, and the ability to play Atari 2600 games right out of the box and without an adapter.

It didn’t quite work out as planned though. There was a brief test market in ’84, but the combined effects of the infamous early-1980s video game crash and the sale of Atari Inc. from Time Warner to Jack Tramiel put a halt on an immediate wide release. In the aftermath, Atari Inc. became Atari Corp., and the 7800 was placed on the back burner until 1986. The 7800 was still a capable console with an enormous amount of potential, but with a library of older titles and a somewhat-damaged reputation to the name “Atari,” not to mention constant cost-cutting measures regarding new titles and peripherals, well, it was an uphill battle against the Super Mario juggernaut that the NES became as the 1980s wore on. The added competition of the Sega Master System didn’t help matters, either.

Even though the NES, SMS and 7800 were all originally developed around the same 1983/1984 time frame, and all eventually wide released in the U.S. in 1986, due to the specific circumstances surrounding the 7800’s debut and subsequent library, it feels like a console caught between two eras of gaming. To me, it’s like a system from both the early/mid-80s and late-80s, if that makes any sense. ‘Course, that’s one of the reasons I love it so much; no joke, the Atari 7800 is absolutely in my personal top five favorite consoles.

Anyway, fast forward to 1989. Gaming consoles are again big business, revolutionary titles are coming out left and right, and Double Dragon has already swept not only the arcades but also the NES and SMS. It was in this climate that the Atari 7800 port of Double Dragon, released by Activision, arrived.

The fantastic but ill-fated Atari 7800, complete with Double Dragon loaded!

This was amazing for a few reasons. 1) Nintendo’s licensing agreements with software developers meant that it was hard, often impossible, for the same games to come out on more than just the NES. Thanks to legal loopholes however, there were exceptions, and several titles well-known as members of the NES stable also appeared on competing consoles. 2) The 7800 was great at playing classic arcade ports such Asteroids, Centipede, Joust and Ms. Pac-Man, and had it been released in 1984 as intended, the matter would have been less egregious. But by the late-1980s, new names were needed, and the 7800 was woefully lacking in that area. Rampage, Ikari Warriors, Commando and Xenophobe were welcome exceptions, but that’s just what they were, exceptions.

(The issue of original games was another sticking point with the 7800, something Atari only seemed to truly realize within the last few years of the console’s life. By then it was far too late to save it, but we did get the Super Mario Bros.-ish platformer Scrapyard Dog, the intensely-quirky Ninja Golf, and what just may be the best game on the entire system, The Legend of Zelda-esque Midnight Mutants, starring Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis himself!)

The current homebrew scene has expanded the 7800’s library considerably, but where the original run is concerned, there were only some 60+ titles released, and while many of them were/are pretty good, there were few that would have truly raised eyebrows in that late-80s/early-90s video gaming climate.

Enter 1989’s Double Dragon. Simply put, this was the exact type of game the 7800 needed. A modern arcade port, and a hot one at that. The 1988 home version on the NES was a massive hit, and 1989 was also the year a (very loose) port of the sequel arrived for the ol’ toaster. Furthermore, the SMS version of Double Dragon was also an extremely popular title, one which some would say was even better than the NES’.

So yes, in a library that initially only consisted of 60+ games, Double Dragon stood (stands) out big time. They came close, but Commando, Rampage, Ikari Warriors and Xenophobe, while more current than most of the 7800’s offerings, and with some late-80s coin-op clout to boot, just didn’t share quite the same name recognition that Double Dragon had. Could any of them touch Double Dragon as far as popularity went? Thanks mainly to the wildly successful NES port, I’d say “no.” Indeed, this release marked the only time that 7800 owners could truly partake in the same then-modern gaming experience as NES owners could. Some of the same games showed up on both systems, but Double Dragon was one of the gaming properties of the late-1980s, in both the arcades and at home. For once, 7800 owners could bask in the same glow as NES (and SMS) owners!

(A cool example of this “phenomenon”: I have a comic book buried in my collection from either 1989 or 1990, I can’t remember which for sure, and when it comes to the advertisements found throughout the issue, not only is this 7800 game pitched, but so is the NES original and sequel! I’m going to guess that didn’t happen very often!)

A cart with perhaps more fisticuffs than any other 7800 game!

Double Dragon was a Technos Japan innovation, with the NES port released by Tradewest (in the U.S.) and the SMS’ by Sega themselves. Activision, they of River Raid and Pitfall! fame, were still riding the Atari bandwagon in the late-1980s, one of the few third parties to continue do so, and it was they that put out our game on both the Atari 7800 and still-breathing 2600. That’s right, there’s an Atari 2600 port of Double Dragon, too! Given the mega-primitive hardware and one-button limitation of the joystick, it’s actually a pretty impressive piece of programming, featuring some terrific graphics and sound given the console it’s on. It’s not the most playable version of Double Dragon ever released, the difficulty is too high and there are too many moves mapped to the single fire button, but it is recognizable as Double Dragon, and that in and of itself is amazing.

The cart you’re seeing here is, obviously, the 7800 version. The 2600 version looks very similar, with the same plain layout except the colors are reversed (white-on-black instead of black-on-white), and naturally with “for the…” altered accordingly. Considering the 7800 library is littered with dull, black & white cartridge artwork, it’s too bad a more-striking label didn’t show up, but beggars can’t be choosers – I mean, at least the 7800 got Double Dragon!

(Remember, this is an article from a North American perspective; label art and the like varied in other countries.)

The iconic Double Dragon title screen, reproduced on the 7800!

Upon powering up the cartridge, you’re presented with the pleasant surprise that the 7800 received the most arcade-faithful port of all three 8-bit consoles. Indeed, at points it almost looks like someone took the arcade game and “7800-ized” it.

Something is evident on the title screen that’s very, very important. Look down at the bottom of the screen and see what it says: 1 or 2 players.

“Yeah, okay, so what North Video guy? Everyone knows Double Dragon is a two-player game!”

Well sure it is…in the arcade and on most of the home editions. There was one home edition, however, that inexplicably made it two-players alternating. Which one was that? The NES! Yes, in what was perhaps the most visible version of the game out there, the biggest feature of the original coin-op, the meaning of the very title itself, was stripped out! The NES port, for all the tampering with the levels and moves it featured (more on both of those in a bit), was magnificently playable. But, there’s no doubt that removing the ability to simultaneously beat down thugs with a buddy absolutely destroyed some of the magic that made the game so popular in the first place.

Well, that simultaneous two-player action is indeed present here on the Atari 7800!

Mission One’s “city slum.” That’s a whip in Billy’s hand, and a bat on the ground. Dig the “Scoop Moto” billboard – just like the arcade!

The arcade-accuracy continues into the game proper. Even the (in)famous intro, in which your girlfriend is slugged in the stomach and carried away is here – a shocking and wildly uncomfortable bit of violence that I can’t believe flew even back then.

That short sequence upon the start of a new game is about all the exposition you’re going to get, because there’s really no in-game plot to speak of. Not that you necessarily need one; saving a damsel-in-distress wasn’t exactly a new innovation in video game plots by the late-1980s, but it provides sufficient motivation for fisticuffs, methinks.

The plot was expanded upon in supplementary materials, sometimes exponentially so; Japanese releases place the setting at some point in the then-near future, after a nuclear war has devastated the population and caused gang warfare to rise. I don’t like this explanation at all; it adds an added layer of science fiction to the proceedings that, in my opinion, the game just doesn’t need. U.S. story lines were more straightforward in their telling, with a much simpler tale of a rampant street gang, the two brothers that oppose them, and the kidnapping of a girlfriend by said street gang. That’s all you need; background is nice, but it’s not something generally required in a game of this nature.

The gist of the plot, in both Japan and the U.S., is this: The Black Warriors (the bad guys) have taken over the city, and are opposed by relatively few, save for the twin brothers of Billy Lee and Jimmy Lee (the good guys), who are quite proficient in the martial arts. In order to lure them on to their turf and take them out once and for all, The Black Warriors kidnap Billy Lee’s girlfriend Marian. This is unacceptable, and so Billy (and his brother Jimmy as the second-player) set out to beat down some thugs and rescue her.

To get to Marian, the titular characters must traverse four environments: the city slum, the industrial area, the woods, and finally, the enemy base.

These level layouts in 7800 Double Dragon are far closer to the arcade than either the SMS or especially the NES. The SMS mostly followed the stages found in the coin-op (and included simultaneous two-player action as well), though it diverged in a few spots. The NES port was all over the place, with levels that typically started out somewhat faithful to the coin-op and then just went nuts. Platform elements, a trip up a construction site, into some caves, and so on and so forth. It was fun, and it actually did work, but it wasn’t exactly arcade-accurate. Though as I said earlier, the additions served to lengthen the game and make it more suitable for an at-home experience, which means it has held up better in the long run (the same thing applies to the versions of Double Dragon II and Double Dragon III on the console, as well).

In the 7800’s case however, what you saw in the arcade was ported directly over to the Atari, and there’s something to be said for faithfulness to the source material. Unfortunately, Double Dragon wasn’t an especially long game as a coin-op, and that carried over here, too.

Mission Two’s “industrial area.” You certainly CAN climb up that fence!

By the way, if you’re totally bored, you may be asking yourself “hey, where’d y’all get these swell in-game screenshots, North Video Guy?” The answer to that is: I took them myself, with an actual 7800 console, cart and CRT TV. Y’see, I don’t emulate, so if these screenshots lack somewhat in the sharpness department, and I know that they do, that’s thanks to the good ol’ RF signal; no, the 7800 I used hasn’t been modded for AV output. Honestly, I actually think this gives a more accurate picture of how the game is meant to be displayed, closer to how kids playing it upon release first saw it. The harsh sharpness of emulation actually makes the game look uglier than it really is.

And while on that subject, let’s talk about the graphics proper. 7800 Double Dragon isn’t a bad looking game as a whole, but it is a mixed bag.

The arcade-faithful backgrounds generally look pretty nice. The first two stages have sort of a drab color-scheme, but the detail is excellent and the layout is just like the coin-op. The third and fourth levels are terrific, with a richly-detailed forest in the third and foreboding enemy fortress (complete with deadly spike pit) in the fourth.  Modern day homebrew games aside, the graphical-detail in the latter stages of Double Dragon are some of the best graphics seen on the 7800.

As for the sprites in the game, well, they’re another story. Simply put, for the most part they look like something the Atari 5200, a full console generation before, could have pulled off. They’re awfully blocky, and with a minimal amount of detail. Except for Abobo (the big, hulking enemy that has become one of the most popular faces of Double Dragon), the characters don’t really look very good. It’s quite a contrast with the backgrounds!

They may not all look great, but did everyone from the arcade original at least make it over to the 7800? Yes and no. Billy and Jimmy are here, using the same, palette-swapped sprite. The same goes for common thugs Williams and Roper, and 2nd level boss Jeff; they all use the same sprite as Billy and Jimmy, just with different colors. Female thug Linda is here too, but shares the same image as the kidnapped Marian. Head bad guy Big Boss Willy obviously gets his own design, as naturally does Abobo. (Technically, there was Abobo and Bolo in the arcade, both nearly identical save for a few differences, but c’mon, it’s always just been Abobo to the layman).

So yeah, everyone’s here technically, but not without some caveats.

As mentioned, the NES version is one-player only, and can display two enemies at a time, albeit with some graphical break-up. The SMS has two-players simultaneously and up to three enemies, but there’s a lot of flicker throughout. With the 7800 however, one of the strengths built into the system from the get-go was the ability to move a lot of sprites at the same time, without flicker or slowdown.

The richly-detailed forest of Mission Three. Note the number of sprites onscreen, without flicker or graphical break-up! Neato!

This ability is readily apparent in Double Dragon. The game can have up to four bad guys onscreen, plus your one or two players. No graphical break-up, no flicker, and no slowdown either, except for some choppy scrolling when moving to a new screen. This version plays a bit more sluggish as a whole, but it’s not a deal breaker, and the relatively slower, more-deliberate pace of the game actually serves it well.

While on the subject of sprites, one thing about the original coin-op that wore real thin, real fast was its tendency to slow down when the screen became crowded. Yep, the more sprites there were at a given moment, the more the action crawled. Honestly, if you’re able to get beyond the relatively-archaic nature of the game (early beat-’em-up and all), that’s really the only downside to what is otherwise still a terrific game.

The slowdown in the original coin-op often made the use of weapons more of a chore than a pleasure, which is a shame, because the ability to grab a new beat-down implement was another one of the revolutionary aspects of the game. You never saw Thomas appropriate one of those knives from a mindless grunt in Kung-Fu Master, after all!

The arcade featured bats, whips, knives, boulders, barrels, boxes and dynamite, all of which your character could pick up and use in his quest for kidnapped-girlfriend-vengeance. (And of course, they could always be taken from you, as well!) Only the bats, whips and knives made it to the 7800 port. In contrast to the later Streets of Rage, in which a knife could be used repeatedly or thrown at once, in Double Dragon it was always a one-throw deal. The bat and whips can be used repeatedly, though unlike the arcade, they eventually disappear when moving from one section of a level to another (common for home console conversions of the period).

Ah, but it was the attacks, the various combos you could pull off, that really sets Double Dragon apart from other side-scrolling fighters. Not set, sets. Later beat-’em-ups simplified the amount of attacks, sometimes with only a jump and punch button, maybe a special move. Double Dragon was considerably more involved, with a style of game play that more-closely resembled actual martial arts street fighting (I assume; so rarely do I get out to street fight). From the three buttons and joystick, you could pull off punches, kicks, jump kicks, reverse jump kicks, headbutts, elbow smashes, over-the-shoulder throws, the ability to repeatedly knee an enemy in the face, and with a buddy, one player could even grapple a baddie while the other slugged him (which worked the other way around, too). Amazingly, with all of these options at your disposal and relatively few buttons, it worked really, really well.

With only two attack buttons generally available, obviously all these moves didn’t always make it to the home versions intact. The NES port fared better than most; even though you had to continuously “level-up” to earn more of them, in some odd form of RPG-ness, you could amass an impressive range of attacks, including the ability to sit on an enemy and punch them relentlessly in the face. This wasn’t found in the coin-op, but rather in Technos’ prior beat-’em-up Renegade, which was Double Dragon‘s spiritual predecessor in more ways than one.

The SMS version retained a good number of the attacks, though for me, only the punches, kicks, jump kicks and headbutts were consistently easy to pull off. (You can elbow smash and knee-in-the-face, but I could only ever trigger those attacks by mistake!)

Mission Three is lengthy and culminates in a mountainside fight at the entrance of the enemy base…against not one but TWO green Abobos!

The 7800 actually fared pretty well in the translation. The knee-in-the-face and over-the-shoulder-throw options were, disappointingly, excised. (So is the grapple technique, though no home version got that, as far as I know.) But, along with the obvious abilities to punch, kick and jump kick, the reverse jump kick, headbutt, and elbow smash all made it in. Some of the button combos to make these moves happen are a little strange (down + punch to headbutt? What was wrong with double-tapping left or right like the arcade, NES and SMS?), but mostly this all works okay.

However, we now come to the biggest problem with the Atari 7800 version of Double Dragon, and it’s something that’s not the game’s fault: the painful stock U.S. 7800 controller. Here in the States, we got the “ProLine Joystick,” and from start to finish, it was pretty much a holdover from the early-1980s era of controller-design. Basically an elongated grip with a joystick at the top and a fire button on each side (think ColecoVision or Atari 5200), it was a controller not suited to long sessions of any game, never mind one that requires constant movement and button-pressing like Double Dragon.

Overseas, Europeans got the “ProLine Joypad,” and it’s a far, far superior controller. Basically Atari’s answer to the NES control pad, it’s a continual mystery why it never replaced the joystick here in the U.S. It’s not perfect, but considering the alternative, it’s definitely preferable, and it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to Double Dragon.

Y’see, this game has gotten a reputation for being overly difficult, and in many eyes, not very good. Hey, I’ve been on that side of the fence a time or two in the past, too. When I first got the 7800 port many years ago, I was by no means a novice at Double Dragon. And yet, I could barely make any headway before exhausting all my lives (you get three to start, an extra at 50,000 points, and no continues). I was probably convinced it was either the hardest or most poorly-programmed port 8-bit console port there was.

Fast forward several years, when I decided to get myself some of the European Joypads. After all, I loved the 7800, so why not, you know, fully enjoy it? 2600, or even Sega Genesis, controllers were fine for single-button games, but some of the best 7800 titles, like Commando or our subject today, require two. And what a revelation! A whole new appreciation for the 7800 port of Double Dragon was gained, all because I could finally properly play it! Go figure!

I think 7800 Double Dragon gets a bad rap as far as difficulty is concerned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s on the challenging side; the enemies can hound you and get some cheap shots in. But, it’s really not any more difficult than any other 8-bit conversion, and in fact is probably easier as a whole than the NES port, where you can save all of your lives only to blaze through them in a hurry on the last level.

The controller, I think, is one of the issues with that difficulty perception. Seriously, get the European Joypads. Do what you gotta do to play Double Dragon comfortably, because it ain’t gonna happen using the regular ProLine Joystick. I can beat the game using it, but it’s not exactly an ergonomic experience.

The controller used isn’t the game’s fault, but another key to enjoying the beat-down frenzy is: the punch. There’s a very simple method to avoiding frustration with this game, and it’s this: just don’t punch. I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. When animating the attacks, the punch is given a “wind up.” It isn’t instant contact. As such, there’s a moment of hesitation, and this leaves you open to hits. In other words, you end up taking taking cheap shots and trading blows back and forth.

Some players like to spam the elbow smash (just like the arcade!) and jump kicks here, but in my experience, you don’t necessarily need to do that. When using a normal, ground-based attack, just stick with regular kicking. There’s no animation between the button press and the result, so it’s ‘instant,’ and as such, you can hammer away at baddies without taking too many unnecessary hits back.

Mission Four, with some of the best graphics in the entire game!

On top of that, the enemy A.I. is painfully stupid. Yes, they can be tough, but once you learn their patterns, you can counter them without too much trouble. Same goes for most beat-’em-ups, I know, but especially here. Much like the NES version, if you get in ‘close’ to an enemy, especially when coming in from underneath, you should be able to knock them down and eventually out while saving most of your life bar. As such, even the Abobos and Big Boss Willy, traditionally the toughest enemies, can be defeated without too much trouble.

So no, 7800 Double Dragon isn’t too hard. If anything, it might be a little too easy. You just gotta learn the tricks!

Lastly, we come to the music of 7800 Double Dragon. One of the most celebrated aspects of the game, in both its original incarnation and in most of the ports, was the soundtrack. Double Dragon featured an absolute classic score, one that not only fit the scenes you were traversing but also absolutely got you in the mood to beat down some street punks. On the 7800, we got…some of that.

Y’see, the system was originally intended to include a POKEY sound chip, which would have given it the sound quality of the Atari 8-bit computers and 5200, which was pretty good. When it was eventually released however, the POKEY was omitted as a cost-saving measure. The chip could be added to individual carts, though sadly, this was only utilized twice, for Commando and Ballblazer. Both have terrific music, but aside from those exceptions, the 7800 generally features sound identical to what the 2600 could pull off.

Now, it’s beyond old news to rag on the 7800’s sound quality. Compared to the NES and SMS, it sounds particularly bad, we know. It is what it is. It’s funny, I don’t even mind the sound of the 2600, but when it’s paired with the superior visuals of the 7800, well, it just kinda throws you for a loop.

That said, Double Dragon really should have utilized a POKEY sound chip. The soundtrack was so phenomenal that it absolutely, without a doubt deserved the honor. But, it didn’t. As such, we’re left with an incomplete, slightly-shrill score. Two of the mission tunes were omitted completely, meaning there’s some repetition involved. What is included is the famous title-screen track, Mission One’s theme, Mission Three’s theme (in the arcade, anyway), and the boss encounter music, plus the level-ending jingle. You’ll hear the first and third level themes repeated throughout, and not always where they should be.

Incomplete though it may be, at the very least, the music is recognizably Double Dragon.


Does this image practically scream “late-1980s” to you, or is it just me?

So when it comes right down to it, how does the Atari 7800 port of Double Dragon hold up? Better than it doesn’t. The music is a disappointment, and if you’re in the U.S., odds are you’ll have to contend with finding a better controller. Get over those obstacles however, and you’re treated with what I feel is one of the best games in the 7800’s library.

True, it lacks the length and extra features of the famous Nintendo Entertainment Version, but it makes up for that with the arcade-accuracy and simultaneous two-player action. And, while the graphics and sound are markedly inferior, I actually prefer this port over that of the Sega Master System, based solely on the gameplay. The SMS version, don’t get me wrong, I like it, but the control has always seemed too loose for my tastes; you’re basically out there swinging fists wildly – there’s no finesse, in my opinion. The 7800 version runs a bit slower, but you can really get into a groove while playing thanks to that.

Perhaps more importantly than how it stacks up against the rival 8-bit ports is what this Double Dragon represents. Think of it; you’re a kid in the late-1980s, you have an Atari 7800, while most everyone else has an NES. Maybe a few of your friends even have an SMS. Now sure, there’s plenty of great classic arcade ports at your disposal, and the 2600 library, but that stuff isn’t what’s burning up the video game world at the moment. Games have evolved, become more complex, bigger worlds, better graphics.

All of sudden, here comes Double Dragon, the arcade smash, the game that’s tearing up both the NES and SMS. And now it’s available for the 7800! The series would continue to expand via sequels, spin-offs, and so on and so forth, but for this one occasion, 7800 owners could boast the same game as NES and SMS owners could. Not that Double Dragon was the only shared title across the three; Rampage hit all of them as well. But, Double Dragon was a trendsetting name brand that, as I’ve said, was incredibly recognizable in the late-1980s and early-1990s. It showing up on the 7800 seems special to me in a way that, frankly, Rampage doesn’t. That’s just my perception, though.

Furthermore, the beat-’em-up was a genre sorely lacking on the 7800. Kung-Fu Master was fun, but simplistic and old hat by the time it came out on the system in ’89. Ninja Golf and Basketbrawl were quirky Atari originals that combined sports with fighting. And Karateka? We don’t talk about Karateka. None of them could attain quite the same level that Double Dragon achieved – and achieves.

Double Dragon was something special in the Atari 7800 library, and even if it wasn’t a perfect game, that’s still to be celebrated. Even today!