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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.

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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!

VHS Review: Scared to Death (1947; Goldstar Video Corporation’s “Tales of Horror” Series, 1992)

Meet my newest video obsession: Goldstar Video Corporation’s Tales of Horror budget VHS series. It may not be my biggest video obsession (that title still belongs to Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents tapes), but it’s definitely my most recent. And truth be told, it is in a safe 2nd place…for now, anyway.

You know, these tapes had been nagging at me for awhile, and upon first glance, y’all may be wondering why. After all, the movies featured were the same public domain staples that had (have) been making the home video rounds for decades. And, unlike the Grampa Presents series, there was no made-for-video horror hosting amongst the proceedings. Add to that a graphical layout that’s practically the budget VHS “tradition” in a nutshell and, well, there’s a reason people aren’t bidding these up to $100+ on eBay, okay?

And yet, I was continuously enamored by the series. Made up of at least 24 volumes (cause that’s what this one is), and all featuring the same graphical layout that, while clearly in the aforementioned budget tradition, also aptly recalls Halloween. Seriously, the blood-drippin’ “Horror” of the title, along with the stark white background? Thems like bloody bones or somethin’, man. (In other words, a perfect cheap Halloween video pick-up, circa 1992 of course.)

And don’t downplay the whole ‘volumized’ aspect of these, either. These aren’t just cheesy old movies thrown out there for the penny-pinchin’ consumers to devour; this is, or was, a legit collection. Think of these as the horror movie, home media version of baseball cards; you gotta go after ’em all! What’s that, you’ll trade me your Honus Wagner card for a Tales of Horror? Forget that noise, yo. (Also, that devour pun just now would have made much more sense had this been their release of Night of the Living Dead.)

Plus, I’m just sucker for budget VHS horror and sci-fi in general. There was really no way I couldn’t end up loving this series, truth be told.

So anyway, my tape. That’s it above. As my inaugural entry into this series, I chose 1947’s Scared to Death, starring Bela Lugosi. Bela has gotten more than a little spotlight time on this blog, but Scared to Death, despite my waxing fondness for it, has not. It’s maybe not the coolest release of the film in the budget VHS realm – that would undoubtedly be the Grampa Presents version of it, which I own but haven’t written about (you can only go to that well so often, dig?) – but as a maiden voyage into Goldstar’s series, I was pleased with the decision. I’m a Bela fan, and I (inexplicably?) like the movie, so hey, why not?

As I said, these tapes all feature the same general layout. That is, the bloody Tales of Horror banner across the top, the volume number in the bottom-right corner (fittingly placed in a pool of blood), and in the middle of the cover a diagonal film strip featuring a somewhat- pixelated image from the movie along with the title above it and a starring (or in Dementia 13‘s case, directing) credit within. It’s not exactly something CBS/FOX would have put out back then, but it nevertheless gets the point across. I like it!

One may be tempted to be irked by the fact that a large plot-point is given away on the front cover here, but then, an even larger plot-point is given away by the very title of the movie. Oh, did I just spoil a 70-year-old movie for you? My bad, dawg.

Aside from the extreme early-1990s-ness of this tape’s presentation, I’m fond of it for another reason: It reminds me of my grandmother. No, she never had any of these tapes at her house, but she had budget videos like them. I assume she got them all from Avon. There were a bunch of them though, and from the sparse cover art to the (relatively) obscure manufacturers, as a young tape-head I got a big kick out of them. One time, she even gave me the copy of 1935’s Scrooge that had been sitting in her VHS cabinet for years; I forget who made it, but when I took it home, it promptly got stuck in our VCR. Look, you got a budget VHS tape, you took your chances. That’s how it went.

So no, Grandma never had this at her house, but had her collection featured more horror and sci-fi, I could certainly see it being there. Is it weird that that thought takes me back, even if there’s nothing actually to take me back to? (Fun Fact: This paragraph and the one preceding it were plucked from an unpublished article on a budget Bela 4-VHS-pack that I nixed in favor of this post. Never let it be said I don’t recycle!)

Here’s our back cover. Gotta love the additional blood drips along the top!

I have to say, this tape features a pretty decent synopsis of the movie, waaaay better than I would have ever anticipated beforehand. That’s not a shot at Goldstar or anything, it’s just that with budget tapes, the descriptions on the back could range from good, to mediocre, to downright amateurish. I posit this one falls more towards the “good” side of that scale.

I might have re-worded the second sentence a bit, but that’s the only real issue I have with the description. Also, huge, HUGE props for not saying saying this is Bela’s only color film (more on that in a bit).

Also, I have a feeling that last sentence was intended to be tongue-in-cheek.

There were apparently more than a few companies using the name “Goldstar” back in the day. The one I’m familiar with was the electronics manufacturer (example). So is that the same company that put these tapes out? I’m guessing it’s not; GoldStar of electronics fame capitalized the “S” in “Star.” A look at the copyright info at the bottom of this back cover says that this Goldstar did not. I keep this investigative work up and I’ll have to apply for a private investigator license.

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

Speaking of which, as was common with budget videotapes such as this, the movie is recorded in EP, though the cover makes no such mention of the fact. I wouldn’t have a problem with that, except man did I have a hard time getting this one to track. Granted, I was using a beater VCR, but even so, this was a little rough, trackin’-wise. Goldstar actually managed to get a fairly decent print of Scared to Death, I just wish the picture wasn’t so shaky…

1947’s Scared to Death is a movie I like, despite the fact that, well, it’s really not very good. Like so much of Bela Lugosi’s 1940s poverty row output, the film has lapsed into the public domain and therefore had more than a few releases on VHS and, now, DVD. That said, it doesn’t hold up as well as The Corpse Vanishes or Bowery at Midnight; the plot is disjointed, Bela doesn’t do a whole lot in it, and none of the characters are all that likable. George Zucco co-stars, which is cool, and the movie as a whole manages to be a fun slice of late-1940s matinee. Still, it’s kinda bad. A good bad, but bad nonetheless; lovers of this stuff will dig it, but others? Well…

Scared to Death does feature a couple of interesting gimmicks. First off, it’s Bela’s only starring color film. The myth that it’s his only color film period has floated around forever, and while that might make a good selling point on the back of some cheapo video release somewhere, it’s not technically true. I mean, for all intents and purposes it’s true, but technically, it’s not. (He was in at least one color film as a bit player, and apparently there’s one or two other instances of color Lugosi, too).

Also, the film is notable for being told from the point-of-view of a dead woman. As in, it’s narrated by a corpse. Since it’s told in flashback, yeah, the title totally spoils the whole thing before it ever has a chance to build any momentum whatsoever. While an interesting idea, especially for a poverty row production, the whole idea doesn’t really play that well; every time the story gets moving, the film will jarringly break to the same shot of the dead woman on a morgue slab, she’ll say a line or two (usually just a brief statement, which is almost comical), and then it’s back to the movie proper. Like I said, it was an interesting idea, and it ‘makes’ the movie, but in truth, it doesn’t work.

Scared to Death‘s plot involves one Laura Van Ee, our body-on-the-slab who, prior to that, is unhappily married to one Ward Van Ee (yes, that’s really his last name), the son of Dr. Joseph Van Ee (Zucco). Dr. Van Ee runs a practice, and is keeping Laura there against her will. Apparently she’s stressed out or something along those lines; she vehemently denies that she needs medical care, and since it’s established early on that her marriage to Ward is in a shambles, and we know right from the start that she winds up dead, it can automatically be assumed Ward and his father are behind the whole thing.

Soon after, Dr. Van Ee’s cousin Professor Leonide (Lugosi) shows up at the facility. It’s eventually established he was once a patient there, and was able to create a number of secret passageways and whatnot during his stay. (Seriously? How would he actually manage that?)

Soon after, disturbances involving Laura increase. A dummy head made to look like her arrives in the mail, and green masks are seen floating about outside the windows. Clearly someone, or something, is trying to drive Laura batty! The fact Laura has a severe aversion to blindfolds, and thus is presumably hiding something, only adds to the drama. (Also, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel sympathy for our ostensible heroine when she claims she’s “alone and friendless,” but is nasty to pretty much everyone.) At one point, Zucco gets conked on the head, and Bela and/or his diminutive assistant pop in and out of secret doorways, so yeah, there’s definitely something afoot at the facility.

Also on the premises are an idiotic private detective, a smartypants maid the detective is in love with, and eventually, a pushy reporter and his annoying girlfriend.

There really aren’t any likable characters in the movie. Dr. Van Ee and his son, despite first impressions, are probably the best of the bunch, though that’s not saying much. The private detective is there for comic relief, but quickly makes you want to shatter your TV in a fit of fruitless rage. The reporter is, well, he’s a typical movie reporter, though he’s also the closest thing to a hero in this movie, which is a wash since he’s also pretty nasty to everyone in his vicinity, not the least of which is his girlfriend.

Eventually it comes to light that Laura, years prior, had given her first husband up to the Nazis (!), and though believed dead, it turns out he became the assistant to Leonide, who was a magician. And then Laura dies. Like I said, the plot is kinda all over the place, though at only a bit over and hour, it isn’t all over the place for very long.

I probably shouldn’t like this movie as much as I do. Bela isn’t in it a whole lot (come to think of it, neither is Laura; the reporter and detective get much of the running time here), the plot is disjointed and silly, and the comic relief totally falls flat time and time again. And yet, I do like the movie; it’s such a sincere bit of post-war, matinee goofiness, that I can’t find myself hating it. It’s a movie that couldn’t have really come from any other time but the late-1940s, and the color-aspect of it really does stand out from the rest of Lugosi’s poverty row oeuvre. It’s stupidly entertaining, if nothing else, anyway.


I think, like the Grampa Presents tapes, one of the most interesting things about this Tales of Horror series is how movies that weren’t going to to scare anyone in the least were dressed up to appear absolutely terrifying. Oh sure, Night of the Living Dead is an exception, but by and large, stuff like Scared to Death wasn’t even remotely frightening. Maybe to very small children, but to an adult? I seriously, seriously doubt it.

That’s not a bad thing though. I always get a kick out of how these cornball old horror and sci-fi movies were dressed up and made to look like legitimately scary features. It’s the same ideal that amuses me about budget video releases of b-westerns starring John Wayne, made to look as if they’re “real” Wayne features and not something that had been floating around the public domain for eons.

In summation, Goldstar did a fine job with what they had; they made their series of videos look visually appealing, but without being prohibitively expensive. The whole Halloween-ish aura that surrounds them is still cool to this day, and if you’re into budget VHS like me, that counts for a whole lot.

The Tales of Horror series ran the gamut of cheesy old horror movies like this one, to 1950s sci-fi (Indestructible Man, Monster From Green Hell), to even some late-1960s stuff (the previously-mentioned Night of the Living Dead). There was even more Goldstar could have put out, and I presume they would have had this series run longer. But, the series as released still holds plenty of interesting, albeit mostly expected, stuff; it’s a pretty solid line-up of vintage horror, if nothing else.

Online searches turn up more than a few of these tapes for sale; while they’re not as common as, say, a UAV or Goodtimes version of a given movie, they *do* pop up frequently enough, and usually on the cheap side. Seems Goldstar was able to get fairly decent distribution for the line, but subsequent interest nowadays is, except for me, a bit low. Still, this is all certainly a nice change of pace from my spending too much money I don’t really have on Grampa tapes.

I hate to say it, but I sense my fascination with these tapes is only going to grow. I can’t just have one volume! And you know, I’m perfectly okay with that!

VHS Review: Godzilla (1998 Widescreen Version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 31st anniversary, Son of Ghoul!

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

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

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1988)

Happy Halloween!

It’s here! The big day! Halloween! It comes but once a year!

Now, some of you are out trick-or-treating, some of you are out partyin’, and some of you are watching the appropriately “spooky” movies. Heck, you adventurous-types will quite conceivably get around to all three before the day is out.

But it’s those of you in the 3rd camp that I identify with most. I haven’t trick-or-treated in years, and even when I did, I could never find a costume I really liked and/or a mask that I could stand wearing for longer than 3.7 seconds. And parties? People generally annoy me too much to make me want to go to one of those. (Plus, I don’t know anyone having one.)

But movies? And while we’re at it, Halloween-themed TV in general? That gets your pal me in the holiday spirit! And man, I have found a tape that exudes that Halloween spirit so overpoweringly, they may as well have created the holiday just so it could exist. And the thing is, it’s not even specifically tailored to Halloween. No, this one just hits all of the horrific hallmarks, and it hits them perfectly.

I now present quite possibly the be-all, end-all release of the perennial Halloween movie, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Yes, the film has been released on home video countless times since pretty much the dawn of, well, home video. But this, this version, this is the zenith, the peak, the ultimate. Put out by Amvest Video in 1988, it took 10 years of video releases to do the movie right, and despite all the restorations and remasterin’ and whatnot the film has endured since, I dare say they’ve all fallen short of attaining the sheer magnificence that Amvest managed. This was lightning in a bottle, baby. Or something like that.

Behold!

*Cricket Chirps*

“…So what, North Video Guy? It’s just another old VHS release of Night of the Living Dead!”

NO IT’S NOT AND HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST OTHERWISE. Okay, fine, sure, it looks fairly ordinary – on the surface. Upon first glance, you may very well be tempted to immediately write this one off as just another cheapie video release of the immortal fright flick. Heck, had I not known better, I may very well have done the same thing. You don’t get the whole picture from the cover art alone, is what I’m saying.

Not that I’m not saying the cover art is bad, mind you; indeed, you can’t go wrong using the fantastic original poster for your VHS sleeve. Granted, Amvest wasn’t the first nor last video company to use this original artwork, or at least a portion of it, but considering the sheer number of other, amateurish lookin’ releases out around the same time, this one does look decidedly more competent than many.

The original poster art was black & white, so Amvest (or someone) added some color to make things pop. Remember, video rentals were a big business at the time, and if you were going to put something on those shelves, you had to make it really jump out towards the prospective renters as much as possible. Plus, when you’ve got like 9000 VHS versions of the same movie competing against each other out there (we looked at one of ’em before!), well, details such as that could very well make the difference between a rent/sale, or continued shelf-languishing.

Look, all I’m trying to get at is that the cover art looks good. And, if nothing else, it doesn’t totally give away the ending like one VHS release from around the same time did. (That still astounds me; you’ve got 90 minutes of film to choose a screenshot from, and you go with the ONE scene that ruins the whole thing. But, I digress.)

Okay, so upon first glance, it seems this is a competent but rather unremarkable VHS release of Night of the Living Dead from the 1980s. Not a bad way to spend an old-school Halloween night, granted, but where does the magic come in? Why all that hype during my intro? Well, I presume you read the title of this post, didn’t you?

Yes, this tape was part of the Amvest “Grampa Presents” VHS series, and thus features Al “Grampa” Lewis hosting what is quite possibly the greatest horror film of all-time. Cool winnins! If this don’t don’t get yo’ Halloween spirits fired right up, well then I just don’t know.

“W-w-well where’s Grampa then, North Video Guy?!”

For those of you paying attention (all two of you), this series of tapes is one of my favorite subjects on this blog. Indeed, this will be the fourth (and, I hope, ultimate) article detailing them. As we saw a few weeks ago, these Grampa Presents tapes usually had Lewis’ visage and other appropriate hoopla plastered on them, but that didn’t necessarily mean he’d be on the tape. Well, as we’re about to see, it works the other way too, bucko.

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This post today is the ultimate culmination (blog-wise) of what began last Halloween. As you’ll recall (maybe), last October 31st is when I first looked at one of these tapes. I had long been intrigued by them, and I made a concerted effort to not only finally add one to my collection, but also to review it for that Halloween day. As I’ve semi-jokingly grumbled about time and time again, these Grampa Presents videos were strictly budget affairs (VHS releases that, back then, you’d typically find for around $10 – or less), and that first tape, a copy of 1939’s The Human Monster, demonstrated this aptly; it was duplicated in the LP recording speed, but on a tape with only enough to fit something in the EP speed. In other words, the tape ended before the movie did.

After that wacky little mishap, rather than turn me off the whole thing, I was only further intrigued by the series. Not only because I was begrudged a whole movie/show/whatever the first time around, but also because no one was/is quite sure just how many installments were actually released. I’m going to explain further in a bit, but rest assured, until I got this tape, Night of the Living Dead was one of the ones I wasn’t convinced existed. At least not with Grampa on the premises.

So anyway, that Halloween post last year gave way to my New Years post this year. There, with a (complete!) copy of Grampa’s The Corpse Vanishes added to my collection, I posted what I wanted to write the first time around; an insanely in-depth review of not only the tape itself, but also a look at this Grampa Presents series as a whole. While I wanted all that to be the final word on the subject, I’ve learned more since then, and frankly, Grampa hosting Night of the Living Dead is so unabashedly awesome, methinks I’m allowed to tread over some of the same ground again. And even if I’m not, I’m gonna; it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.

(I have a feeling this review is going to get around more than my earlier posts on the series, so I really will be treading some familiar ground here; this is aimed at those new to the subject, so you longtime readers, please bear with me! For many, this will quite possibly be their first look at this obscure video series.)

If you read any of my three previous Grampa Presents posts, you’ll notice that the sleeves feature, you know, Grampa. This series started in 1988, and his caricature and quirky lil’ rating system were supposed to adorn each of the respective tapes, though they were inexplicably left off some. But, that’s not when Amvest/Vintage Video/VideoFidelity/whoever (there’s a lineage of divisions/names, but for the sake of ease, it’s all Amvest to me, okay?) first started releasing movies on VHS; that goes back to *at least* 1985, as you can see in the copyright info above. Their output featured a wide range of genres, and when the Grampa series started in ’88, they just took the appropriate horror/sci-fi titles already released, kept the same catalog numbers, and later ostensibly re-released them as part of the Grampa line.

I say “ostensibly” because prior to finding this tape, I was dubious that any of those earlier titles had actually been later “Grampa-ized” in any way, and I had obtained several ‘plain’ titles that bore that out. I’ll explain further later.

For now, this tape, it has the appearance of one of those ‘plain’ 1985 Amvest tapes. Unlike the decidedly budget-looking qualities of the ’88 releases, these ’85 tapes were, outwardly at least, similar to the Goodtimes and Congress Video products of the era. Even the font and general layout is similar.

Though, I find the summary on the back…kinda strange. That “Look out earthlings!” opening line misleadingly makes this seem like it’s going to be an alien invasion saga. And that whole radiation explanation? That was a theory presented in the film, but the actual cause was basically left unanswered. I object to the “sci-fi thriller” genre labeling (it’s a horror movie!!), and the statement about taking “the horror movie cult by storm” is oddly worded at best. Also, it’s “flick.”

(Also sorely, sorely missed? The “Grampa’s Ratings” feature from the sleeves that were specifically tailored to Grampa Presents entries. How many bats would this film have gotten? Hopefully, all of them.)

Aw, does any of this really matter? Budget Night of the Living Dead releases were no strangers to oftentimes ill-fitting summaries on the sleeves, and besides, we’re about to see what makes this a candidate for greatest home video release of anything ever…

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GRAMPA!

When I purchased this tape, I naturally had my hopes, but from all outside appearances, I figured this was going to be a ‘regular’ Amvest release. Which, hey, if my previously-held theory that this was one of the titles that never had Grampa grafted on held true, this was at least as close as I could get. The catalog number was matched if nothing else, and besides, none of these Amvest tapes, Grampa or otherwise, are easily found. This particular release of Night of the Living Dead proved to be exceedingly rare; indeed, the first copy I saw for sale is the very one we’re looking at this Halloween day!

So, I get the tape, I have to rewind it, I start it at the beginning, and duly proceed to flip my beans. The second the familiar (to me) Grampa intro appeared, I was pretty much already proclaiming this to be the all-time crowning achievement of home entertainment. Look, y’all can watch your mega-deluxe remastered Blu-ray copies of Night of the Living Dead all you want, the fact remains that they (probably) don’t open with a bat being “zapped” by lightning and transforming into Al Lewis, who then continues to flap his arms around appropriately, and all in front of a green-screen (blue-screen?) with generically spooky music in the background. Therefore, this release is clearly the superior choice…if you can find it, that is.

Al Lewis’ famous Grandpa Munster character was going through a resurgence of sorts in the late-1980s and early-1990s. ‘Course, he didn’t go by that moniker, it being copyrighted and all. Thus, the “Grandpa Munster” name gave way to a simple “Grampa,” which was how he was often billed in his post-Munsters endeavors. Everyone knew who he was supposed to be, anyway.

Among his many ventures during the time-period: Starring in a (thematically) similar horror host-showcase for TBS, 1987-1989’s Super Scary Saturday. Also, having his own Atari 7800 game, 1990’s Midnight Mutants; even when ignoring my fondness for Lewis, it’s my pick for best game on the system (and along with Double Dragon, easily my favorite).

Heck, dude even had his own NYC restaurant for a few years. Fun fact: I’ve got a matchbook and a take-out menu from said restaurant in my collection. They make me feel like a big man.

So, these Amvest tapes were just another part of that career resurgence. Even though they seem to have gotten a promotional push by Amvest at some point (well, promotional buttons were made up, anyway; I’ve seen one, they exist), the overall distribution was so limited that they’ve wound up fairly unknown in this day and age. As I’ve stated in my other articles on the subject, these videos range from “highly obscure” to “impossibly rare” (and I’d say this entry definitely falls towards the rarer side of that scale), though truth be told, regardless of rarity they all seem to average around $20 to $30 used. Sometimes even less. Look, these Grampa Presents tapes are worth more than, say, that old VHS copy of Jurassic Park floating around your basement, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re not that valuable.

They are undoubtedly cool, however…

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These weren’t the first tapes to introduce direct-to-video horror hosting; Elvira’s Thriller series was (near as I can tell) the one to kick it all off, back in 1985. (Remember when we looked at Elvira’s VHS hosting of The Cyclops?) Those Thriller tapes were pretty major releases; big, eye-catching boxes, high quality SP recordings, and Elvira at (or very near) the peak of her popularity. In some ways, this Amvest series feels like the budget answer to those Thriller videos, though they probably weren’t intended to be. Or maybe they were, I don’t know.

There were (supposedly) a whopping 59 individual Grampa titles in this series; I’ll give you the whole list in a bit. For those that may want to check out some of these but aren’t weird enough to go after ’em all (like I am), I’ll tell you right now: Grampa’s intros and outros (there are no during-the-movie segments) for each title are exactly the same. What, you thought Lewis was gonna film 59 unique intros and outros? Nope! So, if you’re going for one, you can make your choice based solely on what movie you’re fondest of. ‘Course, that depends on if it was a title actually released with the Grampa segments, and whether it’s even remotely possible to find, and so on and so forth.

The only thing different from tape-to-tape was a moment where Lewis asks the off-screen Igor to tell viewers the name of “this monsta flick!” There’s a silence where a respective voiceover would be added, giving the title and stars, while Lewis looks on expectantly. It’s not a bad idea really, except most of the time Amvest didn’t even bother including the voiceover, which means that Lewis excitedly proclaims “THAT’S THE ONE!!” to absolutely nothing – which is actually really, really funny. My brother, who had never seen one of these prior, joined me for this viewing and got a laugh out of the moment, along with sharing a well-stated “Awkward!”

Lewis’ Super Scary Saturday on TBS is probably the first thing that comes to mind for those that haven’t seen one of these tapes but are imagining a horror hosted showcase starring Grampa. If you pick up one of these Amvest tapes, don’t go in expecting anything close to that show; Amvest was strictly a budget outfit, and boy, it shows. Forget the relatively big-budget, expansive set of the TBS show; Lewis does his entire shtick in front of a green (I guess) screen, with images of a castle (from White Zombie, I believe) and a lab (complete with squiggly neon accents; hey, it was the 1980s) flashed behind him at appropriate moments.

Lewis had his Grampa shtick down to a science by that point, which was fortunate, because he was basically on his own here. Not only does he have to introduce the proceedings and explain this Amvest video series, but he also has to be entertaining. To that end, he cracks jokes about people confusing him with Paul Newman, states this is all taking place in “Downtown Transylvania,” and posits that he’s 316 years old.

And that’s all in addition to yelling at the aforementioned, off-screen Igor. Igor is also unheard, though the voiceover that was supposed to be added (but usually wasn’t) was intended to be him.

These intros and outros add up to under 8 minutes total, but they absolutely give the tape(s) genuine personality. And, Grampa’s promise of “we’re gonna watch it together!” in regards to the movie, obviously it’s just meaningless hype, but it does do a lot for the atmosphere. There’s almost a personal connection here, which was (is?) in the best tradition of television horror hosts. It’s one thing to dryly introduce a film, but it’s another thing to establish a rapport with the audience. Lewis easily manages that. And not just because he was currently hosting movies on TBS when this was made, but also because he was just that good at what he did in general.

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Movie time!

Night of the Living Dead is an intense film, a great film, a genuinely scary film. It’s not exactly a fun film, though. Not in a comical sense, I mean. So, the jokey Grampa segments that bookend it may sound like they’re at odds with the rest of the tape. But, those contrasting styles are part of what makes this so appropriate for today. Halloween is about the scares and whatnot, sure, but it’s also about havin’ some fun.

And, those differing styles are another throwback to honest-to-goodness television horror hosting. The host was there to provide a little levity along with the horrific proceedings. So here, it all just clicks. In a cheap, old, budget VHS sort of way, naturally, but obviously that’s right up my alley. Your mileage may vary, of course.

As evidenced by the screenshots, Amvest did not have access to the highest quality print of Night of the Living Dead in existence. Nope, this is a rough one. It’s pretty blasted, scratchy, dirty, what have you. You can even see the edge of the frame (?) at the top of the screen throughout, as evidenced above. Lotsa crackles on the soundtrack as well. Obviously, this copy of the film made countless trips through the projector before it wound up in Amvest’s hands.

But you know what? None of that really bothers me. I mentioned this in the previous Nosferatu post, but films of this nature, they can sometimes benefit from grainy, worn print quality. Only to a point, granted, but sometimes accumulated wear to a print can enhance the feel of a movie.

“What the H, North Video Guy? You don’t want these movies lookin’ good, G?”

I didn’t say that, you incredible tool. Obviously it’s preferable that a film look as pristine as possible, especially when it’s a movie as important as Night of the Living Dead. THAT SAID, the unflinching storyline, the grainy film stock, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the immersive camera-angles, the gradually-ramping intensity, it’s all somehow made even more otherworldly, even dreamlike, by the quality of the print on this tape. It almost feels more nightmarish, like you’re peaking in on something better left unseen.

So, the condition of this print of Night of the Living Dead, plus some less-than-stellar duplication and the EP recording speed, by all means none of it should work in the favor of this viewing experience. And yet, somehow, it does. Criterion won’t come a-callin’ for a copy of this version anytime soon, but for our purposes here today, it’s perfect.

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A zombie shuffling through a graveyard, in black & white, via a cool tilty camera-angle? Looks Halloween appropriate to me!

I have strong Halloween-connections to Night of the Living Dead. Yeah yeah, real unique, I know. Like so many others I’m sure, that’s when I first discovered the film. Well, technically it was November 1, 1997. I’ve talked about this before, but it was through The Son of Ghoul Show that I first saw the movie. At the time, Son of Ghoul was running on both Fridays and Saturdays, same episode both nights, from 8 to 10 PM. That weekend, October 31st fell on a Friday, but it was some channel surfing on the following night that introduced me to both The Son of Ghoul Show and Night of the Living Dead. I became a fan of both immediately.

Night of the Living Dead gripped me in a way no other film did, at least not up to that point. Even with the customary humorous sound effects Son of Ghoul added to it (this being my first episode, it took me a moment to realize what he was doing, but I loved that aspect, too), I was completely and utterly riveted. I just had never seen anything like it.

Since Halloween fell on a Friday that year, Son of Ghoul naturally had things covered. But obviously, it didn’t always work out that way. Luckily, when it didn’t, that same station (WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35) customarily ran the film itself (as opposed to syndicating America One Network content, as they usually did) on October 31st. This was an entirely different print from what Son of Ghoul had, and truth be told, it exhibited a lot of the scratchy, worn aspects that I feel can and do add an extra nightmarish element to the film. In fact, it’s from those annual airings that I first realized this! For the sake of comparison, I once wrote about one of those broadcasts here.

I consider Night of the Living Dead the capper to my generally-preferred era of classic horror & sci-fi films. Actually, it comes a bit later, to be honest. I usually go for the Universal classics of the 1930s and 1940s, the poverty row films from the same period, and the cornball stuff from the 1950s and early-1960s. After that, my interests wane considerably. I wasn’t always quite so narrow-minded; I wound up like this through years of watching, re-watching, taste refinement, what have you. Hey, I gotta be me.

Night of the Living Dead, however, transcends my admittedly self-imposed limitations. Besides my nostalgic history with the film, I just find it an absolute masterpiece from start to finish. Everything about it works, and works perfectly. The acting, the plot, the claustrophobic intensity, the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) social commentary, the camera-angles, it’s all simply fantastic. The low budget that would have hampered almost any other film instead gives this one a gritty realism. There’s a real substance behind Night of the Living Dead; it’s not just a bunch of zombies eating people in order to give the audience a gory body count and little else. I detest that kind of film making, which is why I respect director George A. Romero so much; there was always more to his work, and this movie is a prime example of that.

Do I really even need to explain the plot of Night of the Living Dead? Just about everyone has seen it; with the public domain status, there were (are) numerous home video releases, television airings, even free and legal online downloads. You almost have to be trying to not see this movie!

Still, I suppose a brief summary is in order: For reasons never satisfactorily explained, the recently dead are returning to life as mindless zombies (or as the film deems them, “ghouls”), who then proceed to murder and eat the flesh of the living. Through various circumstances, on the night this situation first breaks, seven people of differing backgrounds and personalities find themselves in an isolated Pennsylvania farmhouse – a farmhouse that is surrounded by the creatures, whose numbers are progressively growing. The idea is for those trapped inside to work together, to either fortify the house until morning when a rescue party will (hopefully) be by, or safely escape to a rescue shelter in the city. Human nature being what it is, especially in a crisis, well, it doesn’t go quite as planned…

Look, I have a hard time believing anyone stumbling upon this article hasn’t seen the original Night of the Living Dead, but if by some strange occurrence you haven’t, you can watch it here, or at least read more about it here.

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Like I said a bit ago, Night of the Living Dead isn’t just a “zombies eatin’ guys, yo” movie. There’s more to it than that, including some pretty terrific social commentary lurking beneath the surface, with much of the film being an allegory for the Vietnam War. I’m far, far from the first to point out there are moments where Night of the Living Dead resembles gritty newsreel footage, and while the connection may be easy for some modern viewers to overlook, at the time of release it had to be hard for viewers of a certain age to miss.

But probably the most visible influential element, beyond the plot and what it did for the horror genre, is the star: Duane Jones. Jones plays Ben, the hero of the film. Of all the characters, Ben is the most level-headed, resourceful, and calm (to a point). Ben also happens to be black. To have an African-American in the lead role of a horror film, as the sanest voice of reason, in 1968, that was a huge deal. It was a monumental leap from Mantan Moreland in King of the Zombies, that’s for sure! And what’s more, while there appears to be some underlying racial tension, his color is never referenced in the movie; he’s simply another person trying to survive the onslaught of the undead. I like that.

Ben gets a legitimately awesome first appearance, literally jumping into the frame after his truck pulls up to the farmhouse. (In other words, you know immediately he’s cool.) Ben is also the subject for one of the most shocking conclusions in film history. I know practically everybody and their mother has seen Night of the Living Dead, but I’m still hesitant to spoil it. If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, go see it. I’ll never forget how absolutely floored by it I was upon that first viewing nearly 20 years ago. (Almost 20 years? I refuse to believe it’s been that long!)

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There were technically zombie films before Night of the Living Dead, (the aforementioned King of the Zombies comes to mind, as does 1932’s White Zombie), but the zombie genre as we know it today basically begins here. Earlier films regarding the subject were more along the lines of people in a trance, products of voodoo, those kind of zombies. The idea of the shambling, mindless, flesh-eating zombie – an idea that found life in a thousand Italian rip-offs (which I hate), the Resident Evil video game series (which I mostly love), today’s The Walking Dead, and of course the sequels to this Night of the Living Dead – it all started here. There’s been some differences over the years: the zombies in Night are scared of fire, whereas those in The Walking Dead are drawn to (or so I’m told; I’m not a Walking Dead fan), but the basic concept has remained the same. You still gotta kill the brain, man!

Part of what makes the film so effective is that we don’t know why the dead are rising and going after our flesh. As I mentioned before, there’s a radiation explanation, in which a satellite returning from Venus was detonated in our atmosphere, but it’s more of a theory than a definitive conclusion.

Or rather, that was a theory presented in the film, but not this particular version of it; that explanatory scene has been edited out of this print! Well, most of it; there’s a short, short piece left in. (There’s also another fairly-obvious bit of editing later, and that one looks then-recently implemented; to make more room for the Grampa segments, perhaps?)

I’m actually okay with the exploding satellite theory being excised from this version, which I’m a little surprised to hear myself say; under normal circumstances, the idea of needlessly chopping up a film, especially a masterpiece like this one, that’s the sort of thing that can cause me to fold my arms and pout for hours on end. But here, it’s so much scarier not knowing why this is all happening. The satellite theory was never conclusive evidence anyway, and all it did was subsequently muck up the reasoning for the outbreak. (Case in point: the back cover for this VHS release!)

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Above: Johnny’s coming to get you, Barbra!

Upon this latest viewing, I was struck yet again by just how perfectly-paced this film is. The ramping intensity is something to behold. It starts out foreboding but calm enough, and then grows increasingly nerve-wracking, until the natural boiling point is hit and it all goes careening out of control. You can almost feel this living dead situation grow from something relatively small and not very well understood into a legitimate, widespread crisis. That the movie is so convincingly able to put this forth when, for the most part, it’s only seen from the viewpoint of those trapped in the farmhouse, it’s a testament to just how well-made it is.

And furthermore, because there’s such a wide-range of dispositions on display via the different people inside, it’s almost like a gauge of how the world at large is dealing with the onslaught. From the relatively calm and resourceful to the angry knee-jerk to the indecisive, and even to the victims of the plague, a large slice of human nature is on display – and over the course of the film, some of those lines are occasionally blurred. It speaks to the different personalities of not only the main characters, or even the fictional world beyond the farmhouse, but to us, the very real individuals watching the film! I’d guess most of us would like to identify with Ben, but in a situation like this, who knows who we would actually resemble?

And, in a broader study of life, guess what? It doesn’t matter who or what they (or we) are or what happens; different roads are taken, but it all has the same eventual outcome. Man this movie is brilliant.

Night of the Living Dead is the first in Romero’s Dead film series. While the social commentary, and number of zombies, increased in following entries, this original film is the only one I concern myself with nowadays. I didn’t like the way things were heading in 1985’s Day of the Dead, and after reading accounts of the following entries, well, I really had no desire to see any of them.

Even 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, the first sequel to Night, while there was a point when I considered it my favorite of the series, as I grew older I gravitated back to this original. I know that’s probably anathema to admit, and yes, Dawn is technically a better film, with stronger social commentary, a higher budget, etc. BUT, Night, I just find it so much more effective. I like the comparatively subtle social commentary, but more importantly, the claustrophobic black & white nature of the film, it still grips me in a way no other horror movie can.

And as far as the Dead series as a whole goes, Night seems the purest; no trained, and from how I understand it, eventually intelligent, zombies – a germ of an idea that really turned me off Day upon my first viewing so many years ago. Nope, the creatures in Night are just relentlessly after your flesh; that’s it! Do you really need more of a driving factor than the prospect of your skin bein’ munched on?!

And what’s more, the tone of the following Dead films, I don’t like the increasingly bleak direction they took. Again, probably anathema to admit, I know. But, the idea of the entire world being overrun, a zombie apocalypse, I don’t know, it just doesn’t do it for me. Oddly enough, despite the shocking downer conclusion of Night, there’s still a small glimmer of hope on display: Maybe things can still be contained, maybe this really was just a night of the living dead? I find the uncertain prospects at the end of the film far more appealing than knowing that “y’all is doomed.”

I guess what I’m getting at is that I prefer to view Night of the Living Dead as a standalone film and not as part of a wider series. I know many will disagree with me, and that’s fine; it’s strictly a personal choice on my part, and I’m well aware that I’m probably in the minority.

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One more thing about Night

Chilly Billy! Yep, there’s an added element of horror hosting history on display in Night of the Living Dead: Bill Cardille, popularly known as “Chilly Billy,” hosted Chiller Theatre in Pittsburgh (where this film was, uh, filmed) for years. Here, he plays a news reporter, keeping viewers abreast of the crisis in the world at large.

Cardille passed away in July, and while I myself never had much experience with him beyond this movie, it’s clear that he meant a lot to his local viewers. So, here’s my small, belated tribute to one of the icons of horror hosting. R.I.P., Chilly Billy. If there’s one way to live on, being in Night of the Living Dead, of all films, is it!

(Fun Fact: Cardille’s daughter Lori was the star of the second sequel to this movie, 1985’s Day of the Dead!)

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And that brings us back to Grampa, the element that takes this VHS tape of Night of the Living Dead from “great movie, interesting release” to “I love this I love this I love this so so so muchhhhh.” The movie is pretty untouchable no matter how you see it, but when it has horror hosted bookends, it’s all just so much more fun. Especially when they’re courtesy of Al Lewis.

Because the segments for this series were all the same, with only the voiceover in the intro supposed to have been changing, much of what Grampa says isn’t tied to any particular film (for obvious reasons), and what is movie-related is just generic oohing and ahhing.

For example, the first thing he says upon returning from the movie is “That was so scary, it scared the blood right back into my veins! What a feeling!” Not an unusual thing to say given the circumstances, and in the case of Night of the Living Dead, it works. Thing is, a good deal of the (prospective) movies in this series, they were more silly or cheesy than they were scary, which makes the line either pretty appropriate or wildly ironic, depending on the film.

I’m not really going anywhere with this line of thought, I just wanted a kinda sorta decent transition to this next part…

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No one is quite sure how many titles were actually released as part of this Grampa Presents line. We have a list of titles that were supposedly available, via a scrolling list in the outro segment (above), but only a portion of those have been confirmed to actually exist. It doesn’t help that ones known to exist with the Grampa-branded cover don’t necessarily have Grampa on the tape, and ones that have ‘normal’ covers can sometimes have the surprise host segments. And, as we’ve seen today, there were re-releases of older, 1985 Amvest tapes that left the covers the same, but updated the tape itself to fit the series. And they ALL share the same catalog numbers, which just makes things more confusing. It’s an interesting, though often maddening, mish-mash of releases, and every time I think I’ve got a handle on things, something comes along that makes me question everything all over again.

Before I got this tape, I had basically come to the conclusion that the older ’85 titles were added to pad out the number of supposed Grampa Presents entries during the outro scroll, but I held doubts that they were ever updated to correspond to the 1988 series beyond that. I had obtained enough of the ’85 titles to where I thought I was safe in making that educated (ha!) guess. Needless to say, my finding of this Night of the Living Dead shatters that theory and leaves things pretty much wide open now.

So, my new rule of thumb is “If it’s on this list, and it’s available, give it a shot, because you never know until you play it.” That’s the best and only conclusion I can come to. I strongly suspect Amvest released all of these movies on VHS at some point, and for all I know, there’s corresponding Grampa versions for each and every one.

Here now is that complete list of potentially available titles as given during the outro segment…

(* = Indicates that I personally own a copy of that title, and thus I know for sure it was released by Amvest in some form at some point. [Confirmed] = Indicates this title was indeed released as part of the Grampa Presents series, either with him on the tape itself, on the packaging, or both. If Al Lewis is present in or on the tape in any way, I’m considering it officially released as part of the series. My confirmation is based on what I personally own, what I myself have seen sold online, these two pages over at The VCR From Heck, this page over at VHSCollector, and the Mike’s VHS Collection page over at Cinemassacre. Reputable sources all! And yes, I will continuously update this list as I progressively confirm and/or acquire more titles.)

1. VV-430 – Night Of The Living Dead [Confirmed]*
2. VV-432 – The Little Shop Of Horrors*
3. VV-439 – The Terror* [Confirmed]*
4. VV-442 – The Devil Bat* [Confirmed]*
5. VV-443 – Horror Hotel [Confirmed]
6. VV-446 – The Ape Man* [Confirmed]*
7. VV-458 – Frankenstein’s Daughter*
8. VV-471 – Godzilla Vs. Megalon*
9. VV-476 – White Zombie*
10. VV-501 – Ghosts On The Loose* [Confirmed]
11. VV-515 – The House Of Exorcism [Confirmed]
12. VV-516 – The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant [Confirmed]*
13. VV-517 – Spider Baby [Confirmed]
14. VV-518 – Spooks Run Wild [Confirmed]*
15. VV-519 – The Indestructible Man
16. VV-520 – The Corpse Vanishes [Confirmed]*
17. VV-521 – Phantom From Space [Confirmed]*
18. VV-522 – Who Killed Doc Robin?
19. VV-523 – Killers From Space [Confirmed]*
20. VV-524 – The Human Monster [Confirmed]*
21. VV-525 – Scared To Death [Confirmed]*
22. VV-526 – The Vampire Bat
23. VV-527 – Death Race 2000*
24. VV-528 – The Phantom Of The Opera (1925)*
25. VV-529 – Invisible Ghost [Confirmed]
26. VV-530 – Bride Of The Gorilla [Confirmed]*
27. VV-531 – Carnival Of Souls [Confirmed]*
28. VV-532 – Witch’s Curse [Confirmed]*
29. VV-533 – Snow Creature [Confirmed]
30. VV-534 – Battle Of The Worlds*
31. VV-535 – Dementia 13 [Confirmed]*
32. VV-536 – Alice, Sweet Alice [Confirmed]
33. VV-537 – Vampyr
34. VV-538 – Radar Men From The Moon (Part 1)
35. VV-539 – Radar Men From The Moon (Part 2)
36. VV-540 – The Death Kiss [Confirmed]*
37. VV-541 – Nosferatu [Confirmed]*
38. VV-542 – Yog, Monster From Space [Confirmed]
39. VV-543 – First Spaceship On Venus [Confirmed]*
40. VV-544 – The Crawling Eye [Confirmed]*
41. VV-545 – Giant From The Unknown [Confirmed]*
42. VV-546 – Immediate Disaster
43. VV-547 – The Last Woman On Earth [Confirmed]*
44. VV-548 – The Living Head [Confirmed]*
45. VV-549 – Mesa Of Lost Women [Confirmed]
46. VV-550 – Missile To The Moon [Confirmed]*
47. VV-551 – Monster From Green Hell [Confirmed]*
48. VV-552 – Nightmare Castle
49. VV-553 – The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy
50. VV-554 – Mars Attacks The World*
51. VV-555 – Satan’s Satellites
52. VV-556 – The Island Monster
53. VV-557 – Wild Women Of Wongo
54. VV-558 – Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy
55. VV-559 – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Michael Rennie) [Confirmed]
56. VV-560 – She Demons [Confirmed]*
57. VV-561 – Creature From The Haunted Sea [Confirmed]
58. VV-562 – The Ape [Confirmed]*
59. VV-563 – The Phantom Creeps [Confirmed]

In addition to those 59 titles, there were also four special compilations hosted by Grampa: Two movie trailer collections, and two horror-themed cartoon collections. These four listings were not included in the scroll at the end of these Grampa Presents tapes, and technically probably aren’t officially considered part of the series. Still, they’re Amvest, and they’re Grampa, so for the sake of completion, I’m including them here. It should be noted that the two movie trailer tapes are probably the easiest Amvest Grampa tapes to find. It seems used copies are almost always readily available on eBay and Amazon, especially the Grampa’s Monster Movies compilation.

60. VS-005 – Grampa’s Silly Scaries – Vintage Horror-Themed Cartoons [Confirmed]
61. VS-006 – Grampa’s Monster Movies – Vintage Horror Movie Trailers [Confirmed]*
62. VS-009 – Grampa’s Sci-Fi Hits – Vintage Science Fiction Movie Trailers [Confirmed]*
63. VS-010 – More Silly Scaries – Vintage Horror-Themed Cartoons [Confirmed]

It’s important to note that in 2004, Passport Video (who somehow share a connection to the Amvest of old) released DVDs of the horror trailers and cartoon sets. I don’t own either (yet), but from how I understand it, they were straight conversions of the old Amvest tapes, barring maybe one or two alterations. The VCR From Heck has more info on these DVDs.

It’s wild to think that Lewis was still alive when those DVDs were released; hopefully he got a few extra bucks thanks to them.

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It’s a trip listening to Lewis as the list scrolls. Mostly, he makes generic comments such as “I remember that one!” until he decides it’s time to yell at Igor some more for his apparently bad eating habits. It’s doesn’t make much sense, but it’s better than a dry, silent scroll if nothing else.

The end of the scroll promises “more to come.” This list of 59 titles is the only real resource we have of the Grampa Presents releases, and as previously stated, whether all of those were even put out with Lewis-involvement of some sort is in question.

Still, that statement of “more to come” is thought-provoking. Is it possible that Amvest later released some additional titles with Lewis’ host segments grafted on? As we’ve seen, they wouldn’t have even necessarily included the appropriate hoopla on the VHS sleeve; you never know for sure until the tape is played.

Of course, I have no knowledge whatsoever of further “surprise” titles in the series; everything I have or have seen has corresponded exactly with this list. Frankly, I suspect the promise of later releases to have been little more than hype, hype that eventually went unfulfilled. Still, one has to wonder…

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After the scroll, information is given to order direct from Amvest if a desired title couldn’t be found in stores. And, my guess is, a good many couldn’t.

$12.95 total may sound like a lot for a VHS tape now, but back in 1988, that was most definitely a budget price. Remember, official, big-time movie releases on the format then were over $20 (sometimes way over). But $13? That’s totally doable. And, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that actual in-store copies were even cheaper, especially when establishments were trying to clear out the old stock to make room for the new. Honestly, I can see these running $5-$10 easily in those instances. Now granted, the quality of the tapes often left a lot to be desired, but hey, that’s where the old adage “you get what you pay for” came in.

Anyway, on the off chance you did come across these tapes at a brick-and-mortar video store, you were supposed to look for the “Casket of Horrors” display, which housed all of them in once concise section for your perusal. I have no idea how many of, or even if, these displays were produced; the tapes themselves seemed to have barely gotten around, after all. But, there’s no doubt that the display is painfully, ridiculously, undeniably cool. Do you have any idea how badly I’d flip if I could get one of these stand-ups for my collection? Pretty badly! We’re talking an “only technically an adult” level of excitement here.

I’m trying to decipher what tapes are on display in this scene. Given the less-than-pristine quality of this tape, it’s not an easy task. Third from the left I’m almost positive is a copy of this Night of the Living Dead, and second from the right I’m pretty sure is Godzilla Vs. Megalon. The rest, I have no idea. Despite Grampa’s assurances each tape would feature his face on the cover, these all appear to be 1985 releases, and who knows if they were all actually altered to feature Grampa on the actual video; Night obviously did (at some point), but my Amvest Megalon? Despite showing some signs of potentially being an ’88 reissue, it was not Grampa-ized (much to my understandable chagrin). So again, there’s just no way to tell without having a tape in-hand and playing it.

If one did decide to order direct from Amvest, Grampa gives the standard address, New Jersey residents (where Amvest was based) had to add 6% sales tax, and so on and so on. But, he also states that when ordering, please allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery “because in your neighborhood, the bats don’t fly that fast!” Yes, Grampa suggests your tape would be delivered by a bat. How can you not love the guy when he does things like that?

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Grampa’s final pitch before the sensory assault that was (is) this tape finishes? “So listen to Grampa and don’t dig your own grave! Go out and buy Amvest Video!” That’s pretty fantastic. And what if you don’t buy Amvest? Grampa proceeds to vaguely threaten what will happen if you don’t: “One night, it’s dark. You’re alone? You won’t be; I’ll be there visiting!” This statement is then followed by the classic, loud Grampa laugh that continues as the screen fades out.

Again, how can you not love the guy when he does things like that?

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One last touch: the Amvest copyright card punctuates the video, complete with an evocative score (plus some continuing Grampa laughter!) and computerized blood dripping down the screen. If somehow someone hadn’t realized they were watching something sufficiently “spooky” prior (yeah, sure, uh huh), this last image leaves no further room for doubt.


Whew! Done!

This, this tape, I just don’t think I can accurately describe how cool it is. Some may see it as a cheap, wildly obsolete relic from a bygone era in home video. Not me. I see it as an incredibly entertaining product from the earlier years of video. Yes, the quality isn’t the greatest; it’s a budget release after all. But the Al Lewis segments are fun, especially to a fan such as myself. And the movie? You just can’t touch the original Night of the Living Dead. Even when it wasn’t an ‘authoritative’ presentation, it works, because the film is just THAT good. And, despite the somewhat lacking print quality here, like I said before, it adds an extra layer of nightmarish, grindhouse feeling to the proceedings.

Back when I reviewed The Corpse Vanishes as presented via this series, I held doubts that I’d ever do such an in-depth study of one of these titles again. Obviously I didn’t hold true to that. But, I think I was justified in revisiting. You just can’t top this one. My hunt for more of these titles will continue, I’ve gone too far to stop now, but in the way of sheer Halloween coolness, this Night of the Living Dead entry won’t be topped. The game is over, and I have won.

Previously, Grampa Presents The Corpse Vanishes was my de facto favorite entry in this series. But now, I’ve got to amend that standpoint a bit: It’s now safely tied with this one. The Corpse Vanishes is still my favorite “traditional” release; cheaper packaging, the Grampa advertising all over it, etc. Nevertheless, this Night instantly shot right up there next to it. (EDIT: Well, as of 6/28/17, it’s a four-way ‘favorites’ tie; I had since discovered Grampa’s version of The Devil Bat, and now, The Ape Man, too! Instant VHS royalty, both of them!) No, Al Lewis isn’t on the sleeve, but he’s present where it really counts, and that’s more than enough to rank this tape up there not only with my favorites in the line, but also up there with the favorites of my not-inconsiderable VHS collection as a whole. That’s a big statement coming from me, but I have zero problem making it.

And with that, our big Halloween post comes to a close. I can’t think of a better choice for the blog today. Sure, in the realm of these Grampa tapes, there are other appropriate choices, too; Carnival of Souls would have sufficed nicely, had I decided to give it the spotlight. But, given my fondness for this series, my history with Night of the Living Dead, and the fact this particular release is painfully rare, this was the logical, and to me, only, topic I could see myself going with. It’s just so Halloween appropriate! I simply couldn’t have asked for better material to cover on the blog than this.

Have a great Halloween everybody!