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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The famous Lone Star opening fanfare.

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

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

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

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

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

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


DISC ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting held-up, early in the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobin doggedly pursuing Zanti across the desert terrain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skiing (?) down an aqueduct (?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting instructions from “The Shadow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just one of the scenic backdrops in this movie.

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

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


DISC TWO

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

Dare and Dink, after some bar-brawlin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trick-shootin’ with a mirror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shootout in the street…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The climatic stagecoach race.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1939’s The Human Monster (1988)

amvest 3

Happy Halloween!

I can’t believe Halloween 2015 is here! The year zipped by like nothing, and this last month in particular has been a whirlwind. I love Halloween, but there’s always a sad feeling when the big day finally arrives; the whole month is a build-up to October 31st, and then Halloween itself comes and goes in a quick 24 hours. And just like that, full attention is then directed to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Halloween just ain’t long enough, man.

Some readers may remember last year when my Halloween-appropriate output during the season was decidedly lacking. Real life and all that jazz. I have rectified that error somewhat this year; last week we saw Gene Shalit’s visage pitch 1941’s The Wolf Man on VHS, and for this Halloween day post, I’m going above and beyond. Gene Shalit and Lon Chaney Jr. are a tough act to follow, but I do believe I have accomplished just that, with this: Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS series, starring none other than Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis! And he’s hosting Bela Lugosi’s The Human Monster! Cool winnins!

There were a bunch of these Grampa Presents videos for Amvest, though the overall distribution was so limited that no one is quite sure just how many were actually released and how many were merely proposed releases. A good number of titles did make it out of the door in some amount, but none of them are easily found nowadays. Indeed, these releases range from highly obscure to impossibly rare. Heck, even non-Grampa-branded Amvest titles are often tough to come by. Some of these tapes are worth more than others, mostly depending on rarity and/or how cool/popular/whatever the movie featured is. But for those so inclined, enough diligent internet searching should turn up at least some fairly affordable prospects. I mean, these are rare, but not that rare. They ain’t the Honus Wagner of VHS tapes, man.

So, when I was able to nab this tape for a price that didn’t cause my arms to flail about in utter dismay, I jumped at the chance. A bit over $20? A little pricey for an ancient budget VHS, but I can live with it. Don’t underestimate just how gratifying it is to finally have one of these tapes in my collection. I’ve been aware of the series for some time now, but the pricing/availability/whatever just never worked out for me. But, I was able to make it happen in time for this Halloween post, and that’s something I really hoped to accomplish.

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Much of my fascination with the Amvest Grampa videos stems from two factors:

1) The apparent limited distribution and uncertainty regarding which titles in this series did and didn’t actually hit store shelves, plus the murky aura that often tends to surround these cheapie, dime store video releases in general. It sort of lends an air of mystery to these tapes, and I find that endlessly intriguing.

2) I’m an Al “Grampa” Lewis fan, period. He was such a cool guy, and he never resented the Grampa character typecasting that stuck with him following The Munsters. On the contrary, he took it and ran with it. Besides these videos, there were the personal appearances, television commercials, his own restaurant, even an Atari 7800 game. So yeah, if he’s going to have his own line of VHS tapes in which he hosts public domain horror movies, I’m all over that.

And just look at that cover art! If that isn’t budget tape greatness, I don’t know what is. Caricatures of Bela Lugosi and Wilfred Walters (not Hugh Williams as the cover implies), drawn in the proud public domain tape tradition (on cardboard so flimsy I’m actually a little surprised the sleeve has survived to the present day as well as it has), with an illustration of Al “Grampa” Lewis overlooking it all. When it comes to the realm of mega-cheap 1980s budget VHS tapes, it just does not get cooler than that.

The artwork used for the tapes in the series ranged from “pretty darn decent” (usually the ones that used real photographs or original movie poster art as their basis) to “hilariously amateurish” (many, but not all, of the entries with hand-drawn original artwork), though I’m thinking the illustration for The Human Monster falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. You wouldn’t have seen CBS/FOX releasing something like this, but for what it is, a budget video featuring a public domain movie, it’s perfectly serviceable, maybe even above-average.

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The back cover, naturally. The description is perfunctory, as is par for the course with tapes of this nature (click on it for a super-sized view and judge fo’ yo’ self).

What takes this aspect of the release from “meh” territory to “greatest achievement of mankind” territory is the “Grampa’s Ratings” feature at the bottom. Apparently, Grampa gives the film two bats and a description of “Horrible Horror,” which probably isn’t the best way to pitch a prospective customer on your video until you realize you’re supposed to think this was Al Lewis himself giving his seal of approval, in which case how good or bad the movie is is almost secondary to the mental picture of Grampa sitting down and critically analyzing it.

I wonder if Amvest actually did solicit Lewis’ opinion and those are his own real words on the back? I can easily see it being a gimmick the marketing department (?) cooked up to add some extra allure to the tape, but I can just as easily see Lewis matter-of-factly stating his opinion. “It’s hohrrable horrah, Hoyman!” That was my attempt at an Al Lewis-style New York accent, though it probably doesn’t work in print as well as I hoped. Just play along here, okay?

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The tape itself, featuring the plainest label and cheapest film reels in the universe, as well as approximately 3 feet of actual video tape used total (make note of this fact; it will come back to haunt me later).

Okay, preliminaries out of the way, we now come to the real reason anyone bought the tape back then or cares about the tape today…

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Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis! Look at him up there. What a badass.

Like I said before, I’m a huge Al Lewis fan, and seeing him doing his Grampa shtick in any format is a pleasure. But, when that shtick entails horror hosting, man, that’s directly up my alley. On that front, these Amvest videos not only feature Lewis hosting a movie, they were also released in 1988, which was smack in the middle of Lewis’ run on TBS as host of Super Scary Saturday, a weekend showcase in which he hosted horror and sci-fi films as his Grampa persona. Back in June, I looked at one such broadcast.

By ’88, home video was a genuine fact of life, and by then it had progressed to the point where it was actually feasible to have budget tapes. Considering Lewis wasn’t shy about lending his Grampa-persona to anyone willing to pony up the bucks, his TBS show was doing well with the kids, and Thriller Video had some success with Elvira hosting movies-for-video, it makes total sense to try to get in on some o’ dat. Heck, this sorta feels like an attempt at aping Thriller’s Elvira videos, only more cut-rate and kid-friendly.

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Those used to his Super Scary Saturday set and its expansive “mad scientist lab” set-up are in for a bit of a shock here. A ‘real’ lab set is nowhere to be found; instead, a green screen featuring a stock shot (I guess) of a lab, with added tinting and neon-squiggle accents (hey, it was 1988), is used for this endeavor. It looks, well, it looks kinda rinky dink, but Amvest was a budget outfit, and after shelling out the Grampa-bucks, you do what you can afford.

The setting may be a low budget affair, but his dialog is classic Grampa. Really, I can’t see how anyone couldn’t love the guy. He opens with a joke about viewers mistaking him for Paul Newman (note: he’s not), and then makes specific mention of personally watching a movie from Amvest’s film library with you, the viewer. Since these tapes were almost certainly aimed at kids (for the most part; there’s a couple more-intense films sprinkled throughout), his patter fits perfectly, and he (obviously) had his act down to a science by that point. So even though it isn’t/wasn’t a high-end setting, it all still works wonderfully, and it’s all to Lewis’ performance.

And really, while my feelings may be slightly skewed because this is Halloween day, this all just feels like the kind of tape parents would put on for kids that were too young to fully partake in Halloween activities but still wanted to give them something ostensibly spooky to stare at. I love it.

By the way, there was an opening sequence to all of this wackiness, but as was the case with so many budget videos, there was no customary blank black screen or copyright notices prior to the start of the show/movie/etc. The program itself started at the very beginning of the tape. Problem with that set-up is that when it comes to tapes of this nature, that’s when tracking and whatnot is still getting situated, and as far as this tape goes, by the time things settle down to a coherent viewing-point, Grampa is already into his pitch. This irritates me.

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Rumor has it that these intros and outros were the exact same for every Amvest Grampa Presents release, with only a voiceover changed to reflect the different films featured. That is, Grampa would ask the unseen Igor what the feature film was for that video, and then look on expectantly as the title was announced via the aforementioned voiceover.

Methinks the quality control at Amvest was a little lax, because for this release, they forgot the voiceover! What this means is you get to watch Grampa listening in anticipation to absolute silence and then excitedly proclaiming “That’s the one!” Even for a budget video company, I can’t believe they let something like that slip through the cracks. It’s unintentionally hilarious until I remember I paid over $20 for this damn tape.

(Amvest’s apparent laxness manifests itself in more dire form later, but we’ll get to that in due time.)

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Being wildly public domain, this isn’t a hard movie to track down in the slightest, but oddly enough, until I got this tape I only ever saw the film under the original British title of Dark Eyes Of London.

As stoked as I am to have this video, I’m the first to admit this flick has never been a favorite of mine. In fact, I find it fairly dull. I first recorded it (under that Dark Eyes Of London title) off of WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35 waaay back in, I’m pretty sure, 1997. At the time, I was into any and all old horror and sci-fi films, and being from the 1930s/1940s sweet-spot (which I still have a strong affinity for to this day), Dark Eyes should have instantly found a place in my heart

But, it didn’t. Even this latest viewing did little to change my opinion that it’s a slow-moving, dry, overtly British film. Not that I mean to knock British films, there’s a ton of great ones even from just the same time period as this, but British horror and sci-fi has just never appealed to me the way similar U.S. products in the genre(s) have. It may be anathema to admit this, but even the Hammer films have never really tripped my trigger. And Gorgo? A less fun (and overrated, in my opinion) Godzilla knock-off. In fact, Vincent Price’s Theatre Of Blood has been the only British film in this genre to genuinely, raptly hold my attention.

So, hey, I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m being honest: I find The Human Monster infinitely less fun than Bela’s The Ape Man, Invisible Ghost, or what have you. And, I know I’m probably in the minority there; a lot of people love this movie. That’s fine, I don’t want to stomp around babbling about how bad it is or anything like that, but frankly, it just doesn’t do much for me.

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You know, I realized that as of late this might as well be the “Bela Blog.” Over the past year, he’s popped up here via Superhost’s Dracula broadcast, Son Of Ghoul’s Plan 9 broadcast, my SPN Network post, even that recent Mill Creek movie set review and just last week in the previously-linked Gene Shalit Wolf Man VHS post. Even a few stray times beyond all that, too. Bela definitely has a presence here.

This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, though. I can only write about what I’m sufficiently fired up over, and it was sheer coincidence that Bela Lugosi figured into so much of it. Not that I’m complaining; I’m the first to admit I’m a big fan of his. Bela, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price – if a movie features them, it doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, their involvement is enough to garner at least some interest on my part (The Human Monster included). Such is my admiration for them both as actors and as a horror/sci-fi junkie.

In this one, Bela plays one Dr. Orloff, an insurance salesman that kills clients for their policies and then collects the big money. Probably not exactly a foolproof plan, but no one ever said evil guys are always rational. Orloff also masquerades as a fella named Dearborn, who runs a home for the blind, a locale that figures prominently into the plot.

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I think a large part of my lukewarm feelings towards this movie stem from the fact that it just isn’t very “horrific” in a typical-of-the-genre sense. Bela doesn’t create any creatures, there’s nothing supernatural about it (it’s The Human Monster, after all), and again, I find the proceedings verrry dry. I’ll take Bela turnin’ himself into an ape guy any day.

Bela Lugosi’s performance aside (I may not be a fan of the film itself, but he does play his role well), the sole aspect of the movie I find genuinely interesting is Wilfred Walter’s monstrous, blind baddie, Jake, who you’re helpfully seeing above. Jake is a resident of Dearborn’s home for the blind, and does the killing for Dr. Orloff. He certainly does look scary, and to the credit of the filmmakers, there are some terrific shots of him. He doesn’t really save the film for me, but he certainly makes it more bearable.

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Look at that, Amvest felt the need to watermark the movie at one point, as if someone was interested in stealing their silly lil’ flick.

Given that this is a budget video release of a public domain movie, no one should ever expect a pristine film print, and the condition of this The Human Monster certainly lives up (down?) to those expectations. It’s dusty, dirty, scratchy, but yet, thanks to the LP recording speed, relatively sharp and clear. It could have looked so much worse, so that aspect was a pleasant surprise.

A decidedly less-pleasant surprise was in store for me though, and it was this surprise that concluded the tape. According to this thread over at the Our Favorite Horror Hosts forum, there was no set recording-mode that these Grampa Presents tapes would be produced in. Could be EP/SLP, could LP (such as this one), could be SP. I have seen pictures of Grampa tapes with an SP sticker affixed to the back (this one here), so SP and LP tapes are definitely out there, and I assume EP/SLP ones were released as well.

And that brings us to that eyebrow-raising conclusion: it appears that despite the LP-recording speed used for this copy, there was only enough tape for an EP/SLP recording. You know what that means, don’t you? The tape ran out and ended before the actual movie did!

That’s right, no stunning conclusion to The Human Monster, and more distressingly, no Grampa outro. My reaction to this revelation was something akin to “AW C’MON!” though I don’t recall my exact words. I wasn’t real happy, though.

Don’t let that dissuade you from picking up a copy of this video or any other in the series, though (unless I’m going after it too, in which case kindly back off pal). I doubt this is representative of the Grampa Presents tapes in general; my guess is it’s merely what many would term a “defective video.” Like I said earlier, I’m guessing Amvest’s quality control was a bit lax. I don’t mind discovering this, but I do kinda mind spending $20+ to find out.

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And yet, in the overall picture, the incomplete recording doesn’t really bother me that much. I mean, yes, of course I’d prefer the whole thing (duh!), but the rarity of the tape coupled with that perfect slice of late-1980s cheapie VHS essence, that recording snafu is almost overruled by all of that. In fact, it actually kinda adds to that late-1980s cheapie VHS essence! It’s not an ideal situation, obviously, but I try to look at things like this as glass-half-full.

Honestly, even though I personally didn’t have any entries in this video series until this one, it still serves as a nostalgia piece for me. It absolutely reminds me of the budget tapes I had growing up, warts and all. Heck, this just feels like something I would have (should have?) found at D&K in the old State Road shopping center. I never did, of course, but I’d like to think I would have snapped it up with a fervor comparable to what I feel going after these nowadays. Maybe even more fervor back then, because this was all so new to me at the time.

I’ve got a lot of tapes. Thousands and thousands, to be frank. When it comes to just the prerecorded stuff, I’ve got so much and have crossed so many personal “wants” off my list over the years that it’s hard to get really, genuinely stoked over a tape. It happens from time to time though, and in the case of not only this tape but all of the Grampa Presents tapes, well, I got the hunger. I don’t care if the intros and outros are essentially the same for each one, I don’t care if the quality is lacking, I don’t even care that this tape doesn’t even play all the way through. The bottom line is it’s Al “Grampa” Lewis, it’s horror hosting, it’s obscure, and it’s just plain cool. I want more, and I’m determined to get more!

And with that, this Halloween post comes to a close. Have a fantastic, fun and safe Halloween, everybody! See y’all after Ghoulardifest 2015!

VCI Home Video – The Creeping Terror (On Betamax, No Less)

 

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I love this one. Love love love it. No matter how many times I type “love,” I doubt you’re going to understand just how happy I am to have this awful, awful movie on a format that’s only slightly more obsolete than VHS. I’m jazzed, man.

Why? Because I’m a complete and total sucker for The Creeping Terror. I love this stupid terrible movie beyond what is probably considered acceptable limits of, erm, acceptability…? That kind of fell apart, but suffice it to say, I’m quite fond of the flick. It’s one of the worst movies ever made, and it’s gloriously entertaining because of that.

The Creeping Terror has it all: shoddy black & white footage, limited dialogue but plenty of awkward narration, a star that you won’t buy for a minute as a legitimate star and who doesn’t really do enough to warrant being called a star anyway (but being the director/producer/guy who made this movie happen, naturally he had first dibs on leading man-status), a scientist played by the original Marlboro Man (yes, really), a random lecture on bachelor-hood and married life, a very slow-moving monster that looks to be made of shag carpet, victims that not only lack the ability to run or even walk away from said monster but actually crawl into the thing, a rather rotund man and his grandson Bobby (“Bobbbby!“), and the most awkward, goes-on-for-far-too-long dance party that you’ve ever seen.

It’s one “say what?” moment after another, and thus it’s clearly one of the worst (greatest) things ever committed to film. Fittingly, it was given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, but the movie is so, so out there that it’s a trip by itself.

I first saw (and taped!) the film in 1998 on WAOH TV-29, years before I saw the MST3K version, and it was the recording of that broadcast that I was most familiar with for years (rarity of rarities: Unlike most of the stuff I taped, I actually wound up watching it!). My reasons for taping it were two-fold: 1) at that time, any old horror/sci-fi flicks were fair-game for my vicious recordin’ tactics (that is, I’d tape anything and everything possible that fit my preferred criteria), and more importantly, 2) thanks to my beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, I knew the movie had been featured on the show, and even though it would be a few years before I became familiar with the actual episode, the mere fact that the movie was on the show was enough to make me want it.

That said, despite the extreme oddness of the film, it didn’t really do much for me then. Sure, it was an uber-amateurish, grade-z sci-fi flick, but I had plenty of those in my collection already (albeit few, if any, as inept). And while the MST3K treatment has since become one of my favorites, my first viewing of that episode several years after first seeing The Creeping Terror left me a little cold as well.

It wasn’t until almost 2 years ago, when I came across this thread at the Classic Horror Film Board, that my interest in the film rose to peaks I never thought it would. The thread started way back in 2006, and it’s still going! There’s so much interesting backstory regarding The Creeping Terror that the movie itself is almost (but not quite) overshadowed by it all. And since I stumbled across the thread after it was already well, well underway, it was simply amazing to watch as more and more info about the film was progressively revealed. The contributors to that thread are some of the most knowledgeable and downright cool people I’ve come across online, and the sheer amount of information I’ve learned from not only that thread but from that forum in general is something I’m certainly grateful for. If you don’t know how The Creeping Terror came to be (and I sure didn’t), you owe it to yourself to check the thread out. It’s an absolutely fascinating read.

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Indeed, that thread is how I learned of the VCI home video release in the first place. Prior to that, The Creeping Terror is a film I had figured as incredibly public domain. That is, there was endless VHS/DVD releases of it out there, be it standalone or in compilation sets, not unlike The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. I’m not sure how I got that idea in my head, because while there were a few VHS releases, as well as a few DVD compilations nowadays, it turns out The Creeping Terror is not only not in the public domain, it also never had much of a life in the home video market, either. There was apparently a Rhino VHS release in the late-1980s/early-1990s, and of course the MST3K version on both VHS and DVD, but as far as I can ascertain, the VCI release under their “Le Bad Cinema” banner from the early-to-mid-1980s (there’s no video release date anywhere on my copy) was the first. Maybe it wasn’t, but as far as I can tell it was. Either way, in short order the VCI release became one of my “most wanted” videos.

I tend to operate under a “sooner or later I’ll come across it” optimism. Not just with videos, but also with old broadcasts/commercials/etc., electronics, and so on. And time and time again, that optimism and patience has paid off. But, it’s not fool-proof. For example, even though I’ve had a copy for years (two copies, actually), I still haven’t come across the Vestron release of Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis in person; I had to resort to eBay back in the day (luckily, it’s out on DVD now). Considering VCI’s The Creeping Terror is far, far more rare than that video ever was (Moroder’s Metropolis used to go for big bucks on eBay because it was, at the time, the best restoration of the film, but there were always multiple copies for sale; even though it was out of print, it was really more popular than outright rare), I knew my chances of finding a copy “in the wild” were slim, though certainly not impossible.

Still, when the opportunity to pick up the Beta version of the VCI release presented itself (and I had no idea there was a Beta release beforehand, though given the rough time frame of release, it makes sense), I jumped at it. I paid more than I really would have liked; the final total was akin to what rarer tapes were going for back in the good ol’ days (ha!) of late-1990s eBay. I’ve spent less on (some) used tape lots, but whatever. Needless to say, I was successful, as the picture above can attest.

I love the cover art. I mean, just look at it up there! It’s 1980s in all the best ways. I dig the hand drawn artwork of the era, and the cover of this particular video fits in perfectly: It’s simple, but perfect for this type of film. Though I’ll admit the absence of “The” in the title irritates me. It’s The Creeping Terror, not Creeping Terror! I got the same way with Goodtimes’ 35th anniversary release of The Blob back in the day; the cover listed it simply as Blob, which is even more awkward than Creeping Terror.

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It appears my copy has some staining to the box, mostly visible on the back. I pray it was only someones drink and not something more sinister. It doesn’t smell like anything troubling, or anything at all really, which is always a good sign. Yeah, I smelled the thing. Could I be any weirder?

The description on the back is adequate enough, but not exactly spot-on. None of the film takes place in the Rocky Mountains; it’s set in “Angel County,” California. And while it’s true that a ’57 Ford (I guess it’s a ’57 Ford, anyway) does indeed kill one of the monsters (there are two of ’em), they are certainly not immune to grenades; immediately before the Ford takes the one monster out, the other one is killed by a hand grenade thrown by the illustrious “Colonel Caldwell.”

Still, you can’t fault them for a few mistakes. This is the kind of film where, without intense concentration, it would be easy to let your mind wander and your eyes glaze over. Besides, who would really want or need a deeper-than-necessary knowledge of the film (besides me, I mean)?

Also, the copyright date for the film is almost always listed as 1964, as demonstrated on the back of this box. It was made around that time, but another interesting thing I learned from that aforementioned thread is that it’s almost positive that this film was never actually released theatrically! It seems the public never saw the film until it was licensed for TV showings sometime in the 1970s! And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wonderfully bizarre backstory of the film.

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There were a number of movies in VCI’s “Le Bad Cinema” line. It was probably a smart move to tag them as such, because at least as far as The Creeping Terror goes, you’re almost certainly gonna irk a lot of people if you advertise it as a ‘straight’ sci-fi/horror movie. No one is going to buy this as a ‘real’ film, and if by some chance they did, those hopes and dreams would be crushed as soon as the alien craft landing on Earth is shown as (and I’m not kidding here) blurred car headlights and stock footage of a rocket blasting off ran in reverse. Rather than pretend this is something “legit,” it was a wise choice to play up the real strengths of the flick (such as they are).

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There’s the tape itself, with a fairly cheap identification label affixed to it. So now you know. Really, what more can I say about it?

Since I have several Betamax VCRs, there’s never an issue of playing Beta tapes (duh!), but I generally prefer VHS (due to convenience plus it being the format I grew up with and still predominantly use for this sorta thing). As fond as I am of the format, given the choice I probably would have went with a VHS copy over Beta. There is a major benefit to having this on Beta, however: higher quality video (yes, people still argue about this, but Betamax does look superior to my eyes). Granted, there’s only so much that can be done with The Creeping Terror; even a pristine 1st generation film print is probably going to look shoddy to an extent, because it’s just a shoddy film in general (that’s why people love it!).

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Even with the limited number of releases out there, there are worse looking versions. In fact, VCI’s version looks pretty darn good, all things considered. Sure, there’s plenty of film scratches and dust, some scenes are too dark, and some are too light, but the image itself is relatively sharp. I mean, I can actually read the copyright notice in the opening credits; a minor miracle? I really was able to pick out little details in this version that I couldn’t in others, small victory that may be.

From my very first viewing, I remember being mildly surprised that they used what appears to be the design from the opening credits of The Blob for the credits of this movie. Or maybe they technically didn’t and it just looks insanely close.

That’s the title screen up above, by the way. You’ll get a better idea of this momentarily, but the superior sharpness of this particular print was evident as soon as those wondrous words that make up the name of this movie popped on-screen.

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You have no idea what a pain it was trying to get a decent screenshot of the titular character, and I still don’t think I was all that successful. I wanted an all-encompassing shot that would give those unfamiliar with the film an idea of just how goofy the monster is, but the thing is always moving around whilst surrounded by trees and shrubbery and whatnot. Plus, the screen often being on the dark side only made things more difficult for your Northeast Ohio Video Idiot Hunter. Even the back of the video box had trouble with this (scroll back up and see if y’all don’t believe me). Rest assured, it’s a giant shaggy-carpet monster with hoses of some sort protruding from its head. It looks really bad (which of course means it’s awesome). The mostly-obscured illustration on the front cover looks better than the actual in-movie monster (dull surprise, I know).

Much has been made of the “worst movie ever,” and from the screencaps of the monster alone it’s easy to see why The Creeping Terror frequently makes those lists, which I don’t disagree with. It is without a doubt one of the most inept movies ever made; I mean, even Manos: The Hands of Fate was in color and had real continuous dialogue (even if it was dubbed in later, not unlike the small bits of actual speech found in this film), and as silly as Torgo was/is, he’s infinitely more believable than the slow-moving title character of The Creeping Terror. And, hollow victory, The Creeping Terror is better than the similarly-narrated and similarly-hated The Beast Of Yucca Flats in my eyes. Kind of a wash, but whatever.

Actually, for as bad as it is, I’ve seen other movies that may technically be better but I’ve enjoyed far, far less. I’ve seen early-1970s European horror films that have actually left me depressed. The Creeping Terror, though? It’s too goofy to take even remotely seriously.

Though even I’ll admit that the goofiness can’t carry the entire movie. Despite what VCI says on the box, this movie only runs some 76 minutes, and there are long stretches where the monster eats person after person and/or stretches where there is no speech or narration, only silly music, which for all intents and purposes turns this into a silent movie. What I’m saying is the wackiness only goes so far before things become a little tiresome. Still, there’s obviously enough “huh?!” moments to save the whole thing (from a pure entertainment standpoint, at least). Otherwise, I wouldn’t love the flick as much as I do.

Just for the fun of it, here’s some comparison screenshots between my Betamax copy and the version I recorded off of WAOH TV-29 way back in 1998. Of course, since my Betamax copy is a commercially-released version recorded in the high-quality BII mode and the one I taped back in ’98 was recorded some 16 years ago in low-quality SLP off an over-the-air broadcast on a low-power independent station and on a good-but-not-great blank tape, there’s really no direct comparison between the two versions, but hey, let me do this. It brings me joy, and don’t I deserve some of that in my life?

(For all of these, Beta’s on the left, ’98 recording’s on the right. Got it? Good.)

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Remember that time I provided a screencap of the title screen? Here it is again, only twice-over. As the comparison demonstrates, the WAOH broadcast is always much grayer than the Beta. Furthermore, the sharpness of the Beta version is particularly evident here.

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This is our “hero,” the “star” Vic Savage, aka A.J. Nelson, who is responsible for the film. Vic Savage is a pseudonym, y’see? Does our leading man inspire confidence in his Creeping Terror-stopping abilities? I’ll let you be the judge.

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This is from the infamous “Bobby!” scene, in which the grandfather you’re seeing above goes searching for his grandson by stumbling about and constantly shouting “Bobby!” in the most annoying manner possible. Spoiler alert: They both get eated.

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I’m not sure which is more infamous, the aforementioned “Bobby!” or this “Community Dance Hall” scene, in which we’re shown several minutes worth of repetitive shots of people badly dancing while the same tune plays over and over and over. Spoiler alert: They all get eated.

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Man, The Creeping Terror on Betamax. I can’t quite place my finger on why, but it just seems so right. I’ll venture a guess that this was the only release of the movie on the format. Quite a leap, huh?

In lieu of the film as-is, less adventurous souls may opt to hunt down the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment on DVD, or VHS if one was so inclined. But even with Mike & The Bots, the film is pretty out there. ‘Course, if you’re feeling brave, the uncut version is also available on DVD, in a number of various multi-movie compilartions. As far as DVD goes though, your best option really is to hunt down the MST3K version, which, despite featuring the ever-annoying double-sided disc, has both their episode and the uncut movie.

As for me, I’ve got the MST3K version (on VHS and DVD), I’ve got the uncut version in a 12-movie DVD set, I’ve got my old WAOH recording, and now I’ve got this swanky VCI Betamax copy, which has immediately become a treasured part of my collection.

That’s a lotta The Creeping Terror, far more than should be allowed.

Cool recommended readins:

The Classic Horror Film Board Thread

Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension Review

The IMDb Page

Satellite News’ Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episode Guide Page