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VHS Review: TEXAS TERROR (1935; 1985 Vintage Video Release)

“Say, that cover looks kinda sorta familiar!”

If you’re saying a variation of that phrase to yourself right now, it means you’ve read this article. And if that’s the case, it also means you’ve probably got too much time on your hands. That’s okay though; so do I.

Yes, Vintage Video makes a return to my stupid dumb blog, and while the subject this time around is admittedly less eye-popping than Al “Grampa” Lewis hosting Night of the Living Dead, it’s no less rare; old school Goodtimes/Congress/UAV/ etc. budget VHS releases of certain titles are (relatively speaking) a dime-a-dozen, but Vintage Video? These tapes show up far less often, though there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference in value –  it takes someone with the same arbitrary whims as I to go after them, and fortunately for me, I appear to stand alone on that front. (I.e., no one else seems to care as much as I do.)

No joke, more than once I’ve gone out of my way to pick these videos up, regardless of title. I’m not sure if the company was always a subsidiary of Amvest Video, or merely became one later, but either way, I’ve become incredibly fond of their releases. Sure, most (all?) of them were just the public domain staples that nearly every company took a shot at releasing, but there’s a quirky aura about these Vintage Video tapes that I can’t resist. Or maybe it’s just that whole eventual Grampa thing, I don’t know. (If none of this is making sense to you, and there’s a good chance that it isn’t, go read the some 900,000 words I wrote about the subject in the article linked above.)

Anyway, I’m excited for today’s subject for three specific reasons: 1) It’s a pre-fame John Wayne B-Western, his 1935 Lone Star (aka Monogram) entry, Texas Terror, as you can plainly see above. Let it be clearly stated: I love these Lone Stars. You ask me to put together a list of my favorite Wayne flicks, guess what? Blue Steel is going right up there with Stagecoach – a statement I make without hesitation despite the probable destruction of my street cred. I’m a B-Western junkie, and a Wayne fan, so these Lone Stars are directly up my alley.

2) I grew up watching B-Westerns. I talked about this recently; in the late-1990s, our local independent station WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35 regularly ran syndicated content from the America One Network, and each weekday (and often on weekends, too) they’d play an afternoon “Western Theater.” You wouldn’t be seeing things like The Searchers on the program; oh no, it was the B-Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s that they presented, and at 11/12-years old, I quickly grew to love them – a love I carry with me to this day. America One often seemed to have unique prints of their films, too; not necessarily wildly different prints as far as the actual content of the movie went, but the picture and sound quality of their features could vary quite a bit from more ‘common’ versions found on other networks and/or home video. Coincidentally, and fittingly, the same often goes with these Vintage Video/Amvest releases!

3) I didn’t know this company (these companies?) ever even released any westerns. I mean, it was a safe guess that they did, but listen, I’ve spent far too much time researching these titles, and in the course of that research I’ve seen comedies (Movie Struck), dramas (The Blue Angel), silents (The Gold Rush), mysteries (The Woman in Green), sports biopics (The Joe Louis Story), even action (Fists of Fury), and of course the sci-fi and horror of the Grampa series. But until Texas Terror, never a western. I mean, I assume they put out The Outlaw and/or Angel and the Badman, because nearly every budget VHS manufacturer did, but if so, *I’ve* never seen them. So, when I discovered they not only released a western, but a B-Western, and that B-Western was a John Wayne Lone Star, I got far more excited than an ostensibly-reasonable adult should have. I mean, we’re talking unacceptably giddy here. Needless to say, it had to become mine, and as you may have surmised by now, it did.

In relation to the other Vintage Video titles, this one is a little unique: usually (but not always) for their covers, they’d go with the original poster art, merely flanked with the “Vintage Video” border you’re seeing above (they eventually dropped the border). But here, it’s an original composition; a stock (I guess) shot of Wayne, made to look appropriately old-timey. I dig the ‘western’ font of the front cover cast-credits, though I feel the graphic used for the actual film title is wildly inappropriate; to me, that’s more befitting an 80s horror movie or something. Totally belies the comparatively-quaint creaker (alliteration?) contained within the video, man. But then, that’s that quirky aura I was talking about earlier!

As for the back cover, it follows the general layout of the other Vintage Video products of the period. Sometimes, some of the pertinent information demonstrated the era from which it came; that is, hey, the internet wasn’t around yet! Texas Terror was not made in 1940; it’s absolutely from 1935. Doesn’t sound like that big a deal, I know, but there’s a world of difference between the John Wayne of 1935 and the John Wayne of 1940. (In the same vein, my VV copy of Black Dragons lists the release date as 1949, when in actuality it’s definitively a poverty row product of 1942.)

Also, some of their descriptions could be a little…off. Not bad, just…off. I made the same point in that Night of the Living Dead post. Here, there’s a mention of Wayne’s “great style,” but what exactly that style is is never specified, so it just comes off random. The synopsis would have flowed better had they dropped that part entirely. The “of course” near the end kinda stops the rest of the summary dead, too; the whole thing would run smoother had those two instances been cut. Still, they got the point across, so mission accomplished anyway I guess.

Also, I just realized that the entire description is only two sentences long.

Also also, they spelled “thieves” incorrectly.

Bear in mind, I’m not intending to come off negative here; this tape, and others in the same line, positively exude a budget label charm. Indeed, as the video industry progressed from the 1980s to the 1990s, you saw the major studios evolve, but the budget labels? That quirky charm never really left, and to an extent it continues today with cheapo DVDs, though to me those feel inherently less special; pressing a disc just ain’t the same, bro.

I guess what I’m getting at is collecting these public domain titles on old school budget video labels is endlessly fun. You get a peak at that early (or at least earlier) era of home video, and you often get fairly unique sleeve art, front and back, which is the case here.

(Also, if I ever find out Vintage Video/Amvest/whoever released a version of Blue Steel, I will legit flip my beans.)

So, on to the movie itself…

Lone Star Productions was, from how I understand it, a division of Monogram Pictures. Or was it merely Monogram under a secret name, not unlike Konami with their Ultra Games label? (I’m reasonably sure I’m the only person on the internet to make that reference in regards to a Monogram/Lone Star movie, and if you don’t get it, that’s because there’s not much of a comparison between the two entities at all.) Monogram was, for those not in “the know,” a poverty row purveyor of cheap theatrical entertainment, in pretty much any genre you could think of. Westerns were big business at the time, so needless to say, their output in that field was not inconsiderable.

From my first glimpse of Blue Steel so, so long ago, the thing I found immediately striking about these Lone Star pictures was their introductory sequence; a gigantic sheriff’s star, stampeding towards the viewer, the company’s name boldly emblazoned in the center of it. All of sudden, the thing stops, then transitions to the respective title and credits of the feature, all still contained within the star. And of course, this was always accompanied by a heroic, appropriately-western score.

If you’re wondering just why I find/found these intros so fascinating, it’s because, quite frankly, you didn’t always get such hype at the start of these poverty row westerns. For films that were, more often than not, pretty chintzy (in a good way), the opening fanfare exhibited by the Lone Stars was really pretty unique in the field.

While on the subject, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-John Wayne Lone Star western. Maybe that’s because these are so widely available today due to the star power involved. At any rate, did Monogram give Lone Star flicks to other actors? Yes? No? I dunno.

Actually, it’s the John Wayne factor that makes these Lone Stars so (relatively) well-known nowadays. Just like our tape today, budget releases on VHS were myriad, and that continues with DVD releases from every manufacturer under the western skies. (See what I did there?) I mean, when you’ve got American film icon John Wayne in a bunch of public domain movies, that’s the sort of thing a company looking to get cheap-but-eye-catching product on store shelves has to take advantage of.

Indeed, some of my favorite budget movie releases, on both VHS and DVD, are those of these John Wayne B-Westerns; not necessarily all of them, but rather the ones that use later-era shots of Wayne and/or appropriately ‘epic’ or ‘majestic’ backdrops for their cover art. The intent with these is clear: to make the unsuspecting consumer think these are “real” Wayne movies, and not the creakers they actually are. Oh don’t get me wrong, I love these Lone Stars, and I’m such a B-Western junkie that truth be told I’d head for them over some of Wayne’s later, big time stuff. Still, aside from the fact they feature the same star and are technically moving pictures, there’s just no real comparison between the two. Therefore, the more misleading the cover art for a release of one of these cheapies is (or was), the more appealing it is to yours truly. Go figure!

So anyway, Texas Terror. Through various compilations, I undoubtedly own it approximately 97,000 times over – give or take a couple thousand. Still, until I picked up this neato Vintage Video release, I wasn’t all that familiar with the movie. Blue Steel I know backwards and forwards, and I’ve at least seen a chunk of the others, but Texas Terror? For all intents and purposes, this was a new one on me.

Going in, don’t expect an early prototype of Stagecoach, okay? This is John Wayne, but also sort of, uh, isn’t. Frankly, it’s kinda fun seeing him outside of Hollywood and, I don’t know, ‘raw’ I guess would be the best term for it. The actor is the same, but the acting isn’t. Does that make any sense?

Soooo, all that said, ignoring the young John Wayne factor, and my love of B-Westerns and Lone Stars in general, I gotta admit, after watching it, Texas Terror really isn’t all that good of a movie. I mean, as a B-Western, I guess it’s alright, but as far as these Lone Stars go, there were much, much better flicks. If you’re looking at B-Westerns in general, Texas Terror ranks somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. “Mediocre” seems to sum it up pretty succinctly.

The plot centers around John Higgins (Wayne), the local sheriff, who mistakenly believes he’s killed his best friend Dan Matthews. During a shootout between Higgins and some robbers, Dan is killed by one of the hoodlums; upon discovery, Higgins thinks he plugged him (right screenshot), and subsequently resigns as sheriff and goes to live in the wilderness.

A year later, Dan’s daughter is heading into town to take over her late father’s ranch, when she is, naturally, beset by outlaws (it must run in the family). Higgins, now quite a bit scragglier, rescues her. Despite his heroism, she thinks he was one of the outlaws. Eventually, Higgins cleans himself up and comes back to town, his goal being to take down the gang once and for all. In the course of doing so, there’s a blossoming romance, a huge misunderstanding, and perhaps improbably, a square dance that devolves into a cow-milking-contest.

Oh, and George Hayes is also in this, minus the whole “Gabby” persona. Can’t forget to mention that!

Texas Terror, as previously stated, it isn’t all that good, but there are some interesting aspects to it that help set it apart. First of all, Wayne’s Higgins (I can’t type that without thinking of Magnum, P.I.) grows a beard during his exile period, and this is the only film I can think of where Wayne’s character features full facial fiber (alliteration). Sure, he had a mustache (and quasi-soul patch) in The Shootist, but this is the only instance I can think of where he had a legit beard. (I’m not saying it is the only instance, I don’t claim to have seen every single John Wayne movie ever, but this is certainly the only instance that comes to mind).

Random Thought: is it just me, or does Wayne kinda look like Kevin Love in this screencap?

Also, I appreciate the usage of Native Americans as heroic characters. Here, they’re friends with Higgins, and come to his aid in grand fashion during the film’s climax. Sure, their ‘accents’ may not be politically correct now, but Texas Terror bucks the frequent western trend of treating Native Americans as antagonists. I like that.

These Lone Star westerns often featured cool, though slightly generic, titles, and Texas Terror is no exception. Is the title an indication of Wayne’s character, the outlaws, or the plot in general? Blue Steel was the same way; no in-film reference ever related to the title, but it sure sounded neat.

As for the print and tape quality of Vintage Video’s presentation, this copy is in SP, which is always welcome, though it’s kind of a wash since the source material is so battered. I’m not saying this is the worst Texas Terror has ever looked, but this particular print certainly saw better days prior to VHS release. Besides the not-inconsiderable amount of dust, dirt and scratches, accumulated via untold trips through the projector and who knows how many generations removed, the bigger issue is that this version is pretty blasted. No joke, some of the images are far, far too bright. Look at the screenshots to the right here; the upper-image features a positively ghostly John Wayne, whose face seems to be a part of the wall behind him. And the lower-image? You’d be forgiven for not immediately realizing our heroine is even in the scene!

Still, like the sleeves these sorts of tapes were housed in, seeing the varying picture quality of these budget releases was/is part of the fun with collecting them. No, a major studio probably wouldn’t have put a print in this condition out (unless, say, there was only one known extant copy existing; definitely not the case with Texas Terror), but that’s why there were budget VHS tapes back then. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” could and often did come into play here, but I prefer to think of it more like, hey, the company got their hands on the only print they could, so let the chips fall where they may. Or something like that. Look, it was a different time in home video, and better sources might not have been available, or at least easily accessible. Especially if the manufacturer was a relatively minor player in the game.

So, there you have it: Texas Terror, as presented by Vintage Video, the (eventual?) alter-ego of Amvest Video, from 1985. I still haven’t seen another western put out by either company, and while I can’t really recommend the movie for B-Western and/or John Wayne fans (seriously, Blue Steel is pretty good; go with that one instead), it’s certainly an interesting, and for now, unique, addition to my collection. I’ve got more than a few cheapo John Wayne tapes littering my “archives” (ha!), but this one has automatically become one of the more-notable entries. I don’t say that lightly, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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