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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blockbuster-Branded (and Subsequently Autographed) Godzilla 2000 VHS

The time is right for this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How so? G-Fest 2001, that’s how!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VHS Review: Godzilla (1998 Widescreen Version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Halloween!

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

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

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

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

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

Behold!

*Cricket Chirps*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GRAMPA!

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are undoubtedly cool, however…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One more thing about Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Whew! Done!

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

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

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

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

Have a great Halloween everybody!

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1922’s “Nosferatu” (1988)

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You want October-appropriate? You got it!

Why’s that? Because the quest continues! The quest for what, you ask? More Grampa Presents tapes, that’s what! See that image above? That’s the mark of greatness. You can’t deny it, because it is. Blood-drippin’ font, Al Lewis kinda sorta winking at you, greatness.

Actually, the quest for these tapes never stopped. With last year’s big Halloween day post, I first spotlighted the Amvest Video “Grampa Presents” VHS series, in which Al Lewis (who was Grandpa Munster in everything but official name) hosted public domain horror films from a cheap, green-screened set and yelled at an unseen (and unheard) Igor.

Despite that tape having the notable malady of ending before the movie was actually finished, I was entranced, and by January 2016, I had not only added a number of titles in the series to my collection, but also gained quite a bit of knowledge on the company, the series as a whole, etc. This was all presented on the blog via an intensely detailed review of The Corpse Vanishes from the line, a tape that has become one of the favorites of my collection (and that post is one of my favorites on this site, too).

I’d like that Corpse Vanishes post to be the ultimate word on the subject, but that doesn’t mean my purchasing of these tapes or first-hand ‘research’ has stopped since. Oh no, I kept adding to the collection, kept learning about the various quirks of the line. Indeed, as far as pre-recorded VHS releases go, Grampa has become the main area of interest for me.

That said, while I don’t want to reiterate all of the points I made in that last article, I feel I need to give a quick summation of just why I’m so fascinated by this whole thing. In short: the series had limited distribution, and has subsequently become relatively obscure. Despite a list of supposed releases, no one is quite sure just how many tapes actually made it out with Grampa adorning them in some fashion. Add to all that a cheap, budget tape charm and the aspect of horror hosting at the center of it all, and, well, is it any wonder I want as many of these as possible?

And that brings us to this tape. In the realm of budget VHS (and Halloween!), the charmingly cheap vibes emanating forth are nearly overpowering. I mean, you’ve got Al “Grampa” Lewis, presiding over one of the greatest horror films of all-time, the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu! The German expressionist (unauthorized) adaption of Dracula! How cool is that?!

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Now, this tape was not one of the “does it actually exist or not?” entries; its existence has been confirmed for quite some time, with a pic of the box floating around online to match. Still, the very thought of Grampa hosting one of my all-time favorite films, and a bonafide classic to boot, easily made it one of my personal chasers. It took awhile for it to show up online, but eventually it did, and duly became mine. It seems like this Nosferatu is one of the harder entries to come by, but then, even the more “common” titles don’t appear all that often. And, regardless of any perceived rarity on my part, these Grampa tapes seem to run on average $20-$30 no matter what the featured movie is. Sometimes even less.

Look, I love these releases, warts and all, but aside from being compared to other old VHS tapes, they’re not really worth all that much. Is that because the line is so obscure? Because the tapes are so cheap in pretty much every facet? Or is it because I’m the only one that actually cares about all this? I don’t know the answers to these burning questions, but I do know that this Nosferatu VHS is mine and you can’t have it. So there!

You can’t say the cover isn’t eye-catching, though in a good way or a bad way is solely up to the individual gawking at it. The watercolor-ish rendition of one of the most iconic images from the film, complete with mood-setting-yet-totally-superfluous lightning added, is a good example of the art used for many (but not all!) of these tapes. As I’ve said before, they often had a decidedly “homemade” look to them, some ultimately faring better than others. Many will disagree, but I personally feel that the hand drawn covers only add to the charm of the line. It just screams “budget tape,” which, needless to say, is like my own personal Siren. (Minus the resulting sailor death – hopefully.)

But, as I’ve also pointed out before, these covers are absolutely made by the “Grampa Presents” banner along the top. How could a horror fan not want to add that to their collection? They’re always so unabashedly cool, and they totally add a unique aspect to these releases. Why pick up that cheapo copy of Nosferatu when you can have this one with Al Lewis adorning it? It’s a decision that practically makes itself!

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Like the cover art, the synopsis’ found on the backs of these varied from release to release. Nosferatu got one of the more-detailed ones, though it’s kinda odd. Nosferatu was, as previously mentioned, an unauthorized adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As such, the filmmakers originally changed names and details in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit from Stoker’s estate (a ploy that failed spectacularly; more on that in a bit). Later American prints later changed these aspects back to fit more with the Dracula we know and love. Perhaps surprisingly, the summary on the back cover uses the original naming system in its description (except for “Bremen,” which should be “Wisborg” in this instance), even though the actual print is a later Dracula-ized U.S. version that frequently made (and makes) the public domain rounds. So what point of reference was Amvest actually working from here?

And the synopsis as a whole, it’s strangely ‘paced,’ for lack of a better term. Not only does it completely ignore the Dracula-aspects of the movie, but it also really focuses on only half the story. There’s too much emphasis on Hutter/Harker being stuck in the castle, and not enough on what the movie is really about. That said, even if I hadn’t known better, it still sounds like a pretty good movie. But, the bottom line is, it’s not a very balanced summary.

‘Course, like the banner on the front covers, the saving grace on the back covers was always the “Grampa’s Ratings” feature found at the bottom. They were like Al Lewis’ own stamp of approval, his personal guarantee of a good time. He always gave a short (sometimes very short) endorsement, and the piece de resistance, a star rating system – but composed entirely of bats. That’s fantastic. No joke, through whatever faults these tapes may exhibit, they have charm to spare.

Though, only three bats? C’mon Gramps, if Nosferatu doesn’t deserve a whole four bats (or five, if that’s what his scale went up to), what does? At least he correctly concludes that it’s a “scary silent classic,” which it totally is.

(While I have my doubts that Lewis really wrote these summaries himself, I’m operating under the assumption that he did, if for no other reason than the mental image of Grandpa Munster slaving over his synopsis and score for a budget videotape amuses me.)

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NosTeratu. From the same award-winning quality control that let a tape recorded in the wrong speed make it out the door. And yet, I can’t help but love the extreme budget tape vibes projected forth by said typo. Charm baby, charm.

Amount of tape used to record this entry in the series: approximately a foot. Obviously, this is an EP-recorded tape. (However, even though it’s not an issue this time around, there is an inherent danger in jumping to such a conclusion; allow me to direct you back to my first Grampa tape review.)

Okay, so, we’ve seen the front and back covers, and the tape itself. Now it’s time for the really good stuff: Al “Grampa” Lewis not only hosting a horror movie, but a legitimately great horror movie! Behold…

What? Oh, you’re confused by the fact that you’re not seeing any actual screenshots of Grampa in action? There’s a simple reason for that: Grampa is MIA on this tape.

Yes, despite all the pomp and circumstance found on the front and back of the slipcase, inexplicably, the Grampa host segments are not included on my copy. Looks like Amvest went the Gene Shalit route this time around! (I’m reasonably sure this is the only review of Nosferatu to include a common link between Gene Shalit and Al Lewis, by the way.)

Okay, sure, the host segments for this line of tapes, they were the exact same for each movie; it’s not like I’m missing out on anything actually new to me here. Still, their absence does take away an aspect of this VHS that would have made it stand as really unique when compared to other similar releases of Nosferatu.

During my “journey” collecting as many tapes in this series as I can, I long ago discovered that certain releases, while appropriately displaying Lewis on the cover, do not actually feature him before and/or after the movie. (But on the flip side, a few releases don’t feature him on the cover at all, yet he is there when “Play” is pressed!) So, I knew that him not showing up to legitimately host this film was a distinct possibility. Just because I was forewarned doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt me deep anyway, though.

Seeing how up-and-down a lot of these Amvest releases were/are, I don’t rule out the possibility that the Al Lewis segments DID show up on some copies of Nosferatu. I’m going to guess (and that’s all this is, a guess on my part) that later issues of these tapes neglected to include the Lewis segments. I have three SP-recorded tapes from the line, and none feature him. And, as far as the EP recorded ones go, this isn’t the only one I have that omits him, either. So, it wouldn’t really surprise me if other issues of the same title did have the Grampa bits.

I guess what I’m getting at is that you just never really know until you actually play one of these.

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But, Grampa or no Grampa, Nosteratu Nosferatu is still Nosferatu. I mean, it doesn’t get much more classic than this! Plus, even with the Al Lewis host segments absent, his mere presence on the cover is enough to make Kino green with envy. Oh sure, they can restore and tint and whatever this film as much as they want, the fact remains that none of their various VHS, DVD or Blu-ray releases of Nosferatu have Grampa Munster featured on the artwork, and thus, Amvest wins.

Or do they? This ain’t exactly a Criterion-quality print of the film. Indeed, it’s borderline unwatchable, and that’s coming from a guy that spends a fair amount of time staring at thousand-year-old EP-recorded VHS tapes.

First, the good news: this is basically the version of the film that introduced me to the movie waaay back in 1997. It was Halloween day, and I was in 5th grade. My grade school always did the whole costume thing, and at lunch we were allowed to go home to change. Now, I was already a young tape-head, and I had discovered our WAOH TV-29 and the variety of classic movies they ran that just-past Summer. Oddly enough though, it wasn’t until their late morning broadcast of Nosferatu on that fateful day that I recorded anything off the station. Already a big horror and sci-fi fan, and a sucker for silents too, I was pretty stoked to check out this new-to-me movie.

So, lunchtime rolled around, my brother and I came home to get our costumes, and I had just enough time to see what I captured earlier that very day. Obviously I didn’t have time to watch the whole thing right then, but it took only a few cursory glances to know this was already ‘my’ movie. I was a fan from the start.

It was an old, worn, Americanized print, one that I’d run into time and time again in the years following, but the thing that, unbeknownst to me initially, really set this one apart was a wonderfully spooky score (relatively spooky, anyway). I can’t think of a better way to describe this, but the “woooooo” sound made upon the opening credits starting, it instantly set the tone, and thus that’s just one of the reasons this is the version of the film I’m most nostalgic for.

So, this Amvest release is essentially the same version I first saw that day back in October 1997. Well, except for the Thunderbird Films superimposition on the title screen (above), far worse print quality, and film duplication that’s markedly below what I myself recorded in EP back in ’97. I still find it wildly endearing, but man, my taped-off-TV copy from nearly 20 years ago (I refuse to believe it’s been that long!) is actually superior to this “real” release! Go figure!

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See, Dracula-styled names. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t. Upon its original release, Nosferatu changed those well-known versions to alternates. Drac became “Count Orlock,” Renfield became “Knock,” Harker became “Hutter,” and so on. Lemme explain a bit…

Nosferatu almost didn’t exist long enough for Grampa to (almost) host it. You know that lawsuit I mentioned earlier, the fear of which being the reason the names were changed in the first place? Yeah, that case was decided in the favor of Stoker’s widow anyway, and she immediately ordered that all prints be destroyed. Yikes! According to legend, she never even watched the film. Luckily, a few copies survived (foreign exports, if I recall correctly), and it’s those sources that gave us the film(s) we have today.

Well, at some point, U.S. prints began removing “Orlock” and so on and instead utilizing the originally-changed names. Nosferatu was obviously already Dracula-ish, but this made it even more Dracula-ish (which makes sense, since it’s, you know, Dracula), and those are the versions most commonly (always?) found making the public domain rounds nowadays.

Are the “re-revised” names found on this release true to the original film? Well, no. Purists will naturally balk at their inclusion here (and at a variety of other aspects, too). Still, because this is how I first saw the movie, I initially had a hard time fully getting into the restored versions that utilized the original ‘fake’ names. Doesn’t bother me now, but I still refer to Max Schreck’s vampire as “Dracula,” not “Orlock,” simply because that’s what it was to me first.

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A face? Nosferatu don’t need no face!

Look, we’re lucky to have any prints of Nosferatu at all, and naturally the ones we did end up with were copied endlessly in the years prior to this video release. Even the various Kino versions, fantastic though they are, aren’t exactly pristine. So, no one should ever think they’re going to get something particularly fantastic-lookin’ from a budget VHS edition. One recorded in EP, at that.

As you can see above, there are shapes and forms on-screen, but actual detail is pretty much loooong gone. Now, most of that is the print itself, but Amvest, for as much as I love ’em, they get some of the blame here, too; their duplication techniques were apparently not the best. I’m not just talking the EP recording speed either, but rather the actual duplication. So many of these tapes look like they were duplicated using the old VCR-to-VCR method; maybe they were, I don’t know. Point is, when you’re using a trashed print of whatever, poor duplication is only going to make the final product look even worse.

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A face? Nosferatu don’t need no face!

The poor condition of this print (and others like it), it’s understandable; I don’t think there was anything even approaching a ‘definitive’ Nosferatu until Kino released their terrific restoration in 1991. And, despite the poor quality here, you do get the gist of things. But man, sharper image quality makes a big difference in a film like this.

On that front, I’ve got to backtrack a bit. I’ve previously stated that with films like this (and the original Night of the Living Dead, while we’re at it), you can clean them up and restore them all you want, the older, worn prints are the ones I find most effective. I don’t mind if a version uses the Dracula names, lacks tinting, is scratchy, whatever – to me, that only enhances the nightmarish quality. It almost feels more otherworldly, like you’re watching something you’re not supposed to. I know I’m in the minority here, and it undoubtedly has to do with how I first saw the movie, but hey, that’s just me.

HOWEVER, I’ve got to rectify that statement somewhat; while I still stand by it, I stand by it only to an extent. This Nosferatu, it just looks bad. It’s blurry, the detail is blasted, and the picture is overly cropped. As such, much of the mood, not only is it NOT enhanced, it’s actually destroyed beyond repair.

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A head? Nosferatu don’t need no head!

There’s that cropping I just mentioned! Nosferatu being cropped isn’t exactly a unique aspect to this release; many versions suffered varying degrees of cropping. Amvest’s Nosferatu though, boy, scenes like the one above (one of my favorites from the film) are not only rendered much less effective, they also look a bit goofy – and Nosferatu is anything but goofy.

Abrupt gear shift; I should probably talk about the actual movie a little, huh? I have a feeling most people stumbling on to my silly little blog have already seen Nosferatu; it’s one of THE top horror films, silent or otherwise. But if, by chance, you haven’t seen Nosferatu, yet are familiar with Dracula (in some form or another), well, you’ll probably already have an idea of how this film plays out. The basics are same: a vampire travels from his faraway castle to civilization, bringing with him a thirst for blood, and thus, death.

There’s some notable differences in Nosferatu, even beyond the aforementioned name changes. The setting is German instead of English, different date, different way of defeating the vampire, etc. The biggest difference, however, is the vampire himself; this ain’t your Lugosi’s Dracula! Instead of the classy Count that Bela portrayed, Max Schreck’s is an ugly, rat-like creature. Tall, gawky, stiff as a board and with claw-like hands, Nosferatu is legitimately terrifying. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, Schreck’s looks as evil as he really is! (Too bad the quality of this print is too rough for me to really show you!)

Look, Nosferatu is public domain. There’s no shortage of copies out there. My recommendation: head on over to Amazon and grab Kino’s fantastic restoration. If you haven’t seen the film, you need to see it. It’s a fantastic piece of German expressionism that, frankly, I’m not sure I can do justice to by merely explaining it.

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Look familiar? Why, that’s our cover art in action! You’ll note the absence of lightning. And why exactly is a vampire walking around in daylight? Nosferatu was originally tinted, with appropriate colors for appropriate times/scenes/etc. Restored versions included new, supposedly-accurate tinting, though that is, of course, not the case with the public domain copies such as this one.

It’s a testament to just how well-made this film is that even without the original tinting, and even in a print as poor as this particular one, some of the images still remain effective. Case in point: above, and below…

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Surely you recognize this scene. It’s one of the most iconic images from the film, which is really saying something, considering there’s plenty of iconic images throughout. Even with the shoddy shape this print is in, it’s tough to ruin it, though the VHS refusing to track properly did the best it could. (No kidding; being old budget tapes, these Amvest videos often have tracking problems, but man, this Nosferatu just got crankier and crankier as it played.)


This is a tape where the whole is probably greater than the sum of its parts.

While on one hand you’ve got a legitimately classic horror film as part of a cool series of tapes from the golden age of home video, you’ve also got a terrible print, problematic tracking, and what was supposed to be one of the most unique things about the whole deal, Grampa’s host segments, those aren’t even included.

And yet, somehow, it still works. Don’t get me wrong, this is far, far from a definitive release of Nosferatu, but as an artifact of 1980s home video, it’s pretty darn cool. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for classic horror films, especially public domain ones that have found their way to the often-murky world of cheapie videotapes.

Or maybe it’s just that Al Lewis box art. After all, that alone probably puts this one above all the other budget releases of the time. Okay, it’s a host-less version of the movie, and with awful picture-quality to boot. Doesn’t change the fact this makes for one neat, Halloweeny-lookin’ video! On the outside, anyway…

At any rate, I couldn’t be happier to have this as part of my collection. Another Grampa tape down, _____ to go!

DVD Review: Range Riders (1934; 2010 Alpha Video Release)

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Look, I loves me some westerns. I really do. Okay, yeah, you tend to see more horror and sci-fi-related things here at the blog; what can I say, those are my favorite film genres. But, I really am a western fan, too. And of course, it’s not like we’ve never seen anything from that genre here in the past. Just not as much as I’d maybe prefer.

Actually, to be honest, when it comes to westerns, my heart really lies with the cheapie entries. That is, B-Westerns. You know, the hour-long (if that) quickies practically produced for pennies, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. (Are you jealous of my alliteration skills yet?) Sure, they were intended as strict matinee fare, they weren’t exactly technical marvels of movie making magic (alliteration again), and they undoubtedly weren’t a realistic example of life in the old west, either. Doesn’t matter to me, though. They’re simply fun entertainment, and a supreme example of a bygone cinematic era. To watch one of these is to be instantly transported back in time, even if the film itself is hardly a masterpiece. Doesn’t hurt that I grew up watching them on WAOH TV-29, either.

You know, I think the only time we’ve seen a legit B-Western here was when I looked at an old television broadcast of John Wayne’s Blue Steel, though going waaaaay back, the fascination was hinted at here and here, too. I’m going to rectify this omission today, because man, the DVD that recently came into my possession, it’s just jaw-dropping. And not in a good way. (But definitely in an entertaining way.)

Y’see, another movie-based interest of mine is a fondness for the, uh, weaker specimens. In other words, I love watching a good bad movie. And boy, in the realm of B-Westerns, I’m not sure it gets worse than this. Unbeknownst to you prior, that header pic up above wasn’t just an aesthetic choice on my part; in actuality, it was a harbinger of your destiny. Why? Because today’s subject can and must become a part of your life. Ladies and gentlemen, I now present to you the 1934 Buddy Roosevelt anti-masterpiece, Range Riders

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I didn’t pick this DVD up by chance. Oh no, my knowledge of this film actually goes back to around 1999 or so. At the time, I was receiving Sinister Cinema’s big giant catalogs in the mail. In the years before practically anything and everything had been re-released on DVD, Sinister Cinema was the place to go for obscure films. (The company is still fantastic, too; you’d be well-advised to check out their website.) I’d spend the longest time pouring over those catalogs, figuratively drooling over all the interesting, new-to-me flicks they promised.

Almost every genre you could think of was (is) healthily represented by SC, and needless to say, that also included (includes) B-Westerns. Now, I had made a habit out of recording B-Westerns off of TV-29, so I was no stranger to these almost-forgotten artifacts of another cinematic day and age. But, the stuff SC had, man, a good deal of it was uber-rare. The included synopsis for each entry (and SC wasn’t shy about letting you know which flicks were good and which ones weren’t) only served to further whet my appetite.

Unfortunately, SC had a habit of phasing out older titles (presumably ones that weren’t selling in respectable numbers any longer). Keep in mind that I was only 13 or 14 years old at the time, and thus had even less money than I do now (which is really saying something). Therefore, a good many of the titles I wanted to order, I just never had the chance. And that’s where Range Riders enters the picture.

I wanted a lot of movies from SC, but as far as B-Westerns went, Range Riders was one of the biggies. Not because it was touted as being good, but rather because it was touted as being so BAD. Like I said, SC wasn’t shy about saying a film was terrible, and of all their B-Westerns, Range Riders got perhaps the most abuse of any entry in that section (though a few others were comparable). Naturally, I had to see it. Of course, my nigh-perpetually-empty pockets kept me from doing so, and eventually the title was removed from sale. This hurt me deep.

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Needless to say, there was an eventual happy outcome to that ‘ordeal’ (ha!). Here and now, some 17 years later, only mere weeks ago, I discovered that many, many of the westerns I wanted back then have since been put out on DVD by Alpha Video. I had been picking up some single-disc Bela Lugosi releases online, and on a whim decided to see what was available Ken Maynard-wise (one of my favorite B-Western stars). And lo and behold, turns out Alpha hasn’t just put out some B-Westerns, they’ve put out tons of them! And not just the usual John Wayne and Roy Rogers fare, either, but also really oddball, obscure titles. Stuff that, quite frankly, I’m surprised they’d even bother releasing. Indeed, there’s so many titles that were once sold by Sinister Cinema, I’m guessing a common source is shared between the two companies. Or not, I don’t know.

So anyway, over the last several weeks, I’ve steadily added to my movie collection many of the titles I wanted to order from SC so many years ago but missed out on. I was totally like a kid flipping through those catalogs again. And, it seemed that each time I figured “no way they’ve put this one out on DVD,” a quick search proved me wrong. Naturally, the movie would then duly became mine. Some silent Ken Maynard western entries? Mine.Also, Ken Maynard’s final starring vehicle, 1944’s Harmony Trail? Mine. Lightning Bill (aka Lighting Bill, and one that SC also raked over the coals in their synopsis)? I couldn’t believe it, but that too became mine.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? Range Riders = MINE. A dream realized, finally! And at a low, low price that even *I* can afford! Alpha Video, you are now my friend and I officially forgive you for tricking me into buying Fury of the Wolf Man on VHS so many years ago. (And by “trick” I mean “not tell me upfront that the film was essentially unwatchable, such was its badness.”)

So, the DVD, I’ve got it, it’s mine. Observation: one thing I really like about Alpha’s single-disc reissues of whatever is that they often (but not always) use original poster art for the front covers. In my opinion, it’s a simple and easy, yet undeniably attractive, design decision. Now, I’m not sure if the artwork for Range Riders is from the original poster or not, and a Google search isn’t telling me what I need to know. Could be the original poster, or a licensed-but-unrelated painting, or even something Alpha themselves commissioned for this DVD release. I have a hard time believing Alpha had someone take the time to draw up a cover for a movie only 8 people would be interested in owning, especially since they’ve mocked up perfectly serviceable covers for their Maynard releases using stock photos and whatnot (I guess; here’s an example).

But on the other hand, if this is something hailing from Range Riders’ original release, the art doesn’t really accurately reflect Roosevelt’s character or the action in this movie, though that wouldn’t be so out-of-the-ordinary (and would be least of the problems with this film, honestly).

Look, no matter what, the cover is colorful and attractive, okay? It belies the actual product, but that’s not so out-of-the-ordinary, either. Sell it however you can, Alpha!

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The synopsis on the back cover is about as helpful as it can be. No kidding, this movie is a mess on every front, and frankly, the most you’re going to gather from the plot is what the bare summary on the back describes. It’s less of a coherent movie and more like a bunch of vaguely-related scenes stitched together with some alarmingly stupid dialogue and horrible camera work. The fact Alpha felt the need to pad the description on the back with a mini-biography of star Buddy Roosevelt (an actor approximately 11 people know or care about nowadays) speaks volumes. Also, “Modestly budgeted” is an extremely polite way of saying “these things were cheaper than dirt.” And don’t let the color screenshots fool you, either; this is a black & white oater.

Also: Copyright 2010?! Yep, this has been out for awhile. Many (most?) of these Alpha B-Westerns have been out for years, actually. I believe my copy of Harmony Trail was copyrighted 2005. Obviously, I haven’t been paying enough attention! Otherwise, these would have all been mine long ago. To be fair, I’d never have thought the vast majority of these films would ever be sold by a real, on-store-shelves company; flicks like this, they just seemed like the sole territory of online specialty dealers. Not unlike Sinister Cinema, basically.

Even though these have been out for quite awhile now, I fear they won’t be in-print forever. These are just such niche western entries. I really wouldn’t be surprised if many of these were technically out of print now, and sellers are just still moving the stock they already have. (I have zero proof of that, mind you; I’m just saying that it wouldn’t shock me if it were true.) So, if you have any interest in films of this nature at all, I’d say ere on the side of caution and pick up a copy while you can – it’s not like these are all that pricey. Even though Range Riders is, without a doubt, an awful film, it’s wonderfully entertaining nevertheless. Think Plan 9 From Outer Space if you must; that kind of entertaining. If that kind of movie is up your alley, head on over to Amazon for a copy of Range Riders now! Please don’t let any of my criticism deter you from getting a copy. I don’t mean to steer anyone away from this one; on the contrary, Range Riders gets a HUGE recommendation from your truly!

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Now, B-Westerns aren’t high art. They weren’t intended to be. These were depression and/or wartime cheapies, serving mostly as matinee fare and aimed squarely at the kids. So, judging one of John Wayne’s early, poverty row features against, say, Stagecoach or Red River, it just wouldn’t be right. B-Westerns have their own set of standards, standards that exist solely within this sub-genre of the, uh, genre. I’m not the first to point this out, of course, but it’s an ideal that’s worth repeating, and certainly something to keep in mind while watching a B-Western.

But, even with the slack that must, by nature, be given to these films, Range Riders comes up short. Woefully short. I mean, this movie is B-A-D. This is quite frankly the worst B-Western I’ve ever seen in my nearly 20 years of watching them. I’ve never seen any quite like it, and thus, I couldn’t stop watching in slack-jawed wonder the thundering stupidity that raged across my TV screen. This movie is great in all the worst ways.

Apparently, the B-Western often considered the worst in the genre is The Border Menace (coincidentally also released by Alpha – need), but the Plan 9 From Outer Space comparison to Range Riders (helpful user reviewer BrianV over at IMDb nails this) is apt. Sure, there may technically be some that are worse, but Range Riders is so inept in every way possible, so obliteratingly dumb, and yet so wildly entertaining, that it really does recall Plan 9. A western by nature won’t have the obvious special effect deficiencies that a Wood film did/does; it’s not like they have cowboys riding paper mache horses. But horrendous dialogue and inept plotting? Range Riders has those to spare! (Not to mention terrible acting, awful editing, wildly inconsistent audio, and camera work that leaves much to be desired…)

When I threw this DVD in the player, my excitement to finally be seeing this flick was dampened only slightly by the Alpha Video bug in the top-right corner of the screen. I understand their reasoning, but I’m not a big fan of video companies doing that. Luckily, it only popped up during the opening credits and the ending card. It took me nearly 20 years to finally obtain this movie, so I can easily live with a little logo in the corner for a minute or two.

Also, “Superior Talking Pictures.” You know a movie is older than dirt when the company behind it touted their ability to include speech! If I recall correctly, Sinister Cinema stated in their catalog synopsis that Superior Talking Pictures were anything but, which is wildly spot-on. Oh, it talks, and it does indeed count as a picture, but superior? Well…

(This isn’t the only Superior film I’ve seen, but it IS the worst – though I haven’t cracked into Lightning Bill yet, so the jury is still out on this subject that probably only I care about.)

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So anyway, Range Riders. It concerns the “Bull Crawford Gang,” causing havoc in a Texas town. In fact, the first thing seen is them riding into a property auction and scaring off prospective bidders. Why? So they can get the land for cheap? Nope, they just want to eat! Seriously, that’s their reason for busting up the crowd; so they can have the free eats to themselves.

Up above, the gang is seen hassling “Pedro,” one of the protagonists and our comic relief for the duration. Pedro is clearly not Mexican, Pedro does not speak with a believable Spanish accent, and Pedro is so incredibly idiotic that merely calling him an “offensive stereotype” doesn’t quite seem like enough. He’s constantly doing so many stupid pratfalls and whatnot that just having him around seems like a liability. Some might even refer to the character as “mentally challenged,” and they’d have a real argument. I hate Pedro. (Or, as every character pronounces his name, “Pea-Dro.”)

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Further evidence the gang doesn’t so much terrorize the townsfolk as they simply annoy them a whole lot: when the owner (“Waldon”) whose land the gang has just trespassed upon begins shooting at them, Bull himself sneaks around the side of the house, and rather than simply plugging Waldon right then and there like any self-respecting gangster would, instead reaches his hands through the window and bonks Waldon and his card-partner Sutton’s heads together. It’s a moment straight out of The Three Stooges, and wow is it strange. Nothing says “big bad bullying gang” like some lighthearted head-bonking!

And then, just to make sure the viewer knows this film isn’t even going to try to be realistic in any sense, Bull steps back from the window, aims, and blasts a bottle of ketchup sitting on a shelf inside. The merits of this action are dubious at best, and Bull’s position and angle outside make it highly unlikely that he could have even hit the bottle, but it does provide another moment of “hilarious” comic relief in which Waldon believes he’s been shot (ketchup all over him, y’see) but then cracks up when the the real substance is revealed.”Oh, this criminal could have easily blown my head off but didn’t? Hilarious!”

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Okay, the film quality of Range Riders, obviously it’s not the best. It’s dusty and scratchy and so on, and I’m not convinced the print here wasn’t sourced from VHS originally (as Alpha’s Harmony Trail certainly appeared to be). Still, considering how cheaply it was made and subsequently how obscure it has become, I’m just glad it survives at all to this day. Films of a far bigger stature have become lost to time, after all.

That said, that screenshot above, don’t think that that picture accurately reflects the condition of the surviving print or Alpha’s transfer (or my screen-capping abilities, for that matter). Oh no, that’s the movie itself; astoundingly, it’s out of focus! Quite a few scenes in Range Riders are. In fact, that was one of the things Sinister Cinema harped on most in their catalog entry. At the time, I simply couldn’t fathom how a B-Western, as cheap as they usually were, could be that poorly produced. I kinda still can’t. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s fantastic, though again, for all the wrong reasons.

I get it, I get it. It was the depression, and it was a poverty row film. Get it made fast and cheap, and get it out there. I understand how this could have been released in this state, but that still doesn’t lessen my astonishment at it.

(You want more astonishment? According to IMDb, and I admit I missed this the first time around, Range Riders has multiple actors in a single role, and multiple roles for single actors. Over the course of a 45 minute film! That’s a cheap movie! Read IMDb’s trivia section and see for yourself!)

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Following that mildly irritating bit of carnage, Sutton bets Waldon that his son Dick (who is away at “Agricultural College”) could take out this gang single handed. When Waldon expresses his doubts, Sutton decides to write him (with a letter that begins “My dear Dick,” which, you know, that’s something that would probably be worded somewhat differently in a movie nowadays).

Cut to “Agricultural College,” where Dick and a couple of friends peruse the letter. That’s our hero, star Buddy Roosevelt as Dick Sutton, above. The wispy little mustache doesn’t inspire much confidence in him, but whatever. Dick seems vaguely apprehensive about going back, until his friends mention that the gang will probably be waiting for him at the train station and he should wear a disguise. From some reason, that’s what convinces Dick to go home. No kidding, he gets a wondrous look in his eye and announces “That’s it, I’ll do it!” Evidently Dick is swayed by only the smallest details, and not the fact his father and/or his hometown are (ostensibly) in imminent danger.

From there on out, our story is fully in motion. It’s up to Dick to put an end to the Crawford gang’s reign of terror (such as it is). What follows is mostly a jumbled mess of half-realized plotlines, strung together with some atrocious editing and truly face-palm-inducing dialogue.

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This is our female protagonist, Elsie Waldon, as played by Barbara Starr. Starr wasn’t much of an actress, I’m sorry to say, and according to IMDb, she didn’t have very many films to her credit, of which Range Riders was the last. (What a way to go out!) Starr’s Elsie gets credit for (occasionally) being fairly gutsy, but she’s saddled with some truly moronic lines, which of course doesn’t do her character any favors.

Poor Barbara Starr. Her most notable achievements were marrying Harold Lloyd’s brother, starring in Range Riders, and now being immortalized on my stupid dumb blog. Just doesn’t seem right, man.

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Want some examples of Elsie’s incredibly dumb dialogue? Okay, take for example this scene:

Crawford’s gang does indeed show up at the train station to “greet” Dick. It’s mentioned that Dick’s father has been bragging his son was coming in that day – way to keep that element of surprise by doing the dumbest thing you possibly could, buddy! Elsie overhears the gang’s plans, and wants to alert the sheriff. When the local grocer (I guess) informs her that the sheriff won’t do anything because he needs the gang’s votes, she heads off to the train station b yherself, though what she could possibly do there is never explained. (And how many people live in this town anyway? 9? 10? Wouldn’t rounding up the gang that’s supposedly terrorizing everyone earn the sheriff enough votes to make up for the loss of Crawford’s bunch?)

Meanwhile, Dick has taken the advice of his friends and arrived in disguise, which is that of a froo-froo college boy. Geeky bow tie, beret, the whole shtick. (To Range Riders’ credit, this is genuinely funny, if that’s what they were going for). It works too, because the gang pays him no mind. He runs into Elsie, and she quickly realizes it’s him, however. The dialogue that follows is painfully stupid:

Elsie: “Why Dick Sutton, what are you doing in this clothes? Have you gone crazy?!”

What do you mean what is he doing in those clothes? Obviously he eluded the gang, didn’t he?! Deductive reasoning can work wonders, Elsie.

But wait, it gets better after he quickly explains his disguise to her: “Well, why don’t you go off to the ranch first and see your dad, and find out what it’s all about?”

Find out about what? You saw his dad write the letter, Dick knows why he’s there! That’s why he’s back in town in the first place! Dick himself says as much, when he says, with a twisted little grin, “I’d like to have some fun with that gang!” Elsie’s beauty of a response: “Aw c’mon, don’t start any trouble!” Don’t start any trouble?! You’ve already GOT trouble! They’re troublemakers! THAT’S WHY DICK IS BACK IN TOWN! I like how she shifts from being prepared to alert the sheriff and then going to the train station herself, to basically telling Dick to stay out of it. Make up your mind, lady!

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Dick’s idea of having “fun” with the gang is to rope five of them together, tie the line to a wagon, and then ride off. They almost instantly get out of the lasso, and since their horses are right there at the station, they’re able to give chase pretty much immediately. Boy, that sure was fun, Dick. There’s no way that’s not going to irk them mightily! Was that Dick’s main plan? Come back home and really, really annoy a gang?

An interminable chase scene follows. Out of nowhere, Pedro is there too, and of course he falls off the back of the wagon during it, which means Dick and Elsie have to circle around to get him. Man, is Pedro indispensable or what; why bother getting Dick back home when you’ve already got the incomparable Pedro on the premises?

At several points during the chase, there’s a close-up shot of Dick and Elsie in the wagon, going through the motions of riding; holding the reigns and the crop, bouncing up and down, etc. You know what would have been an even more convincing illusion of movement though? If they filmed this in front of a sky that didn’t feature a stationary cloud!

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Dick’s next course of action is to borrow some clothes from Pedro and masquerade as a Mexican bandit or something. The merits of this endeavor are, like so much else in this film, dubious. I mean, why? What benefit is there to the bad guys thinking he’s Mexican, or them knowing he’s Dick Sutton? It just seems like a superfluous gesture, is all I’m saying.

And really, all he did was change his clothes. Okay, he uses a Spanish accent too, but it’s not exactly realistic or convincing. Otherwise, his appearance remains the same as “normal” Dick Sutton. So again, what’s the point?

But then, the world of Range Riders is a world where characters like Pedro are considered useful. That is, the normal rules don’t apply here.

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At one point, to demonstrate their terrorizing of the populace, the gang takes a guy’s hat. Oh I get it, it shows their bullying in even the smallest matters or something like that. Nevertheless, Bull’s winking “Now you boys heard him give me that hat, didn’tcha?” after grabbing it comes off less like a rough and tumble gang leader and more like a cranky high school punk, but whatever.

This takes place outside of the local saloon, and while the newly-hatless man goes off to tattle, Bull and his gang head inside, where all he does is yammer about his “new” hat over and over. Seriously, he won’t shut up about it.

I love how hatless guy runs to the sheriff and gives him this line: “That man Bull Crawford is pickin’ on me sheriff! I want you to get my hat!” They actually gave those lines to a grown man! What, was the dialogue written by a kindergartner? “Oooh, big mean man pickin’ on me!”

Since it has already been established that the sheriff is a puss that won’t do anything about anything (“Aww, there’s no use causin’ trouble over a hat!”), it’s up to Dick and Pedro to head to the bar and retrieve the stolen item. They do so, and Dick then proceeds to make Bull eat a bar of soap; apparently Bull talks some smack about Waldon at this moment, but a convenient splice in the film renders the line MIA. No, really, Dick makes Bull wash his mouth out right in front of his gang. Again, Dick isn’t so much clearing the gang out of town as he is just messing with them. Still, it’s a scene that’s actually pretty funny…

…until Pedro trips and causes the distraction needed for the gang to start busting things up. Thanks for all your help, Pedro. Pedro’s failing in life is par for the course by this point in the film, so it’s no great surprise, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be filled with rage over it, either.

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Range Riders features some fight scenes that are so widely amateurish, they wouldn’t fool a blind turtle. Now, B-Western fights weren’t always operatic achievements, but man, they’re taken to new levels of downright silliness here. A scene where Dick swings around by a rope in the bar is just so unbelievably ridiculous; the idea is that he’s swinging around and kicking the bad guys in mid-air, but he never actually gains any momentum to do this. Rather, he just kind of bumps into them whilst hanging from the rope, which of course causes them to scatter as if they’ve just been hit by a wrecking ball or something. Did Superior think anyone would buy this? Even the kids had to have seen right through it!

And the fistfights! There’s some fistfightin’ alright, but they’re less drag-down, knock-out brawls and more like a bunch of guys just flailing their arms about all willy nilly. Buddy Roosevelt in particular, man, any hopes of him being a matinee hero had to have been shattered when audiences saw him winging his arms about wildly, without any discernible sense of genuine fighting ability. And since there’s no sound effects to accentuate any of the punches, the brawls all come off more like pillow-less pillow fights instead of the dramatic battles they were intended to portray.

The fighting action is lame, and Dick can’t decide whether he can hold his own or not. At one point, he’s seen taking on the whole gang at once and coming out victorious. But then later, he pretty much has his derriere handed to him, not that it matters, since the gang then rides off, leaving his unconscious body on the ground. Of course, they later pontificate on what they’d do to him if they had the chance! Does it get any more pointlessly incompetent than that?!

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There’s some nonsense about a map to a goldmine (owned by the wonderfully-named “Hardpan”) that takes up the focus of the last several minutes of the film, but it really just makes for more of the same action we’ve already seen. I do love how our protagonists are surprised, yet only mildly annoyed, each time the gang shows up; they’ll drive them off, figure they’re safe from then for awhile, only to be irritated when that “measly” crew comes back in short order! What, you haven’t figured out the M.O. of these guys by now? Did you just get Dick back in town on a hunch?

(And to prove she lacks the power of accumulative memory, Elsie again suggests they go get the sheriff.)

This is a B-Western, so of course there’s a happy ending. The Crawford gang is eventually defeated, rounded up, and brought to the sheriff, who I guess can’t ignore them any longer. In a shudderingly stupid moment, the sheriff drags them out of the car they’re contained in, and lets them walk into his office – unassisted and under their own power! Yeah, that’s believable!

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In a romance that wasn’t even hinted at prior, the hero gets the girl, but not before we hear this immortal bit of closing dialogue:

Elsie: “Now that you’ve saved Hardpan’s mine, you have got to stop being a bad Spanish boy!”

Dick: “Well then, I’ll be a gay caballero!”

You can file that under “movie lines that would have a totally different meaning nowadays.”

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Ah, another budget DVD for the pile (no, M*A*S*H season six isn’t actually a budget set, but I’m not taking another, rectified closing pic). And boy, was this one a doozy! After roughly 17 years of build-up, Range Riders did not disappoint. It’s everything Sinister Cinema said it would be – and more. It’s incomprehensibly inept in every facet, but don’t take that to mean you should avoid it. Oh no, it’s pretty fantastic. Like I said before, it’s wonderfully entertaining in spite of itself. You can’t help but stare at it in slack-jawed wonder. 1934 was a simpler time, for sure, but even so, this is exponentially amateurish. I wonder if Superior realized that, or if they even cared? Rumor has it this was filmed in only two days and on a budget of $2500, so I guess they’d take whatever they got. (And, as bad as it is, it’s not like I could do any better in that amount of time or with that budget.)

I know I’m six years late to the party, but even so, I’ve got to commend Alpha Video for finally making this and other mega-obscure B-Westerns widely available. I never thought it would happen, but it has, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

When people talk of good bad movies, you’ll probably never hear Range Riders mentioned. Which is a shame, because it’s a great bad movie. If I have anything to say about it, that will soon change, since this article will undoubtedly go viral several seconds after being posted. (Yeah. Sure. Uh huh.)

The bottom line is: the world must know about Range Riders and I will not rest until it does! Pick yourself up a copy and experience the magic for yourself!

Pop Flix’s Bela Lugosi Horror Collection DVD (2009) Review

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I simply can’t resist certain budget DVD sets. Throwing together a bunch of public domain movies in one ostensibly comprehensive collection for $5-$10? I’ll have at that all day. Granted, I draw the line at newer, no-budget, no-name horror/sci-fi/action collections, because I really, really don’t care. But compilations featuring classic movies and TV shows? Those are a severe weakness of mine. And I’m just fine with that. Just by taking a cursory look at the blog, it goes without saying that a premium is placed on those spotlighting the classic horror and sci-fi film genres.

In that arena, we saw TGG Direct’s 3-disc Japanese Monster Movies set a bit over two years ago, and nearly a year ago (almost a year already?!), we looked at Mill Creek’s The Best of the Worst, supposedly featuring the definitive worst movies ever made. Both of those comps were, and are, fun, and I continue to be fond of them. But our subject for today, this release, it’s just outstanding. I love it so much, and it was so cheap, that I seriously bought another copy just to keep sealed for collecting purposes. Not that I think it’ll really be worth anything in the future, but it’s so unabashedly cool, that having both a “watch” copy and a minty sealed fresh collectors copy, it just seemed right. No kidding, this may be my favorite “budget DVD set” ever, and I don’t say that lightly (I’ve got far more of these things littering my DVD collection than I care to admit).

Why the extreme infatuation? Because this set is dedicated to one of my top movie heroes, Bela Lugosi, that’s why! Released in 2009 by Allegro’s Pop Flix division, it’s an eight-movie collection primarily consisting of Lugosi’s 1940’s poverty row output, plus brief excursions into his 1930s and 1950s output. In other words, it’s a ridiculously entertaining set.

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Now granted, this isn’t exactly a revolutionary release. Most of the movies here are entries in Lugosi’s oeuvre that were made during his “B-Movie Period,” and subsequently lapsed into the public domain. (White Zombie being somewhat the exception; it’s the latter, but not the former.) That is, there’s been no shortage of DVD (and before that, VHS) editions out there, sometimes of individual titles, sometimes of compilations like this one. On that front, there are budget DVD sets that include far more of his public domain stuff than this one does.

So why do I like this one so much? Well, there’s something to be said for a clean, concise package, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what this is. It’s obviously up to individual tastes, but for me, Pop Flix has left out a lot of the “chaff,” and kept a fairly strong line-up. As far as PD Lugosi flicks go, there’s really not a dud in the bunch. Sure, some are better than others, but all are entertaining. Personally, there’s not a “man, skip this crap” on here. And it all stars Lugosi – you just can’t beat it!

Plus, I just really like the Pop Flix label in general. Their packaging, while still obviously in the “budget tradition,” is always clean and attractive (our subject above is a good example – kinda classy lookin’!), and they tend to give you a lot of bang for your buck. These sets generally run between $5 to $10, and even at the extreme of $10, you get your money’s worth. Because they specialize (?) in PD material, image and sound quality will of course vary from feature to feature, but I’ve never seen anything unwatchable put out by them. Indeed, in my experience, you’re usually better off going with Pop Flix. They get my thumbs-up, and as we all know, my thumbs-up are of tantamount importance.

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There’s our line-up, and like I said, not a dud in the bunch. I love the inclusion of original poster art by each title, and the synopsis’ are, by necessity, short and to the point. My only complaint? I wish they would’ve added the original release date of each movie to their respective entry.

“Hey, where’s Dracula, man?!”

It seems that’s a pretty common question whenever these releases are brought up. It’s a little amusing until I remember not everyone pointlessly knows the ins-and-outs of wildly obsolete films like I do. No, Dracula is not on here. Dracula will never be on here. These are public domain features; those without a valid copyright and thus can be distributed by anyone and everyone without having to pay a penny for the rights. Dracula is not public domain, nor will it ever be; Dracula is a Universal flick, and Universal doesn’t exactly play fast and loose with their film rights.

(Besides, whenever I want to watch Lugosi’s Dracula, I’ve got my official releases, I can wait for Svengoolie to run it again, or, you know, I can go the Superhost route.)

To be honest with you though, Dracula really wouldn’t fit here; Dracula is almost too good, too big budget, to work with this line-up. It would look like the one ‘real’ film and then a whole bunch of filler. The exclusion of Dracula (not that it ever had a chance of inclusion) allows these to stand on their own; most of them are fun, low budget, poverty row films from a period when Lugosi was down and needed the work. These kept his name on posters and money in his pockets, and no matter how outlandish the material, he always gave the performance his all. His presence can (and does) take a movie that would be a waste with most any other actor, and utterly transforms it. This set is excellent in demonstrating that.

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Again, I like how concise this whole thing is. Eight movies, spread over two discs, and both are good. Sure, like any of these compilations, there’s a film or two that could have been subbed out for something you’re more fond of (I wish Scared To Death was on here, for example), but it’s hard to complain about what is included. None of these are masterpieces, but they’re all wildly entertaining, and with most only clocking in at a bit over an hour, watching more than one in a single sitting is totally doable, especially at only four films per disc.

Rather than go with some mini-digipacks or a double-wide case or some such nonsense, both discs are housed in a single standard DVD-case, one per side. I like that. Doesn’t take up any extra space on a shelf, while still retaining the clean, attractive design of the whole thing. I dig it!

So, what about the picture and sound of the collection? Like I said before, and like any of these sets, they’re both going to vary from feature to feature. Now, if you scroll back up to that front cover, you’ll see the claims of “Digitally Re-Mastered” and “Sound Enhanced.” Sound-wise, this set actually exhibits pretty good sound quality. I’m not sure what exactly “Sound Enhanced” entails, but I could hear everything, which isn’t always the case with thousand-year-old movies like these.

As for the picture, it definitely varies, but it’s uniformly watchable. Oddly enough, the whole thing appeared considerably clearer and sharper when viewed on my old CRT TV than it did when taking the forthcoming screencaps on my PC. I’m not sure where the variation falls, or what the true representation of quality is, but either way, you’re still getting your money’s worth. Besides, these are the kind of films that really should be viewed on a good ol’ CRT TV – seems so much more ‘authentic’ that way.

Speaking of authenticity, the prints used do indeed exhibit dust, dirt, scratches, splices, and so on throughout. Occasionally the picture is too dark or too light. These were digitally remastered in some way, perhaps, but don’t let that fool you into thinking these prints look substantially different from other budget releases. And guess what? That’s a good thing; it totally plays into the vibes of the set.

“WAIT, you don’t want these as HD restored Blu-rays and whatnot bro?” Look, that’s missing the point. Okay, yeah, restored and cleaned up is of course always nice (Kino’s big deluxe The Devil Bat is definitely on my want list). But, with a collection like this, mainly representing Lugosi’s poverty row period, all the scratches and crackles and splices, they just totally evoke watching this or that at some local theater back in the 1940s or on some local UHF TV station decades ago. Clean these up all you want, it’s understandable and necessary, but there’s something to be said for being able to see the accumulated trips through the projector these prints took for who knows how long. Pristine? Not at all. Fun? Definitely. Evocative of the time period they came from? Absolutely.

But maybe that feeling is partly nostalgia on my behalf. Y’see, this set reminds me of my discovering these films and others like them back in the late-1990s, often via WAOH TV-29 and Son of Ghoul. As much as I anticipate watching Kino’s cleaned up The Devil Bat, I don’t think it’ll give me those same “old school vibes.” Sure, most of the prints that introduced me to this stuff back in the day weren’t that great, but I didn’t care; I was seeing a new-to-me old horror or sci-fi flick, and that “vintage cinema feeling” was just part of the fun. This DVD collection has that feeling in spades. (Plus, would you really expect a budget DVD collection to feature immaculate-looking film prints?)

Am I making any sense at all here? No matter, because with all that said, we come to the actual content of the collection…

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The main menu for each disc is basically the same, with only the movie selection changing (“gee, you don’t say!”). Clicking on any title will bring you to another menu with options to play or select a scene, plus a bit of poster art. Don’t go in expecting audio commentaries or deleted scenes, alright? You’ll get your scene selection and you’ll like it! Like the packaging itself, the menus are clean and to-the-point. I dig the bluish/purplish color scheme.

So, the first disc. It’s really good, but relatively speaking, the weaker of the two. With eight films to cover, I don’t want to go extremely in-depth here, lest this become a three-day read, but we’ll briefly check out each one included. I’m a rebel that way.

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Things kick off with 1932’s White Zombie. Unlike the other films in this set, this was made in the more-immediate aftermath of Lugosi’s Dracula triumph. It’s not a Universal film, though it was filmed on the lot. This was an indie production, and for whatever reason, eventually wound up in the often-murky arena that is the public domain.

Without a doubt, this is the most critically-acclaimed film in the set, with some people absolutely adoring it. I can’t claim to have ever been one of those people. Oh, I like it fine, there’s not a film in this collection I don’t like to some degree, but I was just never as enamored with White Zombie as others were/are. It has a great, almost Universal-like atmosphere, but the acting (besides Lugosi) isn’t all that wonderful, and even though this is apparently the first-ever zombie film (these ain’t your George Romero’s zombies, though!), the plot still leaves me a little cold.

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Set in Haiti, Lugosi plays “Murder Legendre,” a whiz at the voodoo he does so well (hence, whiz). With a first name like “Murder,” you can probably surmise he’s not the nicest of fellas. Murder is pretty good at creating “voodoo-brand zombies,” (those are the kind that don’t eat your flesh), and indeed, he’s got a whole league of them.

A bad situation is made worse when the local plantation owner makes eyes at young bride-to-be Madeleine. Through Murder’s powers, she is turned into a zombie (on her wedding night, no less), and it’s up to her new-hubby Neil to save her and stop Murder once and for all.

It’s not a bad movie, just not one that I ever loved as much as others do. Kind of like my weird Dracula analogy a bit ago, White Zombie almost sticks out as “too competent” here; it almost doesn’t fit with the rest of the cheapies in the set. It winds up skirting the issue, though I’d be hard-pressed to explain why. Maybe it has less to do with anything the movie itself does and more to do with the subsequent mega-public domain status it has acquired in the home video era. No kidding, it seems nearly every budget outfit had a release of White Zombie to call their own.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s a good, fun film. It’s not a great film, but that helps it fit in better than it should. I guess.

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Next up: 1942’s Bowery At Midnight. This was the big surprise of the set for me; when I first saw it listed on the package, I didn’t have high hopes. I don’t think I could recall whether it was a Bowery Boys flick (Bela did two of those), or a run-of-the-mill crime thriller. Either way, my initial response was akin to a big “meh.”

Naturally, I had to take at least a cursory glance for this review. As it turned out, while I may indeed have had a copy already (probably on another budget DVD set), I’m almost positive I’ve never actually watched it. In short order, I found myself becoming absorbed in the movie, quite unexpectedly on my part.

Bottom line: I loved it. No joke, Bowery At Midnight instantly found a place in the upper-echelon of my personal favorite “Cheap Lugosi” flicks. We’re talking a top-five’r here. This is just good, solid poverty row entertainment.

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I wasn’t totally off in my initial assumption regarding the movie. It is, for the most part, a crime thriller. But, there’s a surprising, legit horror twist that’s too random to not love.

Lugosi has a sort of dual-role here, though it’s really the same person: by day, he’s college professor Brenner. By night, he’s Karl Wagner, who runs a soup kitchen at the Bowery. Despite putting up a friendly facade (heck, the name of the soup kitchen is “Friendly!”), the whole thing is a front for Wagner’s life of crime; he has a habit of enlisting rough-types that wander into the kitchen for local heists, and then later offing them (often at the crime scene, no less) when they’re no longer of use. Naturally, you can only get away with that for so long before the cops start to piece it all together.

Where does the horror aspect come in? Hanging around Wagner’s secret hideout in the basement of the mission is one Doc Brooks. Doc likes to take the corpses Wagner leaves behind and use them for his own experiments. Eventually, it’s revealed he’s reanimated them as zombies! Honestly, the whole Doc character/horror aspect feels completely tacked-on, but it still, somehow, fits.

Though, I’m the first to admit I don’t quite get the ending. (CAUTION: spoilers for a 74 year-old movie ahead!) Near the end, the boyfriend (Richard) of Wagner’s employee (Judy) at the mission is shot dead by Wagner himself, and his body given to the Doc. At the conclusion, after Wagner is defeated, Richard is seen rescued, alive and well and engaged to married! Say what? Were these guys not really dead? Or does Judy just not care, since he’s up and talking? He appears perfectly fine, so yeah, I don’t get it.

Which of course means I love the movie all the more. Even with guys gettin’ shot and zombies and weird ending and so on, this all still manages to attain an early-1940s movie innocence. If you haven’t seen Bowery At Midnight, try to check it out!

(I’m trying to keep Lugosi in all the “action screencaps” of this piece, and technically the one above sticks with that; that’s him being killed by the zombies! And the scene actually manages to be genuinely claustrophobic and creepy, believe it or not!)

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Fun fact: we almost saw 1941’s Invisible Ghost here at the blog before. Y’see, a month or two back, I got in a real horror hosted-Lugosi mood. As longtime readers know, back in the late-90s and early-2000s, when I was first discovering all these movies, I was an avid watcher of The Ghoul, and two choices via his show popped into my head: The Devil Bat, and this film here, Invisible Ghost.

Now, whenever I review something like that, it’s from one of my old VHS recordings, and a good deal of the time, I haven’t converted it to DVD for posterity yet. So, no time better than the present! (Plus, it makes grabbing screencaps and going back-and-forth for whatever reason easier.) Problem that time was, I was either running low or down to my last blank DVD-R. Another pack required a trip to the store and spending money, neither of which I felt like. So, I had to pick between the two.

As it turns out, I chose incorrect. I made the DVD conversion and got as far as some preliminary writing before I realized the material just wasn’t really suited to a post. It would have turned into a plain movie review with some token looks at the Ghoul segments. I tried, but nothing doing, so I scrapped it.

(That’s not to say it won’t ever show up here, but as of now, there are no current plans for a post.)

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The movie didn’t give me a whole lot to work with, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The title makes it sound more ‘spooky’ than it really is though; It’s more of a psychological thriller than a full-fledged horror film to me.

Bela plays “Charles Kessler.” Kessler’s wife has left him, some time prior, and is presumably later killed in a car accident. She’s not actually dead though; she’s been hidden away in the basement by the gardener. Every once in awhile, she’ll ‘appear’ to Kessler, which then puts him in a murderous trance. Yep, Bela kills without really knowing that he’s killing.

Like I said, not a bad film, and prior to falling in love with Bowery At Midnight, *I* would have considered it a stronger ‘second-tier’ film here. As it stands though, this, for me, is one of the weaker entries, though that’s really only relatively speaking; this is still a good one, but it’s a bit overshadowed by some of the other flicks here, in my eyes.

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1941’s Spooks Run Wild finishes up the first disc. This is one of those Bowery Boys/Bela projects I mentioned earlier. Technically, this is an East Side Kids film, which is fine with me. Of the whole Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys lineage, the East Side Kids entries were always my favorites.

This one is a lot of fun; it’s basically the 1940s matinee movie in a nutshell. It’s more of a comedy than a thriller, but the strong horror-vibe still makes it worthy of placement on the set. (1943’s Ghosts on the Loose was the other East Side Kids/Bela opus, and would have made a good choice for placement in this set, too.)

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If you’ve seen an East Side Kids flick, you can probably guess how a lot of this plays out. Muggs and his gang (The East Side Kids, man!) are New York street toughs; not really bad, just mischievous. In this entry, they’ve been tricked into attending reform camp. Naturally, they don’t hang around there very long, and upon splitting, they wind up at a “haunted” house. To make matters worse, a mysterious killer is on the loose. Wacky East Side Kid situations then ensue, only this time with Bela Lugosi in the vicinity.

Lugosi plays Nardo, who is assumed to be the killer, though in a nice change of pace, he’s not; he’s actually a magician! Also, as the back of the DVD cover correctly points, Bela’s Nardo looks a lot like Dracula. For all you “Where’s Dracula???” folks, there’s your precious, precious Dracula!

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And now we come to the second disc. Look, this whole set is good, but man, disc two is worth the price of admission alone; this is the cool winnins of the set! Just look at that powerhouse of a line-up above! Okay, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, that’s relatively “meh,” but those first three, all in a row like that? That’s where it’s at!

Remember when I was gushing about Bowery At Midnight, and I mentioned that top five thing? Yeah, those first three movies on disc two are easily in my top five. In my humble opinion, there are no better examples of Lugosi’s poverty row output.

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I’ve got to do a little backtracking here: if you’ll recall this terrible old post, you’ll know I was a little lukewarm on the subject of 1940’s The Devil Bat. Apparently it didn’t do too much for me when I first saw it years ago, and I was still riding on that. Well, intelligence allows for a change of opinion. In the years since that post, I’ve become more and more fond of The Devil Bat. It’s cheap, cheesy, and ridiculously entertaining. You just can’t hate it!

Unlike most of the movies on this set, which were Monogram productions (often through their Astor Pictures division), The Devil Bat is a PRC product (that’s Producers Releasing Corporation, folks). Despite the ubiquity of Monogram in the era, PRC is the studio I think of first when I think “poverty row movie.” They made some cheapies, that’s for sure. Immensely entertaining cheapies, though.

I’m not the only one who thinks there’s some merit to this film, either. Kino took the time released a remastered Blu-ray edition, and there’s even a newly colorized version of the movie out there! No one will claim The Devil Bat to rank among Bela’s most accomplished work, but obviously there’s something endearing about it. You know a film is worth checking out when Kino deems it worthy of a release!

And, unlike Invisible Ghost, there’s now a very strong possibility we’ll see The Ghoul’s showing of this episode at some point in the future.

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Because I’m now seriously planning on reviewing that old Ghoul episode, I’m not sure how much I want to divulge about the film right now. But then, this flick is so whacked-out (in a good way), I suppose a whole lot isn’t needed to sell this one.

Listen to this beauty of a plot: Lugosi is Dr. Carruthers, who has an axe to grind with the cosmetics company he works for. And just as any reasonable person with a grievance would do, he follows the obvious path of creating a big mean giant bat. What, that’s not enough? Okay, how about this: he also develops a special aftershave lotion that, when worn by a chosen “test subject,” attracts said big giant mean bat (“The Devil Bat,” as quickly labeled by the press), which of course then kills the aforementioned aftershave-wearer.

Yes, this means you get to see a helpless victim thrashing about under a gigantic rubber bat. And if that’s not enough to make you want to see this movie, well, then I just don’t know.

No kidding, this one is fantastic. I can’t believe I went so many years not loving it!

Fun fact: there was a 1946 sequel titled Devil Bat’s Daughter, which, as of this writing, has been seen by approximately 12 people since its release, and doesn’t star Bela. No Bela? Pass!

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Saaaay, haven’t we looked at this one before? We sure have! I kicked 2016 off with not only a review of this movie, but also Al “Grampa” Lewis, who hosted it for Amvest Video back in 1988. I go way back with 1942’s The Corpse Vanishes; it was of the first episodes of The Son of Ghoul Show I saw back in 1997 (I taped it, but unfortunately didn’t keep it – d’oh!), Mystery Science Theater 3000 tackled it once, I have a partial recording of the movie on Enigma Theater somewhere, and there were probably some other instances regarding it I can’t even recall right now. The public domain-status of the film (plus the not-as-lurid-as-it-sounds-but-still-pretty-cool title) ensured that The Corpse Vanishes really made the rounds in the decades since it was originally released.

I really, really like this movie. From the cheap sets to wacky-but-fun plot to, well, Bela, it almost comes off as the definitive 1940s poverty row horror film. (I say “almost” because, frankly, the movie preceding it and the movie following it are both strong candidates for that honor, too.)

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I want my Grampa / Amvest Video review to be my definitive (ha!) take on the movie, but real quick: Lugosi plays “mad botanist” Dr. Lorenz, who uses specially-formulated orchids to put prospective brides into a death-like state (on their wedding day to boot!). The brides are then spirited away to his laboratory, where special fluid of some sort is extracted and injected into Lorenz’s aging (and mega-bitchy) wife, in order to rejuvenate her. Reporter Patricia Hunter soon gets on his trail and helps put an end to such shenanigans – but not before we get to see Lorenz and his wife sleep in a cool pair of coffins!

The Corpse Vanishes is less overtly-wacky than The Devil Bat, but in its own way, just as much fun. As the years have gone by since I first saw it, I’ve only grown to appreciate it more and more.

Fun fact: a poster for this movie is plainly visible in the background at one point in Bowery At Midnight! Aw Monogram, you playful folks you!

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We’ve seen this one here before, too. Do I get around or what!

1943’s The Ape Man was included on that Best of the Worst DVD set I linked to earlier. The title-screen here seems to have some sort of weird border/cropping around it (Bowery At Midnight did too – what’s it mean???), though that’s a small price to pay to watch Bela walk around in a perpetual half-ape state.

This movie is fantastic. It manages to out-goofy The Devil Bat, which is really saying something. I can see similar movies being released in the 1930s, and the 1950s, and even beyond. But the sheer nutbar matinee innocence that rampages across the screen here? It’s a movie that really could have only come out in the 1940s. Oh how I love this one.

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Bela is Dr. Brewster, who has been messing around with apes. Wait, that sounds weird. I meant scientifically. Hold on, that still doesn’t sound right. He’s been experimenting on apes. There, that’s better.

And guess what? By doing so, he’s turned himself into the titular character! This is an undesirable affliction for at least 6000 reasons, so it’s up to him and his pet real ape (and by “real” I mean “very obviously a guy in a suit”) to kill people for their spinal fluid, which will turn him back into a full-human or some crap like that. It doesn’t really matter, because this movie is too insane to take seriously, which of course makes it absolutely terrific.

Also, secret special bodily fluids as a plot point again? Was that like the hot scientific whatever back in the 1940s? We saw it in The Corpse Vanishes, and here it is again. And three years prior, Monogram went this semi-route with Boris Karloff in The Ape, which also focuses on spinal fluid as a vital element. The stuff must be the fruit punch of bodily fluids! Wait, that sounds weird, too.

Louise Currie plays the female lead, a photographer, and she’s cute as a button.

Fun fact: there was a 1946 1944 sequel titled Devil Bat’s Daughter Return of the Ape Man, which, as of this writing, has been seen by approximately 12 8 people since its release, and doesn’t does star Bela. No Bela? Pass! Has Bela? Worth a glance!

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After that phenomenal three-pack that takes up a full 3/4 of this second disc, there’s really nowhere to go but down. Even my personal choice of Scared To Death would have seen a drop in quality (ha!).

1952’s Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla finishes up Pop Flix’s Lugosi collection. Like Spooks Run Wild at the end of disc one, this is more of a comedy than a full-fledged horror film. I wonder if that was intentional? End each disc on a lighter note?

The quality of the print here is easily the nicest of all eight films; crisp, clean, clear, with an actual richness and ‘depth’ to it. Which is a wash, because this is also easily the worst film on the set. It’s still entertaining, but it’s also painfully stupid. Like, really stupid. And keep in mind, we just saw a movie with Bela walking around all ape-like for the duration.

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Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo are, uh, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. They play themselves, nightclub comics who have crash landed on an island inhabited by stereotypical tribal natives. They also happen to be the dollar store versions of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. If you liked Martin & Lewis, odds are you’ll be severely offended by this ‘interpretation’ of their act. And if you didn’t like Martin & Lewis, you may want to take several steps back from the TV, because you’re liable to straight up karate chop it in half. Mitchell’s fake Dean Martin isn’t so bad, but Petrillo’s nasally Lewis-impression wears real thin, real fast. He makes the actual Lewis character look like Brando in comparison. I mean, Urkel wishes he could be this annoying.

So yeah, fake Martin & Lewis are stranded on this island, fake Martin falls in love with a native girl, they eventually run into Lugosi’s “Dr. Zabor,” who is naturally conducting weird experiments. In a surprisingly unsettling turn of events, Zabor is in love with the same native girl, so he turns fake Martin into an ape, all while fake Lewis continues to be a total spaz. And it’s all capped off by a phenomenally dumb ending that will make you feel all the worse for sitting through the whole thing.

In all seriousness, don’t think I’m not glad this flick is here, cause I am. It’s entertaining, but unlike the previous films, which were charmingly cheap entertainment, Brooklyn Gorilla succeeds as a slack-jawed, love-to-hate it film. It’s essentially harmless, and Pop Flix gets props for not going with the also-public domain and also-uber bad Bride of the Monster, but still, it’s markedly worse than anything else here. The other movies in this collection,it doesn’t feel right to call them out-and-out “bad.” Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is bad. Entertaining bad, but bad nevertheless.

Honestly, the set as a whole works, but this is the only movie I have any doubts regarding. It steps a bit too far out of the poverty row line-up we’ve enjoyed up to this point; even White Zombie doesn’t stick out as bad. Ghosts on the Loose would have made a better capper, but still, this is a nice, dumb way to finish things up.

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You know what’s neat about this collection? It spans 1932 to 1952. 20 years of Lugosi’s career. No, it’s not a comprehensive set; it mainly focuses on his 1940s poverty row material. Lugosi did make some films for Universal during the time period, but those are absent for obvious reasons.

What Pop Flix has managed to do here is ably represent the Lugosi legend in more ways than one. Lemme explain: you start in 1932, he’s at the top of his game, and then you jump to the era of his career in which typecasting was in full, devastating effect: the poverty row cheapies of the 1940s. Then, you finish in 1952, the twilight of his career, where typecasting is still an issue, and the work is no longer A, or even B, grade. But, he’s managed to attain an almost a mythical aura; his name in the very title of the last movie here demonstrates that. He was legendary enough to receive such billing, even if such legend wasn’t recognized by the major studios.

And the great thing is, Lugosi’s performance never falters. At all. In any of these. Sure, some (most) of these pictures were done more out of necessity than anything else. But, he got paid, they kept his name alive, and he gave them his all. You can’t help but respect him for not half-assing it, whereas, given the material present, most any other actor would have. Like I said at the start of this post, he absolutely elevates a movie all by himself. That’s a good actor. No, that’s a great actor. And he’s on full-display here.

There are lots of budget Bela Lugosi DVD collections out there. A good many have any number of combinations of the same films seen in this one. But, I don’t think I’ve seen one that I’d enjoy as consistently as this Pop Flix product. At only eight films and two discs, that’s plenty of material without being overwhelming. And, it’s consistently entertaining, from start to finish. Even that last flick, as bad as it is, it still somehow works. For movies that have been circulating endlessly forever by this point, Pop Flix managed to do a great job with what they had. It all just clicks. It’s a set that’s far more satisfying than a budget DVD collection has a right to be.

This one gets a big recommendation from your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter. And you know, even if you’re still kinda on the fence about it, those first three movies on disc two alone…