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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 [Confirmed]
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 [Confirmed]
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!

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

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, 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…

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1942’s The Corpse Vanishes (1988)

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Last year, I started the new year off right with Superhost hosting Bela Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula. Now, I’m starting this year off right, with Al “Grampa” Lewis hosting Bela Lugosi in one of the films he was relegated to doing after Dracula, uh, typecast him somethin’ fierce. Do I know how to live or what!

Hopefully you’ll recall my last Halloween post, in which I looked at Amvest Video’s release of 1939’s The Human Monster as part of their “Grampa Presents” video series of 1988. There was a long line of these tapes, but none of them are all that easily found nowadays, which meant that I really wanted one, any one. I mean, Al “Grandpa Munster in all but official name” Lewis hosting a bunch of cheap, primarily public domain movies? I need that in my life as much as possible.

Fortunately for my video collection (though unfortunately for my wallet), the acquisition of that first tape touched off a severe wave of, well, I don’t want to say obsession, but somewhere around that description. I thought I’d be happy with one or two, but in the months since that initial article, my Grampa Presents collection has grown to include a nice chunk of titles from the series (plus one of the horror movie trailer compilations Lewis hosted for Amvest, which is obviously related but not quite part of the line). Not too shabby considering I only got my first tape in early October, I’d say!

(And truth be told, even ‘regular,’ non-Grampa-branded Amvest releases of these movies have proven to be an area of high interest to me. I’ve managed to gather up several of those, too.)

Much of this had to do with the fascinating backstory, or lack thereof, regarding the line: basically, no one is quite sure how many of these Grampa Presents tapes were actually released. There is a long list of titles attributed to it (which we’ll get to in a bit), but only a portion of those have been confirmed to, you know, exist. Some of them pop up from time-to-time online, but then there’s others that have been confirmed but almost never show up. Even though I’ve managed to acquire a bunch of these tapes since that first one in October, I still stand by my statement in the earlier post that they range from “highly obscure” to “impossibly rare.” And those are just the ones I/we know about!

Anyway, needless to say, the saga continues now, with one of the titles in the series that’s on the easier end of the spectrum to find (relatively speaking), but was nevertheless one of my personal chasers…

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Bela Lugosi’s 1942 poverty row opus, The Corpse Vanishes. Cool winnins!

If you’ve read that Halloween post, you’ll know there were some problems with that first tape: namely, it was recorded in the wrong speed. Thus, the tape ran out out before the movie was over! This hurt me deep, but not as much as it would have had it been a movie I cared more for. I’ve never been big on The Human Monster (aka Dark Eyes of London), but The Corpse Vanishes is a different story; I’ve been fond of the film ever since first seeing it on Son of Ghoul waaay back in 1997 (one of my very first episodes – I had only begun watching Son of Ghoul a few weeks prior).

Because I actually like the movie, your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter was going to be exponentially more irked if there was something wrong with this tape. I’ll say upfront that all is well as far as that is concerned. It played from start to finish without incident, and given the EP recording speed, the picture quality wasn’t exceptional but certainly passable. Considering these videos were strictly budget affairs the whole way around, I was pleasantly surprised.

(Over the course of amassing these titles, and even the non-Grampa-hosted Amvest releases, I’ve learned a lot about the ups-and-downs of them. Indeed, thanks to how much more I know about all of this now, this is probably going to end up being the article I wanted to write last time. I know I’ll end up repeating a few things I said the first time around, so please bear with me.)

The cover art, though simplistic, is appealing. If you go and search out other images of the Grampa Presents line, you’ll see that the artwork can vary wildly from release to release. Some tapes use the original movie posters as a template, some (such as this one) use a real photograph, and others use hand drawn original artwork that can range from okay to, well, lets just say the hand drawn stuff sometimes isn’t the best. Make no mistake though, even the goofier-looking ones I love; these things have charm to spare!

As for this The Corpse Vanishes, like I said, it’s simplistic, but overall still very cool. The Bela image is appropriate, and the red and gray color scheme is attractive…

…Aw, who am I kidding? It’s all about the Grampa banner at the top. It totally takes the cover from “competent” to “I should probably have a poster of it made for my bedroom wall.” I’m seriously considering printing out copies of that “Grampa Presents” header and fixing them to some of my favorite tapes just to make them look better. “Grampa Presents: The Giant Spider Invasion.” “Grampa Presents: The Creeping Terror.” “Grampa Presents: M*A*S*H – Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.The possibilities are endless!

I should be getting a million dollars a week for these brilliant ideas.

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For as good as the front covers (can) look, the back covers are always pretty plain. Indeed, before you actually put the tape in the VCR, that’s where the budget roots of the video are first evident (unless you got one of those particularly cheesy-covered ones, in which case, that’s where the budget roots are first evident). Not that that bothers me in the slightest; budget tape charm and all that.

As far as the movie synopsis goes, it’s not exactly comprehensive or anything, but the one used here for The Corpse Vanishes isn’t quite as perfunctory as the descriptions on these tapes can be. Okay, it’s a straight two paragraphs without any frills, but hey, I’ve seen worse.

‘Course, it’s totally the “Grampa’s Ratings” feature that makes the back cover: three bats and the declaration of “GHOULISH GREAT!” AND it’s topped off with (ostensibly) Al Lewis’ personal signature to let you, the video consumer, know that this has his personal guarantee of quality. That’s awesome.

No kidding, for old public domain flicks like this, there were (and are!) untold multitudes of releases. So, something, anything that could make one particular version stand out from the rest could make the difference between an eventual purchase or continued shelf languishing. And you know, I think that’s another one of the things that I find so appealing about these releases; sure, there are countless ‘normal’ copies out there, but when you’ve got the option to watch the movie with Al Lewis bookends, well, why not take it? Sure, you may have to contend with some tracking issues, and no, the print used for the film won’t be Criterion Collection quality, but the ‘spooky horror hosted’ vibes of the tape easily makes up for all of that.

Also, I totally just thought of “Grampa Presents: Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster.Man that would that be awesome. I should be getting two million dollars a week for these brilliant ideas.

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There’s the cute lil’ tape itself. If you go back to my first Grampa Presents post, you’ll see the difference in the tape casing and reels. The Human Monster was in a more standard case but with thick, white, mega-cheap wheels. This one however uses more standard reels and a casing akin to the kind Memorex used for their late-1980s/early-1990s blank VHS tapes. (Not so unusual there; I’ve seen copies of Batman ’89 with the same casing.) Unlike The Human Monster‘s LP recording, The Corpse Vanishes is, as I said, in EP/SLP.

That anal-retentive description above isn’t just me being particularly pretentious; I do actually have a point to make. And that is: I’ve come to learn that there just isn’t any rhyme or reason to any of this. I’ve got a nice cache of individual Grampa titles, as well as several ‘plain’ Amvest titles, but there’s almost no standard formula to any them. Casings and reels vary between them, and more importantly, so do recording speeds. The majority were recorded in EP or LP, though there are some SP tapes out there, Grampa Presents included (of which I have three). As far as the Grampa versions go, the SP tapes seem to usually have a sticker of some sort on the back stating the fact (like this one), but EP and LP tapes have no such distinction. If you want to know before actually playing the tape, you generally have to look at the reels themselves (and with tapes that have larger wheels inside, that can sometimes be difficult), or gauging the weight of the tape itself (general rule of thumb: the heavier, the better).

Something else you need to be on the lookout for: Grampa’s host segments aren’t necessarily on each and every one. Yep, despite the appropriate “dis got Grampa” packaging, some tapes only feature him on the sleeve; the movie itself doesn’t feature the Al Lewis bookends. Four of my tapes demonstrate all the pomp and circumstance of Grampa, but he’s nowhere to be found on the actual recording (and three of those four are the aforementioned SP-recorded ones, so maybe those were later issues of some sort?).

Since both Grampa and non-Grampa releases of the same movie share identical catalog numbers, and because there’s nothing that singles out one version or the other on the actual label affixed to the tape itself, it’s certainly possible that opposing editions could accidentally be thrown into the opposite box, or maybe even as a substitute when they ran out of the ‘appropriate’ version? I’m just spit-balling here.

Or maybe, and this is just another hypothesis on my part, they didn’t want to pay licensing fees for Grampa’s filmed segments anymore (provided there were licensing fees; I don’t pretend to know how this all initially went down), and began intentionally leaving the host segments off of later tape runs, but kept paying to use his image on the cover for the “name” factor? Remember, the sleeve promises us Grampa’s guarantee, but it never actually says he’s going to be hosting the movie. Maybe Amvest eventually decided to go the Gene Shalit route?

BUT WAIT! Conversely, my Amvest copies of First Spaceship On Venus and Missile To The Moon are plain, no Grampa on the artwork, and yet, his host segments are included on the actual tapes! Surprise cool winnins! So theoretically, any Amvest, supposedly-non-Grampa release from 1988 under their “Vintage Video” subsidiary (which goes back to at least 1985, but those are more reminiscent of the Goodtimes tapes in cover-style from the period, and pre-date the Grampa Presents series by three years anyway) could conceivably be unmarked Grampa titles!

Like I said, there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on matters, something comes along that makes me rethink everything I thought I knew beforehand. I’ve had my preconceived notions, and time and again they were dashed.

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Lucky for me, The Corpse Vanishes does indeed include the Al Lewis intro and outro. This is a good thing, because I can easily see this movie as-is any number of ways, and if watching it via a cheapie VHS from the 1980s is the way I wanna go, there are plenty of options available there, too. All it takes is a quick run through eBay and a couple of bucks in my pocket. (Though after getting all these Grampa videos, the latter is decidedly tougher than the former!)

But by now, it’s pretty obvious to anyone taking even a cursory glance at this blog that I prefer my horror movies, uh, horror hosted. Oh sure, I love ’em straight too, but having grown up with all of the Northeast Ohio movie hosts (as well as the enduring fondness for the local hosts before my time, i.e. Ghoulardi), I have a strong affinity for anyone dressing up in cheesy/spooky garb and throwing out hackneyed puns. These movies are just so much more fun that way, at least to me. Plus, it’s an aspect of television broadcasting that has largely (but not completely) fallen by the wayside, making it all doubly-interesting to me.

Needless to say, horror hosting had its roots in television, but by the late-1980s, when home video had not only become entrenched as a de facto part of any well-rounded entertainment center but had also progressed to the point where it was actually feasible to have budget tapes such as this, the genre also found a place on home video. I.V.E.’s Thriller Video spearheaded the concept three years prior with their Elvira-hosted tape series (which we’ve seen here before), and in some ways (I also said this in that Halloween post), Amvest’s Grampa series feels like a more cut-rate version of those Elvira tapes.

Al Lewis’ Grampa was a natural fit for hosting horror and science fiction films, and a year before he started this Amvest series, he began hosting movies for TBS’ Super Scary Saturday, which we’ve seen here before, too. The Amvest Grampa Presents series was quite a bit lower-budget than the TBS show; these segments were shot in front of a green screen, with Grampa superimposed over still-images.

The very beginning of this intro, I hope you’ll recall, I didn’t get to see last time; the start of that tape was basically “in progress,” and by the time the tracking and whatnot had settled to a watchable state, Grampa was already into his pitch. Luckily, it’s all complete on The Corpse Vanishes, though the program starts playing early enough that tracking is still a bit of an issue.

So what did I miss the first time around? Not that much; shots from, I’m pretty sure, White Zombie open the whole thing. Then a two-framed, single-colored bat flies on-screen, neon lightning bolts hit it (to signify transformation, though it doesn’t make much sense when you think about it), and then, there’s Grampa! That’s right, the tape posits that Al Lewis has the power to transform into a cartoon bat at will. That…is pretty fantastic.

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For the Amvest tapes that actually include the Grampa footage on them, these host segments are the same for each and every one. What, you thought Lewis was gonna film a unique intro and outro for each and every title? Nope!

So, after that whole bat-transformation thing (and a few token movie clips, ostensibly from other films in the series), the scene then shifts to a Dr, Frankenstein-like lab. This is where the tape we looked at last time essentially began. It’s basically Al Lewis being Al Lewis; he had his shtick down to a science by that point. So, when he’s forced to banter with an off-screen “Igor” or explain to the audience that he’s not Paul Newman (apparently, people get them confused!), it actually does come off pretty funny. It would have been easy for this all to come off flat, awkward, forced, or what have you, but Lewis is so sincere and energetic that you can’t help but get a kick out of the whole thing.

I love the backdrop for this part of the intro: like I said, it looks like Frankenstein’s lab, albeit a still of said lab, and it’s accented by random neon-squigglies, which, you know, 1988 and all that.

There is one thing different for the respective intro of each tape: at one point during the opening segment, there’s a space where a voiceover (“Igor”) announces the title of the movie and who stars in it, all while Lewis looks on expectantly. ‘Course, sometimes (many times!) they forgot to add the voiceover, which means Lewis exclaims “that’s the one!” to absolutely nothing, which is actually pretty funny, albeit unintentionally (I said the same thing when I reviewed the Human Monster tape, and the trend continues not only on this one, but on several other Grampa tapes I have).

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And that brings us to the movie itself: 1942’s The Corpse Vanishes. I really, really like this movie. Like I said earlier, this tape was one of my personal chasers in the series, and it was basically because of how fond I am of The Corpse Vanishes.

This is one of the poverty row, cheapie horror films that Bela Lugosi was increasingly relegated to doing as the 1930s wound down and the 1940s began. Sure, he still had ‘big’ pictures now and then (1939’s Son of Frankenstein, 1941’s The Wolf Man, etc.), but his output was becoming increasingly less glitzy. I mean, by the last decade of his life, he was starring in Ed Wood movies, which were the very antithesis of glitzy!

It was all a double-edged sword; sure, films like this kept Bela working and in the public eye, but for a performer that started out as a star of big-time, A-list films, it had to sting.

That said, regardless of the source material, Bela was still magnetic. You can’t help but be entertained by the guy. It’s no exaggeration to say that he saved even the least of these films all by himself; a star of lesser magnitude probably wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. It’s the same deal with Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.; if their names are on something, it’s worth at least a quick look, because they were that good.

Furthermore, many of these low-rent Bela flicks have lapsed into the public domain. The Corpse Vanishes, obviously, but also others (like The Devil Bat and The Ape Man). The good news there is that, back in the day and today as well, there’s always something with Lugosi’s name on it out there on store shelves. Make no mistake, Bela is still a name draw. Sure, these public domain films (with the possible exception of White Zombie) aren’t really the definitive way to introduce someone (or yourself!) to Lugosi’s work, but they’re cheap and readily available, and if nothing else, like I said before, the guy had a magnetism about him that carried even the weakest films in his canon.

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As for The Corpse Vanishes itself, no one will ever claim it to be among Bela’s finest work, but taken for what it is (a wartime, poverty row horror film), it’s definitely an entertaining watch. It’s so simple, quaint, and despite the plot of a mad botanist killing virginal brides, somehow innocent. It almost seems like the kind of movie that could have only come out in the 1940s, with all of the ‘big’ Universal horror flicks of the previous decade to take inspiration from, and all of the sci-fi stuff of the 1950s yet to come. Sure, it’s something that probably could have been made in the 1930s, but it just feels so 1942.

The plot, yeah, it’ll sound like fairly formula stuff. And you know, it is. I’d never argue otherwise. But again, taken for what it is, it’s still fun. Lugosi plays a mad scientist (gee, you don’t say!), one Dr. Lorenz, who has a shrewish, aging wife. Wifey wants to stay young and beautiful forever, so Lorenz concocts a plan wherein he’ll poison the orchids sent to brides on their wedding day. When they collapse from said poison (and appear dead, though they’re really not), he kidnaps the body and takes it back to his lab (hence, “The Corpse Vanishes”). Once back at the lab, he extracts vital fluids from the bride and then injects them into his wife, which temporarily renews her youth.

It’s a scheme that has any number of holes in it (and it doesn’t take much for the viewer to realize that, either), but Lorenz goes ahead with the plan anyway. Eventually, this all attracts the attention of journalist Patricia Hunter, who is eager to get a story out of the deal, and sets off to get to the bottom of things…

Look, you don’t have to rely solely on my word for any of this; this film has been in the public domain for years, so check it out for yourself here. It’s only a little over an hour long, so have at it next time your favorite prime time drama is in reruns!

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Despite the inherent cheapness of the film, it still manages to pull off some pretty cool scenes. I mean, geez, Bela and his wife sleep in coffins! With movies like this, where the budget is obviously on the really cheap side, the idea of the baddies nappin’ in coffins is a good, simple way to get the creep factor going, even though it’s become a pretty common trope. Heck, it was probably a common trope back then.

But, in that small way, the movie even more recalls 1931’s Dracula, and that can never be a bad thing when Lugosi is in the vicinity (even if it does plays into that typecasting that hurt his career so much).

They sleep in coffins, man!

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Another cool aspect: Bela’s basement laboratory.

I really like Bela’s mad scientist lab. It’s not especially expansive, and it’s clearly limited by Monogram’s $5 budget, but at the same time, it’s so sincere. The very presence of a cut-rate lab just adds volumes to the film, though I’d be hard pressed to really explain why. Just seems more ‘complete’ that way, I guess?

Bela’s got a cool lab, man!

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Oddly enough, the ending card is rendered as a still-frame, complete with the dust and whatnot frozen in it, all while the music continues to play. I’m not sure if Amvest themselves did that, or if that’s how it came to them. The who and why of this I couldn’t say, but it’s a little strange.

In addition to countless budget videotape releases such as this one, The Corpse Vanishes was also the subject of an early episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is probably how many people recognize the film nowadays. Being one of the first episodes of the national iteration of the series, it’s not one of their stronger efforts, though things always go better with MST3K.

‘Course, things always go better with Al “Grampa” Lewis, too…

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Which brings us to the part I was totally begrudged the first time around: Grampa’s outro segment. Like his intro, these were always the same for each tape.

Playing off his whole “comical undead vampire” act, the first thing he says once returning from the movie is “Oooh, that was so scary, it scared the blood right back into my veins!The Corpse Vanishes is many things, but by 1988, I really can’t see too many people finding it genuinely frightening. Was it even that scary back in ’42? Anyway, Grampa then follows that statement up with “Blood and gore, that’s my meat and potatoes!” That applies even less to The Corpse Vanishes, but the dialog absolutely adds to the atmosphere and general theme of the tapes nevertheless.

Plus, the outro segment was the same for every movie presented in the line, so what can you really expect in the way of accuracy?

That said, given the jokey Grampa open and close to the tapes, and most of the titles in the series, much of it is (well, was) pretty safe for the kids to watch. I made this comment last time, but it seems like these tapes would make good TV viewing for those that were too young for trick-or-treating but still wanted a Halloween experience.

Well, most of the movies fit that bill, anyway…

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This is the part I was pretty bummed about not having on my first Grampa Presents tape: after coming back from the movie and goofing around for a bit, Lewis then presents a “complete” list of titles in the Grampa Presents line!

This is important, because this is the only solid listing we have (that I know of anyway) for the Grampa Presents titles. Now, it’s highly doubtful that all of these were released with the Grampa branding; some of these were released by Amvest back in 1985, though with the same catalog numbers as given here. My guess is that all of these movies were, at some point, released by Amvest, but not all of them featured Grampa.

I make that distinction because Lewis himself says that each and every one will be presented by him, which, I’ve got four releases (Monster From Green Hell, Giant From The Unknown, The Living Head, and The Last Woman On Earth) that have him on the cover but not actually hosting. But then, I also have two that don’t mention him on the cover but he does host (the aforementioned First Spaceship On Venus and Missile To The Moon). I said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s just no rhyme or reason to any of this.

Throughout the scroll, Lewis speaks via voiceover, making generic comments such as “Ooh, I remember that one!” When he’s not being generally excited over the offerings, he’s yelling at the unseen (and unheard) Igor about his eating habits; apparently, Igor refuses to learn how to use a knife, fork and spoon.

I said before that this shtick was funny rather than awkward. Mostly, it is. However, for this spot, it’s clearly just filling time. I mean, it makes sense; it was either have Lewis babble in the background or have dead silence as the titles scroll, I get it, but yeah, his dialog here is amusing but pretty much just filler.

The list of titles consists mostly of standard public domain stuff: The Little Shop Of Horrors, The Terror, and so on. But, there are some really surprising offerings, too. Alice, Sweet Alice and The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant are there, and those are both confirmed to have actually been released. (They’re also definitely NOT for kids!) And, there’s a few that haven’t been confirmed to have been released as part of the Grampa Presents series (that I know of) but MAN I hope they were; namely, Night Of The Living Dead, Godzilla Vs. Megalon and Vampyr. You have no idea how badly I’d flip if I stumbled across any one of those three at a thrift store.

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After the scroll finishes, Lewis then goes into where you can actually buy these tapes. You need to look for the tapes with his face, which as we’ve seen, wasn’t quite true, though I doubt Lewis knew that while filming. (In an argument with the still unseen and unheard Igor: “Forget Tom Selleck with the mustache and everything! MY face and the official ratings are on the box!” That’s right, Al “Grampa” Lewis just referenced Magnum while pitching horror movies – now THAT is awesome!)

What’s more, there was a specific Amvest “Casket of Horrors” display for video stores; how cool is that! Given the rarity of most Amvest tapes nowadays (both with and without Grampa on ’em), distribution was almost certainly very limited. I’d like to say for every 20 online listings for a similar title from Goodtimes, there’s only 1 for an Amvest, but even that wouldn’t be true; Amvest tapes are generally few and far between.

Therefore, I can’t imagine too many of these “Casket of Horrors” displays making it out there, and even less surviving to this day. Who knows if any were even produced beyond the one seen in this outro. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that I. NOW. NEED. ONE. Coolest Halloween party decoration ever!

As far as I’m concerned, it just doesn’t get much cooler than the image above. That screencap succinctly sums (allitration) up everything that is right with these tapes and the whole horror movie ideal that they present so vividly. Would it be wrong for me to create posters of that image above and hang them all around my house? Because I’m coming dangerously close to doing just that.

Well, maybe just one to hang up somewhere…

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AND, if you couldn’t find one or any of these tapes in an actual brick-and-mortar store (and odds are most people couldn’t), Grampa gives you the details on how to order direct from Amvest! And even with ordering direct from the company, these were budget affairs; $13 was a pretty cheap price for a VHS tape in ’88. Granted, you wouldn’t be getting something on par with a, say, CBS/FOX release, but still…

Rahway is pronounced “Raw Way,” to which Grampa takes particular delight. “These are our people! That’s the way we like it – raw!” I’ll let you make up your own mind regarding that bit of dialog.

I wonder what happened if/when someone ordered a tape that didn’t actually exist as a Grampa version? Refund? Replacement? Given that this info is shown right after the list of videos supposedly available, while I don’t think each and every title had a respective Grampa Presents version, my guess would be that, at the very least, the person ordering would get a non-Grampa edition. Like I said before, I suspect there were Amvest releases for all or most of these, but which ones were released with some form of Al Lewis involvement is the big question here. I don’t know, and it seems nobody else really does, either.

Anyway, keeping up the act to the very end, Grampa admits that the 4 to 6 weeks delivery time is due to the bats in your neighborhood not flying that fast. Yeah, Al Lewis posits that your tape would be delivered by a bat. How can you not like the guy when he says things like that?

Grampa’s final pitch? Go out and buy Amvest videos, because if you don’t, one night when it’s dark and you think you’re alone, you won’t be – he’ll be there. He then bursts into that famous Grampa laugh as the screen fades out and then into the final image of the tape:

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As a final touch, the copyright info contains computer-generated blood steadily dripping down the screen! And to make things complete, ‘spooky’ music plays in the background! Very, very cool!

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The Corpse Vanishes is public domain, and thus, there is no shortage of varying releases. Mystery Science Theater 3000, Son of Ghoul, any number of other horror hosts out there, any number of cheapo DVDs out there, free and clear online downloads, there are countless options available to you. It’s not even remotely hard to find a copy of this movie.

But, if you want to watch the film in a way that only the late-1980s video era could present, Amvest’s release of the movie via the “Grampa Presents” line of tapes is the best way to go. It’s not perfect, it’s not a restored print of the film or anything like that, but as far as sheer coolness goes, it’s hard to beat. This is a perfect slice of late-1980s budget VHS memorabilia, one that I am absolutely thrilled to have in my collection.

Will I ever do another post on one of these tapes? Well, probably not. Maybe if/when I get the ever-elusive Grampa Presents version of 1922’s Nosferatu, or a previously ‘unknown’ release, but otherwise, I’d just be saying the same things about the Al Lewis segments over and over, with only the movie review portion changing. I mean, you never know, but as of right now, I’m pretty happy with this one as my final word on matters.

I’ve actually wound up gaining a real respect for Amvest. They had a real quirky sensibility, and as these Grampa tapes prove, they occasionally went out of the usual budget video “domain” and did their own thing. When I started collecting these (only a few months ago), I never thought I’d feel that way.

Furthermore, in whatever small way I may have helped unravel some of the questions regarding these Grampa Presents tapes, even through the confusion and disappointments, I enjoyed progressively learning more and more about them. There just aren’t many companies and their associated video releases that I can say that about.

And needless to say, I still want more of these! The search will continue! I won’t rest until I can fill an entire shelf with Al Lewis-hosted cinema!


Hey, wait, hold up! We’re not quite done yet!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the entire list of Grampa Presents titles as given during the end segment of this tape! Besides numbering them and correcting a few grammatical errors, I have also gone ahead and listed the titles that are actually confirmed as being released as part of the Grampa Presents series. Besides what I personally own, I am citing The VCR from Heck (these two pages specifically), VHSCollector.com (this page in particular), the Mike’s VHS Collection page over at Cinemasscre, as well as various online sales I have personally seen. Also, here’s a specific thread on the subject over at the Our Favorite Horror Hosts forum. (And yes, I plan to share what I’ve learned there as soon as this page goes up!) Please check out those sites once you’re done here; there’s a wealth of information not only on these Grampa Presents tapes, but on so many other subjects, as well.

Keep in mind that while this is the complete list of titles as given on this tape, the ones marked as “confirmed” are by no means the final say on the matter. These are just the ones that *I* am aware of. If you know of or even own one that hasn’t been confirmed as existing, hey, speak up in the comments! (Pictures would be helpful, too!)

And of course, the possibility exists that this actually isn’t the complete list of titles; there may well have been further videos released that included the host segments or appropriate packaging. I have no evidence of anything like that ever happening, every title I’ve found or seen has corresponded appropriately to this list, but hey, you never know!

(* = 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.)

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 [Confirmed]
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 [Confirmed]
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]

———————
Special Compilations:

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]

The Nostalgia Merchant’s 1978 VHS Release of 1933’s King Kong

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Happy Thanksgiving!

We are now at quite possibly my favorite point in the whole year: right smack in the middle of the holiday season. The three-pack of Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas is the genesis of some of my fondest memories, and every year I look forward to this three-month stretch.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, not only do you have the excitement of Halloween just behind you and the anticipation of Christmas literally right around the corner, but you have a holiday that really gets by on just its own merits; all you have to do is eat and be thankful. That’s it! The absence of the crass, mega-commercialization that has come to define Christmas is something I really like about Thanksgiving (early bird sales on turkey day notwithstanding), though Christmas has the deeper symbolic meaning (at least, it’s supposed to). But then, both of those holidays can entail visiting with relatives you may or may not be able to stand, in which case Halloween gains the upper-hand in the “mental well-being” department. (Ironic, huh!)

In all seriousness, I really do love all three. Why am I not including New Years in that lot? Meh, New Years has always been kind of a downer to me. I see it as heralding the end of the holiday season I have just enjoyed so much, which of course is exactly what it is. Just doesn’t do it for me, man.

Anyway, Thanksgiving. It really is a simple concept (well, unless you’re the one hosting dinner), consisting mainly of eating copious amounts of food, being thankful, however one may personally go about doing that, and in more modern times, watching a whole lotta TV, which of course is the facet of the holiday that this post takes residence in. The annual Macy’s parade and football garner the most attention, but movies can be, and often are, a big, big part of it too.

In that regard, Thanksgiving’s unofficial movie mascot is none other than King Kong and his ilk. Maybe not so much anymore, but for years King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young were staples of Thanksgiving Day television broadcasts in markets all across the country. Indeed, a few years back we took a look at a complete 1979 broadcast of Son of Kong on New York’s WOR-9, and this year, we’re going to see Papa Kong himself in action.

For Thanksgiving this time around though, we’re not going to look at Kong via an old television broadcast, but rather through, quite possibly, the first home video release of the original 1933 film. From 1978, here is King Kong on The Nostalgia Merchant label, and from top-to-bottom, it’s one of the coolest tapes in my collection (I don’t make that statement lightly, either!).

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This is not an easy tape to come across. In fact, it’s pretty darn rare. So when I saw a copy for sale online (the first one I had ever seen, actually) and fairly-reasonably priced to boot, I jumped at it. Money well, well spent, and that’s coming from me, a guy that’s almost perpetually broke!

Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now: “Well, gee, Northeast Ohio Video Hunter, I’m seeing a buncha Nostalgia Merchant Kong tapes for sale online!” Okay, finding the movie on the Nostalgia Merchant label itself isn’t even remotely hard; beginning around the mid-1980s, Nostalgia Merchant had a wide range of films out on video store shelves, complete with pretty cool, eye-catching slipcases. Heck, I’ve had that respective VHS release of King Kong for years now.

This tape, however, isn’t one of those. This is from before all that. From how I understand it, and I’m the first to admit I’m no expert here, Nostalgia Merchant first began life in 1976, at the dawn of the home video era as we now know it. They first specialized in 16mm and Super 8 films and the like, and then, near as I can tell, began releasing their movies on VHS and Betamax starting in 1978. Considering pre-recorded home videos didn’t come on the scene until 1977, Nostalgia Merchant was in the game waaay early on. I have no idea if these were mail-order only releases or how long they were available before the more well-known iteration of the company (apparently after it affiliated with Media Home Video) began re-releasing many of the same movies in their subsequently more-common form, but I do know that these 1978-copyrighted tapes are (at the very least) highly obscure nowadays.

Indeed, I had no knowledge of these super-early Nostalgia Merchant releases at all until I happened upon one at a nearby thrift store some months back. It was volume 3 in Nostalgia Merchant’s line of Laurel & Hardy shorts releases, which was cool enough on its own, but it was the copyright of 1978 that figuratively raised my eyebrows; in this day and age, I really don’t come across tapes of such vintage all that often. When I do, I tend to snap them up, so in the case of Laurel & Hardy, I had no problem plunking down my three big bucks.

Still, for as much as I like Stan & Ollie, which is quite a bit, when I looked at that generic die-cut sleeve emblazoned with all the stars ostensibly available on the label, and especially at the list of other titles available on the back, I couldn’t help but feel that getting some of them in the ‘format’ would be even cooler. Make no mistake, King Kong was way, way at the top of that list. So again, when I happened upon a copy for sale online, I had to take the plunge.

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Now that I’ve got my precious, precious King Kong, I’m seeing several more “gotta haves” listed on the back of the box. In the same vein as the subject for today, Mighty Joe Young is probably now at the top of that list. Furthermore, apparently the only legitimate video release of Return of the Ape Man was on an early Nostalgia Merchant tape like this, so needless to say that’s also something I need in my life, as well.

Believe it or not, I had to order this movie from a Canadian seller, but as the sticker on the back of the box attests, it originally hails from Chi-Town. Whether the tape eventually arrived in Canada due to something such as the owner simply moving there, or instead due to a more convoluted history, I couldn’t say. No matter, it’s in my hands now, and that’s where it’s going to stay.

I find the old video store sticker itself incredibly interesting, too. Since the national Hollywood Video chain was started in 1988, it’s a safe bet a tape this old wouldn’t be showing up at a Chicago chapter. Rather, methinks this was an early video store that happened to share the same name but was otherwise unrelated to said national chain. If someone had more info on this Hollywood Video, perhaps a more exact time-frame for the release this King Kong tape could be deduced (as in, how long it was, roughly, out there).

Anyway, some may see this old school video store sticker as a detriment to the original tape sleeve. Not me. I’m a sucker for remnants of the early video era, and this Hollywood Video of Chicago sticker fits that bill nicely. Besides, these generic early Nostalgia Merchant sleeves were all the same; someone could always switch it with another tape’s sleeve, should they wind up being overly concerned about this sort of thing.

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Like I said above, and just like my aforementioned Laurel & Hardy tape, this sleeve is a one-size-fits-all variety. In other words, it be generic. Anything pertaining to the movie contained within is on the tape label itself, rather than the back of the sleeve as would become common in short order. And actually, that’s not uncommon with these super-early video releases; for example, the very first pre-recorded videos on the Magnetic label eschewed any kind of description (beyond the basic facts of running time, stars, etc.) in favor of a list other titles available.

It wouldn’t take very long for that sort of thing to morph instead into a product that was really trying to sell the prospective buyer on the movie, both in fancy-shmancy artwork and descriptions so vivid they’d practically punch you in the face repeatedly until you decided to just rent the damn tape already. So, seeing these early examples of the format hold some interest beyond that whole initial “thas an old copyright!” exclamation you undoubtedly shrieked, either vocally or mentally.

king kong 1978 vhs 1

Also just like my Laurel & Hardy tape in the same format, the tape kicks off with a static, very “filmy” logo. I really have a hard time explaining it, it has a real home-made feel to it, like it was copied from an actual film reel or something. This site calls it a grainy, 16mm, Film-O-Vision style, and that explains it better than I ever could. See that up above? Thas the early Nostalgia Merchant logo, is what it is.

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I love everything about this movie. Should I ever be required to absolutely, positively name my top 10 favorite films, this original King Kong  is safely, safely on that list. It’s quite simply a film I’ve never gotten tired of.

You know, even though I own the movie many times over, old VHS releases are, to this day, still a severe weakness of mine. This one, I had to have it obviously, but really, any Kong tape I come across and don’t already own, it simply must become part of my collection. And therein lies a tale…

It all stems from when I first saw the 60th anniversary edition (with the swanky roaring chest box) for rent in 1996. I knew only the most basic details of Kong beforehand, but as soon as I laid eyes on that tape (and pressed that oh-so-cool roarin’ button), it became a film I had to see. It doesn’t hurt that I was just getting into horror and sci-fi films and general tape collecting around that time, either. I was with a friend and his mom at a kinda far-off video store when I saw that rental tape, so it couldn’t really come home with me right then, and besides, I wanted to own the film outright.

Problem was, the tape was released in 1993 (1933, 1993, 60 years, dig?), and in the three years since, for whatever reason, it was impossible to find for sale. Remember, this was before Amazon, eBay, and such. You were basically limited to the brick-and-mortar stores around town, and if Blockbuster couldn’t order it, guess what? Y’all was outta luck. (Oddly enough, I later did ask mom to call that store about the Kong tape, and they seemed to have no idea what we were talking about. The hell?)

So, being a young video taper, I banked on a TV airing. Even then I knew Kong was a Thanksgiving movie. But as luck would have it, it didn’t air that Thanksgiving. Figures. It didn’t really air anywhere at all, truth be told. So, I settled for whatever Kong did show up on TV. Before I was actually able to see the original, I recorded, watched, and became a Kong fanatic via the 1976 remake (which was, in retrospect, pretty bad, but I didn’t know any better at the time), the Japanese entries (King Kong Vs. Godzilla & King Kong Escapes), even the Son of Kong sequel I wound up seeing before I saw the movie that started it all.

Anyway, eventually Turner Classic Movies ran the original, I taped it, and here we are. But like I said before, to this day, when I come across a Kong tape, I pretty much need to buy it. Simply because it was so hard for me to see for so long. Doesn’t hurt that it’s a terrific movie that I appreciate more and more as the years go by.

That’s the title screen up above, by the way.

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I can’t imagine anyone stumbling upon this post that hasn’t seen the original 1933 King Kong by this point. When it comes to classic giant monster movies, it’s pretty much the cream of the crop. From storyline to special effects to pure excitement, it’s incredible just how well this movie has held up. Some of the acting and attitudes date the film to the early-1930s, but those are easily forgotten thanks to the overall aura of timelessness that is the hallmark of genuinely great movies from the time period. Remember my similar sentiments regarding Undercurrent? They’re even more apt in regards to King Kong.

(Some spoilers ahead)

The plot concerns filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), famous for his many jungle movies, who wants to make the biggest and best jungle flick of them all. He needs a pretty face though. So, he heads out into New York to find the perfect girl for the part. He comes upon Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who has some acting experience, albeit limited.

Ann is everything he’s been looking for. So, he enlists her for the picture, and he and his crew set off on the high seas, headed towards the mysterious “Skull Island.” The natives there supposedly worship a god they call “Kong,” an idea that hopefully promises to be the very spectacle Denham needs to make his film the massive success that he wants it to be.

When they finally arrive at the island, they stumble upon the native ceremony featuring their latest “bride of Kong.” The natives are initially angry at the interruption, until they notice Ann, and begin making offers for her (Denham: “Yeah, blondes are scarce around here.“). Denham and his crew obviously make a hasty retreat back to the boat.

That night though, the natives sneak aboard the ship and kidnap Ann. Her absence is quickly noticed, and the crew sets out to rescue her. When they arrive back on the island, they find that Ann is set as the new bride for Kong.

As per the screencap above, that’s when King Kong himself makes his grand entrance. Kong is a gigantic ape, the king of his domain, and he is instantly enamored with Ann. He grabs her and runs off into the jungle, leaving her would-be rescuers with little choice but to go into the unknown after her.

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Kong ain’t the only big giant thing on Skull Island, though. Turns out numerous prehistoric creatures call the place home as well. Dinosaurs, pterodactyls, snakes, they’re all humongous and they all have to be dealt with along with Kong. Kong not only thwarts his pursuers, he’s also a scrapper; he fights (and defeats) every creature that comes his way, both to protect Ann as well as to further assert his dominance. This is Kong’s turf and he rules it completely.

The special effects here are largely of the stop-motion animation variety. Despite being from 1933, they, against all odds, hold up wonderfully today. Even with all the CGI trickery of modern movies (including Peter Jackson 2005’s version of King Kong, which was really far better than a remake has a right to be), stop-motion has such a, I don’t know, more natural look to it, I guess. It’s amazing how special effects from the early-1930s can still portray so well the emotions of the creature they’re animating. Somehow, you really believe Kong is excited, happy, angry or hurt. It’s uncanny!

Willis O’Brien was behind the stop-motion animation, and one viewing of King Kong is all it takes to know why he was such a master at his craft.

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Ann is eventually rescued and Kong is captured and brought back to New York. A spectacle such as Kong is even better than the picture Denham intended on making!

For as great as the entire movie is, this is my favorite part of the film, when Kong escapes, re-captures Ann, and goes on a rampage throughout the city. The contrasts between the real jungle and the concrete jungle are obvious here, and just like on Skull Island, Kong is nearly unstoppable. He wages a path of destruction everywhere he goes, probably just as much out of fear and confusion as it is anger and protection of Ann.

For me, one of the most memorable parts of Kong’s trek through New York is his wrecking a passing train. The shots of the passengers unknowingly hurtling toward Kong and then the looks of shock and fear on their faces when he attacks drives home a point that may be hard (or even unfathomable) for some modern viewers to grasp: there was no instant communication back then! Kong could stomp around the city, surprise people in their apartments, even wreck a train, and no one would be the wiser until he’s upon them. No cell phones, no texts, no news update. I don’t know why this little aspect stands out to me, but it does.

The rampage through New York is actually fairly short, especially when compared to the amount of time spent on Skull Island, but it basically acts as the prototype for every “big huge monster causing havoc in a major city” film that was to follow. King Kong wasn’t quite the first movie to tackle this or other plot points featured in the film (1925’s The Lost World basically served as a test-run for much of this), but few, if any, films ever did it better.

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And that all leads to one of the greatest moments in cinematic history: the climatic sequence of Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and battling oncoming airplanes sent to shoot him down so Ann can be safely rescued.

I think we all know how it ends: Kong puts up a valiant effort, but in the end, the bullets take their toll and Kong tumbles off the building to his death. And yet, even though the ending is common knowledge nowadays, it still manages to be absolutely thrilling. And, despite the carnage, you actually feel for Kong here; you can actually see how he realizes he’s not going to win this fight, and you actually feel sympathy when he, in his own way, says goodbye to Ann before he gives up the ghost. The whole sequence is just fantastic.

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And that ending scene! Even if you’re just limiting yourself to giant monster movies, it’s hard to top it: after Kong has met his demise, Denham pushes his way through the crowd and looks sadly at the creature. His response to the statement that the planes got him? “It wasn’t the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast,” one of the great final lines in movie history. That coupled with that last image and then the fade-out, man, it’s just fantastic.

Yeah, I know, I just gave away much of the film, but even so, if you haven’t seen this movie, go see it! I can’t possibly do it the justice it deserves in just this article alone.

A couple points about this particular release of King Kong:

First off, it’s pretty scratchy and dirty. Some scenes are way too bright, and some scenes are way too dark. It looks more like an old television print than it does a home video release; heck, this might be an old television print, though it’s missing the identifying hallmarks of such (i.e. the old “C&C Movietime” logo that vintage TV prints often carried). Most people probably didn’t care at the time though; it was such a novel concept to be able to own and watch a movie at home whenever you wanted that the print quality of the movie wasn’t that much an issue. Still, it’s probably safe to say that this is the roughest looking print of Kong ever released to home video proper (excluding pre-VHS/Beta releases, of course).

Also, the label states the run time is 105 minutes;  Ignore that. The running time is closer to 97 minutes. Yes, this is an older, cut print of King Kong!

Lemme explain: when Kong was first released in 1933, it was a Pre-Code film. That is, it was released before the infamous Hays Code was rigidly enforced. But, the film was so monumentally popular that it was re-released numerous times throughout the years when the Hays Code was rigidly enforced. Thus, scenes that passed muster the first time around were steadily excised for subsequent releases. Segments featuring Kong ripping off Wray’s clothes and sniffing his fingers, stomping and chewing on natives, and dropping a woman to her death during his New York rampage were all deemed inappropriate and eventually edited out of the movie.

Those scenes were later rediscovered and added back to the film, and most home video releases (to the best of my knowledge) are of the complete King Kong…but not this one. That’s right, many (or even all) of those ‘controversial’ segments are missing from this early Nostalgia Merchant release! Whether this is a result of this being an old print prepared for TV or just a pre-restored print in general, it’s still pretty surprising to see this cut version of the movie, especially since every home video version I had seen prior had all of the footage. Even the later Nostalgia Merchant releases specifically touted the film as the uncut version.

I’m not complaining though. In this and age, it’s nearly impossible to find a version of the film that isn’t complete. But to watch one of the older variations, one that several generations of movie lovers probably grew up with, and in its probable initial home video release, no less? That’s pretty cool!

By the way, the long-lost spider pit sequence isn’t in this one, either.

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It’s tough for me to find words adequate enough to portray just how cool this tape is. Sure, at heart, it’s just an old, scratchy, edited print of King Kong. It wouldn’t be the choice of purists, I know.

But that’s not really the point. This was, in all likelihood, the first release on the then-fledgling VHS home video format. It’s not even just that this was probably the first, either; rather, it’s what that represents (and this goes for the early years of home video in general). That is, no longer would someone have to wait for their favorite film to show up on TV, which in the case of King Kong, could conceivably not be until next Thanksgiving. With a tape like this, any day could be Thanksgiving.

And that’s yet another reason why I do what I do and collect what I collect. It goes beyond the movie, beyond the copyright date, and deeper into what it all represents as a whole. Man I love this hobby.

Plus, it is a really, really old release of King Kong. I can analyze all day if need be, but when it comes right down to it, that’s just neat. No way could I have envisioned owning this when I first set my eyes upon that roaring box edition way back in 1996!

Have a great Thanksgiving, everybody!

Gene Shalit’s Critic’s Choice VHS Series: 1941’s The Wolf Man (1987)

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You know, I had an entirely different, non-seasonally-themed post in mind for this week, until I realized that next week is Halloween. Next week! October is flying by, a realization that is bittersweet for me; I love this month and this time of year, and I hate to see it all zoom by so quickly. But on the other hand, the big day is at the very end of it all, and at least in my situation, you gotta make it through most of October to get to Ghoulardifest. And then there’s Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and on and on it all goes. I love this time of year!

Anyway, with the season being in the full swing of things, I figured I may as well stick with a horror theme until the end of month (not so hard to do; barring the Tarzan post and Big Chuck & Lil’ John pre-game one, all of my recent posts are more or less seasonally-appropriate. I didn’t plan things that way, it’s just how it all worked out).

On that front, nothing screams “spirit o’ da season!” quite like Gene Shalit’s mustachioed visage plastered all over a VHS release of The Wolf Man. Behold: from 1987, it’s MCA Home Video’s release of 1941’s The Wolf Man, as part of their Gene Shalit’s Critic’s Choice series! It’s not a particularly rare video, it can be had on eBay for a few mere dollars, but any time Gene Shalit himself shows up out of nowhere to tell me to watch a movie, well, that’s worthy of a post. Plus, The Wolf Man, Halloween, it just fits.

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The movie is a classic for sure, but for this particular post, it’s really all about the cover art this time around. Yeah, we’ll take a brief look at the film itself, but seriously, the cover art makes this one.

First off, you’ve got that great image regarding the movie itself: Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular character, gripping Evelyn Ankers, surrounded by fog, foreboding trees, it’s all just great. Really, you don’t need much more to sell The Wolf Man in my opinion. Later VHS releases, including one that’s an illustrated close-up of Wolfie’s face and one that used the original gol’derned poster art as a template, failed to improve upon the spooky vibes emanating from the cover art of this 1987 release.

Annnnnd then, in waltzes Gene Shalit. And make no mistake, it’s all about the Shalit here. Now granted, there was a whole line of these Critic’s Choice tapes for MCA featuring him, some more befitting his image than others, but in the case of this particular entry, it’s just such an odd combination. You’ve got Gene Shalit, longtime Today Show movie critic, with his big giant mustache and even bigger bow tie, busy mugging for the camera while Lon Chaney Jr. is busy committing wolficide mere inches away. You can almost hear him making a pun. “Now that’s what I call a hairy situation!” That’s the kind of pun he used to make, right?

And I love the film strip at the bottom of the cover, showing what I like to call “The Four Stages Of Gene.” From left to right, you’ve got apprehensive Gene, jokey Gene, spooked Gene, and knowledgeable Gene. It’s any kind of Gene for any kind of movie!

Keep in mind, I’m not criticizing any of this, either. I’ve got nothing but respect for Gene Shalit, I think he’s a cool guy, and he was (and is) such a well-known personality that it makes perfect sense to have him pitch what are, ostensibly, his top-home video picks. But like I said before, when it comes to this particular movie, it’s just such a jarring combination. Heck, when I first stumbled upon this video, that’s precisely what attracted me to it. It’s the kind of tape that really could have only come out in the 1980s, and again, that’s not a criticism.

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I give ’em props for Shalit-izing the back cover, too; supposedly he himself write the synopsis, and even if he didn’t, it gives a pretty good idea of his style. Go ahead and click on the picture for a supersized version. Read that description and then tell me it’s not the greatest synopsis The Wolf Man has ever had or will have.

First off: puns! Gene Shalit loved him some puns, and he gets off some good ones here. He totally makes a “hairy” gag (having only glanced at the description beforehand, I promise you my joke earlier was entirely coincidental or subconscious or some crap like that). And “…all howl breaks loose” alone is almost certainly the greatest thing ever written on the back of a Wolf Man release. This is a statement I comfortably make, despite having not read the descriptive synopsis on the back of each and every one of them.

Beyond the patented Shalit style, however, is the fact that it’s just a really great description: there’s enough humor to keep it from being dry, and just enough information to make it sound interesting without giving too much away. Remember, this tape came out when rental stores were the places to go for movies; while it’s hard to imagine anyone not having some idea of what The Wolf Man was about, the truth is that the description on the back of a box could and often did make the difference between what wound up being a weekend rental and what continued to languish on the shelf. The cover art (which, as I said, this release also has nailed) got the people to pick the tape up, but the description could be the swaying factor in a real, honest-to-goodness rental.

Or maybe I’m just totally full of it, who knows.

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Why’d you write your name all over my collectible VHS tape, Lisa M.?!

The absence of Gene Shalit’s name anywhere on the tape itself leads me to believe there was a ‘regular’ VHS release of this movie, and the same tapes were used both for that and this Gene Shalit-branded-sleeve version. (Come to think of it, I wonder if there’s a ranch anywhere that brands their cattle with Gene Shalit’s face. If there’s not, there should be.) But then, looking at online auctions, most of the ‘early’ releases tend to be this exact one; I’m not seeing any non-Shalit version from the time period. Maybe more people bought this one for the exact same reasons that I’m so enamored with it. Or maybe I’m just totally full of it, who knows.

By the way, do you like the way I snapped the picture with Shalit overlooking the proceedings? Totally intentional, yo. I like to imagine those are the stages of his reaction to Lisa M. writing her name on the label. He starts off irritated and then learns to live with it. Seems plausible.

(If you’re reading this Lisa M., I’m just kidding.)

Okay, Gene Shalit may not be on the tape itself, but he is all over the sleeve; dare I dream that he hosts the actual movie as well? Oh I dare. Hey, if Elvira can host movies for home video, why not Gene Shalit too? (He asked as if there’s any real comparison between Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark and Gene freakin’ Shalit.)

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Aw shucks. Bitter sadness: Gene Shalit appears on the VHS sleeve only. Apparently he said all he had to say about the movie on the back cover.

Of course I kid. I didn’t really expect Gene Shalit to pop up on-screen and intro the movie, although the idea of his providing running commentary not unlike Mystery Science Theater 3000 just popped into my head and bizarrely amuses me.

But then, The Wolf Man is a movie that doesn’t need anything extra. This is a genuine Universal horror classic! It’s a terrific, engrossing film, and coming from me, that’s a telling statement.

Why’s that? Well, It may be anathema to admit this, but I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m not a big werewolf guy. Werewolf movies in general I’ve never much cared for (you probably won’t see Gene Shalit lending his mug to Fury Of The Wolfman anytime soon!), and as far as the Universal classics go, for me personally The Wolf Man generally finds a lukewarm place somewhere in the middle. While I always liked The Wolf Man more than The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Phantom, he’s still markedly below my favorites of Frankenstein, The Gill Man, and Dracula (in that order). Luckily, many of those other monsters that I am more fond of appeared in the sequels to this movie.

That’s the title screen up above, by the way.

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This original 1941 The Wolf Man is really the exception to all that, though. While I’m not as enamored with the character as others are, this movie is fantastic. Unlike the sequels, in which Universal apparently felt Wolfie couldn’t stand on his own, it all works wonderfully here. It’s not a movie I watch terribly often, but when I do, I enjoy it.

The plot as it is may not sound too revolutionary; this sort of thing has been done over and over so many times throughout the years that some of the bite (see, I can pun too HAW HAW HAW) has been taken out of this original film, but if you can overlook that and just watch this one on its own, it’s great.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, who is returning to his family home in Wales. His brother has died and he wants to make amends with his father (Claude “I is the invisible mang” Rains). One night he tangles with a wolf, which turns out to be Bela Lugosi (who somehow I totally forgot was in this movie) in the form of a wolf. Talbot is bitten, and, well, you can see where this is going. Larry is now unwittingly a werewolf (whom you can see above in the handy screencap).

Look, if you haven’t seen it, just go watch it, okay? It’s a great flick.

You know, I spend so much time looking at home recorded tapes or ancient budget videos that I forget how clean some movies can look on VHS, and The Wolf Man is one of them. Sure, it’s an old videotape, it’s a little grainy, but it’s an officially licensed MCA/Universal tape. That is, it’s a clean, nice looking print of the movie, recorded in SP mode. It’s not a remastered DVD, I know, but compared to most of the crap I look at, it might as well be. Plus, you know, Gene Shalit on the cover and everything.

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I was actually pretty happy to add this one to my collection. Sure, I usually prefer my Universal monsters horror hosted (see: here and here), but there’s something to be said for (relatively) quirky older releases such as this. By 1987, home video, VHS in particular, was pretty well entrenched in the public consciousness, and tapes like this were what the people wanted; clean, uncut, commercial-free classic movies they could watch any time they darn well pleased. Nowadays we have the film on DVD and Blu-ray, but for a cool late-1980s/early-1990s throwback, it may not be a bad idea to bust out the ol’ VCR and fire this (or any horror flick of your choice really) up this Halloween. Something about it just seems so right. To me, anyway.

Plus, Gene Shalit. I strongly feel Gene Shalit plastered all over movie covers should totally be an ongoing thing. Heck, why’d they stop at VHS? DVD, Blu-ray, digital downloads (somehow), there’s no format not worthy of the Shalit bow tie guarantee of greatness!