Tag Archives: obscure

Kid Pics – The Amazing Adventures of Alice in Wonderland VHS (1987)

Welcome to 2017! 2017? Yes, 2017! The four-year anniversary of this stupid blog is right around the corner! Four years! I can’t believe it!

What say we start 2017 off with something, well, something a little out there, eh? Found just a week or two before Christmas, today’s subject cost a whopping 60 cents at a thrift shop, and for sheer “say what?” value, it was worth every penny.

Behold! The Amazing Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, on VHS! (It’s below and to your right, obviously; eagle eyes will notice I’m experimenting a bit, but just a bit, with formats this time around. This is a little out-of-the-norm for this blog, and while I can’t promise it’ll continue in the future, right now I feel like a big-time legit newspaper guy or something.)

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When I sauntered into this particular thrift shop, it quickly became evident that someone had dropped off their entire inventory of budget cartoon tapes. Now, I’ve got quite a few of these in my collection already, though I’m by no means on a regular hunt for more specimens. I’m interested in releases of the Fleischer Superman cartoons, and Popeye, but beyond those two, I come across cheapo cartoon releases far, far too often to go all nanners over ’em every single time. Thus, most of the tapes out for sale that night were passed over by yours truly.

And, Alice in Wonderland is even less likely to trip my trigger, because, uh, it’s Alice in Wonderland. We never owned a copy, but growing up I was vaguely familiar with the Disney film, and I of course know the basics of the famous Lewis Carroll story. But I mean, this sort of thing just isn’t really my scene, man.

And in the case of this particular VHS, even the cover art is too competent to raise my eyebrows. Lemme explain: part of the fun with cheap cartoon videos from the 1980s is the oftentimes wildly-amateurish cover art. There are quite a few renditions of Popeye and Superman out there that are too pitiful to not love. Heck, overtly terrible artwork can and sometimes is reason enough for me to drop some coin. But here, the artwork is entirely serviceable. Just look at it up there! It’s competently drawn and colored, and it projects a nice, Easter-ish vibe. No one will ever mistake it for a release of Disney’s version of the story, but for what it is, the artist did a good job.

So, just why did this tape end up coming home with me that fateful night? The answer is found on the back cover…

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No, it wasn’t the featured line-up listing. Sure, you’ve got the “marquee” feature, along with what (I guess) I initially presumed was just another old, subsequently-public-domain-lapsed iteration of Carroll’s heroine, plus a couple of other seemingly-appropriate “wonder-ish” cartoons. It all “fits,” but none of those were why I grabbed this VHS, either.

Nope, the real reason I avidly purchased this tape has to do with the logo you’re seeing to the left: it was a Kid Pics release! What makes Kid Pics so special, you ask? Why, Kid Pics was part of the Amvest Video empire, that’s what! Though the back cover makes no mention of it, Kid Pics was indeed a division or subsidiary or connected-in-some-way-somehow to Amvest, and that’s what made this a must-buy for me. You don’t (or at least I don’t) come across these things in-person very often, and at only 60 cents, hey, I pretty much had to have at it!

Amvest has had no small presence on this blog, especially in regards to this their Al Lewis-hosted Grampa Present video series, which culminated in the ultimate recap this past Halloween. Indeed, I’ve become more and more enamored with the company, to the point where anything I come across by them whilst out and about is more than likely entering my collection. While still decidedly a budget outfit, many of their tapes had a quirky charm to them, and there are more than a few interesting stories regarding the company out there in internet-land, for those inclined to look. While I don’t go after every single Amvest release with the same fervor that I do their Grampa series, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t give the nod to Amvest whenever possible.

So anyway, there I was, an ostensibly-adult, 30-year-old male, carrying a cheap Alice in Wonderland VHS tape around a thrift store, and far more excited about it than any ostensibly-adult, 30-year-old male should have been. Was I a cause for concern to fellow patrons of the establishment? Maybe, maybe not. If I was though, what they didn’t realize was that I had found a rare, or at least wildly-obscure item, and more-importantly, fodder for my silly blog. Though truth be told, it wasn’t until after I checked out the tape and ruminated on it for a bit that I myself realized I could get a post out of this, either.

(Found at the same time as this was a Kid Pics tape featuring public domain Looney Tunes shorts, and months ago I had picked a Superman cartoon comp by them as well. For all I know, I unknowingly have more releases buried in my collection. Any any rate, my big hope with these three tapes was that The Happy Hamster, a bizarre host for some, but not all, Kids Pics releases would show up. Alas, it was not to be. Perhaps it was for the best though, since the sensory overload of The Happy Hamster hosting this tape would have, in all likelihood, caused my face to explode.)

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And that brings us to Alice in Wonderland proper.

Before I actually played the thing, I figured this was just another release of an old cartoon that had been floating around the public domain for centuries decades, an Ub Iwerks or something. That’s not what I got, though. Nope, what I found instead, while not really “disturbing,” was still more than a bit odd, and just a little trippy: a 9-minute, black & white short that combined live-action and stop-motion animation to form a fast, condensed version of the famous story.

Upon my initial perusal, I pretty much just zipped through the tape to see what exactly I had. After discovering that this Alice in Wonderland was what it was, I went looking for it online; I wanted to see what year it was released, who was in it, and so on and so forth. My first thought was that it was an early television production, and when my Google searches and whatnot didn’t turn up the answers I was looking for, I quickly found my interest in the whole matter deepening ever more so, as it is wont to do.

Had I been paying closer attention the first time around, I’d have found my answer easily enough: The title-card’s mention of “Lou Bunin” tells all. Turns out, this is an extremely edited version of the 1949 French film of the same name! The original is 80+ minutes long, and in color, so given the nature of the print found on this tape, not to mention the Castle Films cards that were also included at the open and closing of the feature, it seems to me that this was a VHS re-release of something that was produced for the home market in the decades prior; originally a Sound Super 8 reel or something like that. I’ll go ahead and assume this condensed version has lapsed into the public domain in the US, though apparently the 1949 original has not. Either way, interesting stuff!

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At only about 9 minutes, needless to say there wasn’t much time for exposition. So here, things kind of just “happen.” Now granted, Alice in Wonderland didn’t exactly feature the most lucid story in the first place; that was sort of the point of the whole thing, right? But even so, the quick cuts and fairly choppy nature of the proceedings here, it’s a pretty disconcerting. That may sound fitting for an adaption of Alice in Wonderland, but this turned out to be more of an honest-to-goodness sensory assault than it had any right to be.

The plot, such as it is, starts out with Alice following the famous White Rabbit to Wonderland; that’s seriously how this edit of the film starts. No questioning as to why a rabbit is wearing a coat and walking upright – “Seems legit,” as the hip kids say. Following the rabbit to his lair and drinking a potion to make herself small enough to follow him through the tiny entrance to Wonderland? Sure, why not! Alice in Wonderland was kind of an acid trip of a tale in the first place, and as for the 1949 adaption, since I haven’t seen the full version, I don’t know if there was any initial reluctance on Alice’s part or not, but she seems to go with the flow without hesitation here. Anthropomorphic rabbits? Drinking random potions that have appeared out of nowhere? None of that is cause for concern to Alice, I guess!

What follows is Alice being accused to stealing the Queen’s tarts, and being put on trial. The possibility of having her head chopped off, as the Queen readily insists time and time again? Alice seems only mildly apprehensive of the wacky-jack situation and possibly bad resolution – maybe she’s cognizant of the fact she’s trippin’ perhaps? This is weird stuff, and like I said, things just sort of randomly happen; I’d imagine that kids would have needed some prior knowledge of the story to make any sense (relatively speaking) of this particular iteration. And just like it began, it sort of just concludes; just as the trial is about to rule against her keeping her noggin, Alice suddenly finds herself safely back in “real time,” unsure if it was all a dream but with a, as the narrator states, “wonderful story to tell” nevertheless. I’d hardly say nearly being decapitated over tarts is a “wonderful story,” but I suppose it’s pointless to question any of this.

The special effects and stop-motion are technically pretty impressive for the time; they’re well-done and accurately present the dreamlike world of Wonderland. The scene of Alice shrinking near the start is pretty neat for 1949, and the animation of the Wonderland inhabits is acceptable, though the jerky nature of them, coupled with the black & white picture and already-weird nature of the source material, plus the chopped up quality of this print, it all ends up being a little creepy, honestly.

Look, I find this short impossible to satisfactorily describe. The Internet Archive has a copy (though interestingly, it lacks the title card and first several seconds that are present on this tape), and it’s notated as public domain, so here you go.

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When I first found this tape and gave the contents listed on the back a fleeting-at-best glance, I saw what was on it, but I didn’t really comprehend what the included cartoons were, if that makes any sense. Not beyond the cover art at least, I mean. Look, this was a Kids Pics release; it was coming home with me no matter what. I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t pay all that much attention to the tape I was far too excited to find. If that sounds like an oxymoron of sorts, rest assured it happens a bit more often than I’d care to admit. Buy first, think later!

(In all seriousness, whenever I’m out thrifting, I generally do pay some attention to whatever I’ll be bringing up to the sales counter. Be it an electronic, tape, or what have you, I like to have as few negative surprises as possible when I get home. But in this case, and in instances like it, the content of the tape is basically secondary to the rarity of it. Is the tape moldy? Does it look like it will play? That’s all I really needed to know before the purchase. And in the end, it was only 60 cents.)

Anyway, when the sale was done and I got home with my loot, it wasn’t until I actually saw it that I realized there was a thematic-element going on here. This wasn’t just a short, budget-priced collection of public domain cartoons; Amvest/Kids Pics/whoever put together four shorts that kinda sorta go together (for the most part; read on, you’ll see), despite not being related in any real capacity.

So, Alice’s Tin Pony. On the surface, it sounds like another vintage trip to Wonderland, not unlike how there were multiple theatrical shorts detailing the land of Oz back in the day. One would and could be forgiven for making that Wonderland connection upon first glance, given the title (especially if they weren’t familiar with the various renditions of Alice in Wonderland, as I was/am). Maybe that’s the main reason it was included in the first place, I don’t know.

But, that’s not what this is. Rather, it’s a part of an old, old series of silent Disney shorts from the 1920s that have all lapsed into the public domain. Look up above if you don’t believe me. Alice, Disney. See?!

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Besides the whole “her name is Alice too!” thing, this cartoon makes a fitting pairing with the bizarre Alice in Wonderland edit that precedes it for one very good reason: it’s a combination of live and action and animation.

The gimmick for these “Alice Comedies” was that the titular character was a real human kid, superimposed (?) over the cartoon world in which she lives and takes part in. Truth be told, it’s an effect that works far better than I ever would have expected it to prior. This short is from 1925, and while this isn’t news that will surprise anyone familiar with the series, I found it technologically impressive.

Alice’s partner in these shorts was an animated cat named Julius. There they are up above, and if you think Julius bears more than a passing resemblance to Felix the Cat, that’s because he, uh, doesbig time. Not only does Julius appear to be a dead-ringer for Felix, but he acts pretty much the same, too. Dude can even detach his tail and do things with it. In fact, this short is pretty surreal overall, not unlike a typical Felix the Cat cartoon – which of course makes it an even better pairing with Alice in Wonderland.

In this Alice installment, she and Julius run a railroad line, and that day, it’s carrying a payroll shipment of some sort. Felix’s Julius’ surrealistic powers and a sentient train help stop a bandit and his gang from stealing said payroll.

Listen, this thing is impossibly weird, it’s public domain, and it’s only a bit over seven minutes long, so just watch it for yourself here.

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Now is as good a time as any to mention that this tape would not stay tracked. My screenshots don’t look so bad, but man, while in action I had to keep screwing around with the tracking controls. By the end, even the patience of your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter was being tried, and believe me, I’m no stranger to wonky trackin.’ This was a pretty cheap tape, recorded in EP, and that coupled with one of my lower-end VCRs, well, the results are never gonna be Criterion-quality when I go that route.

The second-half of the tape opens with this, 1936’s Somewhere in Dreamland. Wonderland, Dreamland, the (loose) theme continues! According to Wikipedia, the first few minutes of this cartoon are sometimes cut, though the complete (?) version is found here. Note the black bar obscuring the original copyright info above; was that even necessary? Near as I can tell, this one has been in the public domain for decades. Then again, the bar doesn’t appear then-recently implemented, and there’s a NTA title for the ending card, so maybe it was first used when this one hit television? That’s my best guess, anyway.

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Somewhere in Dreamland is very much a depression-era cartoon. In it, two poor kids haul a wagon around collecting firewood for their home. They can’t afford sweets or any of the other things kids ostensibly desire. A sad moment early on has their mother feeding them stale bread, and crying when one of them says they’re still hungry. Given the then-current situation in pre-WWII US, it’s pretty powerful imagery, especially for a kids cartoon. One can’t help but feel that the early scenes of the short really hit home for more than a few viewers at the time.

No, chief, none of that’s the Dreamland of the title; it’s not an ironically-named cartoon! Rather, Dreamland is where the two kids visit when they go to sleep that night. (I guess they dream in tandem?) Dreamland is filled with all the things they don’t have access to in real life: Nice clothes, sweets, toys, general pleasantness. And it’s all accompanied by a dreamy (“you don’t say?!”) song playing throughout, which is probably exactly how you’re envisioning it to be, if you have any familiarity with cartoons from this era.

There’s a suitably happy resolution to the cartoon that, despite being obligatory, I can’t help but feel was a little disheartening to the real children of the depression that were originally watching this. But then, I’m probably reading too much into this.

Being a Max Fleischer work, there’s also some incredible 3D-rotating backgrounds on display, too. Being a Popeye veteran, I’m well-accustomed to these, but nevertheless, I’m always wowed by them. Go ahead and watch this cartoon for yourself here.

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The tape finishes with Toonerville Picnic, the only cartoon that doesn’t really fit in with the loose dreamy, surrealistic theme of the tape. I mean, there’s wacky, unrealistic situations here, but really no more so than any other cartoon of the time – or now, for that matter. Indeed, Brentwood Video (who had some kind of partnership with Amvest, late in the life of the latter) released a VHS in the 1990s that was pretty much the exact thing content-wise as what we’re looking at today – except Toonerville Picnic, which was dropped from the line-up. At least that’s how I understand it, not personally owning that Brentwood release myself.

From 1936 and based on a long-running comic strip, this was one of Van Beuren Studios’ all-color Rainbow Parade series entries. Actually, it was not only the final Rainbow Parade entry, but from how I understand it, also the final cartoon Van Beuren put out, period. Maybe their final thing ever, for all I know.

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This is my least-favorite short of the tape. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really ga ga over any of these, but as I said, I like the weird, out-there vibes coming from the cassette. Toonerville Picnic kinda stops all that dead. What, Amvest/Kids Pics couldn’t find one more trippy public domain cartoon to finish off their blockbuster VHS release? Bah! Maybe I’d like it more if I had some actual experience with the comic strip it’s based on, but I don’t so I don’t.

Not that it’s really a bad cartoon, mind you. Just not my favorite. In it, Mr. Bang, who has a temper to match his last name (i.e., he’s in a constant bad mood) is ordered to get some rest, so he heads to the beach. What he gets is an annoying dog, an uncooperative chair, and a homicidal octopus. You’ll have that, after all.

Look, I’m tired of talking about this tape. Just watch this one for yourself here. (Link has a different opening card from what my copy features, but whatever.)


My conclusions?

This is a neat tape. It’s a little out there, but it’s neat. On the surface, it looks like just another run-of-the-mill budget cartoon tape. Playing it though, that’s where things get interesting. Instead of being yet another presentation of the “usual suspects” of PD animation, this is instead an interesting collection, featuring four fairly obscure shorts. In fact, all four were new to me.

‘Course, Alice in Wonderland is the centerpiece, and boy, is it a trip. The extreme editing it suffered gives the short a real, I don’t know, stream-of-consciousness feeling, I guess you could say. Whether the complete 1949 original is like that, I do not know. But as to what’s seen here, it’s truly a wild, wacky trip back to budget VHS past, and it totally sets the tone for the rest of the video. Sure, the shorts get progressively less strange as they go along, but all in all, this isn’t a bad 30 minutes or so for lovers of “huh?!” cinema. I didn’t realize how fortuitous the tape would be when I discovered it at that thrift store several weeks back, but boy, good find.

And it was only 60 cents!

Alpha Video – Range Riders (1934) DVD Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
49. VV-553 – The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy
50. VV-554 – Mars Attacks The World*
51. VV-555 – Satan’s Satellites
52. VV-556 – The Island Monster
53. VV-557 – Wild Women Of Wongo
54. VV-558 – Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy
55. VV-559 – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Michael Rennie) [Confirmed]
56. VV-560 – She Demons [Confirmed]*
57. VV-561 – Creature From The Haunted Sea [Confirmed]
58. VV-562 – The Ape [Confirmed]*
59. VV-563 – The Phantom Creeps [Confirmed]

———————
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]

Trans-Atlantic Video’s Spanish Superman VHS (1989)

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While digging through my junk collection recently, I found this old VHS of the public domain 1940s Superman cartoons. Not so odd in and of itself, I come across these kinds of tapes while out and about all the time, and I’ve got more than enough of them in my collection as it is. But, what’s interesting about this particular release is that it’s a Spanish edition. Also, it’s sealed brand new. Also, I have zero recollection of ever buying it.

What probably happened is I bought a bunch of tapes or otherwise interesting items at Goodwill or something, I found this tape while there and threw it in with the rest of my stuff, and subsequently forgot about it because something else I picked up in the haul was more exciting. That has to have been what happened, because I’d like to think under normal circumstances, I’d have some recollection of a sealed Spanish Superman (alliteration) VHS tape in my collection.

I can’t bring myself to open it. Most likely the cartoons within are the regular English versions found on any number of cheap VHS releases; I highly, highly doubt these are Spanish-dubbed. So why bother? There probably won’t be any notable differences between the content of this tape and the standard U.S. releases I’m more accustomed to. Plus, if I leave it sealed, I can stomp around and act all superior to everyone else because my Spanish Superman tape is still minty brand new. Right?

This isn’t the first time I’ve babbled about budget Supaguy tapes; back in February 2014, I looked at this ostensibly obscure release. This Trans-Atlantic tape is actually more typical of most similar releases, except for, you know, that whole Spanish language box thing. The front cover artwork, while clearly ‘homemade,’ is decidedly more competent than a lot of budget Superman videos, and make no mistake, in this peculiar field, that’s no small accomplishment.

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Look at that: the standard disclaimer about the images on the box being “color enhanced” and taken from the actual cartoons on the tape is apparently universal. Most budget cartoon tapes had a similarly-worded disclaimer. I assume “color enhanced” really means “redrawn” or something along those lines, probably to avoid any legal hassles. And in the case of Superman, you do not want to be taking any chances with that property.

I can’t even begin to speak Spanish in any adequate sense, but I can still figure out what a good deal of the wording on the box means, and for what I can’t figure out on my own, this helpful online translator keeps me from looking like a total doofus. The yellow bullet point by Supe’s foot roughly translates to “animated films,” and it looks like the cartoons included are The Underground World, Japoteurs (“Gee, ya don’t say?!”), and what I can only surmise is an old Bimbo (as in Betty Boop’s canine boyfriend, weird relationship though that was) cartoon as filler, which really wasn’t too unusual with video releases of this type.

According to the translation site, El Coche de Bimbo roughly translates to “Bimbo’s Car,” so you figure out what the hell cartoon it actually is if you need to know that badly. Stop trying to make me open my tape.

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Also apparently universal: the fairly plain-Jane back covers of these releases. Doesn’t look like there’s anything specific to this Superman tape in the description on the back; from what I can tell, there’s the standard disclaimer about these all being public domain cartoons. Plus, the listing of other cartoon tapes from the company. I have no idea what “Bill Cosby” could refer to; Fat Albert was never public domain, was it? I totally want a Spanish Popeye tape now.

Maybe I’m not giving a wholly accurate picture of this tape: while it is indeed a Spanish release of 1940s public domain Superman cartoons, this probably wasn’t something you’d actually have to leave the country to buy; more likely, it was sold in the U.S., but specifically in Spanish stores/neighborhoods. My case is only bolstered by the fact that I found it around town at all, as well as the fact that, according to the box, it was manufactured in the U.S.

So, while the tape may not be that rare/unique/whatever, considering it’s not the sort of thing I myself come across all that often (relatively speaking), well, that puts it one-up on the usual fare I’m forced to contend with on a consistent basis. After you see variations of the same thing some 100,000 times, it doesn’t take much to stand out.

It’s a cool video, and one I’m certainly glad to have. I just wish I could remember where the hell it came from.

New Generation Video’s Superman VHS (1989)

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I found this tape last night at a thrift store I seldom visit and, quite honestly, often actively avoid. This particular place rarely has much that interests me, and what it lacks in Northeast Ohio Video Hunter-appropriate fodder it more than makes up for in crowds of annoying people (often with children that could safely be described as “feral”) which are usually completely and utterly oblivious to anyone or anything outside of their direct range of vision. What’s more, aside from a select few fluke moments, they don’t carry VHS/Beta tapes of the recorded-from-television variety, which further decreases my interest in the store. To their credit, one of those fluke moments resulted in several ‘okay’ scores. To their discredit, another fluke moment resulted in a tape containing, unbeknownst to me prior to purchase, dirty, dirty porn. Since your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter doesn’t like nor want dirty, dirty porn, never mind someone’s used dirty, dirty porn, this was a further strike against the joint.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be a good whatever I am if I didn’t make the occasional trip to the place, even if it’s just a token visit. And that’s really all I intended last night’s pilgrimage to be. Make no mistake, last night’s visit wasn’t exactly one for the books, but I did come away with the above-seen Superman tape, and I did leave without the overwhelming desire to hit somebody, so I’m calling it a successful visit. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a total sucker for budget Superman tapes.

That has much to do with my formative years, though. I mean, did any of us not grow up with the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman cartoons of the 1940’s? I know they were a balanced part of my childhood, and given the sheer number of cheapo VHS (and now DVD) releases over the decades, I suspect the same for untold numbers of other people. Not that Superman is unique in that area; the public domain status of the cartoons (not to mention the enduring popularity of Superfella in general) have made them easy fodder for countless fly-by-night company releases, but the same can be said of any number of Popeye shorts, or Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies, and so on and so on. Needless to say, the tape seen above is one such release.

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As a young babychild, I had three similar Supe tapes, only one of which has survived to the present day. The one that’s still with me is a fairly competent release in terms of packaging and whatnot, but the other two were, to the best of my recollection, both from the same company and were much more slipshod affairs. I can’t remember the last time I saw those two tapes (literally, God only knows what happened to them), but the amateurish packaging was apparent to even my 4-5 year old eyes. We’re talking sad artwork with mismatched colors and so on. I’d like to think if I came across copies of those tapes somewhere, I’d be able to recognize, but hell, for all I know, I already have identical copies, and I’m just not realizing it. By no means is this the only budget Superman tape I’ve bought over the years, and considering pitiful artwork is a hallmark of said releases, they tend to all sort of blend together in my increasingly cluttered mind.

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Actually, part of the personal appeal of this particular release is that it’s decidedly more competent than your average budget VHS release. Seriously, the quality-level falls somewhere in between those childhood Supes tapes, leaning more towards the “competent-but-still-only-worth-the-$2-it-originally-retailed-for” end of the scale. No one’s going to be fooled into thinking the tape contains anything pulled from the archives of whoever, of course, but the artwork is good and, despite the absence of any kind of description on the back, there are no misspelled words, which is a mild surprise. It really all comes down to the artwork: it almost looks too good for a tape of this nature. Really, aside from the yellow on Supe’s boots (which may have been standard at one point, I really don’t know), it’s a darn fine representation of the Man Of Steel. Even the logo, which usually looks decidedly hand-drawn on these releases, is pretty professional looking. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pic and logo were ripped from an actual Superman comic or press release or something somewhere.

The semi-slick lookin’ artwork on my copy is marred only by the presence of two pieces of tape that must have been coated with the most adhesive substance in the universe. Look close at the pics of the front cover and you’ll see. This tape can not be removed without tearing the box, which in a bizarre way is kinda sorta fitting; Superman may be indestructible, but so is the thousand year old scotch tape on his box.

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Yeah, I’m thinking the logo and pics used on the front and back of the box were pulled from somewhere else. I mean, as much as I love Superman, I’m not exactly a die-hard, hardcore Superfan, but I’m still pretty sure I’ve seen these images before, especially the artwork on the back of the box. So, is that sort of thing allowed? I’d guess not, since most budget releases of the Superman cartoons featured clearly ‘homemade’ artwork (no joke, some of them were legitimately ass-ugly creations.) That said, considering the distribution of this tape was probably in the tens of, well, tens, I’m assuming it either never came to the attention of DC Comics, or it did and they totally laughed it off with the wave of a hand and an “aw pshaw!” Or, maybe the artwork was slightly redrawn for this box, thus somehow legalizing it?

The only reason I’m mentioning all that is because isn’t DC Comics or Warner Bros. or whoever owns all this insanely protective over that sorta thang?

Also, how long was New Generation Video around? Internet searches are of no help whatsoever, regardless of what combination of words I type in. At any rate, I can’t think of any other releases by them, and the sad but true fact of the matter is that I have more knowledge on this subject than should probably be legally allowed. That said, I’m far from an expert on the matter, and the world of public domain cartoon VHS tapes was a murky one indeed, often consisting of tapes with hazy-at-best origins. Now, I’m not suggesting this NGV should be lumped in with those other, more mysterious tapes or their companies (at least we get an address and barcode on the back), just merely observing.

While on the subject, I remember Mom taking my Brother and I to the D&K Discount Store in the State Road Shopping Center waaaaay back in the summer of 1997, and there were tons of tapes similar to the one we’re looking at today. Who made them? Where did they come from? That info is lost to time, but what I can tell you is that I strongly suspect this NGV tape came from a similar store.

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Three cartoons doesn’t seem like a lot, and of course they’re not, but that was par for the course for tapes like this. To New Generation Video’s credit, at least it’s not one or two Supes shorts and then unrelated ‘toons padding out the rest of the tape, as was so often the case. The episode titled “Superman” is actually “The Mad Scientist,” which is one I’m well familiar with from my childhood, and the one I’d consider my favorite not only of this bunch, but of all the Superman cartoons. The other two, I’m actually not that familiar with. I don’t recall them from my childhood tapes, and thus am less nostalgic for them.

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There’s a close-up of the New Generation Video info at the bottom of the back of the tape’s sleeve. Innit the logo cute? The approximate 30 minute running time is close enough; the tape runs around 27 minutes, so, yeah.

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The label, obviously. This is the only place on the tape that any kind of copyright date is found. Note the presence of “NGV Vol. 13,” which is also found on the sides of the tape’s sleeve (scroll back up and look if you don’t believe me.) So, there were ostensibly12 other New Generation Video releases, at least. I love the defective tape warranty on the label; rather than simply shelling out another $2-$3 for a new copy from wherever this originally came from (I refuse to believe this cost more than that, even back then), someone would rather piss away $2 on shipping and handling, plus the cost of sending the defective tape itself back, and then waiting 4-6 weeks for a replacement? Dude, screw that.

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Uhhh Ohhh!!! Is my tape’s defective?! Has that warranty expired yet?!?! I guess that explains the rattling I’d heard ever since I picked the tape up. To be fair, I discovered this in the store before I bought it, but since the other side of the tape’s flip-door was still attached, I figured it would work fine. I’m a renegade that way.

And I was right, my VCR accepted the tape without qualms, and spit it out without blowing up, so all is well on that front. That said, go back up two pics and look at the tape label. Notice the standard “adjust tracking” line. Never has that disclaimer been more apt than this tape. The tracking was really rough, and the following screencaps were the best results from the fruits of my labor.

(To be fair, I was running this tape through a VCR that has at this point ran through approximately 500 million ancient VHS tapes, including some of questionable quality from a condition-standpoint. Maybe the part of my VCR that handles the super-fine trackin’ required for this video is just shot, I don’t know.)

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As for the cartoon themselves, the best I can say is that I’ve seen worse. If the tracking wasn’t constantly throwing hissy fits, these would be unspectacular-but-serviceable representations of the Superman cartoons. Of course, there were scratches, there was dust, and as the screencaps attest, the color varied from cartoon to cartoon.

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But, these shorts have certainly looked worse over the years. I was actually kinda surprised to find these looking as decent as they do. Maybe back in the day when there wasn’t 25 years under the tape’s belt and it was played on a decent VCR, things looked even better.

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Like I said, I’m not all that familiar with these two. I could watch them and write out a dissertation, but I’ve already invested far too much time into a budget VHS that only I and maybe 8 other people care about. Apparently, “Terror On The Midway” was the final Supes short produced by the Fleischer Bros., before they were outed by Paramount and “Fleischer” became “Famous Studios.”

I can also say there seems to be odd cuts between the Superman intro screens and the episode titles seen at the beginning of the shorts. “The Mechanical Monsters” is missing an end card entirely, merely fading out and then into the start of “Terror On The Midway.” Also, “Superman”/”The Mad Scientist” was the very first in the Superman series of cartoons, but includes a Famous Studios intro card, rather than Fleischer. As much as I like these shorts, I don’t know every detail of their history, so maybe these are all aspects common to other tapes.

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Uh oh! Cool splicin’! Or something like that. This Paramount ending card comes from the conclusion of “The Mad Scientist,” and it was did done treated poorly at some point. In general, the body of all the cartoons look okay, but the beginnings and ends typically look rougher, as it so often goes.

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That’s it, New Generation Video’s 1989 Superman tape. I never thought I’d be able to find as much to say about it as I did, but now that I’ve given it a semi-thorough review, I suspect Superman Superfans the world over will now be climbing over each other for their own copy.

If nothing else, at least I got something out of that thrift-trip last night.