Tag Archives: old

Return of the 1975 RCA AU-097Y Portable TV! (Plus a Look at XENOPHOBE for the Atari 2600!)

Sometimes I have a problem where I’ve got more than enough stuff that I could write about, but, frankly, can’t really decide on any one subject. Such was my problem recently, as I looked at the boxes of VHS tapes, stacks of DVDs and mounds of old electronics around me, yet continued to be at a loss. I couldn’t get fired up over anything. Then, my eyes fell upon my beloved RCA AU-097Y portable TV from 1975, which I wrote about waaaay back in 2013 – in the early months of this very site! I have always loved the extreme 1970s-ness of this TV, but even so, that alone wasn’t enough to bring it back for a return-appearance on my stupid dumb blog. So what warranted a quick picture-taking session?

The latter years of the Atari 2600, that’s what! (This post is more for fun than anything. Plus, I haven’t written anything for November yet and constantly fear that y’all will abandon me.)

Now, I can play Atari 2600 (or if you want to get technical, Atari 7800) pretty much any time I please. I have one constantly at the ready in my “office” (ha!), and while I don’t play video games a whole lot, I do occasionally need to, as the ads used to say, reach reach reach for Atari. This doesn’t normally require usage of a 42 (!) year old TV, however. So, why did it now? Xenophobe, that’s why!

The picture to the right says it all: Midway’s 1987 split-screen arcade game was given the 2600 treatment, the title-screen of which you’re seeing right here. Xenophobe has long been one of my favorites on the console, which is funny, since I’m not big on the arcade version or most of the higher-end ports (the Lynx adaption wasn’t bad). I guess in the 2600’s case, “less is more,” though. While the more advanced versions retained much of the comical, cartoon-like atmosphere of the coin-op, the 2600’s weaker graphic and sonic capabilities meant only the ‘meat’ of Xenophobe was retained. It comes off quieter, more desolate, which for a game originally inspired by the Alien films, I think serves the 2600 port well. Plus, the fact a game this advanced even made it to the 2600 at all, in an extremely playable form no less, is purty derned impressive.

Here’s the deal: This 2600 port was indeed released in the U.S., at the insanely late date of 1990 (actually, this AtariAge thread says it didn’t ship until Spring 1991!!), which means there were/are NTSC copies out there, but for the longest time, they were pretty rare. I mean, by 1990/1991, the 16-bit era of video games had dawned; who would have thought they’d still be releasing games for a console introduced in 1977 in an age where the Sega Genesis had been unleashed?! It’s true – the Atari 2600 wasn’t officially discontinued until January 1, 1992. This wasn’t a one-off release, either; there were a slew of new 2600 games released in the wake of the infamous 1983 video game crash, after Nintendo totally revived the industry. Many of these newer 2600 titles were, and are, super-impressive, featuring NES-like formats and gameplay and graphics that many just wouldn’t think possible on the 2600.

Xenophobe is one such game, but by the time it saw release in the U.S., the market for the 2600 was all but dead. Overseas though, there was still some life left in the beast, the result being that you could find PAL copies of many of these hard-to-find US titles for a fraction of the cost. And that’s where my RCA TV comes in.

As you may imagine, games in the PAL format from that era aren’t generally known to run correctly in the U.S. Colors will be off, and more drastically, the screen can roll, rendering the game unplayable. However, by using an old school CRT TV with the capability to adjust the vertical hold, you can stabilize the screen to normal, and if you’re using a black & white set, as I did here, why, the mismatched colors don’t even matter! Cool winnins!

I own a (as I was assured by the seller) sealed NTSC copy of Xenophobe, which I had to pay real money for back in 2001 or 2002, but my loose copy is PAL. I’ve had a hankerin’ for some 2600 Xenophobe lately, so, well, you can deduce how we got where we are right now.

(By the way, the prices for NTSC Xenophobe, as well as other late-era releases, have fallen drastically in the years since I nabbed my sealed one; a ton of new old stock U.S. copies were uncovered in Venezuela some years back and made available to the masses, which means that what once were mega-rare titles are now surprisingly common, and affordable, via online sales. I’ve got several of these, another Xenophobe included, winging their way towards me as we speak.)

To make Atari happen on the RCA, I had to kick things way old school. Yep, via screws and an ancient RF switchbox – the kind you had to slide a switch to TV or game when you wanted to enjoy either. That’s what you’re seeing to your left here. Nothing unusual about it; this is how video game consoles were hooked up back in the day! On the RCA, there’s no other way.

Actually, it’s kind of a kick to hook a system up to a TV this way. You know, I grew up plugging things into the RF port, or via AVs, so it’s sorta neat to attach a console in such a wildly obsolete fashion. It feels very late-1970s/early-1980s appropriate, even if the Atari 7800 (which also plays 2600 games is thus my normative choice of Atari console) didn’t come out (nationally) until 1986, when this method had almost-certainly been widely-superseded by the RF/AV thing I just mentioned.

There are a bunch of contrasting eras at play here. You’ve got a black & white TV from 1975, displaying a game copyrighted 1990 and apparently released in 1991 and made for a console introduced in 1977, which in turn was being played on a console released in 1986 but included native backward-compatibility with that console introduced in 1977. Why, it’s enough to make your head swim!

So, back to Xenophobe. If for some reason you thought I had some kind of authority in the world of Atari (Hint: I don’t) and asked me to name my top 20 games for the 2600, Xenophobe would absolutely be on that list. Actually, it’d make my top 10. I love the game!

To your right is the opening scene of game play (I’d venture to guess that this is the only pic of the game being played on a black & white TV from 1975 on the internet – for the time being). Now, most people probably think of 2600 games as simple affairs, but Xenophobe is actually pretty expansive, comparable to many then-modern games. There are eight stations to visit throughout the game (though there’s no ending; it loops after the eighth), and stations that include different rooms, with some having multiple levels accessed via elevator. And as we saw above, it even features a legit title screen!

Graphically, the game really wows. Like any console, the longer it’s around, the more the programmers can get out of it.  Okay, sure, compared to the NES or 7800 (both of which had ports of Xenophobe), never mind the Sega Genesis (which didn’t), the graphics are extremely blocky, and gamers nowadays would probably laugh so hard at them that they’d spill whatever hyper-powered soft drink they had chosen for their all-night online gaming session. But given the system it’s on, Xenophobe is definitely impressive. Your character is rendered in multiple colors, the animation is (mostly) smooth, there are a variety of aliens to combat, and from outside appearances at least, the space stations are varied; I really liked all the gadgets and junk that adorned the walls of the areas you traversed, too. There’s even separate cut-scenes featuring your mother ship coming upon an infested station! Neato!

Musically, there’s some bits adapted from the arcade that don’t sound bad at all, and the sound effects are serviceable; there were certainly far worse to be found on the 2600.

The plot of the game involves several space stations that have been infested by alien beings (“Xenophobes,” as per the manual), and it’s up to you to clean ’em out! Yep, you beam on board each station, alone, and must systematically clear out a required number of aliens before you can be beamed back to your mother ship. (If you take too long, you’re beamed back aboard while the infested station self-destructs.) The aliens range from pods to tentacles to gigantic, dangerous beasts, and you’ve got several weapon choices scattered throughout the ships to help exterminate them.

Xenophobe‘s gimmick in the arcades was that the screen was split into three sections, allowing for three players going at the game simultaneously. For obvious reasons, the home editions generally cut that down to two, and as you can see, the 2600 followed suit; that bottom half is reserved for the second player – but not simultaneously! Yep, despite the split-screen, players must take turns, even though it’s still player one on the top, player two on the bottom. I get that having simultaneous game play like that might be too much for the ol’ 2600 to handle, but then why have the split-screen at all?

That bit of irritation aside, Xenophobe is pretty solid. The difficulty may be a little uneven; get the powerful “Poofer Gun” and you can basically cruise through what would otherwise be some pretty tough stages, stages that are a little insurmountable without it or a plentiful supply of grenades. Still, the mark of any good game is how often you (or at least I) keep coming back to it. Despite having not played the game in years, I indeed kept coming back for another round.

(By the way, it’s worth noting that the 2600 wasn’t the only “early” video game console to last as long as it did; the Intellivision, initially the 2600’s main rival, also enjoyed a revival and ultimate lifespan stretching into the late-1980s/early-1990s. However, the Inty never got Xenophobe, and thus Atari won yet again.)

So, aside from using an ancient CRT TV to get around the rolling screen issues, what did I learn playing Xenophobe this way? 1) I don’t mind playing in black & white. 2) There’s an odd sense of “coolness” playing the 2600/7800 in this fashion. It just looks neat. I hesitate to use the word “authenticity,” but there’s probably some of that in there, too. 3) TVs this old emit a smell that’s not particularly pleasant. I looked the phenomenon up, and while I forget the technical term now, it’s apparently normal. Doesn’t change the fact that I have a hypersensitive nose and that first night of play gave me, no joke, an ill-feeling. Subsequent plays were better; maybe the smell dissipated? Or maybe my nose just got used to it? I dunno.

Because this is just sort of a fun, dash-off post, I’m not sure how to end it. I played the Atari 2600 port of Xenophobe on an RCA TV from 1975, okay?

Actually, I do know how to end this post; I didn’t spend a long time playing it, because honestly I just wanted the picture seen here, but I did fire up another 2600 favorite, and this one was more period-appropriate: 1978’s Basketball!

When it comes to sports games, I’m not sure it gets more primitive than Basketball (that it’s right here, duh!), but man is it fun. It’s a one-on-one game, and you can play either the computer or another person. I didn’t this time around, but the two-player mode is where it’s at. Competitive in all the best ways. The graphics and sound are probably more in line with what people think when it comes to Atari, but the play is what counts, and Basketball has it to spare! Get it? “Spare!” Cause it’s…oh wait, I’m thinking of Bowling. That’s a favorite too, though.

So there you have it. I busted out the beloved 1975 RCA AU-097Y portable TV for a picture-taking session, and more importantly, several Xenophobe sessions. Nowadays, people like to mod their 2600’s for AV, HDMI, and so on and so forth. Play ’em on flatscreens and whatnot. Hey, nothing wrong with that. If I had the skills and the spare consoles, I’d take that plunge too. (Actually, I do have the spare consoles…but not the skills.) Still, sometimes you gotta kick it really old school, and I feel I have accomplished that arbitrary task exceedingly well.

Also, playing Xenophobe without the screen rolling like a madman is nice.

Advertisements

Movie Review: Wild Horse Phantom (1944)

“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?! A western movie review – in October?!

Yes, it’s true: Right in the heart of Halloween month, we’re looking at a 1940s poverty row western. But wait! Don’t go closing the tab just yet! This fits, trust me!

Back in the 1940s, Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC for short, made movies with, erm, not a lot of money. They were, you know, a cheapie outfit – just one of the many poverty row studios that littered the cinematic landscape in that era. At the time, westerns of the budget variety were churned out nigh-continuously by these poverty row players; no joke, westerns were perhaps the preeminent “poverty row product.” So, it stands to reason there wound up being more than a few horse operas sporting the PRC branding. (See what I did there? “Branding!” Because it’s a…oh never mind.)

On that front, PRC had a long line of “Billy the Kid” B-Westerns, the first few with Bob Steele but the vast majority starring Buster Crabbe as the titular character. (Unlike the real-life outlaw, this Billy the Kid was a bit more of a heroic figure; this was matinee material, after all.) Crabbe was no small potatoes at the time, having portrayed Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and even Tarzan. Dude even made it to the Olympics – twice. Of course a studio would be all for him headlining an action-packed film series such as this! (Al “Fuzzy” St. John also starred in these as the comic sidekick, and truth be told, I had forgotten what a spaz his character could be.)

And that brings us to today’s subject, Wild Horse Phantom. Title cards to the left, yo. Released in 1944 (according to Wikipedia and its IMDb page, on October 28 – right before Halloween!), this entry falls, roughly, in the middle of the series – by which point “Billy the Kid” had become “Billy Carson.”

Now look, I really, really love B-Westerns; they’re some of my favorite movies to watch. BUT, I’ll never claim they could vary a whole lot. I mean, these were old west stories filmed on the cheap; how many plot lines could there be? Watch enough of these, and you start to see the same basic story lines repeated over and over, though when the action was good and the stars engaging, it didn’t really matter – bills that seemed to fit Crabbe pretty well, actually.

All that said, when you’ve got a long-running series such as this one, well, sometimes things had to be shaken up a bit, and that’s just what PRC did with Wild Horse Phantom – this is not your typical B-Western! The usage of “phantom” in the title isn’t really an indicator of horror-themes in a western (lotsa them used it), but make no mistake, our movie today has unmistakable horror movie undertones – and overtones! This one really breaks out of the mold, and it’s a lot of fun because of it. Read on!

The movie starts out normally enough: A fellow named Daggett, along with his gang, break out of prison. These guys were busted for robbing a bank, and, it turns out, the breakout has been orchestrated by Billy so he can trail them and recover the stolen money. (Along for the ride is another prisoner, an acquaintance of Billy and Fuzzy, who is unwittingly dragged with the gang; Daggett shoots him dead soon after. While it provides a moment for Fuzzy to grieve early on, it seems to be forgotten in fairly short order.)

At this point, I’d like to mention that this is a “modern day western,” meaning it was (ostensibly) set in the time it was produced. Sure, there’s still six-shootin’ and horses and whatnot, but there’s also then-modern automobiles present. When I was growing up and discovering B-Westerns on WAOH/WAX, I was always put off by these. To me, a western should be set in the old west; in the 1800s, maybe early-1900s tops. While I still prefer my westerns to adhere to my arbitrary standards, I will say I’ve softened on these “modern day” efforts – somehow the 1940s matinee charm is made all the more visible when then-modern accoutrements are present. Does that make any sense? No? Well, whatever.

Anyway, after that non-eyebrow-raising start, the setting get dark – literally. Billy and Fuzzy track Daggett’s gang to an old mine, where Daggett hid the stolen money before their incarceration. As seen here, our heroes skulk about in the dark (right), and eventually wind up spying on the gang as they futilely try to find the dinero. (Daggett can’t remember where exactly he hid it.) It’s at this point where things take a turn for the spooky; y’see, for all intents and purposes the mine here is the equivalent of a haunted house.

No joke – there’s mysterious, cackling laughs, provided by a “phantom” (our titular character, duh!) with a knife. This phantom seems to be on the side of good, even helping Billy and Fuzzy when they’re captured by the gang in surprisingly short order. Still, can you ever really trust a guy that runs around a dank mine and cackling? It’s gotta be a little unnerving, even if you are Buster Crabbe.

Eventually Billy makes it outside (while Fuzzy waits in the mine; more on that momentarily) and does a little investigating. The town in which the mine is located has been essentially wiped out by the aforementioned bank robbery, as the nefarious banker in charge is threatening to foreclose on everyone. You can probably see where things are going here. This moves the plot along, of course, but really, the best scenes are all in the mine. They really do manage to attain an aura of, I guess, an old dark house thriller – an intriguing and nice change of pace for a budget western!

Wild Horse Phantom probably can’t be deemed a ‘famous’ movie; B-Western fans might know of it, but it’s not like you’ll hear it spoken of in the same sentence as, say, Stagecoach. Still, there is one scene that almost has to come up when Wild Horse Phantom is mentioned, not only because it takes the horror elements of the film from a mostly-background presence to front and center, but also because it’s just so, well, PRC.

Because the scenes in the mine are, by necessity, dark, and the object in question was (almost) constantly in motion, capturing satisfactory screenshots was all but impossible here. I tried over and over, too. What you’re seeing to the left is The Devil Bat. Yes, that Devil Bat. As in The Devil Bat, the 1940 PRC horror flick starring Bela Lugosi. To showcase the hidden dangers of the mine, PRC reused the prop!

The scene: Fuzzy is wandering around the mine when he stumbles upon something lurking in the shadows, eyes glowing menacingly. That’s the top image on the left, and believe it or not, it manages to come across genuinely creepy!

The bat of course attacks Fuzzy, though the shots of him scuffling with it are incomprehensible in screencap-form, so the bottom image is the bat showing off its impressive wingspan. How does Fuzzy repel the creature? By biting it. (Don’t ask.)

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the bat doesn’t get much screen time. His scuffle with Fuzzy is it (though there’s a semi-related incident at the conclusion of the film that’s too dumb to not love). And why exactly is it there? Are we left to surmise that they just get that big in the mine by natural means? Or do we assume it’s one of Bela’s escaped experiments? Questions like this keep me up at night. No matter though, because the fact PRC reused the creature is just too awesome, and really sets Wild Horse Phantom apart from other B-Westerns.

As a whole, it’s a fun movie, and at under an hour (normal for these B-Westerns), it’s fast-paced by necessity. Granted, the breeziness of the film doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for further fleshing out of the story. For example, there’s what seems to be a love interest here, except the whole plot point just kinda peters out and goes nowhere after the initial germ of the idea. Plus, there’s that whole giant bat thing, too.

Still, B-Westerns weren’t high art, and they weren’t meant to be. This was matinee entertainment for the kids, not a serious horse opera. There’s perhaps no better evidence of that than Wild Horse Phantom, a movie that mixes the western, horror, and comedy genres far more adeptly than it should be able to. I really liked it! It’s harmless 1940 poverty row cinema, with plenty of action and, for our purposes today, horror to make it fit during the Halloween season. It’s not the kind of movie that would come to mind first for sure, but it’s a nice, unexpected option if you’re looking for some offbeat entertainment for your Halloween party.

Wild Horse Phantom gets your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter’s full-approval, and as we all know, my full-approval is of tantamount importance. Check it out!

(By the way, where’d I get this movie? This copy comes from Mill Creek’s 20 movie DVD set dedicated to the Billy the Kid series; however, as I haven’t been able to fully devour the entire collection yet, I’m labeling this as a “movie review” instead of my usual “DVD review,” as notating it the latter implies, to me anyway, a review of the whole set – something I can’t satisfactorily do yet. I take solace in the fact that anyone reading probably doesn’t care about trivial matters like this.)

Magnavox Hi-Fi VHS VCR Model No. VR2072AT01 (Circa-1988)

Well, I wasn’t planning on doing another electronics post so soon after the last one, but this is just too cool to not warrant an update. I can’t promise it will be a long update, but an update it will be nonetheless.

Now at first glance, this may not look all that noteworthy; I mean, it’s a Magnavox 4-Head, Hi-Fi VCR from somewhere in the late-1980s, model number VR2072AT01 – cool, but cool enough to write about? It’s got a fair amount of features, it’s solidly built, and unlike most of the stuff I bring home, it had its original remote included. The fact that the initial testing in the thrift store where I found it seemed to rule out any major problems was just the icing on the cake. At only $5, it was a fine find.

And yet, none of that was quite why the machine blew my mind enough to warrant an article. Oh no; look up above and see if you can spot the really interesting aspect. Upon my first coming across this, my eyes were quickly drawn to the door; it had the audio level gauge printed right on it! That’s something I had never seen before, and I was wondering just how such a thing would operate in action. So, I plugged the thing in, grabbed a random tape lying about, and got to testing. My suspicions were confirmed: During playback, the audio levels are actually displayed on the tape door! Now that’s cool!

When I hunt for old electronics, I’m always on the lookout for things with unique features, that dared to step out of the box in some way. I say this qualifies. Sure, having the audio level meter on VCRs was common among the better models of the time, but to actually render them on the tape door? That’s a new one on me, and it feels just special enough to give this model an extra air of “high-tech-ness.”

Here’s a closer, albeit lower-resolution (because I left the flash on my phone off and it evidently doesn’t like that), shot of the machine in action. The door feels just thick enough to allow for whatever makes putting the audio levels on it happen, so I hesitate to state they’re actually superimposed on there, but with an actual tape right behind them, that’s sure what they feel like.

I did some further token tape testin’ (alliteration) while still at the thrift store, but this was such a neat aspect of the VCR that it was basically already decided it was coming home with me, especially at only $5. It appeared to work perfectly, but by that point that was just gravy for yours truly.

No joke, I had never seen something like this on a VCR before, and after purchasing it, you know what? I still haven’t! I figured a quick online search would tell me more about this model, but oddly enough, aside from an expired Craigslist ad and a few scattered mentions of the model number here and there, info on this particular unit was surprisingly scarce. Even the much-loved Vintage VHS Gallery site left me hangin’ in regards to this Magnavox, though I gleaned some other important knowledge regarding their models from the period.

Such as: Many, maybe even all, were Panasonic-made VCRs, simply rebadged with the Magnavox name (Panasonic made a bunch of machines for other companies around that time), and they were very solidly-built. I assume same goes for this one. And, while I don’t know if this is the case with this VCR, but some such as this machine only featured a single rubber belt inside, which resulted in units that continue to function well even today. That would account for how well this one currently performs (more on that in a bit), unless unbeknownst to me it had been repaired at some point, of course.

Also, these were/are early On-Screen Display VCRs. That is, they brought up a blue-screen that let you program the clock and other functions right from your seat via remote. Also, other pertinent information is displayed on-screen during playback, if the viewer so desired. That’s all something that became incredibly commonplace in the following years, so to see it in its infancy here is pretty interesting.

A close-up of the other side of the front panel. The hours-minutes-seconds counter is infinitely preferable to the older-style four-digit counter that was increasingly out-of-date by then. The expected tape-in, recording speed, and audio info indicators are also nice, and the display here remains nicely bright and sharp, which isn’t always the case nowadays. Indeed, I passed up an otherwise-solid Sony from 1995 the other day simply because the display was a bit too dim for my liking; not that I really cared about the display itself, but rather, from how I understand it, that can be an indicator of power supply issues. I ain’t got time for that noise, yo.

Button-wise, there’s the typical starts and stops and pauses and what have yous, plus buttons to control the counter and whatnot, which would have been helpful for those that lost their remote (a category I’m not included in – for once).

Back in the early-2000s, a relative gave me their old Magnavox VCR. It wasn’t nearly as nice as this one, and a repair job at some point in the past left it without recording capabilities, but it played okay, which was all I cared about with that one. Anyway, it had tiny, hard-plastic, “clicky” buttons just like this VCR, so as it weird as it sounds, these actually do take me back somewhat.

Lest you miss it, there’s a flip-down panel too, with even more options to peruse. This of course was even better for those who may not have had their original remote. The buttons to allow for adjustments to the clock and/or recording timer are everlastingly handy, and look at that: An index write feature! Neato!

Back to the left-side again: A headphone jack, and volume adjustment knob for said headphone jack. Also, tracking knobs, which helped with playback once I got this plugged in at home. How so? This VCR plays exponentially well given its age, but despite using an SP-recorded, Hi-Fi, big budget tape, the picture still had some tracking issues. The adjustments here alleviated that somewhat, though it still wasn’t perfect. (Not that that really bothers me; it’s an old VCR, after all.)

Upon firing the sucker up, you’re presented with the previously-mentioned blue-screen.

Sure, there’s the on-screen information regarding playback, Hi-Fi, stuff like that. That’s all well and good, but what I really got a kick out of here was the clock settings. Not so much merely because they’re here, though they’re certainly helpful and hopefully they put an end to the “I can’t get my VCR to stop blinking 12 O’Clock HAW HAW HAW” joke, but rather because of the date featured.

Look, there’s no year listed on this VCR itself, but I did find an online listing for the original manual, and that was dated 1988. Furthermore, upon trying to set the clock, the default date you’re presented with is January 1st, 1988. So, that’s why the title of the post is notated as “Circa-1988.” I couldn’t find when this particular unit was manufactured, but 1988 or thereabouts seems like a safe guess, right?

If nothing else, it’s cool to see a small example of the era this VCR hails from (beyond the VCR itself, of course). This was apparently a pretty decent model for the time, and it was around that point that VHS had really taken off into the stratosphere. Machines and tapes were becoming more affordable, and increasingly, VCRs were seen as essential parts of any living room. To me, seeing “1988” on the screen brings all that into sharp focus.

As I said, playback here was good, though not perfect. I could happily watched an entire movie on this VCR if needed, but it was showing its age. Some tracking issues, a little jittery, nothing major but still not preferable.

Nevertheless, upon pressing the “X2 Play” button(s), I was happy to discover things were relatively crystal clear. Look to your right if you don’t believe me. (X2 Play, for those not-in-the-know, merely played a tape at, say it with me, twice the speed of regular playback, albeit without sound. The benefits of this are, to me, negligible, but at least it works.)

What you’re seeing here is a scene from Anchors Aweigh, the lavish Frank Sinatra / Gene Kelly musical put out by MGM in 1945. Hey buddy, Frankie can’t see the X2 info when it’s behind his head! Fun Fact: While a cursory glance at this blog will reveal I’m more into classic horror and sci-fi movies, there’s a part of me that doesn’t mind old school musicals such as this. They’re such a great reminder of a bygone, ostensibly more-innocent age in Hollywood. Plus, they really do tend to be entertaining. I guess I’m not just a horror / sci-fi movie buff, I’m a movie buff period.

All that said, when it came time to test this VCR, there were two factors at play: 1) I wanted something big budget, major-studio-released, in SP and Hi-Fi (to better test the capabilities of this machine), and 2) it needed to be something that, should calamity strike and the VCR damaged the tape in some way, I wouldn’t be too irritated by the circumstance. A quick trip to my left, where a big stack of needs-to-be-put-away tapes currently reside, provided me with Anchors Aweigh. And so, here we are. I got a good look at what the VCR can do, and the tape came out of the ordeal no worse for wear. Though, I did discover that while fast-forwarding or rewinding during playback, the picture was pretty jittery. Whether this was an issue of age, the heads, the belt(s), or just how it always was, I couldn’t say. It did what I needed it to, without harming the tape, but it was a cause for concern, though a fairly mild one.

Here’s the remote. It’s always nice when one of those are included, though in this case, the only function on it that I’m not seeing on the VCR itself is a button labeled “calendar.” For all I know, that function is accessed through some other way on the unit.

I didn’t put batteries in the remote, and thus didn’t test it. Look, it’s nice that’s it’s here, but rarely do I ever need the remote. They’re good to have though. In this case, despite having old batteries still left in it, there was only the tiniest amount of corrosion, which 91% isopropyl alcohol removed nicely.

Speaking of alcohol, the remote and VCR itself were both pretty grimy. Indeed, I’m surprised the machine worked as good as it did, given the amount of sticker residue and other, hopefully non-sinister, substances on it. It’s times like that when I bust out the trusty alcohol and give everything a good rub down. I didn’t get the machine or remote spotless, but at least I could afterwards touch both without worrying if I had a bout of dysentery coming my way.

There actually wasn’t a whole lot going on with back of the unit; I’m used to seeing countless inputs and outputs and whatnot that, quite frankly, I don’t always know the purpose of. I’m not sure how I feel about this; simplicity is nice, but so is having option upon option.

Anyway, here’s the little information plate as seen on the back. See, model number VR2072AT01. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t.

Usually these plates, or at least plates from the era this comes from, feature the date and month that the particular unit was manufactured. Here though, all I get is a bunch of numbers, numbers whose purpose remains a mystery to me. Therefore, “Circa-1988” things shall remain.

Here are the inputs, such as they are, on the back of the VCR. There’s not much to talk about here; you’ve got red-white-yellow inputs and outputs, as should be expected, a channel selector, and antenna inputs and outputs.

This Panasonic VCR, from 1985, had more options around the back, including what continues to be a somewhat-mysterious Pay TV-knob, and as such, this Magnavox comes off a little barren in comparison. I mean, it doesn’t really matter; the bare necessities are here, and it’s not not like there weren’t plenty of options around front – plus, that whole mega-cool audio-levels-on-the-door thing. After that, do you really need anything else? I posit that you do not.

The only thing present on the back of that Panasonic that I especially wish this VCR had its own version of? Something indicating when it was manufactured, man!

Let us take one more gander at the Magnavox VR2072AT01, shall we? It’s a cool VCR, one of the coolest I’ve found in recent months. It looks slick, it’s relatively feature-packed, and it works; what more could you ask for? (Normally, I’d say the remote, but as you can see again above, I done gots the remote too!!)

Oh, I forgot to point out that this VCR has classy-lookin’ feet. Look up above. It’s got feet. You can’t deny it.

Still, it’s those audio levels on the tape door that I keep coming back to; it’s a feature that would almost seem superfluous, except given all that this unit has, isn’t. I mean, where else could they have put them?! It’s a extra, almost “futuristic” touch that gives this model an added layer of coolness. I can’t say I would have picked this up had it not been here, honestly.

Look, the last thing I need is another ancient VCR added to my stack of other ancient VCRs, but I dare say this one was worth the addition. What say you, the reader?

Kodak PCD-250 Photo CD Player (October 1992)

You know, as of late I’ve been neglecting the whole “old electronics” portion of this blog quite a bit. This was brought into a particularly sharp focus recently by a spate of comments on my older posts regarding the subject. The answer was clear: People like reading about this stuff, but even before that I had noticed that those posts tend to get decent viewership.

So, I knew I needed to write about something electronic-related again. The timing of this realization turned out to be fortuitous, because look what I brought home from the State Road Goodwill just last night: From October 1992, it’s a Kodak Photo CD player! A Photo CD player! Just look at it up there! It’s the PCD-250, and as an artifact of 1990s technology, it’s tough to beat…

…Which is good, because beyond longingly gazing at it, I can’t find much other practical use for the beast.

(As such, this isn’t going to be a super long post.)

You can click on any of these pics for a larger view, which will hopefully alleviate the symptoms of my inability to find a decent viewing angle to snap these shots. (Hey, I did the best I could.) Above is a closer, full-on view of the control panel. Nothing too out of the ordinary; you’ve got your starts, stops, opens, closes, shuffles, and so on. Without closer inspection, one may very well think it’s an ordinary CD or even DVD player. Indeed, Goodwill had this notated as just a CD player on their price tag. That was technically correct, especially in this day and age, but back when it first released, there was a bit more to it than that.

Just what is a Photo CD system, and why am I so enamored by it? Wikipedia has a wonderfully detailed write-up on the line, but the short of it is that in the time before digital cameras and DVDs and what have you, the Kodak Photo CD system allowed you to view your photos, your very own homemade photographs, on television. Think of it as an evolution and/or offshoot of the vacation slides people used to bore their friends and family with.

A DVD-era mindset would say that you could burn a CD loaded with pictures for play on one of these things, but that mindset would be dead wrong. Remember, this is early-1990s technology; burning a CD on your computer wasn’t exactly as matter-of-fact then as it is now. (Or was, what with CDs seemingly being on their way out – much to my chagrin.)

So how did you get your sad snapshots from the camera to disc to player? Kodak had Photo CD centers, and much like you dropping off film to be developed (remember when you had to do that? I do!), you’d take your precious cargo to one to be transferred to CD, and from there, you could view digital slides of all the stupid things you thought were worth archiving digitally – including those embarrassing early-1990s fashions that would soon come back to haunt you somethin’ fierce.

It’s the kind of technology that’s so commonplace nowadays, I wouldn’t think twice about burning a bunch of my idiotic photos to disc and watching them on my DVD player (if I had that much time to waste on my hands, and luckily I’m not quite there…yet). But for 1992, this was a neat piece of tech. Unfortunately, the transitory nature of electronics, and the introduction of affordable digital cameras and PC photo formats, and so on and so forth, it all eventually doomed the line, and while it limped along for several years, it was never quite a rousing success.

Kodak Photo CD players used their own compact disc format, and while I initially figured maybe burning some JPEGs or something to CD and throwing it in would be enough to properly test the machine, a quick online search told me I was severely mistaken. Apparently there are ways to mimic the format and burn to CD, but a cursory glance at such prospects left my head swimming just enough to where I abandoned the idea. (Besides, I don’t know if that’s technically legal or not.) So, for all intents and purposes, the Photo CD aspect of this unit, the main reason it was put into production, is barred to me.

Still, the thing powered up, and aside from the CD-drawer not quite closing all the way without a little help from the user, it appeared to be fully-functional. I have no reason to doubt the Photo CD portion still runs correctly, but near as I can tell, I have no way of proving it. And to make matters worse, upon plugging in and powering on, nothing shows up on-screen, so no neato screencaps for y’all, either.

About the only thing I can do with the machine is play audio CDs. Luckily, I had a spare copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch lying around, and what better way to test a 1992 piece of technology than with a 1992 album? So in it went!

Above: You can see the player gives a readout of the total CD running length, as you’d expect, and it does run audio pretty well. Human Touch sounded really nice while playing here; there was an odd, I don’t know, kinda ‘thumping’ sound on what seemed to me to be higher notes, but for all I know that was just a result of the chords I was using. I could have listened to the whole album this way and not been bothered, so obviously it was a pretty minor issue. Maybe the lens just needs a cleaning, I don’t know. I suppose it doesn’t really matter though, does it?

(On a side note: Human Touch isn’t one of Springsteen’s more well-regarded albums, especially when compared to Lucky Town which released on the exact same day. But personally, I’ve never found it that bad. There are some weak moments for sure, and the sound belies the labored late-1980s/early-1990s production time, but I maintain that had he merely pruned it of two, three, or maybe even four of the lesser tracks, there would be a more positive lasting image of the album. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s The River Part II or anything, but nevertheless, methinks there’s enough good stuff on Human Touch to merit a purchase. I’ve always liked it as a whole, and as an artifact of 1992, well, to me it’s wildly appropriate to play on a Kodak Photo CD system, okay?)

Around the back of the machine, you’ve got some standard inputs and outputs. RF out, antenna in, your red-white-yellow jacks, a channels 3 or 4 selector, and the part I found most interesting, an S-Video jack.

S-Video was around, obviously, but I don’t think it had quite become an industry standard yet, so to see it implemented by Kodak was a nice touch. Hey Photo CD system, you’re on the same page as Super Nintendo! Well done!

Next: Hooray for poorly-lighted and too-blurry photos! This isn’t the kind of thing I’d want playing on my Photo CD system!

Still, there’s your proof: October 1992. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t.

Geez man, October 1992; I was all of six-years-old! I didn’t even have my Super Nintendo yet! (That would come at Christmas ’92.) Maybe one of the coolest things about picking up old technology like this nowadays isn’t so much what it can or can’t do, but rather it’s the ability to look back and realize this was what was cutting-edge then! Sure, it’s been hugely, hugely supplanted in the years since, but like I said before, that’s just the transitory nature of the beast.

So there you have it, the newest addition to my big giant stack of electronics: A Kodak Photo CD system from October 1992. I can’t really do much with it, except play audio CDs (and I’ve got plenty of other devices that can handle that), but as a piece of early-90s tech, I still like having it. I can’t promise I’ll ever do much more with it, and I’m a little disappointed I can’t (easily) play photos on it, even if for no other reason than to be as arbitrary as possible, but for only $5 I say it was still worth adding to my pile of junk electronics collection.

VHS Review: Godzilla (1998 Widescreen Version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode Recap: The Son of Ghoul Show “Mr. Wise Guy” (March 6, 1999)

With Son of Ghoul’s big 31st anniversary show this weekend, and indeed, his actual 31st anniversary today right now yo, what say we take a look back at a vintage episode? I always like doing these. (My wi-fi currently hates me and wants me dead, so if I blaze through this, particularly in the second-half, that’s why.)

31 years is unbelievable for any television personality, but especially so when it’s the endangered-species known as “horror host.” Ironically, 31 almost seems a little, I don’t know, anti-climatic, I guess, after the massive hype that surrounded his big 30th last year. I certainly covered it, and was even present when SOG was fittingly honored at Monsterfestmania.

I thought of a couple different topics to post in honor of his 31st continuous year on Northeast Ohio television. I could’ve covered the earliest episode I taped (The Vampire Bat, in 1997), or his 12th anniversary show, or even the episode featuring the first piece of mail I ever sent in to him. I even briefly considered an article detailing a lot of the SOG memorabilia I’ve amassed over the years. I decided against each one of those, however, for a variety of reasons: I’ll save my earliest taped episode for the 20th anniversary of the broadcast this fall, I didn’t feel like covering Frankenstein’s Daughter during his 12th anniversary, and I’m not ready to detail my cringe worthy (yet nostalgic) first letter to him. As for an article focused on SOG memorabilia, I just couldn’t muster up the moxy to drag all that stuff out for a picture-taking session.

Nope, I decided on our subject today for one very simple reason: I just plain like the movie, 1942’s Mr. Wise Guy. Heck, I just plain like the episode in general, and to me that speaks more about my Son of Ghoul fandom than any ‘special’ occurrence I could dig up. After all, this was how the show usually was (is) to me each weekend: A fun, kick-back-and-chill movie showcase.

So, join me now as I detail The Son of Ghoul Show, as aired on WAOH TV-29 in Akron and WAX TV-35 in Cleveland (“The Cat”) and taped by yours truly waaaay back on March 6, 1999…

(Also, I’ve been on a real kick for The Cat lately, even more so than usual. This comes from that late-90s sweet-spot of the channel, so I’m happy with the choice. And, if that kick keeps up, I may dig something else out from the station to cover. You keep pushing me and I just might, pal.)

I vividly recall this being a surprise episode. Y’see, SOG was on twice-a-week at that point: 8-10 PM, Fridays and Saturdays, same episode. This was handy, because you could sample on Friday, and tape-as-needed on Saturday. But, for whatever reason, he was only on Saturday that week, a fact he briefly mentions in his intro (above).

I think (think) he was preempted totally the night before due to some women’s college basketball tournament The Cat was broadcasting/simulcasting/whatevercasting. So because he was only on Saturday that week, I couldn’t risk missing a must-have episode, especially with no knowledge of what the movie would be. Because said basketball tournament was concluding that Saturday, there was no telling when SOG’s show would actually begin; I had to start the VCR recording waaaaay ahead of time, which was why I wound up with like an hour of that stupid basketball game on the tape before the episode started.

This obsessiveness proved fortuitous. That night, we were at my aunt’s house for some party I was quite probably miserable at, and I flipped to The Cat to see what episode I was capturing. When it finally started and Mr. Wise Guy was revealed, I was pleased as punch. SOG had ran this film, I don’t know, a year or so prior, and I had regretted not capturing it then. I actually liked the movie!

And I wasn’t the only one; SOG himself mentions that he likes it as well during his intro. How often did (does) that happen?!

The reason I initially liked this film so much largely had to do with what it represented: A trip back to a more innocent time in cinema. This is pure, early-1940s matinee entertainment. It’s an East Side Kids (you know, the Bowery Boys, except not) film, so there’s some light hooliganism about, but even with that, an escaped convict, a murder, a death-row sentence, and a real-life war going on, it’s all so light and breezy that it never seems too heavy. I’m hesitant to ascribe the term “innocence” to a film that contains all that, but like I said, this is matinee entertainment; it’s not exactly a weighty, socially-conscious drama.

The idea of an East Side Kids film showing up on a horror hosted program may seem odd, but as SOG states during his intro, Ghoulardi himself used to run these (and fittingly, on Saturdays!). If these were good enough for Ghoulardi, they should be good enough for any other host, too. And somehow, to me they seem to ‘fit’ just fine. Maybe that’s because I grew up with SOG showing them occasionally (still does, in fact), but looked at objectively, they still work. It’s not like a b-western, which unless it shared some horror influence or other odd quirk (Terror of Tiny Town, anyone?), just wouldn’t seem to fit. Look, I can’t really adequately explain why it works so well, it just does.

And, in a trend that continues to this day, SOG doesn’t tamper with these kinds of films; no drop-ins, no sound effects. Just the movie straight. Evidently he has some real appreciation for these flicks, and we’re all the better for it. Even when missing those elements so well-known to SOG fans, it flows perfectly.

The title of the film comes from a moniker given to (and approved by) Leo Gorcey’s character “Muggs” McGinnis (first name: Ethelbert), who is deemed so several times throughout the picture.

The simple synopsis of the plot: The East Side Kids are sent to reform school. There’s a bit more to it than that, though. Unjustly accused of stealing a truck (a truck that, unbeknownst to them, houses an escaped convict), they’re sent to a reformatory run by a kind warden, a cruel guard, and a couple of troublesome inmates that are secretly in cahoots with aforementioned cruel guard. Also on the docket: Bill Collins, older brother of cast member Bobby Jordan’s Danny Collins, is accused of murder and sentenced to death row. Eventually these plotlines unbelievably though perhaps predictably, collide. And since this is from 1942, it all ends on a relatively happy note. ‘Cept for the dude who died, anyway.

Needless to say, much of this is played for laughs. Even while incarcerated, Gorcey’s gang never seems too concerned with their situation. Even as Danny frets over his brother’s predicament back in the real world, the other guys just sort of blow it off – which admittedly does play out a little strange. I can’t imagine that being realistic even back in ’42.

Still, as a whole, the movie is entertaining. Indeed, I wasn’t sure if I’d still get a kick out of it when I sat down to convert my VHS to DVD for this review, but it greatly held my attention throughout. I was even genuinely amused by certain moments, which can’t always be said of semi-comedies of this vintage.

Look, the movie is in the public domain, so don’t just take my word for it; check it out for yourself. Since SOG didn’t add any sound effects, you’ll see it (almost) as it aired here!

(Fun Fact: Some years ago at a thrift store, I stumbled upon a 3-VHS boxset of East Side Kids films. Included were both of their Bela Lugosi collaborations, Spooks Run Wild and Ghosts on the Loose, as well as the title that really spurred the eventual purchase: Mr. Wise Guy. I never watched any of them, don’t think I even played any of the tapes, and subsequently the set became buried in my mound of crap videos. It should still be around here, somewhere, which is good, because unknown to me at the time was that the company who put it out, Passport Productions, was spawned from the ashes of Amvest Video, who we’ve seen here before. Cool winnins!)

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have much to do with plot, but rather stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. Ernest Morrison, often known as “Sunshine Sammy,” is the victim of some unfortunate racial jokes, as his character “Scruno” is the outlet for some now-wildly-inappropriate stereotyping. Look, I don’t claim to be a super-PC-advocate, but man, even I was uncomfortable with some of the gags at his expense.

That said, I am an advocate of not editing things of this nature to reflect current social attitudes. Yes, some of the jokes have aged terribly, but they reflect the time in which the film was made; you can’t rewrite history, only learn from it. And besides, the jokes are incredibly dated, but never really mean-spirited, if that counts for anything.

And with all that said, we now come to the rest of the show…

The first skit proper is actually an old bit from the WOAC TV-67 days, and I love it because it perfectly sums up SOG’s sense of humor, which very often syncs up with mine.

In a parody of the whole “carrying the Olympic torch” thing, here SOG dutifully marches with a plunger triumphantly raised, only to enter the studio bathroom and begin plunging! That’s all there is to it, and it’s great!

Truth be told, SOG doesn’t feature heavily heavily into this episode. I mean, he does, he shows up after each commercial-break, but it’s not new bit after new bit after new bit. His hosting duties, while prominent, maybe aren’t quite as prominent as they usually were, and I think that has much to do with this spot right here.

In a segment that takes up a healthy chunk of running time, SOG and guest Carl Thompson speak extensively on the Frightvision convention, coming later that month. Yes, Frightivision, the SOG-hosted horror convention; we’ve talked about it before! Here, SOG and Thompson thoroughly go over the list of guests and events coming to the show, and it goes on for around 8 minutes, which is pretty much a lifetime in horror-show-time.

That’s not a complaint on my part, though; I could not be happier this segment is present! I talked more extensively on the convention in the piece I just linked to (another SOG episode, Plan 9 From Outer Space, which aired later that same month), but Frightvision was a BIG deal. It was also my very first horror convention of any kind. Long story short: I positively loved it. I got to meet Ben “Gill Man” Chapman, Mark “Lost in Space Guy” Goddard, SOG’s own Fidge (who was great), saw Tom Savini (but didn’t meet him until the following year), and came home with some very cool loot (including a vintage SOG TV-67 promo card, which I still have to this day). All of the fanaticism that manifests itself in me for each and every Ghoulardifest began at the very first Frightvision, and for that I hold the fondest of memories.

So yes, seeing the segment that so aptly demonstrates the swirling hype surrounding Frightvision in the weeks leading up to it, that’s the sort of thing that can take me directly back in time. And movie aside, to me this is the defining moment of this particular episode.

An email segment. More (!) information on Frightvision is presented, and a spider glove that apparently belonged to Fidge is shown. Unless y’all want me to go email by email, there’s not much more I can say about it.

I would love to show the old school, wildly obsolete SOG email address, back when having an email address was still semi-innovative, but in the interest of avoiding confusion, I’ll refrain.

In the second mail segment, the reading of letters devolves into a long, drawn out explosion of fake fart noises, which has SOG and his crew dying with laughter. SOG: “Can you tell we’re so easily amused here?” Like the toilet torch earlier in the show, it’s a juvenile, and therefore riotous, moment. This is the stuff that helped cement my sense of humor, gang. You want someone to blame? Blame SOG.

Because my wi-fi is in a seemingly-perpetual state of precariousness, there were two other bits amidst all this insanity that I’m choosing to skip. One, a “Captain Kanga-Ghoul,” and the other, an on-location interview at a liquor store that happened to be one of Frightvision’s sponsors, were fun, sorta-filler bits, but frankly, I don’t have all that much to say about them. Also, I’d like to punch my wi-fi in the face.

Also, here is the point where I’d usually look at interesting (or so I think) commercials that aired during an original broadcast. I’m going to skip that feature this time around. Why? Because basically all of the ones I would have chosen were already covered in that previously-linked Plan 9 From Outer Space SOG episode recap. And the other, a goofy homegrown promo for a showing of Reefer Madness, was briefly looked at in the The Cat article I linked to way at the start of this post. I love it when I do my own work for me!

It all works out though, because I can end this article in accordance with the way this show itself ends: As the outro opens, SOG is seen jokingly patting his phony beard back into place, along with a “We’re not done yet!”

But, it’s what he says right after that that sums up not only the conclusion to this particular episode, but also the continuing 31 year odyssey his show has been on: “They say you’re not done till the show’s over! Or until you’re out of toilet paper; then you’re done!” I think I can speak on the behalf of SOG’s many fans when I say I hope SOG never runs out of toilet paper.

Boy, that sounded so much more philosophical in my head.

Happy 31st anniversary, Son of Ghoul!

(PS – I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to my legendary, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, trendsetting interview with the man himself!)

(PPS – They may not have been able to repeat this year, but man, I still love the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ll stick with you guys win or lose! Just thought I should mention that somewhere, since the loss is naturally still on the mind of so many Northeast Ohioans right now.)

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

Happy Halloween!

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

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

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

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

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

Behold!

*Cricket Chirps*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-1

GRAMPA!

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are undoubtedly cool, however…

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-3

Movie time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-5

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-6

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-7

One more thing about Night

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-13

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-15

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-9

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

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

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

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-16

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

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

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-17

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


Whew! Done!

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

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

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

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

Have a great Halloween everybody!