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VHS Review: THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980 MCA Videocassette Inc. ‘Two Part’ Version)

Hey, do you like The Blues Brothers? Sure you do! I mean, who doesn’t? Movie’s a legit classic, yo. I certainly love the film; a random weekend broadcast years and years ago introduced me proper to it, and I’ve been a fan ever since. To me, it’s the gold standard of SNL-based movies, and – unless you’re counting something like Ghostbusters which featured more than one SNL alumni but wasn’t based on an actual SNL skit – man, it’s not even close.

Which makes this random find from last week so mind blowing to yours truly. While looking over rows of used VHS at a thrift store, my eyes feel upon, say it with me, The Blues Brothers. Upon first glance it appeared to be just another relatively-early copy of the film; I may love the movie, but earlier pressings are practically a dime-a-dozen.

That is, until I noticed the copyright of 1980 at the top of the sleeve spine (reason enough alone to snap it up; earlier copies may be common, but not necessarily the earliest) and, perhaps more interestingly, the notation of “Part II.”

The historical aspects of this find were immediately evident: this was almost-certainly the very first home video issue of the film (it’s from 1980; it can’t go any earlier than that, cause that’s the same year the movie came out, man!), and as such, because it was a fairly lengthy film (2 hours 13 minutes), it had to be split over two VHS tapes.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must specify that I only have Part II here. I certainly looked at the thrift, but Part I was MIA. Either someone didn’t realize what was up and bought tape #1 before I got there, or (what seems more likely) Part I was loooong gone before Part II ever set foot in the store. Either way this was mildly irritating for yours truly, but I can’t complain too much; I had zero idea that The Blues Brothers was split over two tapes for its initial video release, or truthfully, that the movie even had a video release the same year it hit theaters.

It makes sense that they’d have to split the movie into two parts that early on though; that sort of thing was not uncommon in the early years of VHS for longer flicks such as this. The first video release of the 1976 King Kong remake went the same route, for example. Just a few years later, companies figured out how to get the entire film all in one package. Indeed, by 1983 The Blue Brothers was seemingly all on one tape, but apparently the technology wasn’t there yet in 1980.

From initial appearances, the front cover here doesn’t look too different from the common VHS releases of the films seen throughout the rest of the 1980s and probably into the 1990s. Visit that just-linked page and you’ll see that the 1983 edition looks pretty close front-cover-wise to this one – except that for this initial issue they colored Jake & Elwood’s sunglasses green. I don’t know why they colored the sunglasses green, but it seems to be unique to this first release.

Other than that though, the cover looks extremely similar to that 1983 edition, and barring just a few further changes, even the 1985 release looks pretty much the same. It’s all about those green glasses and, you know, two-part thing here. (Also, I just noticed John Candy didn’t get a credit at the very top; say what?!)

If you go back up and check out that link to the 1983 edition of this film, you’ll see that by and large it looks very, very similar as far as the back cover goes, too. In fact, except for that whole “Part II” notation here and the missing credits and “Dolby” info seen in ’83, it looks pretty identical. Even the synopsis is the same.

The summary on the back is fine, and it’s not like there’s room for a novel back there, but even so, some pertinent info was left out. Namely, that Jake & Elwood are in a race against time to raise some (honest) money in order to save their childhood orphanage. Remember, they’re “on a mission from God.”

To do this, they have to get their old band back together, do some playin’ and make some money fast – all while causing a lot of destruction and creating a buncha enemies.

It’s a very, very funny movie, endlessly quotable (“I hate Illinois nazis”) and featuring some terrific musical numbers. Despite being rated R (which, oddly enough, I don’t see mentioned anywhere on this release), it’s not a particularly objectionable movie. Some salty language and a few other things that warrant the rating, but the main plot is overwhelmingly positive in nature.

A weird aside: I always kinda get a kick out of the old school “MCA Videocassette Inc.” logo. It’s ‘early home video’ in the best way, and a sure sign of interest whenever I’m out spending more money than I should at thrift stores and the like.

(The back of the sleeve is much brighter than my picture here shows – I took the shot in a darker spot than I did the others in this post. Also, the ancient tape residue in evidence points to Part I originally being fixed to this here Part II – so where’d it go???)

The tape itself. Obviously it was a former rental, from some place called Video Ventures. I have no idea what paths this tape took to find itself in mah grubby mitts here in Northeast Ohio, but according to that sticker, it evidently spent some time in Bremerton, Washington!

I’m not sure how well my pic shows it, but the sad fact of the matter is this tape has gotten a little moldy in the nearly 40 years since release. I noticed this upon finding the thing, and generally such maladies are enough to make me avoid a buy, but in this case this tape was coming home with me regardless.

I know not who scratched out the running time and wrote “7 min” above it or why, I’m guessing the video store, but the actual running time is more like 28 minutes; seems like a pretty uneven split between two tapes to me. Maybe there’s more and the mold is just keeping the hardened tape from rewinding further – it’s tough to tell because that sticker is in the way, but removing it is not an option.

No, no in-movie screencaps to round out this review; I had to clean my VCR heads after running this one as it is. I doubt there’s anything here unique to this release in comparison to slightly later issues anyway. Except for, you know, that whole “split in two parts” thing.

I can find virtually no references to this particular VHS of The Blues Brothers out there in internet land, except for this Amazon page, in which a used copy (copies?) is presented sans sleeves. Like I said before, this was a release I was completely unaware of beforehand. Given the super early release date, I’m guessing it definitely falls on the rarer side of things.

For a Blues Brothers fan such as myself, it’s an incredibly cool discovery. I hold no illusions of stumbling upon Part I, though you never know. I imagine I’ll come across that 1983 edition at some point though, and that’d make for a nice consolation prize.

I still can’t figure out why they made their sunglasses green on the front cover of this one, though.

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Memorex Video Information System (1992)

When I woke up today, I had no idea what a Memorex Video Information System was or that such a device ever existed. Had you shown up at my house to inform me of such a product, I’d have reacted with utter confusion and then told you to get out of my messy abode. Seriously, what were you thinking?

But oh how quickly things can change! Just a few hours after waking up (I won’t tell you when I woke up, but it was probably unacceptably late), I found myself at Goodwill, as I so often do. I waltzed out with an old piece of local glassware (does anyone remember Walsh’s Saloon of Akron? I can find nothing on them online!) and a two-VHS Godzilla set I didn’t really need but actually kinda did.

Found during the same visit was what appeared to be an old CD player, shoved on their electronics shelf and with a big $4 price scrawled on it in annoyingly-thick grease marker. An introductory glance revealed that this was indeed a CD-based contraption, but something  called a “VIS.” Clearly a closer inspection and look-up on my phone was warranted and granted. Turns out this was something called the “Memorex Video Information System.”

It was neat, it was interesting, and yet, I didn’t buy it!

Nope, I actually checked out with my treasures and went home sans VIS. I only had a few bucks on me anyway. I’d gotten the VIS bug though, and as soon as I got home, I did a bit more research, realized I had passed on a pretty rare item, grabbed some more money, and made a really hasty retreat back to Goodwill. There the VIS still sat, seemingly untouched by anyone since I had been bothering it probably less than an hour before. And so, here we are.

It looks like a cross between a VCR and a garden-variety CD player of the period, dunnit?

The Memorex Video Information System was actually a Tandy/Radio Shack innovation, originally releasing in 1992 and operating in the same “interactive multimedia” wheelhouse as the CD-i but evidently flopping far worse than that thing ever did (which is really saying something). It probably wasn’t really a video game system – I’m not sure any legitimate video games were even made for this – but it did originally come with video game-like wireless controllers (I looked, and they were nowhere to be found; I imagine they were loooong gone before this showed up at Goodwill).

It seems that the majority of software releases focused more on “edutainment” titles (*shudder*), but still, I find the CD-i (and Commodore CDTV) comparisons intriguing. I collect obscure gaming and gaming-related things like this, and when it comes to the early-1990s, the VIS is an obscurity of the highest order. Like I said, I had no inkling of such a thing existing beforehand.

Wikipedia has an informative entry on it, and according to them it retailed for a whopping $699 (!!), sold only 11,000 units (!!!), and ran on a modified version of Windows 3.1. There were actual VIS discs created for this thing; I’m not sure if it will run any regular PC games of the era or not, but I’m guessing that it won’t.

Look, it’s basically a circa-1992 computer in a console-ish shell and with its own brand of discs to run, not unlike the original Xbox except nobody owned the VIS (relatively speaking, I mean).

As you can see above, the front of the unit is pretty minimalist; only power and disc drawer open/close buttons are immediately evident.

But look here: a little slidey panel on the bottom-right reveals a few more options. Here’s where the cartridge input is located, though to what extent software was found in cartridge form for the VIS, I cannot say. Also, microphone and headphone inputs and a volume control, because hey, it was 1992. The headphone jack and volume knob are self-explanatory, but I can’t fathom what a microphone would be needed for here. Did this thing do some kind of recording? Or did something on the VIS beat Hey You, Pikachu! to the punch by several years?

The only other aspect of the front that ‘does’ anything is, needless to say, the CD drawer. It, uh, opens and closes. Unlike my 9-year-old Blu-ray player, the drawer of the pushing-30-years-old Video Information System opens and closes pretty fast and smoothly. Hey, for 700 bucks, you’d sure hope some lastin’ quality would be built-in!

(I’m not sure how well my pictures show it, but this particular VIS unit was in exceptionally good shape. Of course I have no way of knowing how much use it did or didn’t get back in the day, but it appears to have been well-maintained.)

Since I have neither software nor controllers for the VIS, what I can and can’t do with it is pretty limited. (Go figure!) Still, being a CD-based electronic, there are ways of testing it beyond merely plugging it in and seeing if the power light comes on.

Well, that’s a good sign! At least I get a start-up screen upon pressing power! I wish I could insert a disc or cartridge, VIS. One made specifically for you, I mean.

Now, I’ve got a ton of old PC games in my collection, but only so many within the immediate vicinity. As such, the copy of Mad Dog McCree I picked up fairly recently and thus was still in said immediate vicinity became my test subject. I questioned whether the VIS would run it or not, though even if it did, I had no way of actually playing it.

It was a moot point however, since the game wouldn’t run. I guess I didn’t seriously expect it to, but there was a small hope nevertheless.

I could have called it quits right there and been satisfied; it’s not like I’d be throwing such a rare item out even if it was entirely nonfunctional anyway, but the fact that it powered up and gave me a starting screen was enough for me to label this find a full-fledged cool winnin.

Still, I wouldn’t be an efficient time waster if I didn’t research just a bit further, so like I did with the Kodak Photo CD thing I babbled about a million years ago, I grabbed an audio CD I had lying about and loaded it up.

Not only did I get a specific “CD player” screen, but the VIS automatically started the disc playing! Obviously I had no way of skipping tracks or pausing or what have you, but for the brief time I had music going, it sounded really nice, and without any skipping/distorting. Pretty cool for something some 27-years-old! That’s not to say the entire disc would have played flawlessly; who knows how the VIS would have operated once really heating up or something, but in this day and age, is it even important? Maybe if I could play games (“games”) it would be, but as it stands, I’m labeling this all “good enough.”

So in summation, a trip (well, two trips) to Goodwill netted me a pretty cool piece of early-90s tech. The Memorex Video Information System was quite a failure for Radio Shack, though in just the brief time I’ve had it, I’ve read several different viewpoints on just how long it was on shelves. I suppose it doesn’t really matter; if the 11,000 units figure is correct, man, that’s like nothin’. (For the record: there’s no actual date on mine, so I’m going with a generic “1992” notation here, as seen in the title of this post.)

I wish I could give a better demonstration of VIS’ abilities. I can’t, but luckily, Gamester81 has an excellent video review of it that gives you a far better idea of how this thing operated.

I have no illusions of ever coming across controllers and/or software for the VIS, but hey, you never know what you’ll come across later in the day when you first wake up!

Still, for now I’ve got the system, and that’s enough. It kinda has to be, you know?

(And before anyone asks, no this is not for sale!)

WVIZ TV-25 Auction Mug Round-Up (1983-1990)

It’s doubtful that any of my four faithful (?) readers remember the update, but this past August I shared the cool vintage Cleveland WVIZ TV-25 drinkin’ mug my friend Jesse picked up for me. It was neato, I was happy, I got a post out of it, and life went on.

But little did I realize at the time that my journey with local-PBS-affiliate-emblazoned beverage containers wasn’t over; oh no, it was just beginning. In recent weeks, that same friend has stumbled across a veritable cornucopia of WVIZ mugs, hailing from their annual fundraising auctions. All but one of them were found at the exact same time; I’ll be presenting six of them in this update, which means that it’s safe to say five probably came from the same person originally. That, or it was the most incredible coincidence ever.

(And funny enough, sometime in the middle of that first mug find and all of these, he found me another one of those mugs that I wrote about initially; go figure! Thanks for all these man!)

I’m guessing these were gifts for pledging a donation to WVIZ during that fundraising time? Or an added bonus if you won an auction? Perhaps even swag given out to people manning the phones? Specifics, anyone?

Anyway, come one, come all, come and enjoy my puke-green carpet and mug pictures this close to being inadequate!

1983

This earliest mug sets the template for the design used for the next few years. That’s not to say this was the first to use the same general look, but it’s the earliest that I currently have.

As you can see, it was for WVIZ’s May 7-15, 1983 8-day auction. The pertinent info is on one side, and the other side, obviously, features what I assume was their mascot of the era, a zebra. (Get it? It’s a WVIZebra!). Since the tagline is “THE GREATEST SHOW ON AIR,” the zebra is always airborne in some fashion; this template is used for not only this mug (duh!), but for all the mugs up through 1986; might’ve been around even longer, I dunno.

Anyway, here our zebra mascot is flying in a small airplane, because, uh, air. Of all the mugs in this ‘series’ this might be my favorite, simply because it’s the only one to present the 25 logo in some way. Look close; it’s stamped on the tail of the plane! (That is the tail, right? Look, it’s on the back of the craft, okay?)

1984

Here’s the 1984 edition. As you can see, it’s overall pretty similar-looking, and honestly would be easy for the untrained eye to overlook as a mere duplicate. But it’s not.

Held in May once again, 1984’s auction was also held over 8 days, but this time from the 5th to the 13th. On the other side, with the same slogan, our zebra friend evidently no longer needs an aircraft; he’s sprouted wings with which to soar through the clouds!

Look close, because this was something I totally missed until grabbing pics to put this article together: the zebra’s stripes spell out WVIZ! Nice touch!

1985

Evidently the auction was always held over 8 days in May, because for 1985 it ran from May 4th through the 12th. This brings up a question: does WVIZ (or any PBS affiliate) even still do auctions? Obviously they still run pledge drives where you can get tote bags or what have you, but I personally don’t recall the auctions. Obviously they existed at one point, and it’s not like I would have been paying attention to that sort of thing by the time I was old enough to watch PBS (Sesame Street and such was more my speed at the time), but still, yeah, I don’t remember these exact events. Maybe they still do ’em, I don’t know. Nevertheless, the only thing coming to mind here is that one episode of Cheers where no one wants Sam Malone’s jersey.

Uh oh, our zebra pal is still airborne in this one, but not necessarily in a good way! Dig it: he no longer has a plane, nor does he feature wings. Rather, he’s floating down to earth via parachute! Was there an equipment malfunction somewhere?!

You can just barely make out the W and the Z on his body, the rest being covered by the parachute’s harness; again, nice touch!

1986

Last of the “zebra mugs,” or at least my “zebra mugs.” You know, was the zebra their ongoing mascot in general during this era, or was he just something devised for the auction promotions? I certainly don’t remember him, but again, by the time I was old enough to pay any sort of attention to PBS, he may very well (and appears to have been) long gone.

1986 had the auction running May 3-11, and except for the differing date, yeah, there’s only so much I can think to say about it, except this was the first auction I was technically alive for. Not cognizant of, but alive for.

I might have to rectify that “favorite” statement I bandied about with the 1983 entry, because besides me officially being around for (well, during) the event, this variation features – in my opinion – the coolest “zebra action sequence” of them all: he’s flying! As in, like Superman! Dude’s even got a cape! As a lifelong Supes fan, that’s awesome, even if the relation is only of the most minimal variety. Man, you don’t even need the 25 logo stamped somewhere when you’ve got your mascot doing things like that!

Also: evidently those “WVIZ stripes” don’t extend to the opposite side of the zebra’s torso.

1987 & 1988

Sorry gang, I don’t have mugs for the 1987 and 1988 auctions, if there even were mugs for the 1987 and 1988 auctions. Maybe the original owner didn’t participate those years, or maybe someone inexplicably purchased those two but none of the others, or maybe they don’t even exist. At any rate, I don’t have ’em.

1989

’87 and ’88 may be missing from my collection (for now?), and the zebra apparently went MIA somewhere in the interim, but man, the 1989 edition was a home run, too! The one side merely states “WVIZ Auction ’89,” as you can plainly see here (no mention of the exact dates, but I’ll go out on a limb and say it was probably held in May again).

The other side though, hoo boy does it feature a cool gimmick! BP was apparently a sponsor of some sort, and that plays into the new (?) slogan: “Public Television – A Natural Resource.” Just like gas! Or something along those lines.

To go along with this, the illustration of a TV is used, with the BP logo ‘playing’ on its screen. What’s with the somewhat ‘muted’ coloring of the screen, you ask? That part of the mug is covered with some sort of material that changes colors when a hot beverage is housed within! That’s cool! This site has a page for this mug, and which showcases the hip color-changin’ abilities it holds.

I’m not sure if I like this one more than the 1983 or 1986 editions, but I still really, really like it, and it’s easily the most “technically advanced” mug in the line. Or at least in my WVIZ mug collection as it currently stands, anyway.

(For the record, this was the one mug that was found independently, weeks after the others. Maybe it originally hailed from the same person and just didn’t get put out with the rest at the same time, or maybe it originally came from another auction participant; gotta figure there were more than a few, you know?)

1990

Last one, found at the same time as all the zebra mugs. The image is the same on both sides, and hence, only one picture is needed. (Right?) Unlike the other ones seen in this article, which are all of the ceramic-variety, this one is plastic.

No real slogan, but this one does play up the fact the station was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Since WVIZ went on the air in 1965, that naturally points to this being from, uh, 1990.

Though you know, without the information stamped all over it, I really have no idea if this is technically an auction mug or something merely created to commemorate the event in general. I mean, considering the others it was found with, it’s a safe guess, and that’s the scenario I’m sticking with, but it has to be pointed out that the mug doesn’t actually state such facts. I dig the red color-scheme, which stands in stark contrast to every other example seen in this update.

***

So there you have it, six different auction mugs from Cleveland’s PBS destination, WVIZ TV-25. Given the “public participation” aspect of the channel, it stands to reason that memorabilia from it is a bit more plentiful than from a network (or even independent) station, but nevertheless, TV-related things like this don’t show up every day, so I couldn’t be happier to have them in my ever-growing mass of stuff (i.e., collection).

DVD Review – RING OF FIRE III: LION STRIKE (1995)

While in recent times the habit has reached a level that would (should) probably be cause for concern, back in the early-2000s my tendency to be a night owl was a bit more manageable, less regulated by what was on the DVR (since DVRs barely existed at the time and we didn’t have one yet besides) and driven more by what local channels burnt off in the wee hours. Don’t get me wrong, I was staying up late no matter what (particularly during the summer months), but if a new-to-me movie was running somewhere, it could very well determine whether I went to bed late or I went to bed uber-late.

Today, with a seemingly-endless stream of infomercials and/or cookie-cutter sitcom repeats, local stations seem a lot more homogenized, much more “by the numbers” to me (though the rise of the digital subchannels has been a figurative lifesaver and major contributor to my current state of night owlery). Granted, this was an issue even back in the early-2000s, but around here, even at that late date channels could still occasionally display a bout of quirkiness – something that seems utterly inconceivable nowadays. I remember WEWS channel 5 running old black & white flicks, East Side Kids and obscure 1950s dramas and stuff like that late late at night around that time on weekends (I’m pretty sure), and trust me, for a ‘big’ channel that was pretty outside the status quo at the time.

Leo Gorcey was all well and good, but you know what I really wound up enjoying during those late night sojourns? Action flicks. Some of them were ‘big’ action flicks (Big Chuck & Lil’ John ran First Blood once!), while others were more second-tier fare (Big Chuck & Lil’ John ran Iron Eagle II once!), but it didn’t really matter how ‘esteemed’ a movie technically was; I found myself becoming hooked on the genre, and watching each film for its own merits. The thrill of ‘discovering’ a new-to-me action film was enough in and of itself. The fact I was up late, all alone and watching in the dark only added to the, I guess, immersive thrill of it all. Or something like that.

Channel 5 (I think it was) would occasionally run some of the relatively-obscure stuff from the 1990s; that’s how I discovered the Brian Bosworth epic One Man’s Justice, which I loved (MC Hammer was in it, too). But, at the time, the place to go for low budget, oftentimes direct-to-video fare was WBNX TV-55. These kinds of movies, along with syndicated shows such as Viper and The Lost World, were easily found on the station for years. And, as I explained back in August, when they moved horror host The Ghoul to Sunday nights/Monday mornings and largely altered the movies featured, he became a repository for just such action movies. (And unlike many of the films foisted upon him in that era, the action flicks actually did work on the program – provided The Ghoul was allowed plenty of host segments to litter the commercial breaks, anyway.)

It was all but impossible to stay up and watch The Ghoul during the school year, those Sunday night/Monday morning shows were on a week night after all, but things obviously opened up during the summer months, and in mid-August 2001, it was his show that introduced me to our subject today: 1995’s Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s action opus Ring Of Fire III: Lion Strike. The movie stuck with me (it probably held a lower rank in my eyes than One Man’s Justice did at the time, though that has since flipped considerably), and thanks to the magic of this newfangled digital video technology (that’s DVD to you), it’s available for all to enjoy!

Here’s the DVD itself. Well, the cover, anyway. The disc doesn’t present much in the way of extra features; no bonus kickboxing tips by Wilson, no commentaries, no trailers, no wacky behind-the-scenes bloopers. Nope, all you get is the movie – full screen and in revolutionary stereo – and scene selection. You want more than that? Well ain’t you highfalutin! I really like that tagline, at any rate.

As you may surmise through the power of deductive reasonin’, Ring of Fire III is the third in a series of movies. I have not seen the first two entries. Madacy released these films individually and together as a box set, but they’re all seemingly long out of print. Indeed, the first two films seem to have gotten less distribution over the years than the third entry has overall; even on eBay, old VHS copies of one and two are somewhat scarce whilst the third is readily found. Indeed, as of this writing III is the only one still easily available on DVD, courtesy of Echo Bridge Entertainment and their 2005 release, and it’s that very release we’re looking at today, right now as we speak.

If you ignore that whole third designation in the title, it works just fine as a standalone feature. I’ve only read synopsis’ of the first two movies, but I didn’t need to do even that; Ring of Fire III gets by on its own. (Actually, while I’m going by what I’ve grown up knowing it as, never mind what’s on the DVD cover, the actual on-screen title for this particular release is simply Lion Strike, which only helps matters honestly). It’s not high art, nor was it intended to be, but as a low budget action thriller – hailing from the mid-1990s direct-to-video era no less – it’s a lot of fun.

World kickboxing maestro Don “The Dragon” Wilson plays Dr. Johnny Wu, an everlastingly kind, gentle physician. In addition to that, he also has a  young son (played by Wilson’s actual son Jonathan), who is motherless; Wu is a widower, his wife having been killed by a drunk driver prior to the start of our film today. (She evidently figured into the first two films, which, as previously stated, I ain’t even seen.)

Our hero, early in the film, in mid-lightnin’ quick kick!

Oh, and Wu also happens to be a first-class kickboxer, because Don “The Dragon” Wilson. This is demonstrated aptly by, apropos of nothing, an opening sequence featuring the attempted escape of a mafia figure from the hospital in which Wu works. Wu of course puts the hurt on all perpetrators involved all by himself. This open has nothing to do with the rest of the film, except to let you, the viewer at home, know that Wu can deliver a serious beat down. This is further demonstrated by him later pummeling an entire group of uppity bikers single handed, including one who suddenly bursts through the hospital doors and down the hallway riding his motorcycle, which again, doesn’t have much to do with the story proper other than let us know Wu is a force to be reckoned with when pushed.

Look, was the big boulder that chased Indiana Jones ever referenced again after the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark? No? So why can’t you afford Don “The Dragon” Wilson the same consideration you give Harrison Ford? (Unless that big boulder was referenced again; I haven’t seen Raiders in full in a long, long time. Just go with me here, okay?)

Because constant pummelin’ has to wear on even the most hardy of heroes, Wu is offered the use of a cabin in the mountains by one of his colleagues, which he accepts. Spend some quality time with his son, catch some fish, not have to beat the daylights out of people, it seems like a well-earned vacation for Johnny Wu.

Except things don’t go as planned. We wouldn’t have much of a movie if they did! Through a series of circumstances, Wu finds himself smack dab in the middle of a nefarious plot: organized crime has gone global, with figures of an international variety (including famous character actor Robert Costanzo’s villain at the head of it all) conspiring together to sell nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union to the highest bidder. Plans detailing this dastardly scheme are housed on a floppy disk, which is fortuitously stolen from the bad guys by other, otherwise-unrelated bad guys – much to the chagrin of the original bad guys. Through a plot point worthy of The Brady Bunch, it eventually finds itself in the hands of Wu, which of course only further draws ire of the global mafia. Ah, the days when the fate of the world could hinge on a 3.5 floppy!

Eventually Wu finds himself and his son chased by legions of baddies, but he’s not alone; park ranger Kelly (Bobbie Phillips) is along for the ride. And guess what? She’s no slouch with the punchin’ and kickin’ and shootin’ either! (Wu joins her in beating the stuffing out of an entire group of poachers early in their acquaintance, and naturally the germ of a romance is planted, too.)

As I said before, Ring of Fire III isn’t high art, but again, it wasn’t intended to be. It apparently went straight-to-video back in 1995, and the easy-to-follow plot, relatively low budget, and mounds and mounds of fisticuffs totally point to this being a weekend renter back in the days of the video store. And given that criteria, it’s perfect. No joke, Ring of Fire III is a lot of fun!

Of course, it’s not a perfect movie. Some of the dialog is eye-glazing (You’ll hear the question “Where’s the disk?!” asked approximately 900,000 times over the course of the film), and there are a few moments that don’t quite make sense (when Wu and Kelly fight the poachers, a cowboy rides up and watches them intently, and it keeps cutting between the fight and the cowboy as if he was of some importance to the situation, but when it’s all over, he simply rides off and is never seen again. Say what?)

Furthermore, the acting is…well, it is what it is, okay? WIlson wasn’t hired to win awards in that area, (when he’s caught kissing Kelly by his son, he makes a face better suited to dodging a thrown pie, and later when it appears the baddies have killed said son, his reaction comes off somewhat less aggrieved than you might expect), but he projects a boyish, almost innocent charm…which is pretty funny considering the amount of pain he’s capable of doling out.

Which leads me to this: there’s no moral ambiguity in Ring of Fire III; the good guys are good, and the bad guys are really bad. There are no torn feelings on the part of the viewer; there are no antiheroes. Wu and Kelly are so utterly nice, and the bad guys so utterly ruthless, that you can’t help but root for the forces of good.

Despite the presence of a little kid, the overarching “good always triumphs over evil” theme, and some violent bad guys who are also presented in a loud, stereotypical, scenery-chewing manner that often comes off pretty funny (I assume intentionally), Ring of Fire III ain’t exactly for the children. As you may expect, it’s pretty violent, with lots and lots of punching, kicking, and shooting. The bad guys aren’t adverse to killing innocent people to get what they want (except when sparing them advances the plot, of course).

And there’s lotsa ‘splosions too. Helicopters blowing up, cabins blowing up, cars blowing up, cars flying through the air and then blowing up. Ring of Fire III may not tax your mental capabilities with complex character studies, but it’s certainly never boring!

Funny enough, compared to the action movies of today, or even just prime time television, it’s actually a somewhat tame movie. There’s a little bit of gore but it’s not particularly graphic in that regard. There’s no sex, no nudity, and except for some unsavory language, I really don’t think anything was edited at all when I first caught this on The Ghoul so many years ago. Indeed, bleep the salty talk and this could easily run on prime time network TV today. (Hey NBC, how about bringing back the movie of the week…with Ring of Fire III as the inaugural revival feature? Please?)

In the end, this is a pretty meat-and-potatoes action flick. The plot is simple, the kickboxing is plentiful, you know who to root for, you know who to root against, and it’s often even a little funny. They really don’t make ’em like this anymore, but then, I’m not sure they were still making ’em like this even when I first saw it in 2001. It’s a real artifact of not only the mid-1990s video store era but also a (seemingly) bygone era in late night television broadcasting, when stuff like this could actually show up on the schedule; hard to imagine nowadays. And yet, even though it’s a throwback, it’s one that still holds up – maybe I’m just easily pleased, but no joke, I’m continuously entertained by this one. It’s a breezy 90 minutes, it won’t tax the synapses, and it features Don “The Dragon” Wilson as a kickboxing physician. Sounds like a fun night at the movies to me!

(And yes, I totally stayed up late just last night and watched this; just felt right that way. )

EPISODE REVIEW: The Ghoul’s airing of 1935’s SCROOGE (December 17, 1999)

I have no idea what’s happening the rest of the month, so consider this your de facto Christmas and New Year post.  I suppose I could wait till Monday and post this on the 19th anniversary of the original air date, but I’m, uh, not.

But hey, if I’m gonna jump the gun, what a way to do it!

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t do another “Ghoul post” so soon after the last one, even if the last one was in actuality back in August. Not that I couldn’t babble about Ghoul Power every single day if I wanted to; it’s just that I worry about over-saturating all four of my regular readers or something like that.

At any rate, in the months since that August update, some sad and shocking news dropped: Ron “The Ghoul” Sweed suffered a massive heart attack. I don’t know all of the details, other than it happened and that triple-bypass surgery was needed. As far as I know, and hope, he’s had the surgery and is recovering now. Scary, scary stuff; I sincerely pray he makes it through with flying colors and comes out stronger than ever.

Well before that news (and also well before that August post), and certainly continuing afterwards, I had made a habit of revisiting a lot of the old Ghoul shows I recorded off WBNX TV-55 in the late-1990s and early-2000s. For the most part they don’t feel that old to me, and yet it’s been so long since I had watched some of them (or in some cases, taped but never watched at all), that they’ve essentially become ‘new’ to me all over again. I have greatly enjoyed having a regular (sometimes every single night) dose of Ghoul Power!

So, to talk about a horror host in December, it may seem a little strange, until you realize (or at least read the title of this update) that every Christmas season, The Ghoul went all-out in celebration, and he perhaps never went more all-out than he did in December of 1999, when the entire month was dedicated to Christmas-appropriate films. Not only was it intensely festive, but The Ghoul was probably at his peak in both material and visibility on the station.

Over the course of the month, not one but two films that would become personal Christmastime favorites of mine were presented: 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (for me it has become a tradition to watch this movie at some point in December each year), and our subject today, 1935’s Scrooge, which also happens to be my go-to film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Ghoul tackled it on December 17, 1999, one whole week before Christmas Eve! The anticipation was running high, and Santa Ghoul was running rampant!

The episode opens with a really cool intro: old footage of “Santa Ghoul” from the WKBF TV-61 days (i.e., the 1970s) being pulled by a reindeer, and then transitioning to the modern day Santa Ghoul on his set, before transitioning back to the old footage to close the intro out. Neato!

During the ‘current’ portion of his intro, The Ghoul promises not just a movie, but all kinds of “eclectic Christmas vignettes,” and boy, he wasn’t lying! During the Friday 11:30 PM era of his WBNX run, man, there would be a ton material packed into any given show, and this installment was no exception. Some vintage bits, some trips around Cleveland (including visits to the WOIO and WNCX studios), some ice skating, all in addition to his on-set antics and a genuinely good Christmas movie! When it comes to local holiday celebrations, this was a terrific, jam packed example – and there was still a week to go before his actual Christmas special!

Before we get to all of The Ghoul stuff though, let’s look at Scrooge. Look, I wanted to do some kind of tribute to The Ghoul before the year was out, but I also really, really wanted to talk about this movie. I love this movie; not that I’m terribly familiar with the others, but it’s still my favorite film version of A Christmas Carol. Some of that’s nostalgia; for years, WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35 (“The CAT”) annually ran a commercial-free presentation of it each Christmas Eve (I talked about it before, though don’t bother visiting that link; the article is old and terrible). But even beyond the fond memories, I just think it’s a genuinely good film.

Released in 1935, this is not only one of the more underrated adaptations of the story, it’s also one of the more obscure. Both the 1938 and 1951 versions tend to eclipse it, though I admittedly have no real experience with those (they may very well be, and apparently are, better movies).

Still, when you’ve got the foundation of stellar source material, it’s probably all relative (to a point, anyway). The classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, miserly and anti-Christmas-lovin’, getting a verbal beat-down by the tortured spirit of former business partner Jacob Marley and then put in check by ghosts of Christmas past, present and future in order to make him not only get Christmas but get Christmas all year long, hey, it’s legendary stuff. No joke, calling it “legendary” actually seems to downplay the whole thing; A Christmas Carol has become one of the most recognizable, enduring ‘extras’ associated with Christmas.

(In other words, do I really need to explain any more of the plot? Doesn’t everyone know it by now? I’m pretty sure there are kids that are born automatically knowing this story.)

Great source material or not, I’d imagine any filmed version of A Christmas Carol ultimately hinges on the guy in the lead role, and let me tell you, Sir Seymour Hicks makes for an excellent Scrooge. From the onset, he’s not just cranky; he’s downright unpleasant. You’re not supposed to initially like Scrooge of course, and Hick’s rendition is so filled with vitriol, so angry at anything approaching cheer, that you really don’t.

Of course, that just makes his eventual redemption all the more joyful, and Hicks is terrific in demonstrating the transition. He really comes off as a changed man! And his looks of sadness at what he has and is missing out on, as well as his fear at what will be, are all nicely portrayed as well.

1935’s Scrooge also has something going for it that I find continuously appealing: a feeling of authenticity. Sure, the movie is old (duh!), black and white (duh duh!) and a little creaky (duh duh duh!). But it somehow feels like Britain in 1843, as if it was really filmed back then. Sure, there’s probably some time period inconsistencies, but for your average fella such as myself, the vibes are overwhelmingly old fashioned, I guess you could say. It feels like you’re there during an old timey English Christmas, or at least it feels that way to me.

The movie also does a good job of presenting the deeper aspects of Christmas, as you’d expect. Sure there’s the parties and merriment and so on, but ultimately it’s about a generosity and happiness of spirit, with obviously the birth of Christ at the center of it all, even if only by implication. (I should mention now I haven’t actually read the original book, unless you count the mega-abridged and rewritten edition I read when I was in like 3rd grade – which I don’t.)

In its original British incarnation, Scrooge was 70+ minutes long, but for the U.S. it was edited down to around an hour, and it’s those truncated prints that made the rounds on American television and home video for decades. (And the fact that it’s apparently public domain in the U.S. only exacerbated matters.) Obviously it was a common hour-long version that The Ghoul was running, but unlike a good many flicks featured on the show, it wasn’t chopped to ribbons. The only bit I really noticed missing was the “Lord mayor of London celebration” scene, but its exclusion didn’t hurt the plot any. Indeed, by and large, the ‘meat’ of the story is here and is completely coherent.

And of course, since this was The Ghoul after all, there was a bevy of sound effects, music and what have you dropped into the film, including the humorous “fact bubbles” that were a staple of the show at the time, as you can see here to your right.

So, when you’ve got a movie that’s not only fitting for the season but also actually good and whose plot you can easily follow, hey, that’s always something that can get you in the holiday mood. But of course, being only an hour long originally, even after commercials were taken into consideration, there was plenty of time for wacky Ghoul material, and that’s just what viewers got that night of December 17, 1999…

(Indeed, there was so much material, I’m only going to focus on a few of the personal highlights here.)

The Ghoul liked to take little digs at Big Chuck & Lil’ John, albeit digs that were always good-natured in spirit. Given the shared Northeast Ohio-history between the two shows, never mind that both aired at the same time on Friday nights back then, it was only natural. Here, because it was in the thick of the Christmas season, The Ghoul wanted to wish good will to men, all men, even Chuck & John…which was demonstrated by him holding up a Big (wood) Chuck and a Lil’ John (toilet)! This was followed by a “call” to Chuck in which The Ghoul had to remind him not only who he was (“Not Ghoulardi; The Ghoul!”), but also who Lil’ John was!

Immediately following that little bit was footage of The Ghoul, in full Santa regalia, and Froggy visiting the offices of WOIO/WUAB, traipsing around the lobby, talking to some of the staff, and culminating in The Ghoul pulling his beard and mustache off and putting them on a hanging portrait of Denise Dufala, and then making a hasty exit!

Dufala was another local personality that The Ghoul had a good-natured “feud” going with at the time, and the shot of her picture with the beard and mustache on it was repeated for the longest time afterwards, with the declaration that she was a “bad mamma jamma” later grafted on.

Ahh, a blow up! What would The Ghoul Show be without a little juvenile destruction? It was a tradition going all the way back to the Ghoulardi days of the 1960s, and a show never quite felt complete without one ‘splosion to set the mood.

This time around, it was a model car that got the explosive nod, and it did indeed blow up real nice! Quick, silly, simple, and a lot of fun.

You know, it’s amazing how big of a destructive influence The Ghoul had on both me and my brother. We never really had legit fireworks in which to destroy things, but fire, smashing, what have you, that sort of stuff was within our reach. In fact, I have two related stories that can be directly attributed to the influence of The Ghoul…

1) Once, at a computer swap meet-type convention (of all places), my brother bought a box of already-assembled model cars from a guy. They weren’t particularly old, nor were they particularly intricate pieces (snap-on plastic, maybe some glue, decal stickers), but the dude had obviously spent some time putting them together. You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Over time, all of those cars met destructive ends, mostly by crushing/smashing, I’d imagine. I almost feel bad about it now, because I can just imagine the guy feeling like he was passing these cars, cars he spent time with and enjoyed assembling, on to someone who would (supposedly) appreciate them, and that was the end they met instead. Actually, it’s kinda (darkly?) funny when you think about it.

2) At one point, again in lieu of fireworks, I combined by Ghoul-fueled destructive tendencies with my love of Japanese giant monster movies and created a game imaginatively titled “Gamera.” “Gamera” took place in our backyard, in the circular dirt “arena” in which our old pool once stood, and involved a thick plastic sea turtle I got at SeaWorld or some place being tied to a rope and swung around in the air before attempting to slam it down upon G.I. Joe figures that weren’t deemed important enough to keep. (Since I collect that early-1980s to mid-1990s G.I. Joe line nowadays, this decision was eventually revealed to be a mistake.)

Obviously it wasn’t a very precise game, so a (relatively rare) direct hit was certainly cause for celebration. Since the toy turtle wasn’t exactly indestructible, his limbs began to wear down and break off from the abuse after awhile, plus I got a nasty blister on the inside of my thumb from the constant swinging of the rope. (Those Joes were pretty durable and put up a good fight, too!)

Look, my brother and I were young enough to be amused by things like this, and it was pretty much all thanks to The Ghoul. Anyway…

A short, funny bit in which The Ghoul greets carolers at (ostensibly) his front door, only to then be regaled with loud, out-of-tune, and mismatched Christmas carols. Eventually, he just goes back inside, only to have the carolers continue singing (and even peeking in his windows)!

I recognize some of the Ghoul crew as the carolers; I’m guessing the rest were family members? Oh to be one of those lucky few in a Ghoul skit!

In addition to the opening WKBF material, there was another nice holiday-themed surprise from the past presented on the show, this one from his WCLQ TV-61 run in the 1980s. Here, The Ghoul narrates some of the annual traditions that take place during the Christmas season, including an unlucky-in-love couple but mostly focusing on a big giant brawl (“What Christmas is complete without the traditional holiday fistucuffs?”), which The Ghoul passes through without trying to stop. (This piece appeared to be part of a larger bit that was truncated somewhat for this particular broadcast.)

Now this is really cool: during one host segment, The Ghoul holds up a shirt for the then-new Ghoulardi’s Bar & Grille, a local establishment named (obviously) after the Cleveland horror host who set all this in motion so many years prior. The Ghoul promises to visit there sometime in the “very near future.

That would turn out to be true, as there were multiple instances of footage from Ghoul appearances there run in the following years. And why not? The two were a natural fit!

I never had the chance to visit Ghoulardi’s, and the place has evidently since closed, so that’s something I’m just going to have to live with. (Also, with all of the old local restaurant glassware and such that I come across during my travels, I have yet to stumble upon some Ghoulardi’s memorabilia in-person, and that’s something else I’m just going to have to live with, apparently.)

Ah, my buddy, Jungle Bob! Yep, JB was a regular guest on The Ghoul Show at the time, for awhile there having a weekly segment.

This time around, he had some parrots with him, including “Booger,” the green one from the Amazon, and “Orion,” the African grey parrot. Both were only a few years old at the time, which means it’s a safe guess that they’re still alive. (Parrots, as JB points out in the segment, are pretty long-lived creatures!)

That’s the recently-retired (*sniff*) Mr. Classic of WNCX holding “Orion.” At the time, The Ghoul would join him during his weekly Saturday night request show on the station.

As I said earlier, there was a lot packed into this show, and more than what I’ve described happened during it. Other shenanigans included some ice skating, visits around Cleveland, chats with citizens, and even an interview with Michael Stanley during a trip to the WNCX studios. And through it all, The Ghoul was in his Santa suit, keeping things in the Christmas spirit.

But, I’m going to close out this article with the image above: Santa Ghoul, hopping out on his bouncy ball as the show drew to a close, Ghoul Power just about done for the night. It was one week till Christmas Eve, or, if y’all wanna get technical, a week till Christmas proper, since it was well after midnight by that point.

(A funny email moment before The Ghoul exited: someone wrote in asking if he was interested in getting some audio copies of his late-1970s WXON TV-20 shows from Detroit. The Ghoul declined, because as he himself bluntly put it, those shows “sucked.“)

So, like The Ghoul, I’m gonna hop on out of here (figuratively), because that just about wraps up the big Christmas update; a more fitting post I could not think of. A terrific Christmas movie, a generous helping of Christmas cheer throughout the skits and host segments, and what I hope is a fitting tribute to Ron “The Ghoul” Sweed as he faces his health crisis. My prayers, thoughts and best wishes are with him, and I’m sure it’s the same for countless other 10 Star Generals in the Ghoul Power Army.

I truly hope you all have a blessed Christmas and a happy, safe new year. Ignore the constant drive for more and more gifts and instead remember the true meaning of the holiday, what it’s all about and what’s really important. That is my hope for you all.

Happy Halloween! (Also: Ghoulardifest 2018)

Well, what I wanted to do for this update was review 1940’s The Ape. You know, the Monogram poverty row opus that somehow starred Boris Karloff and subsequently became undeniably, indisputably public domain.

That’s what I intended to do, but apparently no one will let me. Y’see, I didn’t want to review just any copy of The Ape – I wanted to spotlight an old VHS copy because I’m insanely arbitrary. I had my heart set on the old Kartes Film Classics release; I’ve been looking to cover something by them for awhile now, and that would have taken care of two things at once.

Well, it never showed up for sale anywhere (one copy I thought might be it and ordered from a 3rd party on Amazon was later cancelled because it was “out of stock”), nor did any other standalone copies turn up, any of which I would have happily settled for. Compared to The Corpse Vanishes, releases of which you, yes YOU, practically trip over whilst walking down the street, stupid dumb The Ape was essentially nonexistent on videotape when I most needed it to, uh, not be nonexistant. Evidently the world has conspired against me in an effort to cause severe irritation.

(And to top it all off, a Kartes release of John Wayne favorite Blue Steel I ordered on eBay for cheap buck bills and intended to cover next month was also later cancelled, because it was “damaged or out of stock.” What, is there a sign on my back?)

Anyway, not wanting to mess with a newer DVD release, though I could have, I wound up with two options where VHS was concerned: buy a still-sealed two-pack VHS put out by Madacy back in the 1990s that paired The Ape with Doomed to Die, or crack open my still-minty-sealed fresh Grampa Presents copy (purchased for cheap well before, near as I can ascertain, I inadvertently caused prices of titles in the series to rise to ridiculous amounts through my writing, research and sharing of information on them). The Madacy edition was tempting but didn’t give full-props to the only movie I cared about in the set (that is, The Ape wasn’t front-and-center), and opening my Grampa version, well, that actually wasn’t a viable option at all, so what am I even talking about?

So da heck wit all it, I’m going to briefly talk about Ghoulardifest 2018 instead. Happy Halloween, by the way.

I didn’t intend on getting a post out of the convention, but I’ve got to get something up for not only today but the month of October as a whole. And since I didn’t even bother to talk about Ghoulardifest last year (though I did go), well, the time is right. I mean, it’s Halloween right now this very moment, and while I’ve got lotsa material, there’s been little fire, so this is the best I can do.

I held off on writing about the show last year because, frankly, I didn’t have all that much new to say about it. I didn’t want to just keep repeating myself year after year, but things were just different enough this time around that I think I can swing it. Maybe.

Ghoulardifest: the annual three-day convention held in honor of Cleveland’s legendary horror host Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson, Big Chuck & Hoolihan & Lil’ John, and all things related. You want to know the honest truth? Attending this has become my go-to fall event. It says “October” to me in a real, tangible way; Halloween comes and goes, maybe I’ll watch an appropriate movie, soak in the general vibes, but Ghoulardifest, that’s something I really do.

For the past several years, the show had been held at the LaVilla Party & Banquet Center, but this year, they moved back to the location of the first Ghoulardifest, the Cuyahoga Country Fairgrounds, which you’re kinda sorta seeing to the left here.

I was mildly apprehensive about this, because I generally have no idea where any of these places are located beforehand, but as it turned out, it’s always been in the same general vicinity since I started going back in 2011.

Don’t let the “fairgrounds” thing fool you; this was held indoors, as usual. Interestingly, it was spread over two buildings this time around. You walked in one, and that’s where most of the vendors and some of the guests were located. A walkway led out the back door of that building and directly into the other, which is where Big Chuck, Lil’ John, Hoolihan, Son of Ghoul, Jungle Bob etc. etc. etc. were located. (Plus, some more vendors, of course.)

I was happy to see Dick Goddard back in attendance this year; I don’t think he was there for the last show, maybe the last two shows even. It’s always a pleasure meeting him, and this gave me a chance to get one of his old almanacs I found at a thrift store signed. Dick Goddard is always a good guy and a class act.

(Some other WJW personalities were also supposed to be in attendance, and I brought my Dan Coughlin book in hopes of getting it signed, but if he was there, it was before I made it in.)

Truth be told, the visit to Ghoulardifest was a bit shorter than usual this year. I didn’t exactly make a quick pass-through and then call it a day, but there was only so much spare $$$ to spend, so the haul was somewhat smaller. Some DVDs, a vintage Big Chuck & Lil’ John shooting script, two old TV Guides with Lawrence Welk on the cover, a couple VHS tapes, that’s really all I bought. Still spent more than I should have, but whatever.

Most of my time was spent in the “Chuck & John room.” Fun moment: it came to my attention only a few weeks before that Lil’ John used to have his own pizza place back in the 1990s. This was something I was completely unaware of until I stumbled upon an old menu/coupon flyer. Naturally I had to ask him about it, and when I showed him a pic of the flyer on my phone, he got a huge kick out of it!

Loved catching up with Son of Ghoul and Jungle Bob, too. It’s always a pleasure chatting with them. SOG was in rare form; cracking jokes as usual, and hilariously ragging on my, as you can see here, “zig zag jacket.” I found it at a thrift store for, I think, $8, and when I informed SOG of this, he replied “I hope you got $9 change back!”

(I’ve taken plenty of pics with this guy over the years, but this one here, with his disgusted look regarding said jacket, is instantly one of my favorites. I wish it wasn’t slightly out of focus, but that won’t stop me from getting it tattooed on my face if I’m ever feeling particularly impulsive and/or insane.)

My buddy Pete G. made it to Ghoulardifest this year, but I apparently just missed him. I got there about 2 PM, he left at 2:30, so we were there at the same time, but, you know. Pete G. is a good dude and hopefully we can meet up at next year’s show. (Also, Pete picked me up the swanky Kino-Lorber Blu-ray of Invisible Ghost at Cinema Wasteland like the week prior, so huge props to him for that; thanks Pete!)

So yes, a good time was had at Ghoulardifest 2018, and as usual, I’m already looking forward to the next one.

You know what the biggest piece of worry was regarding the new location this year though? I didn’t know if the also-annual visit to Big Boy was going to happen this time around. No joke, I look forward to heading there after the show as much as, you know, actually going to the show.

Fortunately for me, it was only about 13 minutes away, which is good, because not only is the food and service always fantastic, but a Ghoulardifest trip just wouldn’t feel complete without a Super Big Boy sammich to top it all off.

So, that was that. Even though Ghoulardifest was a bit earlier this year (October 12-14), it still felt perfectly “Halloweeny” to me. Maybe it’s more “fall” than “Halloween,” but meh, they kinda go hand-in-hand anyway.

So Happy Halloween and all that. There, I got a post up in time. Maybe I won’t wait 6000 years between now and the next update?

VHS REVIEW: Popeye in “Ancient Fistory” (Amvest Video, 1989)

Hey, do you remember when I wrote about that Amvest/Kid Pics Alice in Wonderland VHS tape, and I expressed my desire to find one of their offerings with the “Happy Hamster” intro and outro host segments included? Well, this review comes courtesy of that ongoing quest.

They don’t show up at thrift stores and the like very often, but in the time since I wrote that review, I’ve picked up several additional titles in that bygone line of budget videos. These tapes were your standard kids fare of the time, focusing on public domain cartoons and such (no small field back in the 1980s & 1990s, granted). Think Parent’s Approved Video, except harder to find nowadays.

Anyway, none of those subsequent finds yielded the ‘Ster (and two of them had the wrong tape inside; I still picked ’em up for the sleeves if nothing else, but it’s irritating because I generally don’t find mismatched tapes that often), so it was with that continuing failure that I picked up this Ancient Fistory, starring Popeye. This wasn’t a thrift purchase though; nah, I resorted to online buyin’ for this one. I thought the relatively-later date of 1989 would prove promising (I had been hovering around the 1986/1987 mark, and while you never know with this company and re-releases and whatnot, apparently the Happy Hamster waltzed on the scene around the 1988/1989 mark).

Look, it was $10, the shipping was free, and it came with three other Popeye tapes that I didn’t really need, so I pushed aside the nagging thought that I’ll eventually find it at a thrift somewhere and just bought it.

Of course, it figures the Happy Hamster isn’t on this one either, but I blew $10 on the tape so I’m getting a post out of the thing anyway.

(Actually, truth be told, awhile back I did pick up one of the Amvest releases with the Happy Hamster, a three-tape set of old Disney cartoons. Even though the shorts presented are all presumably public domain, I don’t want to taunt Mickey’s crew, so no-go on the update front where that one is concerned.)

My reference to Parent’s Approved Video (PAV from here on out) a bit ago was intentional; a lot of the earlier Kid Pics tapes featured artwork and fonts similar to PAV’s, so much so that at first glance it’s easy to think a certain one is a PAV title. But, as the years rolled by, the artwork started becoming a bit more sophisticated, relatively speaking. The tape we’re talking about today is a good example; just look at it here! The artwork isn’t just competent, it’s actually pretty good! Seriously, this is no small feat; there were some seriously-lacking budget Popeye tapes out there back in the day. Getting Popeye to, you know, look like Popeye, that didn’t always happen. But it happened here and that means Amvest won that round.

As per the back cover, here’s our line-up: Ancient Fistory, Greek Mirthology, A Haul in One, and Insect to Injury. These are all Famous Studios-era entries in Popeye’s oeuvre; while there are several cartoons from my preferred Fleischer-era Popeye that have lapsed, most of the public domain Popeye shorts are from the later Famous Studios years, and as such make up the majority of budget VHS (and now DVD) releases.

While I feel the Famous shorts pale in comparison to the Fleischer series (particularly the Fleischer series prior to them moving the studios from New York to Florida in 1938, after which they cutesy-upped and watered-down our one-eyed sailor), the Famous cartoons are still pretty solid, consistently good-not-great in my opinion.

Four cartoons on this tape may not sound like a whole lot, but considering that some budget releases around that time got away with three or even only two entries (sometimes with additional PD cartoon filler, sometimes not), four entries is practically a smorgasbord of animated fisticuffs! Even though they omitted my personal favorite Famous Studios Popeye, 1957’s Spree Lunch (the penultimate cartoon in the original Popeye theatrical series), this is still a solid bunch of cartoons, and had they flipped the last two entries, they’d even be in chronological order!

Let’s check ’em out, one by one…

The tape’s namesake comes from the very first cartoon presented (gee, you don’t say!), and it’s one of those ‘fantasy’ Popeye entries that I tend to be ambivalent towards. It’s not bad though, with some pretty funny sight gags (including a literal bullseye) and even an appearance by Poopdeck Pappy!

1953’s (ignore that copyright credit here; Wikipedia says it dropped on 1-30-53) Ancient Fistory is a play on the old Cinderella tale. Here, Olive Oyl plays a princess who is hosting a ball in order to net a hubby find a suitable prince. The kingdom isn’t stated, but considering all the “ye” declarations and “-eth” suffixes, old timey England is the implication.

Popeye works in the kitchen of “Bluto’s Beanery,” in the servile, dressed-in-rags role (it’s a pretty miserable existence, apparently), though Bluto must be doing pretty well with the venture; he’s spiffily dressed and headed to the ball. Enter Popeye’s “Fairy Godfather,” as portrayed by Poopdeck Pappy. Pappy turns a can on spinach into a slick automobile (anachronism?) and gives Popeye some swanky duds, with the expected caveat that it all goes away at midnight.

Like so many of these shorts, Olive falls for both Popeye and Bluto, which sets in motion a series of feats of strength. Popeye doesn’t win before midnight, but then the car turns back into the can of spinach, Popeye consumes said can of spinach, and, well, you know how things turn out.

The second short presented continues the “ancient history” theme. 1954’s Greek Mirthology always seemed to me like Famous’ attempt at getting in on the vibes of those two-reeler cartoons from the Fleischer reign that placed the ‘Eye in situations featuring historical characters (Sinbad Sindbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba) but without recycling footage from those cartoons (which Famous also did).

‘Course, it’s not like these cartoons in general were always strictly “real time,” and this isn’t a two-reeler, so I’m probably all kinds of off-base here. Still, that’s how I’ve thought of Greek Mirthology in the past and how I will continue to do so in the future. And you can’t stop me.

Here, Popeye recounts the tale of great-ancestor Hercules to his nephews Pip-Eye, Peep-Eye, Pup-Eye and Poop-Eye in an effort to get them to eat spinach. (It’s important to note that not only was Popeye given actual teeth by this point in his run, but his one eye is just squinty rather than straight-up missing, which is good, because his nephews all exhibit the same trait.) According to Popeye, Herc had been getting his strength from sniffing strong garlic (glad he wasn’t eating it!), until a marauding bully (Bluto, of course) shows and discovers the weakness in that method. A chance-landing in a spinach patch (naturally from a Bluto punch) produces superior results, and the rest is, erm, history.

Popeye’s nephews naturally remain unconvinced and head outside to get some ice cream from a vendor who turns out to be…Bluto! In a sad turn of events, Popeye doesn’t deliver a beat down upon him as the short concludes.

The third cartoon takes place solely in the present time (I presume), but it’s still more-or-less the same as what we’ve just seen twice-over: Popeye and Bluto competing with each other until Popeye ends it all by downing some spinach. Olive is back as the object of desire again, as opposed to the attempt to gain love for spinach from the nephews in the previous installment. Look, the general plots of these were pretty durable, okay? (Similar or not, they were all pretty entertaining, to the endless credit of the people behind these cartoons.)

1956’s A Haul in One is one of those Popeye cartoons in which he and Bluto are actually pals at the start, before Olive enters the picture and provides the catalyst for punchin’. Here, the two former (?) sailors have their own moving company, an apparently harmonious affair until they stop by Olive’s. It’s never explained why she’s moving, but I’m going to assume it’s due to unpaid rent. (Good luck gettin’ your deposit back, Olive!) Anyway, as you may have guessed, Popeye prevails in the end.

Now is as good a time as any to talk about the print quality of all this. Technically, Amvest didn’t get terrible copies of these shorts; there’s some dust and whatnot, but compared to how they could have looked, these really aren’t that bad. Far uglier things have shown up on budget videos!

The main problem is the VHS duplication. Boy are these blurry! Sure, the prints were probably a few generations removed anyway, but there should still be more sharpness than there actually is. It all just looks like a budget VHS tape. (Go figure!) And I was playing all this on my right sporty RCA SVHS deck, too!

Still, this wasn’t meant to be an archival release. This was for the kids, and on that front, hey, they’re more than watchable, they’re entertaining, they’ve got their opening cred—

Aw c’mon!

Yes, this is how our fourth and final feature commences. Obviously there was some VHS-to-VHS duplication going on at some point! 1956’s Insect to Injury, on my copy here anyway, starts at the beginning, but not the very beginning. Not only were the opening credits MIA, but you’ve got that on-screen VCR info up in the upper-right hand corner!

I’m going to guess this took place when they were creating their “master,” I doubt they made each and every copy from VHS-to-VHS. Unless they were, I dunno. It’s kind of a funny reminder of how laid back things could be in that era of budget video, if nothing else.

As for the short itself, Popeye’s house is besieged by termites. They eatin’ up everything, man! No Bluto or Olive in this one, it’s strictly Popeye vs. bugs. It ends the same though: Popeye fails in his quest to stop the creatures, so he slams some spinach and builds a house out of metal. The termites aren’t destroyed by this, but they are defeated.

You know, I realize Popeye’s famous “I takes all I can stands…” line implies a certain amount of patience, but really, shouldn’t he have realized at some point that his natural strength can only take him so far? Just stay powered up on spinach all the time, man!

Anyway, there you have it, four Famous Studios Popeye adventures courtesy of Amvest Video’s Kid Pics division. These tapes aren’t very common, and since Popeye (and Superman, while we’re at it) are top-tier PD cartoon properties in my eyes, I had to nab this one online. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it’s a good example of budget cartoon compilations from that era. If nothing else, I got a post out of it, so I’m saying I got ten bucks worth out of the whole thing.

I just wish the Happy Hamster had been included.