Tag Archives: theater

WJW TV-8’s The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Show – “The War of the Gargantuas” (March 29, 1997)

March 29, 1997. 20 years ago this very day. Let me set the scene: I was not yet even 11-years-old, Easter was the very next day, and as such an Easter Egg-hunt at a nearby park occupied a portion of the afternoon. It was overcast as I recall it, but not rainy. As a young Star Wars nut, I was reveling in the burgeoning new action figure line (at the tail-end of what is probably socially acceptable, age-wise, to still play with toys) and the special edition re-releases of the trilogy, though I only saw the first film in the theater. A trip to the grocery store with my mom and brother following the egg hunt yielded me a Star Wars-themed issue of Cracked, though the whole situation had a damper put on it by a tabloid that promised late-1990s end-of-the-world predictions by Gandhi, which freaked out stupid naive 10-year-old me. Kinda funny that I can look back in nostalgia at something that caused me so much consternation 20 years ago, probably because I’ve got real problems to worry about now.

Anyway, it was against this backdrop that I myself recorded Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s Couch Potato Theater, their Saturday afternoon installment of their popular WJW TV-8 program. This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment taping; I wasn’t doing that so much yet. Rather, as a growing fan of giant monster movies, the revelation of The War of the Gargantuas listed in TV Guide that week made this can’t-miss-television for yours truly. I had never heard of the film, but as per the synopsis in TV Guide, it was big ol’ monsters, and it was Japanese, so naturally it was right up my alley. Needless to say, I had to tape it, which also needless to say, is why we’re here now.

Couch Potato Theater wasn’t all that different from Chuck & John’s normative (by their mid/late-1990s standards) Friday night show, except it was generally shorter (typically a strict two hour time slot, as compared to the two and a half, or more, hours of the Friday installment), and with a more eclectic range of features presented. Don’t get me wrong, just like their normal show, the movies shown on Couch Potato Theater ran the gamut of all genres; I mean, the first Big Chuck & Lil’ John I ever taped was a Couch Potato Theater presentation of The Karate Kid, and that was in 1996. But, Couch Potato Theater could also delve into more “traditional Saturday afternoon” fare; Superhost type stuff. That is, vintage short comedies and, of course, old school sci-fi and horror. I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but this was at the very end of the era when you could catch flicks like this on Saturday afternoons with any kind of regularity (and I’m stretching the term “regularity” here; I direct you back to the aforementioned Karate Kid).

We’ve seen a lot of Big Chuck & Lil’ John on this blog, most recently via a broadcast of Terror of Mechagodzilla that I taped later in 1997. But, except for a brief excursion in this old article and a possible exception with this “Pregame Show” post, Couch Potato Theater has sadly been neglected here, which is a shame, because it was more responsible than anything for making me a BC & LJ fan. (More so a few years after this broadcast, when I began watching old Abbott & Costello episodes on the program and consequently really ‘getting’ Chuck & John; when I taped this, it was pretty much all about the movie.) Seriously, you have no idea how nostalgic that bumper above makes me; it perfectly encapsulates the “lazy Saturday noon movie” vibes of local television at that time.

We’ll get to the Big Chuck & Lil’ John stuff in a moment. But first, the movie.

I was all prepared to say this flick hadn’t yet had an official video release when this aired back in ’97, but I was failing to recall the 1992 Paramount VHS (which, in my defense, I was not aware of until years later). Of course there’s been some official DVD releases in more recent times, but the fact remains that Gargantuas was not all that easily found by the late-1990s. Heck, it doesn’t look like it’s all that easily found now; unless you wanna stream it via Amazon, it’s apparently out-of-print on DVD.

Released in Japan in 1966 (don’t let the copyright date in the screencap above fool you; 1970 was the year of the American theatrical release), The War of the Gargantuas is a Toho kaiju (aka, big huge monster) film, in the vein of Godzilla and the like. That is, lotsa city-crushin’ and whatnot, though this time with American actor Russ Tamblyn starring (and really starring; this wasn’t a cut-and-paste job like Raymond Burr in Godzilla, King of the Monsters). It’s not a particularly well-regarded entry in the genre. Not critically, anyway; Leonard Maltin gave it a BOMB rating, I seem to recall TV Guide only allowing it one star out of a possible four, and even Lil’ John, at one point late in this broadcast, diplomatically states “Not the best movie we’ve ever had on…”

I can’t agree with any of that; I have always loved this movie. I loved it upon first viewing, and I’ve loved it in the years since. In fact, and I know this is anathema to admit, I love it more than the far more highly-regarded Rodan and Mothra. Indeed, I’ve traditionally had a hard time getting into Toho’s non-‘Zilla kaijus, and that isn’t a retroactive repositioning of my stance, either; this goes back to when I was seeing all this stuff for the first time, and thus, an easy audience. (Mothra in particular has just never done anything for me, and the theatrical Rifftrax Live presentation of it some months back did little to change my mind – though Mike, Bill & Kevin were terrific, as usual.)

But The War of the Gargantuas? Something about it has always clicked for me. No, it’s not high art, and even I won’t argue that it’s Toho’s finest hour, but still, it just works. I’m not even sure if I can accurately state why it works for me, it just does. It’s silly, sure, but in a good way; it’s entertaining, and it’s fun. In other words, perfect Saturday afternoon fare, even if magazines were claiming Gandhi said I was a goner at the same time. It’s impossible for me to separate it from my personal memories now, but even years ago, when those would have been less of a nostalgic factor, Gargantuas did (does) everything right in my eyes.

It’s also a sequel of sorts to 1965’s Frankenstein Conquers the World (released in the US in ’66). Much to my regret, I still haven’t seen that movie, but this hasn’t hurt my enjoyment of Gargantuas any, and it shouldn’t yours, either. There’s apparently a vague reference to the first film, but the US version omits any direct references – from how I understand it. Point is, don’t hold off on seeing Gargantuas if you haven’t seen Conquers.

Spawned from the skin cells of the Frankenstein monster in Conquers, Gargantuas (as you may surmise from the title, and if not, at least the screenshot above) details two “humanoid creatures,” the appropriately deemed “Gargantuas.” One, a “Green Gargantua,” is a disagreeable sort; he smashes up boats and causes havoc in general. You know, as you would expect in a movie such as this. This creature comes from the sea, and has an appropriate, seaweed-like appearance. (That’s him to the right above.)

At the same time, there’s also a “Brown Gargantua,” who is much more amiable. This one lives in the mountains, and was actually in the possession of Dr. Paul Stewart (Tamblyn!) and his assistant years ago, before he escaped. (The creature I mean, not Tamblyn.) Because of his upbringing with humans, Brown Gargantua is much more gentle, and provides the heroic role of the movie. (That’s him with his back to you on the left above; aren’t I helpful?)

Eventually the two creatures meet up, and while there is initially a kind of brotherly connection between them, Brown Gargantua soon sees what a complete cad Green Gargantua is, and that’s where our title begins to make sense. With Green Gargantua trying to destroy mankind, and Brown Gargantua trying to protect it, the stage is set for some city-smashin’, and that’s exactly what the film provides. Also, some cool laser effects and an underwater volcano that (SPOILER!!) ends the film on an ambiguous note.

Fans of monster-induced destruction will dig all this. It moves at a decent pace, there’s plenty of action, even a few pathos, and personally, I like that there are no alien-based threats to be found, something that would soon become increasingly commonplace in Toho kaijus. (Though ironically, when Gargantuas was first released in the US in 1970, it was on a double-bill with Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, then called just Monster Zero, which happens to be one of my favorite “bad ol’ aliens” Japanese giant monster flicks. Go figure!)

One final comment on the movie before we get to the Big Chuck & Lil’ John segments: “The Words Get Stuck In My Throat.”

No, that’s not me being cute (and pretty nonsensical, if you think about it) about writer’s block. Rather, it’s the subject of one of the most memorable scenes in the film. In it, Kipp Hamilton (who somehow gets “Special Guest Star” billing in the opening credits) sings a song by that title. I hate to say this, especially since Mrs. Hamilton passed away in 1981, but it’s a pretty terrible song. Nevertheless, she gets to perform it at a nightclub, and upon her finishing, Green Gargantua sneaks up behind her, snatches her up, and then drops her! Guess he didn’t like the song! (Unless it’s in the uncut version, whether Kipp dies from the fall or not is never revealed.)

This scene is often brought up when the subject of The War of the Gargantuas comes about, and it’s solely due to how bad the song is. There’s no arguing that, but you know, there’s something about it that has rung a bell for me ever since I first saw/heard it. Some vague, dusty recollection in the back of my mind that was triggered upon initially hearing it. I hadn’t seen Gargantuas prior, and I highly, highly doubt it stuck in my mind due to some random channel-flippin’ at some unknown point in the past. Nevertheless, something about Kipp’s voice and the lyrics sounds familiar. I can’t explain it, and I sure can’t place it, not then or now. My conclusion is the same today as it was back in 1997: I probably heard a song on Sesame Street or some such program in my early, formative years (which I really wasn’t that far removed from at the time) that subsequently reminded me of it. That’s the best explanation I can come up with, anyway.

And that brings us to the rest of the show.

With only two hours allotted and the need for commercials, never mind the movie, the Big Chuck & Lil’ John segments are somewhat limited here; I’ve been so used to watching old episodes of their Friday night show that I totally forgot how (relatively) scaled back Couch Potato Theater could be. Oh, don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t exactly Sunday-era Ghoul, the guys are still all over this broadcast, there could be no mistaking what you were watching, it’s just that it all moves faster than their ‘regular’ program. Again, perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

Anyway, the first host segment proper included an announcement that I could not be happier to have saved to tape, even though it took me years to realize it: Ghoulardifest! Yep, the very first Ghoulardifest is announced as a “go,” with several guests (including The Ghoul!) already booked. That inaugural Ghoulardifest, as of this broadcast, was going to be one day, August 16, at a Holiday Inn in Independence, OH, though I wasn’t there, so that may have changed/expanded closer to showtime. Nevertheless, it’s wild to look back on the opening salvo of what has become a three-day, annual extravaganza. I, of course, have written about Ghoulardifest some 70,000 (approximate estimate) times by this point; here’s just one of them. (It’s also weird to realize that Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson had only passed away the month before when this aired.)

Also, Chuck mispronounces “Gargantuas” as “Gargantuons” and gets bopped in the head by John with a styrofoam hammer.

The skit immediately following that segment feels like something I’ve written about before. Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t; I did only the briefest of searches before deciding it doesn’t really matter. It’s the “Certain Ethnic Alarm Clock,” in which a wife’s clock goes off at 7 AM, giving the expected digital readout. The husband’s (Chuck’s “Stash” character) goes off soon after, and gives a literal digital reading of a ‘normal’ clock. A simple premise, but I’ve always really liked this one.

Another simple one, and very brief, too. A man (John) absorbed in reading his paper as he enters the “Parma Skydiving School” gets a rude surprise – too late! Let the pictures do the talking above. Gotta love aerial footage and green screens!

Trivia time. I’ve mentioned my semi-frustration with these audience trivia-quizzes before, because more often than not I knew the answer, yet was never there in-person to collect the sweet, sweet rewards. This may be the most egregious of that lot: winner had to guess the name of the movie poster presented. It’s The Amazing Colossal Man. Of course it’s The Amazing Colossal Man. What’d they win? A coupon for a free 12-pack of any Pepsi product. That’d be like a day’s supply for me! (Now, not back then.)

(A “Bus Driver” skit, in which Chuck asks passengers to move to the back of a public bus and floors it when they don’t, followed this trivia segment. In a misguided effort to speed things along here, I didn’t take any appropriate screencaps.)

It really feels like I’ve written about this one before, though I like it enough to give a brief go again (plus, I don’t feel like digging through old articles for something that, again, doesn’t matter).

Here, John is a “Lucky Charms” salesman (as in little trinkets, not the cereal), who convinces Chuck to buy one of his products. As it turns out, it was the last in stock, and just as John is packing up to go home and get some more, a safe falls on him!

More trivia. Winner this time got a $20 comic shop gift certificate. The poster art is of course Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Too easy! Not fair!!

A genuine classic skit, and one of my favorites. If *I* were in charge of a top-however many skits compilation, I’m pretty sure this would make the final cut.

John plays the much-verbally-abused husband of Carmella (I can’t remember her last name), working six and a half days a week, tired, and just wanting to take a load-off after a long day by watching some TV. I think we can all relate. This, of course, is not good enough for the wife, who endlessly berates him over the length of time it’s been since they’ve been out to eat, gone dancing, and had her hair done. She even throws in a variation on the old “mother warned me about you” line.

The tide of nagging is momentarily stemmed when John announces they’re playing “their song” on TV – only to then turn up the volume and reveal that’s it the old “Hefty Hefty Hefty – Wimpy, Wimpy Wimpy” commercial jingle! This, naturally, results in him being chased around the kitchen by his now really mad wife!

I sometimes wonder what theoretically happened after these skits faded out. Did they make up? Was John able to calm her? Or was the homicide squad eventually called in? I’m probably thinking too much about this.

You can’t say Chuck & John weren’t masters of the green screen.

Here, Chuck’s Stash character is a balloon salesman, and John plays a little kid (he usually did), who eagerly wants one specific balloon. He eventually gets it, only to reveal that it’s a string attached Stash’s head, which floats away with John as he leaves. Stash seems apprehensive with the situation.

Did this effectively end Stash’s life? Was his head eventually returned to his body? Or did both entities continue, somehow, living independent of each other? I’m probably thinking too much about this.

Some brief announcements before heading into another skit. That next Saturday night, Chuck & John would be appearing at a local sports bar, and the next Sunday afternoon they’d be at a Parma Heights library benefit. BC & LJ did (do) so many of these types of appearances, they almost have to all blend together for them by now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun seeing the various places they’d be back in the day.

The kind of topical (though it was almost certainly several years old by then anyway) skit that still holds up.

John and another “gringo” find themselves on the execution line of a Hispanic country of some sort, and are given a last request. The unnamed “gringo” (who is given a good ol’ boy appearance) just wants to hear his favorite song one last time. What is it? “Achy Breaky Heart.”

John’s last request? They shoot him first! It’s a funny moment, made all the better by the knowing nod of the dictator (?) in charge of the execution.

A brief skit that’s actually more clever than I initially gave it credit for.

Chuck is a pharmacist who finds himself being held up by an obviously old woman with a bag over her head (Mary Allen, who was great in everything). She doesn’t want money; she wants Retin-A! Retin-A is a skin-revitalizing treatment, which makes the whole bag-on-head thing not only a disguise, but a commentary on aging. Funny!

Annnnd, that finished the show up. Next week on Couch Potato Theater? Eddie & The Cruisers! Had I been the age I am now back then, I’d have definitely taped that one, too. (Plus, sensationalist tabloids in the check-out line at the grocery store wouldn’t have been cause for concern, because my brain eventually formed enough to realize they’re fake). The show next Friday night was Lord of the Flies, which really isn’t my cup of tea (enjoyed the book, though). John’s loud and enthusiastic “BYEE!” he always used and a shot of the Boy Scout attendance-heavy audience closes the episode out.

(Oddly enough, I didn’t catch any references to Easter being the next day, and there sure weren’t any especially-Easter-ish skits, but I looked it up, it’s true.)

You know, after my latest revisit of this recording, it’s amazing how much of it is ingrained in my memory. Okay, yeah, not a big surprise considering I grew up with this tape, but there really are several moments burnt into my consciousness that I, quite honestly, didn’t expect. I mean, sure, “The Words Get Stuck In My Throat” and other parts of the movie itself, definitely, but also quite a bit of the show as a whole; skits, bits of dialog, the trivia, stuff like that.

Usually at this point, I would look at interesting commercials that aired during this broadcast. I’m going to skip that portion this time around; there weren’t really any particularly notable ones (unless you consider a promo for The Gladys Knight Show and an ad for Handi-Snacks notable, and I don’t). But they really aren’t important here. Nope, this subject is one that’s heavily, heavily tied to my personal memories; as such, it may be hard for some readers to ‘get it,’ but I trust everyone can relate in some way to what I mean. In that regard, there was the program itself; my first exposure to what has become a personal favorite Toho movie of mine, and of course there’s the Big Chuck & Lil’ John material, which I only came to appreciate more and more as time went by.

But beyond all that, it’s where this falls in my lifetime. There’s an “aura” about this recording that will (probably) be all but impossible for someone else to accurately understand, but is something that I can never extricate from the proceedings. The events of that day, my age, my interests, all things I look back on now with a wistful fondness. I think it goes back to that weird tabloid scare I’ve referenced several times; a silly fear now, of course, but it points to an innocent naivete that was, quite frankly, probably preferable to the worldly cynicism I often exhibit nowadays.

And that, my friends, is the magic of videotape technology in a nutshell right there. Not just the capturing of a program to view again and again in the future, but also the capturing of a specific time and place, which can also be relived once more. Your childhood can come back alive, if even for only 2 hours.

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!

amvest-night-of-the-living-dead-vhs-10

*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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One more thing about Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Whew! Done!

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

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

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

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

Have a great Halloween everybody!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They sleep in coffins, man!

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Another cool aspect: Bela’s basement laboratory.

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

Bela’s got a cool lab, man!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe just one to hang up somewhere…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

(* = Indicates that I personally own a copy of that title, and thus I know for sure it was released by Amvest in some form at some point. [Confirmed] = Indicates this title was indeed released as part of the Grampa Presents series, either with him on the tape itself, on the packaging, or both. If Al Lewis is present in or on the tape in any way, I’m considering it officially released as part of the series.)

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

———————
Special Compilations:

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

WJW TV-8 – The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special (October 10, 2015)

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I usually don’t look at ‘modern’ television broadcasts, especially broadcasts as recent as this past weekend, but this was so unabashedly cool that I can’t resist. Besides, it may be a new broadcast, but it’s a new broadcast of older material which in turn featured even older material. There, wrap your mind around that!

‘Course, the fall-back here is that this is my blog and I’ll write about what I want. I could go in the backyard and describe all the neat-lookin’ rocks I find if I so desire. You keep pushing me and I just might, too.

I was made aware of this special just the night before it aired: on Saturday, October 10, 2015 at 3:30 PM, WJW TV-8 would be airing the 30 minute Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special. I’m glad I only had to wait less than a day for this, because man, I was stoked. A Big Chuck & Lil’ John special, airing (roughly) in their old Couch Potato Theater time slot, and focusing solely on Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson, the man who set this whole thing in motion waaay back in 1963? I was so there.

This is what I love so much about Northeast Ohio TV: for all of the changes it has gone through over the years, the steady erosion of locally-grown programming in favor of syndicated content and whatnot, there’s still a sense of history here; there’s a reason Big Chuck & Lil’ John have been forever in the public eye, Son of Ghoul is still plugging away, and no one bats an eye when a special regarding a character that hasn’t been on Cleveland airwaves since 1966 is allotted a 30 minute time slot. Doesn’t hurt that Ghoulardi had (and continues to have) an incalculable impact on so much of the populace, either.

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The announcement I saw didn’t elaborate, and I automatically assumed this was going to be a half hour edition of their regular skits-only show, tailored solely to Ghoulardi material. As it turned out, this wasn’t actually a new special; as the above screencap attests, this was instead a re-broadcast of Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s tribute to Ernie Anderson following his 1997 death. It’s actually not too far off from what I envisioned, just 18 years older. I guess it makes sense to simply re-run the earlier special; a new version would just cover the same ground and take time to film.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Anything that gives Big Chuck & Lil’ John and Ghoulardi airtime is absolutely fine with me. Always. Besides, seeing Chuck & John on that old set with the studio audience gets the nostalgia fired up somethin’ fierce.

(By the way: why the slightly fuzzy reception in this day and age of ultra-clear digital everything? Meh, for old times’ sake I recorded this onto DVD on my downstairs CRT TV, which apparently doesn’t play by the same rules as my cute HDTV upstairs does. I also DVR’d the special upstairs, but what the heck, this DVD is already made and handy for screencaps, so here we are.)

Before I go any further, yes you can get an official DVD release of the original 1997 special, straight from the official Big Chuck & Lil’ John website, right here. It’s near the bottom of the order form, the DVD titled 44 Years of Cleveland Comic Champions. There’s a lot of great stuff available in that store too, so hey buddy check it out!

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Being a tribute to Ernie Anderson, in addition to actual Ghoulardi footage there’s also a lot of reminiscing, as you would expect. In addition to a short bio of Anderson and how he wound up as Ghoulardi, among other stories Chuck recounts the famous tale of his stealing a Ghoulardi poster off a bus while Anderson kept the driver distracted. Funny stuff!

Keep in mind, this originally aired some time before the phenomenal Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride book was released, and waaaay before Big Chuck’s terrific autobiography (head on back to that BC & LJ store link for that one), so a lot of the information here hadn’t been widely recounted and available to the masses yet.

(For the record, both of those books are absolutely essential reads, not only for Northeast Ohioans or fans of Horror Hosts, but for television lovers in general; both offer an indelible snapshot of TV history, an era that won’t be repeated, and are ridiculously entertaining to boot.)

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Much of the tribute also consists of Chuck’s one-on-one interview with Anderson himself, obviously conducted some years prior. As I recall it, this interview provided the basis for a previous BC & LJ special show, though integrating the segments into this tribute show makes all the sense in the world, given the circumstances.

After giving up Ghoulardi in 1966, Anderson went to Hollywood and made the mighty dollars doing voiceover work. I have countless commercials/promos featuring his voice, and on a nationwide scale that’s what he’s really known for. At one point during this show, Chuck mentions that when Ernie went to Hollywood and became a millionaire, it didn’t change him a bit; he was still the same guy he was back in Cleveland. You get a real sense of that during these interview segments. There’s no showing off, no posturing or anything like that. It’s just two friends talking about the old times.

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As far as actual Ghoulardi material goes, with only 30 minutes and so much ground to cover, well, you’re only going to see so much. However, the official Ghoulardifest website sells a phenomenal DVD of much (all?) of the remaining footage from Ghoulardi’s show, the only official place to get this stuff. I have it in my collection, and you should have it in yours too.

As for this special though, I personally would have liked to see a few more bits with Ghoulardi on his set doing his thing. As it stands, there are two brief clips, and the skit you’re seeing above, The Pitching Coach.

Y’see, Chuck got his behind-the-camera and, as in this case, his in-front-of-the-camera start on the show, performing in skits and even providing the basis for running gags such as the whole “PARMA?!” thing. In this skit, he plays the new pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians, who proves to be fairly incompetent. My favorite moment comes when Ghoulardi tosses a ball back to him, and it lightly hits Chuck’s arm; Chuck holds his arm in pain and pouts in the corner while Ghoulardi tries to apologize!

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More Chuck, this time in one of the legendary skits from Ghoulardi’s show: Parma Place.

Parma Place was a take-off on the soap opera Peyton Place, and the line of skits basically existed to poke fun at the Cleveland suburb of Parma. The loose idea was that Chuck’s character was always trying to make time with Anderson’s wife behind his back (and often right in front of him), but the more notable aspect of the skits were the stereotypes of Parma they perpetuated: white socks, polka music, and so on.

And this was all in addition to the jokes Anderson would make about the suburb when in character as Ghoulardi. Naturally, some residents of Parma didn’t take too kindly to all this, but it’s all still funny, and the genesis of a running joke that continued (and continues) on through The Ghoul and Hoolihan & Big Chuck (& Lil’ John).

A few different Parma Place entries are spotlighted during the special, and this screencap comes from a moment when Chuck’s character “Jerry” gifts Anderson with a pair of white socks, to which he and his wife marvel at endlessly.

Also, you have no idea how funny I find Chuck’s PARMA shirt.

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A fun bit where Ernie Anderson interviews, well, himself. Using a split screen and some handy pre-filming, Ernie Anderson as Ernie Anderson interviews Ernie Anderson as Ghoulardi (who insists he be called “King”). It actually works pretty well; in fact, for the time period it’s fairly seamless.

My favorite line: “I first got my start as Ghoulardi when they fired me from channel 3 and 5 wouldn’t hire me!

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The whole open-wounds-shock of Anderson’s passing may not be as hard to take today as it was in ’97, which is understandable; it has been nearly 20 years, after all (20 years? I refuse to believe this all happened that long ago!). That’s not to say it isn’t still sad, because of course it is. I don’t mean to downplay anything here, it’s just that after 18 years, (most?) Northeast Ohioans have learned to live with Ghoulardi being gone, really gone.

All that said, there is a moment that still packs an emotional wallop in this tribute: the final scene returns to Chuck interviewing Anderson, and Anderson recounts that he met a lot of great people in Cleveland, and then jokingly says to Chuck “You’re not one of them,” to which they both crack up. After they calm down a bit, he then adds “You are, you’re great,” and then the scene freezes as the copyright info pops up. It stays there a bit before fading out, and in that little moment, the deeper meaning of all this is hammered home: it’s not just about what Anderson accomplished as Ghoulardi and what he meant (means) to Clevelanders, it’s also about the genuine friendship between him and Chuck that was there up until the very end of Ernie’s life. It’s a terrific, honest scene, and an absolute perfect way to end the special.

You know, maybe it’s for the best that they didn’t film an all-new Ghoulardi tribute episode; it would be nearly impossible to improve upon this one. From the recollections to the clips, it’s as concise a definition of the character and what he represented to Clevelanders as you’re likely to get in half an hour.

But wait! In a for-modern-day rarity of rarities (for me), there were some great commercials during this broadcast. ‘Course, they all had to with Ghoulardi and/or Big Chuck & Lil’ John, but frankly, that’s how I prefer things. Behold:

Big Chuck For Empire Windows

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Chuck has been pitching Empire Windows for quite awhile now, often in print ads that come nearly every week in one of those circulars. I haven’t seen a whole lot of TV advertising with him for the company, so I was glad to see this and add it to my collection (y’see, through my massive collection of old videotapes, I have amassed a large “archive” of commercials, promos and whatnot featuring horror hosts, and not just our horror hosts, either; it spans the entire nation).

Chuck gives really a pretty standard pitch, though the commercial is so short (15 seconds) there isn’t a whole lot of time for much else. Chuck says he’s been plugging the company for 29 years at this point; that’s as long as I’ve been alive!

If I ever need new windows, I’ll go to Empire. Why? Big Chuck told me to. (He also told me who to go to for waterproofing, should I need it.)

Empire Windows’ official website is here.

WJW TV-8 Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special Promo

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A mega-quick (5 seconds!) promo for the special itself, which aired less than a minute before the show began. I was really, really happy to capture this one; not only does it give me fond memories of this, but also because I just wasn’t sure if there even was a promo for this special. I don’t care how short it is, either; it’s another one for the collection!

The voiceover: “The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special, today at 3:30!” Yeah, yeah, basically the same info that’s printed on-screen.

Ghoulardifest 2015 Commercial

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I’m thinking Ghoulardifest is the reason this special was run in the first place; what better promotion could there be? In prior years, the convention was sponsored by WBNX TV-55, but this year it’s WJW, which means they’ve got carte blanche as far as Ghoulardi footage and whatnot goes. It’s a more involved commercial than what has aired in recent years, which more or less usually amounted to basically Chuck & John standing in front of a green screen and giving their pitch. In this spot, however, lotsa Ghoulardi clips are interspersed with the pertinent information, though perhaps oddly, Chuck & John are nowhere to be seen.

WJW was pushing Ghoulardifest pretty hard during the special (as you’d expect). A full 30 second spot aired twice during the show, and a 15 second version right after it.

Needless to say, I am now even more jazzed for Ghoulardifest, which is saying something since I’m always jonesing for the convention. Yes, I will be attending again this year, and yes, there will be another write-up. In the mean time, check out my 2013 and 2014 reviews! And if you can attend, please do so! It’s always a blast!

The Ghoulardifest website with all the info y’all need is here.

The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Show Promos

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And finally, promos for Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s current 30 minute Sunday night show proper were, for obvious reasons, ran twice during the special. On the left, a spot featuring a brief clip from their Nukey Shoes skit. On the right, the bit where, as part of the opening fanfare for a movie, John gears up to hit a gong but instead accidentally nails Chuck in his, erm, manhood. Yikes!

Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s official website is here.


 

I love the fact that a special so undeniably Cleveland in every facet can still air on local TV here in 2015. The sad fact of the matter is that there’s not always a place for this kind of thing on modern airwaves. Like I said at the start of this post, there’s a very real sense of history in Northeast Ohio television, one that seemingly won’t let people forget the accomplishments of its past.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Blockbuster-Branded Batman & Robin VHS (1998)

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I get excited over the weirdest stuff. For instance, take this thrift-store-find from a few nights ago; I was legit stoked to come across it. Maybe it’s because I’m a Batman Batfan and totally remember the massive hype (and even more massive letdown) that was the summer 1997 release of this movie. Maybe it’s because I miss the all-but-dead video rental store days (and have been looking for something to pay tribute, albeit belated, to the now-gone Blockbuster). Or, maybe it’s simply because I already had a Blockbuster-branded copy of Batman Forever and in my weird little world this compliments it nicely.

Aw, who am I kidding? It’s all of those. And more?

Despite the fact the movie is one of the worst things ever, I have an inexplicable fondness for the film. Well, not really for the film per se. More for the time period and where it falls in my lifetime. Going further into all that would be a huge digression, so let me stay kinda on track here. Batman & Robin: I remember the release, I remember (and sampled) the stupid Taco Bell tie-in promotion, and I remember the revelation that it apparently made theater-goers cry. I wouldn’t know, though; we tried to go see it, but the only available-to-us showing was sold out, so we settled for, I’m pretty sure, Men In Black.

(I’ve kinda made up for not seeing it in theaters, not that it matters, though: this is my actually my second copy of the film on VHS, and I even have the stupid thing on DVD and freakin’ Laserdisc. Now if I can just find a Betamax copy, my collection will be complete*.)

Despite there being other Batman movies released to theaters in the 1990s, Batman & Robin feels the most overtly 1990s-ish to me. No doubt that’s due to my memories of that summer of ’97. At any rate, the fact remains that I have a copy of Batman & Robin with Blockbuster stickers slapped on it, and on the freakin’ VHS format to boot. Thus, it goes without saying that I am currently experiencing an all-encompassing 90s rush that’s threatening to drive me straight-up nutz; it’s taking every ounce of my energy to refrain from playing a Smash Mouth CD** whilst watching an episode of Boy Meets World. That’s what everyone was doing in the late-1990s, right?

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I’ve seen the film, and it lives up (or is it down?) to the reputation it has acquired. It is not a good flick. Yeah, I know, big revelation. That said, I find it more gloriously entertaining than the higher-regarded Batman Forever, even if that entertainment is only derived from how jaw-dropping bad it is. I cannot believe this was a major Hollywood production. But, look at the damn tape. I don’t care what you say, everything about it is 1997 in a nutshell. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t (and considering the movie can and probably has been used as a torture device, maybe that’s a good thing).

The pic above is worth clicking on for a super-sized version, because the description on the back is kinda out there (yes, I know the Blockbuster sticker obscures some of it). My favorite part is the mention of “New very special effects…“, as if these special effects are substantially more special than your usual , run-of-the-mill special effects. I love this tape.

Also, “From our Batfamily to yours“? That’s adorable Give me a break.

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According to Amazon, the VHS was originally released on October 21, 1997. Upon first finding this tape and seeing that January 6, 1998 date printed on the sticker, my initial thought was “so soon after release?” But, I figure, there were probably plenty of copies put up for rental following the release date, then once the “fervor” died down, nearly as many put out for sale. Plus Christmas sales, plus johnny-come-latelys, etc., and well, 1/6/98 actually seems kinda late to the game. Also, 1/6/98 was when this copy was presumably put out for sale, it’s not a sale date. So who knows when Blockbuster finally unloaded this burden video. Anyway, it was put out for sale in ’98, which is why the title of this post is dated “1998” and not the probably-more-accurate “1997.”

My aforementioned copy of Blockbuster-Batman Forever features all of the same branding, except it also features a cute little sticker on the front proclaiming the low, low bargain price of only $4.99. Batman & Robin features no such pricing identification, and the sticker on the back, as evidenced by the photo above, is silent on the matter. I don’t know what “*” means in regards to what some unlucky video purchaser paid, but I assume it meant “cheap.”

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Oh now that’s just precious. Remember the days when Blockbuster was the go-to place for not only the hot new movie hits, but all of your entertainment needs? I’m pretty sure we rented more video games there than we ever did movies. Nevertheless, the sticker brings back serious memories.

Back in the late-90s when I started doing the whole Ebay thang, there were some VHS videos that were going for what we I call “the mighty dollars.” DVD hadn’t quite taken off yet, and thus VHS was still the predominant format. That market would eventually drop hardcore, but at the time, if you had a copy of the M*A*S*H series finale or Giorgio Moroder’s restoration of Metropolis on VHS (or even better, Laserdisc), and they were in halfway decent shape, you stood to make a good chunk of money fast. Well, collectors being collectors, rental store stickers such as the ones on this tape were seen as detriments. Not that I’m arguing with that; if you’re spending $40-$50 for a VHS, preferably it should be in the best shape possible. I don’t recall ever being too bothered as to whether a tape had stickers/fading/etc. or not, as long as I got what I was going after, but that sort of thing could and did affect prices for other collectors.

Nowadays, I really don’t mind finding these kinds of markings on tapes (obviously). They add a nice bit of historical value. I’ve got an ancient VHS copy of Jaws with Fotomat stickers all over it, and I actually care more about those stickers and the earlier release date than I do the movie (I know, I know, it’s a classic, but I just don’t like Jaws nor any of the sequels nor any of the countless rip-offs it spawned). This copy of Batman & Robin could never be described as “mint” or “fresh outta da shrinkwrap,” but since copies are plentiful and generally worthless (for so, so many reasons), these Blockbuster stickers add a whole different dimension to the thing, one that many may tend to overlook.

Plus, there’s a lot of people that would claim that the Blockbuster stickers on this thing are worth more than the movie itself. I’m not gonna argue that, either; Batman & Robin is really bad.

To be completely and totally honest, and this shows just how friggin’ strange I am, I’ve specifically been looking for a copy of Batman & Robin just like this to go with that previously-mentioned Batman Forever, if only because they represent the 1990s rental store period so well. Since copies of the film are plentiful and Blockbuster stores were plentiful, I’m kinda surprised it took me as long as it did to actually come across one. Victory is mine?

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There it is, a Blockbuster-branded copy of Batman & Robin, from back when people relied on video rental stores and before the internet became so widespread that it went and spoiled everything for movie studios/tape manufacturers that were hoping against hope that potential-purchasers hadn’t heard just how unrelentingly bad a movie was/is.

‘Course, I’ve just written over a thousand words about a film and the VHS release of said film that, for all intents and purposes, isn’t really worth it. This begs the question: the hell’s wrong with me?

(And hey, look, the last owner was indeed a friend and rewound when he or she reached the end! Thanks, Blockbuster!)

* = I know full well there’s not a Betamax release of Batman And Robin, settle down.

** = While I do indeed have an extensive music collection, I don’t actually own anything by Smash Mouth.

Enigma Theater With Edward St. Pe’ – The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1999)

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I’ve talked about about Enigma Theater With Edward St. Pe’ before. Back in April 2013 I looked at two episodes, and then in June ’13, I looked at one more. Enigma Theater was a horror hosted show broadcast on the America One network in the late-90s/early-2000s. Here in Northeast Ohio, it ran on late, late Saturday Nights/early Sunday mornings for at least a year or two, and it’s more or less forgotten nowadays. In fact, my sad lil’ blog is one of the few, if only, places with any info on the show at all (at least that I’ve seen).

To the best of my prior knowledge, I had only recorded three full episodes (Circus Of Fear, The Vampire People and Rocketship X-M) and one partial episode (The Corpse Vanishes) back in the day. Yesterday as I was on a mission for my old budget Dragnet VHS tapes (mission accomplished as if anyone cares) and thus digging around in the appropriate box of old VHS tapes, I came across a tape containing my recordings of Gog, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, and The Invisible Dr. Mabuse. The first two movies I remember taping, but The Invisible Dr. Mabuse I have ZERO recollection of recording. The then-current scheduled TV showing must have inspired me to go for a themed thing. I guess I figured it would ostensibly make a good double-bill with The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, though it kinda doesn’t.

Lo and behold, the recording (which required a bit of tape resuscitating, since I almost certainly hadn’t played it in the last 15 years) yielded a previously unknown-to-me recording of yet another Enigma Theater! Cool winnins! Needless to say, I was not expecting to see this! I love having recorded so much crap years ago that there are things I totally blank upon until re-discovering them.

Then again, I guess it’s not so surprising. I taped a lot of things back then; hundreds of programs. As good as my memory is, it stands to reason that I’m not going to remember every little thing I taped 15 years ago.

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There’s Edward St. Pe’ himself. And boy, he talks The Invisible Dr. Mabuse up as if it’s the greatest damn thing ever put on film; he seriously says it’s “a four star-rated film” which, man, I’d never say it approaches anywhere near four stars. Granted, I’m not exactly a Dr. Mabuse mega-fan, but I generally have some idea how these types of films are regarded. The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, yeah, that’s absolutely a classic, but The Invisible Dr. Mabuse? Even the IMDb reviews are lukewarm at best, and if the movie’s gonna get appreciation from the appropriate buffs anywhere, it would be there.

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There’s the, erm, title screen, obviously. I didn’t watch much beyond this point, opting instead to fast-forward through the rest, because honestly, I don’t care. I’m not sure I really cared all that much back then, either; more likely, I was probably just boosting my horror film collection. Plus, I’m guessing the film reminded me of the obscure titles I’d see listed in the Sinister Cinema catalog; the Sinister Cinema catalogs were things of beauty, and even though I only ordered from them twice (silent westerns no less, and believe it or not, I rescued those two tapes from the same box those Dragnet videos were in), I’d always drool over the new catalogs that occasionally popped up in my mailbox. Figuratively, I mean. But, I digress.

Also, there were approximately 1,462 commercials for that old Monster Ballads CD compilation set fund during the broadcast. Just thought you should know that.

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There, duly notated for all the future lil’ baby childrens of the world.

Front Row Entertainment’s Fantasy Mission Force VHS (1996)

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Unlikely as it may seem, I was super stoked to find this sealed VHS copy of the Jackie Chan film Fantasy Mission Force at the Midway Plaza Goodwill recently. And not because I’m a Fantasy Mission Force megafan, either; lots of people love it (albeit for all the wrong reasons), but I can’t count myself among them. It’s a whacked-out flick, and I probably should enjoy it for the complete insanity that endears it to so many others, but I just don’t. And you can’t make me.

Nor am I an especially big kung fu movie fan. I like some of the Bruce Lee films, and I have a special affinity for The Dragon Lives Again (a nutbar “Brucesploitation” film where “Bruce Lee” dies, goes to the underworld, teams up with Popeye, and fights Dracula. Yes, really), but if I have any kind of kung fu fandom in me, it is only of the most casual variety.

(Anyone who has seen both is probably now wondering why I like a film as oddball as The Dragon Lives Again but don’t like the-also-super-weird Fantasy Mission Force. Search me. Also, while on the subject of weird kung fu, I so wanted to love Bruce Lee Strikes Back From The Grave, but man, aside from that opening intro, dude, screw that. Awesome theatrical poster, though.)

Fantasy Mission Force ostensibly stars Jackie Chan (his role basically amounts to a bit part), is ostensibly set during World War II (cars from the 1970’s show up, and references to Abraham Lincoln, James Bond and Rocky are made), and is ostensibly…well, I don’t really know where I was going with that kinda-gag. It’s a crazy flick, though. (To be fair, all of the inconsistencies are intentional.) It starts off with a bizarre singing-drinking party, then later there’s a Scottish soldier and his ultra-annoying sidekick, a tribe of Amazons, and a sojourn to a haunted house. It’s one “what the hell?” moment after another, and I’m not exaggerating, that reaction is pretty much nonstop throughout the whole thing. Oh, and to top it all off, there’s an obnoxiously catchy theme song that bores itself into your head for 97 years at a time.

Actually, when I describe the movie like that, Fantasy Mission Force does sound pretty awesome. I take back all the awful things I said about it? Nah.

So, if I don’t really like the movie, why get so jazzed upon finding a sealed copy at Goodwill? It’s not even remotely rare, and if all I wanted was a sealed copy, I’m sure they’re found easily enough online. No, only nostalgia could get my adrenaline pumping in regards to a film like Fantasy Mission Force. Here’s the ultimate proof:

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That $2.99 price tag. I know it by heart. The image is burnt into my memory. This sticker is proof-positive that this tape originally came from Best Buy’s fabled (in my mind) $2.99 VHS section. Not only did I dearly love this section, where films of an otherwise-doubtful sales-potential resided (silent shorts, b-westerns, spaghetti westerns, cheesy horror/sci-fi; a lot of crap not unlike Fantasy Mission Force, basically), but that also means that this copy of Fantasy Mission Force is as identical in every aspect as possible to the one I had in the late-1990’s. Where did my original copy go? All will be revealed in due time (settle down, I’ll get there.)

Also, don’t you just love that picture above? Jackie seems to be glaring at the price with so much resentment. “I’m only worth three bucks?!

For a short time in the late-1990’s, I was on a kung fu kick, so when I saw this tape (and having seen no other Chan flick beforehand) in Best Buy’s $2.99 section, I snapped it up right quick. I was already well-acquainted with the section, so it’s not like I didn’t know what could reside there, but that didn’t stop me from happily carrying it to the checkout counter like I’d just found a pot of friggin’ gold. It must’ve been the summer of 1998, because I’m positive I didn’t have this the summer before, and because the clerk asked if I was getting it for my Dad for father’s day. No, nosy checkout guy, this one is [was] mines. Further evidence it was summer of ’98? I had my copy of the film for about a year before it left me.

Where, how and why it went, you’ll soon know. But first, a closer look at the tape itself.

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Front Row Entertainment was a budget outfit, and make no mistake, their Fantasy Mission Force sure looks like a budget tape. You’d never see a major studio putting out something looking like that above. That said, it IS a bit more competent than a lot of cheapo videos. At least as far as the packaging goes. I mean, look at it. The pinks, blues and whites make it look like something akin to an ice cream cone. Do I dare take a bite out of it? It’s an aesthetically pleasing sleeve, even if it doesn’t scream “hot kung fu action!” and completely belies the actual product, which as previously mentioned, is NOT a thing of beauty.

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The back of the sleeve is plain-Jane, but adequate enough. I mean, the description is perfectly serviceable, though the final sentence is a massive understatement. Maybe it’s impossible to properly explain a film like Fantasy Mission Force in the space of one VHS back-cover.

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See, sealed. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t. I can get an opened copy anywhere, so I refuse to crack the seal of my assuredly-from-Best Buy-and-just-like-the-one-I-used-to-have version.

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No, I didn’t succumb to temptation (ha!) and open it. As fortune would have it, I received a totally random and completely sleeve-less copy in a recent tape lot. Why was it in there? Was it a premonition? I don’t have the answer to those burning questions, and you’d better believe I wasn’t even remotely as excited as I was when I found the Best Buy-sealed copy (seriously, what are the odds of that in this day and age?), but if nothing else, it allows me to show you, the reader, what the actual tape looks like. Exciting, isn’t it? Amount of tape used: approximately a foot. High quality it was/is not.

Okay, the preliminaries are out of the way. Now, the real reason I was so excited to find this: my original copy is the subject of one of my fondest Northeast Ohio horror movie host memories. Behold!

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That is absolutely my original copy in The Ghoul’s hand, during the summer of 1999. The Ghoul had been on WBNX TV-55 for roughly a year at that point, and that year had seen me become a big fan of his. I had also watched my copy of Fantasy Mission Force twice in that year, and I just couldn’t stomach a third. I mean, no kidding, it sucks pretty bad. So, my VHS became the subject of the first package I ever sent The Ghoul. The package also included a “Parma Yo-Yo” (which The Ghoul seemed to like a lot but never did anything with again) and a big “Ghoul Power!” banner, but the Fantasy Mission Force tape was a grand finale of sorts. Being a young, 13-year old Ghoul fan, of course I asked him to blow the thing up.

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Being a man of the people, The Ghoul kindly obliged my request (“ask and you shall receive in Ghoul Power land!”), and trust me, there is no more fitting fate for Fantasy Mission Force than one of The Ghoul’s boom-booms. I really was jumping up and down during this whole segment, and the final fate of my awful movie was totally the topper. You have no idea how much I just loved all this. And while it doesn’t translate as well into still-pictures, this was a seriously satisfying blow-up.

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Those final two images are the last looks I ever had of my beloved Fantasy Mission Force tape. I don’t know what kind of firecracker he used, but man, that thing obliterated the video, as you can well see. It was, and is, a beautiful thing.

Keep in mind, not once have I regretted sending The Ghoul that tape. Oh, there are plenty of tapes I had, later got rid of, and ended up regretting, but this wasn’t one of them. The whole segment has become legendary to me. Fantasy Mission Force may not be good for much else, but it was certainly good for this.

And now I have a sealed copy, just like the one I sent to The Ghoul 15 years ago! Has it really been that long? Sure doesn’t seem like it. Maybe if The Ghoul ever comes back to local TV, I’ll send him this copy, too…

Nah, the chances of me coming across another sealed copy from the long-gone Best Buy $2.99 section are just too slim. The only question remains: where to put the tape? It’s stupid sealed Fantasy Mission Force, after all. It’s gotta go somewhere of semi-honor, doesn’t it?

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It’s got action like Commando, and it’s got comedy like Dan Aykroyd. A fitting combination? Hmmmm…