Tag Archives: vhs release

VHS Review: Godzilla (1998 Widescreen Version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1922’s “Nosferatu” (1988)

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You want October-appropriate? You got it!

Why’s that? Because the quest continues! The quest for what, you ask? More Grampa Presents tapes, that’s what! See that image above? That’s the mark of greatness. You can’t deny it, because it is. Blood-drippin’ font, Al Lewis kinda sorta winking at you, greatness.

Actually, the quest for these tapes never stopped. With last year’s big Halloween day post, I first spotlighted the Amvest Video “Grampa Presents” VHS series, in which Al Lewis (who was Grandpa Munster in everything but official name) hosted public domain horror films from a cheap, green-screened set and yelled at an unseen (and unheard) Igor.

Despite that tape having the notable malady of ending before the movie was actually finished, I was entranced, and by January 2016, I had not only added a number of titles in the series to my collection, but also gained quite a bit of knowledge on the company, the series as a whole, etc. This was all presented on the blog via an intensely detailed review of The Corpse Vanishes from the line, a tape that has become one of the favorites of my collection (and that post is one of my favorites on this site, too).

I’d like that Corpse Vanishes post to be the ultimate word on the subject, but that doesn’t mean my purchasing of these tapes or first-hand ‘research’ has stopped since. Oh no, I kept adding to the collection, kept learning about the various quirks of the line. Indeed, as far as pre-recorded VHS releases go, Grampa has become the main area of interest for me.

That said, while I don’t want to reiterate all of the points I made in that last article, I feel I need to give a quick summation of just why I’m so fascinated by this whole thing. In short: the series had limited distribution, and has subsequently become relatively obscure. Despite a list of supposed releases, no one is quite sure just how many tapes actually made it out with Grampa adorning them in some fashion. Add to all that a cheap, budget tape charm and the aspect of horror hosting at the center of it all, and, well, is it any wonder I want as many of these as possible?

And that brings us to this tape. In the realm of budget VHS (and Halloween!), the charmingly cheap vibes emanating forth are nearly overpowering. I mean, you’ve got Al “Grampa” Lewis, presiding over one of the greatest horror films of all-time, the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu! The German expressionist (unauthorized) adaption of Dracula! How cool is that?!

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Now, this tape was not one of the “does it actually exist or not?” entries; its existence has been confirmed for quite some time, with a pic of the box floating around online to match. Still, the very thought of Grampa hosting one of my all-time favorite films, and a bonafide classic to boot, easily made it one of my personal chasers. It took awhile for it to show up online, but eventually it did, and duly became mine. It seems like this Nosferatu is one of the harder entries to come by, but then, even the more “common” titles don’t appear all that often. And, regardless of any perceived rarity on my part, these Grampa tapes seem to run on average $20-$30 no matter what the featured movie is. Sometimes even less.

Look, I love these releases, warts and all, but aside from being compared to other old VHS tapes, they’re not really worth all that much. Is that because the line is so obscure? Because the tapes are so cheap in pretty much every facet? Or is it because I’m the only one that actually cares about all this? I don’t know the answers to these burning questions, but I do know that this Nosferatu VHS is mine and you can’t have it. So there!

You can’t say the cover isn’t eye-catching, though in a good way or a bad way is solely up to the individual gawking at it. The watercolor-ish rendition of one of the most iconic images from the film, complete with mood-setting-yet-totally-superfluous lightning added, is a good example of the art used for many (but not all!) of these tapes. As I’ve said before, they often had a decidedly “homemade” look to them, some ultimately faring better than others. Many will disagree, but I personally feel that the hand drawn covers only add to the charm of the line. It just screams “budget tape,” which, needless to say, is like my own personal Siren. (Minus the resulting sailor death – hopefully.)

But, as I’ve also pointed out before, these covers are absolutely made by the “Grampa Presents” banner along the top. How could a horror fan not want to add that to their collection? They’re always so unabashedly cool, and they totally add a unique aspect to these releases. Why pick up that cheapo copy of Nosferatu when you can have this one with Al Lewis adorning it? It’s a decision that practically makes itself!

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Like the cover art, the synopsis’ found on the backs of these varied from release to release. Nosferatu got one of the more-detailed ones, though it’s kinda odd. Nosferatu was, as previously mentioned, an unauthorized adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As such, the filmmakers originally changed names and details in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit from Stoker’s estate (a ploy that failed spectacularly; more on that in a bit). Later American prints later changed these aspects back to fit more with the Dracula we know and love. Perhaps surprisingly, the summary on the back cover uses the original naming system in its description (except for “Bremen,” which should be “Wisborg” in this instance), even though the actual print is a later Dracula-ized U.S. version that frequently made (and makes) the public domain rounds. So what point of reference was Amvest actually working from here?

And the synopsis as a whole, it’s strangely ‘paced,’ for lack of a better term. Not only does it completely ignore the Dracula-aspects of the movie, but it also really focuses on only half the story. There’s too much emphasis on Hutter/Harker being stuck in the castle, and not enough on what the movie is really about. That said, even if I hadn’t known better, it still sounds like a pretty good movie. But, the bottom line is, it’s not a very balanced summary.

‘Course, like the banner on the front covers, the saving grace on the back covers was always the “Grampa’s Ratings” feature found at the bottom. They were like Al Lewis’ own stamp of approval, his personal guarantee of a good time. He always gave a short (sometimes very short) endorsement, and the piece de resistance, a star rating system – but composed entirely of bats. That’s fantastic. No joke, through whatever faults these tapes may exhibit, they have charm to spare.

Though, only three bats? C’mon Gramps, if Nosferatu doesn’t deserve a whole four bats (or five, if that’s what his scale went up to), what does? At least he correctly concludes that it’s a “scary silent classic,” which it totally is.

(While I have my doubts that Lewis really wrote these summaries himself, I’m operating under the assumption that he did, if for no other reason than the mental image of Grandpa Munster slaving over his synopsis and score for a budget videotape amuses me.)

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NosTeratu. From the same award-winning quality control that let a tape recorded in the wrong speed make it out the door. And yet, I can’t help but love the extreme budget tape vibes projected forth by said typo. Charm baby, charm.

Amount of tape used to record this entry in the series: approximately a foot. Obviously, this is an EP-recorded tape. (However, even though it’s not an issue this time around, there is an inherent danger in jumping to such a conclusion; allow me to direct you back to my first Grampa tape review.)

Okay, so, we’ve seen the front and back covers, and the tape itself. Now it’s time for the really good stuff: Al “Grampa” Lewis not only hosting a horror movie, but a legitimately great horror movie! Behold…

What? Oh, you’re confused by the fact that you’re not seeing any actual screenshots of Grampa in action? There’s a simple reason for that: Grampa is MIA on this tape.

Yes, despite all the pomp and circumstance found on the front and back of the slipcase, inexplicably, the Grampa host segments are not included on my copy. Looks like Amvest went the Gene Shalit route this time around! (I’m reasonably sure this is the only review of Nosferatu to include a common link between Gene Shalit and Al Lewis, by the way.)

Okay, sure, the host segments for this line of tapes, they were the exact same for each movie; it’s not like I’m missing out on anything actually new to me here. Still, their absence does take away an aspect of this VHS that would have made it stand as really unique when compared to other similar releases of Nosferatu.

During my “journey” collecting as many tapes in this series as I can, I long ago discovered that certain releases, while appropriately displaying Lewis on the cover, do not actually feature him before and/or after the movie. (But on the flip side, a few releases don’t feature him on the cover at all, yet he is there when “Play” is pressed!) So, I knew that him not showing up to legitimately host this film was a distinct possibility. Just because I was forewarned doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt me deep anyway, though.

Seeing how up-and-down a lot of these Amvest releases were/are, I don’t rule out the possibility that the Al Lewis segments DID show up on some copies of Nosferatu. I’m going to guess (and that’s all this is, a guess on my part) that later issues of these tapes neglected to include the Lewis segments. I have three SP-recorded tapes from the line, and none feature him. And, as far as the EP recorded ones go, this isn’t the only one I have that omits him, either. So, it wouldn’t really surprise me if other issues of the same title did have the Grampa bits.

I guess what I’m getting at is that you just never really know until you actually play one of these.

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But, Grampa or no Grampa, Nosteratu Nosferatu is still Nosferatu. I mean, it doesn’t get much more classic than this! Plus, even with the Al Lewis host segments absent, his mere presence on the cover is enough to make Kino green with envy. Oh sure, they can restore and tint and whatever this film as much as they want, the fact remains that none of their various VHS, DVD or Blu-ray releases of Nosferatu have Grampa Munster featured on the artwork, and thus, Amvest wins.

Or do they? This ain’t exactly a Criterion-quality print of the film. Indeed, it’s borderline unwatchable, and that’s coming from a guy that spends a fair amount of time staring at thousand-year-old EP-recorded VHS tapes.

First, the good news: this is basically the version of the film that introduced me to the movie waaay back in 1997. It was Halloween day, and I was in 5th grade. My grade school always did the whole costume thing, and at lunch we were allowed to go home to change. Now, I was already a young tape-head, and I had discovered our WAOH TV-29 and the variety of classic movies they ran that just-past Summer. Oddly enough though, it wasn’t until their late morning broadcast of Nosferatu on that fateful day that I recorded anything off the station. Already a big horror and sci-fi fan, and a sucker for silents too, I was pretty stoked to check out this new-to-me movie.

So, lunchtime rolled around, my brother and I came home to get our costumes, and I had just enough time to see what I captured earlier that very day. Obviously I didn’t have time to watch the whole thing right then, but it took only a few cursory glances to know this was already ‘my’ movie. I was a fan from the start.

It was an old, worn, Americanized print, one that I’d run into time and time again in the years following, but the thing that, unbeknownst to me initially, really set this one apart was a wonderfully spooky score (relatively spooky, anyway). I can’t think of a better way to describe this, but the “woooooo” sound made upon the opening credits starting, it instantly set the tone, and thus that’s just one of the reasons this is the version of the film I’m most nostalgic for.

So, this Amvest release is essentially the same version I first saw that day back in October 1997. Well, except for the Thunderbird Films superimposition on the title screen (above), far worse print quality, and film duplication that’s markedly below what I myself recorded in EP back in ’97. I still find it wildly endearing, but man, my taped-off-TV copy from nearly 20 years ago (I refuse to believe it’s been that long!) is actually superior to this “real” release! Go figure!

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See, Dracula-styled names. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t. Upon its original release, Nosferatu changed those well-known versions to alternates. Drac became “Count Orlock,” Renfield became “Knock,” Harker became “Hutter,” and so on. Lemme explain a bit…

Nosferatu almost didn’t exist long enough for Grampa to (almost) host it. You know that lawsuit I mentioned earlier, the fear of which being the reason the names were changed in the first place? Yeah, that case was decided in the favor of Stoker’s widow anyway, and she immediately ordered that all prints be destroyed. Yikes! According to legend, she never even watched the film. Luckily, a few copies survived (foreign exports, if I recall correctly), and it’s those sources that gave us the film(s) we have today.

Well, at some point, U.S. prints began removing “Orlock” and so on and instead utilizing the originally-changed names. Nosferatu was obviously already Dracula-ish, but this made it even more Dracula-ish (which makes sense, since it’s, you know, Dracula), and those are the versions most commonly (always?) found making the public domain rounds nowadays.

Are the “re-revised” names found on this release true to the original film? Well, no. Purists will naturally balk at their inclusion here (and at a variety of other aspects, too). Still, because this is how I first saw the movie, I initially had a hard time fully getting into the restored versions that utilized the original ‘fake’ names. Doesn’t bother me now, but I still refer to Max Schreck’s vampire as “Dracula,” not “Orlock,” simply because that’s what it was to me first.

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A face? Nosferatu don’t need no face!

Look, we’re lucky to have any prints of Nosferatu at all, and naturally the ones we did end up with were copied endlessly in the years prior to this video release. Even the various Kino versions, fantastic though they are, aren’t exactly pristine. So, no one should ever think they’re going to get something particularly fantastic-lookin’ from a budget VHS edition. One recorded in EP, at that.

As you can see above, there are shapes and forms on-screen, but actual detail is pretty much loooong gone. Now, most of that is the print itself, but Amvest, for as much as I love ’em, they get some of the blame here, too; their duplication techniques were apparently not the best. I’m not just talking the EP recording speed either, but rather the actual duplication. So many of these tapes look like they were duplicated using the old VCR-to-VCR method; maybe they were, I don’t know. Point is, when you’re using a trashed print of whatever, poor duplication is only going to make the final product look even worse.

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A face? Nosferatu don’t need no face!

The poor condition of this print (and others like it), it’s understandable; I don’t think there was anything even approaching a ‘definitive’ Nosferatu until Kino released their terrific restoration in 1991. And, despite the poor quality here, you do get the gist of things. But man, sharper image quality makes a big difference in a film like this.

On that front, I’ve got to backtrack a bit. I’ve previously stated that with films like this (and the original Night of the Living Dead, while we’re at it), you can clean them up and restore them all you want, the older, worn prints are the ones I find most effective. I don’t mind if a version uses the Dracula names, lacks tinting, is scratchy, whatever – to me, that only enhances the nightmarish quality. It almost feels more otherworldly, like you’re watching something you’re not supposed to. I know I’m in the minority here, and it undoubtedly has to do with how I first saw the movie, but hey, that’s just me.

HOWEVER, I’ve got to rectify that statement somewhat; while I still stand by it, I stand by it only to an extent. This Nosferatu, it just looks bad. It’s blurry, the detail is blasted, and the picture is overly cropped. As such, much of the mood, not only is it NOT enhanced, it’s actually destroyed beyond repair.

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A head? Nosferatu don’t need no head!

There’s that cropping I just mentioned! Nosferatu being cropped isn’t exactly a unique aspect to this release; many versions suffered varying degrees of cropping. Amvest’s Nosferatu though, boy, scenes like the one above (one of my favorites from the film) are not only rendered much less effective, they also look a bit goofy – and Nosferatu is anything but goofy.

Abrupt gear shift; I should probably talk about the actual movie a little, huh? I have a feeling most people stumbling on to my silly little blog have already seen Nosferatu; it’s one of THE top horror films, silent or otherwise. But if, by chance, you haven’t seen Nosferatu, yet are familiar with Dracula (in some form or another), well, you’ll probably already have an idea of how this film plays out. The basics are same: a vampire travels from his faraway castle to civilization, bringing with him a thirst for blood, and thus, death.

There’s some notable differences in Nosferatu, even beyond the aforementioned name changes. The setting is German instead of English, different date, different way of defeating the vampire, etc. The biggest difference, however, is the vampire himself; this ain’t your Lugosi’s Dracula! Instead of the classy Count that Bela portrayed, Max Schreck’s is an ugly, rat-like creature. Tall, gawky, stiff as a board and with claw-like hands, Nosferatu is legitimately terrifying. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, Schreck’s looks as evil as he really is! (Too bad the quality of this print is too rough for me to really show you!)

Look, Nosferatu is public domain. There’s no shortage of copies out there. My recommendation: head on over to Amazon and grab Kino’s fantastic restoration. If you haven’t seen the film, you need to see it. It’s a fantastic piece of German expressionism that, frankly, I’m not sure I can do justice to by merely explaining it.

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Look familiar? Why, that’s our cover art in action! You’ll note the absence of lightning. And why exactly is a vampire walking around in daylight? Nosferatu was originally tinted, with appropriate colors for appropriate times/scenes/etc. Restored versions included new, supposedly-accurate tinting, though that is, of course, not the case with the public domain copies such as this one.

It’s a testament to just how well-made this film is that even without the original tinting, and even in a print as poor as this particular one, some of the images still remain effective. Case in point: above, and below…

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Surely you recognize this scene. It’s one of the most iconic images from the film, which is really saying something, considering there’s plenty of iconic images throughout. Even with the shoddy shape this print is in, it’s tough to ruin it, though the VHS refusing to track properly did the best it could. (No kidding; being old budget tapes, these Amvest videos often have tracking problems, but man, this Nosferatu just got crankier and crankier as it played.)


This is a tape where the whole is probably greater than the sum of its parts.

While on one hand you’ve got a legitimately classic horror film as part of a cool series of tapes from the golden age of home video, you’ve also got a terrible print, problematic tracking, and what was supposed to be one of the most unique things about the whole deal, Grampa’s host segments, those aren’t even included.

And yet, somehow, it still works. Don’t get me wrong, this is far, far from a definitive release of Nosferatu, but as an artifact of 1980s home video, it’s pretty darn cool. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for classic horror films, especially public domain ones that have found their way to the often-murky world of cheapie videotapes.

Or maybe it’s just that Al Lewis box art. After all, that alone probably puts this one above all the other budget releases of the time. Okay, it’s a host-less version of the movie, and with awful picture-quality to boot. Doesn’t change the fact this makes for one neat, Halloweeny-lookin’ video! On the outside, anyway…

At any rate, I couldn’t be happier to have this as part of my collection. Another Grampa tape down, _____ to go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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