Tag Archives: vhs tape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And that brings us to Alice in Wonderland proper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My conclusions?

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

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

And it was only 60 cents!

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!

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*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.

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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…

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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!

Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Final Sci-Fi Channel Broadcast (January 31, 2004)

mst3k final ep 1

(Caution: this is an article by an MSTie, so beware of some “technical” jargon y’all non-MSTies might not understand.)

Well lookee what your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter dids dones did dugged up! While going through boxes of tapes, I came across the VHS recording I made of Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s final Sci-Fi Channel broadcast, waaaaay back in 2004 (January 31, to be exact). The episode? 912 – The Screaming Skull (with the Gumby short Robot Rumpus). The time? Saturday morning, 9 AM. The feeling? Well, kinda downbeat, honestly. For as good as this episode was/is, it couldn’t quite overcome the feeling that something special was passing by.

By 2004, I had long captured, on good ol’ VHS, all of the remaining episodes that Sci-Fi could legally air (except for a Blood Waters Of Dr. Z re-broadcast – of course the VCR died for that one), which naturally already included episode 912. This, this broadcast, however, it didn’t really matter what the actual episode was; this was all about partaking in the last Mystery Science Theater 3000 on actual television for the foreseeable future. As it turned out, it would be back in about 10 years, but of course no one knew that at the time. There had been so many rights issues with the movies featured on the show over the years that, for all anyone knew, this was it. ‘Course, we still had the official DVD releases, and the tape trading circles, but even to this day there’s just something about actually tuning in to MST3K that feels so right. At least, that’s how I feel about it; your mileage may vary.

I explained this all a bit better in that older post I linked to, but long story short: I began watching the show when it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel 1997, and by the summer, I was a die-hard MSTie, which I obviously remain to this day. At the time, you needed a cable box to access Sci-Fi, and unfortunately, my dad decided he didn’t want to spend the extra bucks for the box anymore. Thus, that began a period of living with what I had already recorded, getting others to record episodes for me, and the official VHS releases that were trickling out.

That is, until early 2002, when I discovered Sci-Fi had been added to the basic cable line-up. Thanks to Satellite News’ helpful schedule archives, I can pinpoint when exactly I was able to finally see the show on real TV again (via a nearby relative’s house, because at that point we didn’t even have basic cable): February 23, 2002, episode 911- Devil Fish. I was elated (though it figures that the episode largely responsible for turning me into an MSTie, 811 – Parts: The Clonus Horror, had what turned out to be its last Sci-Fi airing about a month prior – just missed it!).

It was a ‘reunion’ that lasted nearly 2 years, and it all came to an end with this one last broadcast.

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Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been over 10 years since this aired. 2004 just does not seem that long ago! I was a junior in high school!

It’s important to note that this wasn’t the actual series finale of Mystery Science Theater 3000; that happened back in 1999, with episode 1013 – Diabolik (though thanks to a rights snafu, episode 1003 – Merlin’s Shop Of Mystical Wonders wound up airing first-run about a month after said series finale, giving heartbroken MSTies one last bit of shiny new freshness). Rather, this was the last episode ever broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Y’see, after the show finished with new episodes in 1999, it went into endless repeats on Sci-Fi, eventually languishing in a Saturday morning time slot where it would remain for the rest of its time on the channel. Advertising had long, long stopped being run for MST3K, so outside of the fan circles, it was just kind of ‘there,’ treated no better than Saturday morning filler. We MSTies knew better, though; unbeknownst to most, this was the way to kick off your Saturday.

So, after two whole cable channels and having run since 1989 (technically, three channels since 1988, for you lucky Minnesotans who got to watch the series start on the local independent station KTMA TV-23), it all came down to this one last broadcast on January 31, 2004. Well, until Retro TV picked the series up 10 years later, anyway.

"Robot Rump?!" - Servo

“Robot Rump?! Oh…” – Servo

Here’s the deal with episodes of this series: they can be very, very subjective. Because opinions on movies and humor can vary so greatly from person to person, there’s always going to be someone who loves a certain episode to death, while someone else will hate it with a passion. From my viewpoint, 912 is a very good episode. Maybe not a start-to-finish smash, but mostly good host segments, fantastic riffing on the short, and a solid take on the movie. There are undoubtedly people out there that will disagree with that assessment, and hey, that’s cool, too.

912 may not be the all-out, blaze-of-glory episode many would have preferred for the final Sci-Fi broadcast, but it is a solid, enjoyable from start-to-finish episode, which seems just as fitting to me. Maybe because it’s so representative of MST3K as it often was: maybe not every riff connected throughout, but the episode was overall consistently funny nevertheless. I wasn’t kidding a bit ago, by 2004 there really was no better way to start your Saturday.

The one aspect of this episode that most fans seem to agree about: the short film preceding the movie is phenomenal. The shorts were a rarity during the Sci-Fi-era, there were only three of ’em total, but man, quality over quantity. Of the three, I easily give the edge to this one, the Gumby epic Robot Rumpus. This might as well have been made for MST3K, because it fits like a glove.

"It's a fair-to-partly cottony day." - Crow

“It’s a fair-to-partly cottony day.” – Crow

Truthfully, there are some shorts in the MST3K canon that no longer have me rolling the way they did the first few times I watched them; Chicken Of Tomorrow (from 702 – The Brute Man) used to be one of my favorites, but after the last few viewings, well, it has left me a bit cold. Robot Rumpus, on the other hand, I’ve seen this one so many times that by this point I’m fairly certain I’m never going to get tired of it. It starts out hilarious and stays right there. By the time a shot of Pokey prompts Mike to quip “Close-ups reveal the weakness of the whole premise,” I was done for. This one seems to get better each time I watch it.

The plot is, well, it’s a clay-animated Gumby short with the title Robot Rumpus, so don’t expect Shakespeare, alright? In this one, Gumby, rather than do his yardwork chores himself, gets a bunch of robots to do them for him. Things start out peacefully enough, but they soon go haywire; gardens are ruined, paint is thrown about, and a house is lifted off its foundation before Gumby’s pop Gumbo shows to help put things back in order. I’m tempted to call this the weirdest thing ever, but kids programming is by nature usually pretty weird, so it would be an entirely redundant statement (plus, I’m watching a show where a guy and his two robots are trapped in space and forced to watch bad movies; I love MST3K, but I’ll never say the premise isn’t a bit out there – that’s one of the reasons it’s so great!).

Also, it’s nice to know that Gumby holds a Class F license.

"Okay, who turned up the heat in the hot tub?!" - Servo

“Okay, who turned up the heat in the hot tub?” – Servo

A common charge against some of the episodes with particularly strong shorts before the main movie is that the feature never sustains the momentum of the short. I wouldn’t say this is true 100% of the time, but there are episodes where the short overshadows the movie somethin’ awful. So what am I even babbling about?

In the case of 912, you’ve got two forces contrasting each other as much as two forces can be, erm…contrasted? What I’m saying is you’ve got a loud, colorful, clay animated short intended for the lil’ baby childrens, and a long, black & white, slow-moving, drab horror movie for the older set (and by “older set” I don’t mean the “adult” set so much as I do “necking teenagers at the drive-in who couldn’t care less about a skull or why it happens to emitting loud decibels” set). The two don’t really pair well together, for obvious reasons.

And yet, together on Mystery Science Theater 3000, somehow it all works. True, the riffing of The Screaming Skull isn’t on the same level as Robot Rumpus, but with such a dramatic shift in tone, I don’t think you could really expect it to be. That said, I really enjoy The Screaming Skull portion of 912. Any movie that starts off with the promise of a free coffin for anyone that dies of fright during it is setting itself up for some quality riffin’, and Mike & The Bots live up to the challenge. I found myself laughing quite a bit throughout the entire feature-portion of the show (some of the riffing on the good Reverend Snow in particular is fantastic; during a conversation in which perpetually-worried-face Jenni unloads her emotional burden to him, Mike’s “You know, the Gospel speaks of losers like you…” and Crow’s semi-cheery “Oh, well it’s hell for you then!” had me roaring).

"Oh, he's playing with his beach skull!" - Mike "Buy beach skull now and receive free beach clavicle!" - Crow

“Oh, he’s playing with his beach skull!” – Mike / “Buy beach skull now and receive free beach clavicle!” – Crow

(Caution: some movie plot spoilers ahead, like anyone really cares.)

The screencap above makes this one seem more action packed than it really is. The fact of the matter is not a whole lot happens (not until the very end, anyway). This is one of those plots you can more or less figure out from the title and first 5-10 minutes of the film or so.

In it, newlyweds Jenni and Eric begin their new life together by moving into the house in which Eric and his first wife Marion lived before her untimely death. Also, she died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Also, Jenni used to be in a mental institution. Also, Jenni is rich. Where this is all going couldn’t be any more obvious if someone wrote the entire plot out on a brick and threw it at your face. I’m pretty sure children are born with the knowledge of where this is all heading.

So yeah, Eric tries to drive his new wife batty (again) and thus to suicide by convincing her the house is haunted by the ghost of his first wife, her skull in particular, which naturally only Jenni can see.

Except there’s a twist here. For the stunning (?) climax, The real ghost of Marion shows up, announcing her presence first by chasing Jenni around (which kinda irritates me, since Jenni didn’t really do anything to draw the ire of the apparition, except maybe keeping her face in an almost constantly pinched expression), and then straight up killing Eric (that’s what you’re seeing in the screencap above).

If I’m being completely honest, yes, it’s a dull film with loooong sequences of nothing in particular really happening. BUT, it’s not that bad. I mean, yes, it is bad, no question, but it’s basically inoffensive 1950s drive-in fare. There were infinitely more disgusting things ran on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In comparison to, say, The Beast Of Yucca Flats, The Screaming Skull actually looks pretty derned good (then again, what doesn’t?). And, even though it takes forever to get there, some of the climatic scenes are actually pretty effective, provided you can ignore Eric clearly holding a plastic skull to his neck, and the infamous tossing-a-stool-at-the-ghost scene (which became this episode’s stinger). The movie itself almost lends an easygoing vibe to this episode as a whole, which is weird since it concerns a guy trying to kill his wife with a plastic skull.

The proceedings aren’t overly painful, is what I’m trying to explain.

Oh, and there’s a Torgo-esque gardener named Mickey. He provides some unintended levity to the proceedings, though he’s still a distant third behind Torgo and Ortega in the “really, really weird lackey that probably needs a shower” category.

mst3k final ep 8

The host segments for this episode, like I said before, they’re “mostly good.” I wasn’t super impressed with Tom Servo turning into a butterfly or Pearl, Observer & Bobo tricking Mike & The Bots into costumes for no real reason. But on the other hand, Servo attempting to scam a free coffin is good, and Bobo being shrunk via the most non-existent special effect possible at the end is funny.

But, my favorite host segment is seen above: Crow decides to scare Mike by being a “screaming skull.” Unfortunately, his (fairly wimpy) scream causes Mike to flip out and continuously scream in terror as he beats Crow over the head with a variety of objects (the best scene of the segment is Mike carefully deciding on the perfect golf club to hit Crow with, all while still screaming). The host segments of MST3K can often be a mixed bag, and this episode is no exception, but this moment in particular is a bonafide winner.


 

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I said way up above that advertising for MST3K had basically disappeared from the station following the 1999 series finale. If there were any kind of promos for the series in general following that, I’m unaware of them. I’m guessing there may have been one for Merlin’s Shop Of Mystical Wonders, and Satellite News shows a mini-marathon of episodes at the end of 1999, which I cant imagine there not being some kind of advertising for that. But following all that, MST3K finished life on Sci-Fi strictly on Saturday mornings. When I was able to watch the show in “real time” again in 2002, I certainly never saw any advertising. I want to say there was a “coming up next” deal prior to episodes starting, but even if that’s so, that’s more of a courtesy than anything.

Anyway, in regards to this January 31 broadcast, the only thing even in the ballpark of advertising is what you’re seeing above: the little ‘banner’ at the bottom of the screen, reminding you of what you’re watching. Granted, it was common to Sci-Fi programming at the time, and they also take the opportunity to tell you what’s coming up next (in this case, Fright Night 2), but still, it’s nice to see that even in that little itty bitty way, MST3K was still on Sci-Fi’s radar. Kinda.

While on the subject of advertising, thus far this has been more of an episode review. Which is fine, because after years of hoping and praying, it was finally released officially in the Volume XXXI Turkey Day DVD set. I probably wouldn’t put 912 in my top 10 favorite episodes ever list, but I do like it plenty. Top 20, maybe.

However, this article is supposed to be about the larger broadcast picture. Sure, the episode itself is the main point, but what definitively places things in a certain time and place are the commercials. Just like my other ‘broadcast recap’ posts, I like to finish up with a look at those.

The problem here is that, being from 2004, most of the commercials, well, they aren’t that great. 2004 is just too new to be all that interesting. Still, I’d be remiss in whatever it is that can be considered my duties if I didn’t give at least a quick look at them, so here now are some of the better ones (in my opinion, anyway) that were seen during Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Sci-Fi farewell broadcast on January 31, 2004:

 

Sci-Fi Channel Stargate SG-1 / Code Name: Eternity Promo

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Hey, you all remember Stargate SG-1, don’t you? Sure you do! After all, it was only on for about 47 years. It was about MacGyver and a guy with a Dodge Ram logo on his forehead going through adventures in outer space or something like that.

Easy SG-1 fans, of course I jest. It was actually a pretty good show, at least what I saw of it when it was in syndication (around here it was WJW TV-8 on weekend afternoons, if I recall correctly). This promo, obviously, spotlights the show after new episodes were moved from Showtime to Sci-Fi.

As for Code Name: Eternity, never saw it. Apparently it was a 1999 Canadian series that only ran a season and then showed up on Sci-Fi. Ain’t I helpful?

 

BarNone Auto Loans Ad

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I had almost completely wiped this series of ads from my memory. BarNone Auto Loans are still around, and at the time they had a line of commercials featuring a dog sock puppet (apparently originally a Pets.com mascot, though I really have totally forgotten all about that hoopla) pitching the company. So, yeah.

 

Office Max Highlighters Ad

mst3k final ep 16

This one spotlights (see what I did there HAW HAW HAW) Office Max’s special brand of highlighters, and centers around one employee’s convoluted “too sick to work” scheme, which fails spectacularly. At least I think that’s plot of the commercial, I didn’t bother to save it to the PC and I refuse to go back and check. I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s about.

 

Geico Gecko Ad

mst3k final ep 17

Geez oh man, it can be hard to realize that Geico’s Gecko has been around for basically forever at this point. I also find it troubling that I can tell his accent is slightly different in this ad from what it is nowadays, even though I’m hardly a Geico Gecko expert. In this installment in the long running series, a boy sleeps while his two robot toys prepare to duke it out. That is, until the Gecko steps forward to pontificate about Geico, much to the amazement of said toys.

 

Cabin Fever On DVD & VHS Ad

mst3k final ep 18

Yes, they were still releasing commercial movies on VHS in 2004. That wouldn’t last a whole lot longer. My reasons for including this one have less to do with the movie (I have never seen Cabin Fever nor do I have any interest in seeing Cabin Fever) and the odds were good that I would have ended up skipping this one entirely (a fate that befell a Burger King ad featuring Steve Harvey trying to come up with a combination name for “sandwich” and “salad”), until I realized it starred Shawn from Boy Meets World. Though, that’s really all I have to say about it. So, thank my TGIF nostalgia for this entry, I guess.

 

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles On Nintendo Gamecube Ad

mst3k final ep 20

Hey, a commercial I can almost get excited for! I say “almost” because aside from the very first installment for NES, I have never played a Final Fantasy game. And, since I generally don’t care for most RPGs, I really have no interest in even that one. In other words, I haven’t played Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles and you can’t make me.

HOWEVER, the poor Nintendo Gamecube, while maintaining a cult following, was basically getting clobbered by Sony’s Playstation 2 and Microsoft’s Xbox at the time. Since Final Fantasy is indeed a big name in the game world, it was nice to see it show up on Nintendo’s underrated console; from a sales-standpoint, it needed all the help it could get (that’s not a slam, either; I had a Gamecube, still do somewhere in fact, and it was definitely a lot of fun, but the system really was an object of derision among most of my PS2-owning friends, which I think was representative of teenagers in general).

At any rate, old video game ads are always a nice example of the time in which they were broadcast. So, 2004, Gamecube, there you go.

Next On Sci-Fi Promo

mst3k final ep 21

Found during the final commercial break of the broadcast, this was a short promo for what was coming up next on Sci-Fi. Fright Night II (hey, it was listed as Fright Night 2 before!) and Halloween II & III would take you up through midday that Saturday. While I’ll never claim to have much interest in any of those films, does Sci-Fi even play movies like them anymore? Of course it’s “SyFy” nowadays, but at last check (and it really has been awhile), it was all homemade SyFy exclusives and whatnot. Then again, I don’t watch the station anymore, so what do I know?


And so, Mystery Science Theater 3000 came to an end on the Sci-Fi Channel. Never has a show-ending stinger felt so bittersweet. We had our tapes, we had our DVDs, but what we didn’t have was knowledge of when or if we’d ever see our favorite show being broadcast again.

A lot of the “specialness” of this recording has dissipated over the years, but for once, this is a good thing. We MSTies have been given what could be described as the royal treatment. MST3K has been making a comeback on actual TV, the DVDs are profuse, and most of the people involved with the show are still out there cranking out the comedy in various forms.

Still, it’s a tape that captures that moment in time when a lot (but not all) of that was still up in the air, and for that, I’m glad I still have it.

Plus, you know, it’s a good episode I like to watch every now and then. Kinda easy to forget that when I’m busy pontificating about (real or imagined?) specialness and whatnot.

mst3k final ep 11

Man, that image above still brings a tear to my eye. Figuratively, I mean. After all, it’s just a show, I should just relax and all that jazz.