Tag Archives: weird western

DVD Review: A BIG BOX OF COWBOYS, ALIENS, ROBOTS AND DEATH RAYS (S’more Entertainment, 2011)

You know how much I love budget DVD compilations of old movies; I’ve gone to that well more than once here on the blog. I don’t claim to own, or even seen, all that the “genre” has to offer, and so, it’s always a thrill to find a new, unbeknownst-to-me set – especially one that makes my eyes figuratively pop out. S’more Entertainment’s A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is absolutely, without a doubt one such DVD collection.

This was released in 2011, seemingly to cash in on the hype surrounding a movie I have practically zero recollection of: Cowboys & Aliens. I haven’t seen it and I have no intention of seeing it.

Still, I always love it when a new home video release plays into the vibes of a then-current Hollywood product; we saw this big time with Sons of Kong, and in the same vein comes A Big Box… That is old, public domain movies, in this case B-Westerns with elements of science fiction and/or horror, put together to “ride the wave.” All four of my regular readers will recall how much I love B-Westerns, and when they broke out of the mold and included elements not commonly associated with the genre (that is, sci-fi and horror), as we saw this past Halloween season with 1944’s Wild Horse Phantom, well, that’s just double-interestin’ to yours truly.

Given the title, I was expecting an actual box set, but when my copies arrived (that’s right, copies. I had to order these, and I got two; one to watch watch/review, and one to keep minty sealed fresh cause that’s how I roll), but in reality, what arrived was a four-disc, eight-movie set (two movies per disc, giving them a nice “double feature” feel), all housed in a standard-size DVD case with four hubs inside. Rest assured, I prefer this packaging; it’s a sleek, compact design that doesn’t take any extra space on the figurative DVD shelf, but with enough weight to it to really feel like a product, if that makes any sense. I dig it, is what I’m saying.

I like the cover art. The robot on the horse seems to be a modified version of the ‘bots seen in the first movie of the set (more on that momentarily). As you can see, the graphic artist in charge put him on a horse, threw him in a western village, and gave it a flying saucer to loom overhead – complete with big ol’ explosion! This art is also found (in slightly animated form) on the DVD menu screens, and I like it a lot – even if there are no actual flying saucers in any of these films. It absolutely gets the point across, and appears competently made to boot. Well done, me says!

So now, let’s check it out, disc by disc. Being such old films, the print quality obviously varies movie by movie, as (I hope) you’d expect. Yes, there are splices, scratches, dirt, dust, and quite often the edge of the frame is plainly visible. I don’t mind any of that one bit. The print quality lends these films an added air of old-time matinee charm, and besides, scratches or not, they’re all uniformly watchable.


Disc One: The set kicks off with a bang, with Radio Ranch, a 1940 feature version of the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire. This film alone basically sums of the title of the collection as a whole. Starring Gene Autry (in his first lead outing), the flick combines the singing cowboy sub-genre of B-Westerns with a legitimate science fiction bend, and from start to finish, it’s pretty wild.

Gene hosts a daily radio program from the aforementioned “Radio Ranch,” a showcase in which to sing his songs. He’s amassed quite a following; he even has his own fan club on the premises. Unfortunately, not everyone loves Gene’s show; a group of scientists want him off the land so they can harvest the valuable radium deposit right underneath.

Oh, and also located directly beneath the ranch? A lost underground civilization, and guess what? tThey want Gene outta there too. (These are the “aliens” of the collection’s title; no outer space fellas in this one!) The underground city is a trip; it’s a sprawling underground city (think of a cut-rate Metropolis), complete with goofy-lookin’ robot servants, citizens that can’t breathe our air and thus need oxygen masks (we can breathe okay down there, though), and a really icy (as in disposition) queen ruler.

Since it’s a condensed version of a 12-chapter serial, it stands to reason the flow of the film is a somewhat disjointed, but you know what? It’s a lot of fun, and a good summation of what this DVD set is supposed to be about.

Nearly any film is going to appear tame by comparison, but even so, the next feature on the disc, 1936’s Ghost Patrol, seems really tame, which is too bad because the title of Ghost Patrol is pretty cool. But in actuality, it’s a talky Tim McCoy vehicle, and while there is a legit sci-fi element to it, it doesn’t appear in full until the last 15 minutes of the feature, and even then nothing much happens until the last 4 minutes. As such, this is more of a straight B-Western than anything.

In it, a scientist has been captured by baddies and forced to perfect a death ray, capable of causing a plane’s engine to fail. Said baddies use this to bring down planes carrying the, as you would say, big money. Tim McCoy is a government agent out to put a stop to such shenanigans. Also present is the scientist’s daughter, who…doesn’t do much of anything, honestly.

Ghost Patrol isn’t a bad film, but a little slow and definitely a huge step down from the wackiness of Radio Ranch. Still, neat title


Disc Two: For the sake of full disclosure, I muse admit that when I first dug into this set, this was the disc I started with. Under normal circumstances, I steadfastly refuse to enter in the middle of things, as it were. Nope, I like to start at the beginning and go in order until it’s finished. So why the deviation this time around? Two words: Ken Maynard.

No joke, Ken Maynard is my favorite B-Western actor, and quite possibly my favorite western star period. I haven’t seen a film of his that I haven’t liked to some degree, and the first feature here, Tombstone Canyon, is a flick I’ve been jonesin’ to watch. I actually already owned it, as both a standalone DVD and an old VHS release, but for one reason to another, I just never got around to checking it out, despite its cool concept.

(In fact, the whole reason I stumbled upon this DVD set in the first place was because I was researching different releases of Tombstone Canyon.)

Tombstone Canyon falls much more on the horror side of things than the previous two films. In it, Ken rides into town at the insistence of an old friend, but to get there he has to pass through the titular location, and that’s where the trouble starts. Not only are there some villains running rampant right from the start, but more distressingly, there’s someone dubbed “The Phantom Killer” roaming the canyon. He makes weird howling calls, he’s really strong, and he has no qualms about killing people. The character lends a creepy, engrossing air to a film plot that would have been standard western fodder otherwise.

The ending is also slightly abrupt, but in a good way. Think of some of those shocking endings in certain episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O or Miami Vice, where there’s some violence, and then it just ends. It’s a little like that, and it works really well. The entire climax of the film is terrific, come to think of it.

Tombstone Canyon also boasts the best film print of all 8 movies in this set. Oh, there’s scratches and dirt and such, but the image itself is beautifully sharp and clear. It even looked good while being unnaturally stretched to widescreen on my HDTV. (I refuse to fiddle with the picture settings.) Add that on top of an already phenomenally entertaining flick and first-rate star, and you’ve got easily my favorite movie in the entire collection.

The second disc starts strong and finishes strong, with 1937’s Riders of the Whistling Skull. I’m not sure if this or Radio Ranch is the more famous example of the “weird western” sub-genre, but it’s certainly a heavy-hitter. An entry in the long-running Three Mesquiteers film series, Riders… may be a little (but just a little) less overtly nutty than Radio Ranch, but it’s still pretty out there.

Here, the Mesquiteers get involved with an expedition into a lost city, where a fortune in gold resides. A scientist had previously traveled there but never returned, so it’s up to his daughter and crew to try and rescue him. Along the way, there’s a weird Indian cult (complete with a guy dancing around in a skull mask), murder, some double-crossin’, a skull-shaped mountain (not that one!), even a temple with some mummies! A standard B-Western this most certainly is not!

A ton of action, too. In comparison to how the first disc ended, Riders… is incredibly action-packed. It’s a pretty good movie as a whole too, and since I’m not a big Three Mesquiteers fan, that says a lot.

I dare say that of the four discs, this second one is the strongest of the lot. Two excellent films that are pretty much worth the price of admission alone.


Disc Three: The second half of the collection opens with an entry in the “Renfrew of the Royal Mounted” series, 1940’s Sky Bandits. As you may surmise, Renfrew was a Canadian Mountie, and with the Yukon setting, this isn’t technically a western film, but these Renfrews are (seemingly) usually lumped in with the genre anyway, and besides, it has all the other correct ingredients.

Another reason this inclusion fits perfectly? According to Wikipedia, it’s actually a remake of Ghost Patrol! The plots are strikingly similar; both feature a scientist under the thumb of some unscrupulous types, both feature a death ray that is used to bring down airplanes in order to extract valuable cargo, and both feature the scientist’s daughter showing up to get in the way.

Sky Bandits is a better movie by far, however. It moves much faster, with more action, more usage of the death ray, and with some real comedy relief provided by Dave O’Brien as fellow Mountie. Even the daughter actually has a real bearing on the plot here. Throw in a couple inexplicable-but-fun musical numbers, and you’ve got a fun, breezy flick. I had never seen a Renfrew before, but I genuinely enjoyed this movie! More than I was anticipating, quite honestly.

Next: 1938’s Gun Packer, which is the most ‘normal’ western movie in the entire collection (though it’s a close call between it and Ghost Patrol). Honestly, it’s practically a straight B-Western. Oh, there’s a scientist on the premises, and he’s devised some weird method for making gold “disappear,” as well as created a highly-explosive liquid substance, but the science fiction threads aren’t overt at all here.

Unfortunately, Gun Packer also demonstrates the era in which it was produced. Our hero has an African-American sidekick, played by Ray Turner, and, well, he portrays the kind of stereotypical comedic character that was common in movies at the time. It’s pretty uncomfortable, and it’s in cases like this that a film has to be watched with a historical context in mind.

Fun Fact: Dave O’Brien and Louise Stanley are in both of the third disc’s offerings, making me wonder if the pairing was intentional. Stanley is the usual female lead in both, but O’Brien’s roles are polar opposites; goofball comedic relief in Sky Bandits, one of the bad guys in Gun Packer.


Disc Four: The final disc of the collection starts with 1941’s Saddle Mountain Roundup, an entry in the “Range Busters” series. Another one of those trio films like the Three Mesquiteers, (Max Terhune plays the jokey ventriloquist member in the examples of both found in this collection), there are very strong horror overtones in this one.

In it, cranky land owner Magpie Harper is convinced someone is trying to kill him and, well, he’s right. The Range Busters, already hired to watch over his property, try to figure out who done did it.

Sadly, like Gun Packer, the racial stereotypes of the era rear their head again, this time in the form of Chinese cook (and occasional suspect) Fang Way, played by Willie Fung. His sometimes-shifty behavior, nearly-incomprehensible English and scatterbrained demeanor are wildly unacceptable today, so again, this is a case where you have to view with historical context in mind.

That’s the only serious blight on the movie though, because otherwise, I genuinely enjoyed it. Creepy cinematography, rain storms, a murder mystery, cloaked figures, a cave that is essentially the fill in for an “old dark house,” horror vibes are found throughout. The plot is fun and at less than an hour, breezy enough.

And that brings us to the final movie of the collection, 1935’s The Vanishing Riders, and boy is creeeeeeaky. B-Westerns weren’t exactly high-budget items anyway (hence the “B” branding), but even so, the cheapness of this one really shines through.

Bill Cody (not the Buffalo one) and his real-life son Bill Cody Jr. (also not the Buffalo one) star as a (former) sheriff and his adopted child, respectively. There’s a deserted town, a marauding gang of thieves, a crotchety old man, a lovely leading lady and a plot to rustle some cattle, but I’m going to be honest with you, only two things stick out to me about this one: 1) Cody Jr., roughly 10 years old, has a role comparable to the other adults, and he gets a lot of screen time doing ‘heroic’ stuff. We’re talking Gamera-movie levels of importance for the kid. Frankly, it’s pretty annoying. 2) At one point both Cody men dress both themselves and their horses up in skeleton costumes in order to scare the thieves.

It’s those skeleton costumes that lend a horror flair to The Vanishing Riders, so it fits the theme of this DVD fine, but for as much as I love B-Westerns, the kid-friendly nature of the flick drags this one down for me.


A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is a pretty consistent collection of horror and science fiction-tinged B-Westerns. The overall theme of the set is just so neat that you (well, I) can’t help but love it. Radio Ranch, Tombstone Canyon and Riders of the Whistling Skull are terrific and worth the price of admission alone, Sky Bandits and Saddle Mountain Roundup are fun, solid inclusions, and Ghost Patrol, Gun Packer and The Vanishing Riders, while not up to the level of the other movies in the collection (in my opinion), are if nothing else watchable examples of the B-Western genre and the matinee vibes said genre exemplifies.

Aside from the few noted and unfortunate racial stereotypes that were products of their time, it’s a pretty easygoing set; for fans of B-Westerns, vintage horror and/or science fiction, or all three, it’s not a bad choice. It appears this compilation is out of print, or at least, Amazon currently has no new copies for sale, but methinks it’s worth hunting down; it certainly stands out from the numerous other budget DVD compilations that have hit the shelves over the years!

Movie Review: Wild Horse Phantom (1944)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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