Creepy Cowboys (Tombstone Canyon/Vanishing Riders/The Rawhide Terror/Wild Horse Phantom) (1932-1944)
"The town is s'posed to be full of ha'nts and ghosts of the former citizens."- Hiram McDuff (Budd Buster) in The Vanishing Riders
Stars: Ken Maynard, Bill Cody, Buster Crabbe, Art Mix
Other Stars: Cecelia Parker, Sheldon Lewis, Bill Cody Jr., Ethel Jackson, Al St. John, Elaine Morey, Edmund Cobb, William Barrymore, William Desmond, Frances Morris
Director: Alan James, Bob Hill, Bruce Mitchell, Jack Nelson, Sam Newfield
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild western violence)
Run Time: 03h:28m:14s
Release Date: 2006-04-25
DVD ReviewWhen the B Western was flourishing in the 1930s, there were a few ways of distinguishing the product. The easiest was with getting a star who was bankable, and another was in having an element of the supernatural. The latter resulted in the Gothic Western, a subgenre that doesn't quite live up to the horrific promises of Retromedia's packaging here, but it's one that has some modest interest of its own.
The first picture on the set, Tombstone Canyon (1932) is one of the better ones, featuring cowboy star Ken Maynard with his oddly-named horse Tarzan. Ken stars as Ken Mason, a roving cowboy who is looking for the secret of his ancestry, but his pal Luke Waley, who promised to tell him who his father was, turns up murdered. Coming to Mesa, Arizona, Ken learns of the eerie Tombstone Canyon, guarded by The Phantom (Sheldon Lewis), a black-clad madman who howls a warning cry before shooting. Ken tries to help out at the ranch of Jenny Lee (Cecilia Parker) and her father Colonel Lee (Lafe McKee). Lewis is well known to fans of silents as both The Creeping Hand in The Exploits of Elaine and starring in a 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde design to capitalize on the John Barrymore version. He really goes wild with an over-the-top performance that's pretty entertaining in and of itself. The western action is pretty dim, though, with some ill-staged fistfights that are poor even by B standards. The Tombstone Canyon setting is effective, though, using the Mojave Desert surroundings to eerie effect.
The Vanishing Riders (1935) features star Bill Cody (not to be confused with Buffalo Bill Cody, though that's surely the intention) as Sheriff Bill Jones, who adopts young orphan Tim (Bill Cody Jr.) and makes his way to Silver City, Montana, formerly a booming little town but now a ghost town. Jones agrees to help out at the Cross M Ranch operated by Joan Stanley (Ethel Jackson), whose cowboys have all been scared off by outlaw Wolf Lawson (Wally Wales). Joan hires some more ranchhands, not knowing that they're actually Wolf and his gang, intent on stealing all the cattle in one swoop. In order to foil Wolf's plans, Bill hits on the idea of dressing himself, Tim and their horses as skeletal riders in order to scare the superstitious gang. The spooky scenes are pretty clumsy, but there are a few good moments. Many of the scenes seem to be shot in a single take, with one camera position, underlining the crudity of the production. On the whole, a below-average oater that gets its only interest from the skeletal costumes.
The other side of the DVD starts off with probably the most notorious of this grouping, The Rawhide Terror (1934), produced by the sub-Poverty Row studio Security Pictures. A roving gang of renegades disguised as Indians attacks and kills a homesteading couple, leaving one son to wander off completely mad and his younger brother Al to fend for himself. Ten years later, the renegades have become respected citizens of Red Dog. But they begin to be picked off one by one by the Rawhide Killer (William Barrymore), who eliminates them in various sadistic ways. Now-grown ranch hand Al (Art Mix) tries to help capture the madman, but he proves both deceptive and dangerous. The film, shot in a couple days, is clearly slapped together and doesn't seem to have had a script. Al is variously referred to as Tim and Luke, and the lack of retakes is revealed by one character addressing another by his real name. What gives the picture what reputation it has is that the Rawhide Killer is way off the deep end. The skeletal Barrymore looks utterly nuts, as exemplified in the soliloquy he renders to his pet gila monster just before killing another member of the gang. His methods are nasty too: he leaves one victim tied down with a rawhide thong around his neck, to slowly strangle as the sun shrinks the rawhide. It feels like something out of the 1970s in ways, and if not for its utter ineptitude would have a much better reputation.
The last film, from Poverty Row stalwart PRC, looks good by comparison. Wild Horse Phantom (1944), starring Buster Crabbe as Billy Carson and Al "Fuzzy" St. John as comic sidekick Fuzzy Jones, starts off with Billy's harebrained scheme to allow the gang led Daggett (Kermit Maynard) to escape from jail so that they can find the money stolen from the Piedmont National Bank. But the plan leads to a man being killed, and when Daggett goes to find the money where he hid it in a mine, it's not there. Billy is now in deep water, and has to both recapture Daggett and find the money in order to redeem himself. The sequences in the mine are highly atmospheric, considering it's a PRC production directed by Sam Newfield, and as a bonus the title creature from Bela Lugosi's 1940 PRC epic The Devil Bat makes an appearance. If not for that, it would hardly qualify within the title description, but at least it holds together a bit better than some of the other films on this set. St. John's talents for physical comedy, learned from brother-in-law Roscoe Arbuckle, are put to good use here.
These films are sourced from rough-looking prints that may be from television airings. All of them seem to be 2-4 minutes shorter than the running times reported in reference works, so apparently there has been some snipping of material from these already brief films (the longest is well under an hour in duration).
Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C-
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The prints exhibit a fair amount of wear, with scratches, scuffs and splatters throughout. Even when pristine these probably didn't look the best; they have very high contrast so that whites are blown out and shadow detail is nonexistent. They're also quite soft and dupey, lacking significant definition. The low quality makes one appreciate the meticulous restorations of the Gene Autry Collection of similar vintage B Westerns all the more.
Image Transfer Grade: D+
Audio Transfer Review: As bad as the picture is, the soundtracks are even worse. Tombstone Canyon sounds the best, but even it has major noise, hiss, crackle and pops. The Vanishing Riders has such poor audio it's hard to sit through and the other two films aren't much better. Dialogue is frequently overwhelmed by the noise and racket. Obviously, don't look for any significant range or audio quality here.
Audio Transfer Grade: D
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: Other than the URL to Retromedia's website, there are no extras. Chaptering is pretty thorough. The presentation is on a dual-sided DVD-10.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsCheesy Depression-era cowboy fun, with mixed print condition and no extras. But then, a quadruple feature doesn't come along every day.
Mark Zimmer 2006-05-08