JANUARY 1 VHS HISTORY LEASON : HI-TOPS VIDEO
Hi-Tops Video was a children's home video sublabel of Media Home Entertainment (a division of Heron Communications) and Kartes Video Communications (a division of E. W. Scripps Company), active from 1985 until 1992. Some releases include most Charlie Brown videos, and the "Madeline" video series produced by Cinar (now Cookie Jar Entertainment). Outside of the United States and Canada, Hi-Tops Videos were distributed by other companies, examples being VPD (Video Program Distributors) in the United Kingdom and Family Home Entertainment in Australia (not related to the Lions Gate-owned company of the same name). (However, in Canada, some Hi-Tops Video releases were distributed by Astral Video, a now-defunct subsidiary of the present-day Astral Media.)
JANUARY 1 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : GRAVEYARD STORY (1991)
I had to skip a week because my crappy VCR completely crapped out. I bought a replacement at a school district garage sale for $5. It works magnificently! Now I can properly enjoy my VHS tapes and write my reviews of the obscure ones.
Graveyard Story begins with old man McGregor (John Ireland) being haunted by a 10-year-old young girl. She's like 16, maybe older, wears a very blue Sunday dress, stockings and low heel black shoes, and has that primped huge hair, also for Sundays. Basically, she looks like a doll child - her name is even Dolly! - only much, much older than we usually see in these films (like the offal Sarah's Child).
McGregor, a lonely, retired psychologist, hires ex-cop Ron Hunt (a different Adrian Paul) to solve the mystery of dead Dolly Cooper. McGregor strokes the cheek of the statue over the girls grave. "Are you trying to tell me something?" he says, with a tear.
McGregor tells Hunt that, to overcome his depression, rather than starting a family at his age, "I adopted a little dead girl instead." He developed a rapport, visiting her grave. And then, "She started visiting me." He concludes, "There must be some mystery surrounding her death." Her tombstone does say she left the world tragically in 1980. "I would like to know how."
After this, the film takes a massive dive. It started intriguingly, with an interesting character (and a good actor), but then Hunt takes center, speaking with a "Paging Mr. Herman" tone. Then it's all amateurs, uninspired dialogue, awful staging and dead dull pacing. Boring talky blah.
Hunt begins his investigation at the church. There's no registry of her death in 1980. He goes to the police. "Nothing tragic happened to any child in 1980," we're informed. He goes to the newspaper and meets one of those late 1980s leggy blonds with the huge stupid glasses. Bad sexy digi-sax music plays. "Can I look at a complete edition of your paper from 1980?" Hunt asks. I guess they're a once-yearly. Thirty minutes in, and I'm already riffing. Not good.
Hunt finds a brief in the back page of the paper about a suicide at a winery. A brief! In a town where nothing happens, a suicide gets a brief the size of a "We make corrections" box on the back page! Scoff!
Anyway, Hunt has a lead now. The woman has the same last name as Dolly and had a 10 year old daughter. Ah-ha! He makes a copy of the two sentence brief, because it was so rich with information, and then there's some comedy with the news lady, sexied up, offering him a drink as he storms out.
Hunt goes to Elizabeth Cooper's winery and talks to the lady who raised the girl. She tells her story, via flashback, about how she cared for Dolly, and was there when the girl was kidnapped by thugs for ransom. It's very awkward, like this was the film they tried to make first and it failed, so they put a crappy mystery film around it.
The ransom went poorly and Dolly was killed. She was buried secretly, for no real damn reason. Mystery solved. Ah, but now we have to find those killing kidnappers! One was in jail, and is now in a country western band. Hunt reports back to old man McGregor, who wants the other kidnapper found out and, I guess, brought to justice? That night the old man is haunted again.
Hunt goes to the bar, but because the mystery is solved and the film's objective is no longer clear, it's just dull goings. Hunt confronts the kidnapper, Vic (Gerry Tucker), who has a weird face.
Through clunky dialogue, we find out that the dude's partner Bruce killed the kid, having gotten scared after Vic split. For some stupid reason, the two go to the graveyard to dig up Dolly's body. A twist! Hunt brings the findings to McGregor. In the little coffin the kidnapper had delivered, there's no body, just another ransom note! "There's a chance the child's still alive!" McGregor said. Of course, she'd be 19 now. "You've got to find her!"
So, now we have a "find the girl" plot. Oh, and McGregor reveals that he's the girl's father. Hunt responds, appropriately, "WHAAAAT?!" Another flashback, when Elizabeth was a nurse. These scenes are so absurd and awkward they're absolutely hilarious. You'll roll as McGregor explains she was insatiable and they did it everywhere.
Hunt works to find kidnapper Bruce (Keith Vinsonhaler), a former Toronto butcher. More dull talk, only now we, the audience, are incredulous. He finds Bruce, now shining shoes at the mall. After 15 minutes where absolutely nothing happens, Bruce confesses the girl is alive! Some Detroit gangsters figure into the plot now, too.
The ending is bizarre. Bruce captures Hunt and ties him up in a basement with Dolly (Courtney Taylor, Mary Lou in Prom Night III). Dolly talks like an alien's idea of a child, robotic, without contractions and overly proper. "Who is this man, father?" She's also dressed like trash.
In scenes that last forever, Dolly says she wants answers and Hunt is completely inarticulate. He just won't give her a straight answer. By the time Dolly finally decides to help Hunt, the gangsters have arrived. Bruce is killed (!) and the gangsters take the two to be crushed in a car at a junkyard for no reason, while enormous rock music plays (something akin to Troll 2).
You will not believe how our hero and the girl escape. Your eyes will go big and roll back all at once. It is amazing in its tremendous stupidity. Talk about a deus ex machina! Cripes!
Ireland is the only highlight here. He was a real actor, often playing brash handsome leads. He was in My Darling Clementine, Red River, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the classic All the King's Men and... Roger Corman's Gunslinger. Somehow, he didn't make it into the 70s, when he would've been perfect for cop movies and TV. Toward the end, it was all this and Waxwork II for the Oscar nominee.
The film is, at least, competently made. And certainly I've seen worse. Some parts are a complete disaster, though. The writing is weak when it's not totally absurd, and the acting is never good. I couldn't get into it too deeply at first, but then it got laughable, which was fun (in a bad way). It's a suspense-mystery of the most basic sort, though, lacking any innovation. It plays like one of those movies made by Christians, about values and faith.
People with simpler minds will like it, I think. Everyone else will yawn between laughing fits.
Graveyard Story has 38 votes on IMDb, which is surprising because it's a Goodtimes video release, and those were cheap and wound up everywhere. The film isn't on DVD or available digitally. It can only be acquired on VHS.
JANUARY 1 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : TMNT COMING OUT OF OUR SHELLS TOUR
With the dawn of 1990, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seemed poised to take over the collective pop culture consciousness. Although they had begun their career in the late '70s by fighting crime and brutally killing criminals with medieval weaponry (as told in the biographical work of Eastman and Laird), by the mid-'80s, they realized that a kinder, more gentler approach was necessary to captivate the hearts of many. Where they had formerly disemboweled purse-snatchers with razor-sharp sais, now they wrapped criminals in ropes in order to incapacitate. Where they once brutally impaled would-be rapists with katanas, now they sliced off the head of a fire hydrant and knocked the attackers out, allowing them to be handily arrested by the police.
Such an approach worked, and paved the way for the Turtles to star in their own movies and cartoons which allowed them to create a merchandising empire. By the time 1990 had rolled around, their nemesis Shredder had been defeated by being mashed in a garbage truck, as seen in the first TMNT movie, and the Turtles had become a global phenomenon. With most forms of media locked up, the Turtles turned to music to expand both their brand and message.
Embarking on the Coming out of Their Shells Tour, the Turtles toured as a live rock and roll act and played dates across the USA. To help promote the tour, they released the Coming Out of Their Shells album in conjunction with Pizza Hut. Available with the purchase of any large one-topping pizza and collectors' cup (singular), the album was the first—and last—time the TMNT would allow an unfettered look into their personal sides.
Unfortunately, what could have been an intimate portrait that revealed the innermost thoughts of permanent outcasts turned out to be another overproduced, long-winded '80s pop album. The album covers being a teenager, pizza, ninjas, and multiple permutations of those elements. Leonardo, the oldest brother, opens the album with the self-titled song. While the hook "coming out of their shells" has a great deal of metaphorical promise, unfortunately, the leader of the TMNT basically confines himself to the refrain, shielding his thoughts with what is, at best, a semi-catchy refrain.
This continues throughout the album on tracks like "Walk Straight", a tune designed to keep youngsters out of a life of crime. Where Johnny Cash would have told the story of a good man who resulted to crime in a series of bad choices, and allowed the listener to realize the message without any direct reference, the Turtles simply demand that the listener not turn to evil ways. Where Ice Cube would have argued that most crime is the result of exterior forces, the Turtles offer no compassion for those that are forced to break the law.
To be fair, there are some fun beats—if not substance—on the release. On "Cowabunga", Michelangelo, the fun-loving brother raps about how music saved him from a life of crime through rhyme styles developed by the Sugarhill Gang and similar artists. "Pizza Power" opens with remarkable bombast and quickly warps into a Prince-style club jam.
But, no matter how strong the material might have been, the thick '80s production, which would have been passé even when the album was released, kill any sense of feeling or urgency the album might have had. The guitars are too filtered. The drums are obviously programmed. And worst of all, the vocals are so polished that it is difficult to tell one brother apart from another, despite their obviously different accents as seen in both their cartoons and movies.
Interestingly, there is a parallel between the TMNT and another New York group: Bad Brains. Both groups emigrated to the mean streets of NYC—Bad Brains from D.C., and the Turtles from the sewer. Both refrain from eating meat—Bad Brains were devout vegetarians and the Turtles feasted exclusively on pizza. Like Bad Brains, the TMNT preached positivity and doing the right thing. H.R. frequently praised his bearded messiah, Haile Selassie, while the Turtles listened to the lessons of their mentor, the bearded Splinter the Ninja Rat. Unfortunately, while Bad Brains' excursions into heavy metal, funk, and even hip-hop were often more successful than not, the Turtles' foray into those genres bred nothing but mediocrity.
The Turtles are perpetually outsiders, never accepted by their surroundings, nor able to fit in anywhere else, despite that they dedicate most of their days to helping those who would shun them. What could have been a look into the psyche of the noble outsider, along the lines of Damaged or Zen Arcade, winds up being little more than '80s fluff production. This album isn't so much from the half-shell as it is half-baked.
JANUARY 1 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : TMNT COMING OUT OF OUR SHELLS TOUR
With the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon gaining momentum and creating hordes of new fans, a lot of people are becoming more and more curious about the show's roots. It all started on the pages of a pretty edgy and highly regarded comic where the goofiness was kept to a min, but I'm not really the person who should be telling you about that. I'm more knowledgeable about how far the Turtles were able to surf their wave of popularity, and to what embarrassing lengths they'd take themselves on the almighty mission to cash in before their stock crashed.
Case in point: The 'Coming Out Of Their Shells' Tour.
Picture a Broadway musical with the production values of your local meat market's cable television commercial, only starring a bunch of guys in crappy rubber suits rather than the friendly neighborhood butcher. If your vision includes any moments or traits that can be considered 'positive,' eliminate and replace them with stuff you find more annoying. That's almost as bad as the Turtles' musical tour. If you want the complete effect, picture everything mentioned above, but also factor in the added grievance of having duck shit smeared across your face. Now you're getting closer.
Naw, it wasn't that bad. I'm sure little kids loved watching the Turtles, up on stage, singing about friendship and pizza while pretending to play guitars. The shows weren't 'high art' by any stretch, but children rarely notice things like that, instead preferring to monitor how many pictures of Splinter giving the peace sign could be found in the official tour souvenir program.
But, that's not what we're reviewing today...
I still can't believe it exists, but I've seen it, and I own it, and the sordid truth is right here in front of my smoke-strained eyes. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Making of 'The Coming Out Of Their Shells' Tour." The plume of great marketing tactics that sifted from TMNT's merchandising tower was usually pretty on the mark, but this? I dunno about this. I don't want to say that they went too far, but it became pretty hard to think otherwise once I watched the video. If nothing else, this thirty-minute cassette proved to even the most devout fans that it was time for the Turtles to put their swords and bandanas up on the shelf for a few years. Simply put, there was nothing left for them to do. If the franchise was sucked dry to the point where they were selling videos featuring the Turtles having fictitious band practice sessions for their short-lived vaudeville act, maybe they needed a little sabbatical.
The video is brutal - very brutal - but at least the people who made it didn't take the project seriously. It's just a goofball show, mixing bits from the tour with scripted 'behind the scenes' clips. They play it all off as a parody more than anything else, so even if it's incredibly stupid at points, at least the people in charge realized it was incredibly stupid. And sorry guys - that's really the biggest compliment I can give to this video. 'They knew it was stupid.' Here's the full review...
Things kick off with the bargain basement version of April O'Neil interviewing kids before they see the show. Oddly, there seems to have been a conscious effort on the part of the director to only show interviews with kids who had absolutely nothing to say. April will ask a question and receive nothing but blank stares in return, making everyone involved look ill-prepared at best or like a complete fool at worst. I think the child up above summed it all up pretty well: 'I'm here to see Raphangelo."
And there's the Turtles! Now over the years, I've noticed an interesting trend as far as the live-action Turtles went. In the first movie, they looked terrific. In the second movie, they still looked great, but not quite as realistic. By the third movie, they looked more like nauseous hobos than Ninja Turtles. The costumes and creature effects got progressively worse with each appearance, and by the time they were putting on rock concerts, all of 'em seemed to have dropped forty pounds along with the ability to make their mouths move.
On the plus side, I don't think you'll ever see happier Ninja Turtles. They're practically shitting smiles in this video. Their usual gear has been modified to look more rockin', an effect that appears to have been accomplished with the aid of the famed Bedazzler. Hey, if you like your crimefighting reptiles in sequin, this tape's for you.
There's some scenes where you can visibly see the people inside the costumes, with their sweaty heads peering out of the Turtles' mouths. In close-up shots, they eliminate this problem by stuffing pink paper in their mouth openings. I guess they're supposed to look like tongues.
Michaelangelo tells us that they've been preparing for their rock concert, and that it's just about showtime! If you're in awe that a turtle was able to tell us this, consider the extra bonus -- he did it without ever once moving his lips.
Okay, now that's just something we didn't need to see. If they wanted to go for the mock documentary feeling, that's fine. I just think there's better, less offensive ways of going about it than showing us a bunch of stagehands trying to push the Turtles into position by tickling their backdoors. It's no casual gesture, either. The video is thirty minutes long, and approximately 7% of that time is dedicated to shots of random people shoving their hands up Turtle asses. Our heroes brush the gesture off, being professionals and all, but it's still pretty creepy for those of us watching at home. Well, creepy or sensual. I'm undecided.
We're shown some clips from their tour, and I've gotta be honest - I know some people who saw it when it was out and when they were of the proper age, and they absolutely loved the show. I can rail on it all I want, but it made a lot of kids happy, and I suppose that's all that counts. As with any franchise that attracts fans of an obsessive nature, there were plenty of people who wondered how the Turtles' creators could sell them out like this. Huh? How could they not?! The guys who did the comic already had their original vision out there. Whatever grand plans they had for Don and Leo were already accomplished, but on the same token, I don't think they were set for life by that alone. People are fickle; it's hard enough to strike gold once, let alone multiple times.
The T.M.N.T. gravy chain wasn't going to be duplicated, so for the sake of those who sacrificed quite a bit of their lives to making the lore grow, it's tough to argue with their decision to milk it for all it was worth. Besides, this is certainly something to take pride in. If you can make cartoon turtles so engaging that companies sponsor huge stage shows based on 'em, you've obviously got some talent.
Unfortunately, I can't speak as positively about the Turtles' practice session, where they're filmed singing and playing instruments despite the very clear point that they're not doing either one of those things. Instead, they just kinda rock back and forth like the animatronic beasts at Chuck E. Cheese, looking about as musical and energetic as the rocks I threw at the television when this scene came on. Actually, the point of this video completely escapes me. I don't think we could construe it as promotion for the live show, since by the time kids got their hands on this tape, the Turtles were off the stage for good. It's not easy to call it another revenue stream either, as there was already a video based on their performance that was far longer than this one and advertised much heavier. Somebody must've tripled dog dared one of the producers to market this thing.
Remember Splinter, the giant mutant rat who served as mentor to the Turtles? He's here too, and if you thought he looked like crap in that Christmas video I reviewed, check this out...
Splinter's hands are currently being represented by garden rakes covered up with colored saran wrap, with his movements limited to an eerie back-and-forth rocking that, depending on your view, makes him look either very chilly or in the midst of a Satanic ritual. Splinter drones on and on to our heroes about how proud he is of their current endeavor, even going as far as saying that their work as musicians will prove to be more important than their ninja training. That's a bold statement. When they were ninjas, the Turtles typically saved the planet at least four times a day. They're gonna have to work some serious magic into their lyrics if they want those stupid songs to approach anywhere near the same level of greatness. I suggest a cover of the Amen theme song.
We get some short scenes featuring each specific Turtle doing their thing in preparation for the big show. Since the tour was sponsored by Pizza Hut in real life, there's a lot of references to their pizza. No, I mean a LOT of references to their pizza. Empty Pizza Hut boxes are onscreen more than the Turtles themselves, and virtually every sentence spoken in the video is prefaced with: "And when the great guys at Pizza Hut..." They even show clips from the press conference (the real one) that announced the tour dates, and some guy from Pizza Hut gets way more air time than any of our heroes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since at least the Pizza Hut guy's voice doesn't come from a stereo speaker four miles away from the stage.
They performed these shows across the country, but it all started at the Radio City Music Hall in NY. To celebrate their climb to the top of the charts, the Turtles performed one of their hit songs on the roof of the place, to a crowd of twelve kids and thirty-thousand pedestrians who looked extremely confused about what was going on.
Imagine the poor tourists from distant nations who traveled to Times Square to soak in all the culture. They might not have ever heard of the Ninja Turtles, so when they're passing by Radio City and see these four green monsters on top of it singing the world's worst ballads ever heard, it had to be a scary little moment. To draw a comparison, this would be like you going on a trip to Guam and having four guys in giant orange bird costumes telling you to 'rock out' in their native tongue upon your arrival. Sure, it'll give you a great story to tell down the road, but you're probably not going to make it through the ordeal without pissing yourself. The last thing you want to do to four orange birdmen from Guam is offend them.
The Turtles finish their act, and now it's time to see what they can really do on stage. Up to this point, we've only seen scattered clips that weren't enough to truly gage their musical talents. The video, which had already repeated the same stuff six times over by this point, instead opts to close out the remaining minutes with an in-depth look at the Turtles' 'Coming Out Of Their Shells' tour...
Shredder appears on a bridge over the stage to throw various insults and words of warning at our heroes. He then sends members of his infamous 'Foot Clan' to destroy the Turtles. If you'll recall, the 'Foot Clan' consisted of a bunch of ninjas in black clothing who knew how to kick and punch really well. In the concert, they still wear black clothing and they're probably still ninjas, but the punches and kicks look a lot more hip hop than usual. The ninjas are one with the rhythm. Pizza Hut Pizza Hut Pizza Hut.
There's April, singing her song. I could describe the sound of it to you, but if you're gunning for something truly indicative, go buy a wild boar and stab it repeatedly with scissors.
All in all, the tour didn't look that bad. I never had a chance to see it in my T.M.N.T. days, but those who did remember it fondly. Still, I'm not sure it was necessary to put out a 'Making Of..' video, unless it was some kind of inside joke that was meant to amuse the people who produced it while driving everyone else to madness.
The Turtles perform one last song, and after the end credits roll, we get a final scene that sums up the entire video quite nicely...
Splinter takes some kind of elevator into an attic of unknown origin, looks to the camera, and says something that I still find troubling a week later. "My Turtles are definitely. Happenin'. Musically." Thanks for the verbal gem, Splinter.
If you're dying to know what kind of songs the Turtles sing, click here to download their new number one hit, 'Coming Out Of Our Shells!' Don't blame me when you find yourself humming it later - it's surprisingly catchy. Especially when you picture a guy in a turtle costume trying desperately to look like he's singing it.
Remember that Nike Transformers contest we were promoting a few weeks ago? Well, several X-E readers took home a prize. See, not all contests are fake and nasty. UGO's running another one, this time giving away a brand new Sony Watchman every day in February. It's free to enter, and you won't get spammed by doing so.
JANUARY 1 : 13 OLD CARTOONS YOU DIDN'T THINK ANYONE ELSE WATCHED
Sure, who doesn't remember classic 80's cartoons like The Snorks, Jem, and He-Man.
But what about the show with the British kid who turns into a crime-fighting banana? Is our memory of Rick Moranis beating up teenage monsters just a recurring childhood nightmare or was it actually on NBC?
Yes! These cartoons really happened! Even if we were the only ones watching.
Don't believe me? Here's proof.
1. Hammerman (1991) : You can't touch our treasured memories of a pair of magical dancing shoes (which are alive and can speak) that have the power to transform janitor Stanley Burrell into the purple parachute pants-wearing Hammerman.
2. Rude Dog and the Dweebs (1989) : Don't get Rude Dog confused with party pooch Spuds MacKenzie. They are totally different animals. This show was on the air so briefly it's hard to convince myself I even saw it. But I did, and I have the Trapper Keeper to prove it.
3. Beverly Hills Teens (1987-1988) : Two years before 90210 became a hit, we had The Beverly Hills Teens. No, you weren't smoking too much angel dust with Helen Hunt, these kids had limos with pools in them.
4. The Gary Coleman Show (1982) : Turns out, your memory of Gary Coleman as a cartoon angel who helps kids in need wasn't a hallucination. It was an actual show on actual television.
5. Bananaman (1983-1985) : Bananaman's arch-enemy, Appleman, didn't stand a chance against our obscenely-chinned hero.
6. Turbo Teen (1984-1985) : Turbo Teen's mysterious personality change was triggered when he got "hot." Sample definition of hot? How about an episode when he's in a Mexican jail (typical kiddie stuff) and a fellow inmate gives him a "spicy burrito."
7. Gravedale High (1990-1991) : A high school filled with monsters and Rick Moranis. Yes, that Rick Moranis.
8. Wild Fire (1986) : An orphan girl's horse transports her to an alternative reality where she's a princess and her mom is trapped in a mirror (and can't challenge her life choices). Am I right, ladies?!
9. The Ant and The Aardvark (1960's-1980's) : This show originally aired in the 60's, but it ran during the Pink Panther, a cartoon about a flamboyant pink mime that you also did not hallucinate.
10. Teen Wolf (1986-1987) : Sure, Stiles and Boof were there, but in the cartoon they were the only ones who knew about Scott's wolfy secret. That's even harder to swallow than chocolate Bonkers.
11. Family Dog (1993) : Spun-off from the chronically forgotten "Amazing Stories" movie, Family Dog was a twisted and hilarious cartoon starring a family of puppy-torturing psychopaths. Leave it to Tim Burton to make animal abuse charming.
12. Denver The Last Dinosaur (1988) : Sort of like the movie Encino Man, if Brendan Fraser had been a skateboarding dinosaur instead of a caveman, and Pauly Shore had been a group of interracial teens from Los Angeles. Which I think we can all agree is a better deal.
13. Thundarr The Barbarian (1980-1982) : This show took place in the frightening, dystopic future ("The year 1994"). Just your typical story of wizardry, slavery, a leonine humanoid with fangs and yellow eyes, and the people who love him.