Case Number 21938: Small Claims Court

A BIG BOX OF COWBOYS, ALIENS, ROBOTS AND DEATH RAYS

Tombstone Canyon
S'more Entertainment // 1932 // 62 Minutes // Not Rated
Radio Ranch
S'more Entertainment // 1935 // 70 Minutes // Not Rated
The Vanishing Riders
S'more Entertainment // 1935 // 58 Minutes // Not Rated
Ghost Patrol
S'more Entertainment // 1936 // 51 Minutes // Not Rated
Riders Of The Whistling Skull
S'more Entertainment // 1937 // 58 Minutes // Not Rated
Gun Packer
S'more Entertainment // 1938 // 51 Minutes // Not Rated
Sky Bandits
S'more Entertainment // 1940 // 62 Minutes // Not Rated
Saddle Mountain Roundup
S'more Entertainment // 1941 // 59 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 4th, 2011

The Charge

Eight weird Westerns in one big box.

The Case

When pundits are asked to name the quintessentially American art form, jazz is the usual answer. Its mix of European and African elements seems perfect for expressing the unique melting pot of American culture. However, I think the Western could just as easily earn a place as the most American of American art. It's been around as long (if not, longer, depending on how you count), has produced as many masterpieces, and has influenced as many minds. Much like jazz, the Western has not stayed a pure art form throughout its history. Just as there is jazz-rock, lite jazz, and psych jazz, the Western has given birth to offspring like the horror Western, the comedy Western, the musical Western, etc. Fans of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. don't need to be reminded that there have been sci-fi Westerns, but this eight-film collection shows just how far back the sci-fi-Western stretches. It's for completists only, but each of these seventy-plus-year-old films has its own goofy charms.

A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays presents eight Westerns on four discs. Each deals with the influences of some kind of sci-fi element in a typical Western tale:

Disc One
* Radio Ranch -- Gene Autry discovers an underground race in this feature-length adaptation of a serial.

* Ghost Patrol" -- Tim McCoy is a government agent sent to the West to investigate a death ray.

Disc Two
* Tombstone Canyon -- Ken Maynard tries to stop a range war and meets "The Phantom Killer."

* Riders of the Whistling Skull -- The "Three Mesquiteers" go in search of a missing professor, but find the Whistling Skull and an Indian cult as well.

Disc Three
* Sky Bandits -- Another professor makes another death ray and gets caught between bandits and government agents.

* Gun Packer -- Disappearing gold and an undercover cowboy meet in this strange tale of yet another professor.

Disc Four
* Saddle Mountain Roundup -- Everybody wants the rancher's money in this haunted-house style Western.

* Vanishing Riders -- A rancher hires a group of hands who hope to steal the cattle, but the rancher and his son devise a plan to use the ranch's haunted past to scare the rustlers.

On one level, A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is a blatant cash grab, leveraging cheap or public domain materials to put the word "cowboys" next to the word "aliens" on a DVD box the same summer that Cowboys and Aliens comes to the big screen. We've seen it before, with companies throwing a bunch of un-restored flicks on a bargain-priced DVD with a name that's almost like another, more famous film, and this release doesn't really feel any different. And yet, there's something so unremittingly goofy about this set that it's hard to fault it for being a cash-in. It starts with the ridiculous cover art, which features a cowboy with a metal head riding a horse away from an explosion and a flying saucer. One might think that it doesn't get any goofier than that, but the eight films in this set show that it most certainly can. Some (like Radio Ranch) are almost serious, while others (like Saddle Mountain Roundup) go straight for the funny bone. However, all of them paint a picture of the West as a rootin' tootin' place of varmints and cowboys. This is long before John Ford's vision of a lyrical, adult Western had taken root.

In the films' defense, these are all B productions, and have some surprisingly big names. Gene Autry, Yakima Canutt, and Tim McCoy are pretty famous actors in the Western circuit, and their presence brings a certain amount of historical significance to some of these flicks. They're all also short films: eight flicks in less than eight hours. So, even if the idea of an Indian cult at Whistling Skull doesn't tickle your fancy, it's over in about as much time as an hour of primetime drama. Finally, it's kind of interesting to see the Western married to another old school genre. Death rays and haunted house farces are not contemporary features of most movies, and to see them included along with the usual Western trappings, like horse riders and sage brush is oddly enjoyable.

All eight of these films are spread out on four discs, which, at 55 minutes or so a piece, feels awfully generous -- and though the prints are in all kinds of different shape, there's nothing to complain about as far as the transfers to digital go. Expect every kind of damage that a print can suffer -- scratches, bubbling, hairs, contrast shifting -- but the films are still watchable, and compression artifacts and the like are not a problem. Each disc offers stereo audio. Dialogue is generally clear, but don't expect high fidelity. There's some hiss, some distortion, and pretty much all of it sounds a bit thin. There are no extras.

Those expecting anything like a big-budget summer blockbuster will be sorely disappointed, but any fans of old-school B Westerns or long-forgotten sci-fi fare will appreciate at least one of these eight films. Find it in the bargain bin and you can't lose.

The Verdict

This big box is full of the ridiculous, but it's not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice, Tombstone Canyon
Judgment: 64

Perp Profile, Tombstone Canyon
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 62 Minutes
Release Year: 1932
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Tombstone Canyon
* None

Scales of Justice, Radio Ranch
Judgment: 65

Perp Profile, Radio Ranch
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 70 Minutes
Release Year: 1935
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Radio Ranch
* None

Scales of Justice, The Vanishing Riders
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile, The Vanishing Riders
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 58 Minutes
Release Year: 1935
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Vanishing Riders
* None

Scales of Justice, Ghost Patrol
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile, Ghost Patrol
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 51 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Ghost Patrol
* None

Scales of Justice, Riders Of The Whistling Skull
Judgment: 67

Perp Profile, Riders Of The Whistling Skull
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 58 Minutes
Release Year: 1937
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Riders Of The Whistling Skull
* None

Scales of Justice, Gun Packer
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile, Gun Packer
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 51 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Gun Packer
* None

Scales of Justice, Sky Bandits
Judgment: 61

Perp Profile, Sky Bandits
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 62 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Sky Bandits
* None

Scales of Justice, Saddle Mountain Roundup
Judgment: 64

Perp Profile, Saddle Mountain Roundup
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 59 Minutes
Release Year: 1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Saddle Mountain Roundup
* None

Accomplices
* IMDb: Radio Ranch
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0026867/combined

* IMDb: Ghost Patrol
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0027669/combined

* IMDb: Tombstone Canyon
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0023604/combined

* IMDb: Riders of the Whistling Skull
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0029486/combined

* IMDb: Sky Bandits
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0033058/combined

* IMDb: Gun Packer
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0030208/combined

* IMDb: Saddle Mountain Roundup
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0035280/combined

* IMDb: The Vanishing Riders
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0027167/combined