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The Vanishing Riders

The Vanishing Riders(1935)

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The keepcase for Retromedia Entertainment's compilation disc Creepy Cowboys: Four Weird Westerns is illustrated with a somewhat misleading computer-generated ghoul that brings to mind the shape-shifting spooks of Alex Turner's Civil War-era horror film Dead Birds (2004). In truth, none of the four low budget Prohibition era oaters presented in this collection are truly supernatural in the sundered vein of Curse of the Undead (1959) or Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (1965), but all are examples of how B-westerns of the 30s and 40s borrowed themes and motifs from Gothic horror films to keep the mixture fresh.

Tombstone Canyon (1932) stars Ken Maynard as an itinerant ranch hand whose past is a mystery to him due to his father's unexplained disappearance twenty-five years earlier. Riding through Tombstone Canyon to meet a man who claims to know his father's whereabouts, Ken and his trusty horse Tarzan unwittingly gallop into a range war between the hirelings of the Lazy S Ranch and "the Phantom Killer," a cloaked gunman who takes down his victims with a sniper's accuracy. New in town and suspected of being the shooter himself, Ken decides to pose as "this Phantom feller" to draw the guilty parties out into the open. Director Alan James (real name Alvin J. Neitz) had previously helmed The Phantom (1931) for Action Pictures, an old dark house thriller starring Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Sheldon Lewis (star of the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) as "The Thing." Lewis appears in creature mode here as a scarred assassin whose vengeance-motivated hit list brings to mind various versions of The Phantom of the Opera, but the comparisons end there. A cowboy megastar in his day, Maynard was a maverick and a meddler who often clashed with production chief Carl Laemmle at Universal; as a result, the actor made a number of westerns on Poverty Row, as is the case here. However larger than life Maynard may have been in his heyday, he offers little screen presence for 21st Century eyes and makes Big Boy Williams look like Sir John Gielgud. On the upside, the film delivers the unexpected and for its time shocking onscreen murder of a comic character and Lewis is a hoot as the bushwhacking bogeyman, who presages each killing with a chilling coyote call. Cameraman Ted McCord (who later shot East of Eden and The Sound of Music) captures the volcanic tuffs of Hagen Canyon in all their beguiling lunar magnificence.

In Security Pictures' bottom-of-the-barrel vengeance western The Rawhide Terror (1934), someone is murdering the founding fathers of the frontier town Red Dog. Ten years earlier, the victims had all been members of a renegade band of palefaces plundering the wagon trains of plainsmen, their true identities hidden behind the guise of Indian war paint. On the body of each strangled victim is the same message, "10 years ago...", crudely lettered on a piece of rawhide. While the would-be victims do their own investigating, town sheriff Tim (Edmund Cobb) and ranch hand Al Blake (George Kesterson, billed as "Art Mix") both tangle with the elusive killer, who hides his own face behind an intimidating veil of rawhide. This body count western looks ahead to such like-minded fare as Henry Hathaway's Five Card Stud (1968), Sergio Garrone's Django, the Bastard (aka Strangers Gundown, 1969) and Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973) and employs a slow strangulation by wet rawhide garrote later used on Ursula Andress in Terence Young's Red Sun (1971). However it may have beaten the aforementioned westerns to the punch, The Rawhide Terror's galloping amateurishness makes it a chore to sit through. Crudely photographed and indifferently helmed by two directors, the film also has more characters than it knows what to do with and the majority of them played by beer-bellied men in their mid-forties; some principal characters go entirely unnamed, as is the case of George Holt's glowering gang leader turned respected businessman. Of note is that The Rawhide Terror was conceived and produced by expatriate New Zealander Victor Adamson (aka Denver Dixon), allegedly the man who taught Lash Larue how to use a bullwhip and father of 60s and 70s schlock maestro Al Adamson. Victor Adamson created the marquee moniker "Art Mix" to lure in nearsighted fans of bona fide cowboy star Tom Mix. It's doubtful many were fooled, but Adamson kept up the ruse for several years.

Former stuntman and Monogram B-western headliner Bill Cody is top-billed in Vanishing Riders (1935) but the star of the show is his pint-sized son, Bill Cody, Jr. Cody père et fils play lawman Bill Jones and Tim, the orphan Bill adopted after bringing the killer of the boy's father to justice. "Just roaming around and looking for a place to settle," the pair arrive at Montana's Silver City, a former boomtown now abandoned and believed haunted. When Bill and Tim agree to herd to market the rolling stock of comely rancher Joan Stanley (Ethel Jackson), they lock horns with outlaw Wolf Lawson (Ernest Hemingway look-alike Wally Wales) and his gang of galoots (who enjoy campfire sing-alongs when not trolling for plunder). When Lawson seizes the cattle and takes Joan hostage, the heroes exploit his gang's fear of haunted Silver City to save the day. As directed by Robert F. Hill, Vanishing Riders is a so-so horse opera redeemed by the gleeful skullduggery of its last reel. The heroes' use of skeleton costumes to buffalo the baddies anticipates similar fright-making in Hammer's Captain Clegg (US: Night Creatures, 1962) and Disney's The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964) but director Robert F. Hill does little with the device and, disappointingly, discards it entirely for the final dust-up. Tim is an agreeably spooky little sprite in his ghost get-up but modern viewers may find it unnerving how comfortable his adopted father is in putting his charge in harm's way. Early on, Bill ducks behind a horse rail while Tim gets the drop on a crazed gunman spraying the streets of Silver City with hot lead and later minds the horses while the tyke slips into the villains' bunkhouse to steal their six-shooters. Political correctness aside, matinee-goers of 1935 no doubt responded well to Tim's pluck.

Buster Crabbe is the main attraction of Wild Horse Phantom (1944), playing Billy Carson, hero of two dozen quickies for the Poverty Row outfit Producers Releasing Corporation. This collection's sole contemporary western, Wild Horse Phantom kicks off with a prison break (which benefits from extensive stock footage). Engineered by Carson, the escape enables bank robber Link Daggett (Kermit Maynard, brother of Ken) and his gang to retrieve the $50,000 haul from a bank job, the loss of which has left several ranchers in peril of losing their land. Tracking the criminal outfit to the abandoned mine where Daggett hid the money, Billy and partner Fuzzy (comic relief Al St. John) find their plan complicated by the existence of an inhuman creature who has taken up residence in the mine. The plodding Wild Horse Phantom squanders much of its running time on fruitless stumbling around the mine interior, not even trucking in its "monster" until the half hour mark. Poverty Row aficionados will have no trouble tagging the beast in question as The Devil Bat (1940), but the prop is restricted to one scene and does little more than bite Fuzzy St. John on the rump. St. John is an agreeably daffy sidekick but Crabbe's white-hatted he-man is a bit of a condescending jerk, a fault perhaps best laid at the feet of scenarists Milton Raison and George Wallace Sayre. Cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh was also behind the camera for the anti-drug dust-up Reefer Madness (1936) and the unofficial Devil Bat remake The Flying Serpent (1946) for PRC. His last credit was on the cult classic Robot Monster (1953).

All of these public domain titles receive as-is standard frame transfers, with no demonstrable clean-up of the sixty-plus years of wear and tear. As such, print damage in the form of scratches, tears and missing frames is common to all of the titles here (listed running times are unilaterally off by a few minutes), with the newer Wild Horse Phantom paradoxically looking the worst. Although the visual presentation is far from optimal, the films are all watchable. Less ideal is the sound, which is particularly muffled for both The Rawhide Terror and Vanishing Riders, making hash out of a good deal of dialogue. The double-sided disc comes without supplements but Eric Hoffman provides helpful thumbnail liner notes for each title and Been Cooper's sepia-toned menu screens are superb.

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by Richard Harland Smith