I want to stir the pot today on a perennial subject: classic movies — or at least, ‘vintage favorites’ — that have been withheld from distribution, and are presently inaccessible on Blu-ray. As we all know, the issue of individual film availability is a pressing concern, like our children’s prospects of living on a planet with too little oxygen and daytime temperatures of 135 degrees.
At the moment I’m thinking of the core 1950s drive-in features produced by American-International Pictures. Nothing here will be news to hardcore fans, but I think the info is worth restating for those less familiar with the ownership history involved. Quite a few A.I.P. titles stayed with the company when it merged with Filmways, which then was absorbed by Orion Pictures in the early 1980s. Since MGM later bought out the Orion library, it holds most titles that haven’t been reclaimed by original producers, here and overseas.
But two groups of American-International features were retained by the owners of the company, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, mostly B&W titles from the early days when they were inventing the exploitation double-bill booking distribution model. They weren’t exactly divided up evenly.
As a reminder, the main Samuel Z. Arkoff estate titles are:
WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST
THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED
THE SHE CREATURE
EARTH VS. THE SPIDER
BLOOD OF DRACULA
HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER
THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT
THE BRAIN EATERS
REFORM SCHOOL GIRL
GIRLS IN PRISON
THE COOL AND THE CRAZY
The films controlled by the heirs to the James H. Nicholson estate are numerically fewer, but perhaps more iconic. I don’t have the full list of all eleven, but they include:
I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF
I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN
IT CONQUERED THE WORLD
TERROR FROM THE YEAR 5000
INVASION OF THE SAUCERMEN
THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN
THE OKLAHOMA WOMAN
Any news about these pictures always gets my attention; I guess I remember staring at some of them as 2-minute 8mm excerpts when I was 14 years old, wondering what they were like originally. I’m just young enough to have missed them first-run, and I haven’t seen ANY of them in pristine condition. True, some have been released as so-so domestic DVDs, and others on time-compressed PAL Region 2 DVDs. The Superscope Day the World Ended is on an old DVD that isn’t even widescreen enhanced. The existing DVD for the odd Teenage Caveman is also on a sub-par DVD, which confuses me by apparently changing format when referencing older stock footage.
Around twenty-five years ago, some of these circulated on VHS and some have seen viewings on cable channels I never had access to. If any are available uncut on cable channels now, it’ll be news to me. That list above may not excite the compilers of the National Film Registry, but as part of a vivid chapter in film history none should be allowed to decompose. I bet that a bunch would look and play really well in quality presentations, film or video. And fans of A.I.P. would go nuts over them. By now they’re sufficiently rare to warrant special theatrical mini-revivals.
I daresay most of my readers haven’t seen them either. The Brain Eaters is a screwy mini-epic ripoff of Heinlein’s ‘The Puppet Masters.’ The Cool and the Crazy is a key juvenile delinquency pic about drugs (or marijuana, I forget which) that I saw only once on Los Angeles TV in the early 1980s, at 3am. Three or four of the pictures are key Roger Corman efforts; complete lists might include more.
Despite being out of reach for decades, key images from the movies — and especially their amazing posters — have remained part of the culture. The availability of these films has been a topic of conjecture (and rumors) ever since vigilante malcontents caring film fans began congregating on Internet web boards to discuss specific genres.
It sometimes takes experts to track down the rights holders of films that have in one way or another become orphaned from their original distributors. Fans are particularly keen on coveted genre pictures with potent nostalgia value — great rediscoveries appear on Blu-ray every year. In practice, collectors have frequently been the saviors of endangered film, but in some cases the opposite is true. A few highly coveted Sci-fi features are kept out of circulation by film collectors. Some companies and individuals may be waiting for a big payday, while others fear that film piracy will rob them of their personal property. I wouldn’t get more specific about this in print — even among interested parties, the subject is normally discussed only in whispers. I know a film collector or two, but I don’t ask them about their business dealings, any more than I would their finances and real estate holdings.
But it still adds up to something of a sad story. Every year that rights holders withhold a vintage movie from view, more of the nostalgic fans that love it will die off — the key market audience is dwindling. Back at MGM Home Video I went through piles of letters sent to the studio, from older fans begging to see their favorite old musical Annie Get Your Gun. Some of them were writing from rest homes. MGM could do nothing, as the music rights roadblock lasted for almost thirty years. When Annie finally came to DVD in 2000, much of the audience that was eager to see it, had passed away. Monster fans might not care about Betty Hutton belting out Irving Berlin songs, but they ought to. Almost the same exact story of inadvertent suppression has happened to the early A.I.P. legacy.
Just getting the word out there, without prejudice either way … Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson