As the gift-giving time of year barrels down upon us like an 18-wheeler with no brakes on a rain-slicked highway, we may notice our video stores filling up with boxes. Yes, the concept of bulk has hit home video. Multicassette compilations not only feed right into the pack-rat pleasure we take in owning things but also appeal to the ego: The most expensive boxes exude a coffee- table splendor that advertises one’s taste with iconic eloquence.
The problem is that the swankiest packaging sometimes hides the crummiest compilations, and conversely, the best movies can come in bad-looking boxes. With that in mind, here’s a fast-forward through some of the notable sets out there, from no-frills cheapies to deluxe wallet busters. (Note: Our grades reflect whether the sets live up to their conceptions as compilations, not merely the quality of the original movies or TV shows.)
This is where the most blatant hucksterism occurs: A video label will see if it owns rights to any movies starring a given performer and if so, throw them together in a ”best-of” box. It’s a great idea if you’re MGM/UA and you have a major film library to draw upon — then the problem becomes not so much what to include as where to stop. Accordingly, there isn’t a ringer to be found in MGM/UA packages such as The Bette Davis Collection (Now Voyager, Dark Victory, Jezebel) or The Gene Kelly Collection (Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the Town), both A+.
If you’re Republic Pictures Home Video, on the other hand, your choices are slimmer. That company’s Gary Cooper box has one winner (High Noon), one loser (Distant Drums), and something in the middle (The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell). C+
Boxes featuring modern-day stars are rare, if only because actors today make fewer movies for more companies than in the studio era. LIVE’s Schwarzenegger boxed set illustrates the problem: it gets you one hit (Total Recall) and two bombs (The Running Man and Red Heat). Why not The Terminator and Predator? LIVE doesn’t own them, that’s why. D
Most of the big-bucks film series of the past decade are available together: You’ve got your trilogies (Star Wars, The Karate Kid), your tetralogies (Superman), even a pentalogy (all five Dirty Harry movies. All these no-brainers merit a B+.
A cut above is Paramount’s Godfather set; you get three two-cassette movies and a nice behind-the-scenes documentary: A-.
A cut below are Paramount’s five-film Star Trek box and MGM/UA’s four-film Rocky box, both of which — oops! — were released too soon to include the last film in each series: D
One of the most welcome results of the video revolution has been the repackaging of classic TV programs; the downside is that you need to be a really big fan to sit through a whole box of any one show. It’s not so bad with something like the eclectic skits by comic pioneer Ernie Kovacs (five-volume set, A+), or four tapes of vintage Saturday Night Live A-.
But let’s face it, 10 volumes of The Lone Ranger ”Collector’s Edition” is an invitation to saddle sores. C+
A lot of sets throw in additional widgets to make the box seem more special. Usually it’s just a promo gimmick, like the pack of Dutch Masters cigars that comes with the Ernie Kovacs set, but sometimes the extras make the project. The key is in figuring out whether the price has been inflated to include the widget. For instance, a measly $29.95 gets you the excellent 1989 Civil War film Glory packaged with The True Story of Glory Continues, a 30-minute documentary on the black regiment featured in the film. A+.
MPI’s Hitchcock collection, on the other hand, costs $79.98 and packages The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps — two classics available for under $20 each from other distributors — with a short, sloppy 1976 documentary on Hitch’s early work: D+.
And even all the toys in those fat ”collector’s editions” may not be worth the expense: Disney’s ”deluxe” edition of Fantasia packages the animated classic with a few pleasant extras (a ”making-of” documentary, a 16-page booklet) and a ton of useless junk (a framed commemorative lithograph, two CDs that duplicate the soundtrack, a special holograph insignia on the videotape, and the dreaded ”certificate of authenticity”): D+. You’ll find the videocassette by itself for under $20 at your local Wal-Mart: In video, as in life, many good things come in smaller packages.