By Ty Burr
Updated December 11, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Home video is still such a young medium that the idea of videotapes as gifts remains just a little weird. Compare it to music: Almost anybody would welcome a boxed set of Beatles CDs, right? But before you give Cousin Theodore that 40th-anniversary High Noon box, with the video and the hardcover book and the poster and the lobby cards, you’d better find out if he really likes High Noon. Otherwise he’s going to think you think he’s a geek, and next year he’ll give you a lint roller.

The trick is to match the video givee to the video gift, which isn’t necessarily as tough as it sounds: Recent boxed sets showcase some movie classics with pretty broad appeal. The bonus ”collectibles” that come packaged in the High Noon, King Kong, and Casablanca sets aren’t all that hot. But you can be sure at least that the movies themselves are grade A.

That’s true of It’s a Wonderful Life, too, but for a public-domain film you can tape from TV at any given moment between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the goodies in the It’s a Wonderful Life: Special Collector’s Edition had better be worthwhile. And they are: A solid behind-the-scenes documentary tape, a poster, stills, a special edition of the excellent 1986 history, The ”It’s a Wonderful Life” Book, a crisp new print of the movie — it’s all here except Zuzu’s petals. For the John Ford/John Wayne classic, Republic also has The Quiet Man: The Fortieth Anniversary Deluxe Collector’s Edition, but this is of lesser value, mainly because the accompanying hardbound book, The Complete Films of John Wayne, is a reprint from the notoriously shoddy Citadel Press series.

Fans of modern movie sci-fi have two similar gift possibilities in The Terminator Collection Limited Edition and the Star Wars Trilogy: Special Letterbox Collector’s Edition. Each set packages its films with a making-of documentary; a glossy, awe-struck booklet; and — key in the impress-your-friends sweepstakes — a gimmicky hologram on the front of the box. While the 3-D robot Arnold skull easily outclasses the cheesy Star Wars hologram (for which you nearly have to stand on your head to get the right viewing angle), the Terminator box is a bust in other departments. The three Star Wars tapes are letterboxed prints — which makes sense, since collectors want the best, most complete image available. But The Terminators are made from the same old cropped video transfers as the rental versions, right down to the Subway commercial at the head of the T2 tape. Give this set to someone and they’ll ”be back,” all right, probably to return it.

Actually, you might be better off shifting away from movies and focusing on your givees’ hobbies, since there’s a video boxed set for every pastime up to and including the lambada. Know any birdwatchers? They’ll flip over the five-volume Audubon Society’s VideoGuide to Birds of North America, which gives each species the benefit of stills, video close-ups, and computerized range maps. Know any golfers? They’ll probably sit through the entire four-tape, six-hour Complete History of Golf on one rainy day (I especially love the casual hubris of Vol. I’s title: Let the Game Begin 1100-1916). Know any comic-book freaks? Do not — repeat, do not — buy them The History of the Comics, a Spanish-made four-volume collection that lards its mix of wrong facts and received wisdom with bad video special effects and which, for some reason, crops the word balloons out of almost all its reprinted comic panels!

Finally, two personal faves of mine might give you an idea of the inspired heights and the gloriously dumb depths possible in videotape giving. The four-volume Fawlty Towers — The Complete Set collects all of the 12 gut-busting half hours detailing the mortifications of Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) at his ratty little country hotel: It’s the purest sitcom slap-stick since I Love Lucy. And what collector of pop-culture effluvia wouldn’t want his or her own Collector’s Edition of Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb? This one’s a colossal vanity bonbon that puts the four-hour, two-tape miniseries, starring MacLaine as herself, into a crummy plastic suitcase with the paperbacks Out on a Limb and It’s All in the Playing. The latter, MacLaine’s memoirs about the filming of the miniseries, gives all those making-of documentaries a literally novel twist, since it allows the owner to read the book, then see the movie, then… read the other book. For bottomless camp guffaws, this is the video gift that keeps on giving.

It’s a Wonderful Life box: A The Quiet Man box: B The Terminator box: B- Star Wars box: A Audubon Society’s VideoGuide to Birds of North America: A Complete History of Golf: B+ The History of the Comics: F Fawlty Towers set: A+ Out on a Limb box: D+