Video : A Sharper Image : Laser Discs and Video Collections May Cost More But are Worth it

You've heard it since you were a kid. Nobody gives you something for nothing. Yet eager consumers are paying less than $10 for a videotape of "Throw Mama From the Train" or "Bull Durham" or "Married to the Mob," believing they are getting a fantastic bargain.

P.T. Barnum was right. There is a sucker born every minute. Sure, Orion video is selling those titles and more ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") for $7.98 apiece. But there's a catch. These VHS tapes are recorded in the slow EP mode. You pay about $20 for the same movie recorded at the standard SP mode.

What's the difference? The inexpensive EP tapes are atrocious--muddy colors, poor sound, enough video and audio dropouts to drive even the most jaundiced video viewer out of the room. It's like watching the movie under water.

The tragedy is that consumers smelling a bargain won't find out until they get home and insert the cheap video into their VCRs. They'll spend half the time twiddling with their tracking knobs and the other half trying to figure out what's happening on the screen. In the age of laser discs and the possibility of high-definition TV, Orion has taken the low road.

On the other hand, MGM/UA continues to show enormous respect for its vast library of vintage motion pictures and the consumer. Its videotapes boast newly minted prints and restored audio tracks. Its laser disc editions are superb. Films created since 1953 on the wide screen are released in letterboxed editions. The prints are clean and bright, the colors sharp and true. The digital audio tracks re-create the theatrical experience in the home.

Some extraordinary new releases include a beautifully restored edition of Gone With the Wind, with a CAV Standard Play laser disc enabling the viewer to savor each and every frame of the 1939 classic; Singin' in the Rain, which includes a bonus track of deleted material; the 1938 Robin Hood, in which gorgeous color restores this film to its former glory; and The Wizard of Oz, which never looked better.

Other companies are assembling special collections of videotapes of significant value. They include:

The Complete Dirty Harry (Warner), a five-pack costing under $100: "Dirty Harry," "Magnum Force," "The Enforcer," "Sudden Impact" and "The Dead Pool." This collection will make any Clint Eastwood fan's day.

The Little Rascals Collection (Republic) consists of 12 shorts on six tapes (about $60). "The Bear Facts" is as funny as the Rascals get. It's an acquired taste.

Agatha Christie Collection (Pacific Arts) offers a 12-volume set for under $180. Included is the 1990 Ace Award-winner "Murder by the Book," with Ian Holm and the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft.

The Complete Saturday Night Every Night (Warner), a four-pack collection (under $80) including "The Best of . . . " John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, and Dan Aykroyd; The Complete Superman (Warner), a four-pack set (under $80); and National Lampoon's Vacation (Warner), a three-pack (under $60).

The Astronomers ("Where is the Rest of the Universe?" "Searching for Black Holes," "A Window to Creation," "Waves of the Future," "Star Dust" and "Prospecting for Planets") is a collection of six tapes narrated by Richard Chamberlain in a boxed set with supplementary materials for under $130 (PBS/Pacific Arts). It's a gold mine of information beautifully put together for TV by producer Peter Baker.

War in the Gulf--The Complete Story (Cable Network News Video) contains six episodes each running about 90 minutes: "The Conflict Begins," "The Air War," "The Ground War," "Saddam, The General," " 'Stormin' Norman' " and "The Aftermath" (about $100). CNN anchor Bernard Shaw is the narrator, and you can buy each volume separately for about $20 apiece.

I, Claudius (PBS tapes), the 13 episodes of the British miniseries shown on public broadcasting channels, is packaged in seven tapes for under $150. It's a masterful piece of work starring Derek Jacobi as Claudius and John Hurt as the Emperor Caligula.

There's much more, something for almost every taste. One warning, however: The quality of VHS videotape is marginal at best. Most of the tapes suffer from the basic problems of all videotape: dropouts, erratic color, tracking problems and more.

The truth is the tapes deteriorate after repeated viewings. The more you watch them, the worse they get. The solution? Trade up for a laser video disc machine. Not all of these videotape programs are available on laser, but so much more material for the collector is available and in such superior video and audio that it is well worth the initial laser video investment.

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