Great Crimes and Trials Of The 20th Century was an early 1990s documentary series produced for the Arts & Entertainment Network. Narrated by British actor Robert Powell, each typical 30-minute episode presented one of several dozen infamous cases in a condensed, economical format, often anchored by vintage newsreel and broadcast footage. Sony has resurrected the series on DVD through its "Choice Collection" line of burn-on-demand DVD-Rs, and Gruesome California is the first of several installments.
It lives up to its title, too, serving up six 25-minute episodes that each summarize a dark chapter in the state's past. "Alcatraz Prison Rebellion" offers a brief history of The Rock, from notable prisoners to their repeated (and rarely successful) escape attempts. "Charles Manson" details the brutal killings carried out by the small, charismatic man and his disciples. "Symbionese Liberation Army" tells the sad, strange tale of the SLA's kidnapping of 19 year-old Patty Hearst and the Stockholm syndrome-based crime spree that followed. "Jim Jones" reminds us not to drink
Kool-Aid Flavor Aid or follow a delusional madman to Guyana. "City Hall Killings" details the events that led to the murders of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. Finally, "Night Stalker" takes us back to L.A. in the mid-1980s, when then-unknown (and recently deceased) serial killer Richard Ramirez brutally killed and/or raped more than two dozen victims. So yeah, it's not exactly something to kick back and watch with the family.
Unfortunately, the subject matter covered during these episodes was already several years (or decades) old at the time of their original 1993-94 TV broadcast. From a purely informational standpoint, this makes Gruesome California about as valuable as a few tabs' worth of online articles or as up-to-date as a World Book encyclopedia set. That's not to say this is an expendable relic, however: the condensed, efficient nature of its presentation style and the number of lesser-seen video clips work to this series' advantage. Robert Powell's authoritative narration is another highlight, providing insightful commentary that should help new viewers fill in most of the blanks. As a total package, though, Gruesome California still isn't for everyone, especially those who are more than passively familiar with some of these prominent cases.
Surprisingly, this six-episode collection doesn't mark the first appearance of Great Crimes And Trials Of The 20th Century on DVD. Not only was it released almost a decade ago as a more all-inclusive (and long out of print) four-disc collection by Lionsgate, but a second four-disc collection is still readily available for those who can play Region 2 discs. While none of these three versions is impressive from a technical standpoint, one thing's for certain: their overall content is strong enough to warrant a closer look.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Since most of this footage is from vintage newsreels, broadcasts and consumer-grade camcorder tapes, Gruesome California isn't exactly a feast for the eyes. In fact, it's downright ugly most of the time. Still, Sony should be given the benefit of the doubt here: all of its problems are likely due to source material issues, although I'm certain that a modest amount of edge enhancement was added during portions of extremely soft footage. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the only genuine compliment that I can offer Gruesome California is that its gritty, abrasive visual appearance is strangely appropriate to the subject matter. This is essentially a passable presentation of material that will never look pretty.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.
Presented in a basic Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix, Gruesome California's audio is a half-step above the video in quality, but still suffers from plenty of source material limitations. The standout here is Robert Powell's authoritative narration, crisply recorded and perfectly clear from start to finish. Most other audio elements, aside from the majority of music cues, are much thinner and less dynamic in direct comparison. Vintage newsreel clips are especially problematic at times, but very little information can't be understood if you're listening closely. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or Closed Caption support are offered.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the static menu has no setup options or chapter divisions, but at least it loads immediately. This burn-on-demand release arrives in a standard keepcase with only the bare minimum of details; then again, it's not like you'll be window shopping for this item. The DVD-R played perfectly in both my regular player and laptop drive, but there's a packaging disclaimer stating that it may not be compatible with all systems...so buy at your own risk, I guess. Not surprisingly, there are no bonus features included.
As the premiere volume in the Great Crimes And Trials Of The 20th Century series, Gruesome California serves up a provocative assortment of infamous case summaries. The original show, however, is over 20 years old at this point...so unless you're entirely unfamiliar with this subject matter, you won't learn quite as much. What's more is that a handful of these cases have had further developments in recent years, which dates the program even further. Sony's burn-on-demand "Choice Collection" DVD-R is limited in all departments, making the disc a slightly expensive curiosity that you'll only watch once (or occasionally). Since you obviously can't rent this, however, Gruesome California's fundamental strengths ensure that it shouldn't be skipped over. Recommended, unless you're able to obtain the Region 2 DVD collection.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.