With new DVDs ranging in cost from $8 to $40 for a single movie title — never mind the hundreds of dollars charged for box sets with multiple films — it's no wonder collectors are confused. Add to that the fact that so many older titles remain in video limbo, and it's no wonder collectors are also frustrated.

Enter Universal Home Video with the answer.

The folks in charge of Universal's archives have obviously been listening to their customers, as the new "Best of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Volume 1" attests.

Get this: the slapstick-comedy duo's first eight movies on two discs. And the price is . . . drum roll, please . . . $24.98. For eight movies! In a nice two-disc box! (And I found it last week for 20 bucks!)

Are they kidding?

Without much in the way of fanfare, Universal has issued these films in an inventive format, taking advantage of their scant length (the average is about 80 minutes) to get two movies on each side of each disc, and arranging them in chronological order by date of release.

Abbott & Costello made their film debut in 1940 as supporting players to Robert Cummings and Allan Jones in "One Night in the Tropics," which features several of their then-already popular radio routines — "Mustard," "Jonah," "Two Tens for a Five" and an abbreviated version of "Who's On First?" The film received mediocre-to-terrible reviews, but nearly every critic singled out A&C's comic business for praise.

So, the next year, they got a starring film, "Buck Privates," which made huge money, and which is often credited with saving the studio during a major slump. The wartime farce co-stars the Andrews Sisters and features some riotous routines. Ditto the two military comedies that followed, "In the Navy" (with Dick Powell) and "Keep 'Em Flying" (with Martha Raye) — and a haunted-house spoof — "Hold That Ghost" — sandwiched in between. In the latter, Costello plays opposite comic actress Joan Davis, and they are hilarious together.

All four films were released in 1941, and all were big hits as America prepared for and eventually entered World War II. Laughs and escape were needed, and Abbott & Costello provided them aplenty.

In 1942, the duo starred in a Western comedy, "Ride 'Em Cowboy," followed by a tropical farce, "Pardon My Sarong," and then "Who Done It?" a lampoon of the radio mysteries that were popular at the time.

These are the eight films that fill out this set, each with text production notes and most with the film's trailer. And the prints are good quality, nice and crisp.

Watching these films again, I was struck by how funny this manic comedy duo remains. Especially in these films they are at the peak of their form, doing comedy routines they perfected on the burlesque circuit, and, as they made these movies, evolving as pretty good actors — especially the underrated straight man, Abbott.

There are song interludes that some will find annoying (although it's hard to complain about the Andrews Sisters in three of these films, or Ella Fitzgerald in "Ride 'Em Cowboy"), and even more annoying romantic subplots — but hey, that's what the fast-forward button on your remote is for. Just zoom to the next A&C routine.

Best of all is that unbelievable price. I paid, what, about $2.50 per film?

Can't wait for "Volume 2."


E-mail: hicks@desnews.com