Sunday, January 17, 2016

King Kong Escapes (Toho/Universal, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the other film on the program, King Kong Escapes, was pretty lousy. This came about when Toho Studios, who’d made the films starring the second most famous giant monster character in film history, Godzilla, decided to license the rights to the most famous giant monster character in film history, King Kong, for a 1962 movie called, natch, King Kong Meets Godzilla. This was the inevitable follow-up, a 1967 farrago of nonsensical situations called King Kong Escapes in which a scientist has for some reason built a full-sized robot replica of Kong, and the promotion for the film ballyhooed that at the end there’d be a pitched battle between the two. The plot, if you can call it that, concerns a group of good guys in a United Nations research submarine — Commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason, who in an “trivia” post is quoted as saying when he got the script he knew the film would be crap, but accepted it anyway because it meant a free trip to Japan); Lieutenant Susan Watson (Linda Miller, who for some reason was not allowed to voice her own part when the film was dubbed from Japanese to English even though she was an American and therefore a native English speaker); and Lieutenant Commander Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada), who end up on “Mondo Island” in search of the legendary Kong so they can study him scientifically; and a bunch of bad guys — Dr. Who (no, not the one in the famous British TV series!), played onscreen by Hideyo Amamoto in rice-powder makeup and a Dracula cape but voiced in the English version by almost too-well-known voice actor Paul Frees (who’d also dubbed for Toshiro Mifune when he appeared in English-language films) and Madame X (Mie Hama) — who was called “Madame Piranha” in the original version — who’s from a carefully unnamed country anxious to obtain a super-powerful material called “Element X” that can power their private nuclear-weapons program and make them invincible.

Only Madame X and Dr. Who keep having arguments because Madame X wants results, not excuses, and is impatient with the delays and problems Dr. Who keeps running into. In order to mine the Element X successfully and without risking their own lives and those of their henchmen (that’s how they’re identified in the cast list), they first steal the robot Kong and send him into the cave containing the world’s only known supply of the stuff. Only the robot is soon incapacitated by a “magnetic mass” in the underground mine (and I couldn’t help but joke to Charles, “Which part of the magnetic Mass is the problem — the magnetic Kyrie, the magnetic Gloria or the magnetic Credo?”) and so the baddies figure they have to abduct the real Kong from Mondo Island (in the original 1933 King Kong it was called “Skull Island” and in the authorized sequel, Son of Kong, it was destroyed when an undersea earthquake sank it, but who’s counting?) and put him in the mine. They do that — the scene in which they cuff each of Kong’s limbs to one of four helicopters and fly him off the island is cool, even though the copters themselves look like props they bought at the Tokyo Woolworth’s that morning — and they hypnotize Kong into being their slave and mining the stuff even though the radiation is going to kill him within a day or two. Only the Element X deposits are themselves so sparkly they de-hypnotize him. The good guys trace Kong to (where else?) Tokyo, and since both sides know that Lt. Watson has a lot of influence over Kong (he’s fallen for her the way he did for Fay Wray’s character in the original film), they attempt to use her to get Kong to do their bidding. She and Commander Nelson end up imprisoned on the bad guys’ ship, but they escape and the real Kong and the robot Kong end up in a duel to the death that’s a lot less interesting than it could have been since they’ve both climbed a huge TV transmission tower and therefore, like the hero and villain of Quentin Durward, have to fight with only one hand because they’re using the other to hang on.

Before that Kong (the real one) takes on a nondescript killer dinosaur called Gorosaurus in a sequence that’s the best thing in the film by a long shot: director Inoshirô Honda copies the fight between Kong and the T. Rex from the 1933 film almost exactly, down to Kong gently setting Watson on one of the branches of a tree before he does battle — though, alas, Honda and his effects people did not use the charming strategy of Willis O’Brien in making Kong approach the fight like a human prizefighter, blocking, feinting and punching while the monster just charges. Honda does have this Kong kill the monster the way the original Kong dispatched the T. Rex — by grabbing its mouth and bending its jaws so they snapped and broke apart. There’s a later sequence in which Kong attacks and kills a sea serpent, and at the end, after he’s thrown the mechani-Kong off the TV tower (and the robot has broken into pieces upon landing), the real Kong stomps out the baddies’ ship before heading home across the ocean (though he’s so tall it looks more like a wading pool for him) to return to Mondo Island and the natives who, like their forebears in the original film, worship him as a god. King Kong Escapes is silly in all the ways you’d expect and a few you might not — Paul Frees is so associated with cartoons it’s hard to take him seriously even playing a black-hearted villain (he voiced a villain wonderfully as Meowrice Percy Beaucoup in Gay Purr-Ee, but at least that was a comic villain) — and apparently the U.S. version was produced by Universal in association witih the Rankin-Bass cartoon company, which had made an animated TV series of King Kong in which he’s being trundled around the South Pacific on a raft towed by a ship — a hint dropped in the original film in which Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) decides he’ll ship Kong back to the U.S. by building a raft his ship, the Venture, can tow — and in each episode Kong got off the raft and into some presumably exciting adventure. (I haven’t watched any of the King Kong cartoons in ages but I still remember the theme song: “King Kong/You know the name of King Kong/You know the fame of King Kong/Ten times as big as a man.”) Apparently Rankin-Bass Productions bought the U.S. rights for this one and assigned them to Universal to get publicity for the Kong “brand” that would help their animated TV show — even though my dim recollection is that the TV shows were not only U.S.-produced, they were considerably better than this lame, unexciting movie.