Saturday, January 31, 2015

King Kong Escapes (1967)

Before I settled on Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla, the movie I had considered as a Christmas review was King Kong Escapes. I had been considering making a tradition of reviewing non-Christmas Rankin & Bass films--especially those involving giant monsters. After all, The Last Dinosaur was my Christmas review in 2013. The only problem was that, well, after this film (which Rankin & Bass co-produced with Toho studios, more on that in a bit) the only other film that fits that criteria is The Bermuda Depths. And unlike this film and The Last Dinosaur, it doesn't have lengthy sequences set in the Arctic.

However, while I decided to put the film aside for another time, something happened that made me decide to go ahead and review it as soon as I was able: on December 26th, 2014, Rhodes Reason passed away.

Who was Rhodes Reason, you ask? Well, aside from being a prolific character actor--including playing a Space Roman gladiator in an episode of Star Trek--he was the token gaijin "hero" of King Kong Escapes. And yes, I did mean the sarcasti-quote marks.

There's also the fact that this film sort of fits with the theme of Checkpoint Telstar's "Month of AlloSundays." There isn't a true Allosaurus in it, but there sort of is one. But then, I'm not posting this on a Sunday.

We begin with a United Nations submarine tooling along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, purportedly on an oil prospecting mission. On board, we are introduced to Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Miller, whose voice has been dubbed over by a banshee with a sore throat), the ship's nurse. She gains some likability points by responding to a leering sailor's comments about wishing he was running a fever with a threat of dosing him with castor oil. She says it playfully, sure, but I choose to believe she fully intends to make the guy vomit his guts out if he doesn't behave himself.

Watson is, of course, bringing drinks to the Captain's Cabin. Inside, the skipper, Commander Carl Nelson (the late Rhodes reason) is showing off some maps and drawings of gorillas to his first mate, Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada!). Watson commets that she doesn't get their obsession with gorillas. "I think they're dull," she weirdly observes. Nomura smirks and replies, "Well this one's sixty feet tall. What do you think of him?"

Left to right: Jiro "The Actual Hero" Nomura, Susan "Fay Wray" Watson, and Carl "Designated Hero" Nelson.
You see, Cmdr. Nelson is a bit obsessed with the legend of a giant gorilla called "Kong," who is supposed to live on one of the islands in the chain they're currently surveying. That island is Mondo. Yes, Mondo. I suspect it is next to Hepcat Reef and Daddio Trench. However, as much as Nelson wants to go look at Mondo and hunt a giant gorilla, it's not part of the mission. So he'll have to amuse himself with drawings of Kong and photos of giant steps on a nearby island that clearly were meant for something much larger than a human to use. (Forget about the steps, they won't come up again)

Someone else has something more useful in mind for those drawings of Kong that Nelson has. Somewhere in the Arctic, at a secret base, the fiendish Dr. Who (Eisei Amamoto!) has somehow obtained copies of those drawings and used them as the basis for a gigantic robot gorilla: Mechani-Kong!

Now, you might think that just having a giant robot gorilla is a goal in and of itself. I mean, that's freaking awesome, right? But no, Dr. Who--no, not that Doctor Who--has built Mechani-Kong for a specific purpose. See, Dr. Who's extravagant services have been hired by one Madame Piranha* (Mie Hama!), the representative of an unnamed country with designs on becoming a global superpower--who will later refer to herself as, "Your typical Oriental mata-hari," to my Korean girlfriend's eternal delight.

[*Madame Piranha is just "Madame X" in the English version, but "Madame Piranha" is a way  cooler name so I'm using it]

Keep your Timelords, this is the only Dr. Who that matters to me!
Oh, and a brief aside for anyone who insists on referring to the villain as "Dr. Hu" as an attempt to differentiate him from the even then popular British sci-fi character: you're wrong. The character originated in the cartoon where he was a short, bald-headed white guy named Dr. Who. I have no idea if the name was a coincidence or deliberate (and bizarre) rip-off, but the name is the same.

Yeah, I'll still stick with the Japanese Dr. Who.
Anyways, Madame Piranha has come to Dr. Who's base to oversee his operations, but it's not the robot she wants. See, Dr. Who built the robot to mine the mysterious Element X, which is a very rare and powerful element that can be found in hugely rich veins all around the location of his base. Trouble is, Element X's massive power is a result of it being so radioactive as to be immediately lethal to any human mining crew. However, a giant robot gorilla with a grenade belt (!) should have no problem digging it out. And so, under Piranha's watchful gaze, Dr. Who sends Mechani-Kong out on its maidenvoyage to dig up Element X.

Trouble is, Dr. Who didn't take into account the magnetic properties of Element X. So the instant Mechani-Kong uncovers the stuff, the robot slumps over uselessly. A hugely embarrassed Dr. Who swears to an unimpressed Piranha that he will find a way to get her the Element X she so desires.

And don't ask me how Dr. Who retrieves Mechani-Kong from the dig site, but he'll later have the robot back to full function and it's clearly not just a duplicate of the original.

Meanwhile, things also go "wrong" for Cmdr. Nelson when an underwater rockslide smashes the propellor of the submarine. The sub conveniently must anchor in the bay of Mondo Island for repairs, so naturally Nelson seizes the opportunity to go ashore and explore Mondo--and he brings Nomura and Watson along with him in the sub's groovy hovercar.

Strangely, after they park the car, Nelson observes that the island seems deserted in a way that implies he has been to the island before. This may be a line that was messed up in translation because nothing before or after suggests this, as we shall soon see. There is, however, one elderly islander (Ikio Sawamura, who can be seen playing virtually any old man character in an Ishiro Honda film) who shouts a warning at them from afar that they are trespassing in the domain of Kong. Nelson, who stragely understands the native's language, catches the word "Wong" being used as a prefix to "Kong." Apparently, "Wong" means "King."

Honestly, it's hard to say if "King Kong" or 'Wong Kong" sounds sillier.

The islander then disappears from view, but Nelson wants to chase after him. So Nomura agrees to follow him--carrying their only rifle--and they tell Watson to wait by the car. "You'll be safer here," Nomura tells her.

I really hope that at some point later on, off screen, Watson beat both of them over the head with a thick and heavy book because the second they leave, a hungry Gorosaurus shows up.

Gorosaurus is what I was referring to when I said the film sort of features an Allosaurus. Athough the dinosaur is not named in this film--he gets his name in Destroy All Monsters--this is his debut. He's one of my favorite monsters in the Godzilla lexicon, even though he is basically nothing but an Allosaurus crossed with a T-Rex and Ray Milland, and then blown up to 60 feet tall. For one, I love his design--which is easily the greatest use of a guy in a suit as a dinosaur prior to the non-CGI Raptors in Jurassic Park--and his personality is way cooler than you would ever expect from a dinosaur designed as "T-Rex stand-in."

The majestic Ray Millandosaurus.
Gorosaurus spies Watson and promptly zeroes in for the kill. Watson's screams alert Nelson and Nomura, but they also wake up something in a nearby cave. The mighty Ko--oh my God.

*deep breath*

Eiji Tsuburaya's first attempt at a King Kong suit in King Kong vs. Godzilla is rather notorious for being terrible. Its fur is the wrong color, it looks rather like it was stored in a damp basement for a few years, it's shaped nothing like a gorilla (even when they sometimes give it "arm extensions"), and its face is stuff and inexpressive. It's overall a terrible gorilla suit, even compared to what Hollywood was using at the time.

This suit is worse.

Oh, it actually has the right proportions--more or less--and it is closer to the actual fur color of a gorilla, but everything else is worse. Words can't even fully describe its goofiness.

"Ha! That's great. Now, seriously, guys, where's the Kong suit?"
At any rate, the goofy Kong makes his way to the clearing where Watson is being menaced by Gorosaurus. In case you hadn't figured it out, you're about to be treated to a baltant recreation of one of film's greatest special effects sequences--the Kong vs. T-Rex fight from the original King Kong. It's...somewhat less impressive than the original.

"Ow! Bad dinosaur! BAD!"
Kong picks up Watson, gives her the ol' Fay Wray eyes and then puts her in the crook of a nearby tree for safety while he challenges Gorosaurus--and promptly gets walloped by Gorosaurus's trademark kangaroo kick, which is really the only thing that keeps this sequence from being only a pale imitation of the real deal. Kong is resilient, though, and ultimately pounds his saurian foe into submission. Kong then takes Watson from the tree to make affectionate faces at her--and the puppet for expressive close-ups may actually be worse than the suit--while Watson tells him to put her down via repeating herself slowly like a typical white American trying to communicate with a speaker of another language and "sign language."

Somehow this works and she runs off to rejoin Nelson and Nomura. Kong objects, but since Gorosaurus is not dead he has to pause his pursuit to break the dinosaur's jaw--which causes Gorosaurus to vomit up soap bubbles instead of, you know, blood. Meanwhile, the three heroes find their hovercar waylaid by a silly sea serpent. Kong luckily arrives to throw a rock at its head--which somehow only annoys it--and then proceed to wrestle with it.

"It's okay, I saw Bela Lugosi do this once."
The three make it to the sub, but then Kong--having extricated himself from the serpent's coils--begins shaking the sub violently in the hopes of somehow dislodging Watson. Knowing she's the only one who can stop the sub from being torn apart, Watson goes topside to reason with Kong. Kong, naturally, tries to carry her off. However, he remarkably takes the hint when she jumps out of his hand and returns her to the sub before forlornly returning to his home. Presumably he's going to put on his giant fedora and go rant on Men's Rights message boards.

Nelson wastes no time in forgetting his actual mission and returning to the United Nations Building in New York to rave to a bunch of reporters about how awesome Mondo Island is and how Kong totally exists. His goal is to get another expedition to Mondo funded. One of the reporters is actually Madame Piranha and she has a radio link to Dr. Who. After Nelson explains how Watson was able to soothe and almost commuicate with Kong, Piranha seaks away to tell Dr. Who that Watson is the key to controlling Kong.

See, Dr. Who has decided that the best way to save face after the failure of his Kong robot is to kindap the real Kong and make him dig out Element X. How Dr. Who can be certain the radiation wouldn't be just as lethal to Kong as any other animal is never addressed, but we can safely assume the answer is "he's a giant monster."

So, Dr. Who's ships and helicopters arrive at Mondon Island ahead of Nelson's new expedition. Kong is knocked out with ether bombs and chained up to the helicopters. The islander runs up to Dr. Who and his landing party to protest, but in the greatest part of the film Dr. Who just responds, "Yes, Kong's mine now," before pulling a gun and casually putting three bullets into the islander, and then turning back to the task of wrangling Kong. So Kong is airlifted off the island and secured in the cargo hold of one of Dr. Who's ships.

Thus, the island is bereft of Kong when Nelson's expedition arrives. There's evidence of the capture, but that means very little. Well, until Watson fnds the dying islander. The man tells Nelson what he saw before expiring, and Nelson explains to Watson and Nomura that he said "an Oriental skeleton, with eyes like a gutter rat" took Kong away. (No, I have no idea why the islander would have a concept of "Oriental" or "gutter rat", but maybe Nelson is paraphrasing) At any rate, Nelson knows exactly who is responsble: "My old friend, that International Judas: Doctor Who."

My girlfriend, around this point, suggested that Nelson and Dr. Who are rivals because they're ex-lovers. I gotta say, it checks out--and makes the movie more entertaining.

On their way back to the UN, a sea plane approaches the sub and advises that they have orders to take Nelson, Nomura, and Watson to Tokyo. Of course, the plane is actually staffed by Dr. Who's henchmen--and Nomura picks up on the fact that they're not Japanese first, but the trio decides to see where this is leading. The answer, of course, being to the Arctic.

There, we discover Dr. Who has hypnotized Kong and fitted him with a headset so that Kong can be monitored and receive orders at the same time. He kidnapped Nelson, Watson, and Nomura as insurance--seeing as how Watson has sch value to Kong and they're the only living King Kong experts. Such as they are. Bet he's wishing he hadn't killed the guy who spent decades of his life on the same island as Kong, huh?

Kong is sent to work, and seems to be making far more progress in digging out Element X than MechaniKong. Dr. Who's gamble seems to be paying off at first since clearly Kong is immune to the radiation that Elerment X gives off...but it turns out that the hypnotism Dr. Who employs is not. So Kong snaps out of it, throws off the headset and charges back down the tunnel to the base--with the uge metal door slamming shut to trap him in the tunnel ony just in time. Well, now Dr. Who really needs Watson's help, but naturally none of our heroes wants to help him.

So Dr. Who locks Nomura and Watson in a freezing cell and then plays chess with Nelson. Here's our first instance of Nelson being a worthless hero while Nomura tries valiantly to keep Watson from freezing to death. Oh, and when Dr. Who is called away, Nelson is summoned to Piranha's quarters and begins putting the moves on her over drinks. You know, while his subordinates are freezing to death. He does, eventually, get Watson and Nomura out of the cell, but he sure took his time about it.

Of course, Dr. Who finds himself in a bit of a jam when Kong finally tears apart the huge steel door and then digs himself out of the tunnel and goes bounding off into the Arctic wilderness. Dr. Who sends MechaniKong after the real deal, but Dr. Who not only forgot to shield the robot's "brain" with lead, but neglected to make its body watertight. So when Kong dives into the freezing Arctic waters and swims for it, his robot duplicate can't follow.

Dr. Who barges into Madame Piranha's quarters, completely unbothered by the fact that all of his prisoners are calmly hanging out in there with her unrestrained. He just wants his captives to tell him how strong a swimmer Kong is. Somehow Nomura and Nelson both know that Kong regularly swims back and forth between islands in the same chain as Mondo-even though there is no way they could know that--so Dr. Who knows for certain that Kong will escape this time. Hey, the title didn't lie!

Dr. Who locks his prisoners up again for the journey to follow Kong, who has--naturally--made a beeline for Tokyo. Dr. Who intends to send MechaniKong into the cty to subdue Kong, and he doesn't care about any collateral damage. However, Madame Piranha is not so ruthless as her business partner. Not only would having her country's involvement in the destruction of major city cause an international incident that they can scarce afford to handle without Element X backing them up, but she just doesn't want to see millions get killed by the battle beween two 60-foot monsters in the middle of a crowded city.

So Piranha lets Nomura, Watson, and Nelson escape to warn the authorities and hopefully get Kong under control before the beast causes any damage or gets killed. Unfortunately, our heroes arrive in Tokyo only slightly ahead of Dr. Who. Nelson and Nomura convince the Japanese Defense Force not to attack Kong and Watson calms the beast, but then MechaniKong smashes through a building--intent on reclaiming Kong via the same hypnotic device Dr. Who used before, now installed on its head. Nomura uses a rifle to take out the hypnotic device, but MechaniKong just grabs Watson and now the battle is on.

Not this battle, sadly, but almost as awesome.
I've spoken of King Kong Escapes previously, in my review of Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. The film started life as a result of a deal Rankin & Bass struck to produce a King Kong cartoon, provided they also produced a eature film along with it. Rankin & Bass turned to Toho, knowing they could produce a feature film for a lower cost than most Amerian studios--and also possibly the fact Toho had already bought the rights to Kong in order to make King Kong vs. Godzilla probably made rights negotiations easier.

I'm going to guess the script Toho first sowed to Rankin & Bass that wuld become Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster probably was actually one they'd been kicking around prior to the partnership. I mean, it's hard to believe Toho had zero plans to reuse Kong after the amount of money they dropped for his rights. The appearance of Mothra in the screenplay and Kong gaining strength from electricity both point towards the film being a sequel to King Kong vs. Godzilla instead of a stand-alone feature.

Regardless, I'm thankful that Rankin & Bass refused the script and it became a Godzilla vehicle instead because that means we got two awesome movies instead of one.

King Kong Escapes is a delightful film, indeed. It's aimed at a younger audience, but doesn't adopt a condescending attitude like many kids' films. Watching it as an adult is therefore not a chore, unless you're some kind of monster who dislikes guys in rubber suits beating on each other on miniature sets. Of course, while the film is perfect for a young audience in most respects, parents should be cautioned: while the defeat of Gorosaurus is completely bloodless (unlike its inspiration), both Madame Piranha and Dr. Who meet violent, bloody ends. Usually creature violence is considered less horrifying than human violence, but this film is quite the opposite. There's no Disney-esque move of chucking the villain off a cliff: Dr. Who dies pinned beneath heavy machinery, coughing up blood, and then is drowned by a few thousand gallons of sea water.

Aside from that, there's really nothing beyond a bit of typical late 60s chauvinism to make it unsuitable for kids. Well, that and the bizarre bit of racism that has Nomura doing all the actual heroics and sets up a relationship between him and Watson, only for Watson to run to Nelson's arms at the end! Nelson has more chemistry with Dr. Who than he does with Watson, but I'm guessing someone was afraid that American audiences would be furious at a Japanese man being involved with a white woman. (The inverse would, naturally, not have been a big deal at all--for reasons of racist logic that I won't rant about here) Of course, this being a kaiju film we are spared them kissing*, so feel free to interpret the embrace as Watson receiving comfort from a father figure, while she really loves Nomura.

[*For some reason, perhaps a cultural one, kaiju eiga never have any kissing in them that I've seen, no matter how heavily a romance is implied between two characters. The only exception that I know of being Invasion of Astro-Monster, where we briefly see Nick Adams and Kumi Mizuno kissing. (Which proves my other point above, sort of) This is why it amuses me that people interpret the ending of Pacific Rim as Mako and Raleigh not being romantically involved. By kaiju eiga tradition, they were practically necking]

"Enough about the human characters," you say, "what about the monster action?" Well, as I've said the King Kong suit is the worst ape suit Toho ever produced and the sea serpent, while well crafted, is so obviously inanimate that poor Haruo Nakajima (who else?) in the Kong suit is forced to wrap it around himself in order to "fight" it. However, MechaniKong is the second most awesome mechanical doppelganger that Toho would deliver in the Showa era--and Gorosaurus is by far the best man in a suit therapod put to film, in my opinion. The fight scenes are also well-choreographed. The Gorosaurus fight could easily have been nothing but a sad recreation of the original Kong vs. T-Rex fight, but the addition of Gorosaurus's kangaroo kick gives it a bit more life.

The real standout, though, is the final fight in Tokyo. Rather than the expected wrestling match, it becomes an odd game of "King of the Hill" as MechaniKong climbs up Tokyo Tower with Watson in one hand while Kong gives pursuit. The Tokyo Tower "miniature" (I say because clearly it's a massive set, only small by comparison to the real thing) is wonderfully built and the fight is actually pretty suspenseful.

I also appreciate that the relationship between Kong and Watson is more one of friendship and admiration than the traditional ape lust. Aside from Nelson's casually sexist joke about Kong being tamed by her because she's a looker, there's never really a hint that the ape thinks of her as anything but a tiny pet.

In the end, King Kong Escapes is exactly what it sets out to be: a fun matinee flick. It's not deep, nor is it an enduring classic like original King Kong. However, it's a far better "remake" than either the Dino de Laurentiis or even Peter Jackson attempts. After all, it actually remembers the dinosaurs and it's not 3 hours long.

Also, it has Doctor Who: International Judas.

And if he ever met the other Doctor Who, he'd become That Intergalactic Judas.
What's this?  A special guest to deliver one last closing comment? Well, I guess this is still close enough to count for AlloSunday.

I say, Doctor Who in the Arctic? I'm prepared!