King Kong Escapes

Director: Ishiro Honda                            
Rhodes Reason, Mie Hama, Linda Miller

We have the best of both worlds here, and not just in the sense of two cultures combining. Before I explain what I really mean, I feel it best to first point out that this movie is the ideal motion picture for many geeks. That's because what we have here is an Asian (in this case, Japanese) style movie bankrolled by some deep-pocketed American studio (Universal). Many Asian movies are already great enough done on their low budgets, so just imagining how one of these movie would be like with a larger budget is enough to make us geeks salivate(*). So in that sense one of our dreams is fulfilled. But the movie also delivers on another desire we have - to perfectly mix campiness and cheesiness with slickness at appropriate points. King Kong Escapes is a perfect mix of the ludicrous and unintentional hilarity with the great and impressive destruction that big monster fans crave.

Like in the previous Japanese Kong movie (King Kong Vs. Godzilla), the origin of our furry hero is altered from the original 1933 classic. Here, King Kong is considered a mythical figure along the lines of the Loch Ness Monster, even though his supposed home of the island of Mondo is covered with a staircase of ten foot steps and a really big cave. (It goes without saying that Kong staying hidden anywhere for so long is kind of hard to swallow.) The subject has caught the interest of Commander Nelson (Reason), a U.N. submarine captain, who has spent his free time studying the myth. Unknown to him, his drawings have caught the eye of a mad scientist (Eisei Amamoto) based in the Arctic. The name of the scientist is "Dr. Who". I'll let you test the crispness of your wit by letting you fill in your own joke here.

Dr. Who has been hired by a mysterious woman named Madam X (Hama), representing some unnamed government that desires the rare Element X. Just what this rare material can actually do is as mysterious as the country she is working for, but it can apparently threaten even the strongest nuclear power. Near Dr. Who's base, a large deposit of Element X has been found in a crater. It's therefore logical how Dr. Who plans to mine the element out of the crater - build a full scale mechanical King Kong robot based on Commander Nelson's sketches, and use it to dig out the element. However, the radiation soon renders the robot useless. It just happens at that time Commander Nelson discovers that King Kong does indeed exist on Mondo, which causes a sensation. So Dr. Who, genius that he is, figures the logical thing to do is to capture Kong, transport him to the Arctic via helicopter, hypnotize him, and use the big ape to dig out the Element X.

Even for the often crazy Japanese big monster genre, this premise is incredibly ludicrous, and that's what makes it so much fun. Of course there are a lot of improbabilities on display here. Here are some of the questions that came into my mind while I was watching: If the vein of Element X is just covered by several feet of rock at the end of a cave, why doesn't Dr. Who just use some explosives to get to it? And if he's so confident that King Kong will do the job, why does he then decide to kidnap Commander Nelson and two of his crew at the same time? If the Element X radiation can burn out electronic equipment, why doesn't it destroy the loudspeakers Dr. Who puts in Kong's ears? How would he think the three of them could get Kong to do what he wanted if the hypnotism did fail, anyway? How can Kong stay immersed in cold water for so long, and swim for thousands of miles? Why does Dr. Who have a nice upper plate while his lower teeth have almost completely rotted away?

While the monster action does deliver a lot of entertainment, I just want to keep the focus on the human characters for a while longer. Though dubbed, Amamoto still manages to be very hammy as the evil doctor, coming across as a complete goofball instead of a mad genius. He wears a Dracula cape, his eyebrows have been altered so they are completely straight, and he is practically giggling when his lips are dubbed with cornball lines like, "With this, the world is ours!!!!" Madame X (who wears tacky leopard skin boots and head scarf) completely changes her personality so drastically in the second half, she really becomes a different character. Reason's Commander Nelson character is one of those stock heroes who is smart, brave, and completely without any spark for the opposite sex. His activities with the submarine's nurse (Miller) have a weird feeling as a result. It's a bit of a shock (as well as a laugh) as he explains to the world press why Kong was so attracted to her on the island: "Kong is male, while Miss Watson is...well...see for yourself." (Reporters laugh loudly)

The dubbing in this movie isn't just wonderfully bad, but sometimes completely wrong, as when someone in the submarine says that Kong is on shore, yet in the next shot we see Kong still chest high in the water. It appears that some scenes were cut out from the original Japanese version, which may explain one or two examples of this flubbed dialogue. It also leads to some really bizarre jumps in the plot, as when all of a sudden Kong is spotted in the outskirts of Tokyo. I don't know what Universal was thinking when they decided to put the scissors to this movie. Maybe they were just horrified by what they saw. One man's horror can be another man's laughter, however, and there's the equivalent of that large deposit of that Element X when it comes to laughter in this movie.

That large deposit, where the majority of the movie's laughs originate, is with all the big monster action. The Kong costume here seems even worse than in King Kong Vs. Godzilla, maybe even worse than the giant ape costume in A*P*E with its hairlip and pointy teeth on a paper mache-like face, and the unnatural looking fur that looks especially bad when it gets wet. He also has somewhat short legs, and seeing this behemoth running quickly with those impossibly small legs never failed to put me in stitches. Even more hilarious is that this running and the other actions by the monster costumed actors are played out in real time. (As you probably know, in Godzilla and other big monster movies, the monster footage is slowed down slightly so it doesn't look so phony - but not here.) Seeing Kong rapidly punching a fallen opponent or speedily fighting in already ludicrous fights (there are moves straight from the WWF here - no kidding) is terribly funny.

There are many other unintentional laughs, such as a musical score that frequently sounds like Morse code, a man to man struggle that you'd almost swear was a tango, and the doll in Kong's hand having a different hair color than the nurse character he's supposed to be carrying. There are a few other bad special effects, but you may be surprised to learn that a lot of the special effects aren't so bad. The modelwork, both in its construction and the way it is photographed, is generally above average, with some really impressive sequences such as when Dr. Who's seaplane lands on the ocean. The Arctic base was built on a large soundstage, and there is a feeling of realism when seeing this large base surrounded by what seems like miles and miles of ice fields. The Tokyo sequence also comes off well, though that's partly because since it takes place at night, the surroundings are darkened. Also, there are a few sets that, though not looking terribly realistic, are impressive because of their grand scale.

All that give us the right amount of slickness, without going overboard and taking away any fun by  being too serious and realistic. Yes, even with the slickness King Kong Escapes is a silly monster movie, but so what? It's an entertaining monster movie; maybe not entertaining in the way the producers intended, but entertaining all the same. I'm now all warmed up for the upcoming release of Godzilla 2000, yet I can't help but wonder if that movie will deliver as much fun as this obscurity did.

* We'll see another example of this several years from now with the anime movie George Lucas is funding.

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See also: A*P*E, The Crater Lake Monster, Godzilla VS King Ghidora