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Thursday, December 16, 2010

King Kong Escapes (1967) review


Rhodes Reason (Commander Carl Nelson), Akira Takarada (Lt. Comdr. Jiro Nomura), Mie Hama (Madame X), Linda Miller (Lt. Susan Watson), Eisei Amamoto (Dr. Who)

Directed by Ishiro Honda

English dubbed version credits sequence from the Universal DVD

The Short Version: The second of Toho's KONG pictures is a stand alone entry that delivers some good old fashioned matinee entertainment rife with childhood charm. This potpourri of comic book adventure, giant monsters and Bondian level villainy is goofy to the extreme, but harmless fun for any monster movie fan. Overly serious fans of the original great ape may beat their chest in anger at the oafish demeanor of Toho's second crack at the King.

The insidious Dr. Who plans to mine a rare, but dangerous ore beneath the North Pole that possesses devastating properties. To do this, he constructs a gigantic robot, Mechani-Kong, modeled on the legendary king of Mondo Island, King Kong. Commander Carl Nelson and his crew aboard the submarine, Explorer, take a brief furlough when the subs rudder is damaged in a rock slide. Finding Kong is more than a legend, Nelson also runs into his old nemesis, Dr. Who and his grand scheme for world domination. Eventually King Kong and his mechanical counterpart square off in a battle atop Tokyo Tower.

Akira Takarada (left), Rhodes Reason (middle), Linda Miller (right)

After the huge domestic and international success of Toho's KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), the Big G's backers were only too happy to produce another movie featuring King Kong in some capacity. A script, some miniatures and a new Kong suit were constructed for what was hoped to be a whole series of Great Ape adventures. The first of these would see Skull Islands biggest resident take on a few monsters--a giant condor called DaiKondura, Infant Island's own Mothra and Ebirah, an outsized crustacean of the lobster persuasion (That script ended up being GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966).

The one stumbling block was that RKO wasn't enthralled with Toho's script so Rankin-Bass was commissioned to write one of their own which ended up being based on their 1966 animated series, THE KING KONG SHOW. The result is an entertaining smorgasbord of ideas from different styles. Spy movies and television shows were still popular at the time, so an element of James Bond was implemented. Comic book theatrics were melded with Japan's signature brand of science fiction gourmet excellence to create a brilliantly silly, but hugely enjoyable adventure tale that should warm the heart of any Kaiju fan.

The new Kong costume is an improvement over the one created for his earlier Japanese outing, but some of the shots with the character in the water are pretty hysterical. Possibly as a safety precaution, when the arms of the suit become saturated with water, it's blatantly obvious there's a man underneath the fur--the rest of the body is huge while the arms appear small. I assume heavy padding was not used to help keep Haruo Nakajima from tumbling over into the pool and drowning. Kong is more cartoonish here, which befits this particular versions animated origins.

Homage is paid to the original anthropoid from 1933 when Kong does battle with Toho's homegrown Tyrannosaurus Rex, Gorosaurus, whose main special move is a drop kick. Susan Watson (Linda Miller) is the object of Kong's affection. She's placed atop a tree just as Fay Wray was in the B/W original while the gigantic gorilla does battle with the dinosaur. Kong also battles an enormous sea snake as our heroes make their escape inside a flying sub/hovercraft vehicle. Mechani-Kong is one of the major highlights, though, and a hold over from THE KING KONG SHOW. Here, he's the robotic weapon used by that nefarious "international Judas", Dr. Who.

Mie Hama (left), Eisei Amamoto (right); insert: image from US DVD

Dr. Who uses Kong's mechanical double as a means of mining a rare and precious ore conveniently christened 'Element X'. When Robo-Kong malfunctions after a systemic reaction from exposure to the powerful ore, the good Doctor sets his sights on the real deal making a mad dash for Mondo Island to capture Kong. Backing Dr. Who is a mysterious Asian seductress played by Mie (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) Hama. Dubbed Madam X in the English version, she is supposedly named Madam Piranha in the Japanese version, although she's never referred to either name in either film. She never even reveals what country she's from. I suspect Korea as Nelson unleashes a tirade on the lovely lady regarding what nationalities she's not when a failed attempt to seduce Nelson backfires.

Differences between the two cuts are minimal till the finale. There's some additional bits of dialog, and much of the Japanese exchanges are a bit harsh compared to the far more mild English dubbed version. This includes a few expletives and some nasty threats voiced by the villains as well as a derogatory line directed at America and the Soviet Union. This shows just how sensitive US filmmakers are when it comes to the way America is discussed in foreign movies even in such kiddie fare as this.

Above: Image from the Japanese DVD; Below: Image from the US DVD

There's approximately 8 minutes trimmed from the Japanese original for the US release. One bit that was altered is the revelation that Madame X is actually a secret agent from "her country". The dubbed version paints her character as if she has had this sudden change of heart. However, the sequence where Mie Hama attempts to woo Rhodes Reason is a little longer in the US print. The Japanese version also has some extra dialog regarding the relationship between Nelson and the good Dr. Who.

The biggest difference between the two is at the end, though. The monster battle atop Tokyo Tower is longer and Linda Miller's rescue is longer, too. Mechani-Kong tears a chunk of the tower off and whacks Kong over the head with it. A piece falls off and lands near where Susan is trapped (This brief shot isn't in the US version). The robot then throws the rest of it down causing her to fall over the edge of the tower and dangle precariously by her hands. Nomura traverses down the plank while the soldiers toss two ropes down. Nomura lowers himself over the side and helps get Susan back to safety while the monsters continue to fight above. This entire bit is exclusive to the Japanese release.

KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) was a hit for Toho and was reportedly popular in America as well. It no doubt aided in the later Japanese collaborations with Rankin-Bass with the films THE LAST DINOSAUR (1977), THE BERMUDA DEPTHS (1978) and THE IVORY APE (1980). The picture never tries to be anything more than mere entertainment, the kind you sit down to enjoy with a coke and a big bucket of buttery popcorn. Granted, some of the effects are better than others, but if all of Japan's monster films had Hollywood style budgets, the charm of these imaginative movies would be lost. Rhodes Reason seems disinterested, but does little more than come across as grumpy and slightly embarrassed. Akira Takarada shines as always, poor Linda Miller had all her lines post dubbed by Julie Bennett and Eisei Amamoto steals the show as Dr. Who.

Amamoto possessed a gift of playing a memorable menagerie of quirky and devilish characters throughout his career. He was the old witch in THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD (1963) starring Toshiro Mifune, wherein Amamoto played the role of a female spellcaster who turned men into stone. He was the Mu Empire high priest in ATRAGON (1963), the eccentric Planet X commander in MONSTER ZERO (1965), the kindly toymaker in ALL MONSTERS ATTACK! (1969) and his last role was in Shusuke Kaneko's GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL OUT ATTACK in 2001. He died in 2003.

Toho fans, monster kids and generally anyone with a playfully less serious side to their cinema watching will get a kick out of this fun Kong adventure. The Japanese version is essential for Kaiju fanatics, but for most, the dubbed edition works just fine. A mainstay of television airings back in the day, you've likely already seen it at some point, but it's worth another visit to mysterious Mondo Island all over again. Be prepared for some (non)serious, but enjoyable monkey business in KING KONG ESCAPES.

This review is representative of both the Japanese R2 Toho Video DVD and Universal R1 DVD


Carl Manes said...

I cant wait to start over from scratch and rewatch all of the Kaiju films in chronological order now that I have more of a working experience with them and understand their camp value better. Would have helped me in enjoying this one more rather than rating it as a straight Horror film. Thinking back, it really is a ton of fun with plenty of ridiculous Z-Horror elements! My fav is definitely the battle atop Tokyo Tower though

venoms5 said...

Yeah, it is a lot of fun, Carl. It would have been ace if Universal had made it a 2 disc set with the slightly different Japanese cut.

Carl Manes said...

Sadly, I'm sure they would think that was asking a bit much in R1, Classic Media may have been a better contender for the release.

venoms5 said...

Well, I got'em both, anyways so I'm straight if the Japanese release never surfaces here. It does make for an interesting viewing experience to see what was cut, added, or differences in the dialog.

Kaijinu said...

I always wanted to check this out! it looks campy fun!

venoms5 said...

You're missin' out on a good one here, Kaijinu!

WaverBoy said...

A pity that the US version is missing monster action footage from the finale; I didn't realize that. :-(

However, even so, the English dub is a must, because voiceover genius Paul Frees plays Dr. Who; I can't imagine the character with any other voice now.

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