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Shock-O-Rama: King Kong Escapes!
Ride the Kaiju Tsunami
By Chuck Francisco
May 07, 2014
King Kong Escapes! (1967)
© Universal Studios
By now the connective soft tissue of the internet is ablaze with Kaiju fever in anticipation of the big guy's triumphant return to cinema screens on May 16th. Surely you've noticed the rapid fire blasts between nostalgia neurons and classic clashes, which so rich bathe the World Wide Web in the warm light of delight? This public relations pain train isn't all commercials, Slurpee tie-ins, and IMDB page wraps- there are also quite a number of releasing houses who've decided to get in on the action by bestowing new editions of our favorite monster bash movies. Intrepid Mania sleuth Bob Trate Kaiju suplexed the recent Blu-ray of King Kong vs Godzilla, the first of two films which saw legendary Japanese studio Toho license the Eighth Wonder of the World for inclusion within their monster pantheon.
King Kong isn't the only famous western icon to be appropriated by ToHo in broadening their stable of gargantuan brawlers. Frankenstein's monster Superman'd Baragon's Zod in 1965's Frankenstein vs Baragon. In this film the misunderstood creation is reimagined to a height of twenty meters and given Wolverine style regenerative capabilities. In quite this same way Kong is rescaled for both of his jaunts through the empire of the rising son, greatly increasing his size to place him on equally stompy footing with the King of all monsters. An interesting aside notes that originally Frankenstein was written in as part of King King vs Godzilla, where he alternately combats both of the title monsters, before being given his own film instead.
While King Kong vs Godzilla is the more prestigious entry of the Toho mammalian combat sagas, it's the second film from their offshoot franchise for which my love climbs skyscrapers eternal. Though King Kong Escapes fails to feature that famous score, that immortal roar, that tail du jour, or that killer breath of lore, it presents a superior adventure. This is fantastical escapism at its 60s finest, showcasing impossible hovercraft, espionage adventure, and a perfect pairing of enormous combatants. We'll get back to the title card bout in a moment. Let's first examine the framework, for this films succeeds its predecessor largely because of a far stronger human plot surrounding the city smashing mayhem.
The fiendish Dr. Who, a diabolical evil genius (though not a time lord), has crafted Mechani-Kong. He uses this robotic version of King Kong to mine Element X from the North Pole (inside secret: it's really mummified reindeer droppings), a deadly and rare mineral which the beautiful Madame Piranha covets for her decidedly not North Korean country's weapons program. But the magnowaves prove too much for the monstrous metal ape's circuitry, so Dr. Who decides a better course of action would be controlling the brainwaves of the true Kong (because that never fails horribly). Of course Kong's covetous juices flow insatiably for blond bombshell Linda Miller, who plays military officer Susan Wilson (she was also in famously bad B picture The Green Slime). And eventually these two pulverizing primates are poised to duke it out in grandiose fashion.
The model work on display in King Kong Escapes is jaw (or paw) dropping, as is the set design (specifically the submarine interiors). The difference which only five years can make on Toho's miniature-craft is particularly evident when watching both of their Kong films back to back. The battle pitting these monstrous monkeys against each other atop the Tokyo Tower is as gripping as much of the this movie is goofy (I mean that in the most sincere sense). Allusions are directly drawn to the original '33 Kong's excuse to skip the elevator, and the team at Toho are careful to be evocative without xeroxing what came before.
In a twist which is antithetical to the modern studio sequel machine, King Kong Escapes is not a follow up to King Kong vs Godzilla, but rather it's an adaption of the Rankin/Bass Saturday morning cartoon (in fact Arthur Rankin Jr, who just passed away in January, is credited with the original concept). Toho wanted to utilize Kong again for Destroy All Monsters (and had him written into early drafts of the script), but their usage rights had lapsed by then, so chalk up yet another fan loss to studio greed. In fact a number of similar Toho projects where shelved due to sticky licensing issues, including a 90's remake of Godzilla vs King Kong and, when that fell through, Godzilla vs Mechani-Kong (totally an effort by Toho to use the tangential Kong property without rights). Neither of these never made it past the concept or scripting stages.
In the wake of the coming Kaiju tsunami, Universal has released Blu-Ray versions of both Toho King Kong films, and I am overjoyed to state that the transfer quality on them is phenomenal. It's possible that King Kong Escapes had a higher quality transfer done, but this again may simply be due to the film looking better overall to begin with. There aren't any sort of features packed into this release, which is always a disappointment, but the presentation more than makes up for it. This is honestly a title which I never expected would grace my high definition shelf. Needless to say that just like Fay Wray, I went ape shit. Crush your collection now under the weight of the Eighth Wonder of the World!
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.