Top Ten Tuesday – The Ten Best Giant Ape Movies
Article by Tom Stockman
Though he may have been but an animated model given life through primitive special effects, King Kong, with his doomed loved for the beautiful blonde, has become one of the most beloved of all movie characters, revived in remakes, sequels and knock-offs. But Kong wasn’t the only massive simian to grace the silver screen. Here’s a look at the ten best giant ape movies.
HONORABLE MENTION: A*P*E
The ad campaign for the 1976 Korean film A*P*E warned “Not to be confused with KING KONG”. A captive giant ape, after escapes from a freighter and sets his destructive sights on Seoul, Korea where he falls for an American actress (Joanna Kerns ) filming a movie there. A*P*E was originally filmed in 3-D so there are countless shots of a man in a moth-eaten ape suit throwing Styrofoam boulders at the camera. He also engages in a pitiful skirmish with an obviously dead shark, flips to the bird to his attackers, and in one scene, sports high-top tennis shoes. The same stock destruction footage is repeated in A*P*E, one of the most dismal, if unintentionally funny monster movies of all.
10. KING KONG LIVES
Dino De Laurentiis waited ten years to produce a sequel to his poorly received but modestly successful King Kong remake and brought back director John Guillermin to helm King Kong Lives in 1986. The Jarvik Heart, a medical device making headlines at the time, became the springboard for the story which took place just after Kong’s fall from the World trade Center. He needs a blood transfusion to prevent his body from rejecting his mechanical ticker so a busty Lady Kong is transported from Skull Island to donate. The big guy falls hard for her and the hairy pair bound off into the mountains to make a Kong baby a team of hunters on their tail. The unbelievably goofy premise is played absolutely straight in King Kong Lives. Highlights include an absurd heart-transplant scene (by a team of doctors lead by Linda Hamilton) featuring surgical tools the size of trucks, and a battle with a pair of floppy rubber alligators. This sequel nobody asked for to the remake nobody liked was less offensive, faster-paced, and more fun than its predecessor.
9. QUEEN KONG
Queen Kong was a 1976 gender-switching British twist made to ride the coattails of the 1976 Dino de Laurentiis King Kong remake. A cigar-chomping Rula Lenska played filmmaker/adventurer Luce Habit who travels with blonde hippy Ray Fay (Robin Askwith, shaggy-haired staple of ‘70s British sex comedies) to the African island of Lazanga (Where They Do the Konga). The native girls there (including Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb star Valerie Leon in a red bikini) sacrifice him to the local simian goddess, Queen Kong complete with breasts and a hairdo. Queen Kong follows the 1933 film closely with with Queenie battling a T-Rex and pterodactyl with a hook for a leg before being transported to London for a climb up Big Ben and a tumble through the Tower of London while wearing a giant bra and panties. Queen Kong is riddled with absurd British clowning, a pair of silly musical numbers, and spoofs of Jaws and Airplane. One party lacking a sense of humor was Dino de Laurentiis himself who filed an injunction to prevent the release of Queen Kong. It went unseen until it’s unearthing by Retromedia DVD in 2002.
Konga was a low-budget 1962 British film from American producer Herman Cohen. Michael Gough played Dr. Decker, a loony botanist who discovers a serum that causes his cuddly pet chimpanzee Konga to grow out of control. The monkey only reaches Kong-size dimensions in the final minutes of Konga, smashing out of the glass ceiling of Decker’s greenhouse in a memorable scene. The shabby gorilla suit in Konga was provided by George Barrows (the script never makes it clear why a chimp would grow into a gorilla) and it’s the same one used in Robot Monster (1953) and Gorilla at Large (1955). Its many flaws aside, Konga has always been good cheesy fun for bad movie fans who like laughing at inept films and even inspired its own Charlton comic book series.
7. KING KONG ESCAPES
King Kong vs. Godzilla was a hit in 1962 and Toho brought the slightly revised Kong suit was back five years later for King Kong Escapes which was not a sequel but a live action tie-in to the animated Saturday morning Rankin-Bass TV series King Kong, the first anime series commissioned by an American company. King Kong Escapes featured the cartoon’s villainous Dr. Who (no relation to the British time-hopper), who wants to capture Kong for his own evil plans. Kong battles it out with both a T- Rex and a giant sea serpent before engaging in a lively ape-to-robot confrontation with Mecha-Kong. The robot version of Kong is one of the film’s best elements, as its massive, impractical design cuts an impressive figure and it’s what most kids remember about King Kong Escapes.
6. THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN
The Mighty Peking Man (1977) was the Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong’s entry in the Kong bandwagon. A Chinese explorer in search of a legendary giant in the wilds of India finds not only the enormous ape-like caveman but his friend, a wild blonde female version of Tarzan. The Mighty Peking Man, aka Goliathon, featured some decent miniature effects and an expressive Yeti suit but is best remembered for leggy bleach-blond Swiss actress Evelyn Kraft as Samantha the jungle siren, speaking in fractured English dressed in a barely-there fur bikini.
5. SON OF KONG
In the wake of King Kong’s monstrous success, RKO quickly shot a sequel which was rushed into theaters before 1933 was over. Son of Kong picked up where the original film ended, chronicling Carl Denham’s (Robert Armstrong again) return to Skull Island, this time with brunette Helen Mack, searching for a hidden treasure he needs to pay off all the lawsuits that resulted from Kong’s New York City rampage. Junior Kong was blonde, smaller, and friendlier than his dad and Son of Kong was a much softer and more juvenile sequel, a comic fairy tale that ran a brief 70 minutes. It suffered from a lower budget than its predecessor and was not nearly the financial success. Willis O’Brien used parts of his original Kong models to create the son and while the animation is equally polished, Son of Kong is a smaller scale film in every sense.
4. KING KONG VS GODZILLA
In 1962, Japan’s Toho Studios purchased the rights to King Kong from RKO for King Kong vs. Godzilla, their first color film featuring their popular giant radioactive lizard. It was based on King Kong vs. Frankenstein, an idea Willis O’Brien had conceived as a sequel to King Kong with the big ape battling a creature assembled from parts of giant animals. Unable to find an American studio interested, the project was adapted by Toho who replaced Frankenstein with Godzilla. Fans of O’Brien’s stop-motion work on the original were reportedly horrified by the idea of the big ape being played by a Japanese guy in a suit. While the costume is pretty ragged and expressionless, King Kong vs. Godzilla always been a fan favorite, a big colorful boy’s fantasy with ambitious miniature work, Universal monster stock music, and giants grappling and tumbling like colossal wrestlers. One highlight is when King Kong picks Godzilla up by his tail and whips him around the air like a ragdoll and another is Kong’s lively tussle with an octopus.
3. KING KONG (2005)
King Kong has been officially remade twice. In 1976 Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis unleashed his heavily promoted version starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange as Dwan, to eager audiences. Though De Laurentiis bragged about the 50-foot robot ape artist/sculptor Carlo Rambaldi had constructed for the film, that prop was infamously underused and Kong was mostly played by Rick Baker in an elaborate suit, a development that angered both critics and the original film’s fans. With the exception of John Barry’s score, there is nothing noteworthy about the modestly successful 1976 version which climaxed with Kong battling helicopters atop the World Trade Center. Director Peter Jackson, hot off his Lord of the Rings trilogy got it right with his 2005 remake. Jackson who has stated that King Kong was the film that had inspired him to become a filmmaker, set his version in 1933 and cast Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, Jack Black as Carl Denham and Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll. The effects in this version were completely CGI, but it was made with respect for the original film, snatching bits of the corniest original dialogue verbatim, and even a few bars of Max Steiner’s score. Jackson cast himself as one of the biplane pilots and was in talks with Fay Wray to deliver the film’s last line (“It was Beauty killed the Beast.”) when she passed away in August 2004.
2. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG
The producer –director team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack attempted to recreate the magic of King Kong in 1949 with Mighty Joe Young, which followed the Kong story closely but this time with more humor, affection and a big ape that kids could see as a hero. Again Robert Armstrong leads a safari to an isolated land to find a new attraction and again discovers a giant ape attached to a young blonde (19-year old Terry Moore). The Golden Safari nightclub sequence in Mighty Joe Young is a colorful centerpiece, with voodoo dancers, Joe lifting Moore on a platform while she plays ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ on the piano, ten circus strongmen in leopard-skins who take on Joe in a tug-of-war, and a wild rampage after a trio of drunks go backstage to ply the already contentious ape with booze. Special effects master Willis O’Brien and his young protégée Ray Harryhausen succeeded in making Joe as much of a real character as Kong ever was, using technical advances to give the ape an even more expressive face and mannerisms. Mighty Joe Young failed to capture the box-office magic of its predecessor and a proposed sequel, Joe Meets Tarzan, was scrapped.
1. KING KONG (1933)
King Kong (1933) is a classic tale of beauty and the beast. An ancient animal lives on a mysterious land (Skull Island) that is hidden from the rest of the world. Carl Denham and his crew travel to the island and try and locate the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. This giant behemoth is dubbed King Kong, the monster whom the natives fear. The explorers have to cross a land that time really forgot. Dinosaurs and other strange creatures inhabit the terrain and pick off the humans one by one. Normally the beast would have nothing to do with the nosy visitors but he’s smitten by the lady in the group and saves the humans. His reward for being helpful is being chained up and dragged off to “civilization”. Will King Kong adjust to life in the city? Can he find love with a woman who’s a fraction of his size? The animation and special effects of the original 1933 King Kong left a legacy of their own within the film industry. Even 80 years later it is impossible to find a special effects artist or a director of effects-heavy films who does not list Kong as a key influence. The techniques developed for Kong are applicable to modern FX technologies. As far ahead of King Kong as digital effects seem, they might not have been possible without the ingenuity of animator Willis O’Brien. KING KONG is one of those few movies that come across as vividly the 20th time around as the first and there’s no doubt 80 years from now people will still be enjoying the awesome achievement that is King Kong.