Direction: Ishiro Honda
William J. Keenan and Kaoru Mabuchi (a.k.a.
Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya
Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka and Arthur Rankin, Jr.
They just don't make 'em like they used to -- and in the case of King Kong Escapes, that's fine with most reviewers. Leonard Maltin's movie book bestows a "BOMB" rating upon the film, noting that "Kong never had it so bad."
Even upon its original American release in 1968, the movie took a major critical drubbing, from Variety blasting the "below average" acting and direction to the New York Times proclaiming "the plotting is hopelessly
primitive" and "the process of photography -- matching the miniatures with full-scale shots -- is just bad."
However, not everyone hates it. Plenty of giant monster movie fans like the film and remember it fondly. For example, one of them noted that it looked great on 1968 drive-in movie screens.
Of course, one reason King Kong Escapes is often derided is Kong's stuffed-toyish get-up -- let's face it, the big ape's appearance has received more negative reviews than the average Adam Sandler movie. Now this Kong is better-articulated than the one in King Kong Vs. Godzilla, but really no more realistic. As was likely the case in King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Eiji Tsuburaya was probably trying once again to appeal to the smallest of small fry in the movie's audience by making the big ape cuddly instead of chilling.
On the other hand, Kong's robotic opponent Mechanikong appears to have sprung straight from a vintage 1960's Marvel comic book. The ape-like automaton's design is sleek and well-realized, much like something that Marvel villains such as the Mandarin or the Thinker might have concocted. He makes a formidable foe for the flesh-and-blood Kong during the movie's finale, albeit one defeated a bit too easily.
Kong also battles two prehistoric adversaries. One of them, the allosaurus-like Gorosaurus, makes a splendid Mondo Island combatant for Kong. Created with care and with attention to understatement --no frills, carapaces, horns, etc. -- Gorosaurus is one of the best-designed kaiju to stalk out of Toho's 1960's movie stable. It certainly looks and acts more like a real dinosaur than any other Toho creature creation of the fifties, sixties, and seventies.
Not only that, but Gorosaurus's duel-to-the-death with Kong is also one of the best monster battles Eiji Tsuburaya ever lensed. It has pace, it has dynamics, it has heart (paying obvious homage to the Kong-vs.-Tyrannosaurus scene from the RKO original). But maybe most important of all, it doesn't have a funny bone in its body.
Kong also faces a giant, ocean-going snake that temporarily keeps the heroes' hovercraft from docking with their submarine. Of course, Kong pulverizes the none-too-impressive but not-altogether-awful silver serpent. In Japan, the creature is called Daiumihebi (literal translation: "giant sea snake"); in America, the monster, like Clint Eastwood in a series of popular Italian Westerns, had no name.
Though 100% kaiju eiga, King Kong Escapes was heavily influenced by then-current spy movie conventions. For example, when it comes to gadgets, note the U.N. submarine's hovercraft and Mie Hama's radio transmitter hidden in a tube of lipstick -- so powerful it can reach from New York City to the North Pole!
As for maniacal villains, Dr. Who fits the bill perfectly, a madman vastly more bizarre and over-the-top than James Bond's Dr. No or Blofeld.
And note Dr. Who's snazzy North Pole base. This sprawling Arctic complex brings to mind the elaborate S.P.E.C.T.R.E. hideout in the James Bond 1967 adventure You Only Live Twice. And speaking of You Only Live Twice, Mie Hama appears in that movie in a prominent role -- and she also turns up in King Kong Escapes as Madame X!
In addition to the spy stuff, one of the major elements that strengthens this movie is Akira Ifubuke's excellent music score. The maestro's familiar monster movie motifs (blaring trumpets, driving tempos, commanding strings) color much of the soundtrack, which consists of a vigorous theme for Mechanikong.
Effects-wise, by late 1960's standards, King Kong Escapes includes some nice visuals, as well as some that are terrible. Too often we witness tell-tale blue lines, trembling mattes, and faulty lighting. The miniatures are on a par with most Toho models of the 1960's; some (Dr. Who's Arctic base and ocean freighter, the Tokyo cityscapes) are decidedly better than others (Dr. Who's generally obvious helicopters). However, even the 1968 NewYork Times' review of King Kong Escapes admitted that "The Toho moviemakers are quite good at building miniature sets."
Admittedly, King Kong Escapes has a lot going against it -- a low budget, uneven special effects, and that (ahem) unique Kong costume. But despite these undeniable deficiencies, most fans of Japanese monster cinema will find this late-sixties Toho effort sates their kaiju eiga fix for a time.
Released in November 2005, Universal's DVD of King Kong Escapes is both letterboxed and lovely, made from a good print. Best of all, after having been edited out of King Kong Escapes when the movie popped up on the Sci-Fi Channel during the 1990's, Dr. Who's death scene has been reinstated in all its blood-sputtering glory. Hurrah!
King Kong Escapes is part live-action comic book, part sixties spy opera, part juvenile sci-fi thriller, and part giant monster movie all rolled into one. When taken in the right spirit, the film is enjoyable, Saturday matinee escapist fun. Not everyone will be able to appreciate the film's cartoonish sensibilities; many will no doubt agree with Leonard Maltin's BOMB rating. But for the rest of us, King Kong Escapes pushes all the right nostalgia buttons -- and then some. Arigato, Honda-san.