Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 17

King Kong Escapes (1967)

It’s a popular anecdote that, when “King Kong vs. Godzilla” came out, Kong was the more popular monster. I have no idea if that was still true by 1967 but I suspect it wasn’t. By that point, Godzilla was on his eighth film. This was only Kong’s fourth or so. The reason Toho waited five years to capitalize on that picture’s success probably has to do with legal issues. When a new solo Kong adventure rolled out, it wasn’t a sequel to “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” Instead, “King Kong Escapes” is a loose adaptation of the forgotten Rankin/Bass cartoon series that was airing around the same time.

Like nearly every Kong movie, the film begins with people arriving on an island. This time, it’s a group of U.N.-sanctioned explorers looking for oil. The soldiers don’t find oil on Mondo Island. Instead, they find Kong. Meanwhile, a mad scientist named Dr. Who has built a robotic Kong to dig up plutonium in the Arctic. When Mechani-Kong breaks down, Dr. Who’s dragon lady financier demands he track down the real thing to continue the digging. The three heroes are dragged along. It’s not long before Kong and his mechanical double are battling in the middle of Tokyo.

That “King Kong Escapes” was adapted from a cartoon is not surprising. The plot is incredibly childish. Turns out, flesh and blood gorillas are better at digging up plutonium then robotic ones. I question the logic of this conclusion. Dr. Who, at first, intends to capture Susan because Kong listens to her. Not long after that, he reveals a device that can hypnotize Kong. So why did he capture the woman and her comrades? Dr. Who’s exploits are financed by the mysterious Madame X, presumably so he’ll make nuclear weapons for her unnamed country. (I think she’s supposed to be from one of the Koreas. You know, the communist one.) Before the end, Madame X withdraws her support. Dr. Who continues to pursue Kong anyway even though he has no reason to. How goofy is the movie? A giant gorilla immediately recognizing his robot copy is the least absurd element.

Usually, the monster action redeems films of this sort. “King Kong Escapes” starts strong but eventually disappoints. Not long after walking onto the island, Susan is menaced by Gorosaurus. Awoken by an attractive blonde’s screams, Kong leaps into action. The fight with Gorosaurus is a blast, the dinosaur drop-kicking Kong through the jungle, the ape bounding around. Befitting the big ape, he splits the dinosaur’s jaw open. The action continues as Kong fights off a sea serpent, once again saving Susan. Kong immediately falling for the girl is one thing. The ape taking orders from her after only a minute strains believability, even for a movie like this.

Unfortunately, the kaiju wrasslin’ takes a back seat during the middle section. Kong is captured by Who, makes one failed mining attempt, and spends too much time locked up. The focus shifts to the villain and the heroes. Dr. Who is a straight-up supervillain, even wearing a cape. His underground lair and army of identically uniformed henchmen recalls a Bond villain. The whole movie has heavy Bond elements. Susan and Jiro are placed in a death trap, a quickly freezing room. Madame X attempts to seduce Carl with fancy clothes and fine wine. It doesn’t work, the hero instead turning the she-devil good. Since this is a kid’s flick, he doesn’t fuck goodness into her like Bond would. A simple kiss suffices. The movie openly invites the Bond connection since Mie Hama previously co-starred in “You Only Live Twice” just earlier that year.

As the title promises, King Kong eventually escapes Dr. Who’s clutches. Instead of delivering a rocking finale, the movie lurches into a weak last act. Kong swims to Tokyo, Mechani-Kong not far behind. Instead of crushing some JSDF tanks, Kong steps back, blinded by the bright lights. Bright lights turn out to be Kong’s weakness. Mechani-Kong continually blinds the beast with headlights, a lame Achilles' heel for sure. Fulfilling Kong movie expectations, the gorillas scale a tall structure - Tokyo Tower this time - a beautiful woman in hand. The main reason the finale disappoints is because Kong doesn’t dispatch his double. Instead, Madame X wrecks Dr. Who’s control room, Mechani-Kong plummeting from the tower to his doom.

In the final minutes, Who flees Japan, still determined to capture the big monkey. Upon catching up with Who, Kong, if you’ll excuse the pun, goes ape-shit. The great gorilla crushes the villain’s boat, tearing the propeller off, smashing the smoke stacks with it. After Kong has been an unabashed good guy throughout most of the run time, it’s surprising to see him cut loose in such a violent manner. It is also, not coincidentally, the most satisfying action in the film.

Eisei Amamoto hams it up as Dr. Who. In the American version, the only commercially available version, he’s dubbed by Paul Frees, using the exact same voice he used as the Burgermeister. Mie Hama has fun playing the villainous seductress. Unfortunately, Akira Takarada isn’t given much to do and leading man Rhodes Reason is a bore. Despite speaking English, Linda Miller was shrilly dubbed by Julie Bennett. You will get tired of hearing her shout “Kong!” Akira Ifukube contributes a beautiful score, its sweeping romantic themes at odds with the goofy shit happening on-screen. “King Kong Escapes” is a middling affair, one of Toho’s least endearing kaiju flicks. [5/10]

Sleepwalkers (1992)

Stephen King’s books are very successful. Movies based on Stephen King’s books have been, in general, successful. Movies Stephen King have had a direct hand in creating, meanwhile, have resulted in “Maximum Overdrive,” the crappy version of “The Shining” nobody cares about, and “Sleepwalkers.” “Sleepwalkers” has the sort of premise you’d expect from King’s cocaine years but was, amazingly, made in the early nineties, after he kicked the habit. It was also directed by Mick Garris, a man who has made many not-that-great movies out of Stephen King’s books and stories. I guess what I’m saying is, going into this one, I kept my expectations low.

“Sleepwalkers” begins with some made-up bullshit about sleepwalkers, cat-like monsters and precursors to vampires, that feed on the souls of virgins and are also, oddly, frightened of cats. The film follows what might be the last two sleepwalkers in existence. Charles and Mary Brady are an incestuous mother/son duo who are always on the run, fleeing from town to town after claiming another victim. After settling into a small Indiana town, Charles has his eye on Tanya, a virginal girl he goes to school with. When his mother’s appetite for souls grows stronger, Charlie has to pursue the girl more viciously.

The only thing “Sleepwalkers” really has going for it is its monsters. There aren’t many were-cats in fiction in general and even fewer on screen. Instead of pulling its titular creatures from some mythology somewhere, it makes up its own damn monsters. The Sleepwalkers are shape-shifter, able to assume human form. They have a number of powers beyond a human’s ability. In addition to the typical super strength, they can cast illusions, making themselves invisible or changing the appearances of things. However, there are faults in their powers. Mirrors show their true faces.  Despite being cat-people themselves, the only thing that can seemingly kill a sleepwalker are the claws of a cat. Apparently, a cat’s scratch causes their skin to burst into flames. Cats instinctively pick up on their monstrous qualities. Every home Charles and Mary travel too always has a fleet of pussycats waiting outside. In addition to all of this, the sleepwalkers are pretty cool looking monsters too. The effects are a bit rubbery, the faces’ inexpressive. However, the designs pick up on the eerie qualities of cats. The eyes are black and beady, the ears are back, and the skin is pale and filled with wrinkles.

“Sleepwalkers” is most valuable as a trashy horror movie. And, oh man, is it trashy. This is a film that opens with a cat leaping out from behind a closed door. The focus on the Brady’s incestuous relationship is strictly sensationalist, with close-ups on their flicking tongues and sweaty, entwined bodies. The gore in the movie is explosive and comes often. Glen Shaddix gets his hand torn off, blood splattering on the inside of a windshield. A ridiculous car chase follows, the fleeing Charles pursued by Dan Martin’s Andy. Andy is a black deputy who carries his cat everywhere, plays games with him while on the road, and makes up vulgar, nonsense songs. (That last one is a very King-esque touch.) The film seems obsessed with using non-traditional objects as stabbing weapons. A pencil is stabbed in an ear, heads are bashed with a camera and a flower vase, a man is impaled on fence rows and, most infamously, someone is killed with a corn cob. When Charles turns into a cat person in front of Tanya, he starts spouting cheesy one-liners. The best scene in the movie comes when Mary takes the fight to Tanya’s parents, decimating a fleet of cops, tearing Ron Perlman’s arm off. The violence is so excessive that I wonder if King didn’t write the movie as a parody of trashy eighties splatter flicks.

Most of the performances are keeping in this tone. Brian Krause is broad and ugly as Charles, really overdoing it in several key moments. Madchen Amick is a screaming damsel in distress, doing little to distinguish the part. Most of the cops are goofy too, like Jim Haynie, Ron Perlman, or the aforementioned Dan Martin. Glenn Shadix hams it up as the English professor who exists just to pad the body count and whose disappearance is never brought up. As he usually does, Mick Garris fills out the bit parts with cameos from other horror directors. This film’s lot includes John Landis, Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, and King himself in a very showy part. Sandwiched between all this ridiculousness is Alice Krige as Mary. Krige’s performance is one hundred percent sincere. She invests the part with a pure power and a steely beauty. She is determined and passionate yet also vulnerable, tearing up over her son’s fate. It’s the sort of part Krige usually plays, a villainous and sexual older woman, and she’s excellent each time. Her acting deserves a better movie.

The score is loud and abrasive but, before the end credits roll, Garris turns his camera towards an army of cats fleeing a burning yard while Enya’s haunting “Boadicea” plays on the soundtrack. If “Sleepwalkers” had a hundred more images like that, it would’ve been a classic. As it is, the movie can’t quite rise to the level of gory guilty pleasure. It’s a bit too minor and dumb even for that. Imagine what a young Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi could have done with corn murder and cat people. In the hands of Mick Garris, it’s goofy and forgettable. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Split Personality

Sometimes, the perfect actor comes across the perfect material for him. Has any one person been better suited to the vulgarian charms of “Tales from the Crypt” then proud vulgarian Joe Pesci? And he got a good script too, from reliable monster kid scribe Fred Dekker. In “Split Personality,” Jack, a gambler and con artist with a fetish for the number two, comes across his version of heaven: A pair of single, hot twins with a massive fortune to split. Despite Pesci playing a typical Pesci character – a slimy, sleazy schemer – the girls take a liking to him. While in the bed of a Las Vegas hooker, Jack hits upon the perfect con. He’ll pretend to have a twin himself, cooking up a bullshit story about how the two are never in the country at the same time, and seduce and marry both girls. His millions are seemingly secure until the twins stumble upon the truth.

Like I said, Pesci is perfectly suited to this material. In the cartoon world of “Tales,” the actor can be as big, bold, brash, and foul-mouthed as he wants. He rips into it, playing the ultimate scumbag and sleazy double-dealer. I like the way Jack thinks on his feet, immediately pulling knowledge of architecture out of his ass when he realizes the twins are the daughters of a famous architect. Pesci being an actor of limited range, he doesn’t stretch himself much to play his “fake” twin. In any other show, the audience would never buy anyone could believe his con. It flies in the “Crypt” though. Jacquline and Kirsten Citron play the twins. Both are beautiful and always talk with a slinky, sex kitten purr. When the twins, inevitably, turn homicidal, that purr becomes creepy. “Split Personality’ is also notable as the sole directorial credit of mega-producer Joel Silver. Silver’s work is competent and non-intrusive. The episode makes good use of color and close-ups. The final image is classic “Crypt” and looks like it was pulled straight from the comic page. There have been better “Tales” but “Split Personality” might be one of the most satisfying. [8/10]

So Weird: Transplant

“So Weird” did a good thing in bringing back Mackenzie Gray as John Kane, last seen in “Strange Geometry.” The hard living Kane has recently undergone a full-blown heart transplant. The tour bus stops by his house in hopes of talking him into playing on Molly’s new album. He refuses and, quickly, Fiona notices that John’s personality has completely altered. He’s lost all interest in music and is acting erratic. Fi soon discovers that he’s developed a passionate interest in aliens and UFOs. A more shocking discovery comes when Fi finds that Kane is cobbling together a device to communicate with extraterrestrials, the same aliens that have some connection to his new heart.

Gray’s role in “Strange Geometry” was brief but he made an impression. The show cooked up a juicy part for the veteran television and voice actor in this one. Gray gets to play nervous, frantic, excited, frightened, and stressed out. It’s a fully formed performance and plays to the actor’s strengths. Gray’s performance is the key to “Transplant,” another “So Weird” episode that grounds its far-out by making the concepts personal to its characters. Kane hasn’t just developed an obsession with aliens, he’s lost the ability to make music. It’s like his entire personality has shifted. The episode is ultimately less about connecting with UFOs and more about learning to survive a huge change in your life. The ending cements this. It’s not a big flashy effects sequence. Instead, John finds the wife of the man who gave him his new heart, realizing the connection and coming to grips with it. It’s nice to see Jack and Fi working together, instead of against other, for once. “Transplant” is not mind-blowing but is devoted to a great guest performance and features the strong writing and acting that characterized “So Weird.” [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

Wrote this back in 2010. It was fun to read again after seeing your comments.

"King Kong Escapes" looks like Toho Studios attempt to make a James Bond/Kong hybrid. First, there's an evil bad guy named Dr. Who. You know he's bad because he's wearing a black cape with a goofy collar (and he's got a really bad row of bottom teeth...poor guy). There is a beautiful but evil henchman named Madame X and a hero, Commander Carl Nelson, who is a Sean Connery lookalike.

Dr. Who creates a big robot gorilla to dig for 'Element X' which is easily converted to nuclear weapons, I guess. Commander Nelson is accompanied by a pretty officer named Susan Watson. Nelson and crew check out King Kong's island in the name of science or something. Kong sees Susan and promptly falls in love. Susan shockingly escapes Kong's clutches.

Dr. Who's Kong-bot shorts out digging for Element X. Dr. Who captures Kong and hypnotizes him to dig for Element X. Kong escapes and Dr. Who rebuilds the Kong-bot who naturally attacks Tokyo. The real Kong hooks back up with Susan in Tokyo and fights Kong-bot on Tokyo Tower. Hilarity ensues.

This movie is seriously nutty but it's actually a pretty good time. There's lots of action and the Kong-bot is pretty cool. King Kong looks even more stupid than he did in "King Kong Vs. Godzilla" (if that's possible). This movie is made even wackier as it's co-produced by Rankin/Bass. The most obvious impact of this relationship to me was with the dubbed voices of the characters. I noticed right off that the voice of Dr. Who was the same guy who voiced Burgermeister Meisterburger in the Rankin/Bass produced "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" TV Christmas special. Funny, funny stuff.

I have to add that I really love the look of the miniatures and sets. It's really what geeks me out about Toho studio productions.(6/10)