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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
“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.
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]
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” 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]