This IN THE SPOOKIGHT column is a reprint from February 2007:
Think of Japan’s Toho productions, and the first name that comes to mind is Godzilla, and rightly so, since Toho produced more than 25 movies starring everyone’s favorite giant mutated dinosaur.
However, Toho also made a couple of King Kong movies in the 1960s. They made some Frankenstein films as well, but we won’t go there today. Their second (and last) Kong film was KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), generally considered to be one of the worst Kong movies ever made, right up there with KING KONG LIVES (1986).
My vote for the worst goes to KING KONG LIVES, and that’s because I have a soft spot in my heart for KING KONG ESCAPES. Maybe it’s because KING KONG ESCAPES was the first Kong movie I ever saw. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not that bad after all.
KING KONG ESCAPES borrows heavily from the 1960s James Bond craze. There’s a supervillain, the evil Dr. Who, beautiful women, and a dashing hero, played by Rhodes Reason doing his best to impersonate Sean Connery. What passes as a plot has Dr. Who building a robot Kong to dig up the precious “element X” which of course, once he has, he’ll be able to use to rule the world! (cue crazed evil laugh). When the robot Kong fails, Who captures the real Kong to do the work. Of course, Kong isn’t interested. He’s too busy falling in love with the young blonde lead in the movie, Susan, played by Linda Miller.
Unlike Fay Wray in the original, there’s no screaming here. Linda Miller’s character hardly seems frightened at all by Kong’s presence, and converses with him as if talking to her pet dog. Better yet, Kong listens and understands everything she says! Gone are the days when Kong tossed women who weren’t Fay Wray from New York buildings. In KING KONG ESCAPES, Kong is clearly a hero and a gentleman— or is it a gentle-ape?
Still, he packs a punch when he needs to. Japanese monster movies are famous for their giant monster battles, and on that front, KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t disappoint. Kong fights a dinosaur, a sea monster, and in a “colossal struggle of monster vs. robot” as the film’s original movie posters boasted, he takes on his duplicate, the giant Robot Kong, in an epic climactic battle, which is actually quite well done.
The special effects really aren’t that bad. They’re on par with other Japanese monster movies of the decade, maybe even a bit better. Kong looks silly, but his appearance is several notches above his previous Toho stint, in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), where he looked sort of ragged, as if he’d been pummeled a few times by co-star Godzilla before the cameras rolled. And the Robot Kong is pretty cool looking.
KING KONG ESCAPES was directed by Ishiro Honda, who directed many of Toho’s better films, including the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! in 1954. The English version screenplay by William J. Keenan is extremely silly, with awful dialogue, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is Kong, and he gets plenty of screen time.
KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t come close to either the original KING KONG (1933), or Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. It is not a great movie nor does it pretend to be. The inept 1976 KING KONG with Jessica Lange, if you remember, compared itself to JAWS.
However, it is fun and entertaining, and in the world of monster movies, that’s often enough. At the end of the day, Kong is still king, still roaring, still on top, even after KING KONG ESCAPES.