Years before Freddy met Jason and the Aliens met the Predators, Toho Studios bought the rights to insert King Kong into their monster pantheon, first with King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962 and then this entry five years later. To mesh better with the monsters he'd be dealing with, Kaiju Kong has a few alterations: his size was increased (because he needed to fight larger monsters), and he was given the power to absorb energy from electricity (because Japan).
Still no word on why they chose the "Wind Up Monkey after 50 Years of Raging Alcoholism" design.
As always happens in kaiju movies, the regrettably necessary human characters have an unavoidable impact on the experience. The protagonists here take some getting used to, but before I talk about them I need to introduce the delightful villains, Madame Piranha and Doctor Who:
Madame Piranha's country is funding the Doctor's plan to excavate a huge deposit of the mega-dangerous plutonium substitute called Element X. Since the strongest thing on the planet is King Kong and his whereabouts are currently unknown, Doctor Who does the next best thing and builds a giant robot gorilla to do it. So our bad guys are plotting to leverage their giant robot gorilla into a scheme for world domination, and really why else would you build one?
Giant. Robot. Gorilla.
My favorite thing about Dr. Who is his terrible ratio of overconfident speeches versus actual results. With smug grimaces and arched eyebrows he says things like "finally, success has come!" and then his face falls in horror when his giant robot gorilla passes out on top of the buried mass of Element X. Then Madame Piranha threatens to pull his funding, leaves the room, changes into another groovy outfit, and returns to threaten his funding again. Can you see why I love these guys?
It's a giant robot gorilla emerging from subterranean polar lair via hydraulic lift, with a tiny red helicopter in foreground. Can life get any better than this?
Ooh! It can! The good guys have a hover car that launches from their submarine!
It would be pretty hard to find heroes cool enough to face those villains with style, a fact this movie proves by not finding them. They do have a bitchin' hover car, but their cookie-cutter personalities nearly sank this movie for me. Only by (gasp!) going back and watching key parts again did I manage to find some spark of love for these guys, even if it was hate-filled love.
So here they are. That's Commander Carl Nelson on the right, with his sidekicks Token Japanese Guy and Damsel in Distress.
They didn't have soldier clothes for her so they gave her a band uniform.
I've talked before about the Obnoxious American character template for monster movies, the jerk whose orders everybody fawningly respects despite the man's complete lack of sex appeal. The main problem with Carl Nelson isn't the guy himself but the ludicrous amount of admiration the movie dumps on him constantly. Want to tell a country's military commander what to do? Just say "I'm Carl Nelson" and he'll titter like a school girl. But just look at this guy!
"When I'm through yelling at you I'll need you to wipe my forehead."
Even my buddy Doctor Who can't stop crushing out on him, going on and on about what a worthy adversary he is. It turns out the Doctor stole Carl Nelson's ideas when he built his robot, because of course Carl Nelson is the world's foremost expert on King Kong. And why's that? Because he drew a picture of him.
Which the doctor totally TRACED! Ooooooh, cheating....
(I don't know, if I drew a picture of a wicked strong gorilla and then someone made a giant robot of it, I don't know how much credit I'd be clamoring for.)
So right after we see Doctor Who's robot do a faceplant in the Element X, our heroes stop on remote Mondo Island for repairs, only to discover that's where King Kong hangs out now. Kong goes all Ralphie on a Skut Farkasaurus and then wails on a giant sea snake for good measure.
My dad took me to see this when I was a kid; I don't know for sure where it was playing but I suspect it was good ol' Bristol Cinemas. I knew about King Kong and Godzilla from library books but I'm pretty sure this was the first King Kong movie and first kaiju flick. And let me tell ya, if you want to win over a little kid, twenty five minutes of rapid fire robots, dinosaurs and monsters is a good way to go.
Anyway, after our heroes' Swift Family Blanderson incident, Kong's whereabouts are public and Dr. Who captures him and hypnotizes him with a Christmas ornament.
Element X is having none of it, however, and its flashy lights break the hypnotic spell. King Kong escapes, then swims from the Arctic Ocean to Tokyo, because for monsters Tokyo is like the glowing purple light in a bug zapper. Once there he looms around in the background while terrified people flee in the foreground.
Which I think in Japan counts as a parade.
At this point I'll introduce Lieutenant Susan Watson, our Damsel in Distress.
"That's LIEUTENANT stewardess to you, mister."
Horrorthon warning: this woman's voice is very annoying when she's yelling things to King Kong, which is often. However, I kind of want to absolve the actress and even the character of any wrongdoing. For one thing, it's obvious that all the dialogue in this movie was dubbed, so can't say if it's that actress's real voice.
But more than that I feel like the character is totally victimized by the gender stereotypes heaped upon her. This is the second movie I've screened in a row in which it seems natural to regard a woman as one would regard a child, and the woman is playing right into it. She's whiny and mewling and getting hugs from father figure Commander Carl Nelson and it's all quite creepy at times. If you want to enjoy this movie you'll need to get past that.
Which isn't impossible. She rocks a giant hand.
The movie doesn't let you leave without a tasty helping of ape-on-robot-ape action and a bona fide team-up between our heroes and their special giant gorilla friend. One of my favorite shots is Kong loping down a dock while his new buddies try to keep up in their convertible.
If this was a 1989 Kong flick he'd be using a bus as a skateboard.
King Kong Escapes was coproduced by none other than Rankin Bass, the people behind a TV special called Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer that you may have heard of. In 1966 they had a cartoon segment called The King Kong Show and this movie was meant as a loose tie-in. The cartoon even had a teenage character named Susan Watson, which may help explain her odd, juvenile portrayal.
When I first viewed this I was having trouble keeping my eyes open for the ending, but after re-watching some of it I'm glad I gave up the precious Horrorthon time for a better look. Here's the best way I can put it: Yes, there is a partial slowdown in the second half, but then it prominently features a giant robot gorilla. Who are we to ignore the calling of our hearts?