Things you’ll find at the North Pole: snow, maybe a ringed seal or two, ice, a jolly magical chubster distributing toys based on a vague morality system, some polar bears… oh yeah and King Kong’s gigantic robotic doppelganger chilling with his evil creator, “that international Judas” Dr. Who!
“Wha-huh?” I’m talking about 1967’s King Kong Escapes! The Toho/Rankin-Bass (the company best known for bringing Rudolph and Santa to stop-motion life) co-production that pits a suitmation King Kong against his mechanical twin! I love to tie my reviews to the season, but until somebody makes Attack of the 50ft Krampus, Kong’s James Bond-inspired adventures at the North Pole are as close as we get to seeing Christmas on Monster Island.
So strap on your grenade belt, hop in your hover car, and pick a fight with your evil robot self, because King Kong is escaping!
First of all, the trailer for this is still awesome. It gets you pumped for the movie, and it also reminds us why we love King Kong and heroic monsters/monstrous heroes in the first place. Ifukube’s thundering score, the bombastic sound design, focus on monster mayhem money-shots, and pitch perfect narration (“A THOUSAND THRILLS“) work together to make you forget how goofy the Kong suit looks and focus on the insane action and adventure promised. It’s a good-ass trailer for a good-ass movie.
And oh yeah, that Ifukube score is killer. Some of it is recycled from Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster, but the original stuff is baller as hell. Mechanikong’s theme is catchy, heavy, and mechanical: perfect for the robo-ape. The real standout is Kong and Susan’s theme. Somehow Ifukube distilled everything that’s powerful about the King Kong character in one sweeping piece of music: how the monster’s limitless strength is tempered by his love for a mortal woman, and tested by the evil of greedy men. He’s king of the untamed world, but hopelessly lost in ours.
Ifukube is joined by Toho’s other monster masters: director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya. Boomshakalaka! Oddly, the movie is sort of an adaptation of Rankin-Bass’ 1966 cartoon show “The King Kong Show.” Toho dropped the show’s lead human protagonists, but kept the general premise of Kong fighting evil on behalf of humans he’s befriended, as well as the villains Dr. Who and Mechanikong. Seriously, the bad guy’s name is Dr. Who.
The movie kicks off with some dope miniature shots of our heroes’ submarine cruising around the ocean floor, and we get a peek aboard the vessel. If you weren’t sure this movie was made in 1967 you get swift confirmation in the form of Lt. Susan Watson’s (played by Linda Miller) goofy “girl” uniform. She’s the ship’s medic, so a bunch of dudes also rapid-fire creep on her with jokes about catching a fever, needing a check-up, rectal thermometers…
It’d be one thing if this was the only time it happened: it sets up her character and her relationship with Kong, and it just kind of makes sense because she’s stuck on a sub with a bunch of horny seamen. What’s weird is when it happens later in the middle of a fucking UN hearing.
Anyway, Susan meets up with Commander Carl Nelson, played by Rhodes Reason, which believe it or not isn’t a fake porno name and Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura, played by Toho favorite Akira Takarada. She’s a little weirded out by their table covered with gorilla drawings, because that’s not really what you want to see your commanding officers dicking around with when you’re a mile below the ocean’s surface in a nuclear sub.
Nelson and Nomura inform Susan that their diagrams and drawings aren’t of just any old gorilla, but “Kong, the strongest living thing on Earth.” In the world of King Kong Escapes, Kong is a figure of legend, rumored to live on the inhospitable Mondo Island. He’s sort of along the lines of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. They make no mention of the events of the original 1933 film or his then-recent bout with Godzilla, which is probably the simplest way to keep Escapes from becoming a brain-melting continuity snarl. So I’m good with that.
Anyway, Nelson and Nomura are bumming that they’ll pass right by Mondo Island without getting a chance to check it out, since their mission is to scout out undersea oil veins for the UN. So with Nelson and Nomura busy boring Susan with their latest King Kong fan-fic, we jump to the North Pole: home base for our undeniably pimp supervillain, Dr. Who! We get an establishing shot with lots of cool miniatures, the best of which is the elaborately detailed Mechanikong hangar interior.
We meet Dr. Who and his foxy co-conspirator Madame Piranha. With names like that we have no reason to assume they’re anything less than kind, upstanding citizens. Just kidding they are evil as balls. Dr. Who is a dashing, James Bond-esque mastermind, but sweet baby Jesus his bottom teeth are a grotesque orthodontic hellscape.
That’s the best shot I could find of Who’s tooth-tastrophe. He has three bottom front teeth arranged in an arch. He might be a doctor, but he sure as shit isn’t a DDS. I think (nay, pray) it’s a prosthetic, but why aren’t his top teeth jacked up too? It’s a weird choice that leaves me paying way too much attention to his chompers. It’s quite a feat, especially considering in the dub he’s voiced by the same man who brought to life Burgermeister Meisterburger (and about a shitzillion other old school cartoon characters).
Madame Piranha is played by Mie Hama, who was fresh off her role in You Only Live Twice, and co-starred with Kong previously in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Piranha works for an unspecified country that is paying Who to unearth Element X. Element X is a highly volatile radioactive substance, and Piranha’s country-that-shan’t-be-named (North Korea?) wants lots of it so they can build ultra-nukes. The stuff is so heinous and hard to get to, Who’s monstrous Mechanikong is pretty much the only way to mine it. Who deploys Mechanikong for its trial run and to reassure Piranha that he’s not farting out her country’s money on a pointless doo-dad.
So we see Mechanikong in action. The suit is fantastic. Unfortunately when it’s being controlled by Dr. Who, it makes this annoying wee-o-wee-o noise, but it’s still super fun to see this automaton in action. MK plods into a cave, actually uses one of the grenades on his belt to help get further into the chasm, and then reaches the Element X deposit. Element X flashes, smokes, and glows like something out of a Speilberg movie. The raging radiation is too much for the cyber-ape: he flops to the ground in an instant robo-coma.
Madame Piranha is understandably pissed and Who splutters about getting to work on a new mechape right away. Piranha’s like “yeah that’s fine but you’ll have to do it without my mystery country’s dough,” and Who’s like “okay so I guess I’ll keep all that sweet, sweet element X when I dig it up in like a day,” so Piranha goes “okay fine we’ll give you money, you snaggle-toothed turd.” INTRIGUE. Seriously, these guys are great. Their dynamic is unusual and entertaining; they remind me of the two greedy cut-throat swindler villains in Mothra vs. Godzilla in a very good way.
So while Who and Piranha get into another catfight, we cut back to Nelson and friends aboard their super-sub. There’s an undersea rockslide! SHIT! They’re forced to surface, and Nelson and Nomura pretty much pee their pants with delight when they realize they’ve surfaced just off-shore of Mondo Island. They grab Susan and drive to the coast in a goofy little hovering space-car:
When they arrive on Mondo Island, they’re greeted by a lone, crazy old man on a hill yelling at them. He’s basically telling them to fuck off because the island is forbidden and to leave King Kong alone. Nelson and Nomura are like “calm down bro” and make Susan wait in the space-car while they check things out. Of course once they’re off into the jungle, A WILD GOROSAURUS APPEARS
Susan understandably flips a shit, tripping and screaming and basically doing how you do when confronted by a huge, hungry (horny?) dinosaur. We see Kong’s eyes slowly open in the darkness, awakened by Susan’s screams. He emerges into the light of day and we see him in all his (almost-)glory:
Overall the suit is a marked improvement over what Toho put together for King Kong vs. Godzilla. The Kong in Escapes has a more articulated, natural-looking, and likable face, and his proportions aren’t wonky like they were in vs. Godzilla. His eyes blink and his lip can snarl, which is pretty damn cool and goes a long way to making him seem alive. Downsides: his individual bald boobs are hilarious, the brown fur in general doesn’t look great, and he’s got really thin, gross yellow-gray needle teeth.
He has kind of a goobery, stonery look on his face, but I think it suits (this version of) the character. He’s a big galoot. Kong spots Susan and it’s interspecies love at first sight. That music swells for a bit, but the moment is broken by Susan’s legit bloodcurdling screams. Kong’s kinda goofy face really works here. He looks intelligent and way into Susan. The menfolk run back at the sound of Susan’s shrieking. Just like in the 1933 classic, Kong gingerly places Susan in a treetop so he can beat the piss out of a dinosaur.
Their fight is a ton of fun. Gorosaurus busts out his signature kangaroo kick (which gets used to great effect later in Destroy All Monsters), Kong tumbles, and it’s framed by a really cool (but flawed) composite shot of Susan watching from the tree. Goro kind of overdoes it with the kangaroo kick, throwing it at Kong two more times, but things stay fresh: Goro chomps Kong’s fist mid-punch, Kong puts him in a headlock and pummels him on the ground MMA-style, while Susan gets more and more upset. She’s not impressed, she’s fucking freaked out (understandably)!
Kong, certain that he’s bested Gorosaurus, scoops up Susan again. Susan protests, and Kong, being kind of a sweetheart sets her down. To portray Susan in Kong’s hand they use both a puppet and a composite shot. The puppet and composite both have their limitations, but work well enough. Kong and Susan don’t get any time to bond though, because Gorosaurus was playin’ ‘possum!
Also, I just want to give some props to Toho’s greens team: look how good the “trees” behind Gorosaurus look! That shit has been consistently fantastic since Gojira way back when. Nelson and Nomura finally catch up with Susan while Kong and Gorosaurus go HAM on each other. Our three heroes bail, though Susan doesn’t feel great about leaving Kong to get BF’ed by a pissed-off dinosaur. It’s all good though, because Kong pulls another move from his 1933 playbook and breaks Goro’s fucking jaw.
Kong’s crazy for blondes though, so he chases our heroes’ goofy little sky-mobile out to sea. He’s closing in on them but SURPRISE SEA SERPENT!
It really looks like the big snake was just minding his own business when Kong decided to bash the poor guy in the dome, but whatever his intentions, he’s now thoroughly pissed at Kong:
Nelson, Nomura and Susan make it back to the sub, and Nelson has to order his men to stop blasting away at Kong. Kong’s tossed away the serpent and starts making a beeline for Susan. The sub can’t leave until the crewmen finish the final repairs, so they’re sitting ducks for the lovestruck simian.
Susan goes on deck and tries to tell Kong to calm his tits, but he’s bad at reading people and just picks her up instead. She tries to explain to Kong that she’s got her own life to live and can’t go back to Mondo Island with Kong. It’s around here when Susan’s voice starts to grate. It seems like she may have been dubbed, but either way her voice gets irritating. It’s at least partially because she spends most of her time screaming “KONG!” over and over. It’s a bummer about her voice, because it’s really cool that she stands up to Kong and jumps out of his hand when he doesn’t put her back.
Kong gets it after Susan swan-dives. He picks her up and gently sets her back on the sub. The crew finishes their repairs, and Kong watches as it pulls away from Mondo Island. Oh yeah, King Kong looks sad as fuck the whole time. While a big chunk of that is surely thanks to the music coming back, it’s also because suit actor extraordinaire Haruo Nakajima played Kong. Pretty sick that one dude got to play Godzilla and King Kong.
Our heroes pilot the sub back to UN headquarters in NYC, and give their full report. Because, holy shit, they discovered King Kong and an island teeming with live dinosaurs. Someone in attendance is very curious as to why Kong was so gentle with Susan.
Commander Nelson explains that “Kong is a male and Miss Watson is… see for yourselves, gentlemen.” And that’s it. That’s the whole explanation. Would a Queen Kong have gone after Nelson or Nomura instead? Does Kong actually want to dork Susan, or is she just a funny, fascinating little creature that’s nice to him? This movie, and really most Kong flicks, seem to posit the former, but the latter always struck me as a more reasonable explanation for Kong’s infatuation. That’s not the point though! The point is that Madame Piranha and Dr. Who are plotting to kidnap Susan and use her to control Kong to dig up that delicious Element X.
Dr. Who deploys a fleet of bitchin’ super-helicopters to bomb Kong with knock-out gas and Kidnap Susan and pals when they arrive on the island. There’s a really cool aerial shot of the island as Kong emerges from his cave, and then the choppers swoop around dropping ether bombs. The mini-choppers are cool, but you can see the wire on them in almost every shot, which is really surprising for a Toho movie. Kong chucks a tree at the whirly birds, but eventually succumbs to the gas. Dr. Who orders four choppers to carry off Kong:
Meanwhile Who meets the island’s crazy old coot and just fucking shoots him in the chest three times. Cold as ice. Our heroes arrive, but it’s too late. They find the old man and he describes his assailant. Nelson knows right away that it’s “my old friend, that international Judas, Dr. Who.” Some of Who’s men stay behind on the island disguised as UN pilots. They bamboozle our heroes under the guise of escorting them to a base in Japan to continue the hunt for Dr. Who. Nomura thinks something’s fishy about the pilots, but the three of them decide to play along in the hopes of getting closer to Who.
We jump back to Who’s North Pole base just in time to see the trial run of a new plan. Yeah sure they’ll try the Susan thing if they have to, but in the meantime Dr. Who designed a mind control machine to use on Kong. There’s a bitching composite shot of a couple workers running out of Kong’s holding cell as the giant chases after them and the enormous doors seal the creature in. Dr. Who lowers a crazy disco-light thing in front of Kong’s face, and uses it to lull him into a super chillaxed trance-state.
While Kong is zoned out, a couple dudes in a cherry-picker put transceivers on Kong’s ears. This allows Dr. Who to
play his new mix-tape directly into Kong’s earbuds issue voice commands to the mighty monster. Who wastes no time and instructs Kong to go dig up Element X. The Kong suit looks great digging that crap up, and he does it like a bawss… until the radiation starts to get to him. He gets woozy, yanks the transceivers off his head, realizes he’s hanging out next to a huge vein of murder-plutonium, then does what any of us would do in that scenario: run like a mother fucker.
Who’s dudes close off the tunnel just before King Kong can titularly Escape, and the great ape conks out. We see our heroes locked up in the bowels of Who’s lair and they are super chill about being captured by a gigantic, well-funded terrorist organization. I suppose it was a different time: “So this is Dr. Who’s guest room–with no color television!” Madame Piranha invites Nelson into her chambers for a few drinks and a whole bunch of sexual tension, and I’m unclear as to whether she was trying to honeydick Nelson or if she was just bored and horny. I mean, it’s not like there’s a lot to do at the North Pole. Nelson tries to guess what country Piranha works for, but Dr. Who busts in and cock-blocks/clam-jams the two of them.
But maybe Dr. Who just can’t resist getting some full-Nelson himself? Who invites his old nemesis out of his cell for a game of chess. And just to make sure you didn’t forget he’s a huge butthole, he cranks the thermostat for the prison cell way down, slowly killing Nomura and Susan by freezing them and saving a couple bucks on his heat bill this month. Like any good adventure-scientist, Nelson responds by punching the fuck out of e’rybody. Eventually Who’s goons get their shit together and restrain Nelson… and they still end up playing chess!
While Who and Nelson slap bishops, Nomura gets chained to the floor, and Who’s mooks threaten to disfigure Susan by mushing her face against the freezing cold wall. These guys… are not cool. Luckily for our heroes, Kong’s internal pretty-girl-in-peril alarm goes off, and he wakes up pissed.
He smashes the bejeezus out of the door holding him in the cavern, blasts out of the ground and just hauls ass across the frigid landscape.
Naturally, Dr. Who is losing his shit about this whole situation. Mechanikong gets deployed and every single one of his goons give chase. Amid the chaos, Piranha frees our heroes and hustles them into her room. While she starts by offering them a “hey this whole thing really got fucked sideways, didn’t it?” drink, she gets way more serious when she finds out that Kong is headed for Japan and Mechanikong is in hot pursuit. With those two chucklefucks bomb-assing around Tokyo, thousands are likely to die, and Japan would blame Piranha’s home country for it.
Anyway, Dr. Who ruins the party again, locks up our heroes, throws them on his ship, and tears ass to catch up with Kong. He’s got Susan on deck if things with Kong go tits-up again, but he wants to show off his toy! Who slaps the mind-control disco-light on top of Mechanikong’s metal melon and sets him loose in the Tokyo suburbs to track down Meat-Kong.
While Who is upstairs putzing around with his simulated simian, Piranha frees our heroes, gets them geared up, and sends them off to the city riding little motorized boogie boards. It’s tight. We finally see Kong in the big city, and it’s pretty fucking cool:
When our heroes get ashore, Nelson rushes off to an army base and tells them to ease off Kong: he’ll only attack if provoked. Coolly enough, they take Nelson on his word and have their forces fall back. Nomura and Susan meet the troops on the ground and let them know the same. Susan approaches Kong and lets him pick her up. We get some more great suit acting from Nakajima-Kong, and Susan tries to get him to calm the hell down. It looks like Kong and Susan will finally get their nice moment–“HEY LOOK AT THAT!”
Seriously, Mechanikong enters the scene with some rando yelling “Hey look at that!” as MK buttfucks some apartments. Honestly that’s how most kaiju entrances should go. Mechanikong just keeps being awesome though, plowing through buildings like they’re nothing, single-mindedly pursuing Meat-Kong. Susan wisely takes note of this and tries to convince Kong he can’t take cyborgorilla in a fist-fight, but Kong loves a challenge, so he puts her down to go punch the fuck out of his robot doppelgänger. As you do.
MK’s not playing. He’s got those high-beam eye-beams, he fires up his brainwashing disco-light, and of course, the bitching battle-remix of his theme. Nomura gets a really cool hero moment here: he shoots the disco-light! This gives Kong the opening to slap the damn thing clean of MK’s chrome dome! Of course, when mind-control fails MK can just lay Kong out with a good ol’ fashioned neck-punch:
Who’s goons notice that “The real Kong seems quicker,” but Dr. Who ominously replies “My Kong won’t tire.”
After Kong and MK wrassle around for a bit, Who ramps up his asshole-powers and orders MK to grab Susan and climb up Tokyo Tower. Predictably and awesomely, Kong follows him up.
Mechanikong’s big mouth clanks open, revealing huge speakers. Dr. Who speaks through MK’s mouth to
beg Kong to finally listen to his mix-tape threaten Kong. If the Eighth Wonder of the World doesn’t come quietly, MK will drop Susan to her certain, splattery doom. Back on the boat though, Piranha pulls a gun on Who! They tussle around, and Piranha gets shot. Upside: during the scuffle, Kong forced MK to drop Susan into his waiting palm, and Kong sticks her in a safe space.
Kong and MK continue their precarious fight at the top of Tokyo Tower, while Piranha comes to and starts fucking with the controls. Yay, she gets to help our heroes some more! She personally gives Kong the opening he needs to win! Cool! Except Who shoots the shit out of her to death. Yeesh. Thanks to her sacrifice, Organikong finally bests Mechanikong, and sends his big robot ass tumbling to the ground below.
MK shatters when he hits the ground, and it is crazy satisfying. Kong beats his chest, celebrating a victory that was only possible with help from (some very unlikely) friends. It’s a cool finale, but it needs a little something more. Kong needs to wreck some shit without any help. Hmmm. Hey, Dr. Who is about to get away on his ship!
Our heroes lead Kong back to the docks, and tell him to go push Dr. Who’s shit in, but he hardly needs any instruction. Kong goes bananas on the ship, tearing off the propeller, throwing it at the deck, then climbing up and beating the shit out of a smokestack with that same propellor. It’s some of my favorite kaiju chaos, ever. Inside the ship, Dr. Who gets crushed by furniture and pukes up blood because he’s a fucking asshole.
Kong pounds his chest again triumphantly. The humans helped him defeat a monster villain, so he helped them defeat a human villain. It’s a really cool switcharoo you don’t see enough of in these movies. Susan calls after Kong to come back–finally addressing him as King Kong–but Nomura and Nelson tell her to let him go home. Surely he’s had enough of “civilization.”
Toho actually had more plans for the Eighth Wonder of the World. If the license wasn’t so close to expiring, he would have made it into Destroy All Monsters (which would have been incredible). In the 90s, Toho attempted to remake King Kong vs. Godzilla, but Turner reportedly wanted a cool million for rights to the character. When they switched gears to Mechanikong, Turner still cock-blocked them, claiming that even the likeness of Kong was off-limits.
Of course, none of that stopped Gorosaurus from popping up in later works. He showed up in Destroy All Monsters (erroneously and confusingly referred to as Baragon throughout) and the suit popped up in Toho’s Ultraman-esque TV show “Go! Godman.” While Toho couldn’t use Kong the character any more, nobody could stop them from using the old suit, so you better believe his monkey ass also showed up on TV: “Go! Greenman” (I’m noticing a trend here) featured the character creatively titled “Gorilla.”
One thing I didn’t get a chance to touch on is the minor, G-rated romance that blooms between Nomura and Susan. It’s cute without side-tracking the action, but it also struck me as gutsy of Toho to slide an interracial couple into a 60s popcorn adventure movie. The sub has a surprisingly international crew too: in addition to the American and Japanese crew members, third in command of the sub is a middle eastern dude. It never feels forced or like the movie’s pushing an agenda: it’s just a subtle piece of that pop culture optimism that permeated shows like “Star Trek” back in the day. It’s also a really natural extension of director Ishiro Honda’s running theme of “The Brotherhood of Man.” Good shit.
So yeah! That’s King Kong Escapes! The Kong suit isn’t the best, but the movie is so much fun it’s hard to notice or care. It’s clear that Honda, Tsuburaya and co. are Kong fans through and through. Kong shines as a sympathetic, yet utterly primal, untamed and bad-ass monster hero. Even with the addition of a robot clone and James Bond supervillains, it’s no accident that King Kong Escapes hits many of the same story beats and emotional core that the original did. Godzilla might be King of the Monsters now, but he wouldn’t have gotten there if King Kong hadn’t blazed that trail first.