Toho’s special effects guru Eiji Tsubaraya, awesome as he was, just never seemed to get how to bring King Kong into the world of Japanese “suitmation”. He looks just as silly and clunky here in King Kong Escapes as he did years earlier in the Toho production King Kong vs. Godzilla.
But as with King Kong vs. Godzilla, the suit used for King Kong is really the only problem I have with King Kong Escapes. The story is fun, the villain is great and there is a lot of giant monster fighting to keep you from getting bored. I find myself reaching for King Kong Escapes far more frequently than I do other non-Godzilla offerings from Toho, which tend to be dull. “Dull”, however, is not a word to be associated with King Kong Escapes.
King Kong Escapes (1967)
United Nations researchers Commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason), Lt. Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada) and Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Miller) find themselves caught in the middle of an evil plot calculated by terrorist overlord Dr. Who (Eisei Amamoto) and his slinky partner Madame Piranha (Mie Hama). Dr. Who has built a giant robot doppelganger of King Kong (Haruo Nakajima) called Mechani-Kong (Yu Sekida) to mine a rare nuclear element called Element X. However, to finish the mining job, he needs to capture the real King Kong. Nelson and his crew are the key to it all, as they’ve befriended Kong while exploring Mondo Island and are the perfect bait to trap the Eighth Wonder of the World. In the end, a giant monkey fights a giant robot monkey while dangling from the top of Tokyo Tower, because, you know, s--t like this happens all the time.
King Kong Escapes is one of the more enjoyable installments in Toho’s kaiju series, thanks mostly to the nearly nonstop assault of giant monster action. The worst of Toho’s flicks often suffer from letting the human drama overtake the monster battles and we’re left with maybe ten to twenty minutes of combined giant creature carnage to satisfy our appetites. By minute number five of King Kong Escapes, we’re introduced to the menacing Mechani-Kong and his grenade belt, and only a few minutes after that we get to see the real deal-himself, in all his badly-stitched-together glory. From there, King Kong battles Gorosaurus (who would go on to have a prominent role in Destroy All Monsters), a generic sea serpent and, eventually, Mechani-Kong in the film’s climax. King Kong Escapes is definitely an installment suited for little kids, or those of us with the attention spans of little kids, as it knows precisely what audience to play to and what they want to see.
But when the monsters aren’t lumbering around on screen, the human drama is the focus and it’s actually some pretty enjoyable stuff. The human villain of the film, Dr. Who, is one of Toho’s best. He’s got this supremely evil comic book villain quality, walking around in a black cape with a sinister grin and those weird eyebrows. He’s very theatrical and actually has the presence of a character and not just some shmo created to kill time between monster fights. The protagonists are far less memorable, but isn’t that how it always is?
Reading about the movie on the ever-reliable Wikipedia, I was surprised to learn that it was a loose adaptation of The King Kong Show, a US/Japanese co-produced animated series that was running at the time. The characters of Mechani-Kong and Dr. Who both originated in that series, though they were apparently quite different than how they were portrayed on screen in King Kong Escapes. I’ve never seen the show since it was way before my time, but hey, trivia.
The biggest downside to King Kong Escapes is something I already mentioned: Kong’s suit. I suppose it’s really just the face that I can’t stand, as it just looks like it’s half-melted in the sun or something. The 1976 remake of King Kong would show how good a “suitmation” version of Kong can be, with the actor-in-a-Kong-suit being about the only good thing that debacle accomplished. Toho’s Kong is just a bad-looking effort no matter how you stack it.
King Kong Escapes has a lot of action and a lot of monsters and one of the better human villains in the entire Showa era of Toho’s kaiju series. Currently, it is only available in the US on a DVD from Universal with a mandatory English dub, but the picture and sound on it is really very, very good. And, to be frank, the Japanese version of the film has just as much dubbing in it as the US version thanks to the international cast. If you watch the Japanese version, all the Americans will be dubbed in Japanese. If you watch the US version, all the Japanese people will be dubbed in English. So in that regard, no version is really better than the other (and, honestly, I rather liked Paul Frees’ voice-over for Dr. Who).