My name’s Darren and I’m a giant-ape-oholic. That’s right, I’m addicted to giant-ape-ohol – a cheeky and highly intoxicating substance that’s a key ingredient in more films than you might imagine. My DVD collection houses 28 of them, at last count. And, as you might expect, I’m partial to related collectables too, such as autographs. Which is why, today, I find myself standing in the lobby of Westminster Central Hall, handing over a crisp five-pound note to gain entry to the London Film Memorabilia Convention, where a certain Paul Stockman is a guest.
In 1961, Mr Stockman donned a hairy suit to play the titular character in Konga, one of only two British entries in the giant-ape genre (the other being the comedy Queen Kong from 1976) and a film that I’d regard as a guilty pleasure if I felt any guilt. Of course I can’t defend it as high art – it’s a daft production through and through, with its species-changing ape and not-always-so-special effects – but the presence of Michael Gough, who plays the dastardly Dr Decker, makes it very watchable. I find the film charming and, in the end (the very end), quite affecting. If you’re interested in my full and proper thoughts on the movie, have a read of my review. I’ll still be here when you get back, I promise.
Yesterday morning I booked a ticket to see the 1963 Ray Harryhausen epic Jason And The Argonauts on the big screen. It’s playing at the NFT1 in June, complete with a Q&A from film historian Tony Dalton – an event to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. The BFI programme, posted to members last week, says: “We also hope to welcome Ray Harryhausen.”
Yesterday evening, I heard the sad news that Ray had died.
As a young kid in the 1970s, I was in thrall to stop-motion animation. Like Ray, I was bowled over by the original King Kong – I can still clearly remember sitting and watching it, having been guided to it by my parents – and I never missed a chance to see any of Ray’s own films when they were on telly. The fantastic creatures of The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad and, of course, Jason And The Argonauts just seemed magical. I was also a dinosaur nut, and the likes of One Million Years BC and The Valley Of Gwangi wowed me in exactly the same way that Jurassic Park would 20 years later.
Last Saturday night I went along to Sound Of Fear, a two-part event at London’s Southbank Centre. The main draw for me was a 45-minute set from Alan Howarth, the musician and composer who collaborated with John Carpenter on many of his much-loved ’80s scores, such as Escape From New York, Halloween III: Season Of The Witch and Prince Of Darkness.
The performance in the venue’s Purcell Room, which I loved every pulsating second of, covered all these scores, plus Big Trouble In Little China, Halloween II, Christine, They Live, and even Ennio Morricone’s brooding music for The Thing. Howarth was accompanied on stage by a woman whose name I didn’t catch, who appeared to be operating a live video mixer. It was an understandable addition, given that this music was designed to accompany images, but one I found distracting at times – the repetition, intrusive effects and speed changes mostly failing to capture the mood of the original films. I’d have preferred some simple compilation clips.
Is that the time? I’d better have another rummage around the giant-ape genre, I think. Today, I’m taking a look at Konga (1961), starring Michael Gough, who died in March aged 94. As always with these in-depth reviews, beware: there are heavy spoilers ahead, including the film’s ending.
A light aircraft crashes in a Ugandan jungle, igniting in a ball of flame. It’s feared that its famous occupant, English botanist Doctor Charles Decker (Michael Gough), was killed in the explosion along with the pilot. One year later, however, a very-much-alive Decker returns to London, explaining that he’d managed to bail out of the plane before the crash, and had spent the past 12 months living with a native tribe while conducting experiments on insectivorous plants. His groundbreaking findings, he claims, will establish a close link between plant and animal life.
It’s Thursday night and I’m queuing in the freezing cold outside the Royal College of Surgeons in Holborn. I’ve been here for more than an hour. My instructions were to arrive early, so I did. And now, despite my hat, scarf and gloves, I feel like I’m on the verge of hypothermia.
When the doors eventually open, I shuffle forward until I reach the college entrance, where I’m shepherded inside by people in biohazard suits. At ‘passport control’, I’m handed a wristband granting me ‘access to the Infected Zone’. And three drinks tokens.
Welcome to the Jameson Cult Film Club, one of an ongoing series of film screenings in unusual venues around the country, complete with live dramatics and complimentary tipples. Tonight, a heaving throng of mostly twentysomethings has ventured out to see Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, complete with an introduction and Q&A from the director and his editor, Colin Goudie, with Chris Hewitt from Empire magazine on MCing duties.
Continuing my in-depth look at various giant-ape movies, which began last month with Yeti – The Giant Of The 20th Century, I’m now going to take a peek through my fingers at A*P*E, another mid-1970s production that seemingly hoped to ride the slipstream of the first King Kong remake. Before I begin, though, be warned: hulking great spoilers lie ahead. If this doesn’t bother you, then let’s head straight back to 1976.
A captured giant gorilla is being transported by sea to Disneyland when it shakes off its sedation and escapes, blowing up the ship in the process. After tussling with and killing an oversized shark, the ape dries off on the coast of South Korea, where, in the excitement of its freedom, it destroys buildings, igniting both flames and panic and accidentally alerting the Korean and US militaries to its presence.
As the end credits roll on Monsters, British director Gareth Edwards’ first theatrical feature, the gentleman sitting behind me says what many viewers might well be thinking.
The film’s set-up is this: a space probe returning to Earth explodes over Mexico, scattering spores that grow into giant, octopus-like aliens. These aliens, known to the population as simply ‘creatures’, turn large parts of the country into a no-go area, a huge ‘infected zone’. Six years later, a photo-journalist on assignment in Mexico (Scoot McNairy) is given the task of bringing his boss’s daughter (Whitney Able) home safely to America. So far, so ‘multi-million-dollar blockbuster’, right?
Another one bit the dust – or so I thought. Back in June 2009, it was reported that Primeval, ITV1’s prime-time science-fiction show, had possibly breathed its last. After 23 episodes through three series, the programme that brought dinosaurs to Saturday teatime for the first time since (I think) the 1974 Doctor Who serial Invasion Of The Dinosaurs wasn’t being recommissioned, leaving its future uncertain – and its fans gnashing their teeth, giganotosaurus-style.
ITV’s decision to cancel the show appeared to take its producers by surprise, with the third series finishing a couple of weeks previously on a cliffhanger and a string of loose ends still to tie. Co-creator Tim Haines told Digital Spy that story plans were in place for at least two more series. And with a Primeval movie reported to be in the early stages of production, plus rumours of a spin-off series (which has since been confirmed to be happening in Canada), I thought it was a shame that the original show had been given its P45.
High-flying entrepreneur Morgan Hunnicut (Eddie Faye) visits a palaeontologist friend, Professor Henry Waterman (John Stacy), to ask for his help with a “humane expedition” in northern Canada. Though Waterman has been taken for a ride by his friend in the past, he reluctantly agrees. Hunnicut’s mute grandson, Herbie (Jim Sullivan), has discovered a large creature preserved in ice, which Hunnicut Sr wants to thaw and use as publicity for his business. On inspection of the animal, Waterman decides that it must be a yeti that was trapped in an avalanche millions of years ago.
In an attempt to revive the yeti, he’s put in a transparent cage, winched under a helicopter and flown to 10,000 feet, the height of his prehistoric, Himalayan habitat. He eventually awakes and, after almost causing the ‘copter to crash, is given a sedative gas and brought back to earth. The effects of the gas quickly wear off, and he breaks free from his cage, causing panic – until he befriends Herbie and his older sister, Jane (Phoenix Grant), whom he sees as his kin. With the yeti calmed, Hunnicut puts him on display in Toronto, but he quickly breaks loose, his reputation – and fate – now in the hands of Jane and Herbie.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether I’m part of the last generation to experience stop-motion as a contemporary weapon in fantasy cinema’s special-effects arsenal.
As a kid in the 1970s, I was wowed by television showings of the likes of Jason And The Argonauts, One Million Years BC and The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad – films that, at the time, were relatively recent releases, though I must admit, I didn’t discern any real difference between these ’60s/’70s epics and much older films such as King Kong. To me, stop-motion monsters were always eye-popping and wonderful, in the purest sense of the term – the pinnacle of special-effects artistry.
In 1981, my parents took me to the cinema to watch Clash Of The Titans, the last film I can recall seeing that was built entirely around stop-motion set-pieces. Sure, later movies had their moments – eg, Return Of The Jedi in 1983, and The Terminator in 1984 – but Clash still feels like a last ‘hurrah’ for the kind of film that defined my childhood experience of monsters and magic.