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.
Meanwhile, a young actress, Marilyn Baker, flies into the country to begin location filming. She’s met at the airport by her journalist boyfriend, Tom Rose, who’s quick to propose – but not quick enough to compete with a 36ft-tall gorilla, who snatches Marilyn from the film set. Though the actress is terrified of her captor, she doesn’t want to see him harmed and starts fretting about his fate at the hands of the bloodthirsty Colonel Davis, who’s frustrated by orders from above to take the animal alive.
On the surface, Dino De Laurentiis’s worry that audiences would confuse A*P*E with his new version of King Kong that he was producing seems completely crazy – a modern-day equivalent would be Peter Jackson losing sleep over Seduction Cinema’s 2005 softcore porn spoof Kinky Kong.
However, as it neared release, the cash-in seemed to be actively baiting its bigger-budgeted cousin: posters appeared bearing the title The New King Kong. With a claim like that, lawyers simply had to get involved. The result – a change of title to A*P*E (a nonsensical riff on M*A*S*H) and a poster proclaiming that the film was “not to be confused with King Kong” after all – seems comical, and not just as a red-faced about-turn. That anyone could confuse A*P*E, the nadir of the giant-ape genre and a masterclass in ineptitude, with any of Kong’s cinematic outings is simply unbelievable.
Directed and co-written by Paul Leder, father of Mimi (who’s also credited, under the name Miriam R. Leder, as A*P*E’s second-unit and assistant director), this US / South Korean-produced cheapie has a wandering aim. Watching it, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it was written as a straight adventure movie, took a turn towards farce turn during production, and then tried to make a virtue of its shoddiness by adding a few over-the-top scenes that scream ‘honestly, this is meant to be funny’ (a notion that’s also posited by author Ray Morton in his 2005 book King Kong: The Making Of A Movie Icon – From Fay Wray To Peter Jackson). Most of the film’s cast, such as the stoic Rod Arrants, appear to believe that they’re acting in a straight drama, and it’s easy to see why. The dialogue gives no clues that the film is intended as a spoof – there are no gags and the direction doesn’t shoot for laughs.
True, in one scene, it looks like the gorilla is directing air traffic as helicopters approach, but initially there’s doubt as to whether you’re seeing what you think you are. Is it just a strange angle? Bad direction? In another scene, the animal appears to be dancing as it plays with a passing hang-glider. The musical score here turns playful, suggesting that this is less a stab at comedy and more a flight of whimsy, an attempt to endear the gorilla to the viewer – aw, he’s just a harmless goof. But then, around 50 minutes in, comes the game-changer: the ape, happy at having destroyed a helicopter, looks straight down the camera lens and flips both pilot and audience the bird.
Until this point, it’s possible to see the film as a well-meaning but badly executed descendant of Toho’s Kong movies (ignoring A*P*E’s occasional expletive). Now, though, with the star of the show telling the viewer to sit and spin, the game’s up. It’s just not working; no one’s in the slightest bit convinced. Rarely has a single extended digit said so much. You think this film’s funny, huh? Well, laugh at this.
Anyone who, like me, feels like grabbing hold of that big, hairy finger and twisting it off should take comfort in the fact that audiences in 1976 might have actually tried that, as A*P*E was originally presented in 3D*. Like most films of its ilk and era, it tries to make the most of the format by pointing and throwing things at the audience as often as possible.
A truck drives, slowly, into a wooden pole, which shatters the windscreen and pokes you in the eye; soldiers aim their rifles a tad too carefully at your nose before shooting you in the face; and the guy in the gorilla suit hurls rocks at your head, many of which are travelling on some very visible wires. (How thoughtful of the crew to let the audience know how this stunt was achieved during the film, rather than in a separate ‘making of’ doc.) Yet all these attempts to wow are overshadowed by the simplest effect of all: having the leading lady, Joanna de Varona, show off her knickers at every opportunity.
Whether she’s running or hiding, Ms de Varona’s skimpy, bright-white underpants flash continually and from most angles, her bright-orange dress split at the front for maximum exposure. The actress’s terrified yells are quite the experience too. Her first scenes with the ape have a raw, distracting quality – by which I mean she really sells it. Sure, it comes apart in the script – in the middle of her terror, she inexplicably starts flirting with the ape – but as an exercise in scream-queening it’s full marks on the scorecard, the film’s best turn. A*P*E is de Varona’s first credited screen-acting role, and she’s definitely one of the movie’s few positives. I have to wonder, though, whether the poor quality of the finished film played any part in her decision to change her professional name, to Joanna Kerns, in 1977.
Her A*P*E co-star, the actor in the gorilla outfit, has the luxury of appearing uncredited, and wisely no one has owned up. The matted-looking suit is, like the performance, merely functional, but it benefits from only being subjected to the perils of compositing in a few brief shots. The miniatures it inhabits are solid – if that’s the right word given that they’re easily smashed or trampled – even if the toy tanks and helicopters that attack it aren’t. The life-size hand does a reasonable job, but the leg props look like immobile tree trunks; they’d work better if they were hairier and didn’t have seams running up the sides. And, unfortunately, when the ape picks up a real snake, it completely destroys the illusion of scale. Ditto for the shark, which also appears to be real, albeit deceased.
During the shark fight, the ape suit comes open at the wrists, while a hole in the side of the suit reveals the actor’s white T-shirt underneath. The fact that the film doesn’t draw attention to these details adds weight to the idea that its comedic credentials are largely accidental. These aren’t parodies of bloopers – they are bloopers. Huge ones. Even scenes that don’t attempt any special effects have their problems. Near the beginning, when Tom and Marilyn are talking in the back of a car, the change in ambient sound between shots gives the impression that you’re watching a rough assembly, a work print, rather than a completed, released movie.
A*P*E’s best attribute is its opening music, composed by Bruce Mac Rae, which begins in an exciting, bombastic, Max Steiner-esque manner, then swoops down into a tender mid-section that echoes the more delicate parts of John Barry’s score for King Kong (1976). However, the goodwill that it generates is diminished by some of the clichéd cues that follow, such as the percussive, sub-A-Team music that plays whenever the army flexes its muscles. The effect here is less ‘watch them go!’ and more ‘will this do?’.
The military is represented through much of the film by Colonel Davis, the villain of the piece, played by Alex Nicol, who spends most of his time on screen acting one side of various telephone conversations, relaying information, in a stilted manner, about the ape’s whereabouts and the army’s plans. In this respect, Nicol’s performance could be described as ‘phoned in’ – stuck behind a desk for most of the film, he’s certainly hemmed in – but at least his character has some character, even if it does skirt the edges of cartoon. Every other male in the film is light on personality, a side effect of not being given much to work with.
A*P*E’s script is perfunctory and, in places, confusing – and not just because of its wavering tone. No reason is given for Marilyn’s sudden burst of affection towards the gorilla; it seems to be a plot strand ported from King Kong (1976), only bolted on with no attention to character or motivation. Later, as the armed forces try to take down the gorilla, Tom rescues Marilyn and drives her to Seoul, thinking that she’ll be safe with the wife and children of Captain Kim, a Korean police officer who’s also pursuing the ape. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the ape is pursuing Marilyn – it too is heading for Seoul – but no one tries to warn her, or even seems concerned.
Orders are given for the city to be evacuated, and we see people fleeing in panic, but others stay put and go happily about their business, only noticing that a giant gorilla is stomping around outside when it puts a fist through the wall. Even Marilyn doesn’t seem too worried as nearby buildings crumble – she continues to play with Captain Kim’s kids right up until the moment when a giant simian paw crashes through the roof and scoops her up. It’s a recurring problem in A*P*E: no one spots this 36ft tall gorilla until it’s standing next to them. The plot isn’t at all complicated – at its core is the classic giant-ape story – but the narrative is hard to engage with as the details don’t make sense.
Ultimately, though, it’s the film’s blandness that sinks it, making it far less enjoyable than any other King Kong knock-off. While there are odd ‘what the heck?’ moments – such as the endless scenes of Captain Kim’s children laughing hard at a spectacularly unfunny string puppet, and the aforementioned shark fight, complete with disintegrating ape suit – on the whole the movie lacks the crazy, freewheeling ways of a good piece of schlock. Towards the end, it could even be described as (whisper it) boring.
As the climax approaches, and Colonel Davis finally gets the order he’s been waiting for – to, as he puts it, “kill that hairy son of a bitch” – we’re treated to a full three minutes of helicopters landing and various pieces of military hardware driving past the camera, in a series of hugely repetitive shots. When a movie about a giant gorilla has me yawning, something has gone very wrong. Unusually for the genre, the demise of the ape can’t come soon enough.
When the end comes, blood spews from the ape’s mouth and it falls to its knees, prompting a distressed Marilyn to ask her boyfriend: “Oh why, Tom, why?” He answers: “It was just too big for a small world like ours.” It’s a line that, with a better delivery, deserves to grace a much better film. It would even do the original King Kong proud. But, of course, it’s too little, too late. This particular A*P*E was dead long before the final reel.
* I have attempted to watch A*P*E in 3D, via a German DVD that comes with blue and green glasses. Unfortunately, the film is pretty much unwatchable in this form. The print is awful and the effect doesn’t work, for me at least. I just end up with a headache.