Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: A*P*E (1976)

When I was a kid one on my most anticipated movies was the Dino De Laurentiis remake of KING KONG. I had heard the rumors - that there weren't going to be any dinosaurs in the film and that the much hyped forty foot tall mechanical Kong didn't work and would be replaced by a man in a suit. I didn't care. The 1933 original got regular rotation on one of our local UHF channels and I was a big fan. I couldn't wait to see what modern filmmaking technology could add to this great story. So great was my anticipation that when the South Korean KONG knockoff A*P*E came to my local theater a few months ahead of the remake I was the first in line. After all, it had two thing that even KING KONG didn't have: the giant gorilla fights a shark (cool!) and it was in 3D, back when it was a fun gimmick and not just an excuse to raise ticket prices.

The film doesn't waste any time getting to the ape action. At the film's start the thirty six foot gorilla has already been captured and thrown into the cargo hold of a ship en route to Disneyland (!) where's he's to be put on display. Within minutes he breaks free of his prison, has his wrestling match with the shark and makes his way towards a rural area outside of Seoul. The amiable ape then proceeds to try and make friends with everyone he meets, from a group of school children to a hang glider to the least convincing cow ever committed to film. All are terrified of his great size and he's about to take his toys and go home when he literally stumbles onto a film set where he crosses paths with American film goddess Marilyn Baker (Joanna DeVarona, aka Joanna Kerns of GROWING PAINS infamy). It's love at first sight and it looks like a happy ending for at least half of our star crossed couple until the army gives the order to shoot to kill, leading to a protracted (and surprisingly bloody) standoff between our hero and the military.

Obviously, the story doesn't stray too far from the KING KONG formula. Where it differs, however, is in the execution. While all three versions of KONG used the leading technology of the time to tell its story, A*P*E looks like a version of KONG filmed by children in their backyard in Super 8. The ape suit looks like it was made out of someone's old wool coat, saved from the garbage can by this production.An overwhelming aura of cheapness pervades the entire production. the scenes of "terrified" villages fleeing their homes feature literally dozens of people, many of them visibly giggling, and the toy cow that the ape interacts with has to be seen to be believed. For some reason, the ape is constantly swinging his arms over his head, like he's auditioning for an all gorilla production of Swan Lake. And then there's the 3D. As I (barely) remember, the 3D used in A*P*E's theatrical engagements wasn't any better or worse than other 3D films of the time. However, while watching it on television in 2D the attempts to simulate three dimensions are every bit as obvious and silly as you'd expect. No opportunity is spared to throw objects at the camera in order to make the little kids in the theater duck. On shot of the ape throwing a boulder at the screen is repeated at least four times. Still, you haven't truly lived until you've seen a giant gorilla flip the bird at a crashed helicopter in 3D.

Yet, for all its faults I still love this movie. The moron plotting, the nonexistent production values and the barely even trying direction all add up to something special, to me at least. Sure I'm laughing at the movie and not with it. I'm sure that the people who made this movie were laughing at it too.  After all, the thing wouldn't even exist except for the opportunity to cash in on the big budget remake. When it was originally released, Paramount forced A*P*E's distributor to put a disclaimer on the poster stating that it wasn't to be confused with KING KONG. I seriously doubt that anyone was confused. For all its similarities, A*P*E is its own thing. It's a perfect movie to watch with a few friends, have a few beers and stare in awestruck wonder at the ineptitude before you. 

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

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