Sunday, April 06, 2014

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963) Review

Radioactive Rage month begins with the one and only clash between cinemas two biggest stars. When bad driving releases Godzilla from an icy tomb, the only weapon that can stop him is the mighty King Kong! But can Japan survive the clash of two titanic monsters? More importantly, who will win the fight in this wildly uneven movie?

King Kong vs Godzilla Title

The 1960s had arrived and both King Kong and Godzilla were unemployed after a mere two feature films each. Neither had appeared in a widescreen or color movie thanks to disappointing and rushed sequels to smash hit debuts. In what is an eternity for a film franchise, the last appearance for each had been 1933 and 1955, respectively.

So when an American producer shopped an idea around for a new King Kong movie where he fights another giant, he was met by the sound of crickets chirping. However, Toho Studios decided to take on the project and work in Godzilla as the substitute villain for the piece. Returning to helm the film was Gojira director Ishiro Honda who had not been involved in the lackluster Godzilla Raids Again.

The end result was a monster romp of the likes that hadn’t been seen since the days of Universal’s teaming up of the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Dracula. Aimed squarely at being an action comedy rather than a horror film, it was nothing like its predecessors. However, a few moments of the old chills appear making it a transitory Godzilla film from serious horror science fiction to kids films.

Unfortunately, the original Japanese version is not available so this will be a review of the heavily edited American version just released on Blu-ray for the first time.

King Kong vs Godzilla Eric CarterKing Kong vs Godzilla UN Satellite

The film opens innocuously enough with a spinning papier-mâché globe of the Earth and a rather famous quote from Hamlet that you’ve probably figured out without even seeing the flick. It’s a sign of trouble, because many of the really bad B-movies start out with a quote in order to sound intelligent. Almost immediately that fear is verified when we are dumped into an American shot scene featuring a United Nations reporter, Eric Carter (Michael Keith) commenting on unusually warm water around Japan causing icebergs to flow south. In a gee whiz “it’s the era of the space race” moment, he cuts to a U.N. satellite for relayed coverage.

Yeah, that’s the space station from Toho’s The Mysterians. Expect a lot of recycled footage from other sourced by the American editors. In fact, expect poor quality stock footage of things like the United Nations Building featuring an amazing amount of grain. Expect them to be repeated to take up space made by the removal of Japanese content. But I digress.

Well, I can’t help digressing when actor Keith obviously is having a hard time keeping a straight face while delivering the poorly written exposition. Watching his eyes and corners of his mouth twitch in HD tells me how seriously he took this role. Given how little he was probably paid, who can blame him?

King Kong vs Godzilla TTV MeetingKing Kong vs Godzilla Fujita and His Wire

Blah, blah, blah… blah blah – blah blah, blah…  Oh, they’ve changed the setting to Japan. A confusing mix of a television station and pharmaceutical company is determined to find mysterious red berries on a mysterious island possibly home to a mysterious monster. I may not have gotten all of that right, but there is a clear agenda to make money and ratings. Or is it ratings and money?

We’re swiftly introduced to several characters without actual introduction, so it took me awhile to figure out just who was who. Reporter Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) appears to be the lead man with a flunky named Kinsaburo (Yu Fujiki) to provide comic relief. Their boss is Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima) who is also there to provide comic relief.  The other guy is a scientist and he’s there to be boring. Don’t ask me his name.

Eventually Sakurai heads home to a meal that we join in progress. It’s with his sister, Fumiko (Mie Hama from You Only Live Twice) and her boyfriend, Fujita (Kenji Sahara). Fujita is a little creepy especially when it comes to talking about and showing off the wire he’s invented. His demonstration is without a doubt true kids movie stuff  and lets the audience know things aren’t going to be terribly serious.

King Kong vs Godzilla Nuclear Sub and IcebergKing Kong vs Godzilla Breaking Free

One of the fascinating things about Toho’s science fiction flicks is that the United Nations seems to be in charge of nearly everything. In this case, not only do they have their own TV network, they even have their own nuclear submarine loaded with scientists to check out icebergs. One of the bergs is giving off flashes of light like that seen in a nuclear reactor, so of course they must go look at it.

I don’t know about you, but if an iceberg begins glowing I’m not going to submerge to approach it. The sinking of the Titanic showed that the huge blocks of ice are bigger underwater than above. But hey, the plot needs the world’s most incompetent captain to move it along. Shockingly they they can run straight into the berg.

And out hatches a peeping chick. No, wait… that’s what an egg hatches. Instead, we get a giant radioactive lizard emerging in a nice nod to the second Godzilla movie. With the crew of the submarine collectively winning the Darwin Award of 1963, it is the perfect time to get the plot rolling.

Or not, because it is Mr. Exposition time again.

King Kong vs Godzilla Dr Shigezawa

At least this leads to us seeing a familiar face from many of Toho’s kaiju movies. Akihiko Hirata (Dr. Serizawa in Gojira) turns up as Dr. Shigezawa, the man heading up Japan’s plans to deal with the return of Godzilla. It’s a stylish introduction that’s wasted since we don’t see a lot of him for the rest of the movie. My suspicion is that much of his role was cut out by the American director, Thomas Montgomery.

Shigezawa deftly fields the reporters questions, especially the one that they most want answered: will a nuke be used on Godzilla? This is about the only element of nuclear fear seen in the film and the Japanese media sound like a stuck record throughout. For you younger folks, when the vinyl discs played on phonographs got scratched, it could cause the needle reading it to bounce back over and over in a loop.

Man, I feel old just having to explain that.

King Kong vs Godzilla Airbase RampageKing Kong vs Godzilla Melting Tank

Godzilla makes landfall at an airbase that’s an impressively sprawling set of miniatures. Toy tanks scoot out to engage him and the lead platoon proves no match for his fiery breath. The little kid in me still thinks its very cool to watch a model tank catch on fire and melt. The model builder in my shudders, however.

A new suit was made for the movie and Godzilla looks a lot more reptilian around the face and with the head being a bit more “V” shaped. He’s lost a toe on each foot, to boot. Slightly jarring is how much it flexes compared to other suits, but this was a necessity for events later in the movie.

King Kong vs Godzilla TakoKing Kong vs Godzilla Sakurai and Furue Meet the Natives

Sadly the rampage is abbreviated to make more time for Mr. Exposition and his barely composed face. Oh and to get the second plot of the film moving, mustn't forget that. Mr. Taka is “sick of Godzilla” and wants his own monster for higher ratings.

As cartoony as he is, it is nothing compared to the natives at the island with the special berries. They will be wince inducing to most modern viewers, what with the dark body makeup, gibberish chanting, and constant dancing. That said, it does appear much of it had comic intent behind it and none of the interaction between Sakurai, what’s his name, and their translator with the locals comes off as anything but broad comedy.

Another thing that will jump out at you is the giving of cigarettes to woo the natives, including a little boy! Times have changed a great deal in fifty plus years.

King Kong vs Godzilla Tokyo Shot

See that screen capture above? You’ll see this bit of footage repeated multiple times in the movie. Besides being lazy and recycling the shot, there is something else annoying about the clip of Tokyo. Take a close look, HD makes it very apparent after a little staring. They stretched a 4:3 bit of film to 2.35:1 making the tall trolleys fat and low.

What do you mean, I’m nitpicking? LOOK AT IT! THIS IS A WRONG THAT SHOULD BE RIGHTED! A CRIME AGAINST FILM MAKING!

Ahem…

Okay, maybe I’ve been watching high definition movies at close range on the PC for too long.

King Kong vs Godzilla Fumiko and Tamiye

Back to the actual story.

Fumiko and her friend Tamiye (Akiko Wakabayashi also in You Only Live Twice) receive bad news that prompts a very bad decision. So bad that the next jump cut says so out loud in an awesomely funny moment. Such randomness not only moves the plot forward but demonstrates either total obliviousness on the part of the American director or a wickedly dark sense of humor.

King Kong vs Godzilla Dr Johnson's Dinosaur Book

Sigh. So of course it is time to return to Eric Carter for yet another news update with a scientist appearing to explain Godzilla and King Kong to the public. What follows is hysterically funny, at least to me. When a noted scientist holds up a children's book on dinosaurs, you know you are dealing with a true expert on the subject.

King Kong vs Godzilla Octopus AttackKing Kong vs Godzilla Octopus

The movie jumps back to the island where we finally get our first monster on monster fight. It slowly builds up, starting with a giant octopus slinks toward a hut housing the magic berry juice and starts a fight with the villagers. Besides the obvious action, the fight is interesting due to Eiji Tsuburaya using every single effects technique he could to make it.

He’d originally wanted to use stop motion animation for Gojira and here he finally get his chance with a single tentacle. Combined with a real octopus on a miniature set and actors green screened, it is quite a mishmash. Sometimes it even looks good, but other times it is laughable. Specifically, when the dead octopus wrapped in plastic is grappled by King Kong.

Oh yeah, Kong finally shows up! And boy does he look… different than the 1933 stop motion puppet. If you thought the appearance of Rick Baker in an ape suit in the 1976 remake of King Kong was disappointing, you haven’t seen anything yet. A rubber suit with brown hair glued on it haphazardly, it looks very little like a real ape. In particular, the face is just terrible. Not helping matters is a poorly sculpted puppet head used for close ups.

From what I can recall, this is probably the worst kaiju suit Toho ever used in a movie.

King Kong vs Godzilla Binge DrinkerKing Kong vs Godzilla Raft

Wanting to relax after a tense fight, Kong is revealed to be a binge drinker. Worse, he can’t hold his berry juice and passes out. It’s a cautionary tale, for he finds himself out in the middle of the ocean tied down to a raft being towed to who knows where.

So kids, go light on the berry juice if you decide to drink the stuff in the first place.

King Kong vs Godzilla Nuclear Following the RiverKing Kong vs Godzilla Wet Ape

More exposition is inflicted on us to derail the flow of the narrative, comprising of some nonsense about natural enemies, differing brain sizes, and other things I don’t recall. Probably because I don’t want to remember them…

We are at the halfway point of the 90 minute movie.

I will point out there is one scene that briefly catches the terror Godzilla induced back in the 1950s. It’s a well done sequence straight out of a nightmare where the monster slowly approaches a train in the countryside. Shot from a low angle, it managed to convey the fear felt when something large and dangerous approaches.

In fact, it caused a six year old I showed this to hide his head under a blanket when even the original movie didn’t scare him. Ah, if only the rest of the movie had been like this.

King Kong vs Godzilla FaceoffKing Kong vs Godzilla Head Scratching

Good things come to he who waits and so it is that not long after the two protagonists of the film finally meet. Reptile and simian face off and start posturing in displays of dominance. While Kong is clearly the “hero” of the movie, I can’t help noticing who has the high ground at first.

Their first fight is anticlimactic due to the great ape retreating, puzzled by the ability of Godzilla to breath radioactive death. He isn’t the only one scratching his head, I remember being a kid and wondering why they didn’t fight more. Forget building of tension, I was watching to see them rumble!

King Kong vs Godzilla ExcavationKing Kong vs Godzilla Trap

From here, the story splits to follow the monsters separately again. Some of the best miniatures work out of any Godzilla flick is seen during the construction of an elaborate tiger trap for the tormentor of Tokyo. Even as an adult, this part of the film still impresses. It also makes me want to play with Tonka toys.

King Kong vs Godzilla Tokyo AttackKing Kong vs Godzilla Eating Electricity

At the other end of the spectrum there is Kong’s showing up at the back door to Tokyo. Effects wise, it is a terrible let down as the screen capture above left shows. Strangely, it is revealed out of the blue that the giant primate is strengthened by electricity. Yeah there had been foreshadowing with lightning storms on the island, but it wasn’t something from the original King Kong.

King Kong vs Godzilla Fumiko GrabbedKing Kong vs Godzilla Bad Doll

Well, Kong does get top billing and fancies himself a leading man, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he finds Fumiko in a train car and kidnaps her. She really shouldn’t ever travel by train given the events of this movie. Now substituting for Fay Wray, the actress is replaced in turn by a doll. A doll that is one of the worst miniatures I’ve seen in a movie.

Will the doll Fumiko be saved? Will Tokyo be trampled into dust by the two terrors? Will they fight again? Is Fujita or Sakurai or Kong the leading man of the movie?

All but one of these questions will be answered in the finale of King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Thoughts

In some ways this is one of the more nonsensical Godzilla flicks, but boy is it a great movie for little kids. Logic is a game for an older brain and this movie’s lack of it won’t faze a child for they’ll be far too busy trying to re-enact the fights. This I have witnessed first hand and it helped me appreciate the film more than I would have otherwise.

Though this is not one of my favorite entries in the series, it is entertaining once away from the awful newscaster additions thanks to the fights. Too bad we’ll never get the Japanese version here in the States. I’d love to compare it because I’m left to wonder how different the original Japanese cut is and whether it made more sense.

One cherished myth has been dispelled and that is there were two different endings filmed, one for the U.S. and one for Japan. It had long been said that Kong won in one and Godzilla in the other. Thanks to the Internet, we know this to be false. More on that in the spoilers section below.

All in all, the movie is a mixed bag filled with some good scenes, some truly terrible ones, and a lot of the blame can be placed on the edit. Still, there are serious problems beyond that.  Tsubaraya’s experimenting with different types of special effects technology made for an inconsistent looking movie even when the awkward American inserts are disregarded. Truly adding to the dissonance of the production, much of Akira Ifukube’s score was replaced by stock music along with tracks from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

As for strong, compelling characters with back story and personality, forget about finding any. No attempt at making the humans interesting was attempted. They’re there to provide an obligatory couple, pseudo scientific mumbo jumbo, and comedy. That’s actually perfect for a kids film if you stop and think about it.

I found no offensive content that parents should be deeply concerned about. In fact the closest anything comes to being objectionable is the afore mentioned cigarette scene and the native girls dancing. If you picture 1960s interpretive dance trying to look sexy and failing miserably (like it usually did), that’s essentially what it is. There is no gore, blood, or profanity so this unrated film falls solidly into what would be PG today.

I recommend King Kong vs. Godzilla to all kaiju buffs, kids of all ages, and those who like to park their mind for awhile with something harmless. Adult fans of the original King Kong may want to pass on this one.

Technical

Universal Studios newly released Blu-ray is a no frills release just like the DVD previously put out by them. Only a trailer is included in extras.

Video is 1080p HD in 2.35:1 ratio widescreen and is sharp with vibrant colors and excellent contrast. Unfortunately, this is a remastered but not restored version. All the grain, scratches, and blemishes of the old film are very obvious in high definition. Still it is amazing that we got it on Blu-ray in the first place. If you are like me and want every iota of quality you can get out of a spectacle movie, it will be a reasonable upgrade over the DVD. Otherwise you can pass on replacing it.

Audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono and is very clear. Nothing exciting to report about it, alas.

BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!

 

 

 

 

 

King Kong vs Godzilla DietKing Kong vs Godzilla Balloons

Kong’s rampage in Tokyo is abbreviated and somewhat disappointing. Climbing the Diet is like perching on a step stool in comparison to his famous climb of the Empire State Building. Not impressive in the least is it?

It does lead to an epic bit of silliness, so all is forgiven. Gassed by berry juice laden shells, once again the ape passes out and people do bad things to him like college students pranking their so called friends. The effects are pretty bad with the Lilliputian soldiers working on him animated as often translucent shadows.

But the payoff is the sight of a giant ape lifted into the air by a bevy of helium filled weather balloons. I dare you not to laugh or at least smirk at the scene. The whole plan is a perfect example of kid logic and it will make perfect sense to them.

King Kong vs Godzilla Air LiftKing Kong vs Godzilla Grabbing Tail

Mount Fuji being used for the final battle ground made for exciting ground for the monsters to brawl upon. Their fight is down and dirty with Kong repeatedly yanking on the lizard’s tail and Godzilla lighting up the ape with his radioactive expectoration. Bigger, badder, and equipped with an unnatural flame thrower it isn’t long before he beats the ape down. Just as it should be.

Yeah, I’m partisan, deal with it.

King Kong vs Godzilla RevivalKing Kong vs Godzilla Shocking Grasp

The whole electricity strengthening Kong bit is only there to enable the ape to compete with Godzilla. A lot is made of him being smarter than an overgrown dinosaur, but there is little evidence of it in the actual fight.

King Kong vs Godzilla Tree StuffingKing Kong vs Godzilla Breathing Fire

Daring to apply logic to a movie of this type, there should be no way he could compete with halitosis as deadly as this. Even stuffing a tree into Godzilla’s maw doesn’t stop it.

King Kong vs Godzilla Castle Fight

Akami Castle is the site for the final tussle and this shot in particular looks pretty good. Like in Godzilla Raids Again, a castle is there to be destroyed by two leviathans. Watch for an amazing over the shoulder throw of Godzilla by Kong suit actor Shoichi Hirose. That wasn’t an empty suit, it had Haruo Nakajima in it!

King Kong vs Godzilla Earthquake

For some inexplicable reason, footage from another movie was spliced in the American version to turn the rock slide at the cliff into a full blown earthquake wreaking havoc on the countryside. It looks like this was lifted from Rodan and cropped to widescreen. Sometimes I wonder just what went through the minds of the editors converting Japanese films for American consumption.

King Kong vs Godzilla Swimming Home

The ending has only King Kong emerge from the fall into the water, thereby implying he won the fight. No sign of Godzilla is seen and only Kong’s roar is heard in the American version. In the Japanese cut, Godzilla’s roar is heard in the distance too. So it was actually a draw.

For years it was thought that Godzilla won in the Japanese edit and Kong in the American. The truth turns out to be less exciting, which is typical of most rumors.

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