A*P*E: Meta-Film of a Fine Vintage
In 1976, an odd collection of American and South Korean filmmakers got together to make the 3-D feature A*P*E, a King Kong remake. Most people call it it a knockoff. I call it a parody. And as such, I think it’s a lot better a film than most people recognize.
The history of A*P*E is fascinating and important to truly appreciating with film. Dino De Laurentiis was about to release his big King Kong remake. And even though the film suffers in comparison to the 1933 and 2005 versions, it was still a big hit. It was the seventh highest grossing film in 1976, despite the fact that it wasn’t released until 17 December of that year. Had it been released earlier, it would have been the second highest grossing film behind Rocky. So love it or hate it (or both, as I do), it was a big deal.
The makers of A*P*E knew about this. Their first English title for the film was The New King Kong. When this happened, De Laurentiis’ company sued the producers for $1.5 million. And the producers of A*P*E folded, although they used that title in some countries. De Laurentiis’ lawsuit was frivolous. Titles cannot be copyrighted. So all they were trying to do was cost Kukje Movies and others involved in the production a lot of money. Given that De Laurentiis’ production had rough one thousand times as much money as A*P*E had, the producers dropped the title.
This is justice in America: whoever has the most money wins.
But I challenge anyone to claim that the bloated and silly King Kong has a greater right to title than A*P*E. All De Laurentiis was doing was making a stilted remark of a classic film that was less interesting than the original.
A*P*E starts by claiming, “Jack H Harris presents.” Harris is best known for The Blob, but ultimately might be remembered for the micro-budget Equinox, or as it might be better called, “Evil Dead 0.” Yet IMDb makes no mention of him. It’s likely he was involved in the distribution of the film. But the truth it, it is hard to suss out who was behind this multi-country, multi-company cheapie.
But that the producers of A*P*E managed to perfectly parody De Laurentiis’ King Kong before it was ever seen by the public says much. They knew the technology that was avaiable, and so they knew just what a silly ape they would create. All I remember of the 1976 King Kong is a clearly fake Kong looking at Dawn (Jessica Lange) like she a big pearly that he had won in a grammar school game of marbles.
What makes A*P*E a fun film is that it is fully aware of just how silly it is. And what makes the De Laurentiis King Kong so bad is that it takes itself seriously. But eventually, I will get around to writing about the film. And it too can be a delight if you just watch it as the silly movie that was made rather than the serious movie that was meant to be be made.
A*P*E Plot Summary
The film starts at about the end of the second act of the official King Kong films. A 36-foot tall gorilla has been captured and sedated. It is on a ship headed to Disneyland where it will be displayed. Right after being told that the experts think the great ape will be unconscious for five more days, it awakes, tears through the ship, and somehow makes it explode. Then it fights rather a long time with a shark (remember: Jaws was the big hit of 1975).
The gorilla makes it to land where we see that it has incredible night vision. Then it starts destroying buildings for no particular reason other than to show off what I suspect were some pretty great 3-D effects. Lots of stuff flies at the audience. This is repeated throughout the film. And I have to admit that this is the first time that such things have made me want to re-watch a film in 3-D. I’m not a fan of the process in general. Anyway, that made up the first ten minutes of the film.
And Then a New Film Starts
After that, the gorilla disappears for while so we can be introduced to Marilyn Baker (Joanna Kerns), a movie star making her first film outside the US. She is met there by here boyfriend, Tom Rose (Rod Arrants), who is also a journalist. They spend a lot of time kissing and talking about getting married. I don’t mean this is snark. I enjoyed these scenes. They were charming, and the principals are solid television actors who are able to put in good performances with what were clearly limited takes (based on the editing).
This five minute segment of A*P*E set the tone for the rest of the film. At the beginning, the whole thing seemed rather like a standard monster movie. But this gorilla is just not that threatening. There are numerous shots of it just standing around looking decidedly nonthreatening. At one point, it walks across a field, being careful not to step on a cow grazing.
Not a Scary Ape
From time to time, we see the monster destroy buildings, but not people. We only know that people are dying because Colonel Davis (Alex Nicol) keeps telling us as he shouts into the phone to various other military personnel about how they really should try to kill the gorilla rather than catch it because, you know, people are dying (off screen).
Eventually, A*P*E can resist its King Kong roots no more, and the gorilla kidnaps the movie star. But it’s curious. The film syntax in A*P*E is so primitive that it is often not clear what is going on. The gorilla was supposedly watching the star act. But from where? Visually, it isn’t clear. And certainly one of crew would have said something along the lines of, “You know that 36-foot tall gorilla that’s in all the papers? I think it’s on the set.” But I don’t want to nitpick a film that clearly doesn’t mean to be taken very seriously.
A*P*E Warned You!
In fact, it is hard not to see the entire film a spoof of the upcoming King Kong remake. The director of the film within A*P*E is named “Dino” (played by actual A*P*E director Paul Leder). I can’t see this as anything but a none-to-subtle attack on Dino De Laurentiis, producer of the 1976 Kong remake.
The Final Line
The film ends as you expect. But it ends with a different line. In 1933 (and 2005), it was, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” In A*P*E, Marilyn asks, “Oh, Tom: why? Why?” And Tom replies, “It was just too big for a small world like ours.” This line has been widely mocked. But what’s the big deal? Somehow, it is okay to have grand statements like this in films we like but not in films we don’t?
This is not to forgive the line. It doesn’t work in the film because it (along with the whole scene) implies that anything in A*P*E was meant to be taken seriously. I like all versions of King Kong. And I cry at the end of all of them. Yet I know it’s crazy. They are silly films. Okay: giant gorilla so giant insects (2005, deleted from 1933) and giant snakes (1976). But what’s with the dinosaurs in the 1933 and 2005 versions? They’re not there for any reason other than that technically they could be done. And again, this is if you accept the idea of a giant gorilla falling in love with a human.
Enjoy the Meta-Film
A*P*E removes all the pretense that there is anything serious about all this. So on the level of meta-film, A*P*E is brilliant. Still, for most people, taking a giant gorilla seriously is more fun. But we’ve all had that experience. A*P*E allows us to laugh at Hollywood and ourselves.
Junk about the movie itself:
- Release date: 1976
- Length: 86 minutes (uncertain)
- MPAA Rating: PG
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Film: SpaceVision 3-D 35 Color
And here is junk about the production. I find this stuff very hard because it is so unfair. Okay, so there were two “cameramen.” There were four camera assistants, 2 lighting assistants, and a second unit camera operator (he was also the production photographer).
What that last thing means is that he was probably everything involving film during the second unit shooting. But anyway, these are the guys who get all the credit:
- Director: Paul Leder
- Producers: KM Yeung and Paul Leder
- Screenwriters: Paul Leder and Reuben A Leder
- Cinematographers/Cameramen: Tony Francis and Daniel L. Symmes
- Editor: Paul Leder
- Composer: Bruce MacRae
- Actors: Rod Arrants, Joanna Kerns, and Lee Nak-hoon