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Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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19 April, 2008

My Favorite Kaijû



Though Kaijû, or the Giant Monsters of Japanese cinema, aren’t everyone’s cup of sakê, I just can’t get enough of them. Fortunately, my love of Toho Studio’s city-stomping creations is an honest one, dating back to a childhood spent watching Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, and the rest rampaging across Japan, causing more destruction than a Phish concert. Of all the great monsters imported from Japan, however, one has always been my personal favorite, even more so than the undisputed King of Kaijû, Godzilla. That monster is Rodan, and 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of his debut.

I can’t really say what makes Rodan my favorite. Looking like a gigantic Pterodactyl, able to fly so fast that his supersonic wake can shatter skyscrapers, he just seemed so very… cool to a nine or ten-year old MonsterKid. He didn’t need to stomp cities into the ground, he just flew over, and the cities fell. No muss, no fuss, just total destruction.

I think another reason Rodan held such appeal for me is that all my friends were either Godzilla or Gamera fans, and I’ve always hated following the crowd. A natural iconoclast, I needed a favorite that was different from everyone else’s, something that stood out. Ghidorah was too evil; besides, he was always getting his ass kicked. Mothra was just too much of a girl’s kind of Kaijû. Rodan was just right.

His debut feature, SORA NO DAIKAIJÛ RADON ~aka~ RODAN, [see my review of the Sony DVD of the film below…] is one of the best of the Showa series movies, those Kaijû films made by Toho from 1954 to 1985. And Rodan was one of the most popular monsters during the Showa period, appearing in no fewer than eight Toho films, though some of his appearances were through the use of stock footage, a common cost-cutting measure employed by the studio. Often cast as an ally of Godzilla, it was easy to root him on, as he and Godzilla would deal with whatever alien-controlled Kaijû was sent to ravage the Japanese homeland this time out.

One of the best movies of this period was 1968’s KAIJÛ SÔSHINGEKI ~aka~ DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. It was also a typical mid-Showa Kaijû Eiga (literally, Monster Movie…), featuring Aliens working behind the scenes, controlling the various Monsters, using them as weapons as they sought to conquer the Earth. Invariably, Godzilla, along with either Mothra or Rodan, would revolt against the alien overlords, defeating the hostile Kaijû, and foiling the alien’s plans. This was a common theme in all three eras of Kaijû Eiga; in fact, the most recent film, and the final film in the Millennium series, GOJIRA: FAINARU UÔZU ~aka~ GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, is little more than a remake of KAIJÛ SÔSHINGEKI.

Rodan had a significant role in this, his fourth film. Though he was originally dispatched to destroy Moscow, Russia, he was freed from the alien mind control device and, along with Godzilla, Mothra, and Manda defeated first the Kilaaks, then the creature resurrected to combat the Kaijû, King Ghidorah.

Movies like DESTROY ALL MONSTERS were what summers were for when I was young. Spending the morning at the “Kiddee Show” at the local theater, me, my little brother, and our friends fueling our imaginations with decade-old Kaijû classics; then heading over to the neighborhood park in the afternoon. In the early ‘70’s, litigation had not yet replaced baseball as the national pastime, and children were still allowed to assume a modicum of risk when playing outside. The local park had an enormous ‘Jungle Gym’ type structure built in the shape of a rocket ship, one which would become our Kaijû-fighting spacecruiser after one of these Monster Matinees. Sure, it was built out of iron, resting on a massive slab of concrete, but I don’t recall one of us ever getting more than a cut or bruise playing on it. I do recall, however, hours spent talking about these monsters, arguing over which was the best, pretending that we were battling them, just being fans… just being kids.

The 1970’s weren’t kind to Rodan; though he appeared in three more Showa films (CHIKYÛ KOGEKI MEIREI: GOJIRA TAI GAIGAN ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. GIGAN, (1972); GOJIRA TAI MEGARO ~aka~ GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, (1973); and MEKAGOJIRA NO GYAKUSHU ~aka~ TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, (1975)…) his appearances were limited to reused stock footage.

Tokyo was safe from the Kaijû for an entire decade following TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, until the Heisei era began with GOJIRA ~aka~ GODZILLA 1985. Gone was the concept of Godzilla, as well as the other Kaijû, as Japan’s protectors; he was back, and he was bad. But it would be 1993 before Rodan made his lone Heisei appearance, in GOJIRA VS MEKAGOJIRA ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. MECHAGODZILLA II. But what the Heisei-era lacked in quantity was more than made up in quality, as he was revealed to be a “brother” of Baby Godzilla, died, was resurrected as Fire Rodan, and finally gave up his life force to save Godzilla. Heisei Kaijû films were nothing if not imaginative.

Rodan has made one more appearance thus far, in the aforementioned GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, the final film in the Millennium series which began with GOJIRA NI-SEN MIRENIAMU ~aka~ GODZILLA 2000 (1999). Though his role in GFW wasn’t as important as his fans no doubt desired, it was great to see him in action one more time, as he attacked New York City with gusto.

Now it’s the 50th anniversary of his screen debut. Have we seen the last of Rodan, Godzilla, Mothra, and the rest? Possible… but I won’t bet on it. Because if there’s one thing that we fans of Kaijû understand, it’s this:

You just can’t keep a good monster down.




















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DVD Review: SORA NO DAIKAIJÛ RADON ~aka~ RODAN

Title: SORA NO DAIKAIJÛ RADON ~aka~ RODAN

Year of Release—Film: 1956

Year of Release—DVD: 2002

DVD Label: Sony




THE MOVIE

One of the best Showa-era Kaijû films, Rodan is my personal favorite of the horde of monsters unleashed by Japan’s Toho Studios in the 1950’s and ‘60’s; and with a competent plot, good acting, and better than usual effects, his screen debut beats all but the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS in terms of quality, without the preachy, heavy-handedness of the earlier film. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, one that still carries a message, to be sure, but it doesn’t try to beat you over the head with it.

Mysterious happenings at a coal mine in Kyushu have the workers on edge, and fights are breaking out between the stressed miners. The mine is being driven deeper than ever before, and one evening the departing shift realizes that two men are missing. They soon find one of the men dead, floating in a flooded-out section of tunnel. However, when they turn him over, it’s obvious that the miner didn’t drown; his body has been horribly mutilated.

Though the authorities assume that the missing man, Goro, is responsible for the death of the miner, his friend (and the fiancé of Goro’s sister Kiyo…) Shigeru refuses to believe that. He’s soon proven right as a group of monstrous beetle-like creatures known as meganulons attack the mining town. The army soon arrives to battle the giant insects, only to discover there’s a far more deadly foe rising from the bowels of the earth, in the form of a pair of massive pteranodons called Rodans.

The first Kaijû film shot in color, Ishirô Honda’s second Kaijû epic managed to avoid the heavy editing that saw forty minutes excised from GOJIRA, to be replaced with footage featuring a pre-‘Perry Mason’ Raymond Burr for the American version. Instead, there was a brief prologue attached that served to connect the appearance of the monsters to Atomic testing.

The acting in these early Kaijû films was far superior to what would become the norm in the late ‘60’s—early ‘70’s, and the movies overall were much better. This one certainly is.



THE DISC

Like the disc for GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, this is a bare-bones offering without even subtitles, though the film is closed-captioned. The print used for the transfer is clean and sharp enough, though it would be nice to see a thorough remastering done to the film. Not a spectacular DVD, but I guess you can chalk this one up to a case of “You get what you pay for…”, and for this, that’s not much.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

As with the other discs in this Ultimate Godzilla set from Sony, there are none. Oh, they’ve put the audio menu here, that allows you to pick from Mono or Stereo tracks, as well as a promo clip for a Kaijû-themed Gamecube game. First, I don’t consider Sound to be a Special Feature, and second, neither is a commercial for something I don’t have, never will, and couldn’t use if I did. The Unimonster, ever three paces behind the cutting edge, still hasn’t upgraded from the PSOne, and is sorry he ever let go of his NES Console. (I’m really jonesing for some Super Mario Brothers…)



IN CONCLUSION

Though there isn’t anything on the disc other than the film to recommend it, in this case that’s enough… especially in light of it’s list price, which is around $8. If you buy the Box Set, it’s even cheaper.

As I said before, Rodan is my favorite Kaijû, beating out even the Great Grumpy One himself, albeit narrowly. I definitely have no qualms about giving his debut feature my highest recommendation. Don’t waste time… grab it now.










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12 April, 2008

Giant Monkey Love: Celebrating Kong on his 75th Birthday

April 7th, 1933 is a Red-Letter date in the history of genre films, for that is the day that the greatest of the giant monsters was born. On that day, an ape named Kong first roared across the screen, a blond beauty screamed her way into the hearts of moviegoers, and audiences everywhere were amazed. On that day, KING KONG premiered, and changed movies forever.

The creation of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack, brought to vivid life by the artistry of Willis O’Brien, and starring Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and the incomparable Fay Wray, KING KONG stormed through the 1933 Box-Office as easily as the jungles of Skull Island. In its wake, it left a legacy that has inspired fans and filmmakers alike for three-quarters of a century. The careers of such genre notables as Ray Harryhausen and Peter Jackson were encouraged and influenced by the “Eighth Wonder of the World!”, as Carl Denham so eloquently described him to his captivated audience. Generations of MonsterKids have grown up watching Kong battle man, machine, and beast for his “beauty.”

Remade twice in the years since 1933, with varying degrees of success, KING KONG is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The story captures you, pulling you into the film as only the best can. The 1976 remake certainly didn’t do that, and while Jackson’s 2005 version came close, it just couldn’t match the original’s sense of pure, adventurous, escapism… the feeling that you were traveling, with the crew of the Venture, to some place completely undiscovered.

Most of what makes the original KING KONG so special is the depth of the characters. Each one is so well drawn, in such broad strokes, that they defy attempts to update them in the subsequent remakes. In 1976, no attempt was made to remain faithful to the original; the resulting characters are so poorly rendered as to be completely unlikable. Robert Armstrong’s Denham is replaced by a slimy, sniveling oil company executive in the person of Charles Grodin, who plays the role as if Al Gore himself wrote it. Jessica Lange plays Dwan, a beautiful blonde with the I.Q. of a butternut squash, as though it were her goal to confirm every Blonde stereotype in existence. Gone are the courageous Captain and First Mate, originally played by Frank Reicher and Bruce Cabot. Instead, we have Jeff Bridges as Jack Prescott, a hippie environmentalist/ape expert, and the role of the captain has been almost entirely eliminated. No one in this cast of cast-offs manages to approach their counterparts from the original, and the weak script and weaker direction can do nothing to overcome the poor characterization.

In contrast, the Jackson remake brought back the original characters but altered them to such a degree that they became unrecognizable. Carl Denham, the renowned adventurer and filmmaker of the original film, became a two-bit hustler and con-man in the remake, not above lying, cheating, and stealing to get his way. Jack Driscoll went from being the First Mate of the Venture, a strong heroic figure, to a whining little nebbish of a playwright, destined to be “odd man out” in a very weird romantic triangle. The First Mate, played by Evan Parke, was very much the type of character the story needed Driscoll to be, and would have made a suitably strong love interest for Ann Darrow; yet he was relegated to a minor role, and was dead before the battle in the Spider Pit had even begun. The character of the Captain, played by Thomas Kretschmann, was the only one that improved over the original, with more depth and complexity than Reicher’s weathered old salt.

Then there’s Ann Darrow.

Embodied by Fay Wray, the character of Ann is a singular achievement in the history of Horror Films. No other female character of the first fifty years of Horror was as recognizable or had a more lasting impact on the genre, and none has been more integral to the success and longevity of the movie itself. Wray so perfectly captured the innocence, the vulnerability, of ‘Beauty’ that it’s hard to watch the film and not be captivated by her… just as Denham is, just as Driscoll is, just as the crew of the Venture is, and just as Kong himself is.

In comparison Ann, as essayed by Naomi Watts, has no innocence or vulnerability, at least not until she’s on the island, and even then precious little of it is evident. In New York, she’s hit rock bottom… a beaten, careworn woman searching for something to believe in, someone who won’t disappoint her the way every one and every thing else has. She finds that someone… in the form of a 24-foot tall ape named Kong. He demands nothing of her, yet from the first repeatedly risks, and ultimately loses, his life simply in order to be with her. But where Jackson’s version deviates from the original is where his film loses some of its shine, and the true quality of the Cooper film shows through.

Where Wray’s Ann is quite naturally terrified and traumatized by her status as a giant ape’s object of infatuation, Watts’ reaction is just the opposite—she seeks him out after he’s escaped from Denham’s spectacle, showing not a trace of fear as he takes her in his massive hand. She turned her back on Denham, and Driscoll, over the capture of Kong, and she again chooses to stand with Kong, in essence turning her back on humanity. One is left to wonder if, given the choice between which of the two ‘males’ in her life would plummet to their death from the top of the Empire State Building, events would not have transpired differently.

Of course, Watts’ Ann wasn’t dealing with the same Ape that Wray’s character was. Cooper’s Kong was a monster. An innocent monster, to be sure; one that did not wish to be taken from the place where “…he was King…”—but a monster nonetheless. Jackson anthropomorphizes Kong, giving him a humanlike personality, and transforms him from a monster into a 24-foot tall pet monkey… Tarzan’s Cheetah, on the Major League Baseball diet.

But it’s not just the depth of characterization that makes the original so much better than either attempt to remake it. It’s the perfect synergy of concept, story, design, and execution that sets the work of Cooper, Shoedsack, O’Brien, and the rest apart… a synergy that’s almost impossible to duplicate. John Guillermin didn’t even try, and though Peter Jackson came close, his humanization of Kong ultimately defeats the attempt.

In the end, Guillermin film isn’t as bad as it could have been, and Jackson’s KONG is without a doubt a great movie, but neither can be what the original was, and is… the greatest monster movie ever.






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Giant Gorillas in our Midst

One of the most enduring images in cinema is King Kong battling Army Air Corps fighters atop the Empire State Building, as Fay Wray huddled helplessly nearby. For seventy-five years now, that scene has remained ingrained in the consciousness of the movie-going public, and Kong himself remains one of the most popular characters in Horror and Science-Fiction, with a number of remakes, sequels, and outright rip-offs of the big ape feeding the movie-going public’s love of mega-monster mayhem.

Three years ago, director Peter Jackson added to that list with his spectacular, special effects-laden, mega-budget blockbuster remake of the 1933 original. One of the most innovative and impressive genre directors working today, Jackson has been a rising star since 1987’s BAD TASTE, and the blockbuster success of his epic LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy gave him the opportunity to make a long-held dream a reality: To remake what some consider the greatest Monster Movie ever made.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the release of the original KING KONG, and in recognition of the fact that there would not have been a Gojira, or a Gorgo, or the Ymir without the Grand-Pappy of them all, let’s take a close look at some of the films in Kong’s family tree.

The Original

KING KONG (1933)

The first, and the best, of the Giant Monsters, KING KONG captured the imagination of moviegoers in 1933. Working from a story by prolific mystery writer Edgar Wallace, (who died as the production was beginning) producers-directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack created one of the most enduring relationships in cinema, in the person of a 24-foot tall ape, in love with a five-foot, three-inch willowy blonde with a piercing scream.

Thanks to the incredible effects work of Willis O’Brien, the first true master craftsman of motion picture special effects, KING KONG was a giant leap forward compared to what contemporary audiences were used to seeing on the screen. While giant animals such as dinosaurs had been done on-screen before, never had they been done as convincingly true-to-life as here. O’Brien’s models may look dated, even hokey, to today’s audiences, but when viewed from the perspective of the time, they were every bit as earth-shaking and awe-inspiring as the CGI and green-screen technology of today.

The cast as well contributed much to the success of the film, but one person in particular has helped insure its longevity: Fay Wray.

Born Vina Fay Wray in Alberta, Canada in 1907, her family moved to Arizona when she was three years old. Though she began acting after relocating to Southern California, with her screen debut in 1923’s GASOLINE LOVE, she received her break into stardom as Mitzi in Erich Von Stroheim’s 1928 drama THE WEDDING MARCH, a role she considered her favorite until her death in 2004.

After appearing in 1932’s DOCTOR X, Wray began a short run of Genre films that included such classics as THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) and BLACK MOON (1934). Though the latter film was her last entry in the Horror Genre, in a run lasting just two years, she will forever be remembered as the screen’s original “Scream Queen.”

The Sequel

SON OF KONG (1933)

Released a short 9½ months after the blockbuster premiere of KING KONG, the sequel is a pale shadow of it’s progenitor. Shot in record time to capitalize on the success of KING KONG, the whole production shows a lack of quality, from the plot, which, apart from the somewhat novel opening premise, (that of Carl Denham, responsible for the capture of the original Kong, fleeing the mass of lawsuits resulting from Kong’s rampage) is hackneyed and unbelievable; to the acting, which is at best inadequate. Though Robert Armstrong is acceptable reprising his role from the first film, the remainder of the cast is a drastic comedown from the previous adventure. Helen Mack has the unenviable task of filling Fay Wray’s formidable shoes, a task at which she fails miserably. The rest barely deserve mention.

Even Willis O’Brien’s effects suffer, albeit to a much lesser degree than the rest of the production. While the Kiko (though not mentioned in the film, the Son of Kong’s name had been used in earlier versions of the script) model is excellent; every bit as well done as Kong had been, the animation appears rushed, and scant little time is given to develop the ape’s character. With KING KONG, whole sequences had been devoted to making him as real as possible; to giving him a personality. There’s none of that attention to detail here. In fact, Kiko is barely a presence in the film, a Deus ex Machina to move the story along when it needs help. And it needed a lot of help.

While an interesting addition to Kong’s family tree, it’s not one he’s likely to brag about, and not one we should ponder on too long.

The Remake

KING KONG (1976)

While a huge financial success for Paramount Pictures, shot on a budget of $24,000,000, and grossing more that twice that, the first remake of KING KONG was received less than enthusiastically by fans of the original film. Purists decried what they considered the ruining of a classic; fans of the original’s stop-motion animation were horrified to learn that the new Kong would be a man in a monkey-suit; every faction of Horror fandom weighed in on the film, with most coming down against the film. For a long time, I, too, was in that camp.

Recently, however, I pulled my dusty VHS copy off the shelf and watched it for the first time in at least fifteen years. Though it will never appear on one of my top ten lists, or even a top one hundred, it’s not nearly as offensive as I remembered.

While most of the complaints that were lodged against the remake were valid, and the film does suffer from a number of problems, still, it does a very credible job updating the Kong story for contemporary audiences, while taking advantage of increased technical sophistication. The script, while overly political for my personal tastes, is decent, with a believable plot and good character development for most of the cast. The exceptions to that are the characters played by Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin.

Grodin’s Fred Wilson, an oil company executive, is played as though written by the staff writer at Greenpeace—evil, conniving, greedy, the type of character that would club baby seals to keep his golf swing in shape. While such characters can be interesting, they need some depth to balance them out, and there’s none to be found in Wilson. He’s simply a caricature who might as well be named “Big Oil.”

However, Grodin comes off as lucky when compared to the treatment given to Lange’s Dwan. If she had been written as any more of a vacuous airhead, she would’ve needed a helmet and dribble-bib.

In retrospect, now that I can view the remake with somewhat more mature eyes, I can see that, while it falls far short of the original, it can’t do anything to detract from the greatness of the 1933 version. On it’s own, it’s a decent little movie, and a tolerable addition to the family tree.

The Sequel to the Remake

KING KONG LIVES (1986)

If SON OF KONG was the relative no one brags about, then KING KONG LIVES is the one locked up in the attic. A ridiculous plot is laid out in tedious fashion, involving a still-living Kong needing a blood transfusion in order to undergo the implantation of an artificial heart. Suddenly, a female Kong is found, captured, and, after providing Kong with the blood he needs, is given an 800-lb. sugar cookie and 500 gallons of juice. Not really, but it would’ve made more sense and been more interesting than what did ensue.

Dedicated fans of the Horror, Science-Fiction, and Fantasy genres occasionally have to sort through a lot of movies to pluck the wheat from the chaff. This member of the Kong family is definitely chaff.

The Remake of the Original

KING KONG (2005)

If fans of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy can vouch for anything, it’s that the man shows deep respect for the source material from which his films are derived, whether that source is the epic fantasy novels of J. R. R. Tolkien, or a 1933 Monster movie that changed the course of film history. Jackson’s remake is everything the 1976 Guillerman film wasn’t; interesting, spectacular, entertaining… and most of all, it was faithful. Not necessarily to the original; there were some very significant departures from Cooper’s version, most notably in the characters and how they were developed. But it was faithful to the fans, the ones who share Jackson’s love of the 1933 film, and did not want to see it disrespected as happened in 1976.

While not all of Jackson’s alterations worked, (i.e., “Monkey on Ice”, or the way Kong and Ann “signed” to each other…) in no way did he make light of the original, or treat it with anything less than the utmost deference. The characters themselves, however, received far less consideration. Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham was an honorable man; secretive, but not deceitful. In the person of Jack Black, Denham’s a grifter, a con man with a camera, not above lying, cheating, or stealing to get what he’s after. Jack Driscoll, the hero of the original and Fay Wray’s love interest, endures the most in the retelling of the story. Instead of a tough, heroic Bruce Cabot, we get a skinny, namby-pamby writer in the person of Adrien Brody. Even Naomi Watts’ Ann suffers somewhat by comparison; actually choosing the monkey over the man—Driscoll only winds up with the girl by default, after Kong’s fatal plunge off the Empire State Building.

But bad characterizations and overly sentimental scenes aside, this is one kick-ass spectacle of filmmaking. While it hasn’t supplanted the original in my heart, (and never will…) it’s still a great movie, and is a fitting tribute to the original film, and Peter Jackson’s love of it.

The Distant Relations

While it’s own progeny have never quite measured up to it’s stature, KING KONG stands as own of the most influential films of the genre. It inspired the Japanese Kaijû films of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s; led to the explosion of giant mutated lizards and insects that rampaged across American movie screen in the ‘50’s; even Roland Emmerich’s 1998 GODZILLA owed as much to the giant ape as it did to the Toho classics. Giant monsters, whether spiders, T-Rex’s, or apes, continue to enthrall and delight audiences today, and I doubt that will change any time soon. I think it bodes well for the genre that Jackson’s remake was such a huge hit, and that we still see, in films such as THE HOST and CLOVERFIELD, Giant Monsters prowling the screen.








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DVD Review: KING KONG Collector’s Edition Tin-Boxed Set (1933)


Title: KING KONG (Collector’s Edition Tin-Boxed Set)

Year of Release—Film: 1933

Year of Release—DVD: 2005

DVD Label: Warner Home Video




THE MOVIE

How much do I need to say about this, perhaps the greatest Monster movie of all time? This movie was the progenitor of every Giant Animal film that followed, from GOJIRA to EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS; it continues to thrill generations of monster fans; and it has inspired dozens of future filmmakers, from Ray Harryhausen to Peter Jackson.

The brainchild of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack, (whose real lives are worthy of an adventure film or three…) KING KONG is the story of Carl Denham, a filmmaker who specializes in wildlife pictures, who’s been told by the executives that he needs some romance in his films, some beauty… in short, a woman. Desperate to find someone, anyone willing to undertake a long sea voyage for the chance at fame and fortune, he begins searching out the skid row flophouses and soup kitchens.

About to give up, he intercedes in an altercation between a fruit vendor and a young woman. Denham comes to the girl’s assistance, and realizes that he has found his star. Her name is Ann Darrow, and she is soon convinced that this is her ticket out of the poverty of Depression-era New York. She quickly finds herself aboard the Venture, bound for Indonesia, and for terror.

Kong was brought marvelously to life by the genius of Willis O’Brien. Obie, as he was known, began his career in the art of Stop-Motion Animation with the 1918 film THE GHOST OF SLUMBER MOUNTAIN, and became recognized as the leading animator in Hollywood with 1925’s THE LOST WORLD. With KING KONG, Obie hit his professional zenith, designing creatures and effects that still fascinate and amaze audiences, most notably Kong himself.

But the big ape wasn’t the only star of the movie, and this film elevated his leading lady to legendary status. Fay Wray was one of the rising stars in the Hollywood of the early ‘30’s, and had been since appearing in Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 film THE WEDDING MARCH. Beginning in 1932, she appeared in several Horror Films, most notably THE MYSTERY IN THE WAX MUSEUM, earning her the title of the Screen’s first “Scream Queen.” If those films had been her entire contribution to the genre, she would still be fondly remembered by Horror fans, but her starring role in KING KONG forever cemented her place in film history.

Taken as a whole, this film must rate as one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history. Everything about it is superlative, as demonstrated by the effect it still has on audiences today, 73 years after it premiered.

As soon as I got my set, I sat down to watch it. My mother, three years Kong’s elder, had never seen the film and, much to my surprise, decided to join me. To my continued surprise, she loved the movie. The fact that KING KONG can still connect with viewers so long after it was released simply proves its greatness.


THE DISC

In my year-end 2005 in review column over in CreatureScape’s The Unimonster’s Crypt, I called this the DVD release of the year, and three years of subsequent releases haven’t changed my opinion at all. In fact, if I’m still doing this in January 2011, it just might win Release of the Decade.

First, the film itself is the best looking print I’ve ever seen of KONG, with all the footage that was edited out in 1938 restored from an intact print found in Great Britain. Though this footage was found and restored in the ‘70’s, the movie has received a thorough cleaning and restoration for this release, and it really benefits from the process.

Add in the multiple subtitle and audio tracks and you have one of the best two-disc sets you likely to see.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

To say that this collection has some special features is like saying Bill Gates has a little cash. This baby is packed; it seems that WHV really wanted to please the fans of the film with this offering, and they succeeded. The list of extras contained in the KING KONG Collector's Edition Tin-Box set includes (courtesy of http://www.imdb.com/):

2-Disc Special Edition DVD
Collectible tin packaging
20-page reproduction of original 1933 souvenir program
King Kong memorable scenes postcards
Vintage King Kong poster mail-in offer
Disc 1: The Movie
Original 1933 Film classic in Glorious Black and White, Newly Restored and Digitally Mastered
Commentary by Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray
Merian C. Cooper Movies Trailer Gallery
Disc 2: King-Sized Special Features
I'm King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper -- 2005 documentary
RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World - 7 Part Documentary including...
The Origins of "King Kong"
Willis O'Brien and "Creation"
Cameras Roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder
A Milestone in Visual Effects
Passion, Sound and Fury
The Mystery of the Lost "Spider Pit" Sequence
King Kong’s Legacy
Creation Test Footage with Commentary by Ray Harryhausen

I’m not sure where to begin with this… it’s simply overwhelming, in both quantity and quality. For example, the 1933 souvenir program is a reproduction of one that was given out at the premiere… and that had been bound with a sheet copper cover. While WHV didn’t go to quite that extent in reproducing it, the cover of the reproduction has been given a coppery metallic sheen, neatly replicating the look, if not the heft, of the original.

But the jewel of the special features, at least for me, is the 7-part documentary RKO 601: THE MAKING OF ‘KONG, THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD’. At over two-and-a-half hours in length, it’s one of the most informative and entertaining “making-of” documentaries I’ve had the pleasure to watch. And while the documentary as a whole is excellent, the highlight has to be the look at how Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop ‘recreated’ the lost Spider-Pit sequence, using hand-made duplicates of the original animation models and 1932 equipment in an attempt to faithfully reproduce the original look and feel of the film. Only someone with a true love of the original movie would go to such trouble and expense, and Jackson’s reverence for the film is clearly displayed.

I could go for another 10 pages on the bonus features included with this disc, but suffice it to say that if you’re a Kongophile, you’ll be happy.



IN CONCLUSION

I remember when I first looked my Universal Monster Legacy Set over, thinking that no one was going to top this Collection. I was actually surprised to be proven wrong, and in such a short time frame. I doubt it will happen again, at least so quickly. With a $40 list price this set’s not cheap, but how can I not recommend it? You can find it cheaper, Deep Discount DVD currently shows it for less than $30, but this isn’t the set to pinch pennies over. If you’re a Kong fan, and since you’ve come to the Crypt I’ll wager you are, then you have to have this set in your collection. Yes, you could buy a bare-bones stripped clean disc with just the movie… and you’ll save twenty bucks. I say splurge… you won’t regret it.