With the current monsterverse toplined by Godzilla and King Kong seemingly running out of steam before it gets started, it’s fun to look back to a more low-fi time. The success of Toho’s Godzilla franchise led to exhuming the rights to the 1933 King Kong, and then reworking it so that there’s a fair fight at the end. So we still have an expedition to a remote island, called Mondo here, and we still have a giant ape who falls in love with a comely Susan (Linda Jo Miller). But there’s a new and absurd frame; Kong is working for the mysterious Dr Who (Hideyo Amamato) who, alongside Madame Piranha (You Only Live Twice’s Mie Hama) is hoping to use Kong to replace his Mechani-Kong, a metal replica of the ape. King Kong Escapes is much like many of Ishiro Honda’s films, good to look at if patchy in effects by today’s standard, although some of the models are delightful. But Mechani-Kong steals the show here, walking like a wrestler, with big boggly eyes and a metal smile that suggest an invention of Wallace and Gromit in the vein of Crow T Robot, he’s a wonderfully silly creation that causes mirth every second he’s on screen. With Kong looking somewhat threadbare, Mechani-Kong is considerably more amusing here than anything in the Pacific Rim series so far.
Darren Aronofsky’s biblical tale harks back to the weirder excesses of Intolerance rather than the more pious made-for tv reverence of Son of God; with huge stone monsters helping Noah to build his ark, this version of the age-old story deviates by some margin from the expected path of a religious film. Aronofsky uses the same flash-cut sequences to illustrate Noah’s dreams that he used in Requiem for a Dream, and there’s a feverish feel about the whole enterprise. Russell Crowe plays Noah as a tormented obsessive, in the manner of Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Driven by his vision of an earth under water, he ropes in his monster pals to build an ark and gathers his family, including adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). The second half of the film settles down for a sea-bound family drama, as Ila become pregnant and threatens the purity of Noah’s mission. Despite a uselessly flat ending, in which Noah’s journey is explained to him in a boringly straightforward fashion that removes the nuances from the story, Aronofsky’s epic drama is more fun than it needs to be, and benefits from a sincere performance by Crowe.
Unstoppable writer/director Larry Cohen reacted well after being fired from I The Jury, knocking up a fresh horror project in six days and enlisting David Carradine and Michael Moriarty as leads. Shepard (Carradine) teams up with Richard “Shaft’ Roundtree to investigate missing people who are being snatched off the street in NYC, with Moriarty’s loner a possible link to the killings. But who is responsible? Cue the winged serpent, a stop-motion creation of Harryhausen charm, who dives around Manhattan searching for unwary construction workers and sunbathing women to snack on, dropping body-parts on unsuspecting citizens. Q: The Winged Serpent fully deserves its cult reputation; it’s well scripted and acted, and delivers fully on its ridiculous premise on an obviously low budget.
Terry Gilliam once noted that if you put a blonde wig on Matt Damon (as he did in The Brothers Grimm), you have Doug McClure. The Virginian star found a second lease of life in the small but memorable genre of British period dinosaur movies, with 1977’s The People That Time Forgot a good example. A sequel to The Last That Time Forgot, Kevin Connor’s film conflates Edgar Rice Burroughs’ two follow up novels into on adventure, with Patrick Wayne leading an exploration to the Antarctic to rescue Bowen Tyler (McClure). Dana Gillespie is ideally cast as a comely cave-girl while Sarah Douglas snaps pictures of dinosaurs and Tony Britton worries on a nearby ship. An Apocalypse Now story for schoolboys, The People That Time forgot is a crisp entry in the lost world genre.
Adrian Lyne made his name with 9 ½ Weeks, and somehow never escaped the accusation that his films were all flash and no content, despite managing hits (Indecent Proposal) and worthy misses (Lolita). His best, most troubling film was 1990’s Jacobs’s Ladder, a chilling portrait of mental disintegration featuring Tim Robbins a Jacob, a Vietnam veteran struggling to deal with life after the war. From a script but Ghost-writer Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob’s Ladder is a psychological horror film, with Jacob’s terrifying visions realised in a disconcerting way by Lyne Inspired by the photography of Joel Peter Witkin, Jacob’s Ladder cleverly updates Ambrose Pierce’s template story “An Incident at Owl’s Creek’ to powerful effect, switching between fantasy and reality deftly, and the final twist is devastating given the emotional connection with Jacob’s characters that Robbins creates. Jason Alexander and Ving Rhames and Danny Aiello and amongst the capable support.
Disney in the early eighties found itself in a strange quandary; the family audiences it had long courted were returning, but the studio seems unsure of their material; 1981’s fantasy Dragonslayer was a flop, but one that’s far more accomplished than many hit of their time. Matthew Robbins directs this tale of a young knight (Peter McNicol) who joins with wizard Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson) to free the land of a fire-breathing dragon. The dragon itself is a fearsome creature, rendered impressively with a little computer-generated assistance, and it’s eggs hatch into an even nastier strain of creature. Pre Games of Thrones and The Hobbit, Dragonslayer features probably the best dragon on cinematic record, and the lavish design and an appearance from Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid make this well worth chasing down for fantasy fans.
Gareth Edwards made his name with this ingenious low-budget monster movie, which wisely keeps its alien creatures off-screen for maximum effect, and focuses on the relationship between a world-weary journalist (Skeet Ulrich) and a well-heeled tourist (Whitney Able) as he tries to escort her through Mexico. The country has been partitioned due to rampaging monsters, and the love-hate relationship between the protagonist takes up more of the running time than confrontations with the creates, although when the set pieces come, they’re extremely well staged. Complete with an ambiguous ending that chimes with District 9’s suspicions about whether mankind are the true monsters, it’s easy to see why Gareth Edwards was quickly propelled to the A list for his Godzilla reboot.