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Simian Cinema 2.0
© Rick Klaw
August 03, 2011

Back in 2003 shortly after the announcement of Peter Jackson's King Kong remake, I compiled a list of my favorite simian films. Now eight years later in honor of the impending release of Rise of The Planet of the Apes, I'm revisiting and revising my list.

My love of things simian has its origins in my childhood. In the mid-70s, Sundays were a special day. It started with a trip to the corner 7-11. My mother left me a dollar to get her the paper, fifty cents at the time. With the change, essentially my allowance, I would buy either two comic books (25 cents/each) or during baseball season, a pack of baseball cards and a comic book.

I then quickly returned home to catch the ten o’clock showing of an American monster movie, followed by a Japanese monster movie then an Abbott & Costello film. At a very early age, I found my nirvana. During the movies, I read and re-read my new comics (or studied my baseball cards). This went on for about four years. Along the way I managed to see almost every monster movie in existence alongside all the Abbott & Costellos The gorilla films quickly emerged as my favorites.

Like any junkie, I needed more. I raced home after school to catch the Million Dollar Movie whenever they ran their Planet of the Apes week. In the days before cable and VCRs when we only owned one TV, I had to beat my sister home. If my sister got their first, I was in for an afternoon of Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Like most little sisters, she simply didn’t care what I wanted and thought The Planet of the Apes stupid. (A similar occurrence re-occurred during the Godzilla weeks.)

When I was eight, I saw King Kong Vs. Godzilla on the big screen, which quickly became the Reese's of my reality. That same summer I attended a King Kong Escapes screening. This Japanese interpretation of the classic gorilla featured an epic Kong vs. MechaKong battle. I replayed that battle in my mind and with my toys for years to come.

In the immortal words of Eric Cartman, "That movie has warped my fragile little mind." Apes permanently imprinted on my psyche.

From out of those twisted beginnings, an obsession emerged, encapsulated in this list.

10. Son of Kong (1933)

The rushed, humorous sequel to the greatest of all simian films, Son of Kong features more special effects fun by Willis O’Brien, the man who brought us the original. Kong’s albino descendant is discovered on Skull island along with prehistoric creatures. Nowhere near the quality of King Kong, this fun movie does offer a lot of good gorilla-dinosaur action as well as several (intentional) laughs.

9. Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)

The only one of the four Apes sequels that approaches anywhere near the quality, intelligence and message of the original. This time, two apes escape their doomed world and are sent back in time to present day Earth. They are now the "apes" on the planet of "humans." Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter are charming, compelling, and evocative as the leads.

8. Tarzan (1999, animated)

The Disneyfied story contains enough original Burroughsian elements (far more than many of the live action attempts) to overcame the awful Oscar-winning Phil Collins soundtrack in producing an excellent vision of Tarzan. The near perfect, frenetic, yet controlled action successfully introduced the ape man to a new generation.

7. Mighty Joe Young (1998)

The excellent remake of the 1949 classic delivers a modernized version of the original’s plot. With a beautiful woman, a lovable giant gorilla, a well-meaning cowboy, and the magnificent Rick Baker effects, Mighty Joe Young promises thrills and action.

6. King Kong (2005)

The first significant ape film of the new millennium, Peter Jackson's interpretation of the seminal 1933 film (the seventh big screen appearance of the legendary ape) hits most of the right notes. Andy Serkis excels as the sympathetic Kong, heartbroken and hunted. The special effects sizzle, expertly recreating a 1930s New York City and the terrifying Skull Island, littered with cannibals, dinosaurs, and other nasties. While not as compelling as the original, Jackson's ultimate love letter to giant ape films falls just short of classic.

5. Gorillas In the Mist (1988)

The thinking person’s gorilla film, Gorillas In the Mist relates the fascinating true story of Dian Fossey, famed animal rights activist and world-renowned expert on the West African gorilla. Sigourney Weaver received a much deserved Oscar nomination for best actress for her portrayal. The special effects are excellent with some of the finest looking gorillas ever on film.

4. Tarzan, The Ape Man (1932)

The first talkie Tarzan and the model for all other Tarzan films to follow, Tarzan, The Ape Man was so powerful and memorable that for most people Johnny Weissmuller is STILL Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan is STILL Jane.

It offers everything a Tarzan film requires: adventure, excitement, confused white men, monkeys, Africa, lions, and a swimming nude Jane. Don't confuse this with the 1981 Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Bo Derek and Miles O’Keefe. Even seeing repeated nude scenes of the beautiful Derek doesn’t make this monstrosity watchable.

3. Planet of the Apes (1968)

Inarguably, the best science fiction movie of the 1960s. It's far more entertaining than Kubrick’s overblown (and boring) 2001. Planet of the Apes spawned four sequels, a television series, an animated series, action figures, books, comic books, a terrible Tim Burton remake and many Simpsons parodies. A dystopian reflection of 1960s American society, Apes real strength rests with the brilliant Rod (Twilight Zone) Serling script (which has little to do with the Pierre Boulle’s original novel) with the most unexpected, original shock-ending of all time.

2. Mighty Joe Young (1949)

From the creators of King Kong (1933) comes this fun, charming giant gorilla film. Chaos ensues after Mr. Joe Young of Africa travels to the States as entertainment for the masses. This one has it all: giant gorilla versus cowboys, giant gorilla versus lions, giant gorilla getting drunk, giant gorilla saving the day, beautiful woman who is the gorilla’s best friend. Unlike Kong, Joe is really just a misunderstood child who wants to go home. No military, no biplanes, but still plenty of action.

So engaging that it takes repeated viewings before noticing that Joe changes proportion throughout. Especially of note to monster movie fans since stop motion effects guru Willis O’Brien was assisted by a young Ray Harryhausen, working on his first movie.

1. King Kong (1933)

After seventy-five years, King Kong remains not only the finest gorilla film ever, but also the greatest monster movie of all time. The movie introduced the concept of giant monsters to the big screen and popularized stop motion special effects, which remained the industry standard until the 1980s with the emergence of computer-generated effects. Far from just an effects-laden movie, King Kong uses iconic elements, a great script, and a superior soundtrack to re-tell the classic Beauty and Beast. After all, it was beauty that killed the beast. Stay away from the vastly inferior 1977 remake and its even worse sequel King Kong Lives.

Several simian films just missed the cut. Movies such as Buddy, The Gorilla (1939), The Jungle Book (1967 Animated), George of the Jungle and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (the longest movie title to ever feature an ape).

What about King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes? While both of these films hold a special place in my heart, they just aren’t that good. There is a big difference between a great movie and one that has sentimental appeal. The films on my list all offer qualities that make them good, fun movies with or without the monkeys.

Kong could have been a giant salamander and although physically the film wouldn’t have the same appeal, it would still be a classic thanks to the great production values, incredible script, etc.

King Kong Vs. Godzilla (which I own on DVD) is fun because it’s a giant ape versus a fire breathing mutant dinosaur. The WWE wishes it had stars and action as cool as that. But like the WWE, it just ain’t that good.

More common are the simian films so horrible that they should be avoided at all costs. Ed, A*P*E, Konga, King Kong Lives, and Congo just to name a few. These films offer little or no enjoyment to even the most diehard ape fan.

For more on simian cinema, check out Don Glut’s (yes, the same Don Glut who wrote The Defenders among other Marvel comics in the 70s) documentary Hollywood Goes Ape. The production quality is poor, but overall a very informative film. By far the most complete and interesting reference compiled on the subject.

Check out how many ape flicks are watchable streaming right here.

An avid fan of simian pop culture, Rick Klaw has written about apes for SF Site, Moving Pictures, SF Signal, Kong Is King, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Greenwood Press), King Kong Is Back! (BenBella Books), and at his blog The Geek Curmudgeon. He'll gladly show off his ape shrine at any opportunity.

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