Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, with Kong: Skull Island on the horizon, we look at the 1976 Kong rip-off, A*P*E.
When you get down to it, it’s amusingly appropriate that KL Studio Classics released A*P*E in a deluxe 3D Blu-ray edition mere days before the theatrical release of the blockbuster Kong: Skull Island; it’s a move totally in spirit with the rip-off nature of its making. It was, after all, a quickie production rushed into theaters to capitalize on the marketing bonanza of Dino DeLaurentis’s big-budget 1976 King Kong remake – and, along the way, attempting to grift moviegoers who’d made Jaws a hit the year before by promising a shark battle (“See A*P*E defy the JAWS of a giant shark,” the ads promised, unsubtly), and stylizing the tile to lure… M*A*S*H fans? (The acronym reportedly stood for Attacking Primate Monster, which, um.) They managed to get it into theaters two months before the DeLaurentis Kong, reportedly shooting a mere 14 days on a $23,000 budget. Yet if you watch the movie, you’ll still wonder what they spent all that time and money on.
Our story begins with the titular APM gassed and confined to a boat at sea, and as best as I can figure from the dialogue about how he got there (“Were you there in Harlem when they caught him?”), it’s supposed to be some sort of unofficial sequel to the big-budget remake it beat to theaters. Fairly immediately, the monster escapes, rocking and exploding what is clearly, clearly a toy boat before sloshing through the ocean and wrestling that shark; A*P*E may not give you much, but it gives you what you pay for right away. That said, there’s a bit of a question of scale – faux-Kong is 36 feet tall, we’re told, but he’s taking on a shark that’s barely any smaller. Where did that scary motherfucker come from, and where’s his movie?
Anyway, they splash around for a while as the bombastic score does its best to convince us this is all exciting, and then faux-Kong goes to tear apart some models of buildings for a while, and then we meet the “people” our story will concern: Tom (Rod Arrants), the dashing reporter who couldn’t be more ‘70s if he were wearing the Travolta Saturday Night Fever suit and carrying a vinyl copy of Frampton Comes Alive, and his lady love Marilyn Baker, a blonde actress (hmmm) played by Joanna DeVarona, who would change her last name to Kerns after appearing in A*P*E (wouldn’t you?), and before playing Maggie Seaver on Growing Pains.
She arrives in Korea to star in a movie with a suspiciously small crew, and a bit too much time is spent on their excessively dreary romance before she gets to her film set, which is soon invaded by faux-Kong (though not before he has a not-terribly-epic battle with an inexplicably giant python.) The military gets involved, in the form of a single Korean captain and a foul-mouthed American colonel (“Scientific phenomenon – bullshit!”) working out of a very sparsely dressed office. He first dismisses the ape reports as “a damn publicity stunt for a movie they’re making.” Later, he says of the creature, “If you should bump into him, ask him if his name is King Kong!” I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, RIP-OFF MOVIE.
Anyway, that’s the plot; most of the movie is endless scenes of people just running and yelling, to the merciless score – cues so monotonous, they make the Manos music seem comparatively rich and textured. The action occasionally, randomly goes into slow-motion, perhaps to help pad the slender running time (it runs 87 minutes, but there’s maybe 50 minutes of movie here). Oh, and then there’s all sorts of oogy exploration of the already sketchy subtext of attraction between the gorilla and his blonde actress: when they first “meet,” she vamps, “Be gentle, big fella,” to which he purrs (?!?!); Tom says of their chemistry, “I never thought I’d be getting jealous of a 36-foot ape!”; and once you see the leery way he first looks at Marilyn and then through a window at an undressing girl, the title of its 1982 grindhouse re-release starts to make sense.
(The PG rating kinda undercuts that one, though.)
A*P*E was truly an international affair, co-produced by lower-rung U.S. and South Korean companies and directed with spectacular incompetence by Paul Leder, who also appears as the director in the film-within-the-film. (Fun fact: Paul was the father of Mimi Leder, who would go on to play with much bigger toys as director of Deep Impact; she’s credited here as assistant director and unit photographer.) It is, as one might expect from its quickie schedule and tiny budget, not well made. The title creature’s rather obviously a guy in a gorilla suit; you can often see him through the eyeholes, and the poor costume looks like it’s been through the wash about three times too many. The film is so poorly lit, you can’t even make out the gorilla against the dark night sky – which doesn’t matter anyway, since the shots of him destroying fake buildings at night have been interspersed with cutaways of terrified pedestrians fleeing by day. The filmmakers seem to have used the crumpling of a plastic bag – the same cue of it, over and over – for the sound of buildings crumbling. Dialogue often seems recorded from the next room, with surface noise underneath that disappears in the silence between lines. A voice can be heard audibly calling “cut” at the end of one scene. And, again, the use of toys and models is comically obvious – particularly in the scene most emblematic of the filmmakers’ attitude towards their audience, in which our ape celebrates batting away a toy helicopter by gleefully flipping off the camera.
But A*P*E does have one thing going for it: it’s in 3D. Oh, boy, is it ever in 3D. It’s one of those 3D exploitation movies that proudly, shamelessly shows off the novelty at any and every opportunity; at various points, explosives, rifle barrels, a fallen electrical pole, a snake, and boulders (lotsa boulders, Seven Chances quantities of boulders) are thrust and lobbed right into lens, and I’m not even mentioning the martial arts scene that’s being shot for the movie-within-the-movie (which seems to have nothing to do with martial arts otherwise, but never mind), allowing wowie-zowie three-dimensional spears, feet, and flaming arrows. Hell, sometimes Leder will just put a giant, random tree branch in the foreground, lest a dimension go to waste.
I’ll own my soft spot for movies that treat their 3D like this. I’m set up for these discs, pretty much by accident; when I was buying my last Blu-ray player, the one with 3D capabilities was roughly the same price as the one without, and when I bought my last TV, the same thing happened. I frankly find the 3D theatrical experience more of an annoyance than anything else (and often a more expensive one to boot), but sort of love having it at home – not particularly for the 3D Blu-ray versions of the current blockbusters, or even the restorations of 3D classics. I’m enjoying the schlock that they’re making their way down to. A couple of months back, Kino-Lorber put out a Blu-ray 3D restoration of The Stewardesses, a mostly terrible movie that makes rather ingenious use of its stereoscopic tools for its softcore sex scenes; Twilight Time just put out a new restoration of the all-but-forgotten 3D Vincent Price picture The Mad Magician, another novelty picture filled with pop-out effects. These movies, in contrast to something like Captain America: Civil War or even Avatar, aren’t pretending like 3D is just a fancy immersive tool. They treat it like it is: a gimmick, to be shown off and exploited.
Kong: Skull Island, by the way, is also in 3D. Its production budget is reportedly $190 million – roughly 8,260 times that of A*P*E. I’ll be curious to see which one is more fun.