Giant Monsters, Phase One

And now a post in our month long series about classic horror we launched here, this one concerning giant monsters. We qualify our title with “phase one” for the obvious reason that there is a second, much more extensive phase, mostly encompassing the 1950s, when giant monsters would thrill audiences, almost all of them with an atomic radiation/ mutation premise. In this earlier phase the creatures are naturally occurring in isolated pockets of the world. A few decades later, film-makers could no longer make such claims even in fantasy — by then explorers had traversed the entire globe.

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The Lost World (1925)

Many people don’t know this, but in addition to creating the legendary character of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also created the “dinosaurs are still alive” genre. It’s the sort of thing we associate with Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, but Doyle planted his flag their first in his 1912 novel. A post on this interesting subgenre awaits . Younger people might assume it begins with Jurassic Park, but no, there have been latter-day-dinosaurs-run-amok movies throughout the cinema’s history.

The Lost World is a pivotal film in movie history due to its innovative  stop motion special effects, created by Willis O’Brien, who would later bring the technique to King Kong. On account of this, I first heard about the film as a kid, years before I ever saw it. It’s one of the first silent films I ever learned about.

The titular lost world is set on an isolated plateau in the Amazon jungle, where all manner of dinosaurs reside — as well as a race of “missing link” proto-humans. Following their adventures in the jungle, the team manages to bring a dinosaur back to London, where it of course escapes and wreaks havoc. Wallace Beery and Bessie Love are among the stars. The film was remade in 1960, 1992, 1997 and 2001, the latter version produced by John Landis. 

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King Kong (1933)

One of the most dream-like of all Hollywood films, an art deco fairy tale that plants itself in your head and sticks there. It’s impossible to assign a genre to it…more like a disaster movie in some ways  than a horror film, although that’s usually how it’s categorized (because it has a monster at its center and many gruesome deaths). And it is more like fantasy than science fiction. There is no basis, no precedent, no parallel in science for an ape of that proportion on planet earth. It doesn’t make any evolutionary sense. What does it eat besides maidens? Kong is more like a giant in children’s stories. And the Beauty and the Beast element gives it the potent overlay of Freudian sexuality to burn itself into your liminal head-space. They even turned Fay Wray into a blonde to seal the deal.

Another fairy tale element? Its simplicity. So hard to achieve: so few have attained it. It’s like the films of Chaplin, or another of my personal favorites King Vidor’s The Champ. An Ur-tale, a template.

Another of my favorite elements….like all the very best fantasies, its first act is extremely realistic, to lull your brain into believing. (An odd comparison, but The Exorcist is another film that uses that powerful technique). Ann Darrow’s Depression Era striving and starvation are what link us to her. We’re with her all the way….all the way to the top of the Empire State Building.

It’s so bloody powerful. I don’t even think I’ve seen it that many times in comparison with dozens of others of my favorite films, and yet I feel like I have every line, every picture, every angle memorized in my head.

Subsequent versions have sought to “update” King Kong, to improve it with better special effects, but that misses the point. Narrative films are about storytelling. You can tell a great story with a couple of sock puppets if you have the genius.

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 Son of Kong (1933)

It’s rare for me to dis a movie of this genre from this time period, but RKO  so clearly just dashed this one off – a bad precedent. This sequel was released only 9 months after the blockbuster original, but in comparison with that masterpiece this one is is beyond silly and disposable.

Son of Kong is set a month after the events of King Kong. Film-maker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is in hot water again. Countless people are suing him. Having nothing better to do, he agrees to take a job with the ship captain from the last film (Frank Reicher) on his boat. Just what his job will be on the boat is never explained . Along the way they pick up the inevitable girl stowaway (Helen Mack) and the man who gave Denham the original map to Skull Island (John Marston) and who now claims there’s treasure there (he’s on the lam from the law).  Will wonders never cease! This part of the plot takes way too long, it’s very rambling and leisurely.

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When they finally get to the island they find “Little Kong” (a spiritual ancestor of Godzuki) and have some cute, funny adventures involving prehistoric creatures. Then when they find the treasure, there is a simultaneous hurricane and earthquake, and the island is reclaimed

by the sea. Our heroes all escape alive with the help of Little Kong, who doesn’t. On the positive side they are all now rich and won’t have to make any more King Kong sequels.

That is…at least until….

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Mighty Joe Young (1949)

A sort of re-make of King Kong by the same creative team. (Kong had been re-released several times during the previous 16 years). Mighty Joe is smaller than Kong, looks to be about 12-15 feet tall. He is raised from a baby by a girl (Terry Moore) who grew up with him and is the only one who can control them. Kong star Robert Armstrong plays a nightclub impresario in this one, who wants to start a jungle themed club. He goes on safari with a troop of cowboys to catch animals. One of them is played by western star Ben Johnson, who romances the girl and becomes a friend to Joe.

Joe is a hit at the night club until some drunks taunt him and make him go berserk. He tears down the joint. Our friends try to escape with him before the authorities put him down. Along the way they pass a burning orphanage. Joe makes some daring rescues, and they spare his life. The heroes return to Africa. In comparison with King KongMighty Joe Young is much more like a children’s film — it contains a happy ending and there are no onscreen deaths.

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