International Weirdness : “Kong Island”

Posted: February 15, 2013 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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1968′s Kong Island (or,according to its ad posters, King Of Kong Island — but since the opening titles for the film itself omit the “King Of” part, we’re going with the shorter name), an Italian-Spanish co-production unleashed on American audiences by legendary exploitation maestro Dick Randall, is a flick that spends a lot of time trying to be many different things, but can never escape — or,  for that matter, even effectively disguise — what it actually is. And if all of that sounds confusing, don’t worry — so is the movie.

Not that it should be, mind you — the story itself is, as you’d probably expect, a pretty straightforward piece of business : a group of mad scientists led by one Albert Muller (Marc Lawrence) has holed up on a place called Kong Island to conduct some evil experiments on the local gorilla population. Specifically, they’re trying to implant receptors into their brains so they can control their thoughts and actions and, assuming this all pans out, unleash them upon the world and take over everything after their global ape war has run its course.  Hey, we all gotta dream, right?

Complicating things — to the extent that a movie like this can even be said to have “complications” — is savage jungle girl Eva (Esmerleda Barros), who was raised by the Kong Island primates and has taken it upon herself to stop all this sordid business with the help of  good guy American explorer/mercenary Burt Dawson (Brad Harris), who was cruelly double-crossed (as in, shot)  by Muller and is out, as I’m sure you’ve already figured,  for revenge.

Like I said, sounds simple enough, right? The problem is, screenwriter/director Roberto Mauri has an annoying habit of picking up go-nowhere subplots that he discards just as easily (hence the “go nowhere” bit), and even more annoyingly, can’t seem to settle upon exactly what type of movie he wants to make in the first place. Is Kong Island a Z-grade horror flick with guys in thoroughly unconvincing ape suits? Is it a (semi-) nudie cutie?  A straightforward jungle-adventure pic? A National Geographic-style compendium of stock footage to make you believe the whole thing is taking place on a remote East African island rather than in Italy?

As stated (obliquely, I grant you) at the outset, it’s really a haphazard mash-up of all these styles and genres, but in the end, it succeeds at none of them because it can’t ever be anything else than what it  is — that being, of course, an ultra- cheap celluloid turd.

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Fortunately, it’s also a rather enjoyable ultra-cheap celluloid turd. It’s kinda fun watching Mauri throw a lot of shit at the walls to see what sticks — even if none of it does. And the extent to which he’s willing to go out of his way to make an absolute mess of a simple “Point A to Point B” plot is often delightfully dizzying. The whole thing has a frenetic-at-best/schizophrenic-at-worst feel to it, and even when absolutely nothing is happening (which is pretty often), Mauri is still busting his ass trying to put lipstick on a pig, and failing at it miserably.  If you enjoy seeing a guy spend 85 minutes shooting himself in the foot at every possible opportunity, then Kong Island is bound to be right up your alley.

Ya gotta feel for Marc Lawrence, too — here’s a guy who actually did a fair amount of genuinely respectable work back in the day, then ran into blacklisting problems with the McCarthyites and spent a good number of years in exile, picking up whatever gigs he could. When he eventually returned stateside his career was pretty much in ruins (even if they were no longer smoldering), and he wrote, directed, and starred in the genuinely gripping exploitation psycho-drama Pigs. For that alone he deserves our undying respect and gratitude, and while seeing him slumming in something like this is kind of a drag, it also has the effect of  making my own personal appreciation for the quiet triumph he would grace us all with a handful of years later that much more profound.

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Kong Island is now property of the public domain — which is to say, nobody — and is therefore available on multiple fronts in the DVD format. all of which are, I’m quite confident, roughly the same quality-wise. I caught it paired with Don Dohler’s The Galaxy Invader as part of Alpha Video’s “Grindhouse Double Shock Show” series, which set me back a cool $1.99 (new, at that). It’s presented full-frame, and both the picture and mono sound are, I would assume more or less completely unremastered. There are no extras to speak of apart from the trailer (although if you’re actually considering purchasing this thing it should be noted, in fairness, that The Galaxy Invader features a commentary track from cult favorite actor George Stover).

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My understanding is that the original Italian title for Kong Island translates as Eva, The Savage Girl, and while that’s certainly more truthful and appropriate, let’s be honest — it’s a lot less fun, and probably would’ve made Dick Randall less money.  When you’ve got a hodge-podge of “what the fuck is this?”-ness on your hands like this, ya gotta hustle it off  any way ya can, and playing the King Kong angle, even if it’s a bit of a stretch, is bound to park a few butts in the seats. How long they’ll actually stay there is anybody’s guess, of course, but shit — once they’ve paid for their tickets, and old-school huckster like Randall’s job is done.

Still, if I were around back in ’68, I’d have stuck it out, and I’m willing to bet that plenty of folks did — after all, don’t we all slow down for car wrecks?

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