by Steve Habrat
After passing on directing duties for the 1955 Godzilla follow-up Godzilla Raids Again, director Ishiro Honda was reunited with his radioactive beast on the 1962 monster-against-monster epic King Kong vs. Godzilla. With Honda returning to the director’s chair, you’d think that sparks would fly as these two legendary names squared off against each other, but that certainly isn’t the case with King Kong vs. Godzilla. The third entry into the Godzilla franchise was probably the worst of the Toho Studios bunch at that point, but the film went on to be a megahit anyway. In America, King Kong vs. Godzilla was picked up by monster movie juggernaut Universal Studios, who further drove the film into the ground with distracting commentary sequences, horrible dubbing, inane dialogue, and even reused the bone chilling score from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The horror doesn’t stop there, folks, as King Kong vs. Godzilla ends up being a shoddy horror outing plagued by overacting and an outrageously awful portrayal of Kong, a monster who simultaneously scared us out of our wits and earned our sympathy in his 1933 debut King Kong.
King Kong vs. Godzilla begins with the chairman of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, Mr. Tako (played by Ichiro Arishima), trying to figure out how to market an exotic berry that was just discovered on Faro Island. Mr. Tako soon learns that Faro Island is the home of the legendary monster King Kong, a beast that he believes would make a great face for his new product. Mr. Tako sends two explorers, Osamu Sakurai (played by Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (played by Yu Fujiki), to track the giant ape down and capture it. Meanwhile, an American submarine studying bizarre oceanic conditions gets trapped in the same iceberg that the Japanese government buried Godzilla in several years earlier. Just as help arrives, Godzilla breaks free from the iceberg and stomps off. On Faro Island, Sakurai and Furue manage to make their way past the natives and an array of exotic creature and track down King Kong. The duo captures the beast and secures him on a raft for transport to Japan. Along the way, Kong manages to break loose and head off to find Godzilla, who turns out to be his ultimate rival.
A disjointed mess from the get-go, King Kong vs. Godzilla does away with the dark atmosphere of the first two films and reintroduces these two titans of terror in glorious color. The color certainly does give the film plenty of personality, but also reveals the tackiness of the special effects. There are moments when superimposed natives or soldiers actually glow blue as they dart around and scream at the feet of the rubber monsters. The once spectacular miniature sets are now cardboard metropolises with glaringly obvious remote-controlled plastic cars and shiny train sets. Honda was able to conceal some of the cheesier moments in Godzilla because he plunged everything into moody darkness, but here, everything is presented to the viewer in broad daylight, which reveals all the screws, tape, and glue. They make you long for the days when Japanese officials ordered a black out as the radioactive Godzilla lumbered through the builds and spat a jet of fire down on the terrified citizens in crisp black and white. The rural sets fare much better than the city sequences, but these moments are marred by the two worst performances from men in rubber suits that you may ever see.
First, let’s discuss Godzilla. As it turns out, Godzilla’s slightly redesigned costume here is the one that his diehard fans adore the most. While the changes are minor (Godzilla has three toes here rather than four, he is a bit bulkier, and the eyes appear to be a bit bigger), the costume looks relatively the same. He still looks fierce with those giant fins on his back that glow white when he gets ready to unleash his fiery stream. The problem is the person inside the suit, who just swings their arms around and does something resembling a dance when he confronts his ape nemesis. Kong’s costume is the real eyesore of the two beasts, mostly because it looks like a cheapie Halloween costume that the filmmakers picked up at a grocery store. The Kong mask looks like a misshapen blob that has been used for a painting palette and the costume itself looks like an early gorilla suit that was dug out of one of the crew member’s attic. It is also clear that when Kong pounds his chest, the actor is wearing fake hands to give the illusion of longer arms. It is like a sick joke when held up next to the original stop-motion Kong, who was a hell of a lot more menacing than anything we see here. Just when you think that Honda can’t desecrate the Kong character anymore, he then informs us that Kong uses lightning to strengthen him up. Um, what?!
As far as the showdowns go between the two beasts, nothing really stands out as being particularly entertaining or exciting. It is largely like the battle you saw in Godzilla Raids Again, just sillier, shorter and in color. The first time the two beasts actually stare each other down, Kong throws boulders at Godzilla and Godzilla swings his arms around like he is trying to fly away. Perhaps the neatest action sequence of the whole film is the scene in which Kong battles a giant squid on Faro Island. It has some slimy special effects and some icky sound work that will pucker your face. As far as our human characters go, no one does anything remarkable with their character. Arishima just looks dumbfounded behind giant glasses and Takashima and Fujiki are there simply to add unfunny comic relief to the playtime action. Mie Hama also drops by as Sakurai’s sister, Fumiko, who is here as a stand-in for the original King Kong’s Fay Wray. Overall, while it may have seemed like a good idea to try to bring together the two biggest names (literally) in horror, King Kong vs. Godzilla is an empty-headed clash of two titans who mix like oil and water. Honda never hits a stride and his Americanized vision is tarnished even further with unnecessary additions. Godzilla should have stayed frozen and Kong should have remained on Faro Island.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.