Ranking the King Kong Films

When King Kong came out in 1933, I doubt that anyone thought it would be a film that would continue to resonate for over 80 years. Throughout the years it has had reboots, remakes and sequels of those films. There have been four separate film series and one standalone, in that time.

The original King Kong spawned Son of Kong the same year.

In the 1960s, King Kong vs. Godzilla spawned its own sequel King Kong Escapes.

The Dino de Laurentiis 70s remake, also just called King Kong, spawned a sequel in the 80s, King Kong Lives.

Coming off of the heels of his success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson did his own remake in 2005. That was the first to not get the sequel treatment.

Then, earlier this year, we got Kong: Skull Island, which leads into Kong’s eventual meeting of Godzilla in an upcoming joint sequel between the American versions of the two monsters.

So with all these King Kong pictures, I figured that I would weigh them against each other and attempt to rank them. While I’m sure everyone won’t agree with me, that’s what makes these sort of lists fun.

And now, the list!

1. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
2. King Kong (1933)
3. King Kong (1976)
4. King Kong Escapes (1967)
5. Kong: Skull Island (2017)
6. Son of Kong (1933)
7. King Kong Lives (1986)
8. King Kong (2005)

Film Review: Varan the Unbelievable (1958)

Also known as: Daikaijū Baran, lit. Giant Monster Varan (Japan)
Release Date: October 14th, 1958 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Ken Kuronuma
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Kozo Nomura, Ayumi Sonoda, Fumio Matsuo, Koreya Senda, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 87 Minutes

Review:

Varan the Unbelievable was a kaiju film that I was never a big fan of. It was a total drudge to get through. However, I had only seen the English language version, which is vastly different than its original Japanese counterpart.

The American version is a short 68 minutes or so but it is edited into a completely different film and lacks the suspense and the terror that makes the Japanese version infinitely superior. The American version was also bogged down by a love story between an American soldier and a Japanese girl that felt forced and superficial.

The Japanese version, which is the one I just watched and for the first time, was an absolute delight. Finally, I got to see the monster Varan in the way that his creators intended. He was menacing, looked terrifying with his dagger like spikes and he felt like a real credible threat.

The film was made by the Toho dream team of Ishirō Honda (the director), Eiji Tsuburaya (the special effects maestro) and Akira Ifukube (the greatest kaiju film composer of all-time). While these three worked together quite often over a decade or so, one could always rest assured that when the three were a part of the creative process, as a unit, you were certainly going to get a quality kaiju epic.

Unlike most of the earlier Toho kaiju pictures, this one doesn’t recycle a lot of the acting talent. The only notable cast member in relation to their work with Toho is Koreya Senda, who played Dr. Sugimoto. He also worked in the other Toho pictures The H-Man and Battle In Outer Space, neither of which were kaiju movies but fit the general tokusatsu genre.

The film plays out similarly to the original Godzilla picture. A monster appears, gets hellapissed and decides to take his anger out on humans. The majority of the story is Varan fighting the military, as the heroes try to find a way to get rid of the giant beast.

There are some fantastic looking scenes. The one that shows Varan taking shelter underwater as the military drops depth charges is marvelous. Also, the scene where the military is dropping poison into the lake is beautifully shot and vivid, even in black and white.

The miniature work is good for a black and white picture, as it hides some of the imperfections but ultimately, Tsuburaya’s work wasn’t as good as it would become once Toho switched to making all these films in color.

Varan is an evil looking creature and he can take flight similar to a flying squirrel. Additionally, he would also go on to live in the Godzilla mythos as he appeared years later in Destroy All Monsters and the Nintendo video game Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, where he was the boss of one of the stages and continued to appear throughout the game.

Varan isn’t as popular as Godzilla, Mothra or Rodan but he is similar in that he got a solo debut film. While he didn’t appear as sporadically as the other three kaiju, that may have been a missed opportunity for Toho. A straight up Varan versus Godzilla showdown would have been interesting to see.

If you can get a hold of the Japanese version of the film, you definitely should check it out. If all you can find is the awful American version, put it back on the shelf. The easiest way to tell the difference is the running time, as the American version has twenty minutes chopped off.

Book Review: ‘The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: Vol. 2: 1984-2014’ by John LeMay

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: Vol. 2 is a perfect continuation of what started in the first volume.

The first volume, which I have already reviewed, covered kaiju films through the Shōwa period. That is the era that most people are familiar with when it comes to the Godzilla and Gamera franchises.

This second volume covers the Heisei and Millennium eras. These are the films that were part of the attempts to resurrect the franchises in the 80s and 90s. They are lesser known in the United States but still beloved kaiju pictures.

John LeMay wrote this book in the exact same format as the previous one and I’m a fan of the way he organizes his information. He lists out the essential credits (similar to how I start my film reviews), then he gives a rundown of the plot, goes into the history and production of the film and then caps off each section with some trivia tidbits.

LeMay does a fantastic job of providing real context to each film he talks about. Also, the trivia bits are usually filled with facts that even I, someone who has been immersed in kaiju films for decades, didn’t know.

There are a lot of books you can get about kaiju movies but this and its predecessor are must owns for loyal fans of the genre.

Film Review: Gorath (1962)

Also known as: Yōsei Gorasu, lit. Rogue Star Gorath (Japan)
Release Date: March 21st, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Jojiro Okami, Takeshi Kimura
Music by: Kan Ishii
Cast: Ryo Ikebe, Yumi Shirakawa, Takashi Shimura, Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Ken Uehara, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 89 Minutes

Review:

Gorath is an old school Toho sci-fi epic from 1962. I’m a huge fan of Toho but this is a film that has eluded me until now. I had heard of it and seen stills of its sole kaiju, the giant walrus Maguma, but it isn’t an easy film to track down. I ended up having to get a bootleg version of it on DVD with Japanese dialog and English subtitles. Luckily, it was in glorious HD and I was able to truly enjoy this picture for the first time.

While the movie does have a kaiju, he only appears for roughly six minutes towards the end of the film. He also just mostly roars and presents a sort of roadblock for the heroes trying to save Earth from a rogue star that is soon to collide with it.

The kaiju suit is passable but nothing really spectacular. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director, reused the Maguma suit for a kaiju named Todola in his Ultra Q television series (the show that started the Ultraman franchise that is still going strong today).

In general, Tsuburaya’s special effects are spectacular. His miniature work is great, the killer star Gorath looked pretty sinister and the the rocket ship sequences, while very dated now, look better than what was the norm for the time.

The highlight of the film for me is the opening fifteen minutes or so where we see the first rocketship confronting Gorath. It is a mission doomed for failure but the crew are able to get vital information back to Earth, giving the world’s leaders time to prepare for what could very well be the planet’s destruction.

The rocketship interiors are beautifully designed and have a certain quality that puts Gorath out in front of other Toho sci-fi extravaganzas. I wish there were more sequences that utilized the rocketship set.

Even though the highlight for me was the beginning, the rest of the film plays out really well. We get a lot of debate between the smartest men in the United Nations in a series of scenes that play out similarly to 2016’s Shin Godzilla, where politicians and scientists try to find ways to stop the threat destined to destroy their world.

The film also stars several of Toho’s regular actors: Yumi Shirakawa (Rodan, The MysteriansThe H-Man), Takashi Shimura (Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, The Mysterians, Mothra, Ghidroah, the Three Headed Monster, Frankenstein Conquers the World), Akira Kubo (Matango, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Space Amoeba), Kumi Mizuno (The Three Treasures, Matango, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers the World, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, The War of the Gargantuas, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, Godzilla: Final Wars) and Ken Uehara (Mothra, Atragon).

Originally, there was no plan for a kaiju monster in this film but since Toho had more success with giant monsters in their movies, Maguma was added in at the last minute. Additionally, Maguma’s scenes were removed from the American version of the film and scenes with American actors were sprinkled in, similar to the US version of Gojira known in the States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Gorath is a great special effects spectacle. It re-teamed Toho’s star director Ishirō Honda and special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya and is one of their greatest films that isn’t associated with the Godzilla series that they kick started and worked on for years.

Finally seeing this picture, I was really impressed with it. In fact, it made me wish that Toho spent a lot more time making straight up sci-fi films. Of course, not at the expense of kaiju pictures but Toho just had great skill in creating science fiction. Gorath is exciting and just a really cool motion picture to look at and soak in.

Film Review: Rodan (1956)

Also known as: Sora no Daikaijū Radon, lit. Radon, Giant Monster of the Sky (Japan)
Release Date: December 26th, 1956 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Ken Kuronuma, Takeshi Kimura, Takeo Murata
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 82 Minutes

Review:

Rodan was a very pivotal movie in the long history of Toho’s cinematic legacy.

While Rodan, the monster, isn’t as famous as Godzilla or Mothra, he is one of the good guys and an ally to both of those kaiju against the evil monsters that started showing up later.

Rodan’s film though, is one of the best kaiju pictures ever made and it opened the door and set the stage for what was to come from Toho in the future.

To start, Rodan was the first kaiju film to be filmed and released in color. It wasn’t Toho’s first color movie though, as that honor goes to the previous year’s The Legend of the White Serpent (a.k.a. Madame White Snake). While that film was within the tokusatsu genre, it did not feature a kaiju monster. Also, it was co-produced with the Shaw Brothers out of Hong Kong. So in actuality, Rodan is the first color film Toho produced by themselves.

There are also a few interesting facts about the film’s American release. For starters, it was the first Japanese motion picture to get a wide release on the West Coast, which did wonders for its success in the States. Also, it had the biggest TV advertising campaign, up to that time, for New York’s massive NBC affiliate WRCA-TV. The marketing campaign featured a contest to challenge kids to quickly draw Rodan, while an outline of the character appeared on television sets.

As a film, Rodan is quite spectacular. Being the first color kaiju picture, it has a real grittiness to it. While the picture quality isn’t as pristine as the Toho films after it, it has a realism to it, visually. In fact, it kind of has the visual tone of a spaghetti western.

Additionally, Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work, especially the miniatures come off as more authentic looking, as the bit of graininess hides the imperfections better than the clearer Toho films after this.

The effects of the flying Rodan were well executed, even though there was some trouble on the set and one of the stuntmen in the Rodan suit had a major accident. Luckily he wasn’t hurt and the film turned out fine.

The jet fighter sequences were all well shot and well executed. The big battle between the jets and Rodan was impressive for a 1956 movie, not to mention something from Japan that lacked the budget of an American picture.

The only other monsters in this film were some subterranean bugs that were the size of an adult hippopotamus. The bugs were picking off miners underground and started to make their way to the surface but once Rodan showed up, he treated them like gas station sushi. Sayonara, bugs!

Rodan is capped off by one of the most depressing endings in kaiju film history. While the speech is great and the message clear, it is sad seeing the fate of the film’s creatures. Knowing that Rodan would be a protector of Earth and an ally to Godzilla and Mothra against much larger threats, also changes the perspective of the ending quite a bit.

Rodan was the first kaiju movie I ever saw that didn’t feature Godzilla. It was given to me for free from this girl I was crushing on at my local video store circa 1987 or so. I think she liked me but I was eight years-old and she was a teenager. But if Padme can get the hots for toddler Anakin, why can’t video store girl get the hots for my little kaiju-loving self? She got fired a few weeks later for stealing.

Film Review: Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Also known as: Gojira tai Megaro (Japan), Godzilla 80 (France)
Release Date: March 17th, 1973 (Japan)
Directed by: Jun Fukuda
Written by: Takeshi Kimura, Shinichi Sekizawa, Jun Fukuda
Music by: Riichiro Manabe
Cast: Katsuhiko Sasaki, Hiroyuki Kawase, Yutaka Hayashi, Robert Dunham, Kotaro Tomita, Ulf Ootsuki, Gentaro Nakajima

Toho, 81 Minutes

Review:

Godzilla vs. Megalon is the first Godzilla film that I ever owned. I remember buying a copy on VHS at Walmart in a discount bin for about $4 in the late 80s. While it wasn’t the first Godzilla film that I saw, it always held a special place in my heart, being that I bought it with my own money and that I watched it more than any other Godzilla film when I was a kid.

It was also cool seeing it riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, as only one of two Godzilla films to get that treatment. The other was Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster a.k.a. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep.

This is a Godzilla film that came later in the original Shōwa era run. It is often trashed by fans of classic Godzilla pictures but I actually quite enjoy it for the cast of monsters in it and for the extra helping of cheese. Who doesn’t like extra cheese? Apparently many Godzilla fans and critics are lactose intolerant.

The thing is, I discovered Godzilla movies when I was a young kid, so cheesiness wasn’t even an issue. Godzilla vs. Megalon really only works if you can just kick back, enjoy a tag team giant monster slugfest and laugh your ass off at some of the absurdity: like when Godzilla does his infamous tail slide maneuver.

The film not only gives us Godzilla and the new monster, Megalon, it also introduces the robot Jet Jaguar and brings back one of my all-time favorite Godzilla baddies, Gigan. Also, Jet Jaguar was created by a small child when Toho held a contest that allowed school children in Japan to submit ideas for characters. While he is obviously inspired by Ultraman and similar tokusatsu heroes that were ruling television, he is very much his own character and kind of cool. Besides, Godzilla had teamed up with Mothra and Rodan so many times that a new ally was needed to keep things fresh, thirteen films into the franchise.

At this point, Godzilla had fought alien threats so often that Toho changed things a little bit. Here, we see the world come under attack by a subterranean group called the Seatopians, who are a civilization that grew out of the survivors of an ancient continent that was swallowed by the ocean. The Seatopians control the beetle-like Megalon and send him to Earth to cause havoc, as the Seatopians are sick of how humanity treats the planet. Jet Jaguar gets involved, summons Godzilla and then the Seatopians call for reinforcements in the form of Gigan. What we end up with is a two-on-two tag team smackdown.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is a fun film with some great monster action. It also has a pretty good score even if it wasn’t done by Akira Ifukube and didn’t feature any traditional Godzilla tunes. The style of the film was pretty cool, especially the house that the scientist lived in where Jet Jaguar was built. Our heroes even drive a pretty sweet buggy and tangle with mafioso types from Seatopia.

This certainly is not the best Godzilla film ever made, far from it, but like almost every Godzilla picture, it entertains and is a positive experience. You can’t expect these films to be flawless epics with dazzling effects, at least not from this era.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is hokey kaiju fighting at its very best though. It excels with its silliness and by this point, these films were being made for kids. It works for kids. But it also works for adults who saw this as kids or who can just chill out, relax and appreciate this for what it is: mindless fun with giant monsters.

Film Review: Mothra (1961)

Also known as: Mosura (Japan)
Release Date: June 30th, 1961 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Shinichi Sekizawa
Based on: a story in Asahi Shimbun by Shinichiro Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga, Yoshie Hotta
Music by: Yuji Koseki
Cast: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyoko Kagawa, The Peanuts, Ken Uehara, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 101 Minutes

Review:

Mothra is the most famous Toho kaiju after Godzilla. Even though he started out in this film, his very own movie, it was probably a nobrainer to bring him into the larger Godzilla mythos. But before all that, there was Mothra and frankly, it was great revisiting this monster in his debut solo flick.

In a change of pace, Mothra’s introduction is due to people messing with his island. He doesn’t come to Japan because he’s just some rampaging beast. A bunch of jerks stole the Shobijin, who are two miniature female twins from Infant Island. Mothra crashes Japan to find the Shobijin and to return them to their home.

The special effects are amazingly handled by Eiji Tsuburaya. The miniatures were great and the heat ray trucks were a prototype for the maser weapon trucks that would be used throughout Godzilla films forever after this movie.

Mothra, as a creature, was the most beautiful and ornate kaiju of his day. Tsuburaya pulled off the creature effects superbly and the art department did a fine job in decorating the monster.

It is more fun to see Mothra rough it up with other monsters but even though he is the only creature in this film, it still plays well. It is similar to Rodan in that it didn’t need to rely on other kaiju to be a success and to leave a mark on the genre.

To this day, Mothra is still incredibly popular. A version of the creature also had its own trilogy in the late 1990s, after popping up in that era’s Godzilla movies.

Mothra will probably just always be around. In fact, Mothra’s first American incarnation is coming in Legendary Pictures’ upcoming Godzilla 2.

As for Mothra, the movie, if you are a kaiju fan, this is a must-see.