The Disc That Wouldn’t Die: WHEN ANIMALS STRIKE BACK, VOLUME ONE

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In this ongoing SHOCK column, journo Trevor Parker sifts through discount stores for the cheapest and coolest DVD’s and Blu’s he can find and lives to tell the tale.

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One of the more amusing aspects of scrounging through delete bins for DVD goodies is how various studios repackage their unsold leftovers. Usually the racks are bowing under the weight of countless “chilling four-pack” DVD sets and the like, but often a more craven attempt to cram together old discs under a theme can be found. That’s the case with Paramount’s WHEN ANIMALS STRIKE BACK, VOLUME ONE (you can order it here), released a few years back. No explicit nature documentaries here; instead we receive old feature films starring the distinctly unnatural lineup of an ape behemoth, an ape genius, and a killer whale holding on to a pretty serious death grudge. The anonymous ANIMALS DVD sleeve designer chose to illustrate the threat posed by this deadly trio by pasting in an old stock photo of an adorable moppet terrorized by what appears to be a rogue parakeet. No matter, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, so let’s dig in…

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First up is KING KONG (1976), a remnant from the bygone era when a film’s director was considered to be of lesser import, and was consequently less famous, than the film’s producer. In KONG 76’s case, the director is the serviceable John (THE TOWERING INFERNO) Guillermin, while his producer happens to be the legendary Dino DeLaurentiis—that colorful and prolific Italian mastermind who brought the genre dozens of notable movies ranging from BARBARELLA to ARMY OF DARKNESS. Meryl Streep recently opened up on a British talk show about how she lost the lead of KONG ’76 once Di Laurentiis pronounced her “too ugly” during the KONG casting process. This anecdote shouldn’t impugn the talent possessed by the role’s eventual victor: a debutante, Jessica Lange. The role made famous by Fay Wray in 1933 here asks a dewy Lange to a) fill out a procession of skimpy costumes and b) deliver her ditzy lines in a breathy come-hither voice—and those two requirements are listed in order of priority. There’s an undeniable thrill in seeing a familiar actress in a wispily-written ‘eye candy’ part and know that they will one day knock audiences cold once provided with meatier material, as dual Oscar-winner Lange would do many times over her long career (those not convinced are advised to immediately check out her spiteful southern belle in the first season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY). Seeing Lange then as a fetching sylph flitting around jungle scenery is the equivalent of, say, watching Charlize Theron slink through the limp Tarantino-facsimile THREE DAYS IN THE VALLEY and knowing that she would one day dominate the screen as the magnificent Furiosa in George Miller’s MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.

 

The beats found in KONG’s three-act storyline are foolproof movie canon, and Guillermin wisely hews tightly to them; this KONG’s biggest deviation was to modernize the tale, as opposed to Peter Jackson’s slavish (and expensive) dedication in recreating depression-era New York City with his 2005 KING KONG retro-retelling. Guillermin’s cast is what elevates KONG ‘76, as the two human stars remain vital, bankable screen presences even four decades later. Along with the aforementioned Lange, Jeff (THE BIG LEBOWSKI) Bridges headlines as Jack Prescott, a scruffy primate researcher who stows away on an expeditionary freighter searching for deposits of crude oil in the South Pacific. The vessel manages to scoop up a life raft, adrift in the open sea and containing Lange’s bubbleheaded society girl Dwan (sic), before the expedition’s fussy boss played by Charles (MIDNIGHT RUN) Grodin leads the crew off to explore a hidden island. The island houses a rather large and hairy secret—an overgrown ape prone to crushing; as poor Dwan soon discovers, that’s a crush meant both literally and figuratively.

Filmed smack in-between the heydays of stop motion and computer animation, KONG ’76 should satisfy those who complained that Jackson’s keyboard-constructed Kong lacked the soul and character of Willis O’Brien’s painstaking model movements. Here, a number of techniques like matte shots and miniatures are merged to bring KONG to life; the results range in their effectiveness, but overall manage to pull of the grand illusion of a giant ape run amok. E.T.’s Carlo Rambaldi (with an assist by Rick Baker, who was reportedly disappointed with the final result) and his team built an expressive, lifelike mechanical face for Kong‘s close-up emoting, and a full-scale hand for Lange to be plopped into. There are a number other notable elements other than effects and cast to colour this satisfying version of cinema’s oddest romantic tragedy. For one, it’s a beautiful sight to see the World Trade Center towers immortalized in the film, replacing the Empire State building as the locale of Kong’s final ascent. Kong’s climatic battle with attack helicopters is surprisingly gory, and isn’t that Walt Gorney, FRIDAY THE 13TH’s beloved Crazy Ralph, appearing in a quick cameo as a train driver? Paramount’s bare-bones disc does feature a decent transfer to showcase Richard (STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE) Kline’s sharp cinematography, and is clear enough to catch a disobedient extra waving frantically at the camera in the final crowd scene.

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A second DeLaurentiis offering included in the ANIMALS set is ORCA (1977), a drastic dip in quality after KONG and yet another soggy constituent of the post-JAWS glut of aquatic creature rip-offs. ORCA has Richard (CAMELOT) Harris playing Nolan, an A-hole Ahab who sets his fishing trawler to harangue a pod of killer whales, in hopes of snatching a healthy male up and pawning it to an aquarium for a hefty bounty. During his pursuit, Nolan unintentionally mangles a pregnant female whale, earning him the undying ire of the female’s aggrieved mate. Nolan retreats to his quaint Newfoundland harbor home while the crazed cetacean plots a course of vengeance; he hopes to goad Nolan into a seaborne showdown by periodically breaching the ocean surface and snatching any errant crewmember dumb enough to leave a limb dangling over the side.

Harris, ragged and unlikable in the role, is one of those rare birds incapable of delivering a bad performance—his melancholy portrayal of a flawed old barnacle railing against his inevitable desserts singlehandedly saves ORCA from devolving entirely into camp. That save is no small feat, with ORCA’s questionable grasp of marine science (Is the chilly north Atlantic really the best place to study or hunt Great White sharks?), and hilarious overestimation of whale intelligence. According to ORCA, these conniving mammals are perfectly capable of identifying fuel lines, deliberately bumping oil lanterns on top of those lines, and would then fling themselves into the air to celebrate the resulting explosion. Another point working against ORCA is that killer whales don’t cut a particularly frightening figure, especially when taken in the time since BLACKFISH re-educated the public on the plight of these sensitive animals. Whereas a shark is easy to demonize—essentially mindless munching machines made up of little more than fins and jagged teeth, Orcas seem sleek and enigmatic, and the film showcases gorgeous footage of them cavorting through the waves accompanied by hypnotic musical cooing written by the great Ennio Morricone. Not quite as impressive are the shots of mechanical whales that Director Michael (LOGAN’S RUN) Anderson has to work with; he can’t have been very confident in them as his kill sequences are confusing sneezes of choppy split-second editing requiring multiple rewinds to decipher.  Editing proves a consistent problem throughout the rest of ORCA as well, with scenes glued together by infrequent and awkward expository voice-overs from Charlotte Rampling’s hand-wringing biologist character.

ORCA is no sniff on JAWS, but it could sure do for JAWS: THE REVENGE in that it too boasts a slumming star, a nonsensical nautical revenge plot, marine life roaring and caterwauling like a lion caught in an electric fence, and some comically inauthentic accents provided by supporting cast members (seriously, every lilt and twang possible is heard here except that spoken by actual Newfoundlanders).

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Finally, CONGO (1995). Any fans that may have caught CONGO co-star Bruce Campbell’s convention floor schtick will be familiar with his withering appraisal of the finished product. To paraphrase Bruce: Hollywood took a novel by JURASSIC PARK’s Michael Crichton, had it adapted for the screen by MOONSTRUCK’s Oscar-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, hired decorated producer of blockbusters and the acclaimed director of ALIVE and ARACHNOPHOBIA Frank Marshall to shepherd the project, and signed off on a cast led by future Oscar nominee Laura Linney that’s also peppered with fan favorites like Tim (IT) Curry, Ernie (GHOSTBUSTERS) Hudson, and Campbell himself. The result, Campbell says like a punchline, was CONGO. Campbell’s point was to illustrate how even projects with the soundest of pedigrees can result in the birth of a turkey, though it turns out that his judgement is a little on the harsh side.

CONGO’s storyline, much like KONG 76’s, has an expedition off hunting in the jungle for a natural resource to exploit—here it’s special diamonds needed to power a communications laser array. Contact is mysteriously lost with the expedition, and so a second team led by Dr. Ross (Linney) is flown into the deepest Congolese wilds to track the first crew down. Tagging along is a shady fortune hunter (Curry), and, again like KONG, a primate researcher (Dylan Walsh of the horrendous STEPFATHER remake), hoping to return his star gorilla pupil Amy to her African homeland. Once there, the new group stumble upon the source of the diamonds, as well as shadowy guardians that have protected the secret for millennia.

The gripes to place against CONGO are many, and foremost of these is the cast: Where KONG had a pair of magnetic lead actors, CONGO is saddled with the opposite: Linney is bland in her underwritten role, while Walsh is drippy and uncharismatic. Marshall’s decision to forego the typical square-jawed charm of a Harrison Ford or even Campbell (who was in the running for the CONGO lead, but had to settle for a cameo) by casting the more cerebral-looking Walsh succeeded in differentiation, but Walsh is dwarfed onscreen by the far more entertaining supporting cast. Curry provides a needed comic boost (his exchange with an uncredited Delroy Lindo playing an African warlord is a highlight), and Hudson does well as the expedition’s guide—despite having some dialogue so wretched that a stench cloud might emit from the vents in the side of your television when it hits. (Sample groaner: “I’ll be your ‘Great White Hunter” for this trip”, states Hudson, then adds, “Though I happen to be black.)  CONGO is also bound by a hoary, pulpy old plot; the whole ‘virtuous learning a new respect for the natural world while the greedier intruders receive their comeuppance’ was already tired out in Aesop’s day.

CONGO’s pace is snappy, though the final antagonists don’t make an appearance until far too deep into the film, making the bulk of the movie more a travelling safari picture. The gore is amped up from JURASSIC PARK’s severed Sam Jackson arm, testing the PG-13 rating with decapitations, eyeball removal, and a gorilla cut clean in half. Even at its worst, CONGO makes for a decent Saturday afternoon time-waster, sitting in the mid-range of forgotten films that belong to the JURASSIC PARK era Crichton resurgence; not as terrible as RISING SUN or TIMELINE, but nowhere near the underrated 13th WARRIOR. Where CONGO does exceed itself is in the gorilla suits built by Stan Winston studios for the film, and the talented suit performers that enliven them. The little gorilla Amy is a hyper-realistic marvel, and it’s a shame that practical work this fine is buried within a film saddled with such a poor reputation.

With ORCA as the only one out of the WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK, VOLUME ONE herd sitting below par, the set is a decent find for bargain seekers. Now can someone explain why Paramount thought VOLUME TWO of the ANIMALS series would make a good home for three supernatural Stephen King adaptations from the Eighties?

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