A*P*E (1976)

A*P*E (1976)
Director: Paul J. Leder
TC4P Rating: 2/9

"Imagine. Almost 36 feet tall... wow..." - Freighter mate on ship transporting A*P*E across the ocean at start of film.

You are going to run into this film on just about any "So Bad You've Gotta See It!"-type of site or book... and yeah, it is... and yeah, you gotta see it. Its fecundity is only matched by its stupidity, but in its tattered, zipper-up-the-back way, its actually quite clever. But only if director Paul Leder actually meant the film to be this bad. Could there be a chance that this chintzy, decrepit South Korean production is actually the most brilliant spoof in the history of movies? A film that not only mocks giant ape movies and current movie trends, but does it in the way that most common citizens "think" of or expect giant ape movies to be? Is the entire film a complete put on, and to a large degree, a cynical attempt to flip off the audience (which the big simian does at one point, though story-wise, he is actually flipping off the attacking military helicopters) and separate you from your money at the same time?

Hard to tell, but I'm banking on it just being a dumb, bad example of low-budget inept filmmaking. Not just a stumbling attempt to remake King Kong (and definitely tied to the fact that Dino de Laurentiis was legally filming his own remake around the same time for release in the same year), all the while mocking the big guy within the film to show the distance between the two apes, A*P*E also takes aim at a couple of other cultural phenomenons of the 1970s.

In the opening sequence of the film, after the ape (who is never given a proper nickname in the course of its action -- a supreme mistake on the part of Leder -- ALWAYS name your monster...) tears apart the bathtub-grade ocean liner in which he is being transported from his unseen and unremarked upon island home, the ape then immediately, without any buildup or reason, battles a giant shark to the death. Well, it would be "to the death", but the giant shark had clearly been dead long before the cameras started rolling, and the guy in the ape-suit has to do a lot of splashing and thrashing about with the shark's body in the shallow waters in which he is standing to make us believe even for a second that water is still flowing through the shark's gills, thus allowing the fish to breathe. Which the ape-suit actor absolutely fails at accomplishing. But there, in the first two minutes of the movie, Leder has not only invoked the imagery of King Kong in the viewers' minds, but has also included Jaws, of which there was still quite a mania in the media at the time.

The other cultural reference? This is never mentioned -- at least, I have yet to run across it -- but while many sites (including IMDB) note the title as Ape, every video copy I have ever run across (and every film guide as well) has given the film's proper name as A*P*E. Since the film was made (and takes place) in South Korea, to me it seems to be quite obvious that the title is a reference to one of the biggest TV shows of the era (or any era, for that matter): M*A*S*H, the show (and book and movie) with military stars between the letters of its titular acronym and which also took place in Korea. If, indeed, this is intentional and meant subliminally, then it is by far the most subtle thing that Mr. Leder ever attempted in his career.

On top of title concerns and clumsy film mash-ups, Leder also chose to make the film in that cherished format which gets a resurgence now and then, especially when filmmakers are exceedingly desperate for attention: 3-D. Now, I love 3-D, but for much of mankind, it's more the idea of 3-D that is so agreeable, not necessarily the execution. I have yet to see this film in 3-D, but it is easy to see the bits that are supposed to thrill you in this manner. Arrows, helicopters... all manner of effluvia come flying at the screen and are meant to rock you back in your seat.

And speaking of rock... there is the finale of the film where the ape engages the army in a massive battle, and the monstrous ape flings a series of rocks down from his mountaintop stand. Yes, there are visible wires on the rocks as they glide not so smoothly towards the camera, just as there are visible wires on just about every flying thing in this movie. But the beautiful part is that Leder (who also edited the film) uses the exact same gliding rock shot three times in a row! Talk about filmmaking economy! Best of all are the shots of the soldiers walking straight out at the audience, stabbing their rifles in your face over and over again. This makes little sense unless the audience is supposed to have the ape's viewpoint, and if they did, they would be looking down on the soldiers. In other words... brilliance.

I could literally fill this blog for days remarking on the problems with size and scale in this film. Yes, one can imagine he is "almost 36 feet tall... wow...", but not when he is suddenly towering over 20-story tall buildings. But this film is not about such minor concerns. It's about worldly matters and heartfelt emotions. When the ape meets his fate at the hands of the cruel military, the third-rate Fay Wray actress character (played by a pre-Growing Pains Joanna Barnes, known here as "DeVarona") mentions sadly that "It's just too big for a small world like ours."

Instead, I'd like to yet again invoke the words of the freighter mate, who followed up his "wow..." remark with this one of stunned surprise when A*P*E escapes the freighter:

"Oh... shit..."

RTJ

[Originally posted on The Cinema 4 Pylon on the same date under the title: Yeah, I Sat Through It Again: A*P*E (1976)]
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