Friday, December 9, 2005

KING KONG VERSUS GODZILLA

"The most colossal conflict the screen has ever known!"

Willis O'Brien, the special effects genius behind the original KONG, spent much of his life trying to put together a film project that would allow him to repeat and perhaps surpass his accomplishments on the 1933 classic. Unfortunately, most of those plans would go unrealized, and the one that did get made definitely didn't go as he planned.

At some point in the mid-Sixties, he approached producer Jerry Beck with a screenplay entitled KING KONG VS. PROMETHEUS, which pitted the gargantuan gorilla against a freakishly large Frankenstein monster. Beck tried to get the film off the ground for years before finally approaching Japan's Toho Studios. Toho was interested, but only in the idea of pitting the legendary Kong against their own massive mon-star, the Big G himself, Godzilla.

KING KONG VERSUS GODZILLA (KINGU KONGU TAI GOJIRA, 1962) was the final result, the third in the long-running Godzilla franchise, and the first in color. Universal has just released a new, restored version of the American cut on DVD, and it looks better than ever.

A nuclear submarine crashes into an iceberg and releases a slumbering Godzilla, which promptly heads for Japan. A Japanese corporation discovers King Kong on Farou Island, and brings him back to Japan. Godzilla tramples some buildings. Kong breaks free, grabs a girl and tramples some buildings. Then the two monsters meet and decide to battle for the privilege of trampling more buildings. Fight! Fight!

There's a little bit more to the story, but not much. Disappointingly, the monster sequences are done in Toho's usual man-in-suit technique (although there is one quick stop-motion shot), and while the Godzilla costume is one of the best, the Kong suit is terrible, with a grotesque caricature of a face, and mangy brown fur.

Fans who were hoping to finally get a look at the uncut Japanese version of this legendary smackdown will be disappointed by Universal's new DVD, which presents the same U.S. version of the film that's played on TV for decades. Edited-in Caucasian actors smugly sit behind desks and explain the action in condescending tones to the audience, special effects shots are lifted from other Toho films and inserted randomly, Akira Ifukube's marvelous score is butchered and cues from other Universal monster movies (most notably, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) are laid in over the action, and the dubbing is particularly bad.

However, while it's still the familiar U.S. version, the new disc does finally present it in a 2.40:1 widescreen format (which helps considerably) and it is anamorphically enhanced. The print appears to have been cleaned up – it certainly looks better than any previous home video version (and I have most of them), but still shows some age-related damage and faded colors. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is fine, if unspectacular. There are no extras on this release, not even a trailer for Universal's new KONG film, which seems like it would be a no-brainer.

Still, for fans of the film, Godzilla aficionados, or kaiju nuts (and I'm all three), it's definitely worth picking up. The widescreen presentation improves the viewing experience considerably, and it's the best version currently available on home video.

BUY: King Kong vs. Godzilla