Review Date: April 2, 2006
Released by: Retromedia
Release date: 5/7/2002
Region 0, NTSC
During my youthful days as a VHS collector, I would occasionally stumble upon a movie that would be so difficult to watch that it would spend the rest of its days on my shelf, destined to only be watched once or twice more before it hit the eBay auction block along with most of my other tapes when DVD started to become a big thing. Such was the case with Kong Island
, which I discovered when Sinister Cinema, lacking any pretense of standards as usual, tossed it out onto video. I didn’t mind being rid of it for good, and had almost forgotten it even existed when a roommate, not realizing what it was, gave the Retromedia DVD to me as a Christmas present. So, despite my great dislike of the film, I present here a review of it as warning to those who might follow in my footsteps...
We open in Africa as a jeep belonging to a mining company transports payroll cash through the jungle wilderness. Suddenly, the car is ambushed by three mercenaries, amongst them the musclebound Burt Dawson (Brad Harris
) and the sleazy-looking Albert Muller (Marc Lawrence
). Albert uses his submachine gun to slaughter all four of the vehicle's occupants, even though they were ready to give up the money peacefully. Albert then opens fire on the unnamed mercenary and kills him. Burt calls Albert a maniac and then, in one of stupidest movie character decisions I have ever witnessed, Burt proceeds to turn his back
on the psycho who has just killed five people in cold blood, and does so just in time to catch one of the murderer's bullets in his backside. Albert leaves him there to die and escapes with the money.
Burt survives, and we next catch up with him in Nairobi, Kenya, where he visits a night club owned by his old friends Theodore (Aldo Ceccone
) and Ursula (Adriana Alben
), and their two children Diana (Ursula Davis
) and Robert (Mark Farran
). Now fully healed and carrying a nasty scar, Burt is looking for same payback from Albert. While at the club he is almost killed by a thug named Turk (Paolo Magalotti
) and a group of henchmen. Meanwhile, Robert and Diana announce their intention to go hunting in the bush the next day, with the hope of bagging the “sacred monkey” that is said to inhabit the nearby jungles. Burt declines their invitation to join them.
The next day Robert and Diana trek into the countryside. Night falls and they set up camp, but their quiet evening of rest is quickly disturbed when the camp is attacked by a horde of gorillas which scare their porters off, rough up Robert and carry away Diana. Turk suddenly appears over the injured man and gives him undisclosed instructions for how to get her back. Robert is able to make his way back to Nairobi where he and Theodore plead with Burt to help rescue her. Burt reluctantly agrees and he and Robert head back out into the bush. But their effort is short lived, and it becomes obvious that there is something more going on here. It seems that Burt is being led into a trap designed by the one and only Albert, who has been experimenting with turning gorillas into his slaves with remote control devices implanted in their skulls. Burt’s only hope is to defeat Albert and destroy his control over the animals, and his only ally is Eva (Esmeralda Barros
), the mysterious “sacred monkey”, who is really a beautiful young girl living in the jungle Tarzan-style. But can they really save the day, or will Albert and his army of men in seedy-looking gorilla suits overwhelm them?
Though released as an Italian production in 1968, Kong Island
did not reach the United States until the late 1970’s when it was picked up for TV distribution. It is the kind of movie that you’d see after waking up from a nightmare at 3 AM. Staggering downstairs to the living room, you’d turn on the television and start watching the film, only to start wondering whether it too was bad dream. No matter where, when or how I find myself viewing the movie, the experience of watching it always feels the same way – like I’m in a drunken stupor. Often while viewing it I find myself feeling like I’m in a cloudy, murky haze. There’s this weird vibe about the movie that makes it feel as if everything that’s happening in it is completely disconnected from any sense of reality. If there’s anything at all good to be said about the movie, it’s that it mimics the effects of being inebriated without you having to even touch a bottle.
The film is generally known in English-language markets as either Kong Island
or King of Kong Island
, but neither title is accurate in the slightest. There is no, I repeat, there is no island
whatsoever, unless one wants to somehow get metaphorical. The whole thing takes place entirely on the mainland of Africa, and even if it did have an island, the plot has nobody that could claim to be king of it (though perhaps Eva could be queen). All it does have are Kongs. Sure, they're normal-sized, but hell, a monster ape is still a monster ape. But even the presence of numerous monster apes can’t save the story. It indulges in jungle clichés such as an incident where the protagonist is captured by natives, and for a supposedly remote jungle, people travel back and forth between it and Nairobi with surprising ease and regularity. They are moved back and forth by a plot that is far more convoluted than you’d expect from a movie with as simple a concept as this. There seems to be some sort of complex backstory to the whole thing, but what it is remains vague. Burt’s background is sketchy. We know he’s a mercenary and that he has spent a lot of time hanging around Nairobi (there seems to be some attempt to characterize him as an anti-hero, but the script is so bad it’s hard to tell, and even if it was clear Brad Harris was probably too much of a pretty-boy to have pulled it off). Albert’s background is even less clear. Apparently he was the medical officer attached to Burt’s group of mercenaries. Or something.
The production values are atrocious all around. Besides the gorilla suits (which are worn by men who make little effort to walk like a real ape actually would), the laboratory that the gorilla monsters are created in is one of the shoddier mad scientist abodes seen in the movies. Many parts are padded with obvious stock footage of African wildlife to make sure we all know we’re in Africa (though, to the credit of the filmmakers, the locations they shot at matched fairly close to the locations of the footage). The dubbing is bad, bad enough that Marc Lawrence and Brad Harris – Americans both – don’t even appear to be speaking English at times.
When released to American TV some minor censoring was done, both to make the content more acceptable for broadcast and to tighten the running time for syndication. This release contains both the American version and the original cut. The European version is slightly more coherent, but not by much. Here is a rundown of the basic differences:
- The title of the European edition is The King of Kong Island.
- When Burt first arrives at the night club there is a scene of him conversing with Ursula. The beginning of this conversation lasts longer in the European edition, and as a result the end of the scene (when Theodore unexpectedly shows up) makes a little bit more sense.
- In the European cut, the scene where Turk talks to Robert after the gorillas attack Diana is missing. Instead, it simply fades to the next scene.
- There is noticeably more footage of Eva, including a monologue by an African man talking about who she is. It appears the reason most of the footage was removed was because it showed Esmeralda Barros frontally nude (she goes through the entire movie topless, but there are many times when her bust line is obscured by her long black hair. The shots in which it is not are removed.
So which one is preferable? Well, frankly, it doesn’t really matter. The European version is slightly more coherent, but either way the pacing remains the same, and since the European version is taken from a speeded-up PAL source, there really isn’t much difference in running times, despite the extra footage. It’s a terrible film either way, and I’d recommend it only to passionate bad movie fans.
Both versions of Kong Island
are presented in full-frame 1.33:1 (the American version is simply full screen, while the European version is windowboxed). Both transfers look somewhat cropped, though the framing in each is tolerable. The screen shot comparisons below will provide some idea of the differences between the two:
American VersionEuropean Version
The American version is the visually superior of the two, but that isn’t necessarily saying a lot. It looks like it was struck from a 16mm print, and is quite beat up. Colors look a tad faded and daylight scenes often have a washed out appearance to them. Flesh tones are a little bit off, and even though there’s a good amount of clarity and detail in some portions of the film, there are also a lot of spots where the image looks soft and hazy. Dark scenes are often overly dark, and there are some minor digital artifacts.
The European version was either taken from a Greek video master, or, more likely, a Greek videotape itself. It actually sports better colors than the American version (aside from the very pinkish flesh tones), and it’s not so dark, but the level of sharpness and clarity is noticeably inferior to that of the other version, and to make matters worse this transfer is loaded with lines of distortion and ugly video grain that is especially noticeable during night scenes.
Both versions are presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono. The American version actually sounds the worst of the two, with lots of popping, hissing and crackling audible, especially during the early portions of the film. Such distortion is also audible on the European version, but to a lesser degree. Dialogue is easy to hear in both versions, and sound effects are reproduced about the same either way.
The European version features Greek subtitles burned into the frame. Fans who came of age during the VHS bootleg era (like me) will probably find this a small deal, but other viewers may get very annoyed by this. The fact that getting the original European version required ripping off a tape is yet more proof that the film’s original European licensor had nothing to do with this release.
Retromedia claims that this release has extras, but I beg to differ. First, I don’t consider the addition of the European version to be an extra, and even if I did it would not affect this release’s grade much since it’s of little use. Next, we get something called “Fred Olen Ray’s Drive-In Theater” which features nudity and lots of women in bikinis. Fred gives a pointless introduction to the film in which he, in a rare moment of lucidity, pulls out a flask and says “you’ve got to be half in the bag to enjoy the movie you’re going to see tonight.”
Lastly, there’s a weblink to the Retromedia website. I certainly wouldn’t consider that an extra either, and not just because the company’s website is poorly organized and uninformative.
So basically, even though there is a special features submenu on this release, I’m not giving it a grade for extras.
Movies don’t come much crummier than Kong Island
. Even if you’re a fan of bad movies (a group of fans in which I count myself), you can find lots of awful films that are much more entertaining. As for this DVD itself, the $14.98 list price on the Retromedia release may seem a bit high for a movie this bad and a DVD this lacking. However, if anything good can be said about it, it is that it is probably sure to be a little bit better than the fly-by-night companies that have released other versions. Plus, this disc is available at a steep discount from many online retailers. Though I’d recommend you not bother with the movie at all, if you do this is the version to stick with.
Movie - F
Image Quality – C-
Sound – C
Image Quality – D-
Sound – C+
Supplements – C
- Running Time – American Version - 1 hour 24 minutes
- Running Time – European Version – 1 hour 25 minutes
- Not rated
- 1 Disc
- English 2.0 Mono
- Burned-in Greek subtitles (European Version)
- European version
- Fred Olen Ray’s Drive-In Theater