War For the Planet of the Apes sequel

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: the best movies about apes and/or monkeys you’ve probably never seen!)

War for the Planet of the Apes hits theaters this week and promises to be the biggest (and possibly best) movie yet about our brothers and sisters from hairier mothers and misters, but it’s just the latest in a long line of films centered on monkeys, apes, and other non-human primates. From King Kong to Congo, moviegoers are fascinated by mankind’s interactions with species so close to our own and yet still so far away.

Films focused on these simian creatures typically fall into one of three categories. Some see the animals as threats (Monkey Shines, Blood Monkey), others as comic relief or sidekicks (Dunston Checks In, Every Which Way But Loose), and the remainder as test subjects (Outbreak, 28 Days Later). There’s also what ever the hell Monkeybone is. Most of these are fairly well known, and many of them are beloved to boot, but as is always the case there are a handful of monkey/ape-centric movies that are worth watching despite their general lack of popularity.

Speaking of which, here are six such movies – ones featuring monkeys, apes, or something similar as major parts of the narrative – that you probably haven’t seen.

konga

Konga (1961)

A scientist returns from a trip to the jungles of Africa with two mementos. One is a young chimpanzee, and the other is a method of growing living things beyond their natural limits. So of course he creates a giant ape to help murder his rivals, enemies, and those who merely annoy him.

Sitting somewhere between King Kong and Black Zoo (also starring Michael Gough in a similarly murderous lead role), this is a fun little throwback thriller about ego and jealousy leading to poor life decisions. There’s a woman involved, of course, and the great ape gets handsy as required by the sub-genre, but the real fun is in the beast’s increasingly destructive rampages through a London unprepared for such outbursts.

The malicious scientist sees his creation grow into an old-fashioned creature feature complete with a man in a suit stomping around miniature sets, and maybe I’m in the minority on this, but in this age of CG “perfection” I will always be a sucker for these kinds of practical effects. The miniatures may be transparent in their fake nature, but it’s the charm and atmosphere of the film itself that completes the illusion. We know the fates of both monster and monster maker well before they do, but a familiarity with the story doesn’t hurt the fun or the pathos.

Konga is available to stream on Amazon video and on DVD.

skullduggery

Skullduggery (1970)

An expedition into the deepest jungles of Papua New Guinea sets out in search of archaeological evidence in support of the missing link theory, but they find something far more startling. The group comes across a tribe of previously undiscovered primates who appear to be that missing link. Mankind being mankind, they soon put the creatures to work, but when one of the creatures winds up pregnant by a human suitor, the question becomes are they creatures at all or merely hairy humans?

This is an absolutely bonkers movie in the guise of an eco-friendly treatise about our wavering stewardship of the planet. Burt Reynolds stars as an unscrupulous and greedy guide who sees the light about the damage man’s doing to the environment and other living creatures after coming to care about these little ape-like beings, but he only reaches that point after his friend knocks up one of their kind. He’s drunk, and they’re kind of cute, but their amorous pairing is still, as the French say, “icky.” Things take an even stranger turn when the female creature miscarries and Reynolds’ character claims to have killed the baby in order to force the legal recognition of their humanity.

That’s right. The film ends with a rip-roaring courtroom scene that shifts (not-so) effortlessly from ideas on animal rights to arguments against racism. It’s a head-shaking joy to watch unfold, and fans of the recent Winter’s Tale will appreciate how deftly it balances normal plotting and utterly absurd plot turns in its quest to say something important while also trying to be an adventurous romance. Does it succeed at any of those goals? As a mere man, I don’t feel qualified to answer that question, but by the time the member of the local Black Panthers chapter interrupts the proceedings to argue that the creatures are descendants strictly of the white race, I also stop feeling compelled to try.

Skullduggery is not currently available.

the barefoot executive

The Barefoot Executive (1971)

A young man working in a network mailroom dreams about moving up the corporate ladder, but it’s easier said than done. It gets a whole lot easier though when he discovers that his friend’s pet chimpanzee has an untapped skill for choosing hit television shows. His plan works until some sketchy executives attempt to hijack the miracle monkey.

This is the second Walt Disney film starring Kurt Russell to appear in this column – and let’s face it, it probably won’t be the last – but unlike Now You See Him, Now You Don’t this one’s not part of the Dexter Riley trilogy. The idea of network ratings almost seems quaint now in a world with a thousand channels (plus VOD, Blu-ray, and Commodore 64 emulators), but it’s a high stakes game here. There’s a subtle knock to the idea that mass consumption can be compared to the tastes of a beer-swilling chimp, but it’s far from sharp social commentary.

The film is still the kind of innocently fun fare Disney excelled at up through the ’70s (before the gloriously profitable mandate of marketing reared its ugly head), and Russell is at the peak of his youthful powers. There are plenty of fun shenanigans as the “bad” guys try to steal Raffles for themselves, but the film’s best moments come in the more relaxed and playful interactions between a boy and his monkey.

The Barefoot Executive is available to stream on Amazon video and on DVD.

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