The Best Ape/Monkey-Centric Movies You've Probably Never Seen

(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.

in the shadow of kilimanjaro

In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro (1986)

A drought ravages the land, leaving people, animals, and vegetation without water. The result is devastating. While humans bust open the Evian and livestock dies, thousands of baboons make other plans. They descend from the mountainside in a screaming rampage of terror, slaughtering and eating everything and everyone in their path.

I'm not sure why this mid '80s flick doesn't get much love when it comes to animal attack pictures, but it sure as hell deserves it. It's the rare film to acknowledge that monkeys are freaking terrifying without the need of heightening their intelligence or training them to be so – they just are. Baboons in particular always seem half a breath away from simultaneously tearing open your chest and gnawing off your face, and the film captures that pure animalistic rage beautifully.

There are some rough bits among the acting and dialogue, but familiar faces like Timothy Bottoms and John Rhys-Davies hold your attention until the carnage begins. And I do mean carnage. The film earns its R-rating for some gory baboon attacks that leave people sans faces as well as for the pure terror of their assaults. One pissed off monkey can be terrifying and this film unleashes thousands, and it's a nightmarish (in a good way) experience.

In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro is not currently available.

link

Link (1986)

An American grad student on scholarship in the UK takes an assistant job at a professor's remote estate and finds his home includes a trio of research primates. Her arrival coincides with the professor's decision to have two of the animals put down, but one of them isn't going without a fight.

When it comes to angry monkeys killing college students, the 1990 film Shakma seems to get all the press. It's arguably the more horrific movie – due in large part to the fact that baboons are far more terrifying than orangutans – but it also centers on Christopher Atkins instead of this film's lead, Elizabeth Shue. So yeah, point Link. She's terrific here as a wide-eyed innocent forced into becoming a "final girl," and weird face-off between a naked Shue and a newly de-clothed Link aside, her monkey troubles are well-crafted and often suspenseful. Jerry Goldsmith's score is an odd aid to the action as it shifts from propulsive and dramatic to playful at seemingly inopportune times. It's a great listen, even if I'm not entirely convinced it works for the film.

As great as Shue and Terence Stamp (as the professor) are, the film's standout is Link the orangutan (not to be confused with his distant cousin, Lancelot Link the Secret Agent Chimp). Not only does he earn our sympathy even after the body count rises, but he's also stuck playing a chimpanzee for some reason. (He's not a chimp of course, but the film inexplicably saddles him with the accusation early on.) His motivation for murder is a clear-cut matter of survival, and the end result is that we're rooting for both the killer and the victim to survive unscathed.

Link is available to stream on Shudder.

primal force

Primal Force (1999)

When a private plane crashes over a remote Mexican island, the survivors find there's more to fear than a lack of food and water. There are baboons. Mutant baboons. And they're hungry for new prey. Lucky for the humans, a local adventurer is willing to lead a rescue team onto the island, but even he's not thrilled at their odds of success.

Every "best" list has to have a least best entry, and this, my friends, is that entry. Yes, it's a Syfy movie, and yes the poorly-stylized direction poops the bed with excessive zooms, whip pans, and inexplicable flashes of light, but at its core it's an entertaining little animal attack creature-feature. The story touches on themes of rampant development, game hunting for sport, and good old mad scientists challenging nature with their brains and hubris.

The main draw here though – the reason why it's watchable despite its flaws – is the presence of Ron Perlman in a rare lead role as the tough but reluctant guide. He gets to emote as a man filled with guilt over having abandoned people to their doom the last time he was on the island, and he gets to kick all kind of monkey butt in between those dramatic beats. He's in full on cigar-chomping, gun-shooting, attitude-dropping mode, and it's clear he's having fun while doing so. Maybe a bit less fun when he's wrestling stuntmen in baboon costumes, but fun in general.

Primal Force is not currently available.