Monday, August 1, 2011

How I Spent My Sunday Going Ape

Can you guess the two best things about living in and around Philadelphia (aside from Cheesesteaks, Rocky, Water Ice, M.Night Shyamalan, a Rich Baseball tradition, Ben Franklin and a little thing like founding our country) ?

Firstly, Philadelphia and it's surrounding areas are a modern day cradle of craft beer, with artisan brewers such as Victory, Sly Fox, Yards, Nodding Head, Triumph, Dogfish Head and more within striking distance and all available in most local watering holes worth dropping your dime in.

The second gets to the heart of my Sunday. Philadelphia has it going on if your goings on happen to include horror and cult film screenings. Exhumed Films has been putting on awesome horror screenings at local theaters for the past fourteen years. Their shows have run the gamut from cannibals, to zombies, to slashers and ghouls. They've shown over 250 different films to date. Additionally, the Colonial Theatre, a 100+ year old gem famous for it's role in the 1958 Steve McQueen monster flick The Blob, has a monthly late night horror series dubbed First Friday Fright Night and has recent begun an additional series dedicated to cult, sci-fi and kung-Fu called Colonial Cult Cinema. As you can see, horror nerds are really never wanting for screenings to attend in and around the town.

It was a special program from the dudes at Exhumed Films that brought me to the International House on UPenn's campus this last day of July, to see all five original Planet of the Apes films in one go. Exhumed Films wanted us to Go Ape! Now, I remember being a kid and catching these five films on television all the time in the 80's, but I was too young to have attended any of the Fox Go Ape! shows in a theater. This was clearly a very personal show for Dan Fraga of Exhumed, who spoke very passionately about his Ape experiences as a child, so it was cool to see that he brought his young son, to pass on the Ape Law.

The films themselves I hadn't seen in quite a long time, with the exception of the first, Planet of the Apes, since the Colonial Theatre also ran a showing this month for First Friday Fright Night. Why all the showings? Well, a Fox imposed moratorium goes into effect today and lasts well into the foreseeable future with the impending theatrical (and then home video) release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. So let's discuss the films themselves.

Planet of the Apes was a seminal film on release and became the beginning of an enormous marketing behemoth. It has been selected for preservation by the library of congress as historically or culturally significant. more than that, it's an excellent film, bringing to life a topsy-turvy world where ape is the dominant species and man is a dumb animal who can't talk. Charlton Heston stars as astronaut commander Taylor. He leads a crew of four on a long range deep space mission, which is accidentally thrown two thousand years into the future and crash lands on an alien planet, all while the crew is in cryogenic slumber. After the rest of the crew perishes in the ensuing adventures, Taylor is captured and brought to the ape city. It isn't long before it's discovered he can speak and a ideological struggle emerges between the intelligent chimpanzees who want to expand knowledge and the stubborn leader orangoutangs who won't allow any discovery which disagrees with the teachings passed down by the law giver, centuries before. The iconic ending, impactful, even forty years later, still gives me goosebumps and segues directly into the next film.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes begins right where it's predecessor leaves off, where Nova loses Taylor in an illusionary wall and we are introduced to a new astronaut, Brent, who is the last of a crashed rescue party sent to find the first crew but sadly caught in the same time distortion. Interestingly, the reason for adding a new lead character is because Heston did not was to do another Apes film but the studio wouldn't green light another without him. So he agreed to a small part at the beginning and end of the film only. Beneath deals with a war between the aggressive gorilla faction of the Ape society and the hidden remnant of intelligent humans who have taken refuge among the underground ruins of New York City. Ah but these humans are hideous mutants who possess mind control powers and worship a prewar doomsday bomb. As the film ends, Taylor detonates it, destroying the whole Earth. Brent's death seemed like a side note, which didn't seem fair since we spend the majority of the film with him, only to have him brushed aside and unceremoniously killed to make way for more Heston.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes takes up the story from there. But how can that be? I said the Earth was destroyed. Ah, it was, in the year 3955. Doctors Zira and Cornelius recovered Taylor's spaceship along with the help of another scientist ape and where able to escape just as Earth's life was ended. They were thrown backward through the same time vortex that brought the humans forward in time and arrive in our 1971. For most of this film, it's very much the Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home of the series, with very light hearted humor abound as the apes become the popular talk of the world. Well enough just can't be left alone(and this IS an Apes film) however, and a scummy government agent does everything he can to have the friendly chimpanzees and Zira's pregnancy eliminated. Some friendly help from circus owner Ricardo Montelban Armando allows their baby to secret survive the dreadfully out of place tragedy ending, thus setting up our next flick.

Ah Conquest of the Planet of the Apes! Where humans really show just how despicable we are as a species. It's now the distant utopian future of far off 1991, twenty years after the death of his parents, young Caesar, played by Roddy MacDowell who played his father Cornelius in all the other films save Beneath, is still being sheltered by Armando while all other apes have been made into abused slaves by human kind. After Armando sacrifices himself to cover up a public outburst by Caesar, the only ape who can speak sets about organizing his fellows toward bloody revolt. This climactic struggle continues in our last legitimate apes outing. It is interesting to see the roots of humans and apes coexisting with the relationship between Caesar and MacDonald, which continues in the next film.

Finally we finish this tale with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Taking place decades after the revolt of the last film, the world has ended in a nuclear apocalypse. Caesar is still the leader of the apes, in their own city, but the leader of the war mongering gorillas is planning a coup. Meanwhile, irradiated humans find out about the ape city and launch an attack. There is quite a bit of post-apocalyptic killing, but in the end, Caesar uses his knowledge of the future not to make apes dominant, but to allow man and ape to coexist. We're left with a scene 600 years in the future, where they still do so.

I can't forget that in-between Escape and Conquest, we got a chance to watch two episodes of the Hannah-Barbara produced cash-in cartoon. To say it was hilariously bad is to not do justice to other legitimately laugh out loud bad toons from the 70's. It was absurd, badly animated and made no sense...which is why I'll be seeking it out on DVD this week.

In addition to the films, a noted Apes memorabilia collector put on an impressive, and I'd have to speculate expensive, display of Apes mania, props and costumes. If that was not enough, one of the door prizes was one of the highly coveted Mondo Planet of the Apes posters from the Alamo Draft House. This was a long, primate filled day, but I really do have to reiterate that all of these films still hold up and indeed each one of them was still really fun to watch, albeit each for different reasons. And so, I can say with complete certainty, that I have "Gone Ape!"

Special thanks to Midnight Cheese contributor Nick Lombardo for sharing these the photos for today's article. Nick's photographed the title screen for nearly every single Exhumed Films show since 1998.

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