Once again the Time of the Ape draws near.
The latest incarnation of the legendary cinematic franchise PLANET OF THE APES draws near with the impending release of a new film--reportedly planned from the get-go the first in a new series. What does that mean? That RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES would have to fail utterly at the box office to kill this new version of the franchise. Tim Burton's remake of the original 1968 original PotA met with mixed results, but ultimately failed to relaunch an entire franchise. Perhaps because Burton, who picks his own projects these days, had far too many other ideas to explore instead. Whatever the case, there is nothing like the original movie and its once-in-a-lifetime shocker ending.
But nothing was more shocking, more terrifying, or more unforgettable than the end of the second Apes movie, my personal favorite, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. Critics and fans may argue, but there is no real doubt that BENEATH is the best of the four sequels. As I stated before, there's no comparing any of the sequels to the sacrosanct status of the first movie. The first PLANET OF THE APES movie came out in '68, the year before I was born. I had no idea what was in store for me.
I was only four or five years old when BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES finally came to the local one-screen cinema in Olive Hill, Kentucky, where I lived with my grandparents while my mother finished college at Morehead State University. The year was most likely '74 or '75. I remember it all in bits and pieces, the way I remember scenes from the movie itself. It was my first conscious experience of seeing a movie...in a movie theatre. I was being imprinted. My uncle had taken a group of us kids--cousins all--to the movie theatre because our grandparents weren't the moviegoing types. They'd rather wait and watch movies on TV. But it was the mid 70s and going to the movies was an adventure--even before the wrecking ball of cinema culture that is STAR WARS came along.
What I remember most, burning into the neural pathways of my brain and the sketchpad of my imagination, was the bloodcurdling scream my cousin Regina let out when the mutants in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES peeled off their fleshy masks and revealed their true monstrous faces. This was, as they say, a moment of sheer movie terror. Especially for a precocious little five-year-old who was already reading comics before entering first grade.
The second most enduring image is heartbreaking: The image of the great stone statue of The Lawgiver, weeping tears of blood, and collapsing into apocalyptic flames. My tiny brain had no idea that this was all an illusion conjured by the underground mutants in an attempt to frighten away the horde of gorillas from Ape City. It just freaked me out. I loved the apes, especially the good ones. Even five-year-olds can pick out the good guys from the bad. I didn't know what to make of the orangutans I suppose. Dr. Zaius, in retrospect, was a rather nebulous character...sometimes ruthless and sometimes sympathetic. Yet they were all wonderfully weird.
As you read this you might end up thinking "Of course you like it the best, it was a special experience from your childhood." Well, you're right. It led me to watching all the other Apes movies on television as many times as they aired (and there were only four channels in those days), to the live-action TV show which must have been on TV the same year I saw BENEATH. I recall watching the the PotA show with cousins as well. And the PotA cartoon--loved it. The comic books--hell yeah, when I could find them and had a few quarters in my pocket. In 1978, comics still cost 35 cents. And they were on every corner, in every Quick Shop and supermarket. But BENEATH stands well above simple juvenile nostalgia.
Eventually I grew up and got all five Apes movies in a Special Edition Collection. So I was able to rewatch the entire series as much as I wanted. I rewatched BENEATH more than any of the others. You could say I was sitting there watching it with my five-year-old self again, achieving cosmic transcendence with an extratemporal expansion of consciousness. Or you could say I found it to be--hands down--my favorite Apes movie. Not everyone agrees with me, as to be expected.
So here's my official list of exactly why BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES is the best movie of the entire series. Let's go...
1. THE ORIGINALITY FACTOR
The original PLANET OF THE APES movie was based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, but the movie world was a far cry from the advanced civilization of apes imagined by the French author. When Rod Serling of TWILIGHT ZONE fame and his writing partner Michael Wilson got ahold of the core idea, they created the apocalyptic "Stone Age with Guns" that we all know and love as the Oscar-nominated movie. "Take your hands off me, you damn dirty apes!" BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES drew not from the Boulle source material, but directly from the first movie and its legacy of post-apocalypse science fiction adventure. BtPotA deepens the original concept in a horrific yet thrilling way, amping up the darkness. Pulp Fantastique.
2. TAYLOR BLOWS UP THE PLANET
I found out recently that Charlton Heston only agreed to come back as "Taylor" and to a sequel on one condition: That in the film's final scene Taylor destroys the entire world. What balls it took to make that demand. What genius it turned out to be. It remains one of the darkest endings in all of cinema: Taylor, the enternal cynic, dying from the machine-gun burst of a gorilla, cements his utter nihilism in the face of humanity by pressing the ignition button on a "cobalt bomb." That is, an atomic bomb with a cobalt casing so that its chain reaction annihilates the entire earth. To Taylor, the earth was getting what it deserved. There was nothing but pointless suffering and brutality. Mankind...and Apekind...proved they did not deserve to exist. So Taylor blew it up. There's nothing quite like the final lines of BENEATH, spoken in the grave tones of a voice-over in utter darkness:
"In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead."
Yes. When I was five, I watched Chuck Heston destroy the world. What a trip. I've watched it several more times since, and every time it gives me that same slightly dreadful thrill. It wasn't enough they had to destroy the earth, the filmmakers had to add that "insignificant" adjective to the word "planet," just to underscore the absolute nihilism. It's meant to incite a reaction among intelligent viewers, it certainly does. It packs all the cosmic horror of a good H. P. Lovecraft tale, without a squid or tentacle in sight.
3. ALL HAIL THE BOMB
What more chilling commentary on the angst and fear of the Atomic Age could there be than a cult of deformed human mutants dwelling in the radioactive rubble of New York City and worshipping an atomic bomb as their god? The concept is sheer brilliance, and executed with all the grotesque horror of the best Hammer Films. It stems directly from the first movie's underlying theme of Man as the Ultimate Destroyer. The mutants pray: "Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen." The ultimate insanity, which verifies Taylor's deep-seated beliefs that nobody anywhere deserves to live. You gotta cut Taylor some slack, though. He did find the Statue of Liberty at the end of the first movie and it shattered his mind long before the mutants captured him and the Apes finally shattered his body. It's hard to watch the mutant worshipping scenes without getting the creeps. And that's exactly what the movie's director Ted Post was going for. Gruesome. Ask my cousin Regina; she was at least eight when she screamed in terror at the mutant who rips his face off first.
4. THE MIGHTY FRANCISCUS
James Franciscus enters the story as John Brent. Sent through the same time warp, we can only assume he locked onto Taylor's trajectory, and so entered the future timeline where Taylor landed months earlier. Franciscus was a great choice for leading man. He takes over the movie after an opening sequence with Taylor and the mute Nova. His mission: Find the lost astronauts and get them back through the time warp. But that's going to be impossible with his captain dead and his ship crashed into smoking ruins. Just like Taylor and his doomed companions, he's stranded for good on the Planet of the Apes, and his only goal is to find Taylor. Instead he finds the gorgeous and mute Nova, Taylor's lost mate. She means well, but only leads Brent into trouble and damnation. Square-jawed, broad-chested Franciscus' performance here is a very archetype of the early 20th Century pulp hero, the all-American good guy trapped in a world gone bad. Unlike the jaded Taylor, Brent is actually a hero, though no less tragic than the anti-heroic Taylor in the end. Remember, in this one EVERYBODY DIES.
5. THE GREAT LINES
"The only good human...is a dead human!"
"They will dissect you! And they will kill you! In that order!"
--Cornelius (to Brent)
"The heavens declare the glory of the Bomb, and the firmament showeth His handiwork."
"He bleeds! The Lawgiver bleeds!"
"Another lovely souvenir from the 20th Century. They weren't satisfied with a bomb that could knock out a city. They finally built one with a cobalt casing, all in the sweet name of peace."
John Brent: "When may we hope to be released?"
Mutant Caspay: "You may hope whenever you wish."
6. GOOD APES, BAD APES
The apes we grew to know and love in the first PotA movie show up, and they are as likeable as ever. Or, in the case of some, as unlikeable. Maurice Evans knocks it out of the park once again as Dr. Zaius, while Kim Hunter returned as the heartfelt Zira. Although Roddy McDowall could not play the role of Cornelius, the role went to David Watson. The "big bad ape" was General Ursus, played impeccably by James Gregory. The epitome of brute force over intelligent thought, Ursus is a formidable villain. But so are the psionic mutants who dwell beneath the ruins of Old New York. The apes look fantastic thanks to the Oscar-winning special effects that drove the first movie. Few sights are more iconic than the black-and-purple leather armor of an Ape City gorilla, or the stately robes of the orangutan elders.
7. THE RUINS OF NEW YORK CITY
When Brent and Nova are on the run from the bloodthirsty gorillas, they enter a cave which leads to the titular environment, an inspired expansion on the first movie's Statue of Liberty ruins. They find a subway tunnell leading into the sunken, melted ruins of New York City. Now the true horror of where he is sinks into Brent's mind. He knows, as Taylor knew at the end of PotA, that mankind has blown itself to smithereens and left the remains of of the planet to these murderous apes. What's more, he and Nova discover the insane, deformed descendants of the New York populace: psionic mutants who want them dead. Brent tries to reason with the bomb-worshippers, but it's no use. The tremendous set pieces here make some of the movies most unforgettable scenes--Radio City Music Hall's marquee lying in ruins inside a deep, dark cave. This was far more terrifying than the single shock-ending of PotA. You (with Brent and Nova) are plunged into the radioactive ruins and it is one helluva journey.
8. NO-VA! NO-VA!
The gorgeous Linda Harrison plays Nova, the mute love-interest of Taylor. Like her fellow Ape-age humans, she cannot speak. Yet who can forget the iconic image of Nova in that fur bikini? Or riding that black horse alone across the desert? The dark hair and eyes, the soulful expressions, her failed efforts to talk for Taylor's benefit, and her final tragic triumph. Her heartbreaking death. Brent may have been a real hero, but not even he could save her. Again: Nobody saves anybody here. EVERYBODY DIES. -Boom!- That's it.
9. MUTANTS WITH MENTAL POWERS
The psionic powers wielded by the radiation-scarred mutants is a sheer bonus. They could easily have been run-of-the-mill mutants without any special powers (which they indeed are years later when reinvented for BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES). But the writers of BENEATH (Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams) explored the applicaton of telepathy, telekinesis, thought projection, mind control, and more through the characters of the mad mutant fundamentalists. In order to preserve peace, they are willing to wipe out everything that lives. Despite their rise to beings of superior mental abilities, they are no wiser than their forgotten ancestors. In fact, they are the decadent remnants of a doomed society, so out of touch with their own history that they worship an atomic missile.
10. THE SHEER HORROR OF IT ALL
This was one of the most horrific science fiction films of its day. With a budget of 3 million dollars (in 1969 dollars, that is), it had only half the money used to make the original PotA. What resulted was a sort of "big budget B-movie." If the blood and violence, the bleakness of a dying humanity, the poisoned earth, and the hideous mutant faces weren't enough, the true horror of BtPotA lies in the existential questions it explores. Is mankind worthy of surviving in the universe, or does he have only pointless annihilation awaiting him, a result of his own failure to embrace a higher nature? In this movie world, Taylor had it right: The human race were a bunch of bastards who blew up the world and sealed their fate. In the end, Taylor's dying decision is ironically to finish what they started over a thousand years ago: Utter destruction of the planet earth. Oh, sorry--the Planet of the Apes.
There you have it, 10 Good Reasons (and more) why BENEATH OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is not only the best Apes movie in history, but also why nobody should dismiss it from their list of classic sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies. If you only watch one Apes movie, make it the original PLANET OF THE APES, but if you only watch one sequel, make it BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.
I recommend a double-feature...
See you at the opening weekend of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Furry fingers are crossed.