Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Most cheesy movies come from a place of genuine intent. Most mediocre sequels come from a place of cynicism. But every so often, a cheesy movie can emerge from the heartless studio machine. One such film is the first Planet of the Apes sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Born of a nascent studio impulse to franchise the imaginative and thought-provoking original film, Beneath manages to find cheese in all of its budget-minded decisions, reluctant stars and TV-style direction.
Picking up sometime after Colonel Taylor (Charleton Heston) discovered the remains of the Statue of Liberty, Beneath the Planet of the Apes shifts its focus to a new human character, astronaut Brent (James Franciscus). Dispatched from Earth to find Taylor’s missing spacecraft, he and his crew crash land (just like Taylor). Shortly thereafter, he meets Taylor’s mute bride Nova (Linda Harrison). After Brent discovers her connection to the missing Taylor, she leads him back to Ape City where tensions have risen within the Gorilla Army. Expeditions into the edge of the Forbidden Zone have seen whole units vanish. The few who return tell tales of phantom earthquakes, spontaneous walls of fire and lightning in clear skies. To General Ursus (James Gregory), this all sounds like the prelude to invasion by an unknown force. His solution: pre-emptive strike.
Brent and Nova set out to the same spot in the Forbidden Zone where the gorillas and Taylor went missing and discover a half-buried New York City. In the city, they encounter human mutants with telepathy powers straight out of a Star Trek episode and finally find Taylor. But with the gorillas following close behind, Brent, Nova and Taylor may find no escape from the Planet of the Apes.
Now, the above sounds like an interesting idea, but it falters for a number of reasons. First and foremost being the reluctance of Heston to appear in another Apes film. In the end, 20th Century Fox studio head Richard Zanuck convinced the actor to return for a short sequence at the beginning of the film and for most of the third act. With Taylor now missing for the most of the film, the production turned to Franciscus, the television version of Heston, to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, this leaves him in the unenviable position of re-enacting a number of scenes from the first film. He discovers Apes can talk. He meets the sympathetic chimpanzees. He also gets his own moment to realized that he’s been on Earth all along. And while I like Franciscus, he reflects the overall cheapness of the production.
Reeling from a number of costly flops, Fox slashed the budget and schedule. It also assigned Planet of the Apes director Franklin Schaffner to Patton while the script was still being developed. Taking his place was director Ted Post. Though he worked with Clint Eastwood on Hang ‘Em High and Magnum Force, Post was mostly a TV director with credits on shows like Combat! and Gunsmoke. And the economic approach of those shows is on display in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Crowd scenes feature plenty of extras in cheap pull-over masks. Thanks to over-lit scenes, the innovative make-up appliances of the first film look stiff as Maurice Evans and Kim Hunter do their best to reprise their roles as Zaius and Zira. Despite maintaining the serious approach of the first film, Beneath cannot help but look like a children’s program.
Well, a children’s program featuring radiation-burned humans singing a hymn to an atomic bomb.
In addition to the cheaper production, the script reflects a lack of ideas on the part of the producer and his collaborators. Though attempts were made to work with Planet of the Apes author Pierre Boulle and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling to pen the sequel, their ideas proved too costly and reportedly lacked in the “visual shocks” of the first film. But instead of looking for new shocks, the script by Goldfinger‘s Paul Dehn doubles down on the apocalyptic imagery of the first film. Now, you get to see all of New York in a post-atomic sludge! The results feel cynical even as the performances keep the movie engaging.
This is exemplified during a scene in which Taylor and Brent are forced to fight. Here, two hammy actors revel in some seriously bad stage fighting. They scowl and gnash their teeth better than almost anyone else working in 1971, but look so ridiculous doing it. And though seriously cheese-tastic, Heston pivots moments later to mourn the death of Nova. Similarly, Franciscus just about carries the film from his crash-landing to the moment he finds Taylor. The first time I saw the movie, I missed the first ten minutes and didn’t even realize the switch in actors.
Perhaps this is how the film transcends its cynical and cheap origins. Heston, for as much he didn’t want to be there, is still present. Franciscus is a boy in service. Returning performers like Hunter and Evans do admirable jobs despite a rushed production. James Gregory gives a magnificent performance as Ursus. They keep you involved in the story even as you laugh at the readily apparent cost-cutting techniques Post had to employ.
And that’s the pleasure of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Even as it gives you reason to snark at its flaws, it still has enough of a soul to carry it to though to a devastating and dramatic conclusion. It’s still entertaining despite clear flaws and misguided studio intentions. It also allows two leads to over-act and yet still be watchable. The sum of those parts is high class cheese.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is available for rent on Amazon Video and a number of other streaming services. It is also available as part of the Planet of the Apes Legacy Collection DVD set.