Note: This article was originally posted on the B Movie Man website in 2012 and published in The Basement Sublet of Horror magazine (issue #1) in 2014.
When thinking of movie locations, Kansas is hardly the first name that comes to anyone’s mind. There is no Walk of Fame in downtown Wichita. Oh sure, thoughts may wander to the yellow brick road and some little dog named Toto. Ask any Kansan what they think about Oz and you’re likely to get a split vote. However, it may come as a surprise that more than 80 movies have been filmed in Kansas. Some are independent and low-budget films you’ve probably never heard of. Others are westerns that have utilized such locations as the historic Cowtown attraction located in downtown Wichita. Horror movie fans are well aware of Carnival of Souls (1962) or Darkness (1993). And how can we forget about The Beast from the Beginning of Time (1965)? However, one film that is often misunderstood is King Kung Fu (1976). Never heard of the tale of a talking gorilla trained in the ancient art of kung fu? Don’t feel bad. It is another almost forgotten piece of cinematic lore.
The plot of the movie is simple enough and somewhat familiar. We have the main character, King Kung Fu, a talking gorilla who is sent to the United States as a gift by his embarrassed sensei, Alfunku, played by local Wichita State University professor Jim Erickson. Before arriving in New York, he stops off in mid-America, better known as Wichita, so the redneck locals can get a glimpse (the TV newsman’s words, not mine). The gorilla captures the attention of a Carl Denham wannabe named Bo Burgess, played by Billy Schwartz. Never heard of Billy Schwartz? That’s because he never did another movie (along with the rest of the cast). Bo wants to use the lovely Rae Fay, as played by Maxine Gray, to lure the gorilla away for the usual dreams of fortune and glory. Bo and his sidekick run into various slapstick obstacles which lead to the gorilla’s release and relentless rampage throughout Wichita while local lawman Captain J. W. Duke, played by Tom Leahy in his best/worst John Wayne impersonation, and his deputy, office Pilgrim, continue their search. Confrontations with King Kung Fu result in a display of his martial arts mastery with flashbacks to his sensei (where’s David Carradine when you need him?). The madcap madness concludes with our fearless gorilla climbing atop the largest building in Wichita (at the time), the downtown Holiday Inn. King Kung Fu outwits the authorities and is last seen piloting the police helicopter into the sunset.
Going into the movie, it’s best to know right from the start that it is a parody and smash-up of giant-gorillas-run-amuck and kung fu films. Unlike Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), this movie never takes itself too seriously. From the opening segment, when we see that it was “Filmed in Simianscope”, you should know exactly what you’re dealing with. It is full of clichés, spoofs and non-stop corniness. There are no hidden horror elements at all. It’s a straight-up comedy that some modern-day viewers may compare to the Scary Movie series. When discussing B movies, we tend to overlook comedies. However, there is legitimate argument that at first look this “classic” could be grade Z. The production is second-rate and the cast is full of unknowns that probably never even made it to local stage productions. This is where we need to peel back the outer layer and look at what went behind the making of the film and the period in which it was made.
We are beginning to take for granted that virtually anyone can make a movie these days. Cameras are easy to acquire and videos posted almost instantaneously on YouTube. Direct-to-DVD movies are released weekly. But in 1974, even a low-budget film required expensive cameras and production. The one constant is that it takes virtually no talent to make a movie but it is required to make a good one. Bob Walterscheid was one of the main driving forces behind King Kung Fu, serving as producer as well as receiving screenplay credit. Add to the fact that it seems his entire family had some minor role in the film, it was clearly a work of passion for him. Even as recent as 2005, he was online leaving comments on IMDB still defending and praising the movie. He takes great offense to anyone calling the movie “the worst of all time.” He insists the gorilla does not really talk but that what we hear is his inner voice. Unfortunately, some of the characters apparently hear this inner voice as well as they respond to his words. I would agree that it’s not the worst movie ever made. As a comedy it occasionally works and for someone living in Wichita, it serves as a time capsule back to the 70s.
The movie is full of locations still present in Wichita today. We have several scenes at the Sedgwick County Zoo, then only three years old. We witness a baseball game with the Wichita Aeros at the legendary Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and see several dinner scenes at the Rock Road Pizza Hut, the national pizza chain that was founded in Wichita. We spend some time at the Joyland amusement park including the death defying roller coaster (death defying because one wonders how it’s still standing). Sadly, this has been closed for years and, despite recent efforts to reopen it, time and Mother Nature have left the vandalized park crumbling and a local eyesore. We also get to see what was then the tallest building in Wichita: the downtown Holiday Inn. On a darker note, this was also the same location for a sniper shooting in 1976 when Michael Soles killed three people and wounded seven others. It has since been converted into an apartment building and continues to struggle to leave its’ dark history in the past. It overshadows the fun for those of us who remember the shooting.
The only two cast members of note are Jim Erickson and Tom Leahy. Jim Erickson, who played our sensei Alfunku, was a film professor at Wichita State University from 1966 until his retirement in 1997. Despite being a local movie host he is also a film critic who continues to provide review for a local public radio station. Tom Leahy is a name some may remember from The Beast from the Beginning of Time, that other Wichita film from 1965. While he did help with some of the costumes and makeup, his main contribution was that of the John Wayne inspired sheriff. Both performances are campy but highlights of the film. They had some talent while much of the rest of the cast are amateurish at best. It is sad that Tom Leahy is not listed on IMDB, a major oversight that will hopefully be corrected someday.
The movie never made millions but it did see the light of day unlike The Beast from the Beginning of Time. Production was started in 1974 and producer Bob Walterscheid claims they were the first to use the new 16mm negative film. He also claims that had they finished on time they would have been out before Airplane (1980) hit the theaters and it may have been given more respect than it received. However, financial setbacks prevented the film from being released until 1987. The film was “blown up” for a 35mm theatrical release and received its’ theatrical debut at the long-gone Crest Theatre in Wichita. It reportedly played in 11 theaters across the country and was sold to Japan, Taiwan and Poland. It later saw a one-night film revival when it played as a fundraiser at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre. The audience loved the film and laughed throughout, pleasing Bob Walterscheid as they truly understood it as the comedy it was always meant to be.
Despite all of the best intentions from Bob Walterscheid and director Lance Hayes, the movie never lives up to its’ potential. It could have its own place alongside other parody films but it suffers from some very poor acting and a very badly edited climax. The helicopter sequence and confrontation atop the Holiday Inn are clearly where the production ran out of movie. Quality of the film stock also varies greatly. Even with our cheese hats firmly on, the sequence comes across looking like a very bad student film and causes what was an occasionally funny film to end very flat. However, if you are a fan of such “disaster” films, then I would recommend King Kung Fu if for no other reason than to see what is essentially a forgotten local project. Unlike The Beast from the Beginning of Time, it is easily available on DVD. I doubt this cinematic classic will ever get the Blu-ray treatment, so don’t hold your breath waiting for the high-definition, remastered, extended director’s cut edition. The movie is far from a classic but is an interesting glimpse back at a simpler time when a filmmaker would dream of seeing his work on the big screen rather than a direct-to-DVD release or a Saturday night SyFy original.
MMK Note: King Kung Fu is also now available on YouTube.