BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES: Sequelization Taken To Dark, Eccentric Extremes

Making a sequel to the Planet Of The Apes must have seemed inevitable and impossible all at once. The international success of a film with such a tantalizingly offbeat concept virtually guaranteed that the studio bosses would want to see if there was a “brand” to be exploited in that success. That said, the film’s dark take on humanity and its future, expressed with brutal bluntness in its legendary shock ending, suggested that the filmmakers had taken their vision as far as it go. 

Just the same, original Planet Of The Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs went back to work and had Beneath The Planet Of The Apes ready for release in 1970. The resulting film was one of the most unusual sequels ever made to a hit film, a follow-up that does some things expected of a sequel while adding in all manner of additional elements that up the ante in terms of both eccentricity and thematic darkness.

The script for Beneath The Planet Of The Apes was penned by Paul Dehn, a respected writer whose prior credits included Goldfinger and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.  The narrative he created picks up where the first film left off, with Taylor (Charlton Heston) venturing into the “Forbidden Zone” feared by the Apes and disappearing after some unnerving, surreal sights. Around that time, another astronaut from the past lands on the ape planet. This is Brent (James Franciscus) and he’s the lone survivor of an expedition sent out to find the crew of Taylor’s flight.

What follows at first feels like an action replay of the first Apes film, with Brent meeting up with Nova (Linda Harrison), Taylor’s primitive love, and learning he is on an ape-dominated planet amongst other sinister secrets. However, Dehn introduces a number of new elements once Brent follows Taylor’s path into the forbidden zone. New characters include a group of psychically gifted mutants and General Ursus (James Gregory), a war-minded ape military leader whose desire to conquer the forbidden zone pushes everyone in the story towards a dark fate.

Beneath The Planet Of The Apes is a fascinating sequel because not only does it revive the familiar elements of its predecessor, it also doubles down on the film’s edgy, offbeat qualities. The first half’s action replay of the film has a “meta” quality to it, with Franciscus giving a Heston-style performance as goes through the familiar beats of the first film’s setup.  That said, Dehn’s script adds its own unique shadings, like the surreal sights of the forbidden zone and the way the character of Ursus divides ape society with his totalitarian rhetoric.

However, it is the second half of the film that pushes Beneath The Planet Of The Apes into a place of twisted greatness. The mutants are a fascinating group, with their own unique set of rules for the civilization and their own brand of sinister dogma (a scene in their strubble-rewn place of worship, including a unique choice of idol to worship, is Schlockmania’s favorite scene in any of the Planet Of The Apes films). The third act is breathtakingly bleak, with our heroes pushed to nihilistic extremes as all civilizations – human, ape and mutant – act in ways that seal their fate.  When you reach that violent, doomy climax, you’ll be shocked to discover this film was rated G!

The director hired for this sequel was Ted Post, a director who shifted back and forth between feature films and television throughout his career. As The Baby proved, he wasn’t afraid to explore offbeat material and that quality serves him well here. He presents the film’s offbeat qualities in a straightforward, confidently-crafted manner that makes them seem all the more unusual. When he gets a sequence he can really sink his teeth into, like the aforementioned mutant worship sequence, he goes for the gusto and the results are pulp bliss. 

Post also gets solid performances from his cast.  The underrated Franciscus makes a solid lead here, channeling some Heston’s mannerisms but delivering them in a uniquely understated manner that allows him to differentiate himself from his character’s model (his reaction to the terrible secret of the ape planet is impressive because it’s done in a subtle yet heart-tugging manner). Heston’s on-screen time is limited here, which was actually a condition of him signing on for the sequel, but he digs into scenes with a sense of grim commitment that matches the material.

Kim Hunter does fine work in her brief scenes as human ally Zira and Gregory is memorable as a blustery might-makes-right type. Maurice Evans also returns as Dr. Zaius and gets to bring out some unique shadings to the character, who now has to tiptoe around Ursus as he takes control of ape society.  Finally, the cast of mutants here is packed with familiar character actor faces like Jeff Corey, Gregory Sierra and Don Pedro Colley… and they create a unified, quietly chilling front of psychopathic menace.

John Chambers returns as makeup artist and does ace work not only with the humanoid apes but also the mutants, who have a unique dual-layered visage revealed in a memorable moment. It’s also worth noting that this film is more visual effects-intensive than its predecessor and these elements are handled skillfully by veterans L.B. Abbott and Art Cruickshank, who deliver some impressively surreal opticals and some excellent matte painting-enhanced imagery in the forbidden zone.  Also worthy of note is the score by Leonard Rosenman, which upholds the ominous edge established in the first film’s music.

The resulting film was a hit and remains oddly rewarding today because it follows up its predecessor in such an uncompromising manner: after setting the audience up with some business-as-usual sequel elements, it adds on wilder and edgier ideas with each reel until you reach another shocker of a climax. Said climax was designed to be a dead-end for the series but success would lead to further studio demands, pushing Dehn into the unlikely role of Apes sequel auteur.  As time would reveal, the outré saga of the apes had plenty of twists and darkness in store for sci-fi fans.

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