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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

King Kong (1976) – Review

That Hollywood was going to remake the 1933 classic film King Kong surprised no one. Universal was actually working on their own more faithful version of the classic but they backed out when Paramount’s modern remake was announced. It’s this version, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin, that we will be looking at today. Moving the time period to the current day was not necessarily a bad thing (the original was not a period piece but set during the current economic depression of the thirties), and the script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. managed to work the current national oil crisis into the story. Though I’m sure placing it in a modern setting was more about shaving some money off its 24 million dollar budget than anything to do with artistic integrity. So let’s look at King Kong, the 9th Wonder of the World.


Aside from Kong himself no characters that appeared in the 1933 original are featured in this remake. Instead of film producer Carl Denham we have Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), an executive of the Petrox Oil Company who mounts an expedition to find oil. He is risking his career on the idea that a recently discovered island in the Indian Ocean could contain huge deposits of oil. He is basing this on some infrared satellite photos that show the island is just lousy with carbon dioxide. Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a primate paleontologist from Princeton, has stowed away aboard the Petrox explorer because he believes this excess carbon dioxide could be caused by beasts on the island. Yeah, the science in this film isn’t all that great.


Wilson hasn’t the foggiest idea of what he is talking about.

In the original film the ship passed through a fogbank as they approached the island, but in this remake we learn that the fogbank is permanent and caused by the high levels of carbon dioxide. I’m not sure how many giant apes it would take to create a fogbank by heavy breathing but I bet it’s more than one. So I’d say Mister Prescott is full of shit. Jack informs the crew of the Petrox Explorer that he has read journal entries from a visitor to the island; one log mentioned that upon, “Landing on the beach of the skull where he heard the roar of the greatest beast.” While another account has to do with a waterlogged lifeboat being found that had an image drawn in blood, “A likeness of some huge, slouchy humanoid thing.” So Prescott kind of fills the part of Denham here as the believer in Kong, but he also plays the heroic lead.


The Dude abides.

Now a heroic lead has to have a love interest, and in this film it is not a half-starved depression era Fay Wray, but a beautiful aspiring actress who survives a shipwreck and is spotted floating adrift by Prescott. Dwan (Jessica Lange) is the remakes blonde damsel in distress, and for her first screen appearance Lange does a decent enough job. (Note: After the film opened she didn’t appear in a movie for three years as she focused on learning her craft and becoming the awesome actress we know today.) Dwan is not the brightest bulb in box and her relationship with a Princeton associate professor makes about as much sense as hers with a forty foot ape. Though there could be something they both saw in her that appealed to their baser natures.


I wonder what that could be.

When they eventually arrive at Skull Island, though it is never called that, and we certainly don’t see any “Beach of the Skulls” that the log Prescott rambled on about mentioned.  They do run into a very large wall, which Wilson is sure an ancient ruin, while Prescott insists that it has been recently maintained. They then hear native drumming from beyond the wall proving Wilson to be wrong...again. The wall in this version is not some monstrous Egyptian like monolith like in the original, but it does have that same massive gate which begs the question, "If you want to keep out giant monsters why build such a bloody big door?"


And unlike the full scale set in the 1933 Kong this is just a matte painting.

The movie starts to follow the original story for a while with the group stumbling upon a native village during some kind of wedding/slash sacrificial ceremony. Jack does not understand the native language but is somehow able to understand exactly what is going on. I’m guessing he read ahead in the script. Our intrepid adventurers are forced to retreat back to their ship where of course Dwan is later snatched by the natives and offered to Kong. This is where the film makes its first major misstep; Kong is introduced with the camera at Kong eye-level as the camera tracks his approach to the altar. This completely robs Kong of any sense of scale, and this is not helped by the fact that Kong is now being played by a man in an ape suit.


A decent ape suit, but still just an ape suit.

When this film was in production Dino De Laurentiis made much ado about the full scale robot Kong they constructed for the movie. Created by Carlo Rambaldi this forty foot Kong was constructed with a 3.5 ton aluminum frame, and was covered with rubber and 1,012 pounds of Argentinian horse tails. This Mecha-Kong also consisted of 3,100 feet of hydraulic hose and 4,500 feet of electrical wiring, and at cost of $1.7 million. You couldn’t open an entertainment magazine without coming across an article with De Laurentiis spouting off about his fabulous robot. The one problem this robot had was that it sucked. It could barely move and looked about as lifelike as Donald Trump. This is why 99.9 percent of the shots consisting of Kong were special effects man Rick Baker in an ape suit.


The suit didn’t suck so much as blow.

Dwan and Kong romp around in the jungle for a while. First she is frightened and tries to escape, but then after getting a waterfall bath and Kong provided blow-dry she starts to like her tall dark and hairy co-star. And maybe a bit too much, for when Kong blows her dry she looks to be having multiple orgasms.


Dwan could be considered the world’s first furry.

Meanwhile Jack and a group of sailors had ventured into the jungle to rescue Dwan. Unlike Denham in the original Wilson does not accompany the search party. Where Denham was a crazy showman Wilson is just an asshole. He at first doesn’t want to believe Dwan was captured by a giant ape, but he has to admit the possibility when Jack points out all the knocked down trees and says, “Who in the hell do you think went through there, some guy in ape suit?” Possible the film’s most meta line, and I wish I knew if it was intentional or not. Fans of the original will be greatly disappointed by the following section of this movie's version of Skull Island as it is anything but impressive. Where in the 1933 film the island not only supported a forty foot ape but we encounter a Stegosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Elasmosaurus, a girl grabby Pteranodon, and a gorgeous jungle right out of a Gustave Dore painting.  While this version has a guy in an ape suit, a giant snake, and sets that would not look out of place on the original Star Trek television series.


“Be careful, the Gorn could be around here someplace.”

Now let us talk about the giant snake. As mentioned the original was just chock full of dinosaur action, and the titanic battle between Kong and the T-Rex still holds up today as one of the best monster fights ever put on film, but for this movie we get Rick Baker in an ape suit wrestle a larger rubber snake. Not since Bela Lugosi floundered around with an octopus in Bride of the Monster has such action been produced. It’s clear that the producers couldn’t have Kong fight a dinosaur in this film because mixing a live action ape suit with a stop-motion dinosaur would have been tricky to pull off, and if they went the route of a guy in a dinosaur suit they’d have been in danger of becoming King Kong vs Godzilla.


Of course that would still have been better than this.

While Jack spirits Dwan away, as Kong is rolls around with his rubber nemesis, back at the village Wilson is building a Kong-Trap. Turns out the black ooze on this island won’t be able to be refined into oil for another ten thousand years, and Wilson had already radio that head office that he was “Bringing in the Big One.” With visions of his head on the corporate chopping block he suddenly gets the brilliant idea that as long as he brings back something big he’s in the clear. He figures that if “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” made Esso a fortune than an actual giant ape will make them millions. I do really wish they’d put in the scene of the corporate meeting that actually agreed to this idea, because in reality Wilson would have been fired shortly after they sued him for gross incompetence. Yet somehow Fred Wilson sweet-talked his way out of being shit canned, and so the company airdropped him several barrels of chloroform to use in his pit trap. Strangely enough it works.

Note: The continuity in the capture scene is all over the map.  The size of the pit Rick Baker in the ape suit falls into does not remotely match the full scale hole we see them dig on location.  Also the picture below clearly shows that going by the location and size of Kong's arm that the giant ape would not actually fit in that pit.


"O my God, they've captured the Kong arm!"

Regardless of the stupidity and implausibility of this plan, as that much chloroform would cause paralysis, cardiac and respiratory failure resulting in Wilson bringing back a very dead Kong, but it all turns out well and they get Kong back to America for his big unveiling in New York City. Dwan is excited about being a star, Jack is all pissed off at the idea of Kong becoming a sideshow, and Wilson just struts around like a dickhead, threatening to ruin careers if he doesn’t get his way. Jack’s integrity wins out and he quits, but Dwan can’t risk losing her one shot at the big time so she goes along with the show. Kong is wheeled out in a giant replica of a gas pump, and it looks as dumb it sounds, but when the reporters all get grabby around Dwan the ole guy goes ape shit.


It’s here that we get those glorious 15 seconds of the 40ft robot Kong.

Jack once again spirits Dwan away from Kong, while poor Fred Wilson meets his untimely end. There is no “It was Beauty killed the Beast” closing line for him; instead he gets turned into toe jam by Kong. The following scenes consist of Kong rampaging through New York City while Jack and Dwan find a deserted bar for a drink. Of course Kong has some kind of Super-Detecting-Dwan-Sense as he is able to track Dwan across the river, through Manhattan, and into a below street level bar, all while remaining undetected by the police or military.


Kong seen here in stealth mode.

Because Jack recognizes that the twin towers of the World Trade Center resemble rock formations from back on Skull Island he deduces that Kong will climb them. This is complete bullshit as Jack never saw Kong never climb those rock formations as they weren't something he could even have climbed if he wanted to. So this is just so more Mary-Sue bullshit that Jack pulls out of his ass, and because he is such a friend to all animals he makes a deal with the city that he will tell them where Kong is going if they promise to capture him alive. As Jack is a bit of a moron, when the script dictates it, he believes them when they quickly agree to his idiotic plan of netting a 40ft ape atop a New York City landmark. This results in Kong climbing the towers and then being gunned down as if he were Sonny Corleone at the tollbooth in The Godfather.


Was Sam Peckinpah the second unit director on this film?

This is certainly not a slavish remake of the original, which is not a bad thing, but the shift from campy adventure film to this blood soaked gory finale is a rather odd choice. Dino De Laurentiis is noted for saying, “No one cry when Jaws die but when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap." I’m not sure fans of the original film loved to see Kong going out under a gory fusillade of bullets, but the film was successful and it even became the seventh highest grossing film that year. Though I doubt many of this movie’s patrons actually cried when the monkey died. I definitely did not. Though I did rush out and buy the cool King Kong board game.


Final Thoughts:
  • Director John Guillermin continues the Kong tradition of including racially insensitive stereotyped natives.
  • The natives put blonde wigs on the women to be sacrificed. So how did Kong first develop this thing for blondes?
  • The film does have a beautiful score by legendary composer John Barry.
  • Jack cheers when three soldiers are immolated by Kong. What a dick.
  • Not one but two helicopter pilots fly close enough to Kong to get swatted out of the sky. Does no one understand what hover and shoot means?
  • The film's tagline was "The most exciting original motion picture event of all time" As this is a remake I'm not sure they understand what the world "original" means.
  • Exactly what planet is Skull Island located on.


Possibly Moon Zero Two?

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