As a monster movie fan I’ve seen all the Godzillas, all the Gameras… but only most of the Kings Kong. This month I am one step closer to Kongpletion, because I finally saw the 1976 remake, King Kong! We got Jessica Lange, we got Jeff Bridges, we got Charles Grodin, we got the guy who played Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, we got some tasty American suitmation, and it’s all in a lavish, mid-70s Dino De Laurentiis super-production!
So what the fuck took me so long? For one thing, Kong ’76 has always had sort of a mixed reception… for another thing, they took out the dinosaurs. And the expedition to Skull Island (only they make sure to NOT call it Skull Island) switched from an ambitious-but-doomed movie shoot to an ill-advised oil survey (because it’s the 70s, so you gotsta get those gas crisis references in!) These are all really minor, nitpicky things, but in my brain they all pointed to the distinct possibility that this was a King Kong movie that was embarrassed to be a King Kong movie, and I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit for another one of those.
I’m psyched to be wrong though! Kong ’76 is a mixed bag, but it’s a beautiful mixed bag! Most importantly, it IS 110% an honest-to-Godzilla King Kong movie! There’s also a shitload of BUCK NUTTY behind-the-scenes stories about Kong ’76’s conception and creation. Plus it’s fascinating seeing how this movie clearly laid some (unintentional?) groundwork for 2017’s terrific Kong: Skull Island. So hit pause on Deep Throat, grab your
pet rocks Petrox, and get ready to feel feelings about the Twin Towers all over again, because we’re setting sail for (definitely not) Skull Island!
Here’s a (reconstructed) trailer!
Again, the pure gall of selling this as an “original motion picture event” is hilarious to me. Also, is it just me or did they pick the absolute blandest font of all time for the title card? It’s on the poster too!
You know what’s not boring in that trailer? Everything else! We get an abbreviated version of the story, with some emphasis on the stunningly beautiful version of (Not) Skull Island, Jessica Lange (HUBBA), and some of the movie’s best Kong shots. All accompanied by John Barry’s thundering score. The main theme is a monster masterpiece:
Barry captures (and fucking creates) the romance, adventure, mystery, awe, pathos and terror that is absolutely pivotal to a great Kong film. Barry was an unfamiliar name for me, but I had absolutely heard his shit before, and you most likely have too! It’ll be more fun to show you than tell you. Here’s another piece he’s done:
DUDEMAN INVENTED SPY MOVIE MUSIC. He scored all the Bonds from Dr. No to The Living Daylights. I SHOULDA KNOWN THIS DUDE’S NAME. Barry switched gears seamlessly from espionage to creature feature fantasy.
We also have John Guillermin in the director’s chair. Guillermin’s a new name for me, though he helmed a ton of shit in his day: stand-outs include several Tarzan flicks, Shaft in Africa and The Towering Inferno. Maybe most relevant to our purposes, he also directed this movie’s sequel, 1986’s dismally-received (but bitchingly titled) King Kong Lives.
Accounts of Guillermin tend to paint him as the classically screamy, abusive asshole director that kept getting work because of his results and because Hollywood (especially back in the day) is kind of a fucked up place. So that’s not great. 😬
It’s kind of rare for me to dig into the producers behind the movies and shows I cover–usually I just namecheck whether or not original Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka is in the mix. Dino De Laurentiis warrants some digital ink spilled though.
Dino was a big time super producer, having a hand on everything from bible epics to some of the goriest slashers in the cineplex. Odds are good he or his company produced at least a flick or two that you love. Some of my faves include Conan the Barbarian, Evil Dead II and the Hannibal TV show, which happens to be one of the most beautiful and effective pieces of horror fiction ever crafted. Check that shit out if you haven’t!
Dino’s uh, quite a character, and I’ll dig into that a little deeper when we go whole-hog into the behind-the-scenes stuff later. Dino recruited Lorenzo Semple Jr. to draft the screenplay. I didn’t know this dude either (I’ll be honest, when we dip out of my filmic wheelhouses, my movie knowledge gets preeeeettty spotty), but he’s best known for spy thrillers like The Parallax View, the Flash (AH-AAAAH!) Gordon movie and a little Adam West TV vehicle:
Dino rounded up some dudes with fucking credentials, gang! So how about the special effects wizards? Well first and foremost we have Carlo Rambaldi. This guy used to be a new name for me, but I did a Facebook/Twitter post about him a while back when I laid eyes on his INSANE Medusa:
Look at that fuckin’ thing! Carlo managed to turn one of fiction’s most familiar, famous monsters into something totally nightmarish, alien, and alive. This shambling Lovecraftian horror hit the silver screen in ’63!! You’re likely more familiar with his post-Kong work: he’s renowned for the mechanical head effects in Alien and for designing E.T.! With a resume like this you’d think he’d be a (relative) household name alongside Stan Winston and Rick Baker, but for whatever reason that doesn’t seem to be the case. Speaking of Rick…
Who’s Rick? He’s the guy that did all the fucking wild effects in An American Werewolf in London:
AKA the greatest werewolf movie of all time.
Rick’s done a lot of iconic stuff, but goddamn I love American Werewolf in London. Beyond that incredible, excruciating, and still unnervingly real-looking transformation, AWIL also has:
I didn’t mean for this King Kong review to turn into an American Werewolf in London love-fest, but this is what the guy in the Kong suit did after this movie! Rick’s other credits are impressive though, having done special effects for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Captain EO, Harry and the Hendersons, Men in Black and a zillion others. Of course Baker didn’t just wear the suit, he was in charge of constructing it. He was actually pretty unhappy with the end result, going so far as to say the Kong suit was saved by cinematographer Richard H. Kline’s expert photography and Rambaldi’s dynamic cable work in Kong’s face. I’m not sure if that’s genuine sentiment or professional modesty, but Kong’s punum really does steal the movie:
All right, we get it, they stacked the deck with folks who either already did cool shit or would go on to do cool shit or both, what about THIS movie?! Glad you asked! Unlike, oh, I don’t know, the ’05 King Kong, this one gets straight to the boat.
Kong ’76 takes its time, explores scenes and character dynamics and lets shots linger just to build mood and atmosphere… and it still moves quicker and tells its story more efficiently than ’05. This isn’t to shit on Kong ’05 (I cried my ass off the first time I saw it in the theater), but it’s fascinating comparing all the Kongs against each other.
From frame one this feels like we stumbled into some parallel universe where Jurassic Park came out in the 70s instead of the 90s. The music, the mood, even the nature of the opening scene (blue collar dudes loading/unloading mysterious stuff in the middle of the night for mysterious reasons) all have that underlying tension and excitement. We meet Jeff Bridges’ character Jack Prescott bribing and sneaking his way aboard the ship, the Petrox-owned Explorer. In classic (pre-Lebowski) Jeff Bridges fashion he is an instantly likable rakish rogue. A post-hippie hippie who’s as street savvy and book smart as he is groovy and anti-establishment. Like his character in (the first) Tron but a little more crunchy and a lot less techy.
Petrox isn’t just a convincing name for a fictional oil company (“Petro” like petroleum, “ox” to invoke Exxon), it’s also a dumb joke about the 70s fad of pet rocks!
It’s not just something audiences inferred, Semple Jr. confirmed it himself! If you weren’t sure, this movie is very 70s. We also meet our other male lead, Fred Wilson, played by Charles Grodin. Grodin doesn’t full-on chew the scenery as Wilson, but his performance is like one notch below that. Almost every setback is met with him rolling his eyes and powerfully hissing an enraged “CHRIST!!” from behind clenched teeth. It’s a weird choice made even weirder by the fact that it actually works. It’s just not as nuanced or natural as the nerves-fried, desperate, exhausted exasperation he brings in the criminally underrated Clifford:
CLIFFORD IS A GOOD MOVIE AND I WON’T BE CONVINCED OTHERWISE (also Martin Short is a national treasure and should be treated as such)
The first few scenes take their time without taking too much time. It’s just enough to give us an idea of what kind of people Jack and Fred are before Jack crashes Fred’s top-secret slideshow:
The slideshow is of course a handy way to quickly blow through exposition and set the mood, but I couldn’t help but think about 2017’s Skull Island and it’s strikingly similar scene. I figure it’s probably just a coincidence, maybe an homage at most, but it’s still neat. That got me considering the parallels between Jack and Skull Island’s Weaver. Both are counter-culture-ish characters that sneak their way into the expedition for idealistic reasons.
Connections to a movie forty years later aside, it’s a great scene. Fred and Odo’s character (who has some major Gene Wilder vibes) are getting the guys all psyched up about this mysterious island. It’s been hidden by a perpetual fog bank for centuries, and they only know about it because Fred bribed somebody in DC for classified satellite photos (the fog bank and satellite photos plot-points are both in Skull Island too…). Fred’s convinced the island is sitting on top of a mother lode of oil, and by then Jack can’t keep from nerding out about the island too: he lays out his theory that the fog is from like, animals breathing (??? don’t know about that one, Jack-o), more interestingly (and less inanely) he also rattles off accounts of the island from different cultures throughout history. To thank him for his surprise contribution to the slideshow, Fred hollers at him and has him thrown in the brig.
On his way to the brig, Jack spots a life raft drifting in the open ocean… captained by Jessica Lange in evening wear!
You can’t do a beauty and the beast story without a beauty, so here she is! According to Semple her splashy (that was bad and I wrote it!) entrance was meant to indicate that the story was entering the world of fantasy: what are the odds of arbitrarily stumbling across a random babe in the middle of the sea? Lange spent hours in the raft freezing her Kongs off… and didn’t find out until after the fact that she was being circled by sharks the entire time!
Thanks to Jack’s sharp eye and the crew’s quick action, they pull her aboard and she comes to. Her name is Dwan,
which she explains is a stage name specifically crafted to be unusual and memorable, so fair enough! Mission accomplished…. Dwan. I mostly know and love Jessica Lange for kicking ass in several seasons of American Horror Story, so it’s a little jarring to see her play the naive, breathy-voiced, dewy-eyed Hollywood ingenue type. Especially because nowadays it’s really hard to see that type of character without also thinking “what despicable shit has some sleazy director or producer or agent or co-star done to you or about to do to you?”
And the movie implies that she may have been on her way to getting pressured into doing porn.
Dwan was on a yacht captained by a guy named Harry, and they were headed to Hong Kong to make a movie. There’s nothing sinister about that, but Dwan asks her rescuers “Did you ever meet anyone who’s life was saved by Deep Throat?” Again this is a VERY 70s movie–Deep Throat is famous (or infamous) for being the first hardcore porn movie to cross over to mainstream audiences. It was something of a cult hit/pop culture sensation a few years prior to Kong ’76. And the male lead in Deep Throat was a dude named Harry Reems! So it’s implied (all these boats and implications make me feel like I’m trapped in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) that Dwan was on a wild-ass porno boat. Dwan states flat-out that she didn’t want to hang below deck and watch Deep Throat with everybody else, so when the boat blew up (from everybody jerkin’ it/flickin’ bean???), she survived! Again, the idea that she was chilling with Harry Reems is never explicitly spelled out, but I imagine audiences coming off of Deep Throat-mania would have made the connection pretty easily.
The movie passes the rest of the trip to (Not) Skull Island with a montage of Dwan turning clothes donated to her by the crew into cuter clothes… and also just like walking around and doing stuff.
And maybe this is just residual weirdness from her fucking bonkers origin story, but the montage seems to vacillate between “cute and fun” and “light voyuerism”. It’s over before it has time to get too creepy though, because we’ve arrived at the edge of (Not) Skull Island! The perpetual fog bank is achieved simply but fantastically:
It looks like they’re in sky-bound dreamworld! We haven’t even gotten to (Not) Skull Island yet, and it’s already gorgeous. It’s another element that separates Kong ’76 from ’33 and ’05, but connects it to ’17/Skull Island. It’s pretty, but still foreboding:
We get some fun foreshadowy moments before they leave the Explorer: the crew notices a radar blip when they scan the island–they chalk it up to a glitch or maybe accidentally catching a flock of birds (it ain’t birds!). Dwan whines her way into joining the away team, but also mentions her horoscope (again very 70s, but h-scopes have gotten hot again in the last 10-ish years): it foretold that she’d meet “the biggest person in her life”, which she thinks is in reference to Fred (it aint’ Fred!). In classic movie fashion any and all red flags are entertainingly ignored, and when they fully punch through the fog bank and reach the shore, it is a beautiful, dramatic, and primeval tropical paradise:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–filmmakers, ya GOTTA shoot on location! This shit is crazy looking! This is Kaua’i, the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, and sweet baby Jesus it just looks like this. The Kong crew was hardly the first or last to shoot here, over 70 different movies and TV shows have used this astonishing location, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, M*A*S*H (the TV show), Tropic Thunder, two of the three Elvis-in-Hawaii flicks… it’s fucking awesome looking! Know what else looks fucking awesome?
Yep, our crew encounter the native civilization just a little while after making landfall. Their trip so far has been super scenic but pretty tame. This is by far the most picturesque and chill Skull Island I’ve ever seen. I typically trip over myself gushing about how much I love Skull Island as a prehistoric funhouse nightmare gauntlet of natural and unnatural horrors, but this gorgeous, mellow version is a fun change of pace. I legit want to visit this place–I wouldn’t say the same about any other version of Skull Island! Things are decidedly un-mellow on the other side of the wall:
I know I touch on this every time I review a movie that has the “isolated/primitive natives” trope, but I’d feel fucked up ignoring it. Unlike Japanese productions there’s no brownface happening (thank fucking Christ), but our cast of heroes is lily-white, with the exception of two secondary characters. To be fair, Boan actually kicks ass and has some cool moments, but uh “Chinese Cook” does not.
But yeah, the brave heroes are (almost) all white, while the backwards, monster-worshipping, lady-snatching, superstitious ding-dongs are all people of color. It’s not a great look folks. I’m not pointing it out to shit on this movie specifically, but because it’s an issue with the Jungle Adventure sub-genre at large (and an even bigger issue with its hardcore horror cousin, Cannibal Exploitation). Can we bring jungle adventure into the modern age, leaving its unfortunate colonialist/imperialist/white supremacist trappings behind? I’d say we already have, or at least are moving in the right direction: the Jurassic movies, the Jumanji movies, Predator, even Kong ’76’s nephew Skull Island all tell bad-ass jungle adventure stories without the creepy white savior bullshit. And even with Kong ’76’s uh, very 70s approach to casting, its natives are still a metric fuck-ton better than the inhuman ghouls we got in Kong ’05:
I’ll leave it to someone smarter than me to truly dig into the historical and cultural implications, because I’m pretty sure that shit runs super-duper deep. Above my pay grade, at least! Setting those extremely complex and sensitive issues aside and just taking in the technical spectacle, it’s pretty goddamn impressive! The wall setpiece is enormous and rad-looking, the adjoining courtyard is sprawling, and said courtyard is absolutely filled with lavishly costumed actors dancing, playing music, and performing sacred, mystical and secret rites. It’s dope as hell! Jack’s popping an anthropology boner with Dwan (who correctly infers that they’re witnessing some kind of marriage ritual), while Fred and Odo spot a big open pond of bubblin’ crude! Oil, that is! Black gold! Texas tea! But then the natives spot them!
Shit gets tense, fast. The natives immediately spot Dwan and want to trade some of their people for her. Being a foreign exchange student to Skull Island sounds super bad-ass, honestly.
Fred and the goon squad want to start blastin’, but Jack’s a fucking legit anthropologist and a good dude–he’s been doing his best to translate for both sides, but also insists that they shoot in the air, just to scare ’em off instead of shooting to kill. Of course it works, giving our heroes the chance to get the fuck out and regroup on the Explorer.
The natives stealthily grabbed Dwan! They dress her up in ceremonial garb, feed her
ketamine some mysterious potion out of a seashell, and excitedly take her… somewhere. The nighttime proceedings have an ominous, manic, Lord of the Flies-y energy and it’s all on that same impressive scale we saw in the earlier daytime scene.
Of course we all know what this is all really building up to, and that makes it even more exciting and goosebump-inducing.
JUST KIDDING IT’S TIME FOR OUR FIRST KONGFRONTATION
HE LOOKS FUCKING AWESOME
Later effects shots vary in quality, but this whole sequence abso-fucking-lutely rules. The inky darkness of night on Skull Island goes a long way to hide any imperfections with the suit, articulated head, huge arm prop and compositing with Jessica Lange. All these different techniques come together seamlessly, making Kong’s grand entrance spectacular and absolutely believable. It’s a slam-fucking-dunk, gang.
Interestingly, Kong doesn’t show up until about the 50 minute mark. That sounds like a lot, but the movie is paced so well that it never feels like that long of a wait. Even though the movie takes its time, relevant things are always happening, characters have agency and agendas, and the mood and atmosphere are always building. And for comparison, in Kong ’05, our simian star doesn’t show up until about 70 minutes in. …And ’05 gets lost down some narratively pointless rabbit holes before we get there.
Spooktober flew by and it turns out I have way more to say about Kong ’76 than I expected (I hit 4000 words before making it even halfway through the flick!) so this is going to be a two-parter! I know we just met our tall, dark, and handsome leading man, but that just means we’ll get to the super juicy shit in part 2! Like when King Kong has to arm wrestle the toughest dude at the truck stop to win back custody (and the RESPECT) of his estranged son! Think I’m making that up? You’ll just have to tune in to part 2 to know for sure! There’s no other way for you to find out! Hope your Ween is super Hallow, and hope you make it back for the conclusion (here)! Thanks for reading!