All right mother humpers, time to make like machine gunfire from a helicopter and finish off King Kong (1976)! That joke made me sad as I was typing it! But this is a classic, tragic beauty and the beast tale, just like its 1933 grandpappy and its 2005… un-pappy? Anti-pappy? Reverse pappy?…
ANYWAY you can click here to read part 1 of the review if you missed it or if you just can’t get enough of that totally gnar-gnar, flavor-blasted MCTW content.
In part 1 we set the stage, took a peek at the creative team behind the movie, and stopped just as King Kong met
Jessica Lange Dwan! Can King Kong and Dwan save the midtown youth center by putting on a funky-fresh talent show with all their hip inner-city friends, or will the evil real estate tycoon bulldoze it to make way for a subdivision of ugly McMansions?? Don’t believe me that that’s totally the actual, real plot of the movie? Better read on to make sure!
So the Skull Island natives kidnapped Dwan and served her up to our big beautiful baby boy, one Mr. King Kong:
I mention this again not just to get the ball rolling, but because I didn’t get a chance to comment on something in part 1. How come the Skull Islanders built a Kong-sized door in the wall?
It’s a nit-picky question for such a grand, dream-like fantasy adventure, but again, why? They built this kick-ass wall to keep Kong (and presumably other horrifying monsters) out, but then they’re like “WELL we’ll put a huge door in just in case he becomes really really cool and we want to invite him back to the annual chili con carnival.”
As I’m revisiting this question for the review, there are clearly two answers. First is the boring, filmmaking answer: because it’s exciting and dramatic! But I think there’s also a reasonable in-universe explanation that this movie (either intentionally or not) does a good job of communicating. It’s all part of the Skull Islander’s rituals, the powerful magic that comes from fearfully worshiping and co-existing with King Kong. Kong ’76 does a pretty fucking good job of figuring out what elements of the original story to expand on, and which ones to leave succinct. We’ll see that later with an entire set of scenes that’s unique to this particular iteration of Kong’s tale.
But back to where we left off–Kong and Dwan meet, and then what? Start a podcast? Exchange pithy zingers like an old school screwball comedy? Get in a convertible together and drive it off a cliff?
No, Kong grabs her and runs off into the dark, sprawling jungles of (Not) Skull Island. Back on the Explorer, Jack and co. quickly catch on to Dwan’s disappearance and give chase. They scare off the natives by shooting guns in the air and lighting flares, following Dwan and Kong’s trail through the big-ass door into… ADVENTURE!
Jack makes a clunky, too-meta joke about this not being the work of “a guy in an ape suit”, and Fred falls into a big-ass footprint to drive home that these schmucks are in way over their heads.
As Jack and the rest of the rescue team follow Kong’s enormous footsteps, we check in on Kong and Dwan’s inevitably awkward first date.
Despite Kong’s generally gentle demeanor, Dwan is still understandably freaked the fuck out and tries to dip. Kong doesn’t let her, which is not cool. In Dwan’s best moment she lets him know she’s not going to put up with his predatory bullshit!
That’s right, she punches King Kong right in the fucking face and screams at him to “Choke on me!” It’s pretty bad-ass and incredibly refreshing to see Dwan drop the starry-eyed ingenue schtick and stand up for herself. It’s even more humanizing and funny when she realizes she let her temper get the best of her in the middle of an incredibly dangerous situation and she starts frantically kissing his ass to try and smooth things over.
Kong and Dwan have a little more back and forth before they get comfortable around each other. Dwan’s escape attempts left her caked in mud, so Kong takes her to the island’s big mess of waterfalls for a rinse.
It’s a cute, whimsical moment and it’s another impressive, fantastical location for this version of Skull Island. Skull Island ’76 is a dramatic, untouched, larger-than-life primeval wilderness, but it feels like a place that could really exist–I really appreciate what a low-key locale this is. It’s savage enough to need a king like Kong, but it’s also easy to see why he would happily rule over it until the end of his days.
This heartwarming bonding moment is immediately followed by Kong giving Dwan the ultimate blow-job:
It’s a funny, clever moment that shows us Kong is capable of gentleness, AND it shows off the truly impressive facial articulation built into the Kong head.
As odd as it is, Dwan seems uh, kind of into it by the end?
Back at Booze Beach HQ, Bagley (née Odo, also RIP René Auberjonois 😔) has news for Fred! Turns out the goo they found is viable oil! Or at least, it will be in about 10,000 years. This catastrophic revelation nets us some choice scenery-nibbling from Fred and forces him to double down on the crazy plan to capture Kong for an ambitious PR campaign.
Meanwhile, Jack and pals are still hot on Kong’s trail! They just need to cross a ravine by walking across a precariously perched log! Easy breezy, yeah? We haven’t seen this go horribly, horribly wrong in a King Kong movie before or since, right?
Kong does his classic scary-smart, tool-using thing and jostles the log until he’s murdered a sufficient number of the ding-dongs that were trying to scramble across. I don’t know if this was an intentional style choice or just a special effects limitation, but when we cut to overhead shots of guys tumbling down the ravine to certain death, it has a slow, almost floaty sort of gravity to it.
Boan and Jack are the only ones that make it! They wind up on opposite sides of the canyon, with Jack continuing the quest to save Dwan and Boan heading back to base camp to deliver the bad news to the rest of the crew. When Boan makes it back to the Wall, Fred and the remaining Petrox workers are already setting the trap for Kong.
After their super fun splash-em-ups playdate, Kong hauls Dwan up to his
super secret clubhouse mountaintop lair.
It’s a bad-ass environment: twin rocky peaks loom beneath a full moon while an active volcanic crater smolders gently. It’s a moody, evocative location for this king to brood in. Instead of that though he starts getting handsy (fingery?? OH GOD NO) with Dwan, though thankfully this is cut short by a giant python attack!
Kong duking it out with the Python is pretty cool! But it does noticeably fall short of “uppercutting a T-Rex (or V-Rexes)” cool.
With Kong busy uh, wrangling his snake, Jack finally catches up with Kong and Dwan. Even though the Kong/Python battle isn’t the most thrilling monster fight committed to film, it still pumps up the excitement and tension and it ends with a delightfully gory version of Kong’s classic jawbreaker finisher:
Dwan and Jack haul ass out of there while they still have a lead on ol’ Kongsy. With another would-be pretender to the Skull Island throne handily dealt with, we see Kong register that Dwan is gwan. It’s a great little moment of suit acting, with Kong believably (and even sympathetically) cycling through confusion, fury, and deep, aching lonely sadness. He’s a wild, raging monster with zero concept of personal boundaries, but he’s not heartless or evil.
Kong easily chases Dwan and Jack back to the Wall. This is Fred’s first time laying eyes on our mega monkey monarch…
Of course Kong spectacularly Kool-Aid Mans the ever-loving fuck out of that big ol’ door I was goofing about earlier.
Kong clobbering the shit out of the door looks incredible and is so viscerally satisfying… and it is immediately followed by him helplessly falling into the chloroform-filled ditch the Petrox crew dug.
The islanders can’t help but come out of hiding for this. They bow in reverence for their fallen god, standing at the edge of what is essentially a gigantic, smoky grave. Gang, this one gets sad. Everything that’s happened so far is more or less the plot of the original ’33 Kong, but the next sequence diverts from classic Kong in a clever way:
We finally see how the fuck they actually lug the big lug out to the Big Apple! The whole oil company angle may have just been for the sake of being timely and topical, but it also gives our characters logical access to a big-ass oil tanker. Shit is smort. Also, still super fucking sad!
But who has time to contemplate the havoc they’ve wreaked on an entire island nation when there are press junkets and tacky PR stunts to plan for! Ol’ Freddy’s here with contracts, baybeeeeeeee!
Fred pitches that Jack and Dwan should have a big lavish televised celebrity wedding, with Kong there to “give away the bride.” It’s exactly the kind of bonkers hucksterism we come to expect from Fred, but there’s some super delicious, extra dry deadpan from Charles Grodin when Dwan and Jack react unenthusiastically: “yeah, tough to get him to do it anyway,” he quietly mutters, almost to himself. YOU ARE NOT WRONG, MY MAN.
Dwan’s dreams of stardom are about to come true, and Fred even promises that he can make Jack a star in the academic and scientific communities. With fortune and glory within their grasp, they still can’t shake how fucked up they feel about the whole “trapping and kidnapping a living god” thing.
Dwan looks in on Kong from above, wrestling with the whole “selling your soul for fame and fortune” thing when her scarf falls into Kong’s cell. Seeing Dwan but being helpless to be with her or be free or ride dirtbikes or whatever it is he wants to do, Kong freaks the fuck out and starts beating the shit out of the boat from the inside.
Kong at full force absolutely will be enough to sink the ship, so the crew start preparing to flood his cell with sea water in an attempt to kill him before he takes them all down.
Not wanting either of those outcomes, Dwan tries to calm Kong down from above, but ends up tumbling into his cell and into his waiting palm.
She’s able to soothe the savage beast, saving him and the entire crew. Her choice weighs even more heavily on her as–
It’s not that abrupt of a switch over in the movie, but it’s close! It’s a solid choice–it keeps the movie humming along, and it rubs salt and lemon juice and battery acid into those “hey what we’re doing is super shitty, isn’t it?” wounds. The mood whiplash from “fallen mighty king reduced to a caged animal” to “gawdy 70s bullshit spectacle jamboree” is bitter and darkly funny. Marching bands, fireworks, excited crowds buying popcorn and hats and shit, it’s like the 4th of July up in NYC!
In a weirdly futuristic recreation of the ritual on (definitely not) Skull Island, Dwan scales a sacrificial silver platform and is offered up to the mighty beast waiting for her on the other side of the aluminum wall.
This bowled me over. This is creeping up to Robocop levels of perfect satire of American psycho-commercialism. It’s a terrific gag and I’m happy to say I had no idea this was coming. I’m going to try and keep it under my hat so that other first-timers can have the same bugfuck crazy experience. The gag is absolutely just as relevant and pitch-perfect in 2019 as it was in 1976. Shit, maybe more so now. Kudos to the creative team and anti-kudos to the dumbass turd world we live in. Anyways Kong is inside the gas pump:
Out of context/on the surface, the crown is fun! He’s King Kong after all! In context/going beyond the obvious, this stupid Burger King Kid’s Club-looking Petrox garbage crown is such a fucking slap in the face, spit in the eye to King Mother-Fucking Kong… it gets to me. I like this film overall, but where it really comes together and pays off is in this third act. This chunk of the movie easily and absolutely justifies the existence of the entire remake. The paparazzi swarm Dwan and start taking flash photos of her, Kong, and this whole weird circus that Fred has dropped in the middle of NYC. Guess who doesn’t like people hassling Dwan and flash photography?
We know the story from here, right? Even if you’ve never seen ANY version of King Kong, you’ve probably absorbed the general story through cultural osmosis. As Kong has a full-on shit-fit, Fred confidently states “That is an escape-proof cage!”
This is when we finally catch a glimpse of the much ballyhooed full-sized, robotic King Kong! And I realize now this is actually our first time discussing robo-Kong!
There was a lot of hype about the fact that the special effects team built a no-shit, full-size animatronic King Kong. And for good reason, that’s super impressive! …On paper. Even with months to prepare and somewhere between half a million and 1.7 million bucks to spend, Carlo Rambaldi’s ambitious, 40 foot tall Kongbot is… well it looks like this on film:
Of all the methods they use to bring Kong to life, it’s absolutely the weakest and they know it: robo-Kong gets about 15 total seconds of screen time. It might have failed at being a lifelike giant ape, but it was a hell of a marketing gimmick! Apparently when they first unveiled this thing for the crowd of extras a hydraulic pipe burst inside the robot, spilling fluid down his leg. Supposedly when somebody in the crowd hollered “Oh my god he’s leaking!” they were answered with “He just got excited seeing the girl!”
After a few seconds with robo-Kong we go back to good ol’ suitmation and composite shots! So what if the cage wasn’t actually escape proof? Fred assures us that Kong’s feet are still chained!
Kong cathartically smushes the shit out of the Fredster in the final cut of the movie, but in an earlier version shown to test audiences he survived! The apparent stomp was revealed to be a miraculous near-miss. Hilariously, test audiences fucking hated the idea of Fred making it out alive, so they re-edited the shots into a furious feat of fatal furry feet.
Dwan and Jack break away from the crowd chaos and make their way into the city, with Kong hot on their trail.
I love these miniature sets. This scale of monster is SO exciting to me: huge enough to be a terrifying, city-smashing threat, but not so huge as to be abstract and unfathomable. Also, like most Kong stories, seeing him wandering through city streets is jarring and surreal. We got used to him ruling over his jungle domain, but seeing him in an urban jungle is a TRIP. He’s on a mission to catch up with Dwan though! Jack and Dwan catch a train, so Kong catches a train too!
He peels the roof off, desperately hoping for Dwan. When she’s not there, he just fucking chucks it, screaming people and all. The sequence is breathtaking. I know I said the third act justifies the entire movie’s existence, but for my money this single scene alone does it. Shit is WILD. It really plays to all the strengths of practical effects and suitmation specifically: it being a night shot helps hide the artificiality of the set and suit, the darkness also makes the fire and sparks more dramatic, the fire and sparks also illuminate Kong and the set dynamically, having an actor actually perform as Kong brings a visceral living energy to the scene… it’s a total fucking tour de force. This scene also reminds us that Kong is dangerously unhinged and terrifyingly out of his element, which makes the next moments with him especially poignant:
As bad-ass and ferocious as he is, he’s still absolutely scared, confused, lost and alone. Dwan, Jack, and Kong making their way through an eerily abandoned NYC could certainly evoke Cloverfield, but for me it brought Return of Godzilla/Godzilla 1985 to mind. I think it’s probably because this and Return/’85 feature a much-hyped robo-monster and a scene in an empty, upscale bar. Dwan (pretty weirdly) begs Jack to “buy [her] a drink” over and over again.
Jack finally gives in and they have a breather in the empty bar. Kong stomping his way through NYC has knocked out power all over they city, leading Dwan and Jack to have some fun speculating about all the “sons and daughters” of Kong that’ll be born in about 9 months.
On their way into the bar, something about the NYC skyline caught Jack’s eye:
So when they’re done joking about every last New Yorker frantically pounding it out in the dark, Jack calls up the city’s task force to pitch his theory that Kong will most likely be headed for the World Trade Center. With Jack distracted, Kong reaches in and very literally becomes Mr. Steal-Your-Girl.
And it’s all wild-ass action from here out. Kong does that thing that he’s most famous for:
Jack gives himself the ultimate cardio workout and chases them up the WTC while cops and the National Guard set up a perimeter around the Twin Towers. Cue the choppers, right? Not just yet! Kong ’76 ’bout to get wild with this famously tragic stand-off…
YEAH, ROGUE DICKHEADS WITH FLAMETHROWERS ARE HERE!!(??) How can Kong even get close enough to these dudes to ward them off? WHAT IF HE FUCKING DOESN’T?!
FUCK YEAH MY MAN! In my notes I just have “KONG JUMP” frantically scribbled in all-caps. That is the baddest shit ever. The fact that he mean-mugs everybody immediately afterwards is fucking gravy. THIS IS A GOOD KING KONG, FOLKS. When producer De Laurentiis recruited Semple to write the flick, his only two stipulations were that it had to take place in the present day, and that the World Trade Center had to replace the Empire State Building for the finale. Gotta say their instincts were dead-fucking-on. This is one of the all-time monster moments for me. With the WTC lost to one of the grisliest terror attacks in history, this stunt is likely to stay one-of-a-kind.
Like this scene getting cut from the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man.
The jump is buckwild and fucking radical, but that does sadly mean it’s time for the choppers. They make strafing runs on Kong, peppering the powerful primate with machine gunfire, punching through him and spilling his kingly blood gruesomely.
It’s bad-ass in a doomed, Scarface-y last stand kind of way, but it’s mostly a big goddamn bummer. Kong puts Dwan down in a misguided attempt to protect her, but she screams at him not too–her being in his clutches was the only thing keeping him from being completely annihilated by the whirlybirds. Kong does manage to fucking DUNK one of the helicopters out of the sky, and it rules, but it’s already too late.
Kong falls prone, his heartbeat slows (which was actually beautiful in a melancholic way), and he slides off the top of the World Trade Center.
The ghoulish paparazzi swarm Kong’s still-warm body like ravenous parasites, and with Fred super dead, there’s no world-weary showbiz type on hand to muse about beauties killing beasts. Instead we just end with Dwan trapped in the middle of the media circus, a nightmare funhouse mirror reflection of the fame she thought she wanted so badly. With Kong murdered and Jack lost, she is utterly alone despite being the center of attention for a crowd of thousands.
It’s a pretty fucking dark, uncertain ending for a spectacular fantasy adventure! It’s also gutsy as hell and brutally honest–you don’t usually see endings like this in special effects-driven blockbusters!
So that’s King Kong ’76! It’ doesn’t have the dino-punching mayhem of its 1933 or 2005 counterparts, but it does a commendable job of modernizing the original story–modern as of 1976, that is. The awe, wonder, mystery, thrills, and heartbreak are all intact, and that’s what really matters in a Kong story. But how about all that narsty behind-the-scenes drama?!
The drama literally started before they were even making the damn thing! Dino De Laurentiis and Michael Eisner both claim they were the first to pitch a King Kong remake. Paramount and Universal had to duke it out to get the rights to Kong from RKO-General, with Paramount ultimately winning after a drawn-out legal battle. That’s an extremely abbreviated version of what happened, though. If you want the full nitty-gritty on the (frankly confusing) in and outs of the whole ordeal, I super recommend checking out this Den of Geek article.
Dwan was Jessica Lange’s first role, having been a model before sharing the screen with the primordial prima donna primate. Meryl Streep was considered for the role, but De Laurentiis said she wasn’t hot enough, which is some whack shit (and immediately reminded me of how Julie Andrews wasn’t “hot enough” for My Fair Lady which was also some whack shit). Bo Derek and Barbara Streisand both turned it down (Streep wasn’t traditionally sexy enough but they were going after Babs?!). Melanie Griffith and Kim Basinger also tried out for the part. Lange did a bang-up job, but it’s interesting to think how the movie would have turned out with any of these other leading ladies, all of which became stars anyway.
John Guillermin wasn’t the first choice for director–their initial pick was Roman Polanski, which, FUCKING YUCK NO THANKS. Michael Winner (best known for Death Wish) and Sam “made The mother-fucking Wild Bunch” Peckinpah also turned it down.
We talked about the Kong suit and head, we talked about the Kong-bot… but how ’bout them arms?
Hell yeah! They built full-size articulated Kong arms to interact with Jessica Lange! Unlike the Kongbot, these (mostly) worked and looked awesome! Each arm weighed over 1600 lbs, and the damn things weren’t completed until well into shooting. Once they were, De Laurentiis was invited to come watch the crew test them out. Naturally the crew extended a giant arm toward De Laurentiis… and made it flip him the bird. De Laurentiis cracked up, but then the arm was stuck like that and it took the team a week to fix it.
De Laurentiis and Michael Eisner weren’t the only ones looking to make a swingin’ 70s Kong! A few years prior, British film studio Hammer Film Productions (best known for their beloved run revamping classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein in the 1950s through the early 70s) had shot a few reels of test footage. The project was ultimately scrapped, but supposedly some of the footage wound up in a Volkswagen commercial?
Is it this one? Considering how faithfully this footage recreates the ’33 Kong, I doubt this is what Hammer was cooking up for their own 70’s Kong. Fun commercial anyway though! The distressed damsel is played by Fay Wray’s daughter!
The last making-of nugget I want to touch on is a very, uh, interesting quote from our guy De Laurentiis. Time Magazine ran a cover story on the production of the film, wherein Dino said:
“No one cried when Jaws died, but when the monkey dies, people are gonna cry. Intellectuals are gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong are gonna love ours.”
I mean, other than him saying that the shark in Jaws is named Jaws, what’s the big deal? The big deal friends, is the rest of the quote:
“Why? Because, I don’t give a crap.”
OKAY so the full quote: “No one cried when Jaws died, but when the monkey dies, people are gonna cry. Intellectuals are gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong are gonna love ours. Why? Because, I don’t give a crap.” There are a few different ways to read that… and none of them are good? I’ve seen the quote without the “Why? Because–” shit, and it definitely works much better that way. He’s either saying that it’ll be good because he says so OR he’s saying it’ll be good because he doesn’t care. As in like, “I don’t give a fuck! I’m crazy like that!” No matter what, that’s a pretty weird way to try and sell your movie to folks.
So what did the world think of De Laurentiis’ Kong? Did intellectuals and film buffs dig it like he said they would? Kinda! It was one of the biggest hits of 1976, making back triple its budget. The response from critics was mixed, with most of the praise going to the groundbreaking special effects and Grodin and Bridges’ high-energy performances. It shared(?!?!) the Academy Award for Best Special Effects with Logan’s Run and was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Sound.
NBC paid a shit-ton of a money for the TV broadcast rights and made it must-see TV by adding in deleted scenes. Kong ’76 generated enough heat to spur on sequel talk too. Pitches included King Kong in Africa (or King Kong Goes to Africa) possibly to mimic Guillermin’s earlier film Shaft in Africa, The Bionic Kong to cash in TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, King Kong vs. Orca (Orca, The Killer Whale being De Laurentii’s Jaws knock-off) and King Kong in Moscow. Funnily enough A*P*E, the trashy South Korean Z-movie made to cash in on Kong ’76, beat King Kong vs. Orca to the punch (more or less) by kicking off with a giant ape vs. great white shark fight!
Obviously none of those sequels happened, though we did get King Kong Lives in 1986! And Kong gets a heart transplant in that, so it’s kiiiiiind of like he’s bionic? Sadly he has yet to visit Africa, Moscow or to do battle with Shamu. But hey, maybe next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong will hit all those milestones?
I wasn’t sure what to expect of Kong ’76–I worried that its heart would be in the wrong place, but I’m happy to have been wrong! My initial instinct (which admittedly lasted into somewhere in the second act) was to call Kong ’76 an ambitious mixed bag that ultimately does more right than wrong, but that’s selling it short and not accounting for how fucking slamming the third act is. ’76 isn’t as groundbreaking or iconic as ’33, nor is it as visually dazzling or richly designed as ’05. Instead, it’s a surprisingly satisfying middle ground that took a more neutral, naturalistic approach to the subject matter without losing any of the original story’s heart or heartache. Kong ’76 doesn’t get talked about much these days, but it’s easy to see how it paved the way for future American creature feature classics like Jurassic Park and Kong: Skull Island. Kong ’76 isn’t flawless, but it’s a beautiful blockbuster with brains that refuses to talk down to its audience, and that’s as compelling now as it was then.