This apparently will be King Kong week here at CHUD.com. Not only does this latest installment of The Chewer Column feature loads of anger towards the giant ape’s 1976 big screen appearance, but also expect to see interviews by Devin on Peter Jackson’s remake (which hits DVD tomorrow… Why not buy it from CHUD right here?!) as well as coverage from the Kong DVD press event that both Newell Todd and myself covered which featured Rick Baker himself saying, "When I first heard they were going to remake Kong back in the 70s, I was like, oh great, they’ll probably get some idiot to walk around in a big dumb suit… and I was right!"
But until then, feel the ire of one Mr. Brigden…
A Look Back in Anger: King Kong, 1976
By Charlie Brigden
Member since 12/27/01
Filmmaker in Bristol, UK
It’s fair to say that, right now, a good part of the interweb is wrapped up in Kong Fever. The original 1933 classic has been re-released in a brand-new special edition, and Peter Jackson’s remake has been revealed to the world and will now soon be hitting DVD. Yessir, if you’re a fan of gigantic monkeys, it’s a good time to be alive.
The same can’t be said for 1976. It was a time where Jaws had just kicked the box-office into overdrive, Travis Bickle was shooting pimps left right and centre while taking Cybill Shepherd to porno movies, and the industry buzz was alight with tales of this ridiculous movie called “Star Wars” that was pegged from the outset as a complete turkey. And it was at this time that a big ape was upstaged by a banshee in a Jessica Lange costume.
The rival production deal has been going on in Hollywood long before Deep Impact and Armageddon, or Volcano and Dante’s Peak if you prefer. In the 70s, for some reason there was a resurgence in King Kong, and immediately, both Paramount and Universal announced their intentions to remake the classic ape flick. Both were different concepts; Paramount wanted a modern version, which Universal wanted to set theirs in the 30s as a period piece, called The Legend of King Kong. Universal’s fell through, although twenty-nine years later, it seems they’ve got their wish.
However, Paramount’s production was going full-steam ahead, and was under the supervision of a man who’s name inspires fear in moviegoers and little children alike. Dino De Laurentiis. To be fair, as much as the man is universally reviled, he has had his hand in some class movies, such as Manhunter, Bava’s Danger Diabolik, Serpico and even some Fellini movies. However, this doesn’t excuse the boatload of crap he has had his hands in.
And this brings us to King Kong circa 1976. The main buzz around the film seemed to be the special effects, and how the increasingly sophisticated technology of the seventies would be used to bring a new vision of everyone’s favourite ape to life. De Laurentiis originally approached Mario Bava, although while he turned it down because he didn’t want to leave Italy, he recommended another effects genius, Carlo Rambaldi, who worked on Bava’s giallo swansong Twitch of the Death Nerve, and would later go on to help create Alien’s title xenomorph, the Shai’Hulud from Dune and the ugliest sympathetic creature ever, E.T.
Of course, the original Kong was in stop-motion, but here the producers felt that it wouldn’t be effective enough for their modern audience. So instead, they went about making a full-sized mechanical Kong. This created a huge buzz for the picture, although ironically, it was never seen on screen for more than a minute. There are rumours it was a publicity stunt to promote the film and make it seem more than it was, although different sources quote different things, so it seems nobody is quite sure what happened. Instead, De Laurentiis turned to that Toho staple to create Kong (more on that later).
But while special effects are important, even more so are the creative staff. Rumour has it that both Roman Polanski and Sam Peckinpah turned down the chance to direct, so the job went to director John Guillerman, who directed the classics The Towering Inferno and Shaft in Africa, and would go on to helm Sheena – starring the delicious Tanya Roberts – and, uh, King Kong Lives. While the idea of a Peckinpah Kong Kong is the stuff dreams are made of, Guillerman got the job.
The choice of writer was the kind of decision only De Laurentiis could make. Lorenzo Semple, Jr had collaborated on some decent films in his time, including Papillon and Three Days of the Condor. However, more alarmingly, he also wrote the 1960s Batman TV series and subsequent movie, and would go on to scribe such gems as ‘We’re going to empty your memory as we might empty your pockets,’ and ‘Check the angular vector of the moon!’ in the 1980 classic Flash Gordon.
Then came the cast. I wasn’t around until the late seventies, so I don’t know if Charles Grodin was some sort of super-actor, but having him as the lead is kind of hard to fathom. Jeff Bridges I can understand a bit more, even in his Chewbacca phase as he was here. The choice of Fay Wray’s successor went to an unknown actress making her debut, something she wouldn’t live down until she won two Academy Awards. Sure, Jessica Lange was hot and she had a decent scream, but she wasn’t the subtlest of actresses, and certainly wasn’t the 1970s equivalent of Naomi Watts. Then again, this take on Kong was a tad different, or retarded if you prefer.
Now I’ve spent all this time talking about the making of the flick, let’s talk about the picture itself.
In short, it’s an absolute mess. De Laurentiis and company felt it was a good idea to take every single thing that was great about the original and throw it out. It skews the pathos so it seems less about an ape with a fixation and more about an ape that wants to get into Jessica Lange’s tiny pants, and completely throws the sympathy we have for Kong away, mainly because we want him to die because maybe when he falls off the World Trade Center (which they changed it to, as opposed to the Empire State Building), he’d have a good chance of dragging that screaming bitch to her death with him.
Alas, no. It’s pretty much summed up when heroic environmentalist – who is against the rape of the environment but has no qualms about giving Lange a coat which looks like it was made out of about nine huskies – Bridges says ‘There is a girl out there who might be running for her life from some gigantic turned-on ape.’ Evidently, this is less a remake of King Kong and more a remake of The Beast In Heat.
When I think of Kong 76, I think of the documentary on the making of Richard Donner’s Superman, when Bond alumni Guy Hamilton was working on the film, which had scenes planned such as a gem where Superman is flying through the city, sees a guy with a bald head, swoops down only to find Kojak, who says his usual ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ shtick. Needless to say, this potential uber-camp classic never saw the light of day, as Hamilton left the picture. However, Kong wasn’t so lucky.
It’s possible to see the picture in a very small positive light if you imagine it as a – dumb – parody of the original. It takes some relevant seventies issues, such as the gas crisis and the rise of the sexual revolution, and even finds time to poke fun at Hollywood itself, with the scene in a NY bar which has doors like a saloon, which are opened by Kong’s finger like he’s a huge furry John Wayne. But that’s perhaps giving too much credit to the people who made this gigantic pile of shit.
As well as the sexual nature of Kong and Lange’s relationship, they felt they needed a hipper partnership for the time period, kind of like a buddy comedy that plays off the sexual tension of its actors. Only one of them is a gigantic ape. Excuse me for the extraneous celebrity namedropping here, but I remember interviewing Ray Harryhausen for the now-defunct Movie Insider magazine, and when talking about Kong 76, he mentioned how much he hated that ‘Lange did so much smart-talking’ to Kong.
Which is exactly true. Let’s take a little pop quiz, shall we? You’re stuck on a savage Lost World-style island in the hands of a giant ape who is seemingly intent on exploring your furry parts. Do you:
A) Scream loudly.
B) Swear loudly and hope to hell Jeff Bridges shaves and then come gets you.
C) Shout ‘You goddamn chauvinist pig ape!’
If you guessed ‘C,’ you’d be correct, and also retarded. Unfortunately, on receipt of what would be a diabolical line in any movie, let alone this epic that’s camper than Kenneth Williams, Kong fails to do the decent thing and bite her head off, and instead gives her a shower. While this does give us the only genuine thrill in the picture, by showing us a little more of Lange’s ample breastage, it still doesn’t change the fact that she’s still alive, and therefore a horrible handicap to the film.
Of course, this goes on. At one point, she asks Kong his star sign. She talks about being afraid of heights. And the rest is mostly filled with Kong looking googly-eyed at her. It’s embarrassing for Kong, and it’s embarrassing for the audience who have to sit through this crap. It doesn’t help that Kong looks about as realistic as Clarence Beeks at the end of Trading Places.
The next thing is Skull Island. Remember the original, where the place was filled with Stegosaurs, Brontosaurs, T-Rex’s and the like? Well, let’s put it this way, even the teaser for Jackson’s remake had more dinosaurs than Kong 76. Why? BECAUSE THERE ISN’T ANY. Gone are the exciting clashes with prehistoric beasts and the crew of the SS Venture. Gone are the scenes of Kong wrestling with Pterodactyls as they swoop in and try to snatch his beloved. What do we get instead?
A big snake. A big fake looking snake. Kong wrestles with it for about two minutes, and then rips it apart. Unfortunately, it’s about as convincing as a man wrestling with a painted vacuum cleaner hose. It’s crudely made, apparently animated by members of the Official Association of Puppeteers with Parkinson’s Disease, and just looks fucking awful. But that’s all we get. And I’ll be perfectly honest, even though I watched it twice, I can’t tell you what fills all that Skull Island running time, which probably comes in at about an hour and a bit of its running time.
The human characters are worthless. Charles Grodin as the Denham-substitute, here an oil tycoon who thinks there’s great resources on the island, is awful and acts so over the top I think he thought he was signing up for a Leslie Nielsen comedy. Jeff Bridges is normally a reliable actor, but here he’s stuck with the same lines about what they’re doing to the environment and Kong, and he says them over and over again.
And finally we come to Kong, who like the rest of the movie, is shamefully bad. Remember how I mentioned that after building a full-size Kong, they went the Toho route? That’s right, here the Eighth Wonder of the World wouldn’t even be the Eighth Wonder of Wal-Mart. It’s a guy in a suit, a bad suit no less.
I’ll admit that it was the seventies, and before the Star Wars boom of flashy special effects. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Kong looks like a background actor from Planet of the Apes, who at least had the conceit that they were supposed to look like apes in suits, to fit with the concept of the story. Here we have a man in a suit pretending to be a real live gorilla. I’m sorry folks, it doesn’t work.
The sad thing is, behind those googly red eyes is makeup genius Rick Baker. He who, five years later, won the first ever makeup oscar for An American Werewolf In London. A movie, which incidentally had less than half the budget of Kong, and still had a pretty damn convincing werewolf as opposed to the approximation of an ape we got. Hell, I watched Kentucky Fried Movie the other night, and even that has a more realistic gorilla in it.
The other thing is Kong’s movement. I figure, you’ve got a guy in a suit, that gives you a bit more leeway to actually mimic the actual movements of a gorilla. Wrong again. I remember reading that Baker wanted to walk on his hands, but the producers struck him down. So instead of something which could have at least moved something in the area of a real gorilla, we instead got something which looks painfully like a man in a suit. I imagine Toho used that medium because it was cheap, and they didn’t have big Hollywood budgets to spend on Godzilla movies. But here, it’s inexcusable.
I don’t really understand why they couldn’t have stayed with stop-motion. It would have been a fine tribute to Willis O’Brien, and might have given it a little more of a fantasy atmosphere. Hell, even a puppet would have been better. But alas, we’re stuck with Toho-Kong.
After spending pages slating it, I suppose I should try and see if there’s anything positive I can think of about this flick. Well, the score is decent. I don’t think it’s as good as some of the folks out there would have you believe, and over-relies way too much on the sugary theme, but it’s decent, although not enough for me to purchase. The cinematography is nice, and they do their best trying to make a man in a suit look vaguely real, and while it doesn’t work, the picture still looks nice a lot of the time. That’s about it, really.
The directing is pedestrian, the acting goes from non-existent to uber-annoying, the script is shocking, Jessica Lange should have been duct-taped from the first moment she’s on screen, and Kong is so bad Willis O’Brien is no doubt still spinning in his grave, twenty-nine years after.
Of all the things that suck about this movie, the biggest one is that we never got a chance to see De Laurentiis’ opus. Apparently, the big man had plans to follow this up with King Kong Vs. Orca, pitting the big ape against the titular star of 1977’s Orca: The Killer Whale. That would have been greatness, but instead it’s just one of those legendary ‘almost’ films.
Maybe once Peter Jackson’s done with The Lovely Bones, he might take this idea on board. Hey, one can hope…
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