Monday, 26 October 2009

Lights! Camera! Kong!

Dino de Laurentis’ contemporary remake of Cooper and Schoedsack's iconic monster movie earned some considerable critical heat upon its release but for this viewer, it was my first cinematic encounter with King Kong and thanks to a healthy run of TV screenings throughout the 80’s the film would become a favourite of mine...

The story remains by and large the same as the original, with a few changes. Charles Grodin plays Fred S. Wilson, an oilman heading up an expedition to the mysterious fog enshrouded Skull Island. On board is paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) and bubble-headed wannabe actress Dwan (Jessica Lange, and yeah its really spelled Dwan), picked up by the crew when her life raft was spotted adrift on the ocean. Once at Skull Island, its business as usual as Kong takes a shine to Dwan, and Wilson hatches a plan to sell Kong to the natives back in New York...

There’s a scene after the first encounter with Kong at the sacrificial altar, where Jeff Bridges says to an incredulous Charles Grodin, Who do you think did that, a guy in an ape suit? – this cheeky exchange sums up the breezy mood of Kong ’76. The pioneering stop motion effects that brought Kong to life in the 1933 film have been replaced here by Rick Baker’s apesuit. It’s a dicey prospect and admittedly some of the effects creak and groan like old floorboards, most of all in the final act where Kong scales the World Trade Center. Still, it’s a huge leap forward from Toho’s 1962 effort King Kong vs Godzilla, and while Peter Jackson’s 2005 film is Kong is the most magisterial, Baker’s face masks are wonderfully expressive – the look of melancholy on Kong’s face, held captive in the hull of the ship is heartbreaking. Carlo Rambaldi designed an animatronic Kong but it looks awful and thankfully is used fleetingly in the finished film.

Of the three leads, Jessica Lange, girlish, gorgeous and sexy in her first role looks every bit the movie star her character aspires to be in the film. The scene where Kong playfully removes her skimpy ceremonial costume is genuinely erotic stuff. Jeff Bridges, bearded and beatific is strong as the hero and Charles Grodin playing the oilman-turned-PT Barnum is great, and throws out some of the film’s best lines (Take plenty of TNT when you go inland. Any sign of a monkey bigger than four feet send him bang-bang).

Director John Guillermin, having previously made The Towering Inferno does a fine job bringing Lorenzo Semple Jr's screenplay to the screen. The widescreen vistas of Skull Island (or Hawaii) look great and there are a number of excellent set pieces throughout the film – look out for the brilliant sequence where a fearsome Kong smashes his way through the island’s high wooden wall and is snared in the chloroform pit. Also worth mentioning is John Barry for his suitably epic score, and cameraman William Kline who’s shadowy lighting smooths over some of the shortcomings of Rick Baker’s ape suit.

Long available on Paramount DVD on both sides of the Atlantic, the best way to currently see King Kong ’76 is the region-free French Blu-Ray which towers above its DVD companions. Included on the Blu is a short making of, and some deleted scenes. Well worth seeking out.


  1. I have a very real affection for this movie - even if it did lie to me when my mom took me to see it - I truly believed all the nonsense hype and thought every frame of Kong was that big robot. Imagine my chagrin years later when I figured out how to spot special effects and realized it was a big budget American Torurister commercial. In any case - that anger I felt has since mellowed into nostalgic affection - so I'm with you - this Kong is better than its reputation would have you believe.

  2. Yeah, I like this movie a lot. There's always a danger that the things you loved growing up no longer cast the same magic spell they once did, but I'm glad to say King Kong 76 still does it for me - I actually revisited the film a few weeks ago when John reviewed it over at the Nostalgic Attic and it still totally works for me. And Jessica Lange is just super-cute in it...