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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

King Kong 1976 review

My good friend Marc asked me in a comment on my gorilla-sized review of the King Kong DVD and Kong: King of Skull Island book if I'd seen the King Kong movies from Japan. I've never seen King Kong Escapes but I've watched King Kong vs. Godzilla twice. The first was the day after Thanksgiving 1982 when some TV station in New Jersey had an all-day Godzilla marathon that I watched while the "grown-ups" were gone to Atlantic City: my very first glimpse of Kong in a movie was the scene where the native islanders get Kong passed-out drunk on berry juice, or something. The next time I saw the flick it was one Saturday afternoon some years later on Channel 48's "Billy Bob's Action Theater": think Vampira's old show but with Jeff Foxworthy's illegit half-brother instead. Some years after that I wound up watching King Kong Lives, mostly 'cuz part of it was filmed in this area. The less said of that unconscionable waste of celluloid, the better...

Anyway, I'll be hooking up with comrade-in-arms Darth Larry in a little bit to see Peter Jackson's new Kong movie (it opens today). So we'll soon have the original classic - which still holds its own against anything that modern-day digital wizardry can cook up - and we'll have the 2005 edition, with Jack Black and Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody directed by Peter Jackson with effects by WETA... 'nuff said.

But what about that other King Kong movie? The seemingly forgotten stepchild of Kong history: where does the 1976 remake figure into all of this?

Recently I had the opportunity to watch Paramount's 1976 redo of the standard Kong story. The one with Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin. I barely remember when this came out, but I recall enough to tell you that this was a huge thing: there were Kong toys and posters all over the place. I think one of the major burger chains even had a tie-in of some sort. I've seen snippets of it over the years but never the entire thing all the way through, so out of a sense of fairness I made myself watch Kong '76...

And... it's not too bad a movie. But it's not too good a one either. Where the '33 one still looks fresh today, the '76 edition looks horribly dated, and I think that's because of how they chose to implement its special effects. Instead of traditional stop-motion animation, they put Rick Baker in a gorilla suit and a servo-loaded mask to create facial emotion (built by the same guy who did the creature's head for Alien). It resulted in using a lot of miniature sets, many of which don't look too convincing. The movie also has numerous problems with compositing: the scene with the log over the chasm is especially troublesome. And some of the elements of King Kong '76 are just plain laughable: the "Petrox" oil company...?? I'll also say that "Dwan" is the stupidest name for a female character ever.

But problems aside, I think that the Seventies Kong does have some virtue. Having it be an oil research vessel that brings the characters to Skull Island is a pretty neat twist on the original tale. The scenes showing Kong held captive inside the ship en route to New York City: there's something that I would love to have seen depicted in the original film somehow. This remake does do a pretty good job casting Kong in a sympathetic light. And if nothing else, King Kong '76 now bears some poignancy in its use of a place that doesn't exist anymore: the original World Trade Center. Above everything else, that is why That Seventies Kong is worth considering. It's also worth bearing in mind that even though it's considered by many to be lackluster today, when it came out King Kong '76 was a major box-office smash. And it had the effect of propelling Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange to some pretty neat things like Academy Awards(tm) and Tron.

I think King Kong 1976 holds a unique place in cinema history. It has some intriguing twists on the classic story, even if it failed to really live up to its full potential because of now-apparent bad production choices. But even that holds some significance: 1976 Kong was the final special-effects movie before the modern blockbuster era. A few months later a movie called Star Wars came out, and suddenly everything - from the way movies were made to the way they were marketed - changed overnight. The '76 Kong came out at the absolute last moment that it could have and still have made a profit. After Star Wars, the bar would have been set so high, people's expections would have been raised so much, that this King Kong wouldn't have passed scrutiny at all. It really was the last big effects film of the era that started with the original King Kong in 1933.

If you wanna know more about the 1976 King Kong, Jeffrey Blair Latta's Kingdom Kong page is rife with info, trivia, pictures and more from the production. It came in quite handy while I was writing this review.

Well, I'm off to see King Kong 2005 now, but I'm glad that I got to get in a word or two about the first two Kong flicks beforehand. Will report back later with the 411 on how this new one stacks up. In the meantime keep smilin' :-)


Anonymous said...

"I've never seen King Kong Escapes"

You can remedy that through Netflix. Must see that. Kong battling a giant robot replica of himself!

By the way, you mentioned: "Someday I want to see how "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" ended 'cuz our parents came back and picked us up just before it ended"

Good news. I did a search for godzilla and the smog monster on Netflix, and they'll have it available for rent next week, on December 20.

NOW you'll FINALLLY see how it ended. Though I've seen that movie several times, the last time I did see it, that was YEARS ago. So my memory is a bit foggy as to what happens in that movie and how it ended.

p'La said...

Chris, as an FYI,
with sadness I report Jeffrey Blair Latta, tribute writer of "Kingdom Kong" passed away Thursday, January 19th. He will be greatly missed by many fans who enjoyed his "Pulp and Dagger" articles as well as his huge fan appetite for all things Kong.