Just as the original (1933) movie encompassed its era, this 1976 remake is a true testament to the 70’s. It was the transitional decade bridging the war-torn nation into the “greed is good” generation of the 80’s. The changes made from the the original plot created by Merian C. Cooper in the 30’s speak volumes.
Notably, the expedition to Skull Island is no longer a quest to make Carl Denham’s movie. Instead Denham’s character is replaced by Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) the greedy oilman, leading the crew of the Petrox Explorer to a secret island in the South Pacific. The location of the undiscovered island was leaked to the oil company by a “bought” politician. (Noticing a trend? …Yes, the hippies are behind this one!) This is apparent by the swapping of the dapper Jack Driscoll character for the Ivy League hippie stowaway, Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges).
But the most noticeable variance between Merian Cooper’s groundbreaking monster movie was the growing affection of the leading lady for the monster. In the original, Kong was a man eating monster, but in the 70’s he was a monster that had no choice but to be born a monster, and the virus we call “corporate and political men” is the true monster for killing Kong… Right hippies?
In the wake of the record breaking horror film Jaws a year before, producer Dino De Laurentiis, pounced on the opportunity for a remake of King Kong, the monster of all monster movies. The De Laurentiis name is graffitied across the screen in the opening credits, making you feel like you took a wrong turn down a bad neighborhood. It makes you want to roll the window up, turn down the stereo, and lock the doors. “DE LAURENTIIS!”
Just keep drivin’
As I mentioned the ascot wearing Fred Wilson (Grodin) sets off with a crew of oilmen for an uncharted island. The crew is infiltrated by a scholastic hippie named Jack (Bridges) who warns the men of the island’s mythical creature, KONG.
Soon they find a raft floating in the middle of the South Pacific with a beautiful, drugged out struggling actress named Dwan (Jessica Lange). Within moments of her rescue she tells a room full of lonely men of how she has no-where else to be, and no one knows where she is. Damn good thing they weren’t well-dressed pirates! As if that isn’t the most blatant invitation for raped sharkbait I’ve ever heard. Toss her overboard like a warmed watermelon to get rid of the evidence. Savvy?
The island soon interrupts the blooming yet incredibly boring romance between Dwan and Jack, when a pack of natives swipe her from the dock (Yes, the boat had a floating dock). They just stroll up in a canoe and caught her sitting alone in the dark. They didn’t even have to stop paddling. Gotta figure the entire ride home they just laughed at how easy it was, just hours before they were tasked with attacking a giant metal oil tanker the likes they’ve never seen before. They must have expected to raid and kidnap this girl after going through all the rooms in the giant shiny boat filled with angry oil men. But there she was, just dicking around on the dock at night. Probably would’ve gotten away with it if one of them didn’t drop his bracelet of sharp teeth. How stupid do you have to be to mess up that layup? He must have been the village idiot.
Every town has one
Anyway, Kong takes Dwan, and the crew goes after them. Kong washes her in a waterfall because even he thought she looked “70’s blonde chick dirty” I’m guessing he was hoping his waterfall cured STDs. But even more amazing, Kong’s bath and blow dry maneuver worked and cranked her engine like a ride in Ryan Gosling’s Wagoneer down a bumpy dirt road. The rest of the movie Kong simply tries to get her alone to reciprocate.
The men eventually capture Kong and bring him to New York City for a grand display. He escapes and terrorizes the city looking for Dwan. He catches up with her at an abandoned bar, where we find that Jack not only passes up a sure thing, he is also just a hippie poser, having no qualms with wearing a giant chinchilla fur coat. Apparently keeping Kong alive, despite the immediate threat to the lives of thousands, is a priority. But screw the chinchillas, that was a damn nice fur coat!
Eventually Kong scales the World Trade Center (instead of the Empire State Building) where helicopters (instead of planes) blast away at him until he falls. The last scene did not deliver the famous line “It was beauty that killed the beast” but instead we are treated to a guy waving his T-shirt at the camera as it fades away. My guess is that was “DE LAURENTIIS!”
Having watched this at such a young age, THIS is the horror movie that stuck with me. I was plagued by nightmares throughout childhood of a giant humanoid monster destroying the world around me. I loved it. Because it’s not full of gore like most monster movies, this film can be enjoyed by kids in that “monster movie” stage before we are all corrupted by slasher and ghost films.
For it’s time, the special effects in this movie were monumental and deserving of the Oscar that it won. Despite having a “life size” robotic Kong created, it looked too unreal to use (they limited it to one scene). The rest of the film took advantage of the top of the line special effects available at the time. Although it may come across as obvious green screen camera work now, you must look past that to appreciate the presentation of this move.
It was filmed in Panavision, which ironically was created as a result of the efforts of the original producer Merian Cooper in 1933.
The soundtrack again played a role in the tension, especially the creepy pipe music mixed with the symphonic score.
One defining characteristic that makes Kong intimidating is his speed. He didn’t need superfast speed to build tension and fear. He walked slowly, and it worked. In fact, the entire buildup of Kong’s appearance as he walked knocking down trees with the native drums and the score climaxing is one of the most memorable horror movie scenes of all time.
Re-watching this film for the review was the first time I actually followed the plot, having usually fast forwarded the entire beginning to get to Kong as a kid. And for good reason too; Kong doesn’t even make an appearance for the first 50 minutes of the movie. Not only that but those 50 minutes are incredibly BORING!
They filled it with Kong innuendos to remind us what movie we are watching. They must have thought the plot was so pivotal to the movie’s success that they needed 50 minutes of build up to establish it. De Laurentiis must’ve been into that freaky tantric stuff. Even Grodin’s character gets bored of the whole oil plotline at one point.
Deal breaker here, WHY DOESN’T KONG EAT ANYONE? It was the perfect setup; Jaws petrified the world only a year before, and here comes a giant humanoid ape, but he doesn’t eat a single person?
I realize they figured it would be hard to convince the audience of the love between Dwan and Kong if he ran around eating people like popcorn, but come on. Merian Cooper had it right in the original; Kong was eating, biting, even squashing people, and it showed it all. In this hippie remake, even the people he steps on are all squirming around like it’s some kind of minor inconvenience for them. Lame.
The original got it right
Despite it’s flaws, for the time it was released, this remake was top notch. Watchable with kids because there is no gore, but ironically it leaves a void because we WANT the gore. Many will find it unwatchable because of the 50 minute lead up to Kong, and unfortunately this remake will never be appreciated because it is forever overshadowed by both the original and the 2005 remake.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every “innuendo” about Kong
Take a Drink: whenever Dwan screams
Take a Drink: whenever Kong pounds his chest
Down a Shot: every time Kong cockblocks Jack Prescott
Down Two Shots: For the twin towers that now steal the entire ending from Kong