Carlo's Corner: King Kong Movies
To coincide with the release of Kong: Skull Island, I figured I'd do a retrospective on the exploits of our titular giant ape (and a distant cousin in one case). But this wouldn’t be CARLO'S CORNER if I didn’t shift that focus to the ones that have been unjustly buried by time. What I’ve got for you today are two “duologies” in the form of the Dino De Laurentiis-produced King Kong / King Kong Lives, and the Japanese King Kong Escapes / King Kong VS. Godzilla; with Hong Kong’s The Mighty Peking Man serving as a little bonus. Mosi tatupu! Mosi tatupu!
In 1976 Paramount managed to strike a deal with RKO, beating out Universal to remake King Kong (1933). The end result is as lean and mean and true to the original, on top of being updated for a modern audience. Schoedsack and Cooper’s film may have been groundbreaking in terms of special effects at the time, and it does hold up in that regard, but it takes more apathy than I can muster to look past the way it represents anyone who isn’t a white male.
"Did you ever meet anyone whose life was saved by Deep Throat?"
Let’s be honest, we’ve all come across the story of King Kong in some form or other, meaning there isn’t much point in dwelling on the 'why' (a lesson the current wave of comic book movies still haven't seemed to pick up on) and lucky for us, the folks behind this particular rendition were of the same mind. They managed to establish character, mythology, and the arrival at Skull Island in barely over 20 minutes. That is how it is done. Don’t give me backstory, just get to the money! And if you think this kind of pacing would deter from the mystery, well, it doesn’t. Whether they’re built sets or actual locations, Skull Island is as inviting to the imagination as it is daunting, and John Barry’s subtle score invokes a proper sense of a journey into the unknown. Another thing that totally holds up are the creature effects, which pretty much goes without saying when you’ve got Baker and Rambaldi on board (even if Rambaldi ended up with the sweaty end of the lollipop).
I can't help but question the need for remakes when there have already been quality attempts that withstand the test of time on a sociological level. Often it just comes down to zeitgeist, and admittedly re-releasing under-appreciated 40-year old movies is anything but. As for King Kong Lives, it’s an absurd case of "too little, too late," but it still somehow got made. Which I appreciate, though no one in their right mind would consider it “under-appreciated.” Even if it has specks of insanity–like a bunch of tiny doctors using giant tools to perform open-heart surgery on Kong, and him getting hit in the face with a golfball–it’s visually drab, and those moments are far and few between. But please, movie industry, keep churning out unnecessary sequels until every franchise blows itself up into outer space. I'll be there, uh, Back Row and center!
Welcome to outer space.
During the 60’s, producer John Beck was tasked to shop Willis O’Brien’s (the guy behind stop-motion Kong) "King Kong VS. Frankenstein" treatment around. When it became clear that most Western studios were passing on it due to the high costs of stop-motion, Beck eventually sold the script to Toho, a Japanese studio known for its rubber-monster movies, most notably Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (who would go on to direct Toho's Kong-duology). Frankenstein became Godzilla, and the rest is, well, bonkers. Look, I'm just going to give you a breakdown of what they're about from here on out, because that's all you'll really need to discern if they're for you.
In King Kong VS. Godzilla, this TV producer called Mr. Tako (who could easily pass for one of Groucho Marx’s characters) wants to boost ratings by sending two of his cronies off to capture King Kong (who looks fucking SPENT in this), so he can use him for promotional purposes. It’s your basic King Kong plot with all of the mystery and sense of wonder stripped away to the point the mere existence of Kong becomes matter-of-fact. At the same time Godzilla awakens from his iceberg, consequently stealing Mr. Tako’s thunder. First world problems, amirite? Anyway it culminates in an all-out battle between these two dinguses, and Kong even ends up with electrical powers, shoves a tree down Godzilla’s throat, and manages to knock himself out in the process.
King Kong Escapes (aka King Kong no Gyakushuu, or King Kong's Counterattack in Japan) is loosely based on a series of Rankin/Bass cartoons (who co-produced) where Kong is displayed as a sort of avenger of justice, fighting the forces of evil. They combined this with a James Bond-type spy plot (which was the style at the time), where an evil scientist named Doctor Who (no relation) builds a mechanical replica of King Kong to mine the Arctic for something called Element X. When it malfunctions because of radiation, Doctor Who decides to capture the real King Kong assuming said radiation won’t have any effect on him. Wrong! Kong goes hog wild, knocks the brain-control device off his head, and begins his rampage toward Tokyo. So Who deploys Mechani-Kong to stop him, culminating in... you guessed it: an all-out battle between these two dinguses.
The Mighty Peking Man is a Shaw Brothers production, and technically the only rip-off on today’s list. However, for calling it a rip-off, the production values on display here are pretty dang good! I’d even go so far as saying that the suit looks better than the officially sanctioned Toho entries, and the miniature work looks amazing. Conceptually it may not be quite as nutty, but it does have that trademark Hong Kong manicness & cartooney logic about it, keeping it firmly located on the spectrum.
Now, the only way this isn’t King Kong, is in name and name only. Thankfully, so long as you didn’t call it that, there was nothing keeping you from making a movie about a gigantic ape-like creature being brought into human civilization; or about a half-naked woman raised in the jungle by said creature, who also acts as his love interest. That’s right, this movie manages to not only simultaneously rip off King Kong and Tarzan, but also acts as an unauthorized bio-pic of Woody Allen’s life. ZING!
If it’s the thought of dopey, high-concept nonsense that sends your heart aflutter: hot dog, we have a wiener. And heck, if you’re actually serious about cinema you should at least check out Guillermin’s Very Solid ’76 remake because it has a great cast, and it came out in a time before movies had to have CG and be 300 hours long to tell a story.
For a trip deeper down the monkey movie rabbit hole I can suggest the following: Mighty Joe Young (1949), Planet of the Apes (1968) and most of its sequels, A*P*E (1976) (“Kong” flips off a helicopter in this turd), King Kung Fu (1976), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Link (1986), Primal Rage (1988), Monkey Shines (1988), Shakma (1990), and the 1996 duology: Dunston Checks In / Ed.