Kong: Skull Island is just around the corner, twelve years after Peter Jackson reimagined America’s most iconic movie monster. Dating back to 1933 with the seminal RKO feature (one of the pioneers of special effects and stop-motion in cinema), the great ape has had an interesting history on screens big and small, and treated with comparably greater respect than many of his peers.
Sure, there was the likes of King Kong Lives and The Mighty Kong (an animated direct to video musical, to boot), but other than that, there’s very little in the way of cheese or silliness to this property. Taking heavy cues from the likes of Beauty and The Beast, what should be just dumb romps place a good deal of emphasis on characterisation, especially the dynamic between the girl, usually called Anne, and Kong. Like Beauty, Anne is initially terrified of the primal creature, only to unearth something sweeter and possibly even a little human about him.
The 1976 version, courtesy of Paramount and legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, feels more in line with this train of thought than the more spectacle-driven versions.
It cuts back heavily on monsters and action, dwelling more on our characters and the ambience. This time, in lieu of a sneaky film crew, we get an oil scouting team who believe an island in the Indian Ocean has a wealth of black gold, and our Jack is a stowaway palaeontologist with an interest in exploring the mystery island’s fauna. Anne this time is wannabe starlet and socialite Dwan, who is rescued when her yacht is caught in a storm and becomes the glamour girl for the expedition publicity shoot. The rest plays out as you’d expect.
What immediately struck me about this version is the atmosphere of the piece. Yes, the production values show money was spent, going from island jungles and cliffs, through tribal villages and sea storms to a sizeable climax at the World Trade Center with police and military, but what British director John Guillermin brings is a sense of otherworldly, often strange atmosphere to the island portion of the story. It almost compensates for the lack of big action by creating a genuine sense of mystery and isolation, leaving you wondering what you’ll see next on this uncharted land. The evocative score by maestro John Barry fits this mentality perfectly, being more emotional than a loud, crash and bash action affair, though not without some exciting cues like at the climax.
The human cast are good: Jeff Bridges acquits himself well as a charismatic leading man in Jack, Grodin is having a ball as the scumbag oil executive who is this film’s Denham, and Jessica Lange made her debut in this film as Dwan, and the film is certainly keen her to stick in skimpy outfits and dresses. She’s maybe written as a little too much of an airhead in this version, but she does well at conveying fear when she’s around Kong. Speaking of whom, it’s future legend Rick Baker inside a fairly decent suit, and the motorised mask does allow for a fairly deal of expression and articulation, adding a more relatable quality to this Kong compared to his stop-motion predecessor.
Lorzeno Semple Jr. (the man behind 60s Batman and Three Days of The Condor) offers up a more grounded narrative, having cut back on a lot of the larger, more fantastical elements of the original.
Aside from a giant snake, Kong is the only monster present and you don’t get a lot of mayhem until the third act when he’s in New York. As said, for the most part, this version focuses more on ambience and developing our characters. This version also tries to humanise Kong a fair bit and ties him back more directly into the idea of capitalist exploitation of nature for profit. It’s a nice effort to give the story more thematic heft, as well as contemporary relevance given the huge Oil crises of the time.
What this approach does mean is slightly slower pacing when compared to the other Kong films, and a film that perhaps feels smaller in scale and less ambitious compared to its peers. It feels less like a big action adventure romp for the whole family, and more like a smaller adventure drama tied into real world issues, making it probably the least upfront fun of the major Kong films.
I find it strange the film has gotten a ‘camp’ branding over the years, as its probably the least humorous of the Kongs, and certainly less so compared to Semple’s more famous work. Not to say the film doesn’t have amusing moments, but considering the time and who made it, it’s actually quite tame. Plus, appreciated though it is, the commentary isn’t especially original and could’ve stood to maybe go a little further in exploring its themes and making the most out of changing cinema to petrol as the expedition motivation.
I do think Guillermin and Laurentiis produced a decent film here, and one with some merit to it. After so many cheesy knockoffs and imitators, it was good to see a Kong film take itself more seriously and try to give itself more thematic meat, as well as more of a personality to Kong. Granted, it’s a shame that the idea of a big budget 70s King Kong doesn’t lead to a stop motion effects extravaganza under the stewardship of Harryhausen, but this isn’t a bad choice if you don’t feel like sitting through three hours of the 2005 version or like the people involved.
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