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King Kong (1976)

by Glenn Erickson Nov 28, 2020

 

Dino De Laurentiis took a lot of flack for his underwhelming remake of the incomparable 1933 horror classic, which he promoted into a monster-sized hit. Nothing could eclipse the original but the good casting still appeals. An honest ad campaign would have leaned on two points:  SEE Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin carry an insultingly ugly production like real stars!  SEE ‘newcomer’ Jessica Lange play a sexualized ditz so well that she retains her dignity! …and most importantly,  SEE the biggest special effects fraud ever perpetrated on movie screens!  Umbrella Entertainment from Australia puts this one back in print, on Blu-ray.


King Kong (1976)
Region B Blu-ray
Umbrella Entertainment
1976 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 134 min. / Street Date November 4, 2020 / Available at Umbrella Enertainment 19.95 (au)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange, Rick Baker, Rene Auberjonois, Julius Harris, Jack O’Halloran, Ed Lauter, John Agar.
Cinematography: Richard Kline
Film Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Production design: Mario Chiari, Dale Hennesy
Original Music: John Barry
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. based on 1933 screenplay by James Creelman, Ruth Rose from an idea by Merian C. Cooper & Edgar Wallace
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Directed by
John Guillermin

So far there have been two major remakes of the beyond-stupendous 1933 original King Kong, not to mention scores of imitations, homages, and other random sacrilegious oversized monkey monsters. When the 1976 King Kong arrived I was working for a company aligned with Dino De Laurentiis’s distributor, Paramount, so we were all invited to a Saturday morning pre-release screening. It turned into something of a debacle. Earlier in the summer, other friends had crashed the call for extras to be part of the audience to witness in action the filmic debut of the colossal mechanical Kong constructed by Carlo Rambaldi. I’ll get to those superfluous personal stories a bit later.

De Laurentiis’s King Kong was not popular among film students and aspiring effects artisans; it represented everything wrong with Hollywood. The Italian producer had already shut down a competing Kong project at Universal, planned as a period picture using advanced stop-motion techniques. Dino then engineered success for his massive deal by manufacturing a bogus ‘Event Movie Phenomenon,’ promoting effects designer Carlo Rambaldi’s giant mechanical Kong as the new cinematic Eighth Wonder of the World. As every reader of Cinefantastique soon discovered, ace makeup designer Rick Baker appeared as Kong in all but a few very short cuts in the movie, in an excellent ape suit largely of his own creation — Baker said that Carlo Rambaldi helped with animatronics in the ape mask designed and worn by Baker. Yet Baker is credited only with ‘special contributions.’ The opening titles pause to announce that ‘the producer wishes to acknowledge that Kong has been designed/engineered/constructed by Carlo Rambaldi.’

 

The debut of King Kong ’76 came with a double disillusion for starry-eyed effects fans. Whether fair and square or by twisting arms, De Laurentiis got the press and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to accept the lie that the Kong on screen was a fantastic mechanical creation. In his favorable L.A. Times movie review, critic Charles Champlin mentioned a scene in the film in which Kong fights a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Did he just garble a paragraph comparing two versions of Kong, or did he not pay attention during the screening?  There are of course no dinosaurs in the ’76 remake.

The film itself is an okay adventure, with pretty locations and a slightly comic screenplay that follows the original fairly closely. The updatings aren’t particularly clever. As the writer or contributor to The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor Lorenzo Semple Jr. was well-versed in post-Watergate paranoid conspiracy cynicism. But he was also a major contributor to the Adam West Batman TV show. Frequently dipping to the same level of humor, in this Kong ‘Carl Denham’ is now Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), a pompous executive for Petrox Oil. Wilson has risked his career on the bet that a mysterious island surrounded by a permanent fog bank contains a vast reserve of raw petroleum (bubbling ooze, Texas Tea). Permanent clouds hiding a mystery on a mountainous island?  We fantastic film fans thought of something else.

‘Jack Driscoll’ is now Jack Prescott (top-billed Jeff Bridges), a humble associate professor who stows away on Wilson’s Oil Ship because he’s convinced that the same remote island conceals a Giant Monster. The 1933 film’s Depression-era New York damsel ‘Ann Darrow’ is now Dwan (Jessica Lange), an uninhibited starlet rescued from a life raft. Dwan seems vaguely drugged-out; she’s bummed that her potential starring role in a Hong Kong movie sunk with her producer’s yacht. Her manner is promiscuous but we’re assured she’s a good girl beneath the naughty-naughty sparkle in her eye.

The expedition finds the mystery island (actually spectacular locations on Kauai). Their contact with its fierce native tribe plays out remarkably like the very first Mad Magazine movie spoof ‘Ping Pong’, where Denham eagerly trades his blonde actress for a full set of New York Yankees baseball cards.  On cue, the savages kidnap Dwan by simply paddling their canoe past the ship’s convenient landing platform, as if cruising by for take-out food. This upsets Jack, as he and Dwan were planning a casual midnight rendezvous. She’s delivered for the sacrifice, and Kong carries her away into the jungle. The desperate Jack pursues with a rescue party, but Fred Wilson remains focused on his oil gamble and waves off Dwan’s predicament as Fortunes of War. When informed by his geologist Bagley (Rene Aberjonois) that the island’s crude is worthless, Fred redirects his effort to capturing the monster ape alive, to serve as a Petrox advertising mascot.

The jungle adventures are pared down to nothing. Kong wipes out most of the rescue party in a near-exact replay of the famed log scene. Noted players Ed Lauter and Jack O’Halloran exit the film without so as much as a ‘thank you for your service.’ (Capable actors John Randolph and Julius Harris are similarly given little to do.) Instead of undressing Dwan, Kong gives her a shower in a convenient waterfall. An attack by a giant snake allows Jack to effect a rescue. The rest of the story plays out as expected, with the addition of scenes on an oil tanker outfitted as a floating monkey cage. (No version of Kong tells us how Denham/Wilson manages to move the enormous ape off an island and onto the ship.) In New York, Dwan gets her big break at the debut exhibition of her monstrous jungle paramour. As in a bad musical bio, Dwan’s fixation on fame doesn’t sit well with Jack. John Agar has a couple of moments as New York’s mayor. The finale recreates the wrecking of the Third Avenue El; the climb to the top of the city’s tallest building cues a now-uncomfortable finale at the World Trade Center.

 

That King Kong works at all is due to its star performances with proper credit given to director John Guillermin, who keeps the show from sinking into its own pointlessness. Bridges doesn’t condescend to the material and proves that he can carry most anything with aplomb. The uneven Grodin is less effective as Fred Wilson, a corporate creep who predictably puts lives in jeopardy in his quest for a big promotion. We’re invited to laugh when Fred has a final encounter with the sole of Kong’s foot. Interestingly, an outtake included on the disc makes it seem as if the filmmakers were leaving a door open for Wilson to survive.

Jessica Lange was indeed recruited out of ‘nowhere’ to be ‘discovered’ by Dino De Laurentiis. Before Kong Lange was mainly a model with an impressive education and some stage and dance experience. Taking the job must have entailed a serious career calculation. Roles don’t come much more iconic than that of Ann Darrow, the Beauty that captivates a giant gorilla. Yet as written the castaway starlet Dwan is a bubbly bimbo stereotype, a presumed producer’s plaything tagging along on a world cruise. Lange makes the ‘shallow but sweet’ character her own, turning a pitfall role into a positive opportunity. Dwan is active, not passive; Lange is in control even when the script calls for occasional exploitative peek-a-boo costume games. Her baby-doll line readings overpower Lorenzo Semple’s ditzy dialogue. We laugh with Ms. Lange, not at her:

 

“Did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?”

“Such a nice, sweet – nice, sweet, sweet monkey. You know, we’re gonna be great friends. I’m a Libra. What sign are you?”

“Hey, Kong. Remember me from before, your blind date?”

 

I think that Jessica Lange is the biggest reason that audiences stick with the movie. Her silly ‘conversations’ with Kong are reasonably funny. Pauline Kael compared her to Carole Lombard, which can’t have hurt. Elsewhere Kael praised the entire movie, which does hurt. Audiences were ready to see Lange in more and different roles. She was perhaps the biggest ’70s debut in a fantastic film, this side of Christopher Reeve.

 

With images of the film plastered on several major magazines America accepted De Laurentiis’s Kong as an ‘event.’ But Hollywood knew that a fraud had been perpetrated. The unsung star of King Kong ’76 is Rick Baker, a brilliant self-made makeup whiz whose only pre- Kong ape on film had been Schlock for John Landis. Baker’s Kong suit is simply phenomenal. It isn’t helped by the fact that he was directed in such a strange way. Perhaps ‘walking like a monkey’ was just too corny for the filmmakers, for this Kong stands and walks upright. He basically moves like a gorilla actor on a jungle movie, strolling to the men’s room between takes.

The full suit looks sensational but the real surprise comes with Rick Baker’s ’emoting’ for the scenes in which Kong dandles and fondles his latest bride play-toy, the blonde Dwan. We can’t see where the suit ends and Baker’s ape eyes begin. They’re bright red and big — Baker wore scary-looking oversized contact lenses. Baker’s ape face seems to have unlimited emotional flexibility, registering surprise, anger, and delight with his new female play-toy. Different masks for different expressions, perhaps?  Baker acknowledged that Carlo Rambaldi fabricated the toggles and gimmicks to distort the rubber mask but insisted that it was all his own design. The facial contortion that got the biggest applause was when Kong blow-dries Dwan with his breath, and his cheeks puff out like a trumpet players’. The movie gets full marks for these scenes.

Ms. Lange seems concerned about what kind of &@#%*! movie she’s gotten herself into. MCDS is a common problem for starlets: Monkey Confidence Deficit Syndrome.

The less said the better about the giant mechanical Kong effigy, the one revealed in a giant gas pump. Rambaldi must have built the thing under duress, and blanched when told it was going to be promoted for an Oscar nod. It doesn’t match Baker’s suit and it can barely move its arms. It’s seen in only a few short cuts. Friend Randy (Randall William) Cook and some buddies heard about the call for extras to shoot this scene and either got themselves invited or snuck in. They were handed Petrox flags as they entered. The crowd was jeeringly unimpressed, especially when the dorky Mecha-Kong didn’t function well, and then leaked hydraulic fluid all over the set. Perhaps without the malfunction it might have been capable of more than moving its arms slowly, like The Great Garloo. But not that night. No, De Laurentiis went for the price on Baker. Baker got the title shot outdoors in the ballpark, and what did Mecha-Kong get?   A one-way ticket to Palookaville.

(sorry)

Partly redeeming the Mecha-Kong debacle are Carlo Rambaldi’s giant hydraulic-activated Kong hands, the ones in which Jessica Lange spends several minutes squirming while holding the pieces of her sacrificial dress together. By and large the hands are a big success, moving nicely in close-up and matching well when combined (via bluescreen opticals) with Rick Baker in his suit. The only giveaway with the hand occurs when Kong dips Dwan into the pool at the base of a waterfall. The fingers flex as if they want to float, giving away the fact that they’re made of light foam rubber.

(I got to see this Kong hand one late night in ’76, when Richard Yuricich snuck us onto the De Laurentiis stage from our front-projection test next door at MGM. The hand looked sensational even when not moving. We remarked that the ends of Kong’s fingers appeared purposely sculpted to look like penises.)

 

When De Laurentiis persisted in promoting an effects Oscar for the ‘revolutionary’ achievement of the King Kong robot, every informed monster fan became incensed. The publicity implied that the giant robot mockup was seen throughout the movie. Between 1972 and 1976 the Effects ‘special achievement’ Oscar was awarded out of competition. The Academy announced that Logan’s Run would get the nod, and then a day or so later a second Award was announced for Kong. It had all the earmarks of special lobbying, pressure, influence. In protest, effects expert Jim Danforth returned his Oscar nomination plaque to the Academy. I didn’t follow the details, but I understand that the Academy rules did change afterwards, so that nominations for specialized categories originated from industry peers. Five years later a special makeup award came into being, to acknowledge achievements in that specialty. Rick Baker won the first for An American Werewolf in London.

Overall, the rest of the effects for King Kong ’76 are shockingly shoddy. The overall design is just terrible, beginning with the natives’ wholly unimpressive great wall. The miniature landscapes that Kong inhabits are no better than what was seen on TV’s Land of the Lost, with near-zero finesse or visual appeal. The mechanical snake that attacks Kong is simply phony, an unacceptable reject. It makes the shark in the previous year’s blockbuster look like the animatronic marvel of the decade. John Guillermin works well enough with his actors but his direction does little to enliven the adventure thrills or to disguise the tacky effects work. The illusions improve somewhat in Kong’s last stand in New York — at least the camera angles are more interesting.


 

So, sometime in early December 1976 we lucky folk at Douglas Trumbull’s Future General shop spent a Saturday morning at the Village Theater in Westwood for a special early screening of Dino’s Folly. People brought their small children. Newly-met pal Rocco Gioffre almost didn’t attend, as the remake was looked upon as artistic sacrilege by most of the Willis O’Brien faithful. (A close associate remembers boycotting it — at the age of nine!) I found a few things to like in the movie, like Rick Baker’s superior ape suit. But the elements we didn’t like took us by surprise, such as the smutty introduction of Dwan. We were mainly put off by the utter lack of originality, artistry and finesse in the ‘spectacular’ effects visuals. Other Future General folk agreed with us that the violence was nasty, and not for kids. I don’t remember seeing the gory shot of the snake being ripped apart in our preview cut (it’s included as an outtake). But the sight of Kong being ‘Wild Bunched’ to death with machine guns was traumatic even for us. It appeared to go on forever. We could hear little kids crying in the theater.

This big picture of 1976 still has plenty of fans. It’s taken me until now to watch the whole thing again, and I’ll admit that time makes its offenses seem less prominent — so many less-entertaining ‘big’ movies have come down the pike. It’s easier now to enjoy the spirited work by Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, who make the show watchable and even fun. My ‘true believer’ Kong fan friends also have reservations about the lavish 2005 remake, while this one remains beyond the pale. On the other hand, it’s arguable that both remakes only enhance the aura around Merian C. Cooper’s original.

Historically speaking, the Kong- related list of giant gorilla features is a mix of the honorable and execrable: Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Konga, King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, A.P.E. 3-D and De Laurentiis’s own screwball sequel King Kong Lives. Umbrella entertainment’s publicity announcement suggests that their Blu-ray reissue was prompted by the pandemic-delayed 2021 release of the rematch Godzilla vs. Kong. I reviewed Kong: Skull Island 3-D but have to think hard to remember much about it.

 


 

Umbrella Entertainment’s Region B Blu-ray of King Kong (1976) is a quality encoding from Studiocanal, which holds international rights on the movie. No new restoration is announced so it might be an older transfer. Film grain is under control but some of the bluescreen optical work looks rough — elements here and there are a tad washed out. In the theater I thought it was the best bluescreen work I’d ever seen, rich, with blue matte lines minimized. The soundtrack is in 5.1 DTS, according to the package label. The John Barry score, a favorite of many, comes through big and bold.

A not-bad Making-Of featurette (22 minutes) is included, and an original trailer. A little more interesting are 14 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, such as a longer but less gory ‘snake fight’ cut. In an excised New York scene, Kong jams a late-model convertible into a second-story window.

The Kong Blu-ray disc delivers on its promises. The sole disappointment is the lack of English subtitles.

One last thing: in September of 2018 I reported on the fate of the giant Kong robot in an item at the CineSavant Column called, This is a Strange Story… The direct link to the article I found is Here.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


King Kong (1976)
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – Minus
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurette Making Kong, deleted and extended scenes, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
N0
; Subtitles: None
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 24, 2020
(6393kong)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.