It happens every single time. A new movie in a franchise comes out, and I swear I’m not going to fall down the rabbit hole and marathon every entry in that character’s franchise, and yet, because it’s inherent in me as a horror fan, I do it anyways. I’m talking about my recent bout with KONG-mania!
I grew up a life-long monster fan. I, of course, loved the Universal monsters, Godzilla and King Kong. The ’76 Kong is the one I remember from my earliest childhood recollections, and I was just old enough to go see KING KONG LIVES in theaters in ’86. At the time, it was absolutely perfect for a 10-year-old monster kid. That said, while I like Kong, the new film KONG: SKULL ISLAND wasn’t something I was highly anticipating. I just figured if I had time, I’d go see it, and hopefully it’d deliver a good time at the movies!
The week of, I revisited the original 1933 KING KONG on Blu-Ray and came to the conclusion I’ve never actually seen it in its entirety! Only in bits and pieces on TV growing up! Then, my buddy Dave enthusiastically called me up and asked if I was game to see SKULL ISLAND in 3D IMAX at the world famous Chinese Movie Theater in Hollywood. I bit, and I’m glad I did. The new flick turned me into a wide-eyed monster kid again, full of action, laughs, drama, various monsters, and a pretty bad-ass version of Kong!
As soon as I got home, I dug through my collection and pulled out all my KONG related movies. I started digging into articles online, both pro and con for Peter Jackson’s sprawling epic, or cataloging the troubled production of the Dino De Laurentiis produced 1976 remake. Basically, I went ape for the franchise and have pretty much watched them all in the span of a week. As is always the case when revisiting old favorites, you have a new perspective on them based on where you are in life at that moment. I’m going to go in the order that I re-watched them, which may drive the chronological OCD reader crazy, because I didn’t go in proper order. So, apologies in advance. But this is all about my current Kong journey and I wanted to share it exactly as it unfolded!
KING KONG (1933)
The one that started it all! As I mentioned before, I didn’t realize that I’d never seen this one from start to finish before, because I’ve definitely never seen the opening overture! Thankfully, Warner Brothers re-issued a new Blu-Ray with a fancy new cover and the “Monster Mayhem” tag to coincide with SKULL ISLAND’s release. While, naturally, some of it is going to appear dated to the modern movie viewer, in context, it really is a marvel of filmmaking magic from the 1930’s. Carl Denham is a filmmaker primarily known for his jungle expedition movies, and now he’s plotting to take his crew down to “Skull Island,” a mysterious uncharted island in the hopes of capturing footage unlike anything the world has ever seen. When his actress for the picture bails, he recruits Ann Darrow, literally a girl he sees on the street, and they’re on their way. But of course, once they arrive to the island, they stumble upon more than they bargained for. The entire island is filled with prehistoric creatures and monsters, including the king of them all, Kong! The various beasts we meet, including Kong, are all brought to life using stop-motion animation, provided by wizards Willis O’Brien and Buzz Dixon. (O’Brien’s protégé Ray Harryhausen would go on to be one of the most recognized and celebrated of Hollywood’s stop-motion artists.) There’s something otherworldly about this somewhat forgotten technique. For my money, there’s something more real to me about stop-motion than even the sleekest modern CGI, although the latest movie came pretty close to delivering a similar-style magic. The fact that you can feel sympathy for a stop-motion Kong as he’s looking at the blood on his hands from his wounds is as emotional and magical as the movies can get. If you care at all about horror, and monster movies, you owe it to yourself to watch the original KING KONG.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)
This was such a pleasant surprise. SKULL ISLAND is pretty much the epitome of “monster mayhem.” You’ve got a great cast, lots of monster fights and action, some levity, big budget spectacle, and basically everything you’d expect from a “summer” blockbuster movie, even though it was released in March. Of all the Kong movies I watched after this, this is the one that comes closest in spirit to the original. It follows the same template; explorers investigating an uncharted island, and keeps with the same brisk pace. Kong, and various other creatures, appear pretty regularly, just like in the original. (Whereas in the 1976 one, he fights a snake briefly and that’s about it.) There’s also one storyline, that of Hank Marlow played by John C. Reily, that delivers the most heart. (Go figure!) It’s just great fun, and compliments the original movie perfectly.
KING KONG (2005)
After SKULL ISLAND, I decided to make a trip back to the version of Skull Island as depicted in Peter Jackson’s extended, nearly 4 hour epic remake of KING KONG. I saw it in theaters when it came out, and liked it. The DEAD ALIVE “spider monkey” gag in the background still gets me! And I watched the extended cut once when it first arrived on DVD, but have never gone back for the same reason I rarely revisit any of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. The second you turn the package around and see that running time, it’s difficult to justify!
However, I was rather amused by two of my friends posting the complete opposite opinions of it on Facebook recently. My buddy Andrew Kasch hails it a cinematic masterpiece and said it “is an incredible piece of cinema and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” while fellow scribe Brian Collins countered, “Peter Jackson’s KING KONG is an indulgent piece of cinema and don’t let Andrew Kasch tell you otherwise.” I had to revisit this thing for myself and see where I stood on it. The verdict? I’m somewhere smack in the middle.
From a filmmaking stand-point, it is an impressive display of craft, utilizing all the techniques that Peter Jackson grew up perfecting in his early films through the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. It’s over reliance on CGI is its biggest fault, although for the 2005, it still looks pretty darned great throughout. I think we can all agree that the brontosaurus stampede looks terrible, and unfinished, and could easily be excised from the movie without missing out on anything else. But I’m amazed that Jackson managed to make a period piece set in the 30’s that looks this expensive. The best way to watch it is how I did. I just pretended this was a new Netflix 8 part mini-series, and watched in 30 minute chunks. Sure it took me all day, but watching it with the TV series binge mentality helped tremendously, because that’s what we’re all used to now. A bloated movie = great television! Overall, it’s good, and I think Jack Black is pretty darned great as director Carl Denham, but one thing about it always bothered me that I could never put my finger on, and I finally realized what it was when I came to the next KONG feature…
KING KONG (1976)
I will always hold a special place in my heart for the 1976 version of KING KONG, because this was my Kong. This was the one that was always on cable or that I’d rent repeatedly from the video store. I just loved it. And the thing that became evident after watching SKULL ISLAND, Jackson’s KING KONG, and then this was the following, which I’ll preface by saying is strictly a personal preference. In Peter Jackson’s KING KONG, the title creature is simply a giant gorilla. That’s about it. He mostly walks on all fours, he laughs and reacts the way and actual gorilla would, but… he’s giant! To me, Kong was always more than just a giant gorilla, he was something else. He was a monster. His own unique thing. Godzilla isn’t just a Tyrannosaurus Rex or giant lizard, he’s his own breed of monster. For me personally, Kong should be approached the same way. In SKULL ISLAND, I saw King Kong, the eighth wonder of the world and the king of the monsters. (I know, I know, that title belongs to the other big fella.) He was the bad-ass giant monster I’d always imagined and loved in my memories of this franchise, which is why I loved the new movie as much as I did.
Although a 40 foot giant animatronic robot of Kong was built, the majority of the movie relies on famed FX artist Rick Baker in a Kong suit utilizing perspective shots. And even he says in interviews that he wished they could’ve done a more realistic gorilla, but again, I respectfully disagree! That said, in retrospect, this version of Kong is pretty long and unexciting. He doesn’t appear until the hour mark, and then he kidnaps Dwan, fights a giant snake, and that’s about it until he’s captured and brought back to New York. This time it’s a greedy entrepreneur looking for oil on the Island as opposed to a film crew, although they jokingly homage (?) the film crew in Dwan’s awkward introduction where she’s stranded on a life boat because she refused to watch DEEP THROAT with the rest of the crew on her previous outing. (I’m serious.) Anyways, the grand finale takes place on top of the World Trade Center as opposed to the Empire State Building, and the morality is a bit murky. When Kong kills a group of soldiers on a rooftop, Jeff Bridges cheers? It’s a product of its time, and I still like it for nostalgic reasons, but it’s not the best of the Kong movies.
It did however introduce the world to Jessica Lange in her first movie roll. Both her and Jeff Bridges have never looked better, so at the very least, this movie features two of the prettiest people ever captured on film in cinema history! Alright, at this point, I want to watch Kong fight something other than a damn snake. Next up is…
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)
I have fond memories of this film as a kid, but remember next to nothing about it, other than the fight in the third act was pretty darned cool, and it was always rumored to have two different endings. (Not 100 percent accurate as a quick search of You Tube for the Japanese ending finally proved.) Look, this is silly. Kong looks silly, but it doesn’t matter. The monster action is fun, and the fight is pretty darned cool considering this was the early 60’s.
I guess the thing that surprised me the most upon this viewing is the context of when this film came out, and how far along each respective franchise was at this point. As a kid, I just imagine there were probably dozens of Kong and Godzilla films before this, but that’s not the case at all. In fact, this is practically a sequel to both original creature debuts. KING KONG came out in 1933, and was followed up by a sequel SON OF KONG later the same year. To my shock, Kong didn’t grace the screen again until this film, 29 years later! In the same regard, GODZILLA made his debut in 1954. That was followed up by a sequel in 1955 titled GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. He wouldn’t return until this monster mash up with Kong seven years later! KING KONG VS. GODZILLA also marks the first time either character has appeared in color! After the success of this, GODZILLA movies started coming out pretty much once a year. A similar version of Kong reappeared in the 1967 movie ESCAPES. (More on that in a moment.) But really, this is a monumental moment in the history of both franchises, and while dated, it’s still a lot of fun and has a tremendous amount of charm for the monster lover in us all.
KING KONG LIVES (1986)
The first Kong movie I got to see in theaters! All I remember about this was Kong stepping on a Dolorean! And yes, it is a direct sequel to the 1976 one because it opens with the ending of that film, making it a follow-up that came 10 years later for some inexplicable reason. Maybe because kids like me were obsessed with the first one! Anyways, Linda Hamilton is in this one, and they’ve kept Kong alive for a decade in a coma. They built him an artificial heart, and low and behold, an archeologist discovers a female Kong back on Skull Island! Once awakened, Kong can sense the female close by, and well… he wants to get down. Naturally, there are a group of military soldiers led by John Aston of BEVERLY HILLS COP 1 & 2 fame, that just want to destroy the beast! It’s pretty mean spirited, even though I think it’s intended to be played for laughs. In one scene, a group of hunters capture Kong and begin torturing him with a torch. He breaks free, picks one up and breaks him in half. Another one he just eats. Like I said, kind of funny, kind of mean! But overall, the entire movie is silly. However, at 10 years old, it was awesome to me. So, I look at it now as a PG-13 kids movie with some gnarly things thrown in for good measure. It did not do well at the box office, and stopped the franchise dead in its tracks right here.
KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)
Last but not least is this goofy entry into the Kong saga that came in 1967, a few short years after his epic battle with GODZILLA! It features easily the worst looking Kong suit of the bunch. Just awful. Why they couldn’t just buy a gorilla mask from the party store is beyond me. Maybe they just didn’t exist in the late 60’s?
But regardless, the movie features a giant robot Kong that our famed simian must battle in the epic conclusion! It’s rated G, and absolutely the most kid-friendly Kong movies. On both occasions when I recently watched it, it was first thing in the morning and that’s what it feels like; a Saturday morning monster movie.
The only feature I didn’t get to revisit before this piece was SON OF KONG, but I feel like I got what I was looking for out of this franchise. It had its ups and downs. It’s high points and low points. But above all, it only solidified that KONG: SKULL ISLAND properly restored the King Kong franchise to its mighty glory. And now, I’m beyond excited for his inevitable upcoming showdown with Godzilla, because it’s got to be slightly more impressive than this, right?
Regardless, I am there opening weekend!