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12 April, 2008

Giant Gorillas in our Midst

One of the most enduring images in cinema is King Kong battling Army Air Corps fighters atop the Empire State Building, as Fay Wray huddled helplessly nearby. For seventy-five years now, that scene has remained ingrained in the consciousness of the movie-going public, and Kong himself remains one of the most popular characters in Horror and Science-Fiction, with a number of remakes, sequels, and outright rip-offs of the big ape feeding the movie-going public’s love of mega-monster mayhem.

Three years ago, director Peter Jackson added to that list with his spectacular, special effects-laden, mega-budget blockbuster remake of the 1933 original. One of the most innovative and impressive genre directors working today, Jackson has been a rising star since 1987’s BAD TASTE, and the blockbuster success of his epic LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy gave him the opportunity to make a long-held dream a reality: To remake what some consider the greatest Monster Movie ever made.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the release of the original KING KONG, and in recognition of the fact that there would not have been a Gojira, or a Gorgo, or the Ymir without the Grand-Pappy of them all, let’s take a close look at some of the films in Kong’s family tree.

The Original

KING KONG (1933)

The first, and the best, of the Giant Monsters, KING KONG captured the imagination of moviegoers in 1933. Working from a story by prolific mystery writer Edgar Wallace, (who died as the production was beginning) producers-directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack created one of the most enduring relationships in cinema, in the person of a 24-foot tall ape, in love with a five-foot, three-inch willowy blonde with a piercing scream.

Thanks to the incredible effects work of Willis O’Brien, the first true master craftsman of motion picture special effects, KING KONG was a giant leap forward compared to what contemporary audiences were used to seeing on the screen. While giant animals such as dinosaurs had been done on-screen before, never had they been done as convincingly true-to-life as here. O’Brien’s models may look dated, even hokey, to today’s audiences, but when viewed from the perspective of the time, they were every bit as earth-shaking and awe-inspiring as the CGI and green-screen technology of today.

The cast as well contributed much to the success of the film, but one person in particular has helped insure its longevity: Fay Wray.

Born Vina Fay Wray in Alberta, Canada in 1907, her family moved to Arizona when she was three years old. Though she began acting after relocating to Southern California, with her screen debut in 1923’s GASOLINE LOVE, she received her break into stardom as Mitzi in Erich Von Stroheim’s 1928 drama THE WEDDING MARCH, a role she considered her favorite until her death in 2004.

After appearing in 1932’s DOCTOR X, Wray began a short run of Genre films that included such classics as THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) and BLACK MOON (1934). Though the latter film was her last entry in the Horror Genre, in a run lasting just two years, she will forever be remembered as the screen’s original “Scream Queen.”

The Sequel

SON OF KONG (1933)

Released a short 9½ months after the blockbuster premiere of KING KONG, the sequel is a pale shadow of it’s progenitor. Shot in record time to capitalize on the success of KING KONG, the whole production shows a lack of quality, from the plot, which, apart from the somewhat novel opening premise, (that of Carl Denham, responsible for the capture of the original Kong, fleeing the mass of lawsuits resulting from Kong’s rampage) is hackneyed and unbelievable; to the acting, which is at best inadequate. Though Robert Armstrong is acceptable reprising his role from the first film, the remainder of the cast is a drastic comedown from the previous adventure. Helen Mack has the unenviable task of filling Fay Wray’s formidable shoes, a task at which she fails miserably. The rest barely deserve mention.

Even Willis O’Brien’s effects suffer, albeit to a much lesser degree than the rest of the production. While the Kiko (though not mentioned in the film, the Son of Kong’s name had been used in earlier versions of the script) model is excellent; every bit as well done as Kong had been, the animation appears rushed, and scant little time is given to develop the ape’s character. With KING KONG, whole sequences had been devoted to making him as real as possible; to giving him a personality. There’s none of that attention to detail here. In fact, Kiko is barely a presence in the film, a Deus ex Machina to move the story along when it needs help. And it needed a lot of help.

While an interesting addition to Kong’s family tree, it’s not one he’s likely to brag about, and not one we should ponder on too long.

The Remake

KING KONG (1976)

While a huge financial success for Paramount Pictures, shot on a budget of $24,000,000, and grossing more that twice that, the first remake of KING KONG was received less than enthusiastically by fans of the original film. Purists decried what they considered the ruining of a classic; fans of the original’s stop-motion animation were horrified to learn that the new Kong would be a man in a monkey-suit; every faction of Horror fandom weighed in on the film, with most coming down against the film. For a long time, I, too, was in that camp.

Recently, however, I pulled my dusty VHS copy off the shelf and watched it for the first time in at least fifteen years. Though it will never appear on one of my top ten lists, or even a top one hundred, it’s not nearly as offensive as I remembered.

While most of the complaints that were lodged against the remake were valid, and the film does suffer from a number of problems, still, it does a very credible job updating the Kong story for contemporary audiences, while taking advantage of increased technical sophistication. The script, while overly political for my personal tastes, is decent, with a believable plot and good character development for most of the cast. The exceptions to that are the characters played by Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin.

Grodin’s Fred Wilson, an oil company executive, is played as though written by the staff writer at Greenpeace—evil, conniving, greedy, the type of character that would club baby seals to keep his golf swing in shape. While such characters can be interesting, they need some depth to balance them out, and there’s none to be found in Wilson. He’s simply a caricature who might as well be named “Big Oil.”

However, Grodin comes off as lucky when compared to the treatment given to Lange’s Dwan. If she had been written as any more of a vacuous airhead, she would’ve needed a helmet and dribble-bib.

In retrospect, now that I can view the remake with somewhat more mature eyes, I can see that, while it falls far short of the original, it can’t do anything to detract from the greatness of the 1933 version. On it’s own, it’s a decent little movie, and a tolerable addition to the family tree.

The Sequel to the Remake


If SON OF KONG was the relative no one brags about, then KING KONG LIVES is the one locked up in the attic. A ridiculous plot is laid out in tedious fashion, involving a still-living Kong needing a blood transfusion in order to undergo the implantation of an artificial heart. Suddenly, a female Kong is found, captured, and, after providing Kong with the blood he needs, is given an 800-lb. sugar cookie and 500 gallons of juice. Not really, but it would’ve made more sense and been more interesting than what did ensue.

Dedicated fans of the Horror, Science-Fiction, and Fantasy genres occasionally have to sort through a lot of movies to pluck the wheat from the chaff. This member of the Kong family is definitely chaff.

The Remake of the Original

KING KONG (2005)

If fans of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy can vouch for anything, it’s that the man shows deep respect for the source material from which his films are derived, whether that source is the epic fantasy novels of J. R. R. Tolkien, or a 1933 Monster movie that changed the course of film history. Jackson’s remake is everything the 1976 Guillerman film wasn’t; interesting, spectacular, entertaining… and most of all, it was faithful. Not necessarily to the original; there were some very significant departures from Cooper’s version, most notably in the characters and how they were developed. But it was faithful to the fans, the ones who share Jackson’s love of the 1933 film, and did not want to see it disrespected as happened in 1976.

While not all of Jackson’s alterations worked, (i.e., “Monkey on Ice”, or the way Kong and Ann “signed” to each other…) in no way did he make light of the original, or treat it with anything less than the utmost deference. The characters themselves, however, received far less consideration. Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham was an honorable man; secretive, but not deceitful. In the person of Jack Black, Denham’s a grifter, a con man with a camera, not above lying, cheating, or stealing to get what he’s after. Jack Driscoll, the hero of the original and Fay Wray’s love interest, endures the most in the retelling of the story. Instead of a tough, heroic Bruce Cabot, we get a skinny, namby-pamby writer in the person of Adrien Brody. Even Naomi Watts’ Ann suffers somewhat by comparison; actually choosing the monkey over the man—Driscoll only winds up with the girl by default, after Kong’s fatal plunge off the Empire State Building.

But bad characterizations and overly sentimental scenes aside, this is one kick-ass spectacle of filmmaking. While it hasn’t supplanted the original in my heart, (and never will…) it’s still a great movie, and is a fitting tribute to the original film, and Peter Jackson’s love of it.

The Distant Relations

While it’s own progeny have never quite measured up to it’s stature, KING KONG stands as own of the most influential films of the genre. It inspired the Japanese Kaijû films of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s; led to the explosion of giant mutated lizards and insects that rampaged across American movie screen in the ‘50’s; even Roland Emmerich’s 1998 GODZILLA owed as much to the giant ape as it did to the Toho classics. Giant monsters, whether spiders, T-Rex’s, or apes, continue to enthrall and delight audiences today, and I doubt that will change any time soon. I think it bodes well for the genre that Jackson’s remake was such a huge hit, and that we still see, in films such as THE HOST and CLOVERFIELD, Giant Monsters prowling the screen.

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