Wednesday, May 26, 2021

KING KONG (1976) Blu-ray Review

King Kong (1976) d. John Guillerman (USA) (134 min)

After Airport kicked off the all-star disaster-film craze, director Guillermin was tapped to helm Skyjacked, a fairly transparent riff on the Irwin Allen blockbuster, with Charlton Heston’s take-no-guff pilot contending with James Brolin’s mad bomber at 30,000 feet. Fittingly enough, Guillerman landed the next big bang boom, 1974’s The Towering Inferno, the success of which led to his assignment on the decade’s highest profile extravaganza to that point: Dino de Laurentiis’ then-staggering 24-million dollar remake of the classic Beauty and the Beast tale. It proved to be the perfect blend of 1970s big-budget mayhem and the “Nature Strikes Back” Eco-horror wave that was just hitting its peak with Jaws.

While the resulting movie was a huge international hit, many critics took issue with Lorenzo Semple’s quippy script which departed markedly from James Creelman and Ruth Rose’s 1933 source material, most notably in having the expedition to Skull Island seeking not a giant adventure tale but rather a huge underground oil reservoir for (fictitious) energy giant Petrox. (Filming took place during the headline-making gas crisis.) Further compounding viewer frustrations was Carlo Rambaldi’s highly touted 40-foot robotic ape which proved to be an exercise in wishful thinking, resulting in Rick Baker (both designing and performing in the monkey suit) and his “special contributions” doing most of the heavy lifting in conjunction with Glen Robinson’s giant mechanical ape hands and the skilled eye of Frank Van de Veer compositing it all together. Fans of the original also bemoaned the lack of beasties, with Kong only tangling briefly with a so-so giant snake as opposed to a multitude of monsters.

On a personal note, however, the 1976 Kong has always been a sentimental favorite and I was thrilled to revisit it courtesy of Shout! Factory’s recent Blu-ray release. From the opening frames, I was instantly transported back to my eight-year-old self, the enthusiastic giant monster fan not yet jaded by the trappings of prestige or good taste. Raised on 1950s big bug and kaiju efforts on Saturday night Creature Features and the occasional big screen outing, including a memorable double feature of Godzilla vs. Megalon and The Giant Spider Invasion, I was the prime audience for Laurentiis’ spectacle. (It was also my first PG-rated movie seen without adult supervision, so it felt extra special.) Some sequences felt like a bit much for my little blonde brain, such as Kong’s gory rending of the big rubber serpent, and the scenes of gorgeous Jessica Lange running about in various revealing outfits gave me strange feelings in my little tum-tum. I walked out of that viewing a supremely satisfied customer, never knowing the vicious drubbing being handed out from high-falutin’ scribes across the land.

Seeing the film now through adult eyes, I can easily identify the elements they found wanting, most notably the much-maligned cartoon-character archetypes only made palatable through the casting of skilled actors (and future award winners) Lange, Jeff Bridges, and Charles Grodin. Looking back and recognizing that our three main characters are a trippy hippy dippy airhead opportunist, an insufferably sanctimonious countercultural radical longhair, and a villainous unscrupulous capitalist complete with black mustache, it’s easy to understand why some had issues with Semple’s updated vision. In the era of Women’s Liberation, Lange’s audacious big-screen debut must have set the movement back at least a year or two, she’s just that convincing. (It’s worth noting that she didn’t do another movie – Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz – for three long years, whereupon people realized she wasn’t really a ditsy blonde but rather an extraordinary actress playing a ditsy blonde. Her Oscar-winning turn in Tootsie followed two years later.)

Especially in this era of digital dazzlement, where the extraordinary is now the expected, it’s kind of wonderful to turn back the clock and witness the magic pulled off by Baker, Robinson, Rambaldi, Van de Veer, and their respective crews working in concert. Watching Robinson’s massive monkey mitts pick up, put down, and generally apehandle Lange is marvelous in its own right, but then you have Baker working in his elegantly constructed suit (which, it should be noted, is NOT the suit he wanted, his design requests overruled time and again by Rambaldi and Laurentiis throughout the process) against a blue screen while Rambaldi’s servos and gizmos manipulate Kong’s facial expressions to create an actual performance. And THEN Van de Veer applying the final touches, combining all these disparate elements in the same frame. Half the fun is imagining the process and realizing how challenging it must have been for everyone (including Lange, acting opposite an invisible scene partner) working independently and interdependently. It wouldn’t have worked unless everyone did their jobs, and that’s exactly what happened.

Speaking of collaboration, in addition to Guillerman, Semple, and the technical effects wizards cited above, the creative team behind the scenes included five-time Oscar-winning composer John Barry (Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves, Midnight Cowboy, and a dozen James Bond features), cinematographer Richard Kline (Camelot, The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Death Wish 2, and… Howard the Duck), and editor Ralph Winters, the man who cut Ben Hur, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and numerous Blake Edwards efforts including the Pink Panther films, 10, and Victor/Victoria. Superb craftsmen all, and even if Kong does not represent their most celebrated work, there’s a reason the film succeeds as well as it does.

It’s also fun in retrospect to see the screen peopled with stalwart character actors such as Ed Lauter, Julius Harris, Jack O’ Halloran, John Randolph, and Rene Auberjonois (probably my first exposure to most of them, though they would become very familiar as my cinematic adventures expanded), as well as cameos from B-movie legend John Agar (Tarantula, The Mole People) and Famous Monsters of Filmland editor-in-chief Forrest J. Ackerman. (According to IMDb, future ’80s stars Corbin Bernsen and Joe Piscopo also show up as background players, with none other than Walt Gorney, aka Friday the 13th’s Crazy Ralph, driving the doomed subway train!)

Flawed as it might be, this version of Kong plays more like a cohesive story than a collection of extravagant set pieces (hello, Peter Jackson), and Baker’s sympathetic in-the-furry-flesh portrayal elicits more cheers and tears from this monster kid than Andy Serkis’ motion-captured one. As Laurentiis famously stated in his 1975 press conference: “End of Jaws, when shark die, nobody cry. End of my movie, when monkey dies… everybody cries!”

Hats off to Shout! Factory for their deluxe two-disc edition, which includes the theatrical cut and the longer (by nearly an hour) television broadcast version, loaded with supplements (which are strangely not mentioned on the disc’s back jacket) that feel both abundant and somehow wanting. The jewels in the crown are easily the two commentary tracks on the Theatrical Cut, one by film historian/author (King Kong: History of a Movie Icon) Ray Morton, who provides fun facts and context galore, and the other by Baker, which isn’t a true commentary track but rather an audio interview that ended up running nearly two hours so it got added on!

Both are extremely revealing, especially Baker’s as he goes into great detail about how the project came to him, the never-ending creative struggles with Rambaldi and the design team who weren’t inclined to listen to some 25-year-old punk with ideas about how things “should” be done, how his invaluable contributions were consistently downplayed in order to highlight the (non-functioning) robot Kong, and his ultimate affection for the film that transformed his career from that of a struggling effects man working on low-budget fare such as Schlock, Squirm, and The Incredible Melting Man to an Oscar-winning (seven, thank you very much) industry icon.

By comparison, the rest of Disc 1’s extras feel a little pale, due to the lack of involvement from any other major players. Instead, we have Zoom interviews with assistant director David McGiffert, production manager Brian Frankish, production assistants Jeffrey Chernov and Scott Thaler, sculptor Jack Varner, photographic effects assistant Barry Nolan, second unit director William Kronick, and actor O’Halloran (best known as the hulking Non in the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies). Not to say that we don’t get a few lively behind-the-scenes stories, but it’s far from the slam dunk a 45th anniversary edition deserves.

Disc 2 contains the 182-minute TV version broken into two halves, Night One and Night Two (which includes a recap of the previous night’s goings-on). If you’re curious about the additional material, here is the link to IMDb’s page detailing the differences:

The sole extra on the second disc is an hour-long panel discussion at Santa Monica’s Aero Theater i 2016 with O’Halloran, Kline, Baker, Richard Kraft (Barry’s assistant), and Martha de Laurentiis, moderated by Morton. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, since the late Kline (89 at the time) clearly is having trouble remembering many details and the Italian mogul’s widow was not yet in his life at the time of filming. However, the rest of the panel does a fine job recounting a few juicy details not mentioned in any of the previous disc’s interviews.

Trivia: This marked Glen Robinson’s third consecutive Special Achievement Oscar, following Earthquake (1974) (also available from Shout! Factory) and The Hindenburg (1975).

More Trivia: In case you were wondering whatever happened to Rambaldi's 40-foot robot Kong, here's the full tale of KING KONG "EN VIVO" from the good folks at Cinesavant and Corroded Vault. Hope you enjoy.

King Kong is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:


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