Kongsploitation Round-Up

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-03-09 03:09
When Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper unleashed King Kong upon the world, it was a bold introduction to a new world of oversized gods and monsters. Suddenly, filmmakers were more or less bound only by their imaginations, as the floodgates opened for scores of imitators or, in some cases, creatures that could stand toe-to-toe with Kong. Toho practically turned the entire affair into a cottage industry, spawning one cool monster after the next, truly reaffirming the grand potential of this particular genre.

And then you had some folks that were content to just ruthlessly riff on King Kong itself. Rather than imagine literally any other monster blown up to ridiculous proportions, they simply recycled the overgrown primate storyline again and again, resulting in a strange, dusty little cinematic corner that’s sheer Kongsploitation. And like any idiosyncratic genre, its offerings range from nakedly dull knock-offs to completely deranged dispatches that feel like they shouldn’t exist. Here’s five of them, and this is by no means a comprehensive list—this just happens to be the quintet I watched on a whim with Kong: Skull Island approaching. Believe it or not, there are at least five more that could comprise another list in the future.

The Mighty Gorga (1969)

Let’s get this one out of the way early: barring some other complete disaster, this has to be the worst of the Kongsploitation bunch. The brainchild of no-budget huckster David L. Hewitt (of Gallery of Horrors infamy), The Mighty Gorga has no business staging any kind of monstrous carnage—much less aping one of the greatest effects extravaganzas of all-time. The story is familiar, especially to anyone dumb enough to indulge five Kong movies in less than a week. Beleaguered circus owner Mark Remington (Anthony Eisley) faces bankruptcy unless he can score the new attraction he’s been pursuing for the past few weeks: a giant ape that’s rumored to live deep in the Congo, unseen by the “civilized” world. When his hunting partner disappears on the search for the beast, Remington teams up with the man's daughter (April Adams) and promptly heads into the jungle.

And what a fucking drag it is. Because Hewitt clearly has precious few resources to work with (as evidenced by the fact that he’s the one playing the titular Gorga via a stiff, unconvincing gorilla suit), he mostly stages a bunch of terminally dull conversations for the first hour. At one point, I swear it takes Remington and his companions twenty minutes just to walk to the top of a hill, and nothing of note happens. In fact, that’s more or less true of most of the film until the climax, Hewitt decides to indulge his prehistoric sandbox by introducing dinosaurs via the most obvious puppet and shoddiest compositing work you’ll ever see. In theory, the film should come alive here, but it’s maybe a mild hoot at best. Never in my life have I been more forgiving of such random deus ex machinas, which arrive in the form of both a volcano and Gorga himself. Anything that exists solely to end The Mighty Gorga can’t be frowned upon too harshly.

King Kong (1976)

I know, I know, this one is an official Kong movie, and producer Dino De Laurentiis certainly had the documentation to prove it after a lengthy legal battle to secure the rights. But still, doesn’t this somehow feel like the forgotten Kong? Sandwiched between the legendary original and Peter Jackson’s more recent redux, John Guillermin’s film suffers a bit from middle child syndrome despite serving as an entire generation’s touchstone for the Kong mythos. Not only that, but it’s also a rather magnificent staging of the story, one that finds an acceptable middle ground between the original film’s premise and Jackson’s extravagance. Appropriately enough, it’s very much in the huckster spirit of Kong—one could imagine that De Laurentiis fashioned himself as another Carl Denham hell bent on delivering a spectacle to the masses (which perhaps explains why Charles Grodin’s Denham surrogate here is an oil tycoon instead of a director).

It’s no wonder, then, that this particular take is most notable for its effects. Sure, it boasts Jeff Bridges in all his godly 70s leading man glory and the on-screen debut of Jessica Lange in a turn I suspect shuttled the aforementioned generation into puberty, but make no mistake: this one’s all about reimagining Kong himself in the grandest fashion possible in 1976. Look no further than the film’s end credits, where De Laurentiis gives a personal, specific shout out to effects maestros Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker. The legendary collaboration more than earns the kudos: not only did they craft a believable Kong via a mechanical creature and Baker’s man-in-suit technology, but they also helped to stage a memorable take on Kong’s romp through New York, a rampage that climaxes atop the World Trade Center.

Between this sequence and the Universal Studios ride it inspired, it’s no wonder that this Kong has become a sentimental favorite over the years. It also still stands as a fairly solid template for approaching remakes: here’s a film that remained completely true to the original film’s spirit while updating it with technology to achieve effects that weren’t possible the first time around.

Ape (1976)

Of course the De Laurentiis remake—or at least the publicity surrounding its production—inspired a new wave of Kong fever that spread all the way to South Korea. Here, one of the more notorious Kong riffs was apparently hatched with the notion that audiences were already familiar with the first half of the story that finds the titular ape being captured from its native land. Therefore, Ape opens with the monster promptly escaping from an oil tanker before fighting a goddamn shark in a sequence that all but shouts “fuck you, Jaws!” It’s a prelude to the film’s admirably batshit approach, at least whenever the ape itself is wreaking havoc. Scenes cutting between bewildered American and South Korean authorities shouting at each other over the phone don’t fare as well, nor do the scenes involving an American actress and her husband (a subplot that seemingly only exists because of course the ape has to fall for a blonde actress).

But whenever the ape is on-screen? Gloriously unhinged shit abounds, if only because the ape here is a total shithead. The poor shark is just the first of his many victims, as he spends the entire film rampaging and stomping the shit out of anything that crosses his path. At one point, this includes a helpless snake that’s just going about its business before the ape slings it around and pummels it to death. Nothing is safe, not even the martial arts movie that’s filming in a nearby village, meaning Ape is surely the only Kong knock-off to feature a kung-fu interlude*. What’s more, this ape knows it’s a dick and barely conceals it. Look at this asshole:

Naturally, none of this precludes the film from taking the tried and true approach of eventually sympathizing with the beast. It’s completely unearned and seemingly motivated by the fact that every other King Kong movie does this shit. Here, it’s just one last absurdity capping a mountain of nonsense. Like its title character, perhaps Ape “was just too big for a small world like ours.”

*There is a movie titled King Kung Fu, but it sadly only involves a normal-sized ape going Shaolin.

The Mighty Peking Man (1977)

Now this is the trashy Kongsploitation movie you’re looking for. When the legendary Shaw Brothers studio caught Kong fever, it got completely carried away. Not content to simply rip off King Kong, the Hong Kong outfit threw itself into every disreputable impulse imaginable, all under the faintest pretense of barely sticking to the Kong outline. In this version, a man who recently caught his fiancée cheating on him with his own brother needs a getaway, so he takes an excursion to the Himalayas in search of the mythical Peking Man. For a long stretch,the film takes on the tenor of Mondo exploitation, complete with jaw-dropping footage of live animals wrestling with both each other and actual human beings. A scene where a villager tussles with a tiger might even cause the demented folks behind Roar to give pause—it’s both incredibly and anxiety inducing all at once because you sense that had this poor bastard been ripped apart on camera, the producers here would have totally left it intact.

And all this stuff happens in the first half of the film! Perhaps even more incredible than all this is the sharp turn Mighty Peking Man takes about halfway through, when it suddenly decides to also rip off Tarzana, the Wild Woman. In case you’re not familiar with that particular slice of insanity, rest assured it’s exactly what you assume it is: a gender-bent take on Tarzan that’s every bit as delightful as it sounds. But not nearly as delightful as seeing it essentially transposed into the middle of a King Kong knock-off, as our hero here stumbles across a jungle girl that’s been raised by the Peking Man since her parents perished in a plane crash. As such, the dynamic between the woman and ape here is more like an extremely screwy father-daughter relationship—the Peking Man even seems embarrassed when he stumbles on the couple banging away in their treehouse.

Of course, the overgrown ape is more than just embarrassed when he’s yanked from his own home and put on display in a stadium—and this is not to mention what happens when he sees his adopted daughter being manhandled by the show’s producer. Suffice it to say, The Mighty Peking Man is unafraid to be disreputable as hell—it’s sleazy, wildly tone deaf, and generally unhinged. Like so many of my favorite movies, it feels like the product of exploitation hucksters flinging everything onto a microwave wall and nuking it before they can even see what might stick. Who needs coherence or elegance when you can produce a King Kong rip-off where one of the primary conflicts is a jungle girl’s resistance to clothing?

King Kong Lives (1986)

Okay, this might be the actual forgotten Kong movie. I mean, how often do you even remember that Dino De Laurentiis resurrected the beast a decade later for an actual sequel? And that he even dragged John Guillermin along for the ride and saddled him up with Linda Hamilton? True story! What’s more, it really is an honest to god sequel, complete with a recap of the original film’s climax, which, as we all know ended with King Kong dying after a gnarly tumble off of the World Trade Center. But what this film supposes…is that he didn’t. Instead, he somehow survived the fall and spent the next decade recovering in a medical lab, where he’s now in need of an artificial heart and a blood transfusion.

Of course, as Dr. Amy Franklin (Hamilton) reminds everyone, it’s not like they can just go find another of Kong’s type, seeing as how he’s a one-of-a-kind species, a fact that remains true for all of three minutes since the very next scene features a globe-trotting adventurer (Brian Kerwin) stumbling upon a female Kong. I believe the exact species name here would be “convenient as fuck plot device.” But as silly as that contrivance is, it’s hard to get too mad at it, seeing as how it sets up one of the more amusing predicaments in any of these movies: see, none of the scientists stopped to consider just what it might do if Kong were to be around a female, so they’re ill-prepared when he just can’t take it anymore and breaks free. That’s right—this is a movie where Kong refuses to be held in captivity just because he’s horny.

Unfortunately, I think that might be the very best thing I can say about it since King Kong Lives never quite lives up to the wildness of that premise. It is, however, about as hokey as you might expect, which is both somewhat charming and slightly disappointing. There’s definitely an air of “they waited ten years to do this?” floating about, as the splendor and majesty of Guillermin’s first film is all but lost here. Where that film felt like a sweeping, epic update that spanned the likes of a hidden, prehistoric island to the grand vistas of New York City, this is a small-scale romp through rural Georgia.

To be fair, the change is setting does give Kong ample opportunity to crush a bunch of rednecks and the army goons trying to hunt him down, so it’s not all bad. It also helps that Rambaldi returned to help craft what is arguably an even more impressive Kong this time around, but even that barely compensates for just how dull King Kong Lives is. For a film that’s initially centered on giving Kong a pulse, it rarely finds one itself outside of these brief moments of schlocky carnage.
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