King Kong (1976)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: May 11th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
We’re inclined (if not hardwired) to greet any remake with a degree of skepticism that might graduate to outright hostility, depending on our attachment to the original. It might be something territorial within us that wants to protect our turf and insist on its sanctity, no matter how illogical such an attachment might be. Case in point: we’ll also readily admit to our attachment to the remakes that have always been a part of our lives. Back when Hollywood seemed dead-set on remaking everything during the early-aughts, we’d all gnash our teeth about it but point towards the likes of The Blob. The Fly, and The Thing as exceptions to the rule. And while it’s true that this trio is exceptional, something tells me they’ll always be considered “acceptable” to the generation who considered them formative experiences, perhaps blissfully unaware that they were remakes at all.
Anyway, I couldn’t help but think about this while watching King Kong for the umpteenth time in my life because it might be the best personal example of a remake that I hardly ever think of as a remake. Watching this movie in my parents’ bedroom on a random afternoon in the 90s was about as formative as these experiences come: this was the movie that not only introduced me to King Kong but an entire cinematic world of giant monsters. Simply put, this was King Kong to me until I later learned it was a remake of an older movie, a revelation that came at least a few years later. But in the interim, my love of the Dino De Laurentiis production came with no qualifications or comparisons—it was simply an astounding movie, even though it was unfolding in pan-and-scan on a modest 19” screen.
Sometimes, I think that’s what I really miss about watching movies as a kid: being unburdened by expectations or context and just having the capacity of being awed by a film because it was new. I can’t recall the circumstances of seeing Peter Jackson’s King Kong just sixteen years ago, yet I distinctly remember lying on the edge of my parents’ bed, transfixed by the ‘76 movie, its grandeur not the least bit diminished by the hazy, over-the-air broadcast. This isn’t necessarily a reflection of either film’s quality (I like the Jackson one!) but rather speaks to the magic of seeing a movie at the right place at the right time—the ‘76 movie will always be my Kong, even though I’m sure some purists were dismissive of its very existence when it was released, much in the same way I’d bemoan remakes myself decades later.
30 years later (give or take a couple of years), this King Kong still reigns supreme in my eyes. It represents the platonic ideal all remakes should strive for: it retains the skeletal outline of the original plot but updates for modern sensibilities, all while taking advantage of effects work that wouldn’t have been practical the first time out. This is not to diminish the astonishing work of Willis O’Brien and his effects crew on the original film, but there’s a reason Carlo Rambaldi receives a special acknowledgement in the credits on the remake. His Kong is also a remarkable feat, achieved with a patchwork of mechanical work and Rick Baker stepping into an ape suit because nobody else “was stupid enough” to do so, according to the effects legend himself. Much has been made about the difficulty in getting the former to actually work, so much so that it actually appears on-screen for less than a minute, which only makes it even more incredible that the film—and Kong himself—works at all.
It goes without saying that any Kong film only goes as far as its title character can take it, and I’ve always found the ‘76 iteration to be most fascinating. In keeping with the original, there’s something unreal about it: while these effects are obviously more photorealistic, Kong is still very much a movie monster, brought to life with a certain whimsical charm. He doesn’t just look like an oversized ape but rather like a strange beast, with a level of expressiveness that’s still remarkable today. Each outing—from the 1933 original to the most recent showdown with Godzilla— has succeeded in giving Kong a personality, and this version is no different. The climactic rampage and tragedy doesn’t work without creating an attachment between audience and beast, and this one does so in spite of the weird sexual tension that develops between Kong and Dwan (Jessica Lange), the flighty actress that falls into the creature’s clutches. Part of those updated 70s sensibilities apparently included this very odd attempt at titillation that feels laughable to adult eyes. Let’s just say that Lange’s reaction to Kong’s blow-drying didn’t seem so...orgasmic when I was younger.
And while Kong is obviously the star attraction, the film is compelling even before he shows up. Lorenzo Semple’s script changes the occasion for the Skull Island expedition, this time imagining an oil tycoon (Charles Grodin) looking to strike it rich in lieu of a director looking for an exotic location for his film production. When primate paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) catches wind of the voyage, he boards the ship in the hopes of witnessing the mystical island for himself. Between plunging the audience right into an Indoneisian port and John Barry’s haunting score, there’s something immediately evocative and spooky about it, and the legend of Skull Island only grows as Prescott reveals sordid tales of doomed historical expeditions. It’s the stuff of campfire folklore that sets the stage for Kong himself, rightfully referred to here as a mystical, primal god. This King Kong feels like a horror movie without completely succumbing to an overbearing grimness because there’s still something fanciful lurking just beneath its portentous surface.
A lot of this emanates from the cast, which exudes an old Hollywood charm. Lange is the most potent source of this: her Dwan feels like she floats in from a different movie altogether, bringing the bubbly energy of an almost archaic era with her. Her performance isn’t marked by a strained affectation attempting to recapture that era, but there’s something heightened about it all the same. Dawn’s reactions (much less her dialogue) aren’t natural, and Lange brings them to the screen with an irreverent, spitfire approach that puts the film on the right side of the fantasy line. De Laurentiis imagined King Kong as a grand spectacle, and the final product has the right sense of cartoonish grandeur that the title deserves, with Lange’s co-stars similarly finding the correct wavelength. Bridges’s eternal coolness and swagger is befitting a hero of any era, but it’s his vulnerability and sensitivity that make him more of a 70s leading man, where showing an everyman conscience was more important than projecting a traditional, square-jawed masculinity. His eventual sympathy for Kong provides a dimension of pathos that’s arguably better realized than it is in the original film, as Prescott’s desperation to save Kong correctly depicts the beast as victim (whereas his counterpart in the original film is the one who calls for the military planes to slay Kong atop the Empire State Building).
Likewise, Prescott’s conscience extends to the natives of Skull Island, where he rightfully points out that it’s not the 19th century anymore and Wilson can’t just plunder it for its resources. King Kong is an inherently imperialistic tale, and this one acknowledges as much by making Wilson an unrepentant colonizer who has no qualms about stealing from the natives, whether it be the oil or Kong himself. Prescott’s insistence that abducting Kong is a tragedy that will result in destroying the natives’ way of life is remarkably heady for its time, even if the film takes a few steps backwards by depicting them as aggressors who kidnap Dwan in an echo of the original film’s exotic hysteria that doesn’t quite sit right this time around. But that misstep aside, the film foregrounds the story’s colonialistic roots, essentially transforming the 1933 fairy tale into a morality play for a modern milieu, where these concerns were becoming slightly more urgent. At the very least, it makes the film itself feel slightly more vital. Of course, the real reason it exists is because Dino de Laurentiis knew money was to be made in the burgeoning realm of blockbuster filmmaking; however, it at least tries to capture the era’s preoccupation with environmental horrors and imperialism. Released in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, this Kong can’t help but reflect the decade’s cynicism.
But it’s not overwhelmed by it, which is key. And while any retelling of the traditional Kong story is also inherently tragic, John Guillermin finds the right touch of whimsy and imagination, striking a deft balance between that cynicism and the escapism audiences crave from this tale. Critics do frequently note the lack of Skull Island action this time around, namely that Kong only grapples with a giant snake in lieu of a dinosaur and all of the other perils haunting the original island. It’s fair but also speaks to that advantage of originally watching it without that comparison in mind: for me, Kong splattering a huge snake has always been enough since I didn’t know what I was “missing out” on until I saw the first movie years later. Besides, the climax this time more than makes up for such deficiencies, as Kong rampages through New York set, bringing a little Toho flavor as the monster demolishes a miniature set, including a subway in what may be the film’s most iconic scene, if only because it was immortalized by the old Universal Studios ride.
Now that I think of it, it’s entirely possible that the Universal Studios ads at the beginning of so many VHS tapes could have been my introduction to Kong. It’s funny, the way memory can be so elusive, yet hold so much power. Maybe that’s why we cling to it with these formative experiences—we might not recall the exact details, but we recall exactly how we felt, and, to some extent, we’re constantly chasing that dragon each time we revisit a favorite movie. Does that mean the memory is more potent than the film itself? Perhaps, and in the decade-plus of writing about movies, I’ve often wrestled with the nostalgia factor, at various times championing it and dismissing it. But I think I’ve settled on not even considering it a “factor” at all: art isn’t calculus and its appreciation can’t be reduced to a formula. Sometimes, you just have to let the totality of it all work its magic. And yes, there is magic to be found in a movie where a giant ape smashes a big snake to death. I hope to never think otherwise.
Despite enduring as an entire generation’s vision of King Kong, the 1976 film has remained elusive on Blu-ray in America since the format’s inception. Long considered one of the biggest oversights in Paramount’s catalogue, the film finally receives its HD upgrade thanks to Scream Factory, who’s made it the latest addition to its Collector’s Edition line. The disc boasts a nice transfer, and, while nothing indicates this is taken from a new scan, it’s quite solid: details and textures shine without sacrificing the original grain structure, and the print itself is nearly flawless. On the audio side of things, Scream has provided both a 5.1 DTS-HD mix and a restored 2.0 theatrical mono track for purists.
The newly produced supplements mostly feature below-the-line crew members, which isn’t surprising considering the stature of the main stars. An extended audio interview features Rick Baker, though, whose insights are always welcome. For whatever reason, it’s included as a commentary track, even though it wasn’t recorded for that purpose. Kong expert and author Ray Morton does provide a proper commentary track, however.
The interviews remind me a lot of the supplements featured in Scream’s release for Event Horizon earlier this year, as many of them are conducted via video conferences and feature scattered anecdotes with unsung crew members. production manager Brian Frankish and assistant director David McGiffert discuss their various memories about the production, particularly the final sequence and its trick effects work and large cast of extras. Sculptor Steve Varner’s interview expectedly focuses on the effects work, while photographic effects assistant Barry Nolan discusses the compositing tricks used on the film. Production assistants Jeffrey Chernov and Scott Thaler offer more scattered memories of the gruelling production, noting the long days and giving a glimpse of what it was like to work for De Laurentiis. Second unit director William Kronick’s claim to fame is discovering Lange while filming screen tests, but he also offers some thoughts on the various locations. Jack O’Halloran is the only actor to appear for the new supplements, and he reminisces about his co-stars and throws a little bit of shade at Guillermin’s direction. The big elephant in the room (or not in the room) is the lack of major stars, though that’s to be expected at this point considering the stature of Bridges, Grodin, and Lange. While it’s always a treat when labels can land this kind of participation, it just wasn’t in the cards this time out. It’s a little bit more of a bummer in this case, too, because the ancient DVD was one of those infamous bare bones Paramount affairs, meaning there’s no vintage stuff to lean on for this Blu-ray.
However, it’s a minor quibble considering the real crown jewel of this release is the inclusion of the extended TV cut. Released on home video for the first time ever, this isn’t just a VHS-grade transfer carelessly dumped onto a disc—the entire presentation is included in the film’s original scope format, with the TV scenes receiving a new 2K rescan, meaning they fit seamlessly. Scream does provide a disclaimer about some issues with opening the 1.33:1 TV presentation for these scenes to scope, but I’ll be damned if I even noticed them. What’s more, the disc allows you to split the movie up into its original two nights to replicate the original broadcast experience. Oddly enough (and here’s memory being tricky again), I can’t remember if I actually saw this longer version on TV all those years ago, so it was nice to finally see it in all its glory. I know most would say that the last thing this movie needs is an additional 40 minutes, but I truly love how it makes a big film feel more epic. It should be noted that I did split up the two parts over the course of a lazy Saturday, so maybe the length would be more wearisome in one go. If I do have a small, nerdy complaint, it’s that I wish Scream had incorporated all of the ads and bumpers to completely recapture the broadcast experience, especially since the material is collected as a supplement.
All of the other usual promo material (stills galleries, radio spots, trailers) are also included, plus Scream Factory has provided the original poster art as an option on the reversible cover. Paramount’s old DVD featured it for a couple of years until it was taken out of circulation following the 9/11 attacks and replaced with a much less striking cover, so it’s nice to see that iconic art make a comeback. Indeed, Scream Factory practically checked off a (reasonable) wishlist for anyone who’s been waiting forever for this and then some for this film to finally come to Blu-ray. I just hope it somehow finds its way into the hands of an impressionable kid, who sees it at exactly the right time in their life to inspire a love of all things monstrous. The cosmic ballet goes on, and all that.
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