There’s a good chance that you aren’t familiar with the name Dino De Laurentiis, but it’s almost a certainty that you’ve seen one of his films. De Laurentiis served as producer on 174 films between 1941 and 2007, with titles including Blue Velvet, Dune, Army of Darkness, Serpico and all of the Hannibal Lecter films besides Silence of the Lambs. Despite this fairly well-rounded filmography, De Laurentiis had one particular goal which he pursued over the course of the 70s and 80s: to outdo Jaws. With the success of Steven Spielberg’s industry-changing film, De Laurentiis became convinced that he could produce a superior blockbuster monster movie, one with more pathos, more drama, and a bigger box office return. This obsession led him to produce two attempts at a King Kong revival, the first a modernization of the original story, and the other something else entirely.
King Kong (1976) Dir John Guillermin
The production of 1976’s King Kong is perhaps one of the more legendarily-troubled in Hollywood history. De Laurentiis’ struggle to get the film made began when a bitter legal battle broke out between Paramount, with whom De Laurentiis was producing the film, and rival studio Universal. Both Paramount and Universal had met with an attorney for RKO with the goal of securing the rights to Kong, and afterward signed an agreement and began work on the film. Universal’s representative, meanwhile, claimed to have also met with RKO’s lawyer, and that a verbal agreement was made for Universal to make the next Kong movie. Both sides put their productions into motion, only becoming aware of the other’s plans after they’d set the wheels spinning.
Lawsuits followed, with Universal suing Paramount and De Laurentiis, and Paramount suing right back. Eventually, after an agreement to pay a certain amount of his film’s gross to Universal in exchange for the cancellation of their Kong movie, the path was clear for De Laurentiis to continue his concept unopposed. However, the legal battle had forced the film’s pre-production cycle to accelerate, making an already complicated project even more open to setbacks.
Making a movie on the scale of King Kong is complicated enough without a mad dash through the important planning stages, but De Laurentiis’ vision included one aspect that made everything ten times more elaborate. Rather than the stop-motion of the original film, the new King Kong‘s visuals would be realized partly with cutting-edge animatronics, in addition to costumes. The centerpiece of these astounding visuals would be a life-sized, fully animatronic King Kong, a 40-foot tall prop capable of moving around in real locations. Even today in the far-flung future of 2017, with all our impressive technological innovations, this idea seems monumentally ill-conceived, and in the 1970s it was downright insane. Italian effects maestro Carlo Rimbaldi still set about building the thing, a monstrous combination of leaky hydraulics and over a thousand pounds of Argentine horse hair.
Obviously it didn’t work – who in their right mind would imagine it could? Despite costing nearly two million dollars, the animatronic Kong only appeared in a small handful of shots in the finished movie (less than 30 seconds of screen time in which it can be seen stiffly waving its arms). Meanwhile, a pair of mechanical hands were built to interact with new leading lady Jessica Lange. These at least worked (usually), though they left Lange with a fair share of bruises by the end of production. Things did get dicey when a stuntwoman was nearly killed when one of the hands broke during a shot.
For the most part, Kong was portrayed by Rick Baker, who would go on to become a huge figure in the world of special effects. The ape suit he wore in King Kong gets a lot of flak, but it’s honestly not a terrible costume as ape suits go. The face is quite expressive, and it at least looks less mangy than the suit from King Kong vs Godzilla. The problem is more that it was frequently shot on somewhat cheap looking miniature sets and a flat sky backdrop, filmed from unflattering angles and plainly lit. It’s possible that with some more care to the presentation, King Kong could have had some excellent visuals, but more often than not it just looks hokey. When Kong finally makes it to New York, there’s one or two better-looking sets for him to smash up at least. There are a lot of awful-looking green screen composites as well, so the film occasionally starts to feel a bit too Superman 4.
When it comes to the story itself, King Kong only very loosely sticks to the plot of the original. Rather than a film crew, the protagonists are part of an expedition searching for a massive oil reservoir. Carl Denham is replaced by the far more villainous Fred Wilson, a scheming executive for Petrox Oil. The heroes are Jack Prescott, a primate paleontologist who stows away on the voyage, and Dwan (not a typo), a women found floating in a life raft after a shipwreck. In a somewhat clever nod to Faye Wray’s character from the original, Dwan had recently been “discovered” and was on her way to shoot a movie before the yacht she was on sunk.
De Laurentiis’ King Kong famously tried to tug at the heartstrings of its audience more than both the original and Jaws, the film it was created to top. The producer has been quoted as saying “No one cry when Jaws die but when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap.”
This push for more melodrama is certainly visible, not just in Kong’s plethora of dopey grins, but also in the film’s (stumbling, awkward) attempts at a message about corporate greed and the exploitation of nature. Rather than a Broadway show, Kong’s stateside debut is part of a marketing scheme for a gas company (a similarity to King Kong vs Godzilla that’s probably entirely coincidental), with a giant gas pump being pulled away to reveal the caged Kong inside. The tragic aspect reaches its zenith in the fiery conclusion, where Dwan and Jack look on in horror as Kong is brutally gunned down from atop the World Trade Center (which is as uncomfortable as it sounds, by the way) in a scene that feels oddly reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde‘s gory climax. Seriously, they shoot the poor bugger over and over until his chest is a red ruin; it’s pretty excessive.
But in a certain way, King Kong‘s attempts at creating a kind of operatic tragedy do work, if only for how amusingly intense and overwrought they are. The film takes itself incredibly seriously, so much so that it often strays into unintentional camp, which is of course the best kind ( though if you’re looking for a film that takes this intention and dials it up past 11, you might want to seek out De Laurentiis’ next attempt at creating his own Jaws, 1977’s Orca).
In spite of everything, King Kong was actually a success in the end. It made back its bloated budget three times over, and got mostly favorable reviews at the time from critics including Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. Rimbaldi netted an Oscar for his effects work, though he had to share it with Logan’s Run. In the years since, reception has cooled, with the film’s notoriously rocky shoot and hair-brained effects ambitions overshadowing its actual content. By the time Peter Jackson tried to revive Kong years later, the 1976 film had become an amusing footnote.
But that wasn’t De Laurentiis’ only attempt at creating a Kong film to rival Jaws. While his first effort would gain notoriety for its ambitious and troubled production, his eventual follow-up would be remembered for being just plain odd.
King Kong Lives (1986) Dir John Guillermin
While a fair bit has been written on the production of the first John Guillermin/De Laurentiis Kong movie, the production of its eventual sequel has been less chronicled, which is a shame, because if there was any movie that could use some explanation it’s King Kong Lives. While its predecessor felt fairly clear in its intent of updating the original story with a new emphasis on pathos and tragedy, it’s almost impossible to figure out what wavelength Lives will be on from one scene to the next. It’s a weird, misshapen beast of a film, and easily the worst film in the Kong franchise.
After a ten-year wait, De Laurentiis re-teamed with director John Guillermin and effects artist Carlo Rimbaldi to produce a sequel to his 1976 film, this time with a lower budget and a somewhat more feasible set of technical goals. Rather than updating the original (or perhaps Son of Kong, as was considered), this new Kong would have a completely fresh story. And what a story it is.
Despite the dramatic climax of King Kong ’76, it turns out that Kong didn’t die from his fall from the Twin Towers after all, and has been comatose and under medical care ever since. His only chance at an eventual recovery is to receive an artificial heart, but he’s too low on blood for surgery. As if on cue, a big game hunter finds another of Kong’s species in Borneo, a female unimaginatively dubbed “Lady Kong.” She’s shipped to the states and tapped for blood, and Kong gets his new heart, but the pair breaks out and goes on the lamb, with the military in hot pursuit. The only ones trying to save them are Linda Hamilton, playing the doctor who saved Kong, and the hunter who discovered Lady Kong.
King Kong Lives is one of those movies that has almost no idea what it ultimately wants to be. It starts out almost like a bizarre medical drama before switching gears to an adventure film, with inexplicable shots of screwball comedy dropped in seemingly at random and a truly awful romantic subplot. Well, two technically, because yes, this film does contain scenes of giant ape romance. And if you’re imagining that two actors in ape costumes acting out a non-verbal courtship could be awkward and weird, you’re entirely correct.
On the positive side, Lives actually manages to match – and in some cases even improve upon – the visuals of the 1976 film. The miniature sets are much better, more detailed, and more effective at conveying a sense of scale. The optical composites are also generally much cleaner, and the visuals as a whole feel like an appreciable step up. However, bear in mind that the film was also released in 1986, the year of Aliens, The Fly, and Big Trouble in Little China. Though King Kong Lives has overall cleaner and more presentable visuals when compared to the 1976 film, they weren’t exactly cutting edge for the time.
Every franchise has a lowpoint, and this is Kong’s. King Kong vs Godzilla and King Kong Escapes might not be your particular cup of tea, but they’re both good examples of their particular genre, and a lot of fun if you’re on the right wavelength. King Kong Lives, however, is tone-deaf, awkward, and just plain boring. Audiences and critics felt the same way, and the film was a critical and commercial disaster, pulling in just under five million at the box office against an eighteen million dollar budget. This signaled the end of De Laurentiis’ attempts at a large-scale creature feature, and put the Kong franchise to sleep for nearly twenty years.
For our next and final installment, we’ll be looking at the most direct remake of the original film to date, Peter Jackson’s lavish spectacle from 2005.