A Great, Misunderstood Pop Classic
curtis martin | Redmond, WA, USA | 02/03/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Firstly, I'd like to dispel a misconception that many "reviewers" here onsite are promoting: that the 1976 verison of "King Kong" was a notorious financial flop. This is simply not the case.
King Kong (1976)was a huge hit back in the seventies--I know because I was there, I saw the frenzy, I remember the crowded theaters. It cost $24 million and made $60 in 1977 dollars, only a little less than the highly regarded blockbuster "Jaws" made a couple of years earlier. Calling the film a commercial "flop" is not just inaccurate--it is a statement that borders on stupid.
Now, admittedly, it also had a huge pr campaign, which undoubtedly helped it garner a lot of that dough, but there was a lot more to the flick than just the hype.
While the commercial success of the film is a matter of indisputible record, its artistic success is a matter of personal opinion. I happen to think this is one of the best pop films of the Seventies--and there are a lot more folks out there who agree with me than you think.
Many people rag on the film for not being reverential to the original, ignoring that fact that "being reverential" was the antitheseis of what the 70s were about. Kong 76 could have probably been an even bigger hit than it was if the filmmakers had played it safe and hadn't gone out of their way to make a film so stubbornly odd. I mean this thing stomps over a gigantic swath of styles: panoramic spectacle, high adventure, pathos, romance, social commentary, absurdist comedy, thrills, and occasionally outright goofiness--all comprised in a slyly satiric package designed to tweak the noses of Kong purists. Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s ("Papillon ") screenplay is all over the place when it comes to style and tone, borrowing from whatever and whenever, almost as though it had been patched together from several different treatments--yet it still remains incredibly tight in terms of interesting, well-drawn, consistent characters, witty dialog, exploration of theme, and the forward momentum of the plot. King Kong 76 is a great example of anarchic postmodernism being perfectly wed to the staunch formalism of good storytelling. A contemporary example of this approach would be Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films.
The direction by veteran John Guillermin was absolutely fearless, pushing each of Semple's concepts to its limit, even at the risk of seeming silly. And he had a great cast to work with, especially young Jessica Lange in her first film role. Unfortunately, Jessica played the role of the vivacious, childlike, kinda dimwitted bubblehead blonde Dwan so incredibly well that most people wrote her off, assuming she was just a dumb blonde playing herself. But in actuality it is a bravura performance, one of the best in her career, and certainly a more individual, more fully-realized character performance than we get in most movies these days.
As big a hit as the disco era Kong was, however, there were a lot of people who were put off because they weren't expecting anything as freewheeling and insane as what they were given. They weren't expecting weirdness and satire. They weren't expecting to see Kong blowing a hot, wet blonde dry after a dip in a lake (metaphors anyone?), a scene simultaneously erotic and ridiculous. They weren't expecting to see the captured Kong turned in to a corporate shill--is there any scene in mainstream 70s cinema more surrealistically satiric than that of Kong being presented to the masses encased in a thirty story replica of a gasoline pump? They also were not expecting to see a big budget adventure film with a downer ending--the romantic leads ending up emotionally separated by their experiences instead of united. And they didn't expect to feel bad when the monster died.
So I put it to you all that not only was the 1976 Kong a financial success, it was also an artistic success. But you can't watch it as a remake of a classic film. It is no more a remake of the 1933 King Kong than Quentin's Kill Bill is a remake of Sonny Chiba's Streetfighter's Revenge. Watch the film for what it is, not what you think it should have been, or what you wanted it to be, and you will be better able to appreciate its cracked brilliance.
King Kong 1976 - Stands taller with age.
The Abominable Doctor Phibes | 08/02/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I'll admit this film holds extra appeal for me. That's because it made a King-sized impression when I first saw it in a darkened theatre in Massapequa Park, Long Island at seven years of age. I still remember the anticipation leading up to the first big "reveal" of Kong: The sounds of heavy foot-falls and the downing of trees as the giant gorilla approaches the primitive altar where Jessica Lange stands tethered with vines as the sacrificial bride. The score grows louder as torch-holding natives chant atop heavily fortressed walls ("Kong!, Kong!..."). Finally, he emerges in full view and beats his chest as the ominous score goes suddenly, eerily quiet. Lange looks up from her drug-induced stupor, her swimmy eyes now focusing, sobering with fear...and screams!
This is one of the great cinematic sequences of my personal memory bank.
September 11, 2001 came in all its horror and loss. Some days later, I found myself thinking of this movie, which features the World Trade Center prominently. This was perhaps the only movie to cast the Towers in such a prominent role. They represented our greatness as Americans, and provided a scale grand enough to fuel our imaginations for the task at hand - bringing Kong to life. During that September, I ordered the DVD so I could see the towers once again as they were meant to be seen, at a time when they stood tall with promise - over-sized symbols of over-sized American optimism.
Sure the movie has its flaws, and many of the effects aren't effective anymore, but if you enter in as a willing participant, many charms await. The film features the talents of Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, and Charles Grodin. The cinematography is rich with vast hawaiian vistas. Rick Baker, the make-up wunderkind behind Gorillas in the Mist and Planet of the Apes ('01), added a sympathetic dimension to Kong in his performance (he was the guy in the suit). The movie gives sufficient emphasis to character, while patiently building anticipation for the final act. And the soundtrack! It features a John Barry score that is dark, grand, and memorable. Today, on DVD, it makes for a terrific home theatre experience.
If you, too, were one of the kids who were awed by Kong's cinematic advent thirty years ago, you'll get a nostalgic thrill from this disc. Enjoy.