Big Oil & A Big Ape: King Kong in '76
The 1970s were an inventive time in the world of cinema, with directors that are well known today releasing pictures and coming into their own. For the most part, original ideas were flowing free in Hollywood, leading to some of the best experiences that film has ever had to offer - many that hold up to this day. But producer extraordinaire Dino De Laurentiis bucked that trend in 1976 with the release of his mega-blockbuster remake of King Kong, starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange. Laurentiis was the John "Spared No Expense" Hammond in his prime, and so his Kong would be "bigger, better, and more extravagant in every way."
Indeed, Laurentiis spared no expense, assembling a crack team to craft his monster movie. In the director's chair sat John Guillermin, hot off directing the 1974 Best Picture nominee The Towering Inferno, while in front of the camera he cast the young and attractive Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange as the romantic leads. Bridges and Lange are terrific here, no matter how ridiculous the situation may get, the chemistry between the two is palpable and a welcome respite from the cookie-cutter characters in most monster movies. Heading up the expedition to the fog shrouded Skull Island is Charles Grodin in full on angry businessman mode. He's an oil tycoon with money to burn and he wants everyone to know it; flaunting his status at every turn, even bragging, at one point, about bribing the President of the United States.
The 70s were a much different time than the 30s, and so this iteration of King Kong deals not with the production of a film, but with the search for oil. Grodin has discovered that a hitherto uncharted island may very well hold the motherload of unclaimed oil, a veritable Dick Cheney wet dream. Too bad there's no usable oil to be found on Skull Island. There is however a giant ape named Kong that the local inhabitants worship as a god, performing rituals and offering human sacrifices. Grodin has the bright idea to take Kong back to the States to use as some sort of advertising gimmick for his oil company, a plan where nothing could possibly go wrong. Unfortunately this doesn't bode well for Lange's Dwan, since it's love at first sight for Kong when he first lays his eerily human eyes on the woman.
As for the man behind those eyes? That's makeup effects legend Rick Baker with one of his first substantial gigs on a motion picture. He did a lot of behind the scenes work on the film, but his major contribution was giving this Kong some much needed humanity. Sure, the whole "Man in a Suit" approach isn't nearly as charming or whimsical as Willis O'Brien's stop-motion photography in the 1933 classic, but damn if the work that went into this version isn't nearly as impressive from a 'movie magic' standpoint. Carlo Rambaldi, who designed the animatronic Kong, deserves a ton of credit. Costing close to two million dollars, his 40-foot tall mechanical Kong is still the largest animatronic ever created, and with the advent of CGI in the years since, it's quite possible it will hold that record for years to come.
Almost the definition of 70s excess, King Kong embodies the decade like few other monster movies. Surely dated by today's standards, at the time however, Kong was terribly impressive, winning an Oscar for Special Achievement in Visual Effects (tied with Logan's Run). One aspect of the picture that holds up in spades is John Barry's phenomenal music score. His work here is both memorable and heartbreaking in equal measure, with his recurring Kong theme being a highlight. It might not match his previous scores for the early James Bond pictures, but it's great nonetheless.
If there's one thing that can't be denied about Laurentiis' production, it's that the gore factor has been amped up considerably. Whereas in the 1933 film, even being Pre-Code, was extremely violent for its day, the '76 version is a veritable horror show. When Kong eats a villager it's a gruesome affair, but nothing compared to the battles Kong has on Skull Island. His fight against a gigantic boa constrictor is harrowing, ending with the serpent's face split in two, viscera oozing from the wounds. That scene was super cool when I first saw this version at the tender age of ten, but what gave me nightmares was Kong's eventual demise. Instead of biplanes, in this version he's brutally murdered by helicopters toting chain guns. The blood in this scene was almost too much for me to handle back then, even though I had been consuming 80s Slashers at an alarming rate. Perhaps it's the attachment to King Kong as a character that I had at the time, but his death is overly gruesome here.
When the film finally gets to New York City for the final chase through the streets, Laurentiis went as modern as he could. He tossed aside the original's Empire State Building set-piece in favor of, what was at the time, the tallest structure in NYC, The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Even 17 years after the tragedy of 9/11, it's truly surreal to see the Towers play such a pivotal role in the picture. It makes sense that Dino & Co would use these two titans of "modern" architecture as they, much like Kong, were a 'Wonder of the World."
Over the top in more ways than one, the 1976 version of King Kong has numerous faults, and in the end can't hold a candle to the Merian C. Cooper classic. That said, it's still a decent way to kill two hours of your life. You get some great (for the time) practical effects, an entertaining and hammy Charles Grodin performance, and the devastatingly attractive Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. It's a fun monster movie above all else, but rarely as thought provoking as the other versions of this tale as old as time.