By Will “The Thrill” Viharo
In anticipation of the epic Peter Jackson remake of the original 1933 classic King Kong, several studios are going “ape,” unleashing their individual inventories of the Big Guy’s cinematic adventures onto the holiday DVD market. I say, bring it on.
The release (or is that escape?) that’s really driving Kong fanatics bananas is the four-disc set from Warner Brothers (which now owns the valuable vintage RKO library), THE KING KONG COLLECTION. The collection features the first KING KONG plus its immediate and perfunctory sequel, SON OF KONG and the 1949 stop motion monkey masterpiece, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, all from the trailblazing team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. These two cats were more than visionary entrepreneurs — they were both true-life adventurers in the real world, culling inspiration not only from their vivid imaginations but also from their own exploratory experiences in exotic realms around the globe. This pair of macho, heroic characters shared a passionate patriotism as well as a risk-taking sense of the bold and innovative. Their creative collaboration resulted not only in the enduring success of these iconic movie monsters, but also the groundbreaking early ’50s experiment in hyperbolic cinema sensationalism, This is Cinerama. (Cooper also produced a number of key John Ford Westerns, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers.)
The duo’s influential exploits are well documented in the second disc of the King Kong DVD, which also includes interviews with New Zealand-native Peter Jackson, Oscar winner for his recent Lord of the Rings trilogy and director of the new Kong. His reverence for the original is almost as legendary as the film itself. Jackson even included Skull Island, Kong’s home, in his outrageous zombie satire Dead Alive (1993). What really impressed me was his recreation, via historically contextual, painstaking accuracy, of the “lost” spider pit sequence from the original Kong. Jackson and his team of special effects wizards — all expressing their reverence for Oakland-born Willis O’Brien, Kong’s masterful animator and the godfather of all modern visual effects — manage to pull off an extraordinary miracle of movie magic. This sequence alone makes the DVD a must-have for all fantasy film geeks (like yours truly).
But then, there are the movies themselves, now available for the first time in this format. King Kong’s pristine transfer is from a recently unearthed British 35mm print that keeps intact the notorious scenes of graphic violence (Kong biting people in half) and implicit sexuality (stripping Fay Wray and then sniffing her!) that were cut from the 1938 re-release (as dictated by the increasingly conservative Motion Picture Code), only to re-emerge in the ’60s via scratchy 16mm sources, awkwardly edited back into subsequent video releases. Now we can see the film in its original uncut glory for the first time, and it is magnificent.
Of course, modern audiences will still cringe at the jaw-dropping racism and sexism that somehow escaped our youthful notice, but taken within historical context, and given the fact the real star of the film is a giant gorilla, these concerns should not detract from the overall experience. Hey, we’re here for the spectacle, for the big ape, and for the dinosaurs — who cares about these stupid little humans, anyway? Not me. They’re just part of the scenery that Kong chews up with relish.
Son of Kong was released within a few months after its popular Pop. It’s a hastily thrown together “comedy” featuring Kong’s unexplained offspring discovered on a return trip to Skull Island by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) and some treasure seekers. Little Kong makes cute, childlike gestures, wrestles a cave bear and encounters a few other odd creatures, but it’s a relatively brief (70 or so minutes) exercise in exploitation, a quickie sequel too obviously made to cash in on the original’s unprecedented success. But it does have its period charms, and little kids should appreciate the simple story.
The effects are not nearly as impressive as in the first, looking more like an episode of the ’70s TV show Land of the Lost, but for its era, and considering the budget and time constraints, it’s a pleasant enough postscript.
Mighty Joe Young is another chest-thumping tale of an overgrown (17 feet or so) primate brought to civilization by a greedy showman — again played by Armstrong — but this time Willis O’Brien (whose personal life was wrought with tragedy) brought in a young assistant named Ray Harryhausen, later famous for such landmark fantasy classics as Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Ray also provides commentary on both King Kong and Mighty Joe Young and appears in two documentaries on the Joe Young disc. The result of this collaboration is a more smoothly animated creation and advanced techniques of rear projection, matte photography and other illusionary feats first pioneered by O’Brien, who practically invented the special effects blockbuster on the fly back in ’32 while working on Kong. The nightclub scenes alone are among the most astonishing and memorable images in motion picture history. Willis wrote the book on visual effects but Harryhausen expanded it into a Bible still referenced by movie magicians today. Like Obie, Ray could breathe a soul into his puppets, giving them a heartfelt reality missing from many of today’s CGI output, and a natural empathy many actors would kill for.
Of course, in subsequent appearances, Kong was reduced to a man in a gorilla suit. This cheaper route has its own odd rewards, however, especially for the hardcore B movie buff who likes to see a toy plane dangling from a wire now and then. These simple pleasures are abundantly obvious in the two Japanese made Kong flicks from the ’60s, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) and KING KONG ESCAPES (1966), just released in a twin DVD package from Universal. Both these movies are often ridiculed and dismissed by Kong purists, but to me, they are pop art classics. I loved ’em as a kid, and I still dig ’em now, stupid as they inherently are.
Kong vs. Godzilla (finally available in letter-box format after several pan and scan video versions) was actually the first time the Big Ape had appeared onscreen since his 1933 debut, albeit now in a much goofier incarnation than when he was introduced. And this was only the third film appearance by the Big Lizard. The Japanese version was directed by the great Ishiro Honda, but for the American release there were new scenes, typically bad dubbing, confusing editing and a soundtrack culled from Universal’s garage, including cues from The Creature From the Black Lagoon. (Kong “wins” in both cuts, contrary to rumors of an alternate Japanese ending.) Also missing was the grim tone and relative seriousness of the original films. This flick was marketed more like a wrestling match — and looked just as fake — than a monumental milestone in movie history. The success of this family-friendly team-up also made Toho realize that Godzilla could be as big a matinee idol as Elvis so long as he avoided pursuing his career as a snooty thespian. (Ironically, Col. Parker had the same game plan in mind for his own boy, hence Blue Hawaii instead of another King Creole.) This movie is more on par with Al Adamson’s notorious ’70s schlock fest Dracula vs. Frankenstein than, say, Universal’s revered 1940s classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Still, it’s fun to watch Kong drinking from giant mugs of spiked berry juice and falling over drunk on his tiki island, fighting Big G like an enraged sumo wrestler, and peeling a (real) giant slimy octopus from his pointy rubber head.
Even more fun is the non-related King Kong Escapes, inspired by the Rankin-Bass cartoon show. It often plays more like an episode of the TV series Batman than a monster movie, with elements of swingin’ spy cinema popular at the time. After the obligatory island voyage, Kong and his human pals take on the evil Dr. Who and his awesome invention MechaKong, a giant robot duplication of the real (man in an ape suit) thing.
MechaKong is just too, too cool, man. I could put it in more sophisticated terms but that sums up the appeal for me. The miniatures are actually quite effective, too, especially the scenes set up at Dr. Who’s snowbound Arctic hideaway. I fondly remember being totally enthralled by this movie when I saw it at the drive-in as a little tyke, and seeing it again made me goose-pimply with nostalgia.
Those goose pimples got goose pimples when, courtesy of Sony’s Wonder DVD division, I was able to re-visit the inspiration for Kong Escapes, the original KING KONG animated series that ran on Saturday morning TV in the mid-’60s. Few I’ve talked to remember this early example of “Anime” — actually made in Japan for an American audience, a first — but the rousing theme song alone has never left me (“Ten times as big as a man!”). Seeing it again as “grown-up,” I realize in retrospect why I was so enchanted by this show as an impressionable tyke, and why it’s stuck with me for so long, since that’s obviously the target audience, without any subversive “camp” elements to make it more palatable for adults. The stories are always simplistic, sometimes insultingly so, and the animation ranges from passable to a little better than average (the characters were co-designed by the great MAD illustrator, Jack Davis). Still, I highly recommend both volumes for kids of all ages (four half hour episodes apiece, including four installments of Tom of T.H.U.M.B., a silly spy spoof about a miniature secret agent). The fact that this friendly Kong was found on “Mondo Island” by a scientist and his young son (shades of Jonny Quest) excludes any reference to the original film. For this incarnation, Kong was reinvented for the cereal crowd, and I still enjoy watching it with a bowl of corn flakes today, for the sake of sheer, shameless nostalgia.
And not to be left off the banana-wagon, Sony/MGM DVD has reached deep into its vaults to revive the American International Pictures cult favorite KONGA (1961). This one stars the great British actor Michael Gough (Alfred in the ’90s Batman movie series) as a mad scientist who creates his own giant gorilla — out of a chimpanzee! — which then proceeds to wreak havoc on London. This was AIP’s “answer” to Kong the same way I Was A Teenage Werewolf, I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, Blood of Dracula, How To Make A Monster and Horrors of the Black Museum were their drive-in updates of Universal’s classic monsters from the ’30s and ’40s. Konga is indeed a man in a gorilla suit — a pretty neat one, I must say — and this colorful slice of exploitation contains some rather sordid material, but it’s still a must-have not only for Kong completists but for all devotees of classic cheesy cinema.
Already long available on the DVD market are several irreverent Kong-inspired movies from the ’70s like QUEEN KONG, MIGHTY PEKING MAN, A-P-E and of course the technically terrible but still curiously compelling Dino De Laurentis remake of KONG from 1976 starring Jessica Lange, as well as its almost irredeemably bad sequel from 1987, KING KONG LIVES. Take these journeys and bring these monsters home at your own peril.
Kong lives all right — whether as a stop motion puppet, a guy in an ape suit, or a computerized image — and most significantly, as an eternal movie star, a brutishly romantic figure still rampaging through the jungles of our collective dreams. Not even Beauty could kill this Beast.
Beatnik lounge lizard and writer Will “the Thrill” Viharo and his wife, Monica “the Tiki Goddess,” host a live cult movie cabaret called “Thrillville” at the Parkway Speakeasy Theater in Oakland, CA. Will also has a B-movie tiki lounge at home, where he watches his DVD collection while drinking homemade Mai Tais (which may have influenced these reviews somewhat).