Posts Tagged ‘John Guillermin’

Some movies win deserved obscurity simply through not being terribly good; others carve out a certain notoriety on the grounds of their lack of achievement – more often, it must be said, when they don’t earn money, than because they’re simply not very good. And then there are films which have seemingly been stricken from history, such is their simple, audience-repelling, critic-stupefying horror.

John Guillermin’s King Kong Lives was released in the US in 1986, promptly tanking spectacularly. It never got a theatrical release here in the UK; to my knowledge it’s never been shown on TV in this country, either. It was nearly ten years old before I found out it even existed. This is a seriously obscure movie, especially when you consider the name-recognition factor of the King Kong brand, and I was rather delighted to find a free-to-view copy of it somewhere on t’internet. Obviously, I expected it to be bad. I didn’t expect it to be quite as bad as it was, though.

Hey ho: the movie opens with a reprise of the climax of the 1976 King Kong, with the big hairy guy getting machine-gunned off the top of the World Trade Centre while Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange look on in horror (Bridges and Lange probably reprised these expressions when they heard their performances were going to be reused in this movie).

Ten years later, and in defiance of all logic, reason, and common sense, the boffins of the ‘Atlanta Institute’ are keeping Kong alive and sedated. Despite having been chopped to bits by cannon shells and then fallen over four hundred metres onto rather solid concrete, Kong seems in pretty good shape, and despite the fact that he went on a rampage through New York City killing dozens, if not hundreds of people, the folk at the institute really seem to care about him. President of the Kong club is Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton, still fairly fresh from The Terminator), who has knocked up a bionic heart for him. The problem, she gravely reveals, is that Kong has been in a coma so long his blood has gone all rubbish. In order to get the replacement heart into him, they need a source for a blood transfusion, and no such donor exists. Bummer.

But wait! Off in the wilds of Borneo, extravagantly-coiffured adventurer Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin – no, me neither) is minding his own business when he happens upon another giant ape. Luckily, the locals are able to shoot the outsized primate full of tranquiliser darts so he can capture it. That’s a coincidence, you may be thinking – what’s rather more striking (and blatantly so) when watching the movie is that Mitchell’s introduction, his discovery of the ape, and then its capture, all take place within the space of two and a half minutes. None of this character development and suspense malarkey in King Kong Lives! This movie has more important things to get to!

Such as… well, the board of the Atlanta Institute decide that they really like giant uncontrollable gorillas and buy Mitchell’s discovery from him. This is against Amy’s wishes, as she’s concerned that the presence of a female (yup, it’s a girl) may do things to Kong’s blood pressure, bad news given he has his heart transplant coming up. But she is overruled and the female ape…

I must now digress a bit. The female ape is referred to throughout this movie as ‘Lady Kong’. I can’t quite work out why. If she is indeed King Kong’s counterpart, then surely she’s Queen Kong? (There may have been legal issues concerning an Italian movie of that name which the De Laurentiis corporation effectively had banned, and which the producers had no desire to revisit.) Unless Kong had a previous wife who was much more popular and attractive and people would resent the new gorilla usurping her rightful title, in which case she would end up being called something like the Duchess of Cornwall Kong instead. In any case, Lady Kong just sounds like a slightly naughty wrestler. For the remainder of this review I shall therefore be referring to her as Mrs Kong. We now go back to the paragraph in progress.

…she is overruled and Mrs Kong is flown from Borneo to Georgia on a transport plane. That’s what I call a long-haul flight; the mind boggles at the lavatory arrangements alone. No sooner has she arrived than preparations are underway for the operation, which is just one of many immortally absurd sequences in King Kong Lives, complete with scrubbed-up surgeons wielding circular saws and operating cranes, and giant surgical paraphernalia including cotton-wool buds the size of bean bags.

The operation is a complete success and everyone celebrates! (Especially the film-makers, for the movie has still got over an hour to fill somehow.) Why is everyone in Georgia apparently so happy Kong has survived? Have they got such a grudge against New York and its inhabitants that they have adopted this terroriser of the city as their own? Questions, questions. The scent of Mrs Kong (one shudders to imagine) reaches Kong, who busts out of the convalescent ward and rescues her from her own quarters. (The moment at which the two apes first set eyes on each other is another one to savour: shot as a moment of great emotional epiphany, it’s somewhat undercut by the fact it features TWO MEN IN GORILLA SUITS!!! Sorry. Found I had to shout a bit just then.)

The hirsute lovers head for the hills, literally, with the US Army in hot pursuit. Also on their trail are Hank and Amy, who discover their own relationship is blossoming. This would seem out of character had either of them been written as possessing a genuine personality prior to this point. ‘We’re primates too,’ coos Amy seductively as she entices Hank into her sleeping bag, while down in the valley Kong and Mrs Kong are apparently also hard at it. Frankly, I wasn’t remotely interested in seeing either of these consummations, and, thank God, the director appears to have felt the same way.

The villain of the piece enters in the form of an army colonel who wears sunglasses and smokes a cigar and is keen on shooting things. Happening upon Mrs Kong in a state of happy post-coital stupor (Kong is clearly not one of these guys who likes to stick around afterward), he has her gassed and airlifted away by helicopter (once again, what about the lavatory arrangements?!?). Kong is struck by a pang of guilt but is unable to rescue her, falls down a ravine into a river, bops his head on a rock and is promptly declared dead by all concerned, despite the absence of a body (no small consideration given we’re talking about a fifty foot ape).

Mrs Kong is kept prisoner down a missile silo and Amy’s boss keeps telling her Kong must be dead, as there’s not enough protein out there to keep him going. But wait! Kong is quietly devastating the local gator population and biding his time, ahead of a daring attempt to save the missus. Suffice to say it all ends up with an utterly absurd sequence in which Mrs Kong drops a disproportionately small sprog, who is then fondled by a dying Kong, while a tearful Amy delivers deathless dialogue like ‘He’s there, Kong. Can you reach him? Reach for him, Kong.’ The music soars heroically, the direction is shamelessly manipulative, the actors emote for all they’re worth, AND IT’S ALL JUST THREE MEN IN GORILLA SUITS AND A BADLY COMPOSITED LINDA HAMILTON!!!! FOR GOD’S SAKE!!!

This is not one of those movies let down by a small budget or other such piddling little trifles. Indeed, I feel obliged to say that in many respects the production values are actually better than in the 1976 film – the special effects are certainly less embarrassingly inept and primitive, while the ape suits are not too bad either. But this does not get away from the fact that this is a film based on a fundamentally stupid idea: doing a story revolving around a romance between two characters played by men in gorilla suits. If that’s your premise, you may as well give up right at the start, because there’s no way in the world you’re ever going to make a good movie.

I was thinking just the other day about why some monsters have endured and why I like some more than others. Godzilla, for example, is an oddly mutable character – he can be the good guy or the villain, or even an anti-hero. You can project your own ideas onto Godzilla, as long as you respect the fact he’s a nightmarish destructive force. Personally, I prefer the Heisei version of Gamera to nearly any Godzilla you care to mention – partly this is because the Kaneko movies are just so good in every department, but also because Gamera himself is such a grandiose and enigmatic figure in them.

King Kong has done considerably fewer movies than Godzilla or Gamera, and it seems to me that he’s a much more limited character than either of them. The original movie has considerable archetypal power – the wild beast, shackled by society, rises up to challenge it before meeting its inevitable end – which may be why that story has been retold so many times (in, for example, The Valley of Gwangi). It’s about the triumph of technological civilisation, and the price of that triumph. This is all very well, but once Kong’s been shot off the top of the highest local landmark there’s not a lot else he can meaningfully do. All-star wrestling matches with Godzilla (keep your fingers crossed, folks – review coming soon, hopefully) have a certain novelty value, but Kong feels out of place in that kind of movie, genuinely slumming it.

It’s the same in King Kong Lives – Kong on the rampage in New York has a visceral charge to it, no matter how questionable the script or effects are. Kong wandering around Georgia chowing down on crocodiles and startling passing hicks just feels pointless and silly, and after a while one gets a sense of a movie treading water while it waits for the climax to arrive.

One could also argue that while the 1976 Kong had Jeff Bridges, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and John Barry, King Kong Lives has Brian Kerwin, Nathan Pressman, and John Scott. But the truth is that the earlier movie had a story that, while fantastical, wasn’t laughably absurd – the story here manages to be both pointless, mundane, and utterly silly. King Kong Lives? Hardly: if this is life, then it’s not as we know it.

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As long term readers may have noticed, the scope of this blog has shrunk somewhat over the last nine months, mainly due to the diploma course I’ve been plugging away at since the end of last summer (the end of this is in sight, by the way, so brace yourselves). In particular those moments of personal revelation to which I was occasionally wont, never common, have become non-existent. Let me make up for this with a confession which may shock and astound some of you, and is not something I would casually say in any other public venue: my favourite version of King Kong is the 1976 one.

Well, let me qualify that straight away by saying that the 1933 Kong is, obviously, an immortal classic and one of the keystone texts of cinema – but the sheer age of the thing means it’s very difficult to appreciate it as anything other than an historical artifact. [Ignore this man, he is clearly an idiot who knows nothing about cinema. – A] The 2005 Kong also has much to commend it, but conciseness and lightness-of-touch are not amongst its virtues. Simply in terms of watchability and entertainment value, the 1976 film scores heavily compared to both of them, and it would (narrowly) beat out the 1933 version if I had an evening with nothing to do and only a pile of King Kong DVDs to entertain me.

And yet this film retains a rather toxic reputation, described as ‘campy’ and ‘idiotic’, and is frequently accused of almost destroying the careers of its stars. So, in the first instalment of a new strand snappily entitled Is It Really As Bad As All That?, let us revisit John Guillermin’s movie and see if it really is, er, as bad as all that.

(An interesting new sense of the word ‘original’, I think you’ll agree.)

Things kick off in Indonesia, with a ship owned by the Petrox oil company setting sail for remote waters. In charge of the expedition is executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), who believes he has discovered an uncharted island which holds vast untapped oil deposits. Also on board is stowaway Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges, in a truly appalling hairstyle and beard), a primate palaeontologist (when the script doesn’t require him to be a doctor or expert photographer) who suspects the island may not be as undiscovered as Wilson thinks, and may hold at least one very unusual inhabitant.

Along the way they pick up Dwan (Jessica Lange), a slightly dippy survivor of a shipwreck, which if nothing else cheers everyone up a bit. But things become more serious upon arriving at the island – despite what Wilson believes, it does hold a human population, living in fear behind a giant barricade protecting them from the interior and the power of their god, Kong.

Well, the natives take a fancy to Dwan and decide to sacrifice her to Kong, who turns out to be a fifty-foot tall gorilla. Attempts to free her from the ape’s somewhat lubricious clutches proceed, but Wilson is distracted by news that the oil deposits he has gambled on finding are non-existent. He will be ruined, unless he can find something very special to take back to America and justify the cost of the expedition. Hmm, shipping a giant wild gorilla to New York City as a publicity stunt – what could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

Okay, if we’re going to be properly objective about this movie, let’s start by looking at a few of the undisputedly good things about it. Chief among these is John Barry’s score, which moves easily between being romantic and ominous, as you would expect where such a talented composer is concerned. Even I, who like this movie and am prepared to cut it all kinds of breaks, am prepared to admit the music is probably much better than it really deserves. The cinematography is also very well done.

However, the fact that much of the movie looks so good only throws into sharper relief those moments when it really honestly doesn’t. There’s no real getting away from the fact that King Kong is always going to be a special effects movie, and likewise no avoiding the fact that the special effects in Kong ’76 are amongst the most dismal ever seen in a major studio release. Now, I don’t have an issue with giant monsters being realised by men in suits, and the ape suit in this film is not completely awful. Likewise, the animatronic Kong mask is quite impressive, and there’s nothing really wrong with the full-scale hydraulic Kong arm, either. But any shot where these elements have to interact never quite works. The compositing is lousy. Effects shots throughout the movie are plagued by obvious matte lines, fringing problems (characters and objects turning transparent around the edges), and blatantly unconvincing backgrounds.

I’m prepared to admit this is a major problem and I expect my tolerance of it is largely the result of having seen much worse in many Japanese monster movies. But let me try to persuade you that this is a case of a half-decent script being torpedoed by substandard production. Lorenzo Semple, as befits the sometime scribe of the Batman TV show, Flash Gordon and Never Say Never Again, provides a screenplay which isn’t afraid to be knowing and slyly humorous in places – some of these moments fall utterly flat, such as when Lange asks Kong what his star sign is, but Charles Grodin gives a broad comic performance which is genuinely funny. ‘Here’s to the big one!’ he cries, even before the opening credits roll. Later, on arriving at Kong’s island, he is in more cautious mood: ‘Let’s not get eaten alive on this island – bring the mosquito spray!’

Now, I know some people have accused this film of not taking itself seriously, with nudgey-winky moments for the audience’s benefit like the ones above used as evidence. But, come on, let’s remember what this film’s about – a giant gorilla falls in love with a blonde starlet and runs amok in New York City. How seriously can you really take it? Treat it as a serious, emotional drama and you run the risk of looking pretentious and absurd, as I would suggest Peter Jackson discovered in 2005.

I’m also not sold on criticisms that the movie soils the memory of the original by being excessively salacious – admittedly, some of the accusations slung Kong’s way regarding his intentions towards Lange seem a little OTT (especially given the anatomical incorrectness of the ape suit). However, the dodgiest actual sequence, in which Kong seems intent on tearing Lange’s clothes off, is only a reworking of one from the 1933 movie – in which the ape genuinely does tear some of Fay Wray’s clothes off!

Nevertheless, for a film which appears to be initially pitching itself as a light-hearted fantasy romance, there are some jarring missteps along the way – casual references to rape and some incidental profanity are one thing, but the climax is startlingly bloody, as Kong is ripped to pieces by the cannons of helicopter gunships atop the World Trade Centre. (The prominent inclusion of the twin towers may explain why this film has become much less of a fixture on TV over the last ten years or so, but you can hardly blame the filmmakers for their lack of precognesis.) Slightly less obviously, the central romance between Bridges (as good here as he usually is, by the way) and Lange concludes on a peculiarly ambiguous note.

Watching this movie again with a mind to writing about it, I have found it does have more problems than I recalled – for a fantasy movie released less than a year before Star Wars, it really has much more in common with the middle-of-the-road extravaganzas and disaster movies John Guillermin most commonly put his name to (though his is a filmography not lacking in quirks, as the presence of movies like Shaft in Africa would suggest). I still think the script, the score, and some of the performances are certainly strong enough to make it an entertaining experience – it’s nowhere near a classic, but neither is it a total disgrace to its illustrious forebear.

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