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Posts Tagged ‘King Kong Lives’

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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