Horror Movie News and Reviews

Retro Rewind: It’s Been 40 Years Since Jessica Lange Tamed the Mighty King Kong

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Written by Patti Pauley

In the glorious year of 1976. cinephiles of the horror genre were treated to an array of beautiful films that remain horror staples to this day. Speaking personally, it’s a bit grim having to come to terms that some of these classics turned 40 this year! Or it could just be the old geezer in me speaking as I’m enjoying my bag of orange circus peanut candies. Yeah, that’s probably it.

In any regard, Horror gems celebrating their 40th birthday in 2016 include Carrie, The Omen, Alice, Sweet Alice, and one could never forget the return of the original giant monster movie- the mighty King Kong. The remake from the 1933 classic tale of Beauty and the Beast directed by John Guillermin with Dino De Laurentiis as Producer, perpetuated my fondness for giant monster movie culture as a small child; I actually recollect seeing this version before the original. And I also remember it scaring the living shit out of me. While the base of the story remains the same, with slight differences here and there to accommodate modern audiences, one thing was noticeably different. And that my friends, was that King Kong was actually terrifying in sequences where he needed to be. Which makes this cinematic version, my absolute favorite of all the Kong films. It also seems to be the version that doesn’t get a whole lot of love, so let’s talk about this gorgeous film.

The film starts in Surabaya with Fred Wilson, the greedy creep executive of the Petrox Oil Company played brilliantly by the perfectly ‘stashed Charles Grodin, who forms an expedition to an uncharted island in search for untapped oil in the Indian Ocean. On the brink of sailing off for an unknown adventure, primate paleontologist Jack Prescott represented by Jeff Bridges and a beard any lumberjack would envy, stows away on the ship as the mysterious island gains the curiosity and concern of the science hippie.

Along the way towards the mysterious unknown, Prescott spots a raft carrying an unconscious wondrous beauty- and enter the stunning Jessica Lange in her big screen debut. Lange portrays Dwan (nope, you read that right) an aspiring actress and the lone survivor of an explosion on a yacht where she was to make her first film. Dwan, is of course the beauty to the film’s beast and clearly has a lust interest for Jack. For me, Bridges and Lange illuminate fireworks on-screen, and the chemistry just seems to come natural. To be clear, I’m speaking in reference directly towards the exchanges between the pair on board the ship prior to Dwan’s capture. Now I must address, I’ve heard people refer to Lange in this role as nothing more than a bimbo with A grade seductive skills. However her character, intentions, and conclusion at the end of the film solidify just how clever of a girl she really is; even if it is with manipulative intent and will explain that further down the time-line here.

Fast-forwarding to where Dwan is kidnapped, drugged, and offered up to the mighty King Kong. As Kong emerges through the trees to collect his prize, you can’t help but squeal when you get your first full glance at him. Yes, I know. It’s only a guy in an ape suit. However, keeping in mind the realistic aspect of 70’s movie magic, it’s rather beautiful. I simply adore the range of expressions from that animatronic Kong mug. And some were downright terrifying. Honestly, I remember being scared shit-less of this Kong when he was in angry mode as a child. Much unlike the 1933 version, this Kong wasn’t as bumbling. He was definitely smarter, a little angrier, and absolutely had a scarier set of chompers.

Rightfully so, some of the best scenes in the film are between Kong and Dwan in the jungle. The scene where Dwan punches Kong in the mouth screaming at him to eat her and choke on her is classic stuff. Kong gives her that look like, “Ummm… Excuse me bitch?”  Then Dwan quickly turned on that charm, explaining she’s a Libra and temperamental. Cracks me up every time. Some of the moments are also very enduring. Kong bathing Lange in the waterfall, then using his lung power to dry her off.

Adorable.

Meanwhile, Wilson, Prescott, and crew are scouring the island. Prescott in search of Dwan, and sleaze-ball Wilson concocting a plan to capture ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ upon learning of the giant monkey’s existence. Of course Dwan is rescued by Jack and Kong, aggravated by the situation, chases after the pair right into Wilson’s trap. Grodin’s eyes gleaming with the future of the fortunes he can make with this discovery, they set sail to New York City with Kong in tow.

Now, remember what I said about Dwan being rather a manipulative gal?  The wannabe actress wants nothing more in this world than to become a successful movie star, so she basically sells out Kong to by agreeing to exploit Kong for fame and fortune. She knows her experience on Skull Island is her ticket to stardom, and while on the boat back to America Dwan boasts to the caged beast within the docks of the ship who protected her in the jungle, despite his angry outbursts, that he “will be a star!” 

Well, we all know how that works out now don’t we. Prescott, put off by both Wilson’s intentions and Dwan’s willingness to go along with this “grotesque farce” as he puts it, watches ominously as the great unveiling of Kong in New York turns into a massive shit-show. A dolled up Dwan being shoved around by reporters in front of the already irritated ape, enrages Kong to break from his chains and cage resulting in chaos; and Wilson’s untimely death by a Kong stomp.

Gotta love that terrible King robot!

Kong, reclaiming his prize turns to the World Trade Center for some solace. But, we all know the sad ending here don’t we? As Kong is attacked atop from the Twin Towers, Prescott looks on in horror while screaming for mercy for the confused King of Skull Island. Kong puts up an impressive fight against the air raid, protecting a frantic Dwan in the process. However, Kong meets his demise and falls to his death. That is, unless you want to acknowledge the sequel that came ten years later King Kong Lives; but I think it’s best we avoid the migraine that movie gave me and forget about that one all together.

As Kong lies lifeless on the streets of New York, a visibly upset Dwan finds herself surrounded by the paparazzi. She looks around for Jack, however her love interest is nowhere to be seen. Prescott seemingly sicken by the debacle, has left Dwan to the wolves of the press. In other words, “You made your bed sweetheart, now lie in it.”  

Dwan finally got her fame, but at what price? As she clearly realizes her choices in both selling out Kong for notoriety, and compromising love for the all mighty dollar, she is left alone with both of protectors gone. In the original 1933 version, we are left with the chilling words of “Beauty truly killed the beast.” Here, the obvious clearly doesn’t need to be stated. The film clearly leaves you on a somber note, and serves almost like an Aesop Fable: If you’re willing to step all over your beliefs for fame and fortune, be prepared to reap what you sow.

Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong may not be everyone’s favorite, but it certainly should be appreciated for what it is. A damn good, campy at times, monster movie leaving you with some food for thought at the end. If it’s been a hot minute since your last viewing, I suggest going back to revisit this underrated Kong film.