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KING KONG. The original was incredible in its day. The special effects don't hold NOW, but watching it, one can imagine what a powerful impression it made for its time. No one is ever going to think that of KING KONG from 1976.
Made for an estimated $24 million, it was prohibitively expensive for the small but profitable company of Dino De Laurentiis, who was producing movies for over 30 years (ORCA, AMITYVILLE II, MANHUNTER, KING KONG LIVES, FLASH GORDON, DUNE, SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK, ARMY OF DARKNESS, HANNIBAL, RED DRAGON) when this one came down the pike.
Dino was one of those few folks who saw the tragedy that one of the original screenwriters, Ruth Rose, saw in Kong, and approved.
Writer Ruth Rose, who co-wrote the 1933 script with James Ashmore Creelman from an original story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, saw a lovable giant fuzzball ape, and when she had the chance to exert more of her vision in the sequel, SON OF KONG, turned the giant ape into a smaller, goofy, cutesy, daffy clown. SON OF KONG fared so poorly that the studio, RKO Pictures, folded up shop on giant apes for the next 16 years. Writer Ruth Rose, along with Director Ernest B. Schoedsack, then created a successively smaller ape. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, without the KONG moniker, attracted beauceau (boo koo) bucks for RKO Pictures (not KING KONG money but not bad). But whenever the original KING KONG went into theatrical re-release (which is what studios did before home video), it made nearly as much as MIGHTY JOE YOUNG did in its first week: only Every Single Time.
KONG continued to be a cash cow because KING KONG had something that no other pretender had: KING KONG wasn't cute and he wasn't lovable. He was a vicious wild animal living in a brutal environment. He killed for territory, he killed to protect his property, and he killed because he enjoyed killing. That's the way Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper saw him, but that wasn't the way Ruth Rose wanted Kong to be. Rose wanted cute and cuddly: Blonde even.
Cooper and Wallace envisioned a Kong that was a giant ape version of Universal Studios DRACULA. Which is to say, the monster does well on his own turf among his familiar, primitive victims, but when he comes to the modern world, with technologically advanced people, not so much. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula as a repulsive creature of the night where science, in the form of Dr. Van Helsing, is the light that triumphs over the darkness of superstition. With the original KING KONG, the ape is captured from the start to be nothing more than a carny show attraction - technology has already won.
Dino De Laurentiis wanted to remain true to the Kong mythos in some ways, and go off on his own in others. Nothing wrong with that. But the original Kong was terrifying. Dino wanted Kong to be sympathetic.
"When you see my ape die, you gonna cry!"
Leading up to KING KONG 1976, De Laurentiis said those very words which were, in some ways, prophetic. He tapped Lorenzo Semple Jr. to write the screenplay. The two worked together on movies before and Semple considered himself something of a deep scribe of western culture.
In truth, his films - in retrospect - appear awfully thumb fingered. In film after film, Semple's characters come off like caricatures. In his writing, he knew nothing of how humans behave with one another; how men and women interact with each other, or much of anything about women at all.
Women in Semple scripts are extraordinarily dense and simple minded. They need to be moved, bullied, and pushed around like puppets by male protagonists. Semple's women characters are often the hateful stereotype of a "yappy broad".
In past films (THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR comes to mind), other writers could fill in some of Semple's more extravagant gaps, but in KING KONG 1976, it was all Lorenzo. Well, Lorenzo and director John Guillermin (THE TOWERING INFERNO, DEATH ON THE NILE, KING KONG LIVES). Guillermin, who directed some wonderful movies prior to KING KONG, was sputtering toward the end of his career by 1976. If you ever watch any earlier Guillermin movies, you won't recognize his fingerprints on this one.
KING KONG 1976 starts off with a ship. The big boss is a man named Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin: ROSEMARY'S BABY, SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER) and he works for major oil conglomerate, Petrox.
Fred is scared because he and his crew are sailing out to a newly discovered island (in 1976) that he believes contains vast deposits of oil. Oil companies spend vast fortunes every year in search for oil: that's no big deal in the Research and Development world of big oil. But Wilson is scared because if he doesn't bring back oil, he'll lose everything. Oddball gamble: Petrox is like the Reno, Nevada of oil companies.
So what the hell?
Meanwhile a homeless guy (Jeff Bridges: TRON, IRON MAN), seemingly drunk, stumbles out of a cab, drops a big wad of cash at the feet of a security guard, and once through the gate, sneaks aboard the Petrox ship. What's that about?
The ship hits the high seas. Wilson unveils his secret plan to the crew, "We are heading toward an uncharted island continually enshrouded in fog. The fog, according to satellite photography, is rich in CO2. Only vast oil deposits could churn out so much CO2."
Well, no, but I know what can churn out a lot of CO2: A Freaking Volcano.
So the stupid is really piling up and we aren't even 10 minutes into the movie.
The homeless guy, who has snuck into the meeting, speaks up to refute Wilson. It may not be oil, he says (Volcano).
Why, (Volcano) animals could be expelling enough CO2 to cover an island in fog for hundreds of years. Maybe even a really big animal.
You don't need a Science Moment to tell you that's absurd. But the homeless guy, who seems unconcerned over what an "Evil Oil Corporation" would do to a stowaway on the high seas (Hmm. Then are they really THAT evil?), turns out to be a Princeton University Associate Professor (which actually explains every ignorant thing he does throughout the rest of the movie).
Stowaway takes himself seriously serious and his name is Jack Prescott - which is about as New England Country Club as you can get. He stowed away to take photographs of the unexplored island! And there is not a thing that an Evil Oil Corporation like Petrox can do about it, so "Nyahh!"
Yes, without telling anyone what he was up to (because it is illegal and he could lose his shot at tenure), Jack snuck aboard the vessel of an allegedly Evil Oil corporation. And now he is going to spend the rest of his journey, there and back, sleeping in one of their guest rooms, washing his clothes, eating their food, and sanctimoniously rubbing his cleverness in their faces.
This is mind boggling stupid if we are to believe that Petrox is illegal, let alone evil.
So why can't they simply call out a Coast guard chopper and have this asshole hauled off to jail? Don't ask or there won't be a movie, which would have been a good thing.
Okay then, why don't they throw all of his incriminating photographs, along with all of his camera equipment, overboard?
Or simply dump his sorry butt overboard and let him drown - IF they are actually evil. I've hung out in bars where such attitudes by snooty Princeton types would be punished by far worse, and there the people were merely bad.
Now this toilet of a movie is backed up with stupid.
As they haul his butt to the brig (that too was a surprise, that a commercial ship would have a brig, but I'm no expert on Hollywood-style oil research ships), the crew spots a life raft bobbing merrily along in the distance. In the life raft is a beautiful, half naked woman - which doesn't happen nearly enough whenever I'm out to sea.
The crew bring her aboard and get all horny but keep their distance.
Jack is now like, the Gilligan's Island Professor and is recruited to be the ship's doctor (Hey Jack, you know something about medicine, don't you? Well come help us with this beautiful, half naked woman!). Since when do commercial vessels of this crew size go out without at least one trained... aw forget it!
Jack does what he can, which largely consists of having to listen to the most god awful monologue ever to spew out of anyone's mouth any where. Great Cthulhu but this woman, who calls herself Dwan (Jessica Lange: CAPE FEAR , HUSH), is an idiot. In a few scenes she babbles on about a porn movie called Deep Throat because she doesn't get the nuance.
I mean, anyone can be dumb, but bat sonar could pass through her skull without a bounce! Throughout the duration of the trip, the men fawn over her and she does her part by dressing up like Daisy Duke, bending over and obliviously cock teasing one and all. Not a good idea on long ship voyages, especially with an allegedly Evil Crew, R! but what the hell would she know?
The elitist, smarter than thou, Jack, falls for Dwan. I don't mean laid today, gone tomorrow, but he falls in love with her. Princeton educated activist professor falls for confused simpleton. Imagine the faculty cocktail parties.
Fred Wilson spends his time snarling over this and that, though really there isn't much for anyone to do until they meet Kong. Unlike the original movie, nobody on the ship even knows Kong exists.
Also unlike the original movie, Dwan, who replaces the Anne Darrow role from the original (which was played by the superior Fay Wray) can't stop yapping Semple's inane dialog that would drive Daffy Duck up the freaking wall.
In the original, Anne Darrow was poor, but sharp and independent. When she gave her heart to the human love interest in the original, it meant something. Dwan is such a mind boggling idiot that she would give her heart to a cocktail napkin: then cry when it blew away, leaving her for smarter napkins.
So they arrive at the island, waste valuable film footage walking around paradise, find the giant wall and a ceremony, and get discovered. The native chief wants Dwan and will trade five of his own women for her. Five women of his own tribe for one white stranger!
This apparently shows - yet again - how highly black men value white women over black women. And who can blame them?
We white folk are just so god damn lovable!
Who wouldn't want to marry someone white and have white kids? Then you wouldn't need an excuse to hug and kiss us god damn lovable white folks All the Time!
But in KING KONG 1976, the mostly white crew won't stand for such a trade and fire their guns into the air, running back to shore. Nobody asked the opinion of lone black crew member, Boan (Julius Harris: BLADE , DARKMAN, MANIAC COP III, SHRUNKEN HEADS).
Safely back on the ship, Charles Grodin's Wilson, continues the snarling and teeth gnashing, trying to look as Snidely Whiplash as possible. Jeff Bridges' Prescott character walks around in sophomore-put-down-mode: cavillous as a coffee shop poet. Lange's Dwan, meanwhile, keeps spouting the most insouciant drivel.
God how Prescott wants her!
And he almost gets her, but the tribesmen paddle an outrigger through the fog (so rich in CO2 it's a dense fog - how in the hell did they breathe?) and, as sheer luck would have it, they go directly to the ship (360 degrees of direction they could have gone from the island, at night, but they can make a beeline for a ship hidden from sight!).
It's largely all Kong from here. Lange gets offered; KING KONG makes his appearance and accepts the offer; ship's crew fire their guns and scare the tribal people away while they go after Dwan; you know the drill.
Sadly, there aren't as many monsters in KING KONG 1976 as there were in 1933. And despite the superior Kong special effects (man in a furry rubber suit), the one monster fight with Kong and a giant boa/rattlesnake combo creature, is ywan worthy.
Ah yes, the special effects.
Dino De Laurentiis reportedly ran out of money during the creation process of KING KONG. You see, he hired several special effects men to do one thing: make a realistic Kong. There was Carlo Rambaldi (BAY OF BLOOD, ALIEN, KING KONG LIVES), and Rick Baker (IT'S ALIVE, THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, VIDEODROME, WOLF, THE FRIGHTENERS, MEN IN BLACK, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, PLANET OF THE APES , MEN IN BLACK II, THE RING, HELLBOY, THE RING TWO), and Glenn Robinson.
All three men worked on the Gorilla in different stages. Depending on who tells it, Dino was nervous and couldn't decide if he wanted a man in a rubber suit (Rick Baker's specialty), or a mechanically cable controlled ape (Carlo Rambaldi's specialty), and what to do in close ups where Jessica Lange would need a giant appendage grabbing for her. At first, Dino claimed that Rambaldi did everything, which P.O.'d Baker when he saw his own creations, mainly him in the Kong Suit, acting!
Dino first claimed that they had built a true to scale, giant robot Kong. He later recanted and watching the movie you know, thatsa no robo Kong.
It would have been cool if it could have happened, and they tried, but the technology just wasn't there at the time, as Director Steven Spielberg learned around that same period with his Bruce-the-Shark robot for JAWS.
Still, the audience went bananas - at first. It was an All New Kong? Who didn't want to see such a spectacle? But after the great theatrical run, in the burgeoning dwan of home video, the diminishing returns were perplexing for Paramount Studios. What went wrong?
Possibly because Dino didn't trying anything too new. Ship goes to Skull Island. Natives feed their children to Kong. Natives want the blonde. Ship's Captain says no. Natives kidnap her, give her to Kong, ship's crew go on safari and die getting her back, Kong gets shipped off to the U.S.A. as a Circus attraction.
Well that certainly checks all the boxes!
Before the movie was released, Dino even revealed that, in the tradition of the original Kong, this one too, would retrieve the blonde, take her up a skyscraper and fall to his death. Ah but WHATTA DEATH!
The trailers of the time (which you get with your disc) reveal that Kong, of course, is brought back to New York where he goes apeshit. Dwan, who screams every time Kong touches her, gets a touch of Stockholm Syndrome at some point - for some reason (possibly because she's drunk) and tries to become a human shield for Kong.
In regards to size ratios, think about that one.
At this point, if you haven't had enough of Prescott's constant mewling about "Evil Corporations", you'll love it when he cheers every time Kong slaughters anyone who is trying to save the befuddled Dwan.
Well, except for himself, of course.
Not kidding, Prescott cheers the ape that is running around killing everybody! It Actually Makes Him Laugh! Then, when some Army soldiers get the better of Kong, he cries out and calls them assholes. Kong should be killing humans! Not the other way around! American soldiers are supposed to die! Not live!
Prescott even goes so far as to try and raise awareness for Kong and have him sent back to Skull Island to continue slaughtering the islanders!
Ah... the preservation of cultural traditions!
Earlier in the movie, while Kong was being FedEx'd to the states, Prescott shed crocodile tears for the island natives because "We kidnapped their God."
This "God" that terrorized their lives, forcing them into a primitive and harsh culture where they sacrificed the women of their tribe - their daughters - to appease the great beast. With the awful monster gone, the islanders can now live without the oppressive threat of constant terror and death on a beautiful island paradise, right?
Not according to the unbelievably racist Prescott, who predicts of the natives that, without Kong, "A year from now that will be an island full of burnt-out drunks."
That mind-blowing bit of racism is actually uttered ... by the hero.
Personally I don't believe in psychics, but even if Prescott is right, a drunken party among friends and family - even with the occasional brawl - is certainly preferable to sacrificing your own children to be eaten ALIVE!
Prescott is supposed to be the good guy?!?
Not the kinda guy I'd want watching my back.
The final Battle Royale atop the former World Trade Center (also in the trailer and on the poster! This movie spoiled itself.) is nowhere near as exciting as the movie poster suggests. It is horribly edited, with King Kong destroying the same helicopter, with the same people inside, on two different separate occasions, by swatting it out of his face.
That's right, though the ape is making his stand on the top of a building, and the choppers can simply hover from a safe distance and shoot him down - With Their Missiles! - they buzz around his head and a helicopter nearly flies right into his face before Kong swats it away.
TWICE! Did I mention how stupid this movie is?
In the end credits of KING KONG 1976, you get a rather odd screen credit, almost as if it was written by lawyers (and perhaps it was) describing just who did what special effects and thanking them all.
In 1976, KING KONG never looked more lifelike. He truly looked like a living breathing giant ape - no lie. But that was the only good thing about this turkey. From the horribly bad story, to the characters and their dialogue, to the inept sexual tension of a giant, 8 story tall gorilla wanting to have sex with a human that was (comparatively) the size of a french fry, the KING KONG of 1976 deserves One Shriek Girl.
KILL IT BEFORE IT BREEDS!