If anything “Kong: Skull Island” proves is that monster movies are not dead. Nor is the genre of jungle adventure films. In today’s age, Hollywood has been giving us more superhero and reboots to the point of overkill. Now, Legendary Pictures is getting its “MonsterVerse” into gear and I can thankfully say I wasn’t disappointed with this entry. It was about time the big ape got a fresh start and I had a blast watching it. The movie in a nutshell is the war tone of Apocalypse Now meets the characters from James Cameron’s Aliens.
Set during the Vietnam War’s end, a government agent named Bill Randa (John Goodman) seeks a plan to visit an mysterious island for study and proof that monsters exist there. He gets teamed up with Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and a bunch of soldiers to take a trek via helicopter. At first we are led to believe this is some sort of study when it turns out Bill wants to blow up the island in a fiery rage. All plans are halted when Kong arrives showing he’s not only king of the island, but also a protector of his home.
The moment Kong shows up and smashes some helicopters, everything changes as the war movie turns into a monster movie. While stranded and seeking an exist, soldiers fend their way through thick jungle and avoid the wraith of giant spiders and demonic lizard monsters seeking to munch on them. Each creature is well designed by ILM and its a shame we never get to see many in action. With the only exception being a bunch of monsters called “skull crushers,” that look like a crossbreed between Cubone from Pokemon and a gila monster. When these monstrous being attack, I was greedy in hoping for a big action scene with a whole horde of them. On the other hand, this movie is dedicated to Kong, so I probably shouldn’t complain.
Also stuck on the island is a former British Captain (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson) who get the better part of the journey. Most of the time, they run into peaceful beasts and kindly natives that have a Buddhist-like personality. They later come across a World War II pilot played by John C. Riley, who crashed landed on the island in 1944. Riley proves to be a lot of fun with a manic performance that is funny and touching. Of course, they joke around how he has no clue about current events but they work for the most part.
“Kong” is very much your run of the mill monster movie stocked with cliched characters, rampaging beasts and all tossed into a thick jungle. What sets itself apart is the directorial style and fun performances. The choice of placing the story during the Vietnam War gives way for some creative scenes of solders blasting off to a tape recording playing Black Sabbath. The soundtrack itself is packed with psychedelic rock music from Creedence Clearwater Revival to David Bowie and the color scheme is put to great use with intense sunlight and cold blue nights.
Aside from the eye candy, I can’t think of single performance or character I disliked. Most of the people there are stock characters and cliches, but not in an annoying way. You have the one person who knows what is going on but is ignored, the war crazy Colonel, the guy who promises to make it home but doesn’t and so forth. In a way, I wish the characterization was given more depth but I wasn’t too disappointed in the light development. Actors like Sameul Jackson and John C. Riely really soak up the screen and knowing this is the kind of movie not to take seriously. In honesty, it works.
The revamped Kong is a big highlight differing from any other version depicted before him. The ape stands like a God of the sky and will defend his home in anyway he can. The special effects really convey the emotion and determination of this creature in how far he will go to protect Skull Island. Unlike Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla from 2014 (which the enjoyment is starting to wear off), we get plenty of Kong scenes paced perfectly throughout the movie. From brawling monsters to taking down choppers, this variation is sure to please.
I found myself overjoyed by the time the end credits came along. I’m a dead sucker for monster movies as much as jungle adventure films. Maybe this will start a revival of interest in monster movies or maybe it won’t. All I can say is that I saw a good monster movie and enjoyed every minute of it. Even during the intense moments, “Kong” doesn’t lose its fun luster. From beautiful visuals that will stay with me to engaging creatures fights, this is one eight wonder that I will never forget.
Also word of caution, as stated before this is the first in a planned “shared film universe” meaning the movie ends with a setup for the next entry right after the end credits. Unlike everyone who left the theater, I stayed through every name of the crew members just to see what lay at the end. Sure enough, I got a nice surprise but couldn’t believe how many missed such a great tease. And the fact I was the only one in the movie theater that waited so patiently to see it really shows how determined a filmgoer can be. Do yourself a favor when seeing this in theaters. Don’t walk out during the end credits. The patience is worth it.
October is here and its time to open up the vault once again. The Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon is back to give you more chills, thrills and oddball titles for the Halloween season. All October, you will get 31 posts for the next 31 days on some personal recommendations or some that deserve a good tearing. Some you wouldn’t guess would fit in with the Halloween season. And others that seriously may need a re-write. Consider this a “Personal Movie Gudie” for the Halloween season and feel free to agree, disagree or marvel at what I got in store. Instead of focusing on a theme, each day will be a special surprise. It could be a movie from the 1930s or a modern piece of trash. As with tradition, the last day of October will be specially reserved for a movie that I feel is underrated and deserves a watch on the spooky season. For now, let’s start off with the king of the monsters … or at least he is a king where he comes from.
Its hard to think of a world when King Kong wouldn’t exist. Many can argue It was the turn of the horror genre or the first blockbuster. But I feel it was the movie that perfected the horror genre. You had a monster, a damsel that was adored, everyday heroes and a tragic end. All the beats of a horror movie but done with flare. Its no wonder some tend to use this for the Halloween season and I can see why.
Robert Armstrong gives a great performance as Carl Denham, an eccentric Hollywood director that is all about action and adventure. His next film is to take place on an unknown island but is forced to add romance under studio pressure. The minute we get introduced to Carl, we love him. He can be egotistical but persuasive. A little melodramatic but very street smart. He’s not a villain and far from the kind of person that is in it for the money. He makes films for viewers to enjoy as opposed to profit from and that is the heart of the character.
Apparently, this new movie he’s working on needs a lead and manages to convince a shy Ann Darrow (ultimate scream queen Fay Wray) to join on the venture of a lifetime. Ann maybe the damsel but at least we sympathize with her. I feel with many of the remakes that we get, they always try to add more personality to her character and that’s fine. I do feel the Ann character can be a weak element of the story but Fay’s performance adds a lot of charm. One must remember this is the 1930s and before a time when creating strong female characters were the norm. I admit, I do feel a bit bothered that Ann doesn’t stand up to Kong or do more than just scream. But we spend so much time with her, prior to meeting the giant ape, that we still don’t want to see harm come to her.
Aboard the ship is Cpt. Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) who is the romantic lead. Of course, we do get that whole thing where he doesn’t want anything to do with Ann but later warms up to her. Its funny how the director of King Kong, Merian C. Cooper, added a romance subplot to this film after a string of successful jungle trek films. Supposedly, this was done to please the executives at RKO Pictures to do something different other than a jungle adventure film, which were still all the rave at the time. The chemistry between Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot would be a staple for future odd couple romances. They would at first have nothing in common, then start to see a connection and then one would try to fight for the other. That usual schlock would continue on in films to this day. I would argue to say this is a chick flick in disguise but that would be taking it too far.
Once we get to the island, things really kick up. We get treated to a group of natives that worship a strange god named Kong, which let’s be honest look a tad silly by today’s standards. Once they notice the beauty of Ann, they use her as a
sacrifice for Kong and sure enough, we find out that their god is really a giant ape. But like with most monster movies, the creature takes a liking to the beauty yet the beauty would rather run away than spend a life with the beast. Again, these are cliches and tropes we would see in later films but King Kong was there first. We sympathize with Kong because we know how rocky the chemistry is even if the ape doesn’t see it. Its almost like how a kid would play with a doll and if that doll came to life. Would the kid appreciate how he has something to cherish and would that toy bring back that appreciation? The bigger tragedy here is how cold the relationship is. Again, in later remakes, they would adjust this to give more heart and something for Ann and Kong to connect with. Honestly, I feel the way things play out is more interesting and adds a sad layer to Kong’s character. Past the fur is a lonely creature who wants companionship even when he doesn’t get the love he wants in return.
Also interesting is the special effects which are performed in stop-motion animation courtesy of Willis O’Brien. You can tell there is a lot of care and craft in trying to make you believe Ann Darrow is in Kong’s hands or that she is in the middle of a fight between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus rex. The island gives way to showcase a huge cornucopia of effects work as sailors try to fight off dinosaurs and Kong struggles to get through the jungle just to make it to his home. For 1933, this was ground-breaking. Today, we know the tricks of the trade but we don’t care. The execution makes it all the more believable. As actors look on in horror, we are convinced of the horror they view as well.
In a nutshell, this is a movie driven by emotion and special effects. The biggest highlight of course is the ending when Kong is taken to New York so he can be on display and goes on a rampage through the city. There is a wide range of shots and tricks to convince us that Kong is on Broadway or trying to fight biplanes on the Empire State Building. Even a giant head and arm had to be made for some scenes and close-ups to convince us that huge monkey is in front of us. Despite the simplicity, we can’t up but admire just how much effort is being tossed in to convince us something is real and on the screen. Even the musical score by Max Steiner complements this. Back then, having a musical score throughout a movie was new at the time and even to this day feels powerful and matches the movie perfect. It knows when to raise the tension of a scene like Kong tossing sailors off a log and when to be quiet and have us enjoy a dinosaur fight or raise the drama during Kong’s last stand. With the elements of sight and sound in play, it keeps us engaged.
And to be honest, its no wonder to see how big of an impact this movie left its viewers. For 1933, this was something new and exciting. Odd how an idea like this didn’t sit well with RKO executives until they saw how well it did at the box-office. Nobody knew Kong would have such a huge impact even during a time of Great Depression. It was something that would go down as pure American history and last through the ages.
Not even censorship from the MPPC could stop its legacy. Yeah, there was a time when King Kong had to be heavily edited for stuff deemed inappropriate. Much of the “offending” scenes consisted of the Brontosaurus attack, Kong eating people or squishing them with his foot, a sequence where Kong rips off some of Ann’s dress and tickles her (yes, you read that right) and a chilling scene where Kong thinks he sees a lady that looks like Ann but then rejects her by means of dropping her from the building he was clinging on to. Thankfully, the missing scenes where found sometime in the 1960s and restored. But do the age of the censored cuts, one would view this material from a very grainy and scratched quality. Luckily, a print was found in Britain with no cuts made and was used for the 2005 DVD release (which I might add was the first release of the movie on DVD!).
And of course, I should talk about the infamous deleted scene that also made the movie famous. Apparently, there was supposed to be a sequence where the sailors would go against a horde of giant insects and monsters. Dubbed “The Spider Pit Sequence,” there has been much debate as to if this cut scene still exists. Rumor has it, that the reason for its removal was after a preview screening where viewers were horrified over after seeing actors getting munched on by giant stop-motion bugs. However, evidence was later discovered that it might have been cut before any preview screening under Merian C. Cooper’s direction, who felt the scene slowed the movie down despite being hailed as O’Brien’s best work. Stills and concept art have surfaced but fans might want to check out a special documentary on the Kong DVD that involves a recreation of the scene crafted by Peter Jackson. Not only is it worth it to see their hard effort pay off but how it was created. Seeing him and the gang make monsters and film stuff the “old fashioned” is a nice treat to watch and gives an idea of how the movie’s special effects were achieved.
I am also aware of the many films and remakes that were spawned from it. I would do a whole retrospective if I could about those films ranging form remakes to pitting Kong against Godzilla, but I feel there is not much a purpose. De Laurentiis’ version from 1976 isn’t too bad but a couple of elements null it from being considered a pure classic. Peter Jackson’s take in 2005 feels more like a tribute which had some good stuff despite the unfortunate 3 hour length that nearly kills it. And with more Kong movies planned down the road, only time can tell how well those movies will do for the king. Will they pay a perfect homage to monster lover’s favorite ape or cause disgruntled furry? At this point, we should be reminded of the lasting impact this movie gave us. I’m positive those who are in the movie industry can cite King Kong as an excuse for its innovative special effects, engaging story and unforgettable characters. For in the end, beauty may have killed him but Kong lives on thanks to the public and its fans.