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Apr. 10, 2005

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  Kriticizing King Kong '76
 Who is Leonard Maltin and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?

Okay, the time has come to admit it at last.   The truth can no longer be concealed.  I am indeed a fan of the 1976 remake of King Kong.

That's right, that's 'fan' as in 'fanatic'.  Of course, those of you who chanced to follow the link to Kingdom Kong on our links page already knew my terrible secret but, for the rest of you, it will no doubt come as a shock.  Get used to it.  I'm getting too old to change my spots now.

Let me elaborate.  I saw King Kong when it first hit theatres just a few days shy of Christmas back in 1976.  I am speaking here of the $24 million remake produced by Dino De Laurentiis, starring a very nubile Jessica Lange in her first performance.  I was just entering my pre-teens and that film was probably the first "mature" movie I had ever seen, having spent my childhood watching Disney movies by the ton.  But I didn't just enjoy KK '76, I became obsessed with it.  For much of the next year, my dreams were haunted with visions of giant gorillas and, though having collected a few magazines, notably Time and People, which featured cover stories about the remake and pictures galore, I still wasn't satisfied but spent hour after hour crouched over my art pad trying in vain to recreate scenes from the movie with my own hand. 

As time passed, my interest in KK '76 waned, but never totally disappeared, until said interest finally took the form of me watching my video copy about once or twice every year.  And then I discovered... ebay!  In an instant, my obsession was rekindled, as I found a zillion King Kong '76 collectibles listed on the Internet, collectibles which I hadn't even known existed.  Coke glasses, lunch boxes, Topps trading cards, I collected everything I could lay my hands on -- and then I took the next obvious step on the road to TOTAL FANDOM. 

I set up a fan site.

When I first discovered the Internet some years ago, one of the very first things I did was google (or in those days 'yahoo') for sites about King Kong '76.  To my disgust, though not really to my surprise, I couldn't find anything.  Not a single fecking site devoted to my favourite movie!  So, in creating my own site, I felt a certain sense of futility and loneliness.  While there were a few sites devoted to the original 1933 King Kong, if they made mention of the remake it was only to disparage it as inferior to the original.  I kid vous not when I say that I thought I must be virtually alone on this planet in my fanatical devotion to that flick. 

Then I began receiving emails from visitors to my Kingdom Kong website, emails which all told remarkably similar tales: the author had first seen King Kong '76 in the cinema when he (yes, they were invariably he) was in his pre-teens; he fell in love with it (and with Jessica Lange) but, over the years, the relentless bad press given King Kong '76 by critics had whittled away at his confidence, causing him to doubt his own memories, convincing him that it must have been the "bomb" they claimed it was instead of the "blockbuster" he remembered.  Some letter writers sounded like speakers at an AA meeting, explaining how they had "secretly" loved KK '76 all these years, but had never had the "courage" to tell that to their friends.  They called me 'brave'.  It felt damn good.

Those emails transformed my perspective.  In hindsight, I realize it should have been obvious there would be KK '76 fans out there, that I couldn't be the only one who remembered it with such undying affection.  If nothing else, consider how absolutely humongous was that film's release.  It was the Lord of the Rings of its day.  For an entire year the anticipation built, fed by Dino De Laurentiis' relentless PR machine.  By the time the movie opened, unless you were Oedipus, you probably saw it (take a moment).  But, more importantly, it was a great movie, a really great movie.  Of course there had to be someone out there who loved it as much as me.  How could there not be.

Okay, I'm sure some of you are shaking your heads at this point, saying "Blair, Blair, Blair..."  If you don't think it was a great movie, that's fine -- I'm not going to argue with you.  I thought it was, but I can see why others might disagree.  For one thing, many of those who criticized it lamented the lack of dinosaurs which had played such a big part in the 1933 original.  Who's going to argue with that?  I would have liked some dinosaurs too.  But, for me, the 1976 King Kong no more needed dinosaurs than Psycho needed a great white shark.  Both did just fine as they were, thank you very much.

But, beginning in 1976 and continuing right down to the present day, critics have taken their criticism considerably farther than was seemly -- or fair.  The bottom line is that, whatever yours or my personal reaction to King Kong '76, it was a whopping financial success.  This in spite of the fact that it went way over budget costing $24 million (whereas Star Wars, opening the next year, cost something like $8 million).  Today, $24 million sounds like pocket change, as the average special effects heavyweight  costs in the neighbourhood of $125 million, but back in 1976, that budget was considered to be extravagant -- maybe too extravagant.  But, in spite of its price tag, it wasn't the financial risk you might imagine because De Laurentiis had pre-sold, recouping his investment even before it opened in theatres.  And when it finally did open?  It had a long, extremely lucrative run, becoming the top money maker for 1976 and one of the top for the entire decade.  No matter what the critics may claim, King Kong '76 was a whopping success.  Period.

Then too, believe it or not, there were many critics who actually gave it favorable notices when it first came out.  The New York Times' Pauline Kael to list one eminent example.  But the majority of critics did not.  And those critics had time on their side.  It didn't matter how much money it made; it didn't matter that it got good reviews; it didn't matter that it was a success -- because film history is written by film critics and film critics were determined to bury King Kong '76.  And salt the earth.

Yes, I'm well aware how paranoid that sounds.  Well, the truth -- and I say this without exaggeration --- the truth is I'm not sure I have ever heard of a film which provoked the level of bitterness which King Kong '76 did.  Really.  Perhaps Showgirls comes close.  Remember the way critics went after poor Elizabeth Berkley?  But even Ms. Berkley seems to have received absolution with the passage of time, having done penance by appearing in a "respectable" art house flick or two.  Not so the 1976 King Kong, whose pillorying is like the Energizer bunny -- it just keeps on going and going and going...

Even the American version of Godzilla by Roland and Emmerich, though pretty ruthlessly savaged by critics, didn't call up the same relentlessly vicious scorn.  Showgirls, Godzilla -- beyond those two, I draw a blank.  I have read reviews which claimed King Kong '76 is literally the worst motion picture ever made in America.  The worst?  I can accept that someone might not enjoy it as much as I did, but, to call it "the worst" is just plain goofy.  Worse than Plan Nine from Outer Space?  Worse than Robert Altman's alleged "musical" Popeye?  Worse than... well...Showgirls?  (I said the critics shouldn't have blamed Berkley.  I didn't say I enjoyed it.)  King Kong '76 boasted the triple threat of Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and, two time Oscar winner, Jessica Lange.  The screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple Jr., wrote Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View.  And the director, John Guillermin, had directed The Towering Inferno.  I suppose it is possible that combined level of talent might suddenly go insane and produce a film of questionable quality ( Sphere, I'm talking about you.) -- but "the worst motion picture ever made in America"?  Come on, people!

Perhaps I wouldn't have cared so much had the critics softened their ire over the years.  After all, isn't that what usually happens when the critics over-react to a film on its initial release?  With time, there is a pendulum swing.  They may not entirely recant, but they usually become more... charitable.  Not in the case of KK '76.  If anything, the criticism has grown even more overheated with the ticking of the clock.  Leonard Maltin's most recent movie and video guide called it an "addle-brained remake".

And, though I know I should just let it go, I still find myself endlessly struggling to understand the source of that bitterness.  What was it about that particular film?  Certainly, there were the obvious reasons, those given by the critics themselves.  For one thing, the mere fact that anyone would have the gall to remake a legendary classic like King Kong was one reason to gripe.  I know today that seems hard to understand, as remake after remake clutters our screens, but 1976 was a different world.  To remake King Kong was seen as hubris and the critics wanted nothing to do with it.

Another objection was to the decision to use a "man in a monkey suit" instead of animating an 18-inch puppet as in the original.  The original King Kong was done entirely using stop motion animation (or "Dynamation" as Ray Harryhausen later dubbed it), where a small model is moved a little bit, a frame of film is shot, the model is moved a little bit more, another frame is shot... the result is the illusion of motion.  Long before KK '76 was finished shooting, critics had already decided that a Kong without stop motion must ipso facto produce a disaster, a "man in a monkey suit" leading to the sort of questionable spectacle seen, for example, in Toho Studios' King Kong versus Godzilla.  And when it did open, they continued to lament the lack of stop motion.  Even today, I run across modern reviews with the same complaint. 

Which strikes me as bizarre.  Yes, the stop motion seen in the original KK was pretty cool and I too loved it to bits.  But the sad fact is, stop motion never lived up to its promise.  As well as it mimicked motion, it never entirely convinced.  There was a distinctive jerkiness which gave the trick away.  In the early  1980s, (and so too late to be used in KK '76), stop motion was improved.  This new technique, called "Go-Motion", involved causing the model to move ever so slightly as the frame of film was exposed.  This blurred the image, in the way a real object blurs if it really is moving.

But it still wasn't enough.  The last big use of stop motion was probably Clash of the Titans (1981).  Even in its heyday, Ray Harryhausen was virtually its only practitioner.  It continued to make brief appearances in other films like RoboCop (1987), but its day was essentially done.  If for no other reason than because it was rendered redundant by the development of both animatronic costumes and computer graphics images (CGI).  The irony then is that KK '76 was the first film to make extensive use of animatronics -- that is, a mechanical mask controlled by external operators rather than by the actor's own facial movements -- which eventually became the standard in Hollywood, and still the critics lambaste it for not using stop motion! Ay carumba!

Apart from those two objections, I wonder if there wasn't a third more disturbing reason the critics were so set against the King Kong remake.  The producer, Dino De Laurentiis, was Italian having moved his operations to the US only a few years before.  In that short time, he had risen to the top of the Hollywood heap through a string of successful movies like Serpico, Death Wish, Three Days of the Condor and Barbarella.  At a time when most films were crashing in flames, when it was seriously thought motion pictures themselves were on the way out, Dino could do no wrong.  So it makes me uncomfortable that many articles placed a strange emphasis on his Italian origins.  Many made  (admittedly playful) fun of his accent.  I wonder if I don't detect a sense of 'us' versus 'them', De Laurentiis as the upstart Italian interloper moving in on a distinctly American art form and beating them at their own game.  And what more American motion picture was there than King Kong, with its climax atop the tallest building in New York City. 

I hesitate to cry foul, but I can't read a nasty piece of work like the article that appeared in American Film (Dec-Jan 1977) and not wonder...  Particularly when I notice that, by contrast, British magazines tended to cover the remake's release far more favourably than their cousins across the pond.  And, given relative population sizes, it seems significant there were actually more British mags that featured KK '76 cover stories than American mags.

Weighed against this?  Today, I don't notice the same emphasis on De Laurentiis' Italian roots in modern reviews, and yet critics remain just as bitter as ever.  So maybe there's nothing to it.  I don't know.  Lets hope not.

So, why am I bringing this up some twenty-nine years later?  No doubt you've heard, this summer Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson is remaking King Kong once again.  Perhaps taking a hint from the reception accorded the very modern KK '76, he has reportedly stuck closer to the original and will set his Kong in the 1930s with a climax atop the Empire State Building.  I'll admit, I am certainly looking forward to it, to see what can be done with modern effects.  If nothing else, Jackson promises us oodles of dinosaurs!

But I can't help feeling a tad bitter at the critical reaction this time around.  No one today is criticizing Jackson for hubris in daring to remake a hallowed classic.  No one is complaining because Jackson is using SFX techniques other than stop motion to bring his Kong to life.  There is nothing but unflinching support for the man who brought the world the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Which would be fine if critics would finally admit that they overreacted to the '76 remake.  But they won't.  And, what's worse, I suspect we will see more than a few jabs at KK '76 in the course of the run-up to this newest version's release.

If so, I'll just retreat to the sanctuary of my Kingdom Kong website and read my email.  And know -- to quote the tagline from another blockbuster from the 1970s -- I am not alone.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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