Well before he was throwing down with Godzilla in an epic brawl, Kong was simply a giant ape minding his business on his hidden island in the Indian Ocean. The tragic tale of King Kong has been a staple of American cinema since the debut of the iconic 1933 film. Most recently, Peter Jackson updated the story for modern audiences with groundbreaking special effects in his hit 2005 film of the same name. This is not the first time that this idea has been presented since the original version of the story. In the 1970s, producer Dino De Laurentiis spearheaded the idea of using cutting-edge special effects to bring the story into the present day in a way that would resonate with audiences looking for something a bit more thrilling. The film was a massive financial success at the time, but creatively the film did not quite live up to everything that De Laurentiis promised. Nevertheless, the film has remained a favorite amongst many over the years thanks to its talented cast and use of practical special effects. Long overlooked, the film is finally getting the care it deserves courtesy of the folks at Scream Factory.
This version of King Kong attempts to make something a bit more socially relevant along its destination to the monumental ape. The villains in this version are the greedy oil companies who believe they have discovered an untapped reserve of liquid gold underneath a mysterious, undiscovered island enshrouded in a cloud bank in the Indian Ocean. The face of the company in this narrative is the weasel-esque executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin, Midnight Run), who has over-promised a huge payday to his corporation. Wilson is leading an expedition to this island, and he has to deal with an unexpected stowaway in the form of Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a primate paleontologist who has serious reservations about what is actually on the island. The final piece of the puzzle falls into place when the crew conveniently spot a shipwreck survivor floating on a life raft in the middle of the ocean. Out of all the unbelievable aspects of this story, that a beautiful actress named Dwan (Jessica Lange, Big Fish) is conveniently floating in the ocean is the most hard to swallow.
The story does not change substantially once we do finally meet the big guy, but the way it is executed on a technical level is quite a bit different from the 1933 version. The old design of King Kong is quaint but remains a classic to this very day. This time out we have competing technology used to bring him to life in varying degrees of success. Foremost is “man-in-a-suit” way of putting the character on screen as designed and inhabited by Rick Baker. This may not be as technologically as advanced as De Laurentiis had promised the public, but the approach works well in a vacuum. The more adventurous method is the 40-foot mechanical behemoth that was erected that the film uses very sparingly. The effect is not as awe-inspiring as was probably desired, but the attempt at innovation is admired. From a modern perspective, the visual effects are dated but serve the film well for what it is trying to accomplish. Even with it being a man in a suit, you get emotionally invested in Kong’s arc with Dwan up until his unfortunate, destructive run through New York. The final act does offer up copious amounts of excitement that is hard to dismiss.
While one can forgive the dated elements of the visuals, the narrative lacks finesse no matter the era from which you evaluate. The most egregious part of the script is the characterization of Dwan, who we are supposed to care about but is bogged down in ditzy mannerisms. Jessica Lange does a great job in her feature film debut, but even she cannot elevate this character beyond the thin scraps from which she is working. Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin fare a little better, even if they are likewise one-note. They at least have some interesting aspects to try to keep the attention of the audience. It is no surprise that the film handles the action elements better. Watching Kong rip a giant snake in half or demolish downtown New York offers the appropriate thrills. The 1976 version of the film does not have the nostalgic innovation of the initial classic or the technical prowess of the Peter Jackson version, but it stands as a worthy telling of the story in most regards. With a little more care behind the camera, this film could have been just as beloved as these other versions, but as it stands it remains a capable outlier.
King Kong debuts on Blu-Ray with a pretty excellent 1080p transfer with both the Theatrical Cut and TV Cut present on separate discs. When compared with the ancient Paramount DVD, the Blu-Ray disc offers outstanding improvements in all respects. The gains in contrast and overall clarity are readily apparent, especially in unique details like the production design and the elaborate costumes. The disc contains nuanced, deep colors throughout including very warm colors in varying shades during the tribal sacrifice section of the film. When referring back to the old DVD, colors appear to be a lot more bland and less complex than the Blu-Ray disc. White levels are brighter and more stable without veering into blooming. Black levels are fairly deep and allow the picture to maintain a decent amount of depth and detail in darker environments.
There is a good amount of natural film grain that resolves naturally and gives a lot of nice texture and detail to the transfer. The grain can occasionally veer into the noisier side of the spectrum, but nothing that ever ruins the film. Skin tones largely look great with no apparent instances where characters look a bit desaturated. The special effects can look a bit dated, but the way they are presented on disc look natural to the intended look. The additional footage in the TV cut of the film has been given a 2K scan of the internegative so that the two sources blend seamlessly for a very pleasing viewing experience. This transfer from Scream Factory will be pretty remarkable to fans of the property.
This Blu-Ray comes with both a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 and “newly restored” theatrical 2.0 Master Audio track that makes the film extra thrilling. King Kong has a lot of great atmospheric effects that engage the surround speakers including material with creatures on the island and destruction of the city during the finale. Dialogue comes through clearly in the front channel without being overwhelmed by any sound effects or score, aside from chaotic nature of the ending in which voices naturally struggle for dominance. The track has a good sense of directionality with sounds always coming from the appropriate channels. The movie is filled with some thrilling moments of action, which puts the low end to work quite often. The score from John Barry provides the perfect atmosphere for this larger-than-life story which fills the speakers well. There are no issues with fidelity or damage to the track. This audio presentation is pretty fantastic on all accounts.
- Audio Commentary #1: Author Ray Morton provides a steady, factual commentary track in which he reveals a lot of background information on the character of Kong and the production of this film in particular. Morton does a good job of analyzing the film scene by scene while providing interesting insights.
- Audio Commentary #2: King Kong performer Rick Baker provides a track that began as a featurette but was converted into a commentary track given the depth of the discussion. Due to this, the track does not offer any scene-specific insights, but Baker takes great pains to tell his story of being in the film. This track takes longer breaks between insights, but it holds the most fascinating tidbits of the two tracks.
- On Top Of The World: A 12-minute interview with production manager Brian Frankish and assistant director David McGiffert as they detail their experiences during production. The pair discuss exploring the island in Hawaii, hiring all of the hotel staff, their memories of all the different King Kongs in the feature, the appeal of Jessica Lange, their impression of the film and its director and more. There are a lot of interesting insights and fun storyboards in here.
- When The Monkey Dies Everybody Cries: A 14-minute video interview with production messengers Jeffrey Chernov and Scott Thaler in which they share some really fun memories from their time on the film. This film was a big learning opportunity for the pair as they rushed around the set running the lot. The details from the lower-level crew members are often the most interesting including memories of Dino De Laurentiis and a wild trip to Italy.
- Maybe In Their Wildest Dreams: A nearly 6-minute interview with sculptor Steve Varner in which he discusses his experiences sculpting the Kong hand and the 40-foot version of the main man. For those who want the details of this area of the movie business, this supplement is a lot of fun.
- Something’s Haywire: A 6-minute interview with actor Jack O’Halloran in which he recalls choosing his part, his experiences with Jessica Lange, minor on-set injuries, his dissatisfaction with the direction, Jeff Bridges’ method acting and more. The memories are mostly fond and definitely entertaining to hear.
- From Space To Apes: A nearly 6-minute interview with photographic effects assistant Barry Nolan who discusses his transition for aeronautics to filmmaking, his experiences with blue screen work, and more. He does not hide his dissatisfaction with director John Guillermin in some moments, but overall the experience seems like a good one for him.
- There’s A Fog Bank Out There: A nearly 7-minute interview with second unit director Bill Kronick as he discusses filming the screen tests, his instant impression of Jessica Lange, the transition from Hawaii to New York, malfunctioning apes and more.
- Theatrical Trailer: Two vintage trailers totaling five minutes are included here.
- TV Spots: Seven vintage TV spots totaling three-and-a-half minutes are provided here.
- Radio Spots: Three radio spots totaling a minute-and-a-half are included here.
- Image Galleries: A collection of Movie Stills, Posters and Lobby Cards, Behind The Scenes photos and Newspaper Ads are provided here.
- TV Cut: The television cut of this film runs 193 minutes and can be viewed as one film or split into two episodes. At almost an hour longer, this version of the film is not the definitive version of this story, but there are many scenes inserted into the story that are worth checking out at least once. Most of these are character-based, but there is some activity with Kong that is interesting. If you already feel that the theatrical cut drags at points, this is definitely not for you.
- King Kong ‘76: A 69-minute panel discussion from the Aero Theater in 2016 which features author Ray Morton, actor Jack O’Halloran, cinematographer Richard H. Kline, creature performer Rick Baker, Dino’s widow Martha De Laurentiis, and John Barry’s assistant, Richard Kraft. This is a lovely discussion that features so many interesting anecdotes from all of these key players including what drove Baker to nearly quite the film, the jarring effect of moving from Hawaii to an MGM set, the film’s legacy and more.
- NBC Promos: A 4-minute collection of promos and bumpers from the original airing are provided here as Easter Eggs that can be accessed by pressing the right-arrow when the Subtitles tab is highlighted.
The Dino De Laurentiis version of King Kong is not the most heralded version of the story, but it holds a special appeal to those who have a fondness for the character. The ambition of the project is commendable even if all of the elements did not come together to make a new classic. The special effects have a dated charm about them and the performers put in admirable efforts in the face of a lacking script. With a more effective eye behind the camera and a well-rounded script, King Kong could have been more than the special effects extravaganza that hobbles its legacy. Scream Factory has released a magnificent Blu-Ray release that includes two versions of the film sporting a great A/V presentation and a wonderful amount of supplemental features. If you are curious about this version of the big ape, this release should properly knock your socks off. Recommended
King Kong (1976): Collector’s Edition is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Scream Factory has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.