King Kong: When Peter Jackson Tried to Bring Horror to Blockbuster Cinema

In the mid-2000s, Peter Jackson made one of the biggest spectacles ever in King Kong. It was also one of the scariest.

Andy Serkis and Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson's King Kong
Photo: Universal Pictures

In 2005, Hollywood did the unthinkable—it launched a remake of the 1933 cinematic masterpiece, King Kong. This was not the first attempt to do so, although if anything the previous attempts were cautionary tales about why you should never attempt to remake King Kong.

The first, in 1976, replaced the original’s groundbreaking stop-motion effects with a guy in a gorilla suit and a hugely expensive, life-sized mechanical gorilla that provided a total of 15 seconds of usable footage. The second was an attempt in the late ‘90s to remake the film with an up-and-coming indie horror director better known for what the press at the time called “video nasties” than big, family-friendly blockbusters. However, with a Godzilla remake in the works, alongside the rival big gorilla movie remake of Mighty Joe Young, the project was canned and the director moved on to adapt a series of fantasy novels.

Nonetheless, in 2005 King Kong finally returned to the silver screen, now powered by the very latest CGI and motion-capture performance techniques, and directed by Hollywood’s sudden golden child, the director of the wildly successful blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson.

The very same Peter Jackson who not long before had worked in schlocky, low-budget horror-comedies, was now King of Hollywood and had the big ape to prove it. Ultimately, that film would also turn out to be a box office-busting mainstream blockbuster, but Jackson’s horror roots are visible throughout the film.

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A Match Made on Skull Island

This was actually Jackson’s third attempt at making King Kong. The director had been obsessed with the film since he was nine years old, and at 12 attempted to make the film using a Super 8mm camera and a model of Kong built out of rubber, wire, and hair from his mother’s fur coat.

When Jackson did eventually get to make professional movies of his own, Kong’s presence remained keenly felt. In the hilarious, insanely violent, and actively nausea-inducingly gory horror comedy, Braindead, the zombie outbreak was caused by the bite of a Sumatran Rat Monkey—a horrible-looking, revolting little animal created with the same stop-motion effects that brought King Kong to life in 1933. What’s more, the Sumatran Rat Monkey’s place of origin is none other than King’s home of Skull Island (2005’s King Kong would return the favor with a cage marked “Sumatran Rat Monkey” clearly visible in the background in the good ship Venture’s hold).

When Jackson went on to make something a little more mainstream, the Michael J. Fox-starring horror comedy The Frighteners, Universal Pictures was so impressed with the dailies that, knowing about his obsession with the film, they offered him the King Kong remake as an incentive to keep working with the studio.

It is perhaps not surprising that such a big fan of the horror genre would be drawn to King Kong. Its sympathetic monster has an arc that bears a striking resemblance to Boris Karloff’s own sympathetic creature in 1931’s Frankenstein. Like most horror fans and artists. Jackson has said he cried as a child when Kong was shot from the Empire State Building. Horror fans have always been ever so slightly on the monsters’ side.

A Dark and Stormy Night

King Kong (2005) is not only a horror movie, of course. It is also a love story, an epic tragedy, and a love letter to the magic of cinema, because directors love nothing more than making films about how special and important filmmaking is. But a rich seam of horror runs right through the film. It is over an hour before we see gorillas of any size in Jackson’s movie, and just under an hour before we even reach Skull Island. That hour is spent establishing the characters’ motivations and love interests, but it is also there to build a sense of foreboding.

The Venture ship sails through storms and thick fog. Its crew exchange stories, including one relayed from a shipwrecked survivor who, having given witness to the horrors of Skull Island, killed himself. It is emphasized over and over again how far the ship is sailing from shipping lanes or any human help. The vessel’s cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell) begins reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, giving Jackson an excuse to drop foreboding quotes into the dialogue (as well as the archly self-referential, “It’s not an adventure story, is it Mr Hayes?”).

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When we finally arrive at the island, shrouded in fog and darkness, the atmosphere is eerie as all heck, depth and navigational readings don’t make sense, and viewers are reminded of the crew of the Nostromo as much as the ship from the original movie. The first we see of the island is the wall, an enormous, 100-foot structure, and we immediately get the sense it was built to keep something in.

It feels, frankly, Lovecraftian, and that atmosphere continues as we encounter the problematic-to-outright-racist portrayal of the natives on Skull Island. The city they live in is a ruin, filled with skeletons impaled on poles and walls of skulls. Its people are seemingly mostly feral children or shriveled old people.

Contact between the crew of the Venture and the local inhabitants is immediately violent, as the sound technician is impaled through the back, and heads are bashed in on sacrificial altars. We even have the archetypal horror movie moment where the heroes sensibly decide to leave, only for Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to be kidnapped and sacrificed to Kong himself.

When we finally see Kong, he is a horror movie monster. Glimpsed rather than seen, huge, terrifying, scarred, surrounded by smoke and flames.

An Ecosystem of Nightmares

If you have not seen Jackson’s King Kong in a while, you might remember the film as becoming a bit more of a traditional adventure film as the rescue mission is launched to save Darrow, but Jackson’s horror influences are still present in every scene. And over and over again the film justifies building a giant wall around the entire island. You remember dinosaurs, but these are not the graceful, realistically portrayed prehistoric wildlife of Jurassic Park. This is an island of monsters, an ecosystem that seems purposely designed to be hostile to human life.

The dinosaurs, for starters, are not recognizably dinos. The T-Rex is remade as the “V-Rex,” a beast with three fingers (an homage to the dinosaurs of the original Kong), implying an isolated ecosystem that has taken its own evolutionary path. But more than that, its teeth are not in neat rows, but grow jumbled and haphazardly at weird angles out of its mouth, caked in gore. It does not behave like a real predator but instead chases down Darrow even as it has a large and more nutritious prey hanging from its jaws.

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And that is only the apex predator of an ecosystem filled with Jaws-like killer prehistoric fish, huge blind carnivorous lizards, and the bugs… all the bugs. Giant earwigs, cricket-like creatures, larger and larger bugs with stinging tails and snapping claws, growing bigger as each wave of monsters is machine-gunned away. And then of course, there are perhaps the most terrifying monsters of Skull Island, the giant fleshy, toothy worms that look like prolapsed anuses, consuming Andy Serkis limb by limb in one of the most horrible death scenes in cinema.

Of course, eventually, King Kong leaves the horror tropes behind. Typically in the horror movie, our surviving heroes will escape from the evil island/haunted house/spaceship and get to safety, only to discover that somehow the monster has come with them for one final fight, more dangerous than ever.

In King Kong, the protagonists take the monster with them, after drugging him up suitably, and his final fight in New York shows him scared, bewildered, out of his depth. Ultimately, Kong dies tragically and alone. Mankind, as always, is the real monster.

A Horror King’s Legacy

King Kong itself was seen by many as a noble failure in its time, making back more than double its budget at the box office, but failing to reach the astronomical heights of the Lord of the Rings movies. It also notably was the first Peter Jackson film not to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars after all three Lord of the Rings movies received that notoriety. To some, the movie was a vanity project: an anomaly fueled by one auteur’s obsessions, including horror.

Yet at the same time in the mid-2000s, the entire blockbuster film environment was about to undergo a transformation of its own. Jackson’s fellow horror alumni, Sam Raimi, had also stepped into more mainstream, big budget waters, this time to create, of all things, a faithful comic book superhero adaptation.

Like Jackson’s Kong, Raimi’s Spider-Man movies still have his grubby horror genre fingerprints all over it (the tentacle POV shots when Dr. Octopus wakes up in Spider-Man 2 is stolen directly from Raimi’s own Evil Dead movies). And their success paved the way for an adaptation of the less-well-known Iron Man comics, opening the door to a future where blockbusters headlined not their big name stars or auteur directors, but their IP.

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Ironically, the indie horror to mainstream success pipeline began to dry up, and a more sanitized kind of blockbuster became the order of the day.

But the horror legacy that Jackson’s Kong leaves to mainstream cinema is still visible. Even in the all-consuming superhero genre where “family-friendly” has traditionally been the watchword unless you’re making a Batman film, we can see horror movie influences crop up everywhere from Venom, to Shazam!, and of course, Sam Rami has returned to superhero movies with his considerably more horror-flavored Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

By introducing those elements on such a grand scale, Peter Jackson showed how horror can be color in a pallet of elements for telling great stories.

Another rule of horror is that the monster always comes back for one last fright at the end. So it is worth mentioning, as a postscript, that for a while everyone in the movie business wanted to get in on Marvel’s “cinematic universe” model. DC’s attempt was muddled to the point where they’re now throwing it out and starting again. Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” managed a bit more consistency, even if they seem unsure what to do with their human characters, and their own take on Kong lacked the charm of Andy Serkis’s big ape. And Universal Pictures attempted a big budget horror universe that rapidly sank without trace.

So far the only property to consistently deliver a prolonged, successful shared movie universe that can really stand next to Marvel is the Conjuring universe, with eight movies across sub-franchises and more still to come.

Naturally, they are horror films.

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