Upon its initial release in 1933, the unfathomable success of Merian C. Cooper and Willis O’Brien’s King Kong prompted the bright boys at RKO to immediately rush a quick and dirty sequel, Son of Kong, into theaters that same year. The original would become the first American film to receive not only one, but two nationwide re-releases in the years that followed, with each raking in more money than the film had earned in 1933. In the nearly 85 years since the undisputed king of American fantasy cinema first hit theaters, it has inspired a Saturday morning cartoon, two bloated, big-budget overhyped remakes, and of course the new Skull Island series.
It also spawned a whole bunch of knockoffs, beginning with 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, another Merian C. Cooper production with stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien (together with his new protege Ray Harryhausen). Yes it was a clear that this was a cynical attempt to cash in on Kong, but at its core Mighty Joe Young was a very gentle, kind-hearted, family-friendly picture, without nearly the body count of the original. Even with another oversized gorilla in the title role, it had a unique enough storyline to set itself apart, and was itself remade in 1998. After Mighty Joe Young, however, Kong knockoffs started becoming not only more blatant and plentiful, but downright weird. If you’re going to make a movie about a giant gorilla the damning comparisons with the original will be inescapable, so might as well do something screwy.
Here are a few choice entries in the long history of Bizarre Kongalia:
King Kong Escapes (1967)
By the early 1950s, Willis O’Brien had hit the skids pretty hard. His painstaking stop-motion work took too long and was simply too expensive considering it was much easier and cheaper to simply create believable giant monsters with rear-projected close-ups of real animals. Unable to snag any effects work, he spent the last decade of his life pitching assorted Kong-themed scripts around Hollywood with little success. Finally in the early ’60s, the script for a movie he was calling King Kong vs. Frankenstein (which seems an awfully one-sided fight, you ask me) ended up on the desk of Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka.
Tanaka had always wanted to make a Kong film, and here was his chance. Even before making Gojira in 1954, he’d wanted to make a Japanese Kong, which helps explain the clear Kong parallels running throughout Japan’s first kaiju era. But like everyone else in the movie industry at the time, he had no use for O’Brien’s slow and pricey stop-motion animation when rubber suits and miniature sets worked just fine. Still, he bought the script, made one small correction, and was good to go.
Directed by Ishirô Honda, 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, the first Godzilla film in color, would go on to become the most successful film in the franchise’s history, even if their giant gorilla looked more like an orangutan with the mange.
The film was such a huge financial hit, both in Japan and the States, that a follow-up was inevitable. O’Brien had since died, but Toho now had the rights to their own version of the giant ape free and clear. At the same time, Kong remained such an indelibly American icon (even after being Japanified into a mangy orangutan named Kingukongu); it only made sense Toho would make the film as a U.S./Japanese co-production.
Unfortunately, the Americans they teamed up with turned out to be Rankin/Bass, the insidious duo who’d inflicted Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other holiday-themed nightmares on an unsuspecting public. At the time Rankin/Bass had a popular Kong Saturday morning cartoon series on the air, and jumped at the chance to expand it into a live-action feature.
Although most of Toho’s giant monster pictures to that point worked as sociopolitical allegories, 1967’s King Kong Escapes was strictly Saturday kiddie matinee fare. Honda was once again behind the camera, and the film opens with an American submarine crew on an exploratory mission to the mysterious Mondo Island, reputed home of the legendary and possibly mythical King Kong. The crew of generically horny, wisecracking sailors is mostly irrelevant. The small ensemble of American actors was there simply to fulfill certain contractual obligations, guarantee a U.S. audience, and supply Kong with the requisite diminutive blonde love interest (the outrageously abrasive and perky Linda Miller as the sub’s nurse).
The real story concerns Madame Piranha (Toho regular Mie Hama). She’s a tall and evil government agent anxious to get her hands on a massive stockpile of the extremely rare and highly radioactive Element X, see? With enough Element X on hand, her country would rule the world. To this end she’s contracted the services of the cadaverous and equally tall mad scientist Doctor Who (Hideyo Amamoto, who always struck me as Japan’s answer to Chick Sale). Now, this sinister Doctor Who has uncovered an enormous deposit of Element X at the North Pole. Despite all the heavy duty mining equipment at his disposal, Who, being a mad scientist and a mad scientist within the Toho universe, concludes the only creature with the strength and manual dexterity to remove the radioactive ore is of course King Kong.
With no simple way of moving Kong from Mondo Island to the North Pole, however, his only alternative, see, is to build a life-sized robot-Kong he calls, well, MechaKong. Are you following all that? It’s a pretty big leap, even in mad scientist terms, but you need to remember we’re in the Toho universe, where such reasoning is simply to be expected. As he’s tinkering away on his insane and ludicrous MechaKong, Madame Piranha is becoming increasingly suspicious, and who can blame her? Building a giant robot gorilla instead of just using all that regular mining equipment they had right there on site? What the hell? Sounds like this mad scientist she’s hired might be padding his bill a bit.
Okay, let’s stop right here. You can just go watch the damn movie yourself. I’m more interested in this MechaKong business. See, cool as he looks, a combination of Robby the Robot and Rudolph’s Bumble, with a little gizmo on the top of his head that shoots laser beams or receives radio signals or something, the sad fact is he simply doesn’t work very well. Not nearly as good as the real Kong anyway, which even Dr. Who has to admit.
Every time I see this movie, I always think Dino De Laurentiis should’ve taken a long hard look at it before undertaking his own much-ballyhooed Kong remake in 1976, and especially before spending half the film’s massive budget to have special effects whiz Carlo Rambaldi build a life-sized mechanical Kong. And he should’ve taken still another look before deciding to focus the film’s publicity campaign on how the giant robot Kong would be the real star of the show when he knew goddamn well the fucking thing didn’t work and would only appear in two laughable second-long scenes. Like Dr. Who, De Laurentiis had to resort to, yes, a man in a gorilla suit for the rest of the film. Had he simply come out and admitted his failure like Who did, he could’ve save himself a lot of grief down the line.
Anyway, as for King Kong Escapes, let me just say this. We do indeed get the requisite and lively epic battle between Kong and his wind-up counterpart in a crowded urban center. More importantly, so far as I’m aware, it remains the only G-rated film released in the states that ends with the villain vomiting blood after being pinned against a wall by a sliding table.
King Kong Lives (1986)
Despite being savaged by critics and earning a reputation in the minds of most viewers as the embodiment of a Big Budget Hollywood Flop, the 1976 Kong remake actually did pretty well for itself. I’m thinking this is mostly due to 11-year-old dorks like myself who not only saw the damn thing 12 times, but bought every bit of Kong merch I could get my hands on, from puzzles and models and coffee cups to a lucite keychain that supposedly contained a few hairs from that giant robot Kong that didn’t work. So maybe I’m to blame for the sequel. It’s not like audiences were clamoring for one.
(To be fair, you go back now and look at director John Guillermin’s ’76 version, it’s not that bad a film at all. Yes there are some painful flaws, mostly in the form of Jessica Lange and her dialogue, but it clings much closer to the spirit of the original than Peter Jackson’s trainwreck.)
When De Laurentiis finally decided a follow-up was necessary, he faced several immediate problems. First, Kong was pretty decisively dead at the end of the first one. Remember? We all heard his heart stop beating. Second, De Laurentiis waited a full decade before putting the sequel into production. By that point not only had his version become a national punchline, it had become a punchline that was here and gone.
After Star Wars, Close Encounters, E.T., and every other blockbuster that had come along, no one fucking remembered his version of Kong. Finally, all the principals from the ’76 version (Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, and Rick Baker) had not only moved on to better things, they’d spent the past decade doing what they could to distance themselves from the first film, and so wanted nothing to do with anymore monkeyshines. John Guillermin was still around, though, and needed the work, so that was at least a start.
After The Terminator, Linda Hamilton was quickly if briefly established as a sci-fi action star, so casting her in the lead was some kind of coup. But then came Ronald Shusett’s script. With Kong as dead as dead can be, where do you go? Return to the island to nab his albino son? Claim the first one had all been nothing but a bad dream and start over? Have some Japanese Chick Sale clone build a giant robot Kong to work in the Alaskan oil fields? No, Shusett had a better idea. Or an idea anyway.
Okay, here’s the premise. After Kong’s rampage sparked a citywide panic, caused billions of dollars worth of damage, and killed a few people before he got splattered at the foot of the World Trade Center, a group of well-meaning scientists (who were somehow prepared for all this) decides to revive him. You kinda wonder if they bothered talking to the Mayor about their plans beforehand.
Forget the pulverized bones and all the burst internal organs after that fall from the top of the WTC, let alone the lack of oxygen to the brain, it seems the only thing Kong really needs is a massive artificial heart. Lucky for them, they just happened to have one on hand. Ten minutes in, it already feels like another Toho film. Well, you can pretty well guess where things are headed after Kong heals up, though most audiences likely weren’t expecting the introduction of Lady Kong and a little Baby Kong.
Given the production no longer had the budget that would allow them to rent an oil tanker or Shea Stadium, they had to work on a much smaller scale. I guess that’s why so much of the film takes place in what appears to be upstate New York instead of the streets of Manhattan or a mysterious prehistoric island. Even Kong himself (now played by Peter Elliot) looks a little shabby when compared with Rick Baker’s version from a decade earlier, and the Lady Kong resembles the Toho version, but with boobs.
When this was released in 1986, few noticed and fewer still cared (though a couple may have smirked). Nevertheless, my dad and I went to see it opening weekend. Hands down and without question, the original Kong was his favorite film of all time, having seen it during its first re-release. Long before I saw it myself, he described it to me scene by scene in such vivid detail that when I finally did see it, it felt like I was seeing it for the third time.
We’d gone to see the 1976 version when it came out, and though he thought some parts were pretty good, no, it couldn’t stand up to the original. With that Kong bond firmly in place, we had no choice but to see King Kong Lives. About halfway through the film, he leaned over to me in the mostly empty theater and whispered, “This ain’t so bad.” When it was over, we left the theater and headed out to the parking lot. We got in the car, neither of us saying a word for a few minutes. Finally my dad said, “Yeah, that was pretty bad.”
Today few people remember this one even exists.
A year before Toho successfully exploited the Kong mystique with King Kong vs. Godzilla, American International decided to take their own low budget stab at it. That poor man’s John Hurt, British horror semi-icon Michael Gough, stars as esteemed botanist Charles Decker. In the first five minutes, we learn Decker survived a plane crash while on expedition in Africa. With the rest of the world presuming him dead, Decker lived with a local native tribe for a year studying carnivorous plants and developing some crazy theories about evolution before returning to London with a bag of plants and a pet chimp he named Konga.
Through some of the most earnest, pompous and wacky pseudo-scientific dialogue known to man, Decker explains Konga will become not only the first evolutionary link between plants and animals, but will soon rule over part of the world. To prove this, he begins injecting the chimp with a serum he’s distilled from those fast-growing carnivorous plants. Before you can say “Roddy MacDowell,” Konga has grown from a baby chimp into an intelligent man in a gorilla suit.
It’s about then we learn (though the hints were there from the beginning) that Decker went a little funny in the head during his time in Africa, and soon begins ordering Konga to knock off anyone who might stand in his way. This includes the dean of the college where Decker teaches and a fellow botanist whose own research is just a little too similar to his own. In the end the original Kong’s closing line, “’Twas beauty killed the beast,” remains just as fitting here, but in a very different way.
Director John Lemont mostly worked in British television and only made a smattering of features, but he does bring a certain style and classiness to the mostly silly goings on. Interestingly, before we get to the direct Kong nod in the film’s final 20 minutes, he runs the gamut of classic simian cinema and literature, offering clear references to the likes of The Island of Doctor Moreau and Murders in the Rue Morgue before Konga himself gets too big to skulk around in the shadows that way. At times, oddly, it even seems to presage Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But once we get into Kong territory, with the still-growing Konga doing his worst to London with a shrieking Decker clutched in one hairy paw, the picture remains not the timeless fable of the original, but simply a pretty good and oddball mad scientist movie.
King of Kong Island (1968)
LIES! LIES! LIES!
Oh, I guess you can’t really hold it against the Italians. Whipping out cheap and quick knockoffs of popular American genre pictures had always been their bread and butter, even if the similarities went no further than a very deceptive title designed to sucker in the rubes.
Although he’d made his share of sword and sandal pictures, giallos, Spaghetti Westerns and horror films, writer/director Roberto Mauri (Night of the Bloody Ghouls) never quite made it up there in the ranks with Leone, Corbucci, or even Fulci, but dammit he kept busy.
Being a certified Kong geek from the age of five, of course I was one of the rubes who got suckered in by the title, sitting through the whole goddamn movie waiting for something, anything taller than six feet to make a dramatic appearance. Closest I came was Brad Harris.
The really funny thing is if you go online and look up plot synopses for King of Kong Island, every one you find seems to be describing a completely different film. The IMDb page alone offers three radically different supposed storylines. It’s like a version of the old Blind Men and the Elephant routine.
So is it about a wild jungle woman (Esmeralda Barros) raised by apes, kidnapped by a mad scientist and held captive, um, with a bunch of apes? Well, kind of. Is it about a gang of criminals turning on each other over some stolen loot, a bitter ex-soldier, a about a Hemingway type and a go-go dancer? Well, kinda, I guess, sure. Why not? Or is it about a group of mad scientists using electronic brain implants to create an unstoppable gorilla army that will rule the world? I guess that’s in there someplac, too, in a way. And does a supposed descendant of King Kong show up and smack everyone around? That’s the one thing that’s not here, unless this supposed Kong relative is a dwarf.
I’m not sure if all these reviewers all saw different cuts of the film, or just focused on their favorite subplot. They all sound so damned confident though. King of Kong Island may be a lot of things (mostly confounding and not terribly exciting), but despite the implied promise of the title it is most definitely not a giant ape picture. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too shocked. For all the genres the Italian film industry latched onto, they never really got a handle on giant monster pictures.
No, title aside, when you take the year it was released into consideration, what Mauri was really after in his own clumsy way, at least as far as a couple of the involved subplots are concerned, was a Planet of the Apes rip-off, and not a terribly imaginative one at that. Though it does have a lot of boobs in it. I guess “Kong” was easy enough shorthand to use for an ape picture without having to worry about any copyright lawsuits filed by 20th Century Fox.
Queen Kong (1976)
In the mid-1970s, American television audiences were endlessly amused by an inescapable VO5 commercial which featured a woman proudly announcing, “Hello, I’m Rula Lenska,” as if we were all supposed to immediately recognize this glamorous international star of stage and screen. Problem was, nobody did. What didn’t come out until later was the then utterly unknown Lenska, in theory anyway, was poised to become a big famous movie star after her breakthrough feature, Queen Kong, hit theaters. Well, none of it happened for about a thousand reasons, and in the end Lenska was known simply as the crazy lady with the inflated ego on those VO5 commercials.
As Paramount’s hype machine went into overdrive a full year before the release of Dino De Laurentiis’ remake, Egyptian-born British writer/producer/director Frank Agrama got it in his head the timing was perfect for a zany parody of the original Kong. He’d already made a (very) minor splash with his Godfather parody four years earlier. What if in the case of Kong, you took the original story and swapped all the sexes, right? What if it was a female film crew with a young and attractive male star who encounters a giant female gorilla? Play the whole thing like a wacky sex comedy. It wasn’t a bad idea, just a very bad film. But that wasn’t the end of the trouble.
Okay, instead of Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, we get Rula Lenska as Luce Habit, an adventurous filmmaker who kidnaps a low-rent thief named, um, Ray Fay (Robin Askwith) to star in her new jungle epic. So together with an all-female crew that includes Valerie Leon and Linda Hayden from Blood on Satan’s Claw, they venture into the less-than convincing jungle, encounter the hot-to-trot Queen Kong who becomes smitten with Fay, and as per the formula the whole mess ends with a horny female giant gorilla stomping around London in search of her new plaything.
The mildly ribald jokes and sight gags fly dumb and furious in this no-budget no-brow affair that, more than once, reminded me of 1974’s Flesh Gordon, but without nearly the production values. The actors giggle and stumble through their scenes spouting bad jokes as if it was just some Super-8 job being shot in someone’s backyard. Which it may well have been. More than a few viewers have accurately noted Queen Kong plays like a feature-length Benny Hill sketch in dire need of a “yakkity Sax” interlude.
Perhaps inspired by De Laurentiis, Agrama tried to start building up the hype for his own cheeky take on Kong. The poster was leaked and that VO5 deal was struck to put Lenska in the public eye. But also like De Laurentiis, it was that hype, minimal as it was in comparison, that doomed the film. Both De Laurentiis and RKO, which still held copyright on the original story, characters and film, caught wind of the project and immediately filed suit. Somehow Agrama still managed to finish the film (given it looks like it took about a week and had a $75 budget), but it never saw a theatrical release in England or the States. It played a few days in Germany and developed a cult following in Japan, but that’s about it. It took nearly 30 years to at last see a home video release. Most everyone above the age of 13 who’s seen it has concluded it wasn’t worth the wait.
Agrama only directed one more film after this, but did okay for himself anyway, going on to produce the Robotech franchise.