Tuesday, October 10, 2017

King Kong Lives (1986)

What can one say about King Kong Lives?  Most people aren't even aware that there was a sequel to Dino di Laurentis' 1976 remake of King Kong.   I must admit that its existence passed me by for many years and I've only recently caught up with the film in its entirety.  Now, despite having become the subject of considerable disdain and ridicule, the 1976 Kong was, in its day, a very successful movie. The hype that di Laurentis created around the film paid off, getting big audiences into cinemas to see it.  The problem was that it could never live up to that hype.  Di Laurentis had promised a fifty foot tall mechanical Kong striding through the streets of New York: what audiences actually got was a man in an ape suit wandering around a large scale model of New York. (To be fair, the mechanical Kong did exist, but was hopelessly ungainly. It can be glimpsed in the scene where Kong breaks out of his cage in New York, but for the most part all that is seen of it are its giant hands and feet).  But if you can set aside the disappointing nature of Kong's appearance, the 1976 film has a lot in its favour: a cast which includes Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, an intelligent and surprisingly witty script which cleverly updates the story to address environmental concerns, a great score from John Barry and, Kong aside, some pretty good special effects.

King Kong Lives, unleashed on unsuspecting cinema audiences ten years later, is sadly lacking in most of these departments.  The cast - including Linda Hamilton and John Ashton - is strictly B-list.  But solidly B-list, the sort of performers who always do a good job.  In King Kong Lives' script, however, they met their match.  Nobody could make an impression working from such a farrago:  it is dull, unimaginative, repetitive and utterly uninspiring. Both characters and plot are perfunctory.  Worst of all, it can't seem to make up its mind if its a straightforward sequel, parody, comedy or homage. Many sequences border on the surreal.  In fact, the whole scenario is surreal.  It seems that Kong didn't die after falling from the Twin Trade Towers and has been in a coma for ten years, kept on life support in a warehouse in Atlanta.  His main injury seems to have been to his heart, (obviously, it was broken by Jessica Lange in the previous film).  But don't worry.  Leading giant ape cardiac expert Linda Hamilton has developed a giant mechanical heart.  The only problem is that, to successfully transplant it into Kong, she needs to secure an adequate supply of blood for a transfusion. Of course, no known living animal has blood compatible with Kong...

At this point the film takes a left turn, as we cut to a guy wandering through Borneo when, with no build up or warning whatsoever, he encounters a giant lady ape.  This development is completely perfunctory and highlights the script's problems: dramatically it falls totally flat - the ape's hand (the first we see of it) literally comes from nowhere.  There are no preceding sequences setting the scene, explaining who the explorer is, what he's doing there or that there might be local legends hinting at the ape's existence.  It all just comes out of the blue as a huge deus ex machina.  (We'll gloss over the fact that there are no gorillas, giant or otherwise in Borneo - they have Oran Utangs - in the interests of suspension of disbelief).  Of course, the ape is captured and shipped to Atlanta, where Kong's transplant takes place, involving a bizarre surgical sequence featuring giant-sized instruments.  Back on his feet, Kong soon gets wind of the lady ape, escapes, breaks her out and goes on the run with her.  The rest of the plot unfolds much as you'd expect it to: the Army chase them, Kong romances  lady ape (yes, there really are sequences of Kong flirting with his consort), after an attack Kong is presumed dead, lady ape is imprisoned by the army, Kong reappears, breaks her out and is eventually mown down by the army just as his lady friend gives birth to his son.

Sadly, none of this is executed in a particularly interesting way.  The low budget (a fraction of that accorded the 1976 film) precludes any of the large scale set pieces featured in the King Kong remake.  Instead of making his last stand at the World Trade Centre, swatting down helicopter gunships, for instance, this time Kong meets his end at a rural barn dance, facing off a few armoured personnel carriers and jeeps.  The nearest equivalent to his encounters with the oil company crew trying to capture him in the earlier film, which included fights with a giant snake, the business with the log and the ravine a huge chloroform filled pit, is an encounter with a bunch of hick hunters.  Instead of New York getting trashed, it is a backwoods fishing village which gets stomped on.  Indeed, the whole thing, shot largely in Tennessee, has a backwoods feel about it, like Hill Billys Meet the Ape.

As mentioned before, the characterisations of the main players are wafer thin.  The problem being that the actors all look as if they know they are in a turkey of a film and can't really be bothered. That said, John Ashton - playing the kind of military knucklehead that exists only in bad movies - gives a suitably over-the-top performance as the Colonel in charge of the Army's Giant Primate Apprehension Unit (or whatever it is called).  But even this is problematic.  We are given no indication of why he has such a pathological hatred of giant apes.  Because he really does seem to hate them and be hell bent upon destroying them for no particular reason.  Some back story might have helped.  Maybe the script should have included a flash back showing that, during Kong's New York rampage ten years earlier, Ashton's pregnant wife had been so frightened by the giant ape she gave birth to a marmoset.  It would have been in keeping with the film's overall vibe.

But the film does have a few redeeming features.  Although the ape suits seem cruder than the one used in the first film, they are better proportioned and the actor playing Kong actually tries to move like an ape.  (The face masks don't seem as expressive as in the 1976 film, though).  A lot of the process work, allowing Kong to interact with the rest of the film, is of a very high standard, with none of the 'blue halo' effect often seen in low budget blue screen work.  The film also features one genuinely affecting moment, when the dying Kong, tears streaming down his face, sees his new born son, before expiring.  it sounds hopelessly tacky, but is actually surprisingly moving.

Sadly, the good points are drowned out by the lackluster pace, poor script and ill judged scenes like the giant ape romance sequence.  The film's cheapness is too obvious: it looks like a direct to video movie, not even John Guillerman, returning as director from the 1976 film, can't seem to raise any enthusiasm, his direction looking flat and TV film-like.  But it wasn't released straight to video.  Instead, King Kong Lives was put into cinemas where it bombed badly, failing to recoup its production costs.  Audiences in 1986, it seemed, just weren't ready for a King Kong sequel.  They still aren't, but if you feel a burning desire to watch two giant apes falling in love and trashing parts of rural USA, King Kong Lives is currently a regular feature on the Horror Channel.



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