There are eight movies about King Kong, and he’s always a very lovelorn ape. Unfortunately, he falls in love with tiny human women, which doesn’t quite work out for him because the tiny human men kill him first. “Beauty killed the beast,” they say, despite beauty usually begging them to stop shooting the giant gorilla. A tragedy. Yeah, I understand the racial subtext. I’ve seen Inglourious Basterds.
As a fan of Kong, I find the hero’s quixotic quest for a lady-friend to be the unifying theme across every era in his onscreen depiction. It’s a relatively small series, and only one of the films doesn’t feature him pining away from some tiny mistress at some point — 1933’s Son of Kong, and that’s because he’s already dead. Son of Kong implies the past existence of a Queen Kong, which renders Kong’s doomed love of Ann Darrow in the 1933 original more tragic; at the time he meets her, he’s a widower on the rebound. Truly we can never know the pain another person is experiencing.
Anyway, the only movie where King Kong gets some is 1986’s King Kong Lives, the hard-to-find schlock sequel to the much-derided 1976 remake version of King Kong. Unlike Son of Kong, which serialized the original by introducing a new ape on Skull Island, King Kong Lives retcons the end of its predecessor by proclaiming Kong’s fall from the top of the World Trade Center only resulted in a deep, decade-long coma. Thanks to the scientific know-how of Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton, between Terminators), human scientists are close to reviving him. They’ve built a giant cybernetic heart and are ready to transplant. All they need is more Kong blood.
When Queen Kong is discovered in Borneo by a hot adventurer, Hank “Mitch” Mitchell (Brian Kerwin), Kong’s blood gets pumping — in more ways than one!
Once Kong’s heart is fixed, he and his Queen escape captivity and go on the run in rural Georgia, an area of the country where two giant gorillas blend in perfectly. Amy and Mitch give chase. So does the Army. Amy is desperate to save Kong because something is wrong with the heart she built for him. Kong doesn’t care. He and Queen Kong bond in the wilderness and become one under the southern summer skies. In a feat of real artistry, director John Guillermin (who also directed the 1976 film) parallels Kong and Queen Kong’s lovemaking with Amy and Mitch making good on their flirtation at a camp site just a mile away. Hank is a rogue adventurer. Amy is a scientist. Kong is a giant ape. Queen Kong is also a giant ape. Heavenly pairings. Romance. Cinema.
You’ve not understood what cinematic love looks like until you’ve watched two actors in gorilla suits pantomiming flirtation on a miniature set of the Georgia mountains.
Such offbeat shamelessness makes King Kong Lives one of the standout Kong entries. Most of the Kong stories are blah-blah retellings / reimaginations of the first film. Bad colonial humans steal Kong for capitalism, he falls in love, he dies. In the case of the Toho movies, Kong’s story is complemented by other giant monsters to fight (Godzilla and Mechani-Kong). The recent Kong: Skull Island is the most explicit modification of this paradigm outside of Lives, which dared to give him a real love story instead, but still features humans from the outside destroying Kong’s lifestyle.
Naturally, the humans here still destroy his lifestyle as they hunt him and Queen Kong around mountains and farmlands, culminating in a Baby Kong birthing sequence inside a barn. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen!
Along the way, Kong smashes and grabs and rips people in half. He’s a far more violent ape in this movie, even if his victims are also stereotypical redneck jerks. Again: It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, particularly for a franchise where Kong became a hero figure soon after the first movie. By the time producer Dino De Laurentiis remade the original in ’76, Kong was consciously written to be more sympathetic to audiences. That’s still the case in King Kong Lives, but he eats a lot more people. Let they who haven’t looked at their pregnant wife and thought “Man, I’d eat someone to protect her” cast the first stone.
I recently rewatched all of the live-action Kong movies with the intention of reviewing or at least ranking them, a task I found uninspiring. All eight have their merits, but truthfully it just becomes a question of which movies you prefer after the original, which is indisputably at the top. There’s simply no way around it. I love the Toho movies — King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes — for the same reason I love that entire era of Ishirō Honda-directed kanji films, which is mixing human pathos with goofy battles and sci-fi plots. I really liked the King Kong remake from 1976 because it’s cheap, shitty and filled with gorgeous people on awful sets. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is my least favorite, an overlong fan-film of ultimate indulgence. Kong: Skull Island is cool and pays homage to the Toho movies.
Of all of them, though, King Kong Lives stands out as the cheapest, shittiest and weirdest of them all, and I love it endlessly.