Back when infamous Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis mooted remaking the greatest monster movie ever, there were cries of sacrilege and scoffs from all quarters. These days, remakes are ten-a-penny, but in 1976 touching such a sacred cow was unheard of. De Laurentiis gave director John Guillermin (fresh off the all-star disaster movie The Towering Inferno) a pot of money but a tight leash to fashion the modern reimaging of the legendary movie.
There are tweaks to the story. Instead of a film crew, the ship that discovers Skull Island is owned by an oil company, who are keen to drill for black gold. There’s a stowaway, Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), and a shipwrecked wannabe actor, Dwan (Jessica Lange), but they soon find their place amongst the crew put together by Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin). Aside from those changes, it’s pretty much the same beauty and the beast tale but with added social conscience thanks to floppy-haired anthropologist Prescott. Grodin plays Wilson as the perfect pantomime villain. A company man when there’s oil to be had, and keen to exploit Kong when he thinks it’ll make him famous.
While everyone was waiting for the film to fail, it actually makes a decent fist of the tale, with no small thanks to the ground breaking special effects. A collaboration between the animatronics of Carlo Rambaldi and his team and a young Rick Baker, who also played Kong (Transformers fans will be interested to know Peter Cullen provided the distinctive roar of the great ape). Even though matt lines are often visible, it’s an impressive feat and although it doesn’t outdo the original artistry of Willis O’Brien, we still feel a massive amount of sympathy for the big guy. The final showdown ups the stakes on the 1933 film too, having Kong leap between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, which was still quite a new sight on the New York skyline.
Jessica Lange made her debut here, and she holds her own against her gigantic co-star - and Bridges. John Barry’s soaring score delivers the goods too, and the story gallops along at a cracking pace. Umbrella’s Blu-ray release is impressive visually, but only boasts a couple of slight special features. A ‘making of’ from several years ago (Peter Jackson’s version wasn’t even completed when it was made) and some deleted scenes that are mainly extended shots from the finished film are included, but in no ways essential. What’s remarkable is how well De Laurentiis’ King Kong stands up today. It caused a sensation on its release, and rightfully so. It’s a shame Jackson’s version has overshadowed this version, as it’s arguably a much more entertaining film.