Saturday, December 12, 2020

KING KONG (1976) (Umbrella Blu-ray Review)

KING KONG (1976) 

Label: Umbrella Entertainment
Region Code: B
Rating: PG 
Duration: 134 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1) 
Director: John Guillermin
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange, Rene Auberjonois, Jack O'Halloran, John Randolph

The Dino De Laurentius produced King Kong (1976) is a big-budget 70's take on King Kong '33 with some seventies updates that sees the film trade in the adventurer filmmaker setting sail for the mysterious Skull Island in search of fame and fortune for a greedy oil tycoon named Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin, My Summer Story). Wilson works for the Petrox Oil corporation, and he has organized an expedition that is setting sail for the previously uncharted South Pacific  island in search of untapped oil and gas reserves. This was made in the era of the gas crisis after all, and every seventies disaster movie needed some sort of evil corporate entity to blame, and big oil certainly fits the bill. Once at sea Wilson learns that a free-spirited primate paleontologist named Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski) has stowed away on the ship, telling Wilson and the crew that it is his belief that the uncharted island is home to a previously unknown animal of unusual size. Of course they do not believe him and suspect he might be a corporate spy, but instead of throwing him in the brig him they enlist him to stay on as the official photographer of the expedition. Not long after they come across a actress named Dwan (Jessica Lange, Big Fish) who they find drifting at sea on a life boat. She is apparently the sole survivor of yacht that exploded, owing her life to the fact that she did not want to watch a screening of the tonsil-tickling 70's porno Deep Throat (1972)! 

Arriving at the island they pierce the supernaturally thick shroud of fog that surrounds it and the expedition takes a smaller landing boat to the shore. On the island they discover a primitive tribe of islanders who have built a four-story tall wall around their village, saying that it is protection from the beast they worship, a giant ape that they call Kong. At this point the film plays out much like the original film with the blond starlet Dwan being offered to Kong by the tribe, and Prescott launching a rescue mission to save her from the enormous ape. In the absence of a lucrative oil discovery Wilson hatches a scheme to capture Kong and tour him around the United States, which of course goes horribly wrong with Kong expectantly rampaging through New York City before scaling the Twin Towers with Dwan in his hand.

Dino De Laurentis promoted this early on as being the biggest thing to hit the cinema since the original King Kong, meaning for it to be a blockbuster on the scale of Spielberg's Jaws (1975). The producer poured a lots of money into a three story tall robotic ape created by legendary Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (Dune), so in that way it is sort of like Bruce the shark from Jaws. They did however make extensive use of a pair of giant ape arm seen  repeatedly throughout the film, and it looks pretty cool to my eyes. What we most seen in the film is make-up FX artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf In London) in an ape suit that he and Rambaldi created, rampaging through miniature sets and using forced perspective, plus some poorer looking composite shots. I though that Baker wearing the ape-suit with the animatronic
head worked pretty great, his physical performance is surprisingly good and that animatic head is impressive in the range of emotion and action it is capable of.  

I barely recognized the mustached Charles Grodin here, this is a rare turn for him as a villain, and he plays it well with a mix  of greed, menace, and a bit of campiness. I also enjoyed seeing RenĂ© Auberjonois (The Eyes Of Laura Mars) in a smaller role as a scientist working for the oil company who delights in breaking the news to Wilson that there is no viable oil on the island. Jeff Bridges is fine as the free-spirited paleontologist Prescott with his shaggy 70's beard and haircutm he's the voice of reason in the film. Then we have Jessica Lange as the sexpot actress Dwan, she is quite good at establishing the bond between her and Kong, but the sexual tension between her and the ape is bizarre to say the least.  A memorable scene of Kong drying Dwan off with an extended gust of his ape-breath seems to give her an orgasm of sorts, but you know that ape must have the most foul breath, she would have been puking! Later he fondles her with his oversized finger, slightly pulling down her halter top, it's just bizarre. Lange definitely manages to establish that her character feels a complicated connection with the beast, with the ape often flashing her the googly-eyes. That any of this works is a tribute to the talents of not only Lange but to Baker and his physical acting and the fantastic animatronic team who manipulated the ape's facial features. 

The flick is well made, directed by John Guillermin (Shaft In Africa) to, lensed by cinematographer Richard H. Kline (The Fury) it is an attractive looking movie. The scenes shot on the island are eye-catching, particularly those on the island, and the scenes shot on a set replicating Kong Island and the interior jungles have a great atmospheric look as well. The only shots that look bad are the composited optical shots of Kong which looks soft and don't stand up to the rest of the film. Apparently the production spent so much money on the 30-foot tall robotic Kong that they couldn't afford to have Kong battling a T-Rex like we saw in the original and in the later Peter Jackson iteration, but he does manage to wrestle a ropey looking giant-sized snake for a bit. That 30-foot tall robot version of Kong is only seen a briefly in a sequence during the start of his rampage in New York City, blink and you will miss it, and it's as bad as you might imagine. 

Eventually Kong makes  his way to the iconic Twin Towers where he meets his fate, the scenes of the Towers certainly have a poignancy to them now that it didn't have when I was a  kid watching this on TV. As Kong is machine-gunned to death atop the towers by helicopters armed with 50 caliber machine machine guns, it's quite a bloody affair that I remember being quite upset about as a kid. The ending with Kong's dying heartbeat also tugged at me just a little bit, I don't want to  oversell it, but I definitely felt a bit sad seeing the big guy go.

Audio/Video: King Kong (1976) arrives on region B-locked  Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment in 1080p HD framed in 1.85:1 widescreen. This looks like an older HD master but the image quality overall is acceptable. The source is generally clean and in good shape with some dirt and debris in the opening title sequences, but it cleans up nicely after that. The grain structure looks healthy, it is not as finely resolved as a newer scan would have offered, but I was pleased with the image, with only some white speckling and faint scratches visible throughout. Audio comes by way of an 24-bit English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround, everything sounds crisp and clean, the dialogue is never hard to understand and the John Barry (Dr. No) score sounds fantastic. Unfortunately there are no subtitles on this one.

Archival extras come by way of a 22-minute making of featurette from 2005 with film critics Rich Kline and Monster Movie journalist MJ Simpson who look back at the making of the film and what a big undertaking it was for Dino DeLaurentis and how involved he was in the day to day operations. Also discussed is the casting of the film and it's timely political themes. It also gets into the various special effects used to bring Kong to life on the big screen. 

We also get fourteen-minutes of deleted scenes, some of which I believe were used to pad out the run times of the TV airings of the film. We get more of the giant-snake footage, a peeping tom aboard the ship anxious to get a glimpse of Dwan, some more of Kong attacking the wall on the island, an alternate scene of Wilson getting stomped, and more of the NYC rampage. Nothing too consequential but I still appreciate having it on disc. The last of the extras is a beat-up looking two-minute trailer for the film. The single-disc release comes housed in an oversized keepcase with a reversible sleeve of artwork featuring the bad-ass illustrated movie poster, with the reverse side featuring identical artwork minus the unsightly certification badge, with the same key artwork featured on the disc. 

Special Features:
- The Making of King Kong (2005)  (22 min) 
- Deleted Scenes (14 min) 
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min) 

King Kong (1976) is a fun Kong flick with plenty of action and a cool-looking giant-ape, while it's a film that gets bad-mouthed quite a bit I have always been entertained by it. This is the version of Kong I grew up on so maybe I am overly forgiving of it's shortcomings, but I do love it a bunch. Oddly, there is still no North American Blu-ray of the Kong '76, but this region-B locked release from Umbrella Entertainment looks good and will do the trick till someone managed to give this giant-ape flick a new 4K scan with new extras. 

More screenshots from the Blu-ray:

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