Monday, May 10, 2021

KING KONG (1976) (Scream Factory 2-Disc Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review/Comparison)

KING KONG (1976)
2-Disc Collector's Edition

Scream Factory
Region Code: A
Rating: PG (Theatrical), Unrated (TV Cut) 
Duration: 134 Minutes (Theatrical), 182 Minutes (TV Cut)
Audio: Newly Restored English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 Surround with Optional English Subtitles
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 Laurentiis 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) who works for the Petrox Oil corporation, whom 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 could be a corporate spy sent to derail the expedition, but when his credentials pan out 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 discover drifting at sea on a life boat. The actress 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, with Dwan along for the ride, they send a landing party who pierce the supernaturally thick shroud of fog that surrounds the island. On shore the team 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 being offered to Kong by the tribe, and Prescott launching a rescue mission to save her from the 40-foot tall 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, whom he is smitten with, clutched in his hand.

Dino De Laurentiis promoted this early on as being the biggest thing to hit the cinema since the original King Kong, fully intending for it to be a runaway success on the scale of Steven Spielberg's mega-blockbuster Jaws (1975). The producer poured ton of money into a four-story robotic ape created by legendary Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (Dune), which funnily enough was a disaster and barely features in the film, not unlike Jaws' 'Bruce the Shark'. They did however make extensive use of a pair of giant ape arm that are seen repeatedly throughout the film, and they do look pretty. What we most seen in the film is make-up FX lend 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 animatronic head is impressive in the range of emotion and action it is capable of, including inflating cheeks used in a bizarre scene of Kong air-drying a recently dunked Dwan, but more on that in a minute.

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 enjoyed seeing character actor Jack O'Halloran (Emil Muzz from Dragnet!) on the ship's crew, plus René Auberjonois (The Eyes Of Laura Mars) 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 haircut. Then we have Jessica Lange as the sexpot actress Dwan, she is quite good at establishing the weird pseudo-romantic bond between her and Kong, but the sexual tension between her and the ape is bizarre to say the least, highlighted by a memorable scene of Kong drying Dwan off with an extended gust of his ape-breath, which inexplicably sends her into a series of orgasms. Now, you and I both know that Kong must have the most foul breath, that girl would have been puking! Then later he fondles her with his oversized ape-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 and fingers.

By any standard the flick is a well made gilm, directed by John Guillermin (Shaft In Africa) to, lensed by cinematographer Richard H. Kline (The Fury), it's an attractive looking movie for sure, the scenes shot in Hawaii are eye-catching, as are the scenes shot on a set replicating Kong Island and the interior jungles, they have a great atmospheric look as well, if a bit stagey. 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, but that's typical for processed shots of this era. Apparently the production spent so much money on the 40-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 40-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, not match for the high-powered weaponry of mankind, 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 out like that.

Audio/Video: King Kong (1976) finally debuts on U.S. Blu-ray from Scream Factory in a 2-disc Collector's Edition featuring both the 134-minute theatrical cut, plus the 182-minute TV cut of the film. There's no information about the source of the scan for the theatrical cut but to my eyes it looks like the same Studio Canal scan that I have on region-free Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment. The theatrical cut is presented in 1080p HD and framed in 2.35:1 widescreen. The source is clean and well preserved with natural looking grain, colors are strong and black levels are solid. Be sure to check out the screenshots from the Scream Factory Blu-ray at the bottom of the review, as well as a comparison to the region-free Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray.

The TV cut is also presented in 2.35:1 widescreen in 1080p HD with a new 2K scan of the additional TV footage from the internegative. There's a text blurb about this presentation and its inherent limitations, but just having it, in HD 2.35:1 widescreen with uncompressed audio is a gift!

Both cuts feature English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround and a newly restored theatrical English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo, with optional English subtitles. The immersive 5.1 surround is crisp and clean with good depth, the dialogue is never hard to understand, the action sequences are potent, and the John Barry (Dr. No) score sounds fantastic. We also get the restored, uncompressed theatrical stereo track presentation, which has solid stereo-panning effects plenty of depth.

Extras on disc one start off with a pair of new audio commentaries, the first with film historian Ray Morton, author of King Kong- The History of a Movie Icon, and a second with special makeup effects wizard Rick Baker. These are fantastic editions with both diving Kong-deep into this titanic film. Morton leaves few stones unturned, while Baker's account of the making of the film and of being the guy in the ape suit is terrific stuff.

New interviews kick-off with a 12-minute On the Top of the World with assistant director David McGiffert and production manager Brian Frankish features the pair discussing the film, including the massive stages used in the production, and how John Guillermin, Dino De Laurentiis and Robert Kline were just in love with film, showcasing Dale Hennesy's original storyboards, the difficulty of the animatronic full-sized Kong, which included keeping a guy inside the animatic literally trying to keep it from falling apart!

When the Monkey Dies, Everybody Cries is a 14-minute interview with production assistants Jeffrey Chernov and Scott Thaler who got their start on King Kong and took what they learned on this film and have gone on to bigger careers in the film industry, but here they remember what it was like working on the film, driving Dino De Laurentiis around and how intimidating he was, plus Xeroxing hundred of King Kong scripts, riding bikes around the Universal studio lot delivering messages, and going to Italy to set up a King Kong roadshow featuring the 40-foot Kong robot.

Maybe in their Wildest Dreams is a 6-minute interview with sculptor Jack Varner who gets into his contribution creating the 40-foot tall animatronic Kong that is actually little seen in the fished film, and with good reason. He also gets into his biggest contribution, sculpting the giant-ape hand seen quite a bit in the film.

The 6-minute Something’s Haywire with actor Jack O’Halloran, who memorably played Emil Muzz in Dragnet, features the actor recalling shooting the film. Realizing Lange's star potential, and getting carry her up the stairs of the the rescue scene, and how Guillermin's stubborn cost the production fifteen hours of overtime on a Sunday without ever having shot a frame of film, and how he found Bridges' method acting slightly annoying, and mentioning that "the director could've been better".

The 6-minute From Space to Apes is a conversation with photographic effects assistant Barry Nolan has him talking about how he went from working for NASA to making movies, his work compositing shots, on this and the sequel, and having nothing too complimentary to say about Guillermin.

There’s A Fog Bank Out There is a 7-minute interview with second unit director William Kronick talks about being hired on by Guillermin, discovering Lange during casting, and how the fog Bank and Kong smashing the wall were achieved. All these interviews were produced by Justin Beahm's Reverend Entertainment and they do great work shedding new light on this film from rather interesting angles, and are well=produced given the limitation of pandemic-era virtual meeting platforms. 

Disc one is buttoned-up with 11-minutes of Theatrical Trailers, TV Spots and Radio Spots, plus 27-mintutes of expansive Still Galleries encompassing movie stills, poster and lobby cards, behind-the-scenes, and newspaper ads, and some Kong-related product commercials.

Onto disc two we get my favorite of the extras, the complete 182-minute TV cut of the film, which is how I first saw the film in 1978 when it aired on network TV as part of the NBC Saturday Night at the Movies as a two night event! I love me some TV cuts of films, and always appreciate their inclusions, from the Criterion release of Repo Man to the Arrow edition of Mallrats, and I was quite sad when a TV cut of The Big Lebowski did not arrive along with its 4K UHD debut. To my knowledge this version has never received a legit home video release, which makes this all the more special to me. Scream Factory present it here in 2.35:1 widescreen in 1080p HD with English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles. This version actually runs 193-minutes long with the night one recap tagged on at the beginning of the second night, and Scream Factory give you the option to watch it all at one or split it up into Night One (95 min) and Night Two (97 min), and I love how night one actually ends on a literal cliffhanger! I was in Kong heaven as I sat their watching this version munching on my popcorn like I was five-years old again!  

Extras on the second disc is limited to a 69-minute Panel Discussion from the Aero Theater in 2016 with actor Jack O’Halloran, director of photography Richard H. Kline, suit-actor Rick Baker, and Dino’s widow Martha De Laurentiis, plus Richard Kraft, the assistant of the late score composer John Barry. The event is hosted by film historian Ray Morton (author of King Kong- The History of a Movie Icon). This release does not carry-over the 22-minute vintage making of featurette from 2005 with film critics Rich Kline and Monster Movie journalist MJ Simpson or the 14-minutes of deleted scenes found on the Umbrella release, though the deleted scenes are part of the TV cut on the second disc. We also get some cool NBC promos for the TV version of the film that brought back tons of warm and fuzzy nostalgic memories of watching TV with my family. 

The 2-disc release arrives in a dual-hub keepcase with a reversible sleeve of artwork featuring the original illustrated movie poster and a pretty great new illustration by artist Hugh Fleming that nicely captures the vibe of the Kong Island parts of the film, both artworks are also features on the Blu-ray discs.

Special Features:
DISC 1: Theatrical Cut (134 Minutes)
- NEW Audio Commentary with film historian Ray Morton (author of King Kong- The History of a Movie Icon)
- NEW Audio interview with special makeup effects wizard Rick Baker
- NEW Something’s Haywire – an interview with actor Jack O’Halloran (6 min) HD
- NEW On the Top of the World - an interview with assistant director David McGiffert and production manager Brian Frankish (12 min) HD
- NEW Maybe in their Wildest Dreams – an interview with sculptor Jack Varner (6 min) HD
- NEW There’s A Fog Bank Out There – an interview with second unit director William Kronick (7 min) HD
- NEW From Space to Apes - an interview with photographic effects assistant Barry Nolan (6 min) HD
- NEW When the Monkey Dies, Everybody Cries – an interview with production assistants Jeffrey Chernov and Scott Thaler (14 min) HD
- Theatrical Trailer (5 min)
- TV Spots (4 min)
- Radio Spots (2 min)
- Still Galleries: Movie Stills (7 min), Poster and Lobby Cards (9 min), Behind-the-Scenes (7 min), Newspaper Ads (4 min)

DISC 2: Extended TV Broadcast Cut (182 Minutes)
- NEW 2K scan of the additional TV footage from the internegative
- King Kong panel discussion from the Aero Theater (2016) with actor Jack O’Halloran, director of photography Richard H. Kline, Rick Baker, Martha De Laurentiis, and Richard Kraft, moderated by film historian Ray Morton (69 min) HD
- NBC Promos (4 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, but I have always been highly entertained by it. This is the version of Kong I grew up on and watching it this time I am still a big fan. Scream Factory totally win me over by including the TV cut of the film on home video for the first time ever. Plus we get a Kong-worthy array of extras that explore the film from perspectives I've previously not heard, making this an essential must-own release in my book.

Screenshots from the Scream Factory Blu-ray:

Screenshot Comparison:
Top: Scream Factory Blu-ray  
Bottom: Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray