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HD DVD Review: King Kong (1976)

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Paramount’s 1976 edition of King Kong holds a special place in cinema history. The heavy marketing campaign, lack of faithfulness to the original material, and monkey suit special effects are all signs of a failure. This Kong does have its charms, but misses the mark on countless levels, landing it at the bottom of the three main Kong efforts.

Changes are drastic for fans. Characters names are lost, there is no build-up prior to the ship voyage, the eventual New York escape is tragically short, and the replacement of the Empire State Building for the final inevitable confrontation is unforgivable.

With the changes, the film remains somewhat true to the source. Someone gets the idea to exploit the giant gorilla for profit, traps him, and ships him off to New York. Charles Grodin takes on the Carl Denham role, though instead of a showman, he’s a high-ranking employee of Petrox Oil. His performance is either a turn-off or a memorable highlight, with a sarcastic tone as he camps it up.

Jeff Bridges is the naturalist, worried about protecting Kong and the environment. He’s the voice of the reason, adding sympathy and common sense about the situation. It’s something missing in the original Kong, and marks one of the few bright spots in this remake.

Jessica Lange stars in her first role and works as the Fay Wray stand-in, though her part is far more complex than screaming. The relationship angle between Lange’s character Dwan and the ape works for Lange, not for Kong.

The ape suit, crafted and worn by Rick Baker, is impossibly creepy at times (not in a good way). The facial expressions as he caresses Dwan are well beyond the point of believability, and her one-liners are painfully scripted. The rest of the Kong suit bends and folds unnaturally, and the choice to not shoot the special effects at a high speed give the illusion the beast is moving impossibly fast for his size.

Botched special effects aside (and numerous shots go off track), nothing can prepare for the unquestionable disappointment of Kong’s island and New York trek. On his homeland, Kong only fights a giant snake, one of the more painful special effects to come out of any Hollywood era. In New York, Kong is barely given screen time, destroying an elevated train before beginning his hiding in the water or behind buildings.

The attempt to create a subtext about commercialization goes awry. When the full reveal of Kong is given to the audience, it’s unbelievably bad. Kong stands there immobile (the much hyped robo-Kong in one of its three appearances in the film) with a crown on his head. Kong doesn’t even roar or make a sound before the veil is lifted (an oversized Petrox gas pump).

In the meantime, Dwan and Jack (Bridges) stop for a drink in a true show-stopper. Just as the pacing picks up, Dwan stupidly and incomprehensibly decides to down some alcohol and, increasing the implausibility, Kong manages to find her in this random bar somewhere in the streets of New York.

This leads to the eventual finale, this time on top of the World Trade Center. Sentimentalism aside (and there are numerous shots of the then unfinished structures from the inside), this scene has none of the majesty of the original. Kong manages to jump from one tower to the other in another missed special effect, and the only reason any emotion is lifted from the beasts death is the sheer amount of blood and gore. All of the build-up to create a sad, depressing angle to the creature is lost.

Kong ’76 has its followers. What it gets right makes for a mildly commendable film and regardless of its flaws, the Kong suit is effective at times. Still, the lingering question is obvious: If this was the first Kong and the ’33 classic didn’t exist, would there have been any remakes? It’s doubtful.

Kong comes to HD courtesy of Studio Canal. This is a French release, though the disc immediately offers English menus and soundtrack. Until Paramount decides to dig into the vault to release the film in the US, this is the only way to see the film with this wonderful HD transfer.

This is a superb print, free of imperfections. Flesh tones lean towards the warm side while black levels are light, but the remarkable sharpness and clarity make up for it. Island shots are incredible in their details, and capture the Hawaiian shoot remarkably well. Double printed special effects take on a fuzzy tone due to their nature, and this unavoidable. The suit itself can be appreciated for its detail, but is now more obvious than ever.

DTS-HD Master is the audio format of choice, in either English or French. This is obviously a low fidelity mix; the dialogue carries a scratchy, dull sound behind it. Bass is non-existent. An attempt has been made to update the audio over the standard DVD by punching up the rear speakers, though it’s obviously forced. One of the early scenes on the ship where Jeff Bridges says his first lines makes it especially apparent. Still, this is an improvement over the single channel mono of previous efforts.

The only extras offered here are audio/video calibration tools and an extended trailer for other Studio Canal HD DVDs. There are numerous deleted scenes available which were run with the first TV airing of the film, and these have never made it to home video.

Kong fans will enjoy picking out the flaw in this releases box art. On the back, amidst the photos of Lange and Bridges, is a shot of Kong standing up. The problem? The pic is from the hilariously awful ‘80s sequel, King Kong Lives.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.