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.