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STOMPING THROUGH THE ORIGINAL KONG ISLAND TRILOGY

ORIGINAL KONG
When Warner Brothers made the original KING KONG available on DVD, rabid fans of the classic 1933 blockbuster went completely bananas... 

Poster for SON OF KONG
The box set threesome consisted of the original, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and also includes the lightweight sequel SON OF KONG co-directed by Schoedsack, produced by Cooper and starring KONG lead Robert Armstrong... And there's MIGHTY JOE YOUNG that, with a stop-motion African ape overseen by the original special effects wizard Willis O’Brien but really brought to life by protegee and future icon Ray Harryhausen, had the same producers, directors, writers, composer, and once again Armstrong played the rich manipulator (a nightclub promoter this time) knee-deep in a barrelful of monkey business: But this particular bagful doesn’t include JOE at all, which is an afterthought and not part of the bonafide Kong Island Trilogy, which centers on the ape and the Island: Beginning with THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, known as the “sister production” to KING KONG for reasons briefly described in our first review…

1932 rating: ****
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME: Based a short story written by Richard Connell, the GAME template has been used many times over the years, but the best adaptation is the Cooper/Schoedsack production that proceeded the groundbreaking KING KONG, filmed mostly in the same island location and starring several familiar faces.

We spend the first few minutes on a boat where a group of high class, cigar puffing gentleman talk about their favorite sport, highlighting their special guest Bob, played by Joel McCrea, a lanky chap famous for hunting wild tigers and never backing down…

Right when Bob mentions how he’s glad to be the hunter and not the hunted, the boat hits a reef, goes down into shark-infested waters, and everyone dies except our hero, who winds up on a beach, making his way into a giant spooky castle inhabited by an obviously nefarious white man Zaroff, played by Leslie Banks. And there are guests left over by the last shipwreck… In the roles of brother and sister Eve and Martin is none other than Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong… While Fay Wray is the co-lead ingénue, Armstrong is given a filler role and spends most of the time drunkenly slurring in that old school fashion, annoying Zaroff until the plot unravels… And with only the dashing Bob and the beautiful Eve left, we’ve learned Zaroff’s master plan: he hunts human beings, not animals… These are considered the most dangerous game!

Wray & McCrea
Leslie Banks provides all the delicious, expository venom of your classic film heavy – going over the top in such a perfect way you’ll want to hear him rant and rave forever within his cozy confides…

As the vamping Zaroff stalks his own stairwell like a phantom ruling his immense bachelor pad purgatory, the camera pans to his face while Max Steiner’s melodramatic score blares with sinister premonition. The famous KONG starlet Wray, meanwhile, provides damsel in distress moments, and yet what she holds back, not wanting to be heard by her surreptitious captor, is the most important element of her subdued performance. 

Soon enough it's dawn, aka hunting season, and we venture from the lush Gothic interior to the formidably foggy outdoors, where KING KONG was being filmed at the same time (Fay was a busy actress, serving as a wish-bone between two productions). Bob and Eve run throughout the island as a gun-wielding Zaroff keeps on their trail, eventually using his henchman (KONG's "Native Chief" Noble Johnson) and guard dogs for backup: DANGEROUS GAME providing two movies for the price of one: the first being a dialogue driven philosophy on life and death, the second a fast paced action film that, like KING KONG once we hit the island, never lets up...

year: 1933 rating: *****
KING KONG: If you discovered prehistoric dinosaurs roaming an uncharted island, would a giant ape really matter?

Well in this case it’s personal, because the legendary simian is no legend at all… He’s all brutal fists and razor-sharp teeth... definitely not a leaf-eating vegetarian... and he’s captured Ann Darrow, the street girl turned makeshift actress hired by maverick cinema auteur Carl Denham to star in his next picture shot entirely at Skull Island, a location that doesn’t even appear on the map and, shrouded by a wall of thick, ominous fog, it's place you don’t want to spend your vacation…

A bevy of chanting natives dot the shoreline and reside mostly behind a giant fortress protected from the unseen god they live to fear… And King Kong is only too real…

Created by special effects/stop animation guru Willis O’Brien, Kong might not be impressively aesthetic to today’s standards. His hair moves noticeably with each specific movement, but we can suspend cinema disbelief by saying the wind is causing that effect. In reality, O’Brien and his techs moved Kong by hand, and those are their very own imprints.

Fay Wray
The shark in JAWS looked paper mache up close. That didn’t matter and either does a model-clay gorilla... There's enough build-up to get to know the characters, beginning with a middleman telling Robert Armstrong’s headstrong director no studio will allow an actress to risk such a venture: So Denhman hits the New York Depression-era streets and finds his dame in the form of Faye Wray’s Darrow…

With pale skin, longing eyes and windswept countenance, Wray, no stranger to horror film roles, was given her big break – she's the perfectly suited scream queen and boy can she holler… After the forty-five minute mark, when she’s kidnapped by the natives and sacrificed to a giddy Kong, her wailing never really ceases and, unlike the two remakes, the human ingénue doesn’t fall in subliminal love with her giant captor… It’s an unrequited, one-sided obsession, and that makes the titular ape even more formidable and sinister.

Terrific Artwork
As Kong battles a giant snake, a menacing pterodactyl and a  romping and raging, tail-wagging T-Rex to protect his new discovery, he becomes a savior/bodyguard, but most likely for territorial reasons...

Although, Bruce Cabot’s John Driscoll is perpetually shadowing Kong to get his lady back... One great camera-gliding visual has Driscoll and a weary Darrow running for safety as an unseen Kong approaches... And although Cabot is the heroic lead, Armstrong’s Denham is the main male character...

In the modern era, never would a man responsible for capturing and exploiting an extremely rare species be considered a hero of any kind… In fact, Charles Grodin and Jack Black, basically playing the same guy in both sequels, were villains and/or jerks. Either way, “It was beauty that killed the beast" lends more cruel irony than anything else. But perhaps this line can be explained when, on the Island, Kong breaks down the native's wall that, most likely, couldn't be penetrated under normal circumstances: it took Darrow to give him the extra strength to fulfill his tragic destiny. And despite ravaging the native village and following the Americans to shore with loathsome vengeance, Kong is no match against gas bombs being hurled at his feet...

Cutting quickly from Skull Island back to New York, where Kong’s on display for a theater of impatient sophisticates, resulting in a barrage of the city leading to the famous Empire State Building standoff where Kong battles airplanes with machine guns... An unfair fight as the true hero dies at the end: An iconic creature beloved by audiences, still, even though, in the original movie and in his original form, KING KONG was a lethal monster to both respect and fear.

1933 rating: ***1/2
SON OF KONG: Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Skull Island… But wait a second… Why  return to an island full of carnivorous monstrosities? And you thought forced sequels were a new concept…

SON is actually not that bad, and Carl Denham, once again played by Meriem Cooper stock actor and personal doppelganger Robert Armstrong, has had quite a lousy year… His gigantic furry attraction got loose and did plenty of damage to New York…

From tossing a woman out a building to stepping on residents to damaging a subway car and… pretty much everything… the once great filmmaker is facing lawsuits that will put him in debt for centuries…

Luckily he has a second chance in the form of the original charter Captain Englehorn (along with Victor, the Chinese Cook) to hitch a ride and become partners… Denham sets out on the same boat to a far off location to seek new customers, and just happens to catch a low-rent stage show including an adorable Helen Mack (who co-starred with Armstrong in Cooper's 1931 programmer, BLIND ADVENTURE) as Hilda.

SON OF KONG takes a while to roll yet even the fluff is interesting… Like all sequels, a new pivotal character is introduced, conveniently related to the original: the guy who had given Denhman the map of Skull Island in the first place: Helstrum is a lush and a liar, and here we have a bonafide human antagonist: he winds up burning down Hilda’s home, along with her boozing dad. And so, now homeless, jobless, and fatherless, she becomes a stowaway on Denham and Englehorn’s charter, which is quickly taken over by a gaggle of angry, disgruntled sailors. At this point, the main characters are put on a life boat headed right for, you got it... Skull Island!

A blind adventure
Here’s where, forty minutes in, the movies really starts, consisting of our new beastly hero, Kong's son, a white-haired, jovial yet tough and resilient ape that, after Denham helps him out of a tarpit, becomes bodyguard to the frightened humans, who at this point merely witness bouts between Son of Kong verses a giant bear and a few angry dinosaurs, including a ramming-speed triceratops: These battles are as great as things get – and unlike the original which had so many things going for it, SON OF KONG is entirely special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien’s show… Too bad the pulpy adventure winds up with a cop-out climax involving a ravaging storm, an immense flood and a tragic finale that should have turned out much differently… Enough room on the life boat for a big baby gorilla… Or perhaps a gigantic floaty... He deserved at least  that much!
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