(1933) Horror (RKO) Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, James Flavin, Merian C. Cooper, James Adamson, Van Alder, Victor Wong, Ed Allen, Everett Brown, Frank Angel, Sandra Shaw. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Few movies have had the kind of impact on the future of cinema as this one. Not only did it reportedly save RKO Studios from bankruptcy, it changed the way horror movies were perceived and essentially kick-started the entire genre. It is a classic from it’s way-ahead-of-its time special effects and for the amount of terrifying scenes of violence and sex that were displayed.
While later re-releases toned down both elements (a scene featuring Kong undressing Fay Wray was excised as well as scenes featuring Kong chowing down on people), it still remains a standard for fear-inducing films even today. Kong is an iconic figure in both horror and popular culture.
Most of us have seen this at least a few times but for those who haven’t this is kind of the basic story. A Depression-era filmmaker named Carl Denham (Armstrong) convinces a starving unemployed actress named Ann Darrow (Wray) to accompany him to Indonesia to make a film. Having nothing to lose, she agrees.
It is only while en route on the tramp steamer Venture that the real destination is Skull Island in the South Pacific, an uncharted island hidden by mysterious mists. It is also en route that rough and tumble first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot), who at first sneers at the idea of a woman aboard ship, falls in love with the blonde bombshell Darrow. But Driscoll insists he has no time for dames, which amuses Denham no end.
Once they get there the natives are keen to have Darrow as a bride (read: sacrifice) for Kong, their local deity but Denham politely declines. The natives, not ones for taking no for an answer, stealthily board the ship and steal Darrow away. Driscoll leads a party of crew members to go get her back but by that time Ann has already been taken by Kong – a gigantic ape.
The crew follows Kong and Ann into the interior of Skull Island which they discover to their horror that the island is populated by carnivorous dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. Many of the crew are lost, being eaten by giant spiders, brontosaurs (which must have come to a shock to the scientists who thought they were herbivores) and other creatures.
Finally, Driscoll manages to rescue Ann and carry her back to the native village with Kong in hot pursuit. Fortunately, Denham is waiting for them there with gas bombs which takes down the creature. Denham hits upon the idea of taking Kong back to New York and showing him as the ultimate sideshow attraction. However things go awry and Kong escapes for a date with destiny on the Empire State Building.
I’m not sure what writers Ruth Rose and James Ashmore Creelman had in mind when they wrote the screenplay but this is as layered an allegory as movies get, particularly these days. The beauty and the beast allegory is just one layer; while some looked at it as a modern retelling of that particular fairy tale, there is also subtexts of greed, the rape of the natural world and of the male-female dynamic. Of course, some of those go in there with the benefit of almost 80 years of hindsight behind them which does change the perspective.
But there is a lot of titillation here when you think about it, from the blonde being taken by a gigantic black ape (which played into racial fears of the period) to the nearly sexual disrobing of Ann by Kong. Wray gives one of the most compelling performances in the history of horror movies, from her signature screams to her playful flirtation with Driscoll. Yes, she’s very much a damsel in distress in certain way but by the same token it is more her movie than Armstrong’s or Cabot’s.
The stop motion animation special effects may look primitive by today’s standards but they were startling for their time. Sure the continuity is pretty lackadaisical (see Trivial Pursuits) and sometimes Kong’s movements look choppy but O’Brien did legendary work here that influenced special effects for generations that followed it.
This is epic in scope and yet the personal story of Ann Darrow still resonates. This is as classic as horror movies get, maybe the most important one ever. It paved the way for all the creature features that made all our Halloween’s creepier and that much more frightening.
WHY RENT THIS: An undoubted classic. Fay Wray the best movie screamer in history. For its time awfully high on the terror quotient.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Awfully dated.
FAMILY VALUES: While reasonably tame by modern standards, some of the scenes might get to the most sensitive members of your household.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Kong’s height varies throughout the film. On Skull Island, he is 18 feet tall and throughout most of the New York theater sequence he’s 24 feet tall. When ascending the Empire State Building he’s 50 feet tall and when Fay Wray is in his hand he’s 70 feet tall.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The lost spider sequence, cut from the film because it was too upsetting to 1933 audiences, was restored by Peter Jackson for the 2005 two-disc DVD release that came out concurrently with the release of Jackson’s remake; although the footage itself has been lost permanently by all accounts, Jackson re-created the scene from the original script and storyboards and it is indeed terrifying. The Blu-Ray includes this as well as a feature on director/producer Cooper. In addition, on both editions there is a commentary track which includes archival comments from Cooper and Wray, as well as a making-of featurette that is longer than the actual film itself.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.9M on a $672,000 production budget; this was considered a massive hit at the time (when theater admissions were only a nickel) when the promotional budget was far less a percentage of the production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mighty Joe Young
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Seven Psychopaths
The dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals depicted on Skull Island are never identified in the film. O’Brien based his models on well-informed reconstructions, particularly on those of Charles R. Knight, which were exhibited in major museums at the time (American Museum of Natural History, Chicago Natural History Museum, etc). The reconstructions are surprisingly accurate for their time; paleontologist Robert T. Bakker has commented that despite their anatomical inaccuracies compared with 21st century knowledge, the depiction of the Apatosaurus coming out of the swamp and supporting itself on land, and the portrayal of the Tyrannosaurus as a swift, athletic predator, are actually more accurate than what scientists at the time were teaching.