Kong. Even in the most remote regions of the world, his name is legend. With two remakes, several offshoots, and countless knock-offs, 1933's riff on beauty and the beast, King Kong, turned the world of cinema on its head, and cast the die for nearly every monster movie to follow. While we’ve seen updated takes on the story (1976) and big-budget revisitations (Peter Jackson’s flawed 2005 remake), the original film, despite (or perhaps, in large part, because) of its primitive looking stop-motion effects, gee-whiz performances, and dated dialogue, is still king, and, with its Blu-ray debut, proves this nearly 80 year old film can be every bit as charming, exciting, and heartbreaking as anything Hollywood’s can churn out today.
Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a larger-than-life filmmaker hellbent on capturing the most incredible pictures the world has to offer, and nothing can stand in his way. His movies have almost everything – action, excitement, drama; the only thing they’re missing is romance, so, for his latest production, he needs himself a girl! The thing is, no agency in town wants to loan one out to him. You see, Carl Denham has a reputation. He’s a danger junkie, always looking for the next fix, and it’s always got to be bigger, better, and more hazardous than the last. On the eve of his ship The Venture’s departure, Denham takes to the streets of New York to look for his star, where he finds the down-on-her-luck Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). She’s a little rough around the edges, but, with a little spit and polish, she’ll work out swell. Real swell.
Denham introduces his new star to the ship’s Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Driscoll immediately protests Ann’s presence on the boat, cursing Denham for bringing a woman along on a voyage that, despite not knowing where they’re heading, he is sure will be a dangerous one. With Denham, they always are. Denham assures the men that he knows what he’s doing and, six weeks later, as promised, he reveals a hand-drawn map showing their destination; an uncharted island in the West Indies that he has been told is the home of the legendary Kong, a massive beast of whom the natives speak in whispers.
The ship arrives at the island and it is exactly as it was described to Denham, with massive walls surrounding the skull shaped mountain in the island’s center. Tribal drums beat in the distance as Denham, Englehorn, Driscoll, and Ann board a small boat and head to shore. Once they arrive on the island, they happen upon a strange ritual, and Denham is determined to capture it on film. The natives spot them, however, and, when the situation grows tense, Denham and the others retreat to the Venture for the evening. While the crew is bunked down for the night, the natives board the ship and kidnap Ann, taking her back to the island as a sacrifice for Kong. Driscoll and Denham set out to rescue her, but, by the time they arrive, Ann is already in the clutches of the giant ape. They follow her into the jungle to rescue her, losing several men in the process, and, with the aid of a barrage of gas canisters, put Kong out of commission. With Ann safely returned, all Driscoll wants is to leave the nightmare island behind them, but Denham, always the showman, has other plans for King Kong.
I haven’t seen the original King Kong in close to thirty years, and, even then, it was on broadcast (UHF…I didn’t even have cable!!!) television during some afternoon double feature. As a kid I watched the film countless times but, as an adult, I figured “monster movies” were something I’d moved on from, and never bothered to pick it up on VHS or DVD. Sure, I’ve seen the remakes, neither of which impressed me all that much (unless you count Jessica Lange’s split-second boob shot in the “hip” updated ‘70’s version). Color me surprised by just how much I enjoyed revisiting this film, in all of its rustic glory. Yes, it’s all a bit quaint, now, especially the stop-motion effects work, but I didn’t find it nearly as distracting as the CGI in Jackson’s overly-long and somber retelling, nor did it seem as “cheap” looking as the 1976 version. Actually, I found Kong to be quite expressive and genuine, here, and, taking into account what the filmmakers had to work with back in 1933, this achievement is nothing short of a minor miracle. The performances are what one would expect from a film just a stone’s throw from the dawn of “talkies”, with lots of over-emoting, gesturing, and shouting of lines. The acting, however, like the special effects work and dated dialogue, lends to the film’s charm, and, for the period, was considered well above the norm. I don’t know how else to describe Kong save to say that everything about it just works. It’s expertly paced, beautifully shot, well-written, and just…just downright swell! Real swell!
Warner Brothers releases King Kong on Blu-ray in a package truly befitting a classic such as this, offering up the film in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio in a surprisingly clean and bold transfer. I had my doubts that a film of Kong’s vintage would benefit from an HD facelift, but was I ever wrong. While there’s an abundance of cinematic grain throughout, the image is otherwise quite crisp and detailed. This isn’t the sort of film most will break out to showcase the power of Blu-ray, but, aficionados of classic cinema who want to wow likeminded friends should look no further.
While some may decry the lack of a multichannel mix, I applaud Warner Brothers for not forcing one on Kong. Instead, the studio delivers a wonderful DTS-HD mono mix that compliments the film marvelously, with crisp dialogue, impressive bass, and only a hint of that “vintage” distortion we’ve all come to expect from films of a certain age.
Warner loads up the set with a great assortment of bonus features (all previously available on DVD, but, hey, they’re new to me!), including the feature-length documentary, RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World (SD), which offers an exhaustive overview of all things Kong, from inception to the film’s legacy. We also get an introspective commentary featuring FX legends Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, accompanied by interview snippets with Faye Wray and producer, Merian C. Cooper. Speaking of Cooper, Warner also includes the fascinating documentary I’m King Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (SD), which shows that Kong’s producer was just as much of a larger-than-life character as his film’s hairy protagonist (that's right, damnit...I've always rooted for the ape)! Rounding out the bonus features are FX test footage (HD), the film’s theatrical trailer (HD), and The Lost Spider Pit Sequence (HD) – Peter Jackson’s hilariously violent vintage style homage to the original film.
Arguably one of the greatest movie monsters of all time, King Kong makes the leap to next-gen home media with show stopping flair that would make Carl Denham proud. Warner Brothers delivers a fantastic set, here, with excellent audio and picture quality, a generous assortment of quality extras, all lovingly packaged in Digibook format (with a full color booklet, to boot!). While others have tried to improve on it, like I said, this Kong is still the king to me. Needless to say, this one gets my highest possible recommendation.