Another guest spot! In addition to his earlier article on King Kong novelizations, Justin Mullis also submitted this radical thesis on the oft-maligned King Kong Lives. Many thanks to Justin for the piece! Without further ado, let’s get controversial!
In the annals of film history there are probably few films as loathed as KING KONG LIVES (Dir. John Guillermin). For starters the critics were not kind upon the movie’s 1986 theatrical release. Janet Maslin, of the New York Times, said the film had “a dull cast and a plot that’s even duller.” Duane Byrge, of The Hollywood Reporter, called it an “ill-developed production” with a “pedestrian, muddled script” and accused it of nonsensical “tonal changes at every juncture.” An uncredited critic for Box Office said the movie’s “miniature work is shoddy” and called it “the most ill-advised film of the year.” Deborah J. Kurk, for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, said that the movie amounted to nothing more than “Southern Fried corn pone.” Roger Ebert awarded the film one star – he gave THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN three. But it wasn’t just critics who hated KING KONG LIVES, fans of Kong did too. Peter Jackson called the film “unadulterated crap.” James Rolfe simply called it “awful.” Even the most diehard fans of Dino De Laurentiis’ KING KONG (1976, Dir. John Guillermin) remake, for which this film serves as a sequel, won’t defend KING KONG LIVES.
But I’m here to do just that. See I actually like KING KONG LIVES. Unashamedly and unironically. After the 1933 original and 1962’s KING KONG VS GODZILLA, KING KONG LIVES is easily my next favorite Kong film.
However before jumping into why I think KING KONG LIVES is actually a great movie, let’s briefly recap the plot for anyone who’s forgotten or, possibly, never seen it…
KING KONG LIVES picks up ten years after the events of 1976’s KING KONG. Kong, we quickly learn, survived his fall from the World Trade Center, but in a coma, being kept alive by Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton of TERMINATOR fame) who is housing the big ape down south at the Atlanta Institute. Though alive, Dr. Franklin says that Kong’s heart is weak and that he’ll die if he doesn’t receive a new one. Fortunately Dr. Franklin has managed to whip up an artificial heart the size of a Volkswagen and she’s ready to perform surgery – there’s only one problem. See, in order to survive the surgery Kong’s going to need a blood transfusion and that means we need another Kong to serve as a blood donor. That’s where adventurer Hank “Mitch” Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) comes in. As fate would have it he’s just returned from Borneo where he’s found and captured a giant female gorilla who he unoriginally dubs Lady Kong. Amy and Mitch bring Lady Kong to the Atlanta Institute and once they have her sedated perform the heart transplant/blood transfusion that saves Kong’s life. Once back to full health however Kong senses Lady Kong, goes into heat, and busts out of the Institute with his new monstrous bride-to-be.
With two giant apes now on the loose, army Lieutenant Colonel Archie Nevitt (John Ashton) is called in by the local authorities to hunt down and kill Kong and Lady Kong. And because the Kongs are loose in the American South it is only a matter of time before every redneck, yahoo, hick and yokel with a shotgun in the region is also on their tail hoping to the bag the biggest trophy of all time.
Fortunately Amy has installed a tracking device in Kong’s artificial heart and, along with Mitch, is able to locate the giant gorillas first as they have decided to stop and rest along Honeymoon Ridge in the mountains of Tennessee. That night both couples make monkey love. The next morning, however, Nevitt also catches up with the Kongs and manages to capture Lady Kong. King Kong is driven over the side of a cliff and is presumed dead. Kong, of course, is not dead and after some time spent recuperating via snacking on alligators, as well as making a meal out of some of those aforementioned rednecks, makes his way back to Lady Kong who is being held in an abandoned missile silo under the eye of Nevitt. Kong, along with Amy and Mitch, come to Lady Kong’s rescue and Kong takes on an entire army regiment including helicopters, tanks and flamethrowers. Kong manages to defeat the soldiers, and kills Nevitt by literally beating him into a grave. Sadly however Kong quickly succumbs to his many injuries and dies, but not before seeing Lady Kong give birth to their son. The film ends with Amy and Mitch relocating the two surviving Kongs to a nature preserve in Borneo.
First let’s get one thing straight. KING KONG LIVES is an absurd movie. Absolutely, completely, unequivocally crazy. But just how absurd is it really? Most critics would point to the film’s scene of Dr. Amy Franklin performing open-heart surgery on Kong, complete with giant-sized surgical tools, as the point where the movie goes off the rails. But how exactly is this scene any more absurd than, say, the sight of two children piloting a mini-sub inside of a giant turtle to destroy a brood of invading parasitic organisms? Or the idea of building a giant mechanical ape to excavate radioactive ore? Or that an invading alien race would decide that the most effective way to conquer the planet is to trick a group of humans into giving them a pair of mutant dinosaurs in exchange for a bogus tape containing medical secrets? Or that another alien race would decide that a better plan was to create a fake children’s amusement park? Or that a third hostile alien race would decide to create a robot doppelganger of a mutant dinosaur and then dress that robot up as said dinosaur? Or that the most effective way to transport a giant inebriated ape hundreds of mile to Mt. Fuji is via balloon? Or that the best way to rid your city of a giant rainbow beam projecting lizard is to lure it away with a giant chunk of cubic zirconia? Or that the best plan for stopping the destruction of the earth by meteor is to simply build a set of giant jet engines to move the planet? Or even just the idea of a black hole gun, a maser tank, a sub equipped with a drill on the front, or an oxygen destroying bomb? And just recently writer and artist Stephen Bissette even openly compared the climax of SHIN-GODZILLA (2016, Dir. Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi), which he described as having the appearance of “insane dental surgery,” to the heart transplant scene in KING KONG LIVES.
But Justin, you might say, those are all Japanese kaiju movies, KING KONG LIVES is an American giant monster movie! Well yes, but then I would just point to the giant hypodermic needle in THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957, Bert I. Gordon), or the idea of loading a rifle with a radioactive isotope and firing it manually at a rampaging dinosaur as they do in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953, Dir. Eugène Lourié), or even the notion that a giant prehistoric ape-god would be more interested sexually in a small blond female of an entirely separate species then he would be in a giant female ape of his own kind; perhaps the one aspect of KING KONG LIVES which is certainly much less absurd then the 1933 original.
My point here is that all giant monster movies are absurd by their very nature, be they American or Japanese. Kong creator Merian C. Cooper is reported to have said in 1933 that he hoped that KING KONG (Dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack) would be the “most preposterous picture” anyone had ever seen, when RKO Studio execs began to openly voice concerns that Cooper’s monster movie might be a little too weird for mainstream American audiences. Of course, my default is to go to the Japanese films both because those are my favorite and because they are, admittedly, often more openly ludicrous then their American counterparts. This then leads me back to my point about why KING KONG LIVES is such a remarkable, wonderful film, a point I’m going to make by referencing another infamously reviled American giant monster movie: 1957’s THE GIANT CLAW (Dir. Fred F. Sears).
In his review for THE GIANT CLAW on his website 1,000 Misspent Hours, genre aficionado Scott Ashlin makes the following observation…
“There’s something essentially, fundamentally different about Asian monster movies, largely because there’s something essentially, fundamentally different about Asian movie monsters. Even when the creature is something relatively pedestrian, like a revived dinosaur or a giant bug, the Japanese and their imitators along the western rim of the Pacific can be counted upon to take a more expansive view of the permissible departures from nature, unencumbered by modern Anglo-Saxon notions of how much disbelief an audience can comfortably suspend. This doesn’t mean that their monster movies are better than ours, but it does mean that kaiju eiga are predictably weirder than their Western counterparts. The monsters are bigger, faster, stronger, tougher, more anatomically freakish. They have inexplicable powers and anthropomorphic motivations. The destruction they wreak on the human settlements they visit is on a grander, nearly apocalyptic scale. And the films’ creators appear to subscribe wholeheartedly to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that technology becomes indistinguishable from magic beyond a certain threshold of advancement, cannily assuming further that for the average person, that threshold was crossed sometime around 1945. I bring all this up here, in the context of a notorious Hollywood monster flick made with no Asian involvement whatsoever, because what makes The Giant Claw truly special, beyond its ludicrously inept dialogue, its impressive misuse of stock footage and voiceover narration, and its legendarily cheap and unconvincing special effects, is that it boldly defies the aforementioned pattern. The Giant Claw is every bit as unrepentantly bizarre as any Japanese or Korean creature film, and in exactly the same characteristic way. It is, so far as I’ve seen, the only true American kaiju movie.”
I for one am persuaded by Ashlin’s argument that a movie like THE GIANT CLAW is closer to the spirit of a Japanese kaiju flick than it is any Hollywood creature feature – I would even argue that its “impressive misuse of stock footage” and “legendarily cheap and unconvincing special effects” be submitted as evidence for the case.
I would also argue however that KING KONG LIVES is every bit as much a kaiju movie in spirit as THE GIANT CLAW and that in order to fully appreciate KING KONG LIVES and everything is has to offer fans of the genre only need to view it as if it is one. Seriously, if you’re a kaiju fan who’s reading this article and who doesn’t like KONG KONG LIVES but gives KING KONG ESCAPES (1967. Dir. Ishiro Honda) a pass ask yourself “Why?” And ask yourself how much more accepting of KING KONG LIVES you might be if the movie had been made by Toho rather than Hollywood?
Not surprisingly the Japanese apparently loved KING KONG LIVES when it was released there under the title “King Kong 2.” Heisei era Godzilla artist Noriyoshi Ohrai created a knock-out poster for the film – though I also quite like the American poster as well complete with its cheesy tagline – and two official video games based on the movie were developed and released only in Japan by Konami. These were “King Kong 2: Season of the Megaton Punch” for the Famicom and “King Kong 2: Revived Legend” for the MSX. Not surprisingly these games pushed the kaiju aspect of Kong even further with the Famicom game totally discarding the human aspect of the film and instead having players assume the role of King Kong as he traverses the globe fighting giant robots in order to save Lady Kong. Now there’s another sequel I’d also like to see!
 KONG: SKULL ISLAND excluded for the obvious reason that I haven’t seen it yet
 Interestingly enough actor Brian Kerwin is on record as saying that he actually prefers to watch KING KONG LIVES dubbed in Japanese. In Japanese, Kerwin says, the movie suddenly feels like a Kurosawa film.