Mediocre obscurity: Musing over King Kong Lives (1986)

With the relative success of Paramount’s 1976 King Kong remake, a sequel was sure to follow. What no one expected was the sequel that ultimately became King Kong Lives.

For anyone who may have not noticed over the course of my writings & the subjects contained therein (or is just now dropping in), I’m something of a Devil’s Advocate or Champion of the Underdog, especially when it comes to my taste in movies. Such taste was demonstrated at the start of our Kongtober event here on Ficto when I made the biggest defense for the first Kong sequel, Son of Kong (1933), in the ensemble piece the Ficto crew wrote about said flick. And, while I quite enjoyed myself during the back to back re-viewings of the film in discussion today, I can’t say I’m surprised that King Kong Lives (1986), the sequel to the topic of my previous article, has such a rancid reputation, or that it is slipping into obscurity.

It was perhaps a bit of a generalization on my part to say that King Kong (1976) was turning into the “forgotten” remake of the story, as it made quite an impact on the generation who saw it first, & enjoyed numerous showings on television. It popping up on streaming has also helped its legacy, so what was probably more accurate a concern was for an updated home video release, one that is lavished with a juicy helping of bonus material going more in depth on the film in question (as is often the case with that medium, particularly when it comes to classics or even cult classics). Or, Hell, at the very least a nice remastering, making the film look as good as it can. The day hasn’t come yet for Kong ’76 in that regard, but far stranger things have happened, especially for films & IPs (intellectual properties) much, much less iconic than the name of King Kong. While they’re at it, giving Lives the same treatment wouldn’t hurt.

Whereas Son was a quickie sequel that came out too soon after Kong ’33, Lives had a different problem in that it came out too long after its predecessor, a whole decade to be exact. During this interim, grandiose producer Dino De Laurentiis made many a suggestion (including a journey to Africa or Moscow, obligatory evil Russians included in the latter) for following up his financially successful remake, most notably the utterly absurd, yet simultaneously fantastic, crossover of Kong with the mammalian monstrosity of his other 70s era middle finger to Jaws, Orca (1977), the cult classic where Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) faces off with a pissed male Killer Whale, said black & white humongo dolphin seeking revenge for the death of his mate & unborn child. How such a wacky battle would be achieved is what boggles the mind, but captures the imagination nonetheless. A bionic or cyborg Kong concept was also being thrown around at this time, something that even made it as far as Toho Studios when they considered redoing the clash between Kong & Godzilla in the 90s for the Heisei Godzilla films. What remained of this latter concept seems to only be retained in the form of the artificial heart featured in Lives.

A fan mock-up of what the unmade King Kong vs. Orca could’ve looked like, in newspaper ad format

Speaking of which, what is this sequel you may or may not have heard of actually about? Well, right off the bat, we’re shown truncated footage of the ending to Kong ’76, terrible new Kong roars & beautiful new theme music added & contradicting each other simultaneously. With a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief needed for what comes next, we jump forward 10 years, & find Kong (Peter Elliot) at the Atlantic Institute in Georgia, where we learn he didn’t actually die after that harrowing fall from the World Trade Center, his heart having revived, but in a precarious state, leaving the Mighty Ape in a coma. Dr. Amy Franklin (a rather sultry looking Linda Hamilton, two years on from her star-making debut as Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) ) is the surgeon planning to install a new, mechanical & computer-monitored heart into Kong’s chest, but the one thing halting the transplant is the amount of blood Kong lost, requiring a transfusion, yet no living species can provide a suitable match. Enter gung-ho, thrill-seeker Hank “Mitch” Mitchell (Brian Kerwin), in the Borneo Jungle (Borneo theorized to have once been connected to Skull Island) stumbling upon an auburn-haired Lady Kong (George Yiasoumi; yes, you read that right, a male suit actor). For a sizable sum of money, Mitchell agrees to let the Institute use Lady Kong as blood donor, despite Amy’s reservations about the female exciting Kong right after the operation.

ABOVE: Dr. Amy Franklin & Hank Mitchell (Linda Hamilton & Brian Kerwin). BELOW: Lady Kong in distress; Kong on the operating table

The procedure proves a success, but as Amy feared, Kong immediately takes notice of the female’s scent, she only being a mile away from his current location. While Kong is initially knocked on his ass by a sedative, tranquilizers can’t be used frequently, as they will be hard on his newly installed heart, so Lady Kong must be moved. While attempting to subdue the Ape Queen with bulldozers (something reminiscent of a scene in the unmade Legend of King Kong script), her cries of terror alert Kong once again, & he comes to the rescue, breaks her out, & flees into the Georgian mountains. Soon after, the U.S. Army arrives in hot pursuit, led by the outrageously bloodthirsty Colonel Nevitt (John Ashton). Amy & Mitch take off into the woods as well, Amy needing to monitor the status of Kong’s heart. The pair find that being with a female of his own kind is actually increasing the success of the whole experiment. However, Nevitt & his troops eventually discover the Kongs, recapture Lady, & after a brief skirmish, force Kong into a river during a storm, he receiving a nasty head wound from a rock. Months later, Kong is presumed dead, & Lady is kept underground at a local army base, Nevitt refusing any visitors. Mitch & Amy reunite, & are determined to free Lady from the Army’s grip, Amy realizing that Lady is pregnant. Not to anyone’s surprise (audience-wise at least), Kong is still alive & hiding out, but he eventually notices the distressed cries of Lady & begins making his way to her once again. Before it all ends, the Kongs are reunited & the mechanical heart inevitably fails, but a new “Prince Kong” is born right before his pappy dies again. We end on a note not quite as traumatizing as the preceding chapter, since Prince & Lady make it back home to Borneo.

ABOVE: Hardass Colonel Nevitt (John Ashton). BELOW: Kong & his Lady; Prince Kong moments after birth

Though he wasn’t directly credited as producer (Martha Schumacher, his wife at the time, is instead), Dino De Laurentiis’ company, DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment) still produced, & British director John Guillermin returned after helming the ’76 film, Lives ending up his swan song, believe it or not. Rick Baker lent neither his acting or make-up talents to the Kongs, with frequent De Laurentiis collaborator Carlo Rambaldi getting full design credit (he technically did in the first film too, a measly “with special thanks” given to Baker, despite designing & playing Kong throughout, & Rambaldi’s animatronic barely working). Curiously, the suit designs are a bit more gorilla-like this go round, something Baker tried to push in the first movie, the final result being a compromise. As someone who defers to the line from the original (as said by Carl Denham) “neither Beast nor Man, but something monstrous”, as my preference for approaching Kong as a concept, I’m glad it turned out that way, though the new design for Kong in Lives, as well as Lady’s, aren’t entirely gorilla. They are given more ape-like eyes, which prevents the human-like ogling of Baker’s Kong, despite still making silly, very human facial expressions.

Next to the effects for the apes (Rambaldi’s animatronics being less emphasized/used helping considerably), the miniatures in Lives are also impressive. But, the primary stand-out on display here is the wonderfully sentimental, romantic, & even melancholy score by composer John Scott. Though not boomingly or hauntingly epic like John Barry’s score from the previous film, Scott’s score assists the proceedings of Lives admirably, & honestly does a lot of the leg-work for any positive intention or good idea the movie might have, or try to have. It accompanies the recap of the end of ’76 rather fittingly, then really shines in the movie’s last moments when Prince is born. It’s hard to find a scene in any movie featuring infants of any species that doesn’t pull at the heart strings at least a little bit, & this moment is no exception, made particularly tear-jerking as Kong dies right after giving Prince a brief nuzzle with his finger. I won’t deny I was watery-eyed.

More gripping artwork present on the soundtrack cover, said soundtrack being the ultimate highlight of the film

But, when it’s all said & done, Lives tends to fail more often than it succeeds. Writers Ronald Shusett (yes, the same Ronald who co-wrote Alien (1979) ) & Steven Pressfield seem to be trying to go for a wit & self awareness on par with Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script for Kong ’76, but it quickly devolves into countless puns about monkeys, apes, primates, bananas, & everything else you can branch off from in that context. Pacing too is all over the place, as the recap, intro to Kong’s current status, discovery of Lady Kong, operation, & apes’ escape into the mountains all breeze by really fast. Then, the movie almost comes to a complete halt, whilst Hamilton & Kerwin, essentially a gender-swapped version of the dynamic between Bridges & Lange in the first film (Hamilton the determined scientific & moral figure, while Kerwin the blond eye candy that Lady Kong is enticed by, albeit briefly) try their damnedest to keep the audience engaged when Kong & Lady aren’t onscreen. Kong’s various encounters with Southern locals tend to be obscenely goofy, though his run in with a bunch of gun-toting rednecks is fun, as are the military skirmishes. Both the rednecks, as well as Nevitt & select other Army personnel, make for some extreme stereotype based portrayals, the military element specifically fitting right in with the counter-culture friendly questioning of authority & said authority’s disregard for nature established in the ’76 film, though it seems a tad odd in the more conservative 1980s.

Perhaps one lasting tidbit that contributes to the overall Kong legacy that this film can be attributed to is the Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) character from Kong: Skull Island (2017), who seems to be a new spin, intentionally or not, on the Nevitt character. Both characters meet an amusing & gruesome end under Kong’s fist. All things considered, while I did enjoy my recent viewings of King Kong Lives, it’s still plain as day why this movie didn’t work as its creators hoped, a shame given the money thrown at it (18 million). Many will say both Kong sequels were misfires, though as I already stated elsewhere, I think Son of Kong has more working in its favor. As the successor to an already less fantastical version of Kong, Lives has an even harder job trying to make an intriguing continuation. It covers some of the same ground Son did, namely in introducing an offspring, even if it’s at the very end, but as a distinction, it explains where said kiddo came from with Lady Kong. We should be happy the further adventures of Prince Kong weren’t explored, since the only thing they could come up with was him conquering a fear of heights (I write as I stare blankly). Maybe we really should have gotten King Kong vs. Orca (1978) instead. At least we’ve never seen THAT before…

I tried, guys. Not bad, not great. Mediocrity incarnate.

Look into the face…OF EVIL! 

NEXT: King Kong (1996)

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