Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #171 on the list, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.’s King Kong. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
It’s not really in my plans to revisit these movies once I’ve posted about them, since there are still a lot of them that I need to get to. However, I had the chance over the weekend to catch the 1933 version of King Kong again on the big screen, and since that viewing brought to mind a thought that I wanted to share here, I decided, at least in this instance “why not?”.
(By the way, if you want to see what I had to say about Kong the first time around, that posting is right here.)
Basically, the point is this: what the 1933 Kong gets right, and what the later versions – along with so many other “monster” movies – get wrong, is exactly that. Cooper and Schoedsack never for a moment forget that what they are making is a monster movie. They are not making a movie about a sympathetic creature, they are not making a movie where Jessica Lange or Naomi Watts falls in love with the big hairy ape, they are making a movie where Fay Wray is completely terrified of the creature that literally holds her life in the palm of his hand. And she remains that way throughout the entire movie.
Yes, it is a “Beauty and the Beast” movie, as is repeatedly stated throughout the course of the film, but it is one that emphasizes the “Beast” part of that equation as much as it does the “Beauty”. Kong in this iteration is a creature of the jungle who would just as soon munch on a native or two (or, for that matter, a New Yorker or two) as any of the other giant creatures he does battle with throughout the course of the movie.
There’s a reason that that giant wall is there in the island, and once that wall is breached, we see exactly what that is, as Kong has absolutely no qualms about rending anyone he can get his hands (or, for that matter, his mouth) on, nor does he show any compunction about stomping the natives completely into the ground and grinding them underfoot.
Even when he reaches New York and is supposedly made more sedate by the tranquilizers he has been given, Kong has no problem with pulling a girl from her apartment, realizing she is not the blond beauty he is looking for, and simply dropping her, letting her fall a number of stories to her death.
It may have been, as Cooper stand-in Carl Denham states at the end, “Beauty that killed the beast”, but she certainly didn’t tame him.
And that, it seems to me, is exactly why Kong works so well, while the retreads and so many other so-called monster movies don’t. Because they seek, rather than treating whatever titular monster they may involve as a true monster, rather than allowing the beast, whether its a giant ape or, say a vampire or even Doctor Frankenstein’s creation to make the so-called villain of the movie a sympathetic character or at worst a sort of anti-hero, rather than allowing them to be truly monstrous or evil.
It also occurs to me that perhaps that’s the reason for zombies being the monster-du-jour, and for even people who generally say they don’t like scary movie or monsters to be caught up in shows like The Walking Dead: because when it comes right down to it, no matter what “brand” or version of zombie you prefer, those mindless creatures that just keep coming at you no matter what, really are monstrous, and are something to be terrified of.
Of course, that’s also one thing that. for instance, the Alien franchise gets right. There is never any doubt that that sucker (in whatever iteration, from face-hugger to queen) is a true monster. Which is, again, why it is so effective.
So maybe the next time you hear someone say that monster movies just don’t scare them, or even more importantly, perhaps the next time some Hollywood writer or director is trying to make a monster movie, they should also go back and take another look at King Kong, if for no other reason than to remember that perhaps the one thing they need to do is to let their monster truly be just that – a monster.