SEQUELISED: King Kong Lives (1986)

Apparently, SOMEONE liked the 1976 King Kong remake. Dino De Laurentis makes that person very happy with a belated sequel.

Who made it?:  John Guillermin (Director), Ronald Shusett, Steven Pressfield (Writers), Martha De Laurentiis (Producer), De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

Who’s in it?: Peter Elliott, Brian Kerwin, Linda Hamilton, John Ashton, Peter Michael Goetz.

Tagline: “America’s Biggest Hero is back…and He is not happy.”

IMDb rating: 3.8/10.

How do you make a franchise out of a movie in which the titular character dies? Well, Dino De Laurentis found a way; a contrived and moronic one at that. As much as the 1980s were a very prolific period for genre films, that decade was not spared of cash-grabs and sequels to remakes. Enter King Kong Lives.

The film opens with a flashback to the previous movie with Kong climbing the World Trade Centre, and being shot down by the Apache helicopters. Ten years later, Kong is being held comatose at the Atlanta Institute, Georgia, somehow sustained for all that time. Dr Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton) tells the board that Kong is in critical condition and needs a blood transfusion in order to survive. Explorer Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) discovers the female of Kong’s species in Borneo, and is rescued by a tribe of Natives who dart the female, and Hank decides to sell it to the highest bidder, in this case the institute. Lady Kong is shipped over to Atlanta, and Kong receives a mechanical heart and a blood transfusion from the female bringing him back to life. But it isn’t long before he sniffs out Lady Kong’s presence, breaks out of his chains and whisks her away into the forests. However, Colonel Nevitt (John Ashton) is itching to shoot something and leads his men on the hunt for the two Kongs, while it’s up to Amy and Hank to track the giant apes down before the military does.

The characters are one note, and it shows in the acting: Hamilton tires hard as a scientist figure but is utterly wasted. Kerwin starts out unlikeable but morphs into being bland and forgettable. Ashton’s villain is over-the-top, one-dimensional, has practically no motivation and I can’t even laugh at his absurdity. All of the actors know they’re in a boring movie with virtually nothing to work with, so they can’t stir themselves into having fun with the dodgy screenplay and premise. Peter Elliott as Kong and George Yiasomi as Lady Kong do the typical “actor in an ape suit” rigmarole we saw in the previous film, but to even less of an effect here. Though to be fair, at least they aren’t as bad as the acting from the human characters.

The ape suits have seriously gone downhill since the last movie. I complained about the quality of the Kong makeup and suit in the previous review, but that is looking like a masterpiece compared to the new ones for our primate couple. The only thing that’s really changed for the better, sort of, is that the new arm extensions make the gargantuan couple more like gorillas instead of people in generic ape suits. The optical work here has also taken a downgrade from the previous film, and it is very obvious where the bluescreen effects are at work. Instead of a stock dinosaur roar, we have voice actors for the two Kongs, yet another continuity bump. Another downside of that is that there are only so many awkward stares and phoney ape noises I can take before my capacity to be invested stops completely!

The score by John Scott is legitimately decent, with a classic Hollywood adventure feel to it. You won’t be remembering it any time soon, but one could imagine it grafted onto a better film. But most of everything else from the miniatures to the matte paintings is about as standard as you can get for a film of its time.

There are plot holes, and then there are plot canyons and this movie has plenty of them! Retconning the ending of the 1976 movie only succeeds in cheapening it even further, straining the already-moronic existence of King Kong Lives. Despite the hospital paying many thousands of dollars to transport Lady Kong and paying for security, they were certainly eager to let Kong die again. For a movie where fifty-foot gorillas exist, people sure seem to treat them with a lot of disdain and hostility. At no point is it possible to feel any sense of fear or wonder whenever they’re on screen. It’s pretty damn convenient that a female of Kong’s species was found in Borneo which is already a civilised country, where a giant ape like Lady Kong would have been discovered centuries ago. What possible benefits to science does resuscitation of a giant gorilla have? Are we to believe he simply entered a coma after his heart stopped beating after falling from a great height?! Why is there a black kid waving a Confederate flag in a King Kong movie?!

It’s one thing to be a kitschy cash-grab with a hilariously ludicrous concept, but King Kong Lives never, um, lives up to that premise, coming off as even more of a tonal departure from the previous film and failing at being its own farcical entity. One such attempt at humour that really falls flat is the mountain area where the Kongs hide called “Honeymoon Ridge.” The dialogue is even more cringe-inducing than the previous films and you’ll want to watch something else before long. There isn’t much continuity to speak of; since the moment that Kong awakens, he immediately starts searching for the new female of his species, despite the entire point of the previous movie being Kong’s infatuation with Jessica Lange’s Dwan being his undoing. They spend so much time with the ape “romance” scenes that they don’t bother to develop the two main characters or the villain. The human leads aren’t likable or funny enough to sustain interest through a tone-deaf experience. There’s no asking this film to explain anything… you just observe the insanity unfold. 

It’s especially amazing since the two Kongs had mated for the first time only three days earlier. With a gestation period like that, it’s a miracle the planet hasn’t been overrun by formerly endangered giant primates! And the baby is born with no amniotic fluid, placenta or mess whatsoever! And to add more weirdness to the pile, the baby turns out to be about the size of a normal gorilla, making me wonder who the father REALLY was!

King Kong Lives is terrible. When it’s not contrived, it’s boring, and when neither of those, it’s spiteful and meanspirited. Nobody seemed to be doing this movie because they wanted to but because they were contractually obligated, and it sure showed! Some may say it works better if viewed as an unintentionally comedic B-movie, but I find that such scenes are too few and far between, making it a slog to get through. If there’s anything I can be grateful towards this movie for, it’s for making me appreciate the 1976 remake a little bit more.

Best Scene

Slim pickings!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Peter Michael Goetz’s cheque for post release royalties came to 3 cents. He has it stapled to the film poster in his house, having never cashed it.
  • Writer Steven Pressfield mentions King Kong Lives as a life-changing, validating failure in his book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. This was his first professional writing job after seventeen years of trying. After the movie bombed, he realised he had become a professional. He hadn’t yet had a success, but “had had a real failure.”
  • According to the book “Creating the Filmation Generation”, Dino De Laurentiis approached Lou Scheimer of Filmation to develop an animated spin-off starring the son of Kong. Robert Lamb came up with some pretty wild ideas involving “Kid Kong” being able to change his size at will and travel to various different planets, as well as underwater in a submarine made out of giant coconuts and bamboo called the ‘Coco-Nautilis’. Needless to say, “Kid Kong” never got off the ground.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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