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Monday, December 14, 2020

‘King Kong’ at 15: The Horror of Peter Jackson’s Big Budget Monster Movie

Few directors in Hollywood have charted as sharp and meteoric a rise as Peter Jackson did back in the 2000s. Having launched his career with unassuming splatter movies like Bad Taste and Braindead, the kiwi filmmaker eventually graduated into more reputable fare, kicking off this phase with the Academy Award nominated drama, Heavenly Creatures. Leaning on his newfound industry status, he was then able to fund the gonzo supernatural comedy The Frighteners, before catapulting into the stratosphere with one of the most epic undertakings in cinema history. 

Earning a cumulative gross of $3 billion, alongside 17 Oscar trophies, Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings is an unparalleled achievement. No other franchise has managed to be so financially lucrative whilst simultaneously receiving such fervent praise from critics. Even the pop-culture juggernauts of Star Wars and Marvel cannot compete with that kind of legacy. There’s just not been anything else quite like it, before or since. 

For Jackson’s part, it also happened to be an incredibly tough act to follow. Skyrocketing from a film wherein a cat performs fellatio on a walrus, to a franchise that is now held in such high esteem that all three of its entries can be found hovering around the IMDB top 20, is a pretty steep ascent. It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that (after such a dramatic peak) things inevitably took a bit of a downward turn. 2009’s The Lovely Bones was a mawkish misfire, whilst Jackson’s long-awaited return to Middle Earth (in the form of synthetic-looking and overstretched Hobbit prequels) failed to recapture that earlier sense of magic. 

By all accounts, Jackson didn’t have the best experience working on those later projects either, remarking that he often felt hamstrung by obtrusive studio interference and unfeasible time pressures. As such, he took a conspicuous step back from directorial gigs after The Battle of the Five Armies, with his only subsequent credits being on the WW1 archival restoration, They Shall Not Grow Old, as well as an upcoming Beatles documentary. Other than that, he’s been completely dormant. Which is a shame for someone who grew up in the noughties like myself, because Jackson’s offerings were really formative parts of my childhood. 

If he truly has grown weary of helming these prestige pictures, then maybe it’s time for him to revisit his humble genre roots. After all, it’s been 25 years since he last made a full-blown splatter movie and it could be precisely the shot in the arm that he needs in order to reinvigorate his career. He’s actually alluded to this possibility himself, confirming that he’d be ‘’very happy to be disgusting again if the right [job] comes along.”

Until such an opportunity arises, the nearest that Jackson has ventured into horror recently has been with moments of indulgence in his fantasy tent poles. The Fellowship of the Ring strays into gothic territory when the Nazgûl’ conduct a nocturnal raid on the Prancing Pony; The Two Towers sees Frodo and Sam trudging through the ghoulish Dead Marshes; and The Return of the King features an overgrown-arachnid named Shelob.

However, if you want to see where Jackson properly let loose then you ought to revisit the flick that bridged the gap between his two Tolkien trilogies. That being his hugely underrated remake of King Kong. Immaculately constructed, overflowing with creative set-pieces, and unmistakably heartfelt, I sincerely believe that it’s one of his best, as well as one of the greatest action-adventures of the 21st century. 

To be fair, it couldn’t have hit multiplexes at a more opportune moment for me. I was on the cusp of turning 11 years old at the time, and counted The Two Towers and Jurassic Park amongst my favourite ever things. So, naturally, when I heard that the director of the former was making a film about a gargantuan gorilla duking it out with prehistoric creatures, I prejudged it as a masterpiece. And the promise that I would get to bask in this spectacle for over 3 hours felt like a bonus to me. 

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the plot, it’s very much in step with the iconic 1933 magnum opus. As before, it revolves around a Hollywood production who charters a vessel to an exotic location. Upon arrival at the ominously named ‘’Skull Island’’, their leading lady Ann (played by Naomi Watts) is captured by the local tribespeople and offered up as a sacrifice to their simian deity: a 25-foot Silverback dubbed ‘’Kong’’ (Motion Captured to perfection by Andy Serkis). A rescue mission is promptly instigated, with the crew heading out into the thick jungle, where all manner of primeval beasts roam about freely.

Kong ‘05 was my ideal film as a kid and I’m happy to concede that I don’t have the most objective view of it as a result. Inseparable nostalgia aside, I do genuinely still think that it deserves more credit than modern audiences are willing to grant it. For a start, it boasts all the emotional content, patient storytelling, and awe-inspiring visuals that many pundits find lacking from contemporary blockbusters. Meanwhile, the special effects hold up spectacularly well (with the exception of some wonky green-screen) and you’ll struggle to find more believable CG characters elsewhere.

Anyway, I could gush non-stop about this unfairly maligned passion project: from its beautiful music; to its gorgeous production design’ to its romantic spirit, and peerless V-Rex fight. But that’s not what I’m driving at here. Rather, what I want to talk about is how it might be Jackson’s ultimate accomplishment as a horror auteur. That’s right, not Bad Taste. Not Braindead. Not even The Frighteners. King Kong. 

Granted, its runtime is not totally devoted to scares, with most of the terror being concentrated around the 2nd act. Nevertheless, though few and far between, those intermittent jolts are pulse-pounding and rival anything that you would see in a James Wan or Wes Craven joint. 

A big part of this is the director’s revamped vision for the rainforest environs themselves, which are given a hostile aesthetic here. Ranging from murky quagmires to eldritch outposts, perilous caverns, and desolate graveyards littered with dinosaur bones; the spooky locations wouldn’t be out of place in a classic Universal Monsters picture. Except they’re considerably more tactical and grimy, thanks to the wonders of modern production design and CGI wizardry.

Likewise, the denizens of Skull Island are freakier than ever before when rendered through Weta Digital’s impeccable VFX. Not only do they look just as authentic now as they did back in 2005 (it’s worth reiterating that these effects have aged phenomenally), but their designs are bloody damn intimidating to boot. There’s the scar-ridden Foetodon – a massive crocodilian with a prodigious set of fangs – that stalks Ann in a nail biting game of cat and mouse. Then there are the wrinkled Terapusmordax – aerial carnivores that resemble giant bats – with their malevolent countenances and soulless eyes that are enough to make anyone shudder. 

And who could forget the colossal Piranhadon, which calls to mind the ungodly fauna that you’d find lurking beneath the Amazon River? Only here it’s been blown up to the size of an adult sperm whale! With such a menacing appearance, this toothy leviathan could easily lead a creature-feature of its very own yet, unfortunately, it didn’t make it into the theatrical cut. But if you check out the extended edition, you’ll be treated to a wonderfully suspenseful sequence that recalls the ferocity of the original Jaws. Based on how skillfully he handles the gradual reveal of the Piranhadon, as well as how atmospherically he portrays its swampland lair, it’s clear that Jackson hasn’t lost his touch for putting audiences on edge. 

Don’t let this fool you into thinking that he’s become utterly reliant on CG effects though, as he does some pretty nasty things in-camera too. For evidence, look no further than the chilling island native scene, which goes to show just how much intensity you can get away with in a PG-13 movie. Less goofy than the ‘30s iteration – and standing in diametric opposition to the more sympathetic portrayal in Kong: Skull Island – Jackson’s take on the indigenous tribe feels like it’s been ripped straight out of Cannibal Holocaust. 

The sudden divergence into visceral scares used to creep the hell out of me, on account of the disorienting slow-mo and hellish sound mixing. It’s got the oppressive quality of a particularly vivid nightmare and (as if the filmmaking style wasn’t distressing enough) the actual content of the scene is unusually graphic as well. Helpless innocents are violently bludgeoned to death, extras are impaled through the chest with jagged spears, and one of our heroes is placed face down in a bloodstained execution spot. All whilst an eerie hag inches ever closer to the camera, chanting maniacally in a way that’s guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. From the unnerving score to the fervent performances, everything about the construction of this scene is incredibly disturbing; especially when you consider that this is, for all intents and purposes, a kid’s movie. 

Of course, the Piranhadon massacre, the native ambush, and the various dinosaur set-pieces are all mere appetizers for what is surely the most infamous sequence in King Kong. A sequence that you’ve probably been waiting for me to bring up throughout the entirety of this piece and one that induces goosebumps in even the most desensitized of viewers. Particularly those who suffer from entomophobia.

Ranking amongst the most elusive deleted scenes in cinema history, the ‘’Bug Pit’’ attack was supposed to be included in the 1933 version of King Kong, until it was removed at the last minute following worrying test screenings. You see – according to industry legend – theatregoers were thoroughly repulsed by this ghastly clip, prompting director Merian C. Cooper to get cold feet about how the backlash could potentially overshadow the rest of his movie. Concerned about the negative reaction (alongside unrelated pacing issues), Cooper literally tossed the offending footage into a trash canister, from which it has never been recovered. The only remnant of its existence nowadays is an old shooting script that fans have spent years trying to decipher, in the hope that they will one day be able to envision what was apparently so objectionable back in 1933. 

As a matter of fact, Jackson himself had already given it a decent shot as a Kong enthusiast, when he recreated the controversial sequence using monochrome photography and vintage stop motion techniques, so that it could be neatly spliced into the original reel. For that experimental side project, he stuck rigidly to the events laid out in the classic screenplay, preserving what was already there and refraining from taking any artistic liberties. 

However, when it later came to updating the phantasmagoria for his own film, the director went nuts and giddily reveled in the task of one-upping the (relatively tame) original. Unfettered by either the conservative tastes of the 1930s or budgetary limitations, his demented imagination went into overdrive, with giant crabs tossing people around like ragdolls and one guy being forcibly yanked through a tight crevice, causing his entire anatomy to be brutally contorted. 

The sadism on display is borderline excessive, culminating in what must be the grisliest cinematic kill to not involve a single droplet of blood. I’m obviously talking about the cruel death of Andy Serkis’ Lumpy, who doesn’t commit any egregious sin in the narrative to justify such a harrowing demise. Encircled by a nest of what can only be described as undulated penis-worms, the hapless chef is devoured piecemeal by the insects as they individually latch onto his separate limbs and swallow them whole into their gaping maws. All whilst stragglers ineffectually peck at his torso. It’s hard to imagine a more tortuous fate than Lumpy’s, and no one would blame you for watching it through your fingers. 

In summary, the ‘’ Bug Pit’’ is a jaw-dropping onslaught of haunting imagery, complemented by an assortment of unnerving creature designs and shocking gore. Taken on its own terms, as a kind of short film, it’s a mini-masterpiece and demonstrates that Jackson’s knack for gross out thrills wasn’t remotely diminished after he became a ‘’respectable’’ artiste. He really is firing on all cylinders with this one.

So, irrespective of whether he embarks on that proposed genre homecoming any time soon, you can hardly complain of a lack of juicy horror content in the director’s oeuvre. From the squelchy delights of Braindead to the macabre pleasures of The Frighteners, right through to the succulent tidbits found in King Kong, there’s plenty of stuff to enjoy beyond just his Lord of The Rings movies. Of course, that’s not the only reason to check out this brilliant and affectionate remake on its 15th anniversary. But it is a damn good one.


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