King Kong Lives: Revisiting the terrible Kong flop you never saw

Ben Falk
UK Movies Contributor
Credit: Rex/Shutterstock

Films about King Kong have a chequered history – for every great Ray Harryhausen stop-motion battle, there’s a cheesy cash-in featuring the mega-monkey’s offspring.

But in 1986, a (much cheaper-looking) follow-up to the 1976 version starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange was unveiled. That original movie, while deeply flawed, had some decent moments, making money at the box office and getting nominated for two Oscars.

The sequel ‘King Kong Lives’? Not so much.

Monkey loving

(De Laurentiis Entertainment Group)

The premise of the movie is simple and hugely confusing all at the same time (a common trait with low-budget schlock). Kong survives the fall from the Empire State Building, is fitted with an artificial heart – yes, really – then falls in love with a Lady Kong and has a kid with her.

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If you want to be kind, the underlying thrust of the film is about doing anything for love, even in the face of hatred and death.

This is harder to take seriously when you have two dudes wandering about in cheap-looking monkey suits trying to look romantic, even if one of them is esteemed ape movement choreographer Peter Elliott, who worked on everything from ‘Greystoke’ to ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ (Mrs Kong is played by journeyman actor George Antoni).

It doesn’t know if it’s a comedy or tragedy

(De Laurentiis Entertainment Group)

What marks King Kong out as a great screen character is his nobility – what his presence and interaction with people says about them. At its essence, the story is about nature versus technology, fear of the unknown turning to violence, empathy as opposed to aggression.

‘King Kong Lives’ features a massive ape getting hit in the face with a golf ball.

The stars knew it sucked

Linda Hamilton & Brian Kerwin – Credit: Rex/Shutterstock

The lead in the film is Linda Hamilton, hot of the success of playing Sarah Connor in ‘The Terminator’. She stars alongside John Ashton – better known as Eddie Murphy’s ‘tache-sporting detective sidekick in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ (the one who isn’t Judge Reinhold) – as an evil army man. The male lead is soap opera regular Brian Kerwin.

Hamilton took the gig because the 1976 movie helped launch Jessica Lange’s career, but the ‘T2’ actress realised she’d made a mistake when talking to Starburst magazine in 1992.

(IMPAwards)

“I was stunned when I saw it,” she remembered. “It was the most ridiculous movie…While we were filming I never saw one full-size Kong, only a hand or a foot, as I was acting against huge blue screens most of the time. It was a hoot when I finally saw those monkeys flirt and bat their eyes. Then it horrified me for being so stupid.”

To be fair to the filmmakers, they weren’t exactly helped by their actors’ performances, as you can tell from the trailer. Perhaps it would have been better starring first choice Peter Weller, but he decided to do some useless and not-at-all seminal movie called ‘Robocop’ instead.

It totally bombed

(De Laurentiis Entertainment Group)

One of the film’s performers, Peter Michael Goetz famously received a royalty cheque for three cents, had it framed and kept it on his wall.

But while bad movies can sometimes trick the general public into buying tickets during opening week at least, ‘Kong Lives’ wasn’t so lucky.

In his memoir ‘The War of Art’, the film’s co-writer Steven Pressfield, who went on to become a respected novelist and historian, recalls how spectacularly wrong his Hollywood debut went.

Credit: Rex/Shutterstock

“We invited everyone we knew to the premiere, even rented out the joint next door for a post-triumph blowout,” he wrote. “Get there early, we warned our friends, the place’ll be mobbed. Nobody showed. There was only one guy in line beside our guests and he was muttering something about spare change. In the theatre, our friends endured the movie in mute stupefaction. When the lights came up, they fled like cockroaches into the night.”

Driving to a more rural cinema, he was told by the ticket-seller that it was a flop. The film eventually made just £3.8million at the box office.

So bad it’s good…?

(De Laurentiis Entertainment Group)

Razzie Awards guru John Wilson credits ‘King Kong Lives’ as one of the best bad movies ever made and there’s certainly a lot to enjoy about it, even if it is terrible.

One place to start might be the horror wiki itemising every death in the film in mundane detail, from Vance who is “eaten” to Soldier in tank who is “crushed in fists” and the bulldozer driver who is “blown up in a bulldozer explosion”.

Ultimately though, its low quality should be immediately apparent from the rubbish tagline which is teased endlessly throughout the trailer before being intoned in semi-serious fashion at the end.

“America’s biggest hero is back – and he is not happy.”

He obviously saw the finished product.

‘Kong: Skull Island’ is in cinemas now. Read our interview with its director here.


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