Insomniac Cult Movie Theater: Son of Kong

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Once in a while, the reason I’m having difficulty sleeping is actually because of probably the most important job I have in my life. No, I’m not talking about being the host of the Ghosts of the Stratosphere, I’m talking about being a Dad. In particular a Dad to young kids, some of whom get bad colds even in this spring weather and spend some sleepless hours themselves. That’s what happened recently with my daughter, Johanna, was pretty miserable with a bad cough that was keeping her up until the wee hours. And of course what kind of Dad would I be if I didn’t sit up with her and keep her company with some quality cuddles.

But also being one to often kill two birds with one rock, I thought that I watch one of my classic cult movies from my collection while I snuggled with her on the couch, so that I could write another one of these reviews. And given that Godzilla, King of Monsters, is coming out in just a couple of days and I’m pretty pumped to see that, I thought it was time to dip into my hefty collection of Kajiu movies. For those that might not be up with the vernacular, that means big giant monsters and wanton destruction.

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The only problem with that is my daughter somewhat likes the Japanese style monster movies, and even though her cough was keeping her from sleeping, it’s not my job as a Dad to exacerbate that further by giving her something to watch that will get her excited. So my first choice of Godzilla vs. King Kong was out.

However what does tend to put her sleep is black and white movies, as she often finds them the right combination boring and calming. So my mind went immediately watching the original King Kong, which is one of my personal favorites. But I then thought, that I had seen that movie so many times that I really should review some movie I’ve never seen.

And then there it was. Black & White. Check. Big Monster. Double Check. Never seen it. Triple Check.

The movie is the 1933 sequel to the original King Kong. It’s called  Son of Kong, and this is your Insomniac Cult Movie Theater review of it.


Son of Kong

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Background:

Son of Kong was produced by RKO Pictures just 9 months after the original King Kong that taken the cinema world by storm. Given the original King Kong had made a kajillion dollar and was universally acclaimed, RKO wanted to strike while the iron was hot and delivered this lesser known direct sequel which happens immediately after Kong’s death in the first movie.

Story wise, the movie is about the adventuresome enterputer, Carl Denham, who had organized the first expedition to Skull Island, and brought Kong to New York, now penniless and being sued by pretty much everyone in the City for the damages inflicted by the 1000 pound Gorilla. He flees America with the skipper of original expedition, Captain Englehorn, and after some misadventures, ends up meeting up with Nels Helstrom on a far off island in the South Pacific.

Helstrom was the original sailor who told Denham about the map to Skull Island in the first place, and now is looking to capitalize on their past relationship to book passage on Englehorn’s ship since he is also fleeing authorities for a recent murder he committed. After Denham seems to want nothing to do with this louse, Helstorm concocts a story about Skull Island having some sort of treasure that he failed to tell Denham about the first time. This peaks Denham’s interest and off they go back to Skull Island. But the crew get a surprise when they find a stowaway on board, a pretty little showgirl named Hilda with whom Denham strikes up a romance with.

Things take a turn for the worse though when the ship finally gets to Skull Island. The crew refuses to get killed for Denham’s wild treasure hunt and they mutiny, sending Denham, Englehorn, Hilda, Helstorm, and the cook, Charlie off in a lifeboat before sailing away. Despite being trapped on Skull Island with no chance of rescue, Denham makes the best of their situation and begins to search for the treasure. However instead of a treasure, Denham finds a littler version of King Kong, which he believes is his son, and rescues the monkey from a pit of quicksand as a way of saying he was sorry for what he did to the original Kong.  Kong Jr. takes a shine to both Denham and Hilda defending them from attacks by both of giant cave bear and some dinosaur type creature.

But the relationship with Kong Jr. doesn’t get a chance to last as a typhoon hits Skull Island and this coupled with a massive earthquake sinks what’s left of this mystical island. Kong Jr. though uses the last of his strength to hold Denham above the water long enough for Englehorn’s lifeboat to pick him up. Still though, through Kong Jr.’s heroic sacrifice, Denham manages to secure a happy ending for Hilda, Englehorn, and himself as its revealed that in his possession is a diamond the size of a grapefruit. Yes, Skull Island did in fact have a tremendous treasure beyond just  its collection of giant apes. Go Figure!

 

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2am Thoughts and Reflections:

Clocking in at only 69 minutes, Son of Kong is somewhat of a pretty blatant cash grab,  made on a massively slashed budget with nowhere near the pomp, circumstance, or grandeur of the original classic. However, again this was during the studio system of Hollywood where it was pretty simple to churn out movie after movie especially with the same cast and crew, so I’m not surprised this movie got made. I mean, the movie shelves throughout history are littered with these types of poorly conceived sequels made to make a quick buck by riding on coat tails of the original, such as Jaws 2, Caddyshack 2, and Son of the Mask.

Still though, as much as Son of Kong might be decried in some circles as being a terrible shell game of film, I didn’t think it was that bad.

I mean, I’ll say flat out that it’s DEFINITELY NO KING KONG!

But to its defense those are mighty big shoes to fill so it was never going to measure up just like so many of the remakes made since the original. Script writer, Ruth Rose, intentionally wrote the movie with a lot more warmth and humor than the original mainly because she knew it was never going to compete with the high tension that permeated King Kong.

To her credit, Robert Armstrong who once again played  Carl Denham said that he preferred his role in Son of Kong over the original because Denham’s character became a lot more deep and 3 dimensional in the second film, and I can’t argue with that. I totally agree that Denham is the most interesting character in this movie, and his undying optimism, free thinking spirit, and unquenchable thirst for adventure is definitely more at the center of this movie, instead of just a guy who brought Kong back to the Big Apple in chains.

However, the most important part of this movie was that it still featured all new stop motion monster sequences by legendary special effects innovator Willis O’Brien, (although the story goes Willis thought the whole project was so cheesy that he delegated nearly all the work to his assistant, Buzz Gordon).  Still though, the movie sports some pretty neat little battles between Kong Jr. and various dinosaurs which were sure to put fannies in the seats.

A personal favorite of mine is a tight little scene in which a Stryracosaurus chases some of Denham’s shipmates through the jungle. I first saw this scene back when I was watching a documentary about the filming of Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong in 2005 as I believe Peter Jackson owns that original Stryacosaurus model used in this sequence.

Unfortunately, the original script was going to contain a lot more sequences that could have been historic just in the sense of giving us  more wonderful material from this incredible stop motion genius. This would have included a climactic dinosaur stampede during the typhoon/earthquake that sinks Skull Island at the film’s end. The stampede was going to utilize the many of the models that had been built for O’Brien’s original work for the 1931 film Creation which had been dumped in favor of making King Kong.

Adding to the professional disappointment of never seeing these sequences filmed was personal tragedy as well, as during the production of Son of Kong, O’Brien’s estranged wife murdered their two young sons before turning the gun on herself, a tragedy that haunted the special effects legend for years afterwards.

Still though, eventually O’Brien did get back on his feet and in 1950 won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for his work on another famous giant ape picture with Mighty Joe Young. 

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Final Grade: C

Yes, I know that’s probably more than a little generous. I mean look at that big dumb ape face with it’s goofy smile and tell me you are supposed to take this movie seriously as the sequel to the film that the Rotten Tomatoes website listed as the greatest horror movie of all time! Yeah, you heard me. Not the Exorcist, not the Shining, not Friday the 13th or whatever, the original King Kong gets that nod. Not only that but the AFI listed King Kong as the 43rd greatest movie of all time, and god, do you know how many movies there are!?!?

Son of Kong is one of those “other movies”, but that doesn’t mean that it’s terrible. It’s just unfortunate that it was a somewhat ill conceived project made specifically to mirror a more successful one. That’s sincerely…never…ever…ever…ever….going to end well.

It’s a red headed stepchild, a bastard born out of money grubbing Hollywood executives that needed more Kong and needed it yesterday. So they didn’t give the movie the same time, addition, budget, love, care, whatever you want to call it and for the most part it shows.

But despite all that, it’s not a terrible film. I’ve seen much worse at 2am, and that says a lot. Again the Denhem character really is wonderful, getting to return to the mysterious lost world of Skull Island is neat, and even the rushed more half assed model work from O’Brien still is a wonder to behold.

In the end, what brings this movie down from a “B”in my book is the shlocky ending.

It just so happened that a typhoon hits the island right after our adventurers get there?

An island so ancient that it still holds friggin’ dinosaurs and the Kong fence that was built so long ago that no one remembers it being built?

Yeah, but it’s past due to get swallowed up by the drink conveniently just as Denham comes back for a second visit?

Yeah, I’m not buying that. Go peddle that gaping plot hole somewhere else, movie.

Plus Kong Jr. feels such love for Denham that he sacrifices his life for him, and they met like literally yesterday in the story. I get it that Denham saved him from the quicksand but wow, again super super convenient to the point that it’s incredibly groan worthy.

Yeah…I just wish the film had a better ending. I wish they just sailed away after finding the treasure leaving the series open for even more sequels. That would have been fine in my books.

I wouldn’t have minded seeing big dumb ol’ Kong Jr. punch more cave bears into submission. I mean who doesn’t love that? Show of hands?

…Yeah…you know you do.

kongson

 


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