Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Horror and Light

Kong-blogging, essay 13 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, Kong as Horror Movie

Fay Wray as Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933).

King Kong (1933) is sometimes categorized as a horror movie and I’m okay with that.  It’s certainly got plenty of horror components:  monsters, human sacrifice, death and destruction, and the pace and look of a strange nightmare.  I’d probably peg it as a fantasy or adventure-romance first, but there’s no denying that it has strong horror credentials.

On occasion, King Kong takes the leap into no-holds-barred horror.  Continuing to restrict myself to the Skull Island portion, key horror scenes include:

Kong’s introduction:  Ann Darrow is completely vulnerable, tied to the sacrificial altar.  The horror nature of the scene mounts with the closing of the massive doors of the great wall, leaving Ann alone in the dark.  Composer Max Steiner masterfully silences the orchestra to allow the audience to hear Kong’s furtive approach and our first experience of his mighty roar.  He comes into view at a fairly unthreatening distance but then the film cuts to an extreme close-up—a subjective shot from Ann’s point of view.  That’s when the real screaming begins.  This qualifies as horror.

Kong's first appearance.

Man in tree:  One of the sailors attempts to escape from a rampaging Brontosaurus by climbing a tree.  The dinosaur sees him and moves in for the kill.  The film cuts to a remarkable shot with the terrified man in full view and the Brontosaurus in close-up as the dinosaur maneuvers into position to pluck the man off the tree.  This qualifies as horror.

Death in the chasm.
The chasm:  In a losing confrontation with Kong, the sailors fall off a log that crosses a chasm.  Originally there were giant bugs and lizards on the chasm floor to finish off the few survivors but this scene was removed before release, perhaps because it was too horrific. But even as things stand, the shrieking of the sailors and the strange way the men bounce and crumple as they hit chasm bottom is still unnerving.  This qualifies as horror.

The Allosaurus battle:  This is my favorite Skull Island scene.  Throughout the Kong-Allosaurus battle scene, the filmmakers keep positioning the camera to keep Ann Darrow in the foreground, enabling us to share her perspective while emphasizing her proximity to the danger.  In modern movies, it’s usually assumed that the best way to show a first-person perspective is with a hand-held camera showing us exactly what the character sees.  I don’t agree.  For maximum identification, give me an over-the-shoulder shot that captures the subjective view while adding a real feeling of vulnerability.  The Allosaurus is introduced in the distance in just such a shot, as we watch over Ann Darrow’s shoulder as the monster enters the frame.  That’s horror.

Ann Darrow sees the Allosaurus in the distance.

Claustrophobic view for Ann as the monsters
fight above her. 
Then it gets even more intense when, midway through the fight, Kong and the Allosaurus crash into the tree where Ann Darrow has been placed.  Once again, we get the over-the-shoulder shot but this time we follow Ann down in rapid descent as the tree falls.  Perspective shifts after the fall to capture her new viewpoint, a hallucinatory vision of the monsters thrashing above her.  A nightmare world has become even more unstable.  This qualifies as horror of the very highest order.

Part Two, How to Wrestle an Elasmosaurus

The pesky elasmosaurus from the pool in Kong's lair
proves to be a tough opponent.  It quickly wraps
itself around Kong like a constrictor.

You've got a real problem if you allow the elasmosaurus
to wrap its coils around you.  It'll go for the choke hold.

Unwind the elasmosaurus, grab it by the tail,
and whack it hard against the rocks.
They hate that.

Part Three, How to Dispose of a Pteranodon

Unwelcome visitor:  A Pteranodon drops by unexpectedly.

If a Pteranodon pesters your guests,
simply grab it by the wing, pull it back to earth...

... and if you can't talk reason with it, break the Pteranodon's jaws,
and toss it off your balcony.

Reference Sources
The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper by Mark Cotta Vaz
Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius by Steve Archer
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 1, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 2, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time by Richard Milner
All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck
Special features on the two-disc special edition, King Kong (1933) by Warner Home Video Inc.
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch King Kong...
Purchase a King Kong DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent King Kong at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2012 Lee Price

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