Why ‘King Kong Lives’ Died a Quick Box Office Death

Failure in Hollywood is a strange thing. Sometimes it’s a result of great ideas that don’t quite work, or unforeseen events, or the fickle nature of audiences. And sometimes it’s just the result of an idea so bad that one struggles to understand how it ever hit the screen in the first place.

King Kong Lives, producer Dino De Laurentiis and director John Guillermin’s follow-up to their 1976 King Kong, falls somewhere between those two categories. It’s based on a truly terrible idea, but also manages to be the kind of endearingly bad film that you love to hate – so much so that it earned a place of honor in the Official Razzie Movie Guide, the book that Golden Raspberry Awards founder John Wilson wrote about what he called “the 100 most enjoyable bad movies ever made.”

Here’s the idea: at the end of the 1976 King Kong, when Kong fell off the World Trade Center to his death, he didn’t really die. Instead, he’s been in a coma for 10 years, while a team of surgeons led by Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton) prepares a computerized artificial heart for him. Now the heart is ready, and all they need is some giant-ape blood so they can perform a transfusion during the surgery.

Adventurer Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) has a perfect solution: He has discovered a Lady Kong on the island of Borneo, which he agrees to sell to the scientists who have King Kong. The surgery is a success, but the aftermath is not. King Kong and Lady Kong, now enamored with each other, escape. When a crazy army officer (John Ashton) is brought in to hunt the pair down, things go from bad to worse.

King Kong leaps off a cliff into river, presumably to his death, and Lady Kong is captured by the military. This leads Franklin and Mitchell to help King Kong – who, it turns out, didn’t die after all, to nobody’s surprise but the characters’ – rescue her.

In the end, they’re successful. And even though King Kong’s new artificial heart gives out, he has managed to impregnate Lady Kong; as he dies for real this time, he gets to reach out and touch his new son.

Watch a Trailer for ‘King Kong Lives’

As a campy piece of enjoyable schlock, the film has some things going for it. The proceedings are silly enough to be endearing, and it never takes itself too seriously. There are also some large-scale sequences – Kong wreaking havoc on some backwoods sportsmen who think they’ve captured him after his escapade in the river, Kong getting hit in the eye by a golf ball when he stomps across a golf course – that are just ridiculous enough to make things fun.

On the other side of the ledger, of course, is the idea itself: a love story between two giant apes that are, because of the state of SFX at the time, pretty clearly human actors in costume – one of whom has an artificial heart.

There can be something entertaining for modern viewers in all of this terribleness, but there was nothing joyful about it at all for De Laurentiis. The failure of the film, which had a budget in the range of $20 million, helped force his De Laurentiis Entertainment Group into bankruptcy in 1988, as its stock price plummeted from 20 dollars to 37.5 cents a share.

These are the kinds of highs and lows that make the movie business what it is. And what would a movie-business story be without an inevitable comeback?

Even though King Kong Lives was disastrously received by both critics and audiences, by the early 2000s, Universal Studios was bringing the franchise back under the care of director Peter Jackson. Several films later, it’s still going strong. And even De Laurentiis made his own Kong-like comeback from the dead in the ’90s and ’00s, returning from financial ruin to produce things like Sam Raimi‘s Army of Darkness, the Wachowskis’ Bound and Ridley Scott‘s Hannibal.

Such is the strange nature of failure in Hollywood.

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