A Beginner’s Guide to Kongsploitation

With its major studio backing, King Kong won’t ever be mistaken as an exploitation film. However, it’s very much a picture about exploitation, as huckster Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) steals Skull Island deity Kong to parade him in New York, only to see the beast break loose and eventually perish as a result of his captor’s recklessness. It’s ironic, then, that Kong immediately became exploited in Hollywood and beyond, as various filmmakers have looked to profit in both official and unofficial capacities. The history of Kongsploitation is vast and storied, starting in the original film’s backyard before weaving through exotic locales like Japan, Hong Kong, and, uh, Wichita, Kansas.

Son of Kong (1933)

The first attempt to cash in on Kong came less than nine months after the original film bowed in theatres, with one of its creators looking to make a cash cow out of his giant ape. Ironically, Ernest Schoedsack didn’t heed the warning of his own film, which explores the perils of rampant exploitation for personal gain because Son of Kong is an early example of a perfunctory, unnecessary sequel. While it returns some of the cast from the first film, including leading man Robert Armstrong as Denham, it lacks much of a purpose beyond returning to Skull Island, where the now destitute huckster searches for treasure to pay off his debts following Kong’s rampage. There’s the kernel of an interesting story there, with Denham reckoning with his failure, now a shadow of his former self as he flees from creditors. However, it’s swiftly set aside when he finds himself embarking on another adventure, reclaiming his former glory as he plunders Skull Island once again. He finds another beast, a “Little Kong” he assumes to be the son of the creature he helped to kill.

Unlike his old man, Little Kong is a precocious sidekick that winds up protecting Denham and his new dame (Helen Mack) from the island’s various predators: oversized bears, dinosaurs, even a sea serpent. If there’s anything Son of Kong gets right, it’s the recognition that Skull Island is the coolest part of the Kong mythos, so the giant beast smackdowns are plentiful and well-realised. On the whole, the sequel lacks the grandeur and majesty of its predecessor, but the effects remain a tremendous feat: as always, it’s delightful to watch big monsters beat the hell out of each other, and the effects work is still astounding (even though Willis O’Brien was only involved in a supervisory capacity because he found Son of Kong to be a cheap, cheesy cash-in).

It’s just too bad that the Skull Island stuff arrives after about a half-hour of aimless melodrama and climaxes with the baffling sacrifice of Little Kong to save Denham. Considering Son of Kong is framed as Denham’s redemption story, it’s galling that it ends with him triumphantly making off with the native treasure, aided by the death of yet another creature that would have lived had he not decided to return. Far from a biting rejoinder of Denham’s exploits in the first film, this sequel doubles down on the queasy imperialism of the original film without even a hint of remorse this time around: Denham sails off into the sunset with the girl, not even the slightest bit haunted by his culpability in the deaths of two creatures.

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Schoedsack would return fifteen years later with original collaborator Merian C. Cooper and producer John Ford to unleash Mighty Joe Young. While it’s not officially tied to the Kong mythos, it’s clear that Schoedsack and Cooper were looking to regain their former glory with the familiar tale of a gorilla transplanted from Africa to America to become the star spectacle of a show. It’s decidedly more grounded, though—well, as grounded as this kind of story can be, I suppose. Gone is the mystical Skull Island and its fantastic menagerie of overgrown, prehistoric creatures, replaced here with the tender tale of a girl who raises her pet gorilla Joe for a decade until an American huckster (Robert Armstrong, perhaps giving us a glimpse of what a more successful Carl Denham might have looked like) stumbles upon them and taps them to the star attraction of his new Hollywood nightclub.

Emboldened by the success of various Kong reissues throughout the years, Mighty Joe Young was a natural extension of sorts for Schoedsack and Cooper, two pioneers of cinema who were always looking to stretch the medium’s possibilities. Reunited with Willis O’Brien, who supervised an effects crew featuring new protégé Ray Harryhausen, the duo imagined another grand spectacle. Mighty Joe Young might not be the stuff of high, outlandish fantasy like its predecessor, but its magnificent effects are no less grandiose. Its title character is a triumph of stop-motion animation, brought to life with such conviction that you never question the characters’ attachment to him. The chaos that erupts when he grows weary of his confinement is likewise an incredible patchwork of stop-motion and compositing: like King Kong before it, Mighty Joe Young is an early precursor to the type of blockbuster, spectacle filmmaking that would gain prominence decades later. In fact, it’s more in the spirit of the crowd-pleasing stuff that so often dominates modern multiplexes because it doesn’t insist on Joe becoming a sacrificial lamb for his captors. It might not be a complete redemption tour for Son of Kong (its depiction of Africa is still plagued by troubling stereotypes), but it’s a worthy addition to the Kong legacy.

Konga (1961)

The lukewarm box office reception for Mighty Joe Young threw cold water on Schoedsack and Cooper’s grand plans for a crossover sequel featuring Tarzan, and Kong-mania would remain dormant for a decade until exploitation maestro (and long-time Kong fan) Herman Cohen hatched a full-colour revival of sorts. Following the success of his Teenage Werewolf and Teenage Frankenstein duo, he wanted to tackle the big screen’s most notorious monster, going so far as to paying RKO to secure the rights to use the title. Unfortunately (but also predictably), Konga is a bit of an exploitative misnomer since it feels more like a cut-rate riff on Murders in the Rue Morgue for much of its runtime. Instead of a giant, rampaging ape, it features a doctor (a perfectly unpleasant Michael Gough) who returns from Africa with a baby chimp named Konga in tow. He’s also returned with a serum that causes lifeforms to grow at an exponential rate, which comes in handy when he needs to transform little Konga into a bloodthirsty beast to knock off the rivals who scoff at his discovery.

Between all of the magical serum and the hypnosis, Konga is more of a mad science tale that takes its sweet time in getting around to the giant monster action its title suggests. It’s perfectly fine (if not a little slow) in the interim, mostly because Gough is such an unrepentant scumbag who torments his assistant (Margo Johns), who agrees to go along with his murderous scheme if he promises to marry her. What she doesn’t realize is that he’s already plotting to seduce one of his students (Claire Gordon) into being his new sidekick, igniting a melodramatic chain of events that climaxes with baby Konga turning into an obvious man in a gorilla suit, brought to life with shoddy compositing effects and obvious stunt dolls. It’s kind of a hoot, but you can’t help but marvel at the fact that O’Brien and Harryhausen’s effects were more impressive decades earlier. While it wasn’t the resounding success Cohen had dreamed for, Konga made him a pioneer on the frontier of Kongsploitation, paving the way for the godfather of giant movie monsters to become a staple of the big screen for decades to come.

King Kong Escapes (1967)

Kong’s official return would come a year later in the Toho-produced King Kong vs. Godzilla, a slam-dunk crossover that ushered in a new era of kaiju film, one where multiple beasts would throw down on lavish, widescreen canvasses as filmmakers flexed their imaginations to bring a full-fledged universe to life years before Marvel or DC dreamed of doing the same. Kong would stick around as the star of The King Kong Show, an animated Can-Am-Japanese production that laid the groundwork for an interesting collaboration in 1967 when animation titans Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass teamed up with Toho for live-action adaptation King Kong Escapes.

Thankfully, the Saturday morning cartoon roots are evident throughout the big-screen treatment, as King Kong Escapes threads the familiar Kong tale through outlandish kaiju exploits and a dash of jet-setting James Bond escapism. So you get all the stuff you expect: the mythical Kong residing in seclusion on Mondo Island, battling dinosaurs and falling for a blonde woman (Linda Jo Miller) who arrives on an expedition before being ripped from his homeland. But you also get Dr. Who (Hideyo Amamoto) and Madame Piranha (Mie Hama), a pair of colourful villains looking to harvest a rare element in the North Pole. You get their mechanized version of Kong, who ultimately serves as the foil for the real deal. You get intricate miniature and composite work when the two beasts collide, and the result is a delightful riff that takes a crooked path through a familiar mythos.

It’s exactly what you want a Toho kong movie to look and feel like at the height of the Showa era: it’s a zany, infectious effects showcase bursting at the seams with imaginative flourishes. The climactic showdown between Kong and his mecha counterpart atop Tokyo Tower is a showstopper even by Toho’s lofty standards, and his triumph mirrored his pop culture resurgence. Kong was back—and here to stay.

King Kung Fu (1976)

When Dino De Laurentiis announced his intentions to remake King Kong, it was the starting gun for a Kongsploitation free-for-all, as enterprising hucksters everywhere looked to cash in on the event. One of these was Bob Walterscheid, a Wichita producer who looked to intertwine Kong with another 70s craze: martial arts. That’s right—everybody was kung fu fighting, including “Kong,” which, in this case, is “Jungle Jumper,” a Chinese gorilla versed in the martial arts. After mastering the art of snatching bananas from his kung fu master, he’s shipped off to America, where he becomes “King Kung Fu,” a travelling spectacle whose tour makes an eventful stop in Wichita when a couple of down-on-their-luck reporters decide to reenact the events of King Kong with a local Pizza Hut waitress named Rae Fey (Maxine Gray). Their increasingly ludicrous plots backfire, setting off a series of madcap antics, few of which are funny.

All of them, however, are so very, unabashedly Wichita. If you told me Walterscheid—who still operates a production company in the city to this day—set out to make a tourism ad for Wichita and somehow backed into a King Kong spoof, I would believe it. Everything from a local marching band to the local minor league baseball team earns some screen time, providing the slightest bit of charm to an otherwise limp farce powered by bad impersonations (Sheriff J.W. Duke does a bad John Wayne), lame sight gags, and woefully dated humour. Inexplicably filmed in “Simianscope,” King Kung Fu paints on a large, impressive-looking canvas but fills it with utterly mundane spectacle. Marvel at the multiple scenes shot within the local Pizza Hut (Wichita’s true pride and joy, of course) and gawk as the filmmakers dare to recreate the iconic King Kong climax atop a Holiday Inn. But, most of all, let King Kung Fu remind you to beware of any movie whose credits feature a gag noting how many of the producer’s family members played a role in its production.

Queen Kong (1976)

Another contender to the Kongsploitation nadir throne, Queen Kong hailed from England bearing exactly one joke: “what if King Kong were a woman?” The answer is a fairly tedious, one-note joke that feigns some interest in riding the coattails of the ’70s women liberation movement, all the while taking shots at offending just about everyone else with its infantile humour. In this version, the aspiring director is Luce Habit (Rula Lenska), who desires a true, manly man for her latest jungle production. When she spots Ray Fay (Robin Askwith) trying to shoplift on the streets, she knows this is her man: she has an epiphany, complete with an awkward, longing gaze and the Hallelujah Chorus. After Ray tries to steal an actual King Kong poster, it feels like fate, and, soon, the pair and a ragtag film crew strike off for the remote island of Lazanga, “where they do the Conga” (a “joke” that gets recycled so much that it almost bullies you into thinking it’s actually funny). Although King Kong obviously exists as a film in this universe, everyone is oblivious when the island natives are hoarding some strange beast behind a wall. It turns out to be Queen Kong, a 64-foot gorilla who promptly falls for Ray before being dragged off and put on display in London, where even the queen is in attendance.

Queen Kong is a jukebox spoof that takes a shot at everything from The Exorcist to Tarzan, recklessly flinging gags against the wall to see what sticks. Very little does: this is a threadbare farce that quickly grows tiresome if this isn’t your brand of humour (and it very much isn’t mine). It’s the type of movie where you dread checking how much time remains because even one minute feels like it might be too much to endure. An infectious theme song, a girl-power anthem, a morbid gag involving an aeroplane, and Queen Kong stomping on a marquee bearing Ronald Reagan’s name aren’t nearly enough to keep this one afloat. Neither were its producers’ legal prowess when De Laurentiis sued them on the basis that they didn’t own the rights to Kong. British courts ruled in his favour, barring the exhibition of Queen Kong in its homeland. I like to think of it more as an act of mercy, though.

The Mighty Peking Man (1977)

No Kongsploitation list is complete without some praise for The Mighty Peking Man. The apex of the craze, this Shaw Brothers production whirled out of Hong Kong and has left a trail of utterly bashed brains and melted faces in the four decades since. It’s a crazy quilt that weaves the standard Kong story—an expedition heads into the Himalayas in search of a mythical beast—through a nature-run-amok Mondo movie and a gender-bent Tarzan riff when the team discovers a wild woman named Samantha (Evelyne Kraft) living among the jungle beasts. What’s more, the mythical Peking Man has been her caretaker since childhood, so you can imagine his reaction when city boy interloper Johnny Feng (Danny Lee) starts to woo her. Things get even worse when the crew decides to yank him from his jungle home and parade him around Hong Kong, where he predictably goes on a rampage.

But what a rampage it is—even though the compositing and miniature effects are a bit crude, there’s something to be said about the scope and scale of the climactic spectacle here. Mighty Peking Man’s final stand against the military forces atop a skyscraper feels genuinely harrowing as helicopters rain down bullets on him, Samantha, and Johnny, who are also up against a ticking clock after the army rigs the building with dynamite. The ensuing, fiery carnage is a big, explosive cherry atop a Kongsploitation sundae featuring all of the expected ingredients (wild gore, schlocky nonsense, and a devil-may-care spirit) and some quite unexpected (a romantic montage where Samantha cradles a leopard to the strains of ’70s R&B). This is the platonic ideal of exploitation: a movie that is simultaneously a shameless cash-in yet remains a singular experience in and of itself: no matter how familiar its beats may feel, there’s nothing quite like Mighty Peking Man.

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