Thursday, April 14, 2011

Part 8: The Calm Before the Storm

The weeks before the opening of Dino De Laurentiis' KING KONG were full of characteristic ballyhoo and I tried to get my hands on anything that was Kong related.  Of course, FAMOUS MONSTERS had published some questionable pre-production art that showed a more humanoid Kong, but readers were assured that this concept had been dropped and Kong would be a gorilla, HOWEVER, there would be no dinosaurs!  Time Magazine even ran Kong as their cover story.  There was no doubt that the studios wanted this to be an event, and despite my mounting disappointment (no Stop Motion, no dinosaurs), I admit that I allowed myself to be swept up in it.

Naive me...back then I had no idea that studios PAID for this kind of publicity.
On the local independent television station in New Orleans, Channel 26, local media personality, Sterling Smith got in on the act announcing a Kong contest.  Now, I have NO idea where all of this came from, but in the studio, Smith had a small statue of Kong and to win it (WIN IT?!) all you had to do, was answer this question: "How many feet of hydraulic hose were in the full-sized Kong robot?"  Okay, so this might not be "kosher" but my father had given me an advance copy of the paperback book "The Making of Dino De Laurentiis's King Kong" so I jumped out of my chair and I tore through the pages looking for the answer.

When I got it (I can't remember what the answer is now, and I'm too lazy to get the book off of the shelf to find out), I wrote it on a card, stuffed it in an envelope and drew Kong fighting dinosaurs all over the envelope.  I pleaded with my father to drive me to the post office that evening because it would get to the studio that much faster.  I'm not even sure why he agreed.

Dad was off of WDSU-TV by now and was writing newspaper reviews for two of the smaller papers in New Orleans.  He had little interest in this Kong remake, and he didn't care for Sterling Smith. Sterling Smith hosted a movie show not unlike Turner Classic Movies now.  You might say that Smith was the local version of Robert Osborne.  However, my father would sit in front of the television watching Sterling Smith and he'd get nuts every time Smith would make a point, and then follow it up with a "pointing gesture" at the camera a half a beat later. "Come on!" he'd yell at the television, "Get your gestures timed with what you're saying!" I'm sure he was envious and was just dealing with it as best as he could.  All that aside, Dad drove me to the post office.

It didn't take long.  A few days later, a package appeared in the mail with my name on it.  It was flat.  That meant only one thing: It wasn't the sculpture.  I opened it up to find a King Kong poster and a key chain with a few hairs suspended over a card that read: "Actual hair from King Kong." It was the second place prize.  Years later, I met another Make Up Effects artist from New Orleans named Earl Ellis.  Earl had won the sculpture and the reason he was first was because his parents drove him to the television station so he could deliver the answer in person.  As Kurt Vonnegut would say, "So it goes."

My father took me to an advance press screening of the film and I have to admit that I was underwhelmed.  The story, the acting, the effects were okay, but certainly not the event we  were led to believe.  I was curious about the full-sized robot and how it would function, but it is common knowledge that it was only used in one quick shot and even at a distance, it looked and moved like crap.

Everybody-a gonna cry when-a my Kong-a dies!
The only redeeming facet of the film was Rick Baker's Kong suit that anyone with half a brain could tell was the "real" Kong utilized throughout the film.  I'm not sure now if it was in FAMOUS MONSTERS, CINEFANTASTIQUE, or STARLOG (yes, the new Sci-Fi magazine on the stands) that showed Rick with drawings of the different Kong expression heads he had constructed for the film.  It was unbelievable and intelligent.  I recall him saying that was his solution because of the range of emotion that Kong was going to have to demonstrate throughout the film and there were limitations to the mechanics and materials used to construct the masks.  There was even a photo of Rick wearing a gorilla contact lens to change the appearance of his cornea.

But what really blew me away, was when I found an issue of AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER magazine showing Rick wearing what was referred to as a "condom suit."  Apparently, Rick had built a muscle under-suit with water-filled sacs to add realistic movement beneath the fur.

I should have asked Rick about this.  I wonder if it was mis-information?
In any case, the bar for gorilla suits in motion pictures had certainly been raised and even though Rick had mother-f*ckered his way through an interview and stated how much he was disappointed by the final look of Kong, I couldn't see it.  I thought it was genius.

The problem isn't the is obviously the sound stage ceiling
 With the Kong experience now fading, I began obsessing about another Science Fiction film that would soon be released.  My father had just returned from Dallas, Texas where he had been interviewing the stars and filmmakers of this upcoming film, and he handed me the paperback novel it was based on: LOGAN'S RUN.  I had no idea what it was about, but sat right down and began reading it from cover to cover.  In the center of the book were color pictures from the film and the aesthetic was very cool.   Needless to say, by the time the movie came out, we all wanted to be Sandmen.

Run, runner!

On the horror front, another film that was based on Catholic lore had surfaced.  Loosely based on the predictions of the Book of Revelations in the Bible, movie audiences were introduced to the Anti-Christ in THE OMEN.

THE OMEN, whether consciously or not, followed in the vein of THE EXORCIST that had proceeded it.  With Gregory Peck and Lee Remick leading the cast, the film was perceived as a "big picture" as opposed to something like THE DEVIL'S RAIN, which, admittedly had a better poster:

I, of course, knew about THE DEVIL'S RAIN because of FAMOUS MONSTERS and it was in that article that I had first heard the name Tom Burman and The Burman Studios.  Tom had done all of the make up effects for the film including the climatic "melting" scene at the end.  But I digress.

With an "A" cast, expert direction by Richard Donner, and a spellbinding score by Jerry Goldsmith, THE OMEN was a huge success and spawned sequels and a recent, disastrous remake.  But back then, we sat transfixed in the theater and watched as Damien, the Anti-Christ, began his evil empire on Earth, one grisly death at a time.

Stuart Freeborn's decapitation of David Warner. A new height of screen shock!
So, this was the lay of the land before everything changed.  KING KONG, LOGAN'S RUN, and THE OMEN were the genre tent pole movies of 1976. 

A weekly edition of the VARIETY trade paper came to the house, and I was aware enough to rifle through it and check out what movies were coming out and I had seen rumblings of a new film entitled: THE STAR WARS.

The Summer of '76, dressed as a chubby Sandman, my friends and I returned to the VulCon that year and I picked up a paperback book (that I still own) entitled STAR WARS, FROM THE ADVENTURES OF LUKE SKYWALKER.  When I returned home, I read the book with just the art on the cover, my recollections of what I had seen in VARIETY, and a few photos inside of the book to help me visualize what I was reading.

X-Wing Fighters? Light Sabers? Wookies? I'm not sure what it all was, but I loved it.

1 comment:

  1. Shannon Shea has come unstuck in time...

    So it goes, poo-tee-weet...