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Horror

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King Kong has the rare honor of being one of few Universal Monsters that weren’t adapted from any existing media, having been created exclusively to terrify filmgoers. While the original 1933 film wasn’t exactly a horror flick, presenting itself as an adventurous trek through dinosaur-infested jungles with some melodramatic romance thrown in for good measure, it still inspired a entire generation of creature features like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and even the original Godzilla, making it a monster movie classic.

That’s why it’s no surprise that popular culture’s favorite giant ape has seen so many different incarnations over the years, from Dino De Laurentis’ ecological parable in 1976 to Legendary’s Vietnam-inspired Kong: Skull Island. While there’s some merit to all of these different versions of the story, my personal favorite will always be Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. I’m clearly not the only fan of the film, as it was a massive box-office hit despite its absurdly inflated budget, but one thing that caught many filmgoers by surprise was the movie’s surprisingly brazen horror elements.

While some amount of scares were to be expected due to Jackson’s unwavering love of the horror genre (after all, even the Lord of the Rings films boasted a handful of unexpectedly schlocky genre moments), 2005’s King Kong took things up a notch when compared to the original. Despite a PG-13 rating, the movie contained plenty of grisly violence and a generally darker tone than its source material, with Jackson going so far as to include several nods to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this dark monster flick.

Featuring everything from giant demonic bats to Andy Serkis being eaten live by giant leeches, it’s pretty obvious that this blockbuster was made by a horror filmmaker, with the film even including a reference to the infamous Sumatran Rat Monkey from Dead-Alive/Braindead. However, what I’d like to discuss is how the film subtly dabbles in Cosmic Horror, with this gigantic love-letter to classic cinema also serving as a rare example of big-budget movies doing right by H.P. Lovecraft.

Nope, nope, nope!

For those who don’t know, Cosmic Horror (also known as “Lovecraftian Horror”) is a storytelling style popularized by the weird fiction of American author H.P. Lovecraft. These disturbing tales tend to focus on the sickening dread that comes with realizing humankind’s apparent insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, usually focusing on protagonists who discover something that drives them to re-evaluate their place in the world. So how does this relate to a movie about a great-depression-era film crew fighting off dinosaurs as they attempt to capture a giant gorilla? Well, fans of Cosmic Horror fiction will likely recognize some familiar themes and motifs in King Kong if they just take a closer look.

The original film’s premise already hinged on a primitive tribe offering up sacrifices to an “Elder God”, with the natives attempting to appease Kong with “brides”, not unlike the way that the Esoteric Order of Dagon offered up women to their fish god in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Unwilling sacrifice for the greater good is already Cosmic Horror 101, but Jackson’s take on the story made it even scarier by depicting the drawn-out ritual through which Kong is summoned, as well as his complete indifference to his worshippers – which is yet another similarity to the Elder Gods.

And while we’re on the subject of the tribespeople of Skull Island, one of the most interesting aspects of the remake is how it justifies the primitivism of the 1933 version of the islanders by making them a group of desperate survivors this time around. If you pay attention to the implied worldbuilding (or read/watch some of the film’s excellent supplemental material), it becomes clear that the natives here are not the same people who built the imposing stone fortresses and intricate statues scattered across Skull Island. These cult-like remnants are actually what’s left of the original inhabitants after some unnamable apocalypse drove their ancestors back towards the sea, with the giant walls surrounding their fishing village – and Kong himself – serving as the last line of defense for a once-thriving civilization that’s now on the brink of extinction.

This fascination with long-lost civilizations and how they hint at the inevitable downfall of our species is yet another popular Cosmic Horror trope, and while the film mostly keeps these apocalyptic themes in the background, it still gives King Kong an eerie anthropological edge usually only seen in Lovecraft yarns like The Shadow Out of Time.

While it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that Jack Black’s increasingly psychotic portrayal of the Orson-Welles-inspired Carl Denham is a classic example of a Lovecraftian protagonist losing his mind after encountering eldritch horrors, certain details like the character quoting faux Arabian proverbs and acquiring eerie maps of cursed places are definite staples of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon-based yarns. The director’s depiction as an over-ambitious artist that goes too far in search of glory is even similar to characters like Richard Pickman (from Pickman’s Model), adding to the overall Cosmic Horror feel of the flick even if that’s not the point of the story.

How many Sanity Points does Anne lose by the end of the picture?

Lastly, the film features plenty of prehistoric monsters engaging in terrifying battles as human beings become caught in the titanic crossfire, with most of these giant creatures regarding our main characters as little more than an edible nuisance. In some ways, the film feels like a big-budget adaptation of a pulpy Call of Cthulhu RPG adventure, complete with intrepid 1930s heroes embarking on a perilous quest and facing all manner of creatures that should not exist only to learn that their superior firepower is no match for an uncaring universe. Again, these ideas are mostly relegated to the background, but they still make the experience more interesting.

Many of these elements were already present in the original film, and while it’s not out of the question that Merian C. Cooper and his writers may have read a Lovecraft yarn or two when coming up with the 1933 classic, I’ll admit that horror was never meant to be the focus here. After all, the premise owes a lot more to the paleontological thrills of novels (and subsequent films) like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and real-world horrors like the then-recent discovery of the Komodo Dragon than to any form of Cosmic Horror. Jackson simply decided to take the scary elements more seriously in his remake, capitalizing on the fear of human beings reconciling with their own insignificance in a hostile world and most likely stumbling onto elements of Cosmic terror in the process.

Many of these supposed references can be explained away as either complete coincidences or surface-level similarities due to the story’s 1930s setting, but I’d argue that the film’s tie-in videogame suggests that Jackson knew what he was doing when he added some of these elements to the story. Developed by Ubisoft, King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie is a fully-fledged survival horror experience curated by Jackson himself, featuring even more elements of Cosmic Horror (from unkillable boss monsters to more detailed looks at Skull Island’s insane past and ecosystem) and a generally creepier mood – allegedly more in line with the director’s original intent for the blockbuster movie. It’s entirely possible that Jackson originally set out to create a legitimate horror film and merely settled for an action-adventure when he realized the kind of budget he would need to tell this story.

Whether or not these elements of Cosmic Horror were a happy accident, I honestly believe that King Kong contains some of the most faithful recreations of an H.P. Lovecraft story ever put to film, which is another reason why I often revisit this three-hour epic. It may not be a traditional horror flick, but I’d still love to see its pulpy thrills and eerie atmosphere (intentionally) recreated in future scary movies. Maybe in something like that At The Mountains of Madness adaptation that has been stuck in development hell since the early 2000s…

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

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