Rethinking: King Kong Meets Dracula

Image by SteveIrwinfan96, borrowed

First up, let me shout out to BigJack Films, a youthful youtuber who seems utterly fascinated by all things King Kong. He seems barely out of his teens, if at all, with a bad haircut and a reedy voice, which suggests that puberty was cruel. But he’s prolific as hell, and his videos ring with a level or research and genuine enthusiasm that can’t be faked.

And he’s got a lot of fascinating King Kong-iana. The skinny on abortive Kong projects, including the 1960’s Hammer films attempt which failed, but somehow resulted in Jim Danforth’s ‘King Kong’s Volkswagon commercial’, commentary on Universal Studios exhibitions, and surveys of giant apes generally.

He’s so comprehensive in his approach, that he even catalogues and reviews King Kong fan films.

Who even knew there was such a thing?

I’m interested in fan films, and I see them as relevant works in their own right. Fan films are seldom, if ever perfect, and quite often, many of them are flat out terrible. But every single one of them is made with love, and that counts for a lot. So I was very intrigued by his reviews.

Generally, King Kong fan films fall neatly into two categories.

Super 8 stop motion productions, sometimes with live action, typically starting in 70’s. Super 8 was a movie format that came out in 1965. Basically, small hand held cameras, that took 8 millimeter film in cartridges. It was designed to be a user friendly family movie camera. The cartridges could be loaded and unloaded in seconds, and processed at the local drugstore. The resulting film could then be played at home on a projector the size of a small suitcase.

With Super 8, families could take home movies of vacations, weddings, birthday parties, trips to the beach. So it took off like wildfire. By 1973, the cameras and cartridges had sound added. Accessories piled on – tripods, remote microphones, lights, editing equipment. The cameras got better lenses, better mechanics, even a ‘frame by frame’ function.

For generations of kids growing up on King Kong, and the later Sinbad and Jason films of Ray Harryhausen, the frame by frame function was a godsend. After all, while making home movies was fun, there was something magical about the idea of doing special effects, even stop motion animation.

I did some very crude stop motion with my grandparents Super 8 when I was young. A friend of mine, Patrick Lowe, did a whole series of Super 8 animations, a prelude to his career as an animation artist. A lot of nerdish kids of my generation probably played with it.

For those kids, King Kong had an irresistable fascination. For one thing… Dinosaurs. Small, powerless children were captivated dinosaurs. Real life (albeit extinct) monsters as big as houses, dwarfing everything in the mundane world. And not just dinosaurs, but cool scary dinosaurs and dinosaur fights. Add to that the giant ape and it’s unstoppable tantrums, and seriously iconic scenes and story… And you can see how some youth were inevitably drawn to it. Let’s face it, King Kong was probably the absolute pinnacle of stop motion, the defining work of the art form. If you were going to mess with stop motion, you were inevitably going to deal with it.

The stop motion films are short. That’s understandable. The Super 8 film cartridges only ran about two and a half minutes and that tended to create a natural limitation. Even where you were splicing cartridges or film scenes together for added length, it doing stop motion is incredibly time consuming. Some of the fan films pad out their running time with live action, but even so, most of them are less than ten minutes.

Some of them… Well, let’s just say that they’re enthusiastic. Others are startlingly good, well beyond anything you’d expect of a precocious teenager.

Most of the King Kong Super 8s tend to feature either Kong battling a T-Rex or Kong on the Empire State building. Basically, they’re attempting to recreate, with as much fidelity as they can muster an iconic sequence from the movie. But that tends to give them a sameness, and it emphasizes the drawbacks. Too much fidelity is damaging, particularly when the master you are drawing from is so much better, it can’t help but call attention fo your shortcomings. A lot of these films are faithful to the point of being doctrinaire. Even a minor wrinkle, such as an ending where Kong eats Fay Wray, is refreshing.

A few are worth noting –

There’s Peter Jackson’s youthful effort. This is the same Peter Jackson who grew up to be the Director of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit Trilogies, as well as doing his own remake of King Kong in 2005. Back when he was twelve, he was doing his own Kong animation, despite models and backdrop, it never quite got off the ground, but there is some intriguing shots and test footage shown.

There’s a claymation production of King Kong vs Prometheus by teenager Mikael Trench. This is a stunning 20 minutes of stop motion animation which is inspired by Merian C. Cooper’s abortive King Kong sequel project. Claymation isn’t for everyone, but the sheer scale of this singlehanded epic is compelling.

My favourite is Kong: The Skull Island Monster, a french mix of animation and live action from the 1980’s. The live sequences feature the male trio of Captain Englehorn, First Mate Driscoll, and impressario Carl Denham, portrayed by James Bond, Indiana Jones and Captain Kirk, and an island of savage Jewish natives. It features decent, if cartoonish stop motion animation, and the battle between Kong and the T-Rex is rendered as a ‘dance off.’

The second wave of Kong Fan Films comes about through video camcorders, sometimes of varying quality. These films tend to be longer, literally trying to re-create the whole movie. No stop motion animation, Kong is recreated by a variety of costumes, some worse than others. I think that there was one built from off the shelf CGI engines. But frankly, they’re pretty tough going.

The problem, as with many of the Super 8s, is that they simply try to re-create the source material,without actually straying far from it. So unless you really want to see Peter Jackson’s Kong, starring awkward high school students or younger, with a budget of nickels and dimes…. What’s the point? It’s impossible not to suffer from comparison with the original, because it simply doesn’t want to depart from the original.

For me, this is one of the most interesting things about Kong Fan Films. The almost universal fidelity. Star Trek Fan films tell new stories, Who fan films, Superhero fan films. They almost always use characters and tropes, but they try and go off in a different story. With Kong? It almost seems to be about fidelity. It’s like Elvis Impersonators, the idea is not to build on the subject, but to reproduce it as closely as you can.

On the one hand, I can see that. I think it emphasises how powerful King Kong is as a work, how intricately it’s character, it’s effects and it’ plotlines and iconic scenes are all tied together. King Kong, and its story, is a unified work in a way that other influential works simply are not. We can put Captain Kirk, Doctor Who, Spiderman or the Ghostbusters in a new story… But King Kong seems to have only the one story – reproduced in whole or in part, re-enacted in key scenes, spoofed or parodied, but it’s only the one ape and the one story.

Honestly, I found it a little frustrating, and as I was going through them, or going through BigJack Film’s reviews, I found myself asking why they didn’t take more chances, why not mix it up a little. Try something a bit different… Like King Kong meets Dracula….

Well, there’s a fun idea.

And that’s where ideas come from. Paying attention, focusing on the world, reading, researching, learning, just engaging with things. Ideas come from the world, come from being interested in the world around us.

And from that, that process of learning, of reflection, of introspection and musing, we turn notions on their heads, we look at things sideways, we follow thoughts down pathways, or take left turns, and there you have a story idea.

I don’t know if this is of interest to you. But the creative process fascinates me. What it is, where it comes from, how it comes about for us.

So… King Kong meets Dracula.

What goofy idea. But as I thought about it, the more compelling it became. In a way, I could see them meshing. Both seminal original horror movies, both black and white, both with that old fashioned, foggy, gothic sensibility. How to do it without being completely ridiculous (which could be fun)?

I started writing….

****

NIGHT, ON THE DECK OF THE SEAGOING SHIP, VENTURE, FOG AND MIST. TWO MEN, STAND, LEANING ON THE RAILINGS, LOOKING OUT. ONE IS A YOUNG HANDSOME SAILOR, THE FIRST MATE, JACK DRISCOLL. THE OTHER IS OLDER, A BUSINESSMAN, CARL DENHAM.

DENHAM
This fog shows no sign of breaking.

DRISCOLL
It’s a pea soup, all right. Captain’s reduced to quarter speed.

DENHAM
Is that necessary?

DRISCOLL
Uncharted waters, Mr. Denham, we’re getting close to this island of yours. Shame if we hit a reef and sink before we get to it.

TWO MORE FIGURES ARRIVE ON DECK, ARRIVING FROM THE RIGHT. THESE ARE A YOUNG BLONDE WOMAN, ANNE, AND A TALL DISTINGUISHED MAN IN A CLOAK, THE DOCTOR.

DENHAM
Doctor, Miss Darrow, pleased to see you up on deck. Even (waves) in this.

ANNE
Hello Mister Denham, (beaming) Hello Jack.

JACK TAKES OFF HIS HAT AND BOWS SLIGHTLY.

DRISCOLL
Miss Darrow….. Doctor.

DOCTOR
Good evening.

DENHAM
How are your patients?

DOCTOR
Resting comfortably for now. I predict a speedy recovery for some.

DRISCOLL
That’s good news!

DENHAM
Until someone else gets sick. This is a damnable contagion. We just can’t shake it. Have you seen the like, Jack?

DRISCOLL
Never. But I know the Doctor is going to lick it. He hasn’t lost one of us yet!

DENHAM
The only ones who seem immune are the four of us, strangely enough.

DOCTOR
None of us are truly immune, Mr. Denham, contagions of this sort are merely… unpredictable. You may find yourself ill before you know it. Perhaps even you, Mr. Driscoll.

DRISCOLL
I count myself lucky so far, Doctor. But I’ll say this, I’m sure glad we had you along on this voyage. Without a real Doctor, I’m sure we would have had burials at sea by now.

DOCTOR
I am very pleased to keep your crew alive, Mister Driscoll. Rest assured, this contagion… has my complete attention.

DRISCOLL
Where are you from, Doctor? I can’t say I’ve ever heard your accident.

DOCTOR
Romania. Sadly, a land beset by violence and revolution, so that I have been forced to flee, and make my way in this world.

ANNE
The Doctor was royalty back in his country.

DENHAM
You don’t say? I never knew that. Keeping secrets, Doc?

DOCTOR
Royalty (chuckles) my ancestors were Princes, but now, in my native country, I would merely be a Count. Sadly, my home is a long way off, we have been driven out. So now, I am a simple Doctor.

DRISCOLL
How about that. A Count? That’s impressive. Count Carfax.

DOCTOR
Count Dracula. It is an old family name, very distinguished, it means ‘son of the dragon.’

DENHAM
(hint of bitterness)
I heard it as ‘son of the devil.’

DOCTOR
(charming, but with an edge)
Our enemies had it that way.

DRISCOLL
Miss Anne, would you like to take a stroll along the decks?

ANNE
I’d be delighted, Mister Driscoll. Is that all right, Doctor?

DOCTOR
(smiles)
But of course dear girl. But just please watch your step, the decks are slippery. And please, don’t stay too long, this fog is not good for your lungs.

DRISCOLL
I’ll keep her safe, Doc, have her right back to you.

DRISCOLL AND ANNE DEPART TO THE LEFT. DENHAM AND THE DOCTOR WAVE. ONCE THEY ARE GONE…

DOCTOR
They are too close, those two. You should be careful to keep them apart.

DENHAM
You’re very protective of her.

DOCTOR
I have watched over her for years, since she was a child. Her blood is very special. I have great plans for her.

DENHAM
We’ll make her a star.

DOCTOR
Something like that. But she must remain pure.

DENHAM
I’ll do what I can. (Pauses) Are you sure that island is out there?

DOCTOR
Have I mislead you?

DENHAM
No… It’s just that if this doesn’t pan out, I’m busted. I’ve put all my money into this, and a good deal of yours. I’ll never be able to pay you back.

DOCTOR
That worries you… Money?

DENHAM
Money makes the world go round, Doctor.

DOCTOR
It… has it’s uses, I will admit. But what truly matters is what you can achieve.

DENHAM
(with growing excitement)
An island full of monsters? Collect them, crate them, put them on display. There’s a fortune to be made there. And not just sideshow attractions, moving pictures. That’s the future.

DOCTOR
(disinterested)
Indeed.

DENHAM
I don’t get you, Doctor.

DOCTOR
Indeed?

DENHAM
I’ve had investors before, silent partners. This is the first one that insisted on coming along.

DOCTOR
Just watching over my investment.

DENHAM
You don’t want anyone to know, though?

DOCTOR
That is the point of being a silent partner. Best that they think I am a simple Doctor. I would not want anyone to become… excited.

*****

Opening scene. The first of 5000 words, in which the character of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is inserted into, ore perhaps infiltrates the narrative of King Kong.

Certain choices seemed to get made naturally. I found myself almost closing my eyes, almost watching it, as if it was a real movie playing inside my eyelids. Black and white, filmed with that 1930’s look. I found myself writing it, as scenes and shots from a movie script.

There was a kind of economy of invention that took place. I didn’t need to describe Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, we all knew him. I didn’t need to retell the entire story of King King, the readers will already know it… all I needed to do was to evoke it. What I needed to do was to show the scenes where Dracula enters he narrative, the scenes and shots that were distorted by Dracula’s presence.

In a sense, the story came to be written with an extraordinary degree of collaboration with my unknown readers. I was telling a story which they knew well, whose beats were embedded into their consciousness. So I didn’t actually have to tell the story, they knew it. All that I needed to do was to fill in, to change parts of it. To give them new scenes to replace old ones, but that would fit seamlessly into the narrative.

Or at least I hope so. I’d like to think it works.

In any event, it turned out to be a nifty story. Now all I have to do is sell it to someone.

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