This wouldn’t be much of a series covering low budget and B Movies if I didn’t eventually turn my gaze to perhaps the most iconic subgenre associated with these productions: monsters. Mutants, mecha, kaiju, aliens, whatever you call them, these strange beings have been a lifeblood of lower tier projects ever since the likes of The Lost World (1925) and the original King Kong (1933) showed audiences enjoy a good creature feature.
By contrast, the phenomena of fan films are substantially more recent, as online platforms like Youtube, Dailymotion and Vimeo have allowed eager young filmmakers to adapt the properties that inspired them, without having to deal with big studios or lawyers. As long as it’s non-profit, it’s fair game. Batman: City of Scars, Casey Jones and Power Rangers are among some of the more famous projects to have come out of this little sub-movement.
So, how do these two points in film history dovetail? Well, in 2011, Youtuber and film reviewer Jack Buchanan (BigJackFilms) decided to shoot his own $4000 remake of Kong (a property he has devoted several videos to, discussing the different incarnations), with a good deal of emphasis on concepts from the 1976 and aborted 1996 version (which would’ve been Peter Jackson’s first big budget effort before Lord of the Rings). After five years of work, his film debuted on Youtube last December and has, of time of writing, achieved over ten thousand views.
I don’t need to explain much in terms of plot, as it’s basically the Kong formula to a T: a group goes to a mysterious island and finds a giant ape, worshipped as a god. Everything is there: Denham, Jack, Anne, natives, giant walls, monsters, jungle chases and a climax in the Big Apple with mayhem and destroyed models aplenty.
For all that can be said about the film, I feel the need to make it abundantly clear that this is not any sort of attack or cheap shot at a novice filmmaker and his work. On the contrary, I find Buchanan’s Kong to be a very admirable, if very imperfect, work. As someone who has lived through several short films and documentaries, as well as trying to get a novel and TV series off the ground, I understand in-depth the nightmare of bringing something to life. To make just a low budget short film is a hassle, but a two and a half-hour action adventure film without any kind of studio or industry support, and on a budget that wouldn’t pay for lunch on Skull Island, is nothing short of an impressive feat.
While it has a myriad of technical issues, the project’s heart is in the right place and doesn’t feel exploitative or lazy. It’s packed with references to the other Kong films, and the cast gets the slightly over the top adventure quality of the material, so you do get a sense of how fun it was to make. It doesn’t lack in scope either, with extremely ambitious production values that include sequences onboard actual ships, ports, beaches, even on New York’s actual streets, as well as practical and digital special effects. The frequent use of stock footage is mostly integrated well with the filmed material and not too strong a contrast in directorial style. Even the soundtrack of familiar tunes from big composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and James Newton Howard (currently a stand-in for a delayed original score) fit and aren’t too grand or overpower the material.
That said, veteran low budget and B-cinephiles will find a lot here for the ‘so bad it’s good’ mill: misspelt opening and end credits (‘amercian’, ‘visuel’ and ‘confinscated’ among them); cutting into mid and wide shots for close ups, thus blowing up the pixels in the image; Not having high grade cameras and no proper sound equipment like boom or shotgun mics, thus creating a lot of grainy images with sound constantly at the mercy of wind and echo; continuity errors up the wazoo with costumes, hair and lighting; cheap costumes for the monsters and wonky stop motion, with an overambitious use of a small greenscreen; we even get very white natives who wear modern dress and jeans with their grass skirts and beads (ah, wasn’t 2011 a simpler time? Wonder how Tumblr would react to this…)
The cast is honestly pretty passable, considering their age and the material, but Sylvana Boonstra as Anne is easily the weakest performer. While she starts off spunky, she’s not very emotive throughout a lot of the film, which is a big problem when she’s in danger or being scared and yet doesn’t look it. James C. Robson is probably the best, clearly having fun chewing the scenery as the slimy director Denham. Plus, props for having mostly teen and child extras, and yet they never come off as annoying, bored or stiff. Not always convincing (especially not the natives) but always interested in the material.
The screenplay also, for all its earnest nostalgia and love of the property, is sometimes a little muddled: it not only smooshes both the oil plot of Kong ’76 and the film plot of Kong ’33 (how they connect is not well explained, and feels like more motivation than necessary for the crew), but there are slight temporal inconsistencies with dialogue, having some characters talking like modern day, while other speak like characters from the ’33 film, especially Denham and the reporters during the big climax.
In the end, Buchanan has created what could be another Birdemic or Corman’s Fantastic Four, an overambitious, underfunded film destined for cult status, but I don’t want that taken in an entirely negative sense: even if he didn’t quite pull it off, you have to respect Buchanan’s dedication in seeing this mammoth project through. The fact that he created something entertaining, albeit in the more unintentional sense, is something not many, more highbrow, first timers can claim. He said ‘screw pretentious arthouse tripe’ and did something closer to his heart for his debut. As long as he learns the good and bad from this experience, and Youtube comments indicate so, then I think he will grow into a fine filmmaker with a brighter future ahead of him. He’s proven he’s got the willpower, now he just needs the craft.