An Analysis of One Of Peter Jackson’s Most Terrifying Works
Hot off his Oscar wins in 2004, Peter Jackson saw another gargantuan project coming his way – a remake of the legendary 1933 monster film King Kong. Jackson stated multiple times how this flick had always been his favorite movie of all time, and as much as a filmmaker’s passion is a crucial component when developing a remake, it’s certainly not easy to find the right balance between reimagination, homage, and flat-out copy. However, the New Zealand director took the world by surprise when he presented his version of the iconic giant ape, digging right into his past as a horror director to convey what is one of the most terrifying films of the 21st century… although apparently (and oddly) never considered as such.
Here is a full-on analysis of the many reasons why Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) is an unrecognized horror classic.
Adherence to Horror Characteristics
Even though the horror genre may not be as long-lived as its dramatic and comedic counterparts, it’s undeniable how it slowly and steadily won the heart of millions of readers (and later, viewers). Along with such a development, there came, of course, a proper theorization, and like any other entry in the genre, King Kong makes no exception to it.
Starting with the obvious, one may not discuss the film without mentioning the titular character. Kong perfectly captures what philosopher Noël Carroll described as the archetype of horror villains, along with werewolves and the Frankenstein monster. Kong is a physically threatening menace that ignites our fear as a response mechanism to danger. But more importantly, he openly contradicts the general cultural categorization. After all, he is a 25-foot-tall gorilla that cracks open T-Rexes’ heads like walnuts – what’s more unusual than that?
This brings about the next point, e.g., the mission of the horror genre. Have you ever wondered why on earth we watch (and love) horror films since their outspoken goal is to trigger negative emotions such as fear and/or disgust? The answer is as simple as it is psychologically confusing – fear excites us, and horror films do that in a regulated, controlled way. We know those images cannot physically hurt us, but nonetheless, our body responds with an adrenaline rush. So it’s evident how King Kong follows the exact same rules. The fear we experience, thanks to Kong’s menacing persona, is balanced out by the excitement of seeing him fighting all sorts of creatures, and vice versa.
Let’s put the philosophical implications aside and focus on the film. Let’s focus from a cinematic standpoint, specifically the setting and the music. For this film, Jackson brought back most of the creative talent that worked on the Lord of the Rings films, but with a completely different focus – while the Middle Earth saga required a specific epic/adventure-ish tone. Kong required Jackson to get pretty dark.
Production designer Grant Major and art directors Simon Bright and Dan Hennah really broke the mold in creating the infamous (and thankfully fictional) Skull Island, which is the perfect setting to convey authentic horror vibes. Thanks to its unknown location approximately near Indonesia, Skull Island is not only evil – it’s evil stuck out of time, hidden from the civilized world, threatening and unwelcoming to the outsiders. When the main characters finally get there after a strenuous journey, the skull-shaped sea rocks immediately warn them about the horrors lurking from that point forward, be they, savage cannibals or unspeakable creatures. Everything and everyone there is hostile and lethal. And the viewer feels this danger in every single scene. This is also thanks to the eerie, ominous cinematography of Andrew Leslie.
The score is one of the most efficient aspects of the film, and paired with the cinematography, it contributes to creating an ambiance that could only belong to the horror genre, specifically natural horror. James Newton Howard knew exactly what Jackson was going for – and just like the director, he summoned his past experience in the horror and adventure genre as well (don’t forget he’s got some iconic scores like The Sixth Sense and Signs under his belt). Howard’s musical theme for King Kong is ever-present, almost creeping on the character like one of the many natural abhorrence infesting Skull Island. It’s haunting, spine-chilling, but also imposing and grave with a hint of melancholy as if we’re witnessing something that should have been kept hidden. It’s clear how Jackson was influenced by what H.P. Lovecraft called “cosmic horror” – something so horrific in its greatness and great in its horror that utterly overwhelms us… just like Skull Island.
Despite the technical aspects of the film being evocative of a certain filmic grammar that has its roots planted in horror tradition, what ultimately elevates King Kong to a full-on horror feature masked as an epic adventure flick, is Peter Jackson’s direction.
In this, the structure of the story itself is fundamental. The 3-hour runtime allows Jackson to take his time, and the film actually starts as a common adventure tale, where our heroes set sail to an undiscovered world full of hopes and expectations. It’s not until the 1-hour mark that the audience realizes it’s been deceived the whole time. That wasn’t an introduction to what promises to be a fun, wacky adventure in the spirit of the “amazing new world” subgenre – it’s a slow-burn first act that meticulously builds up the tension toward what is going to be a frightening survival tale. Jackson further confirmed this, who stated that one of the major influences on his King Kong was Jaws, the Steven Spielberg-directed horror masterpiece that made the fear of the unseen its warhorse. However, the unseen quickly becomes visible, and that’s when the true horror begins.
After a long introduction, Jackson can finally go wild with a succession of deadly challenges to our characters, a true danger/fear escalation. And just like every horror film, we get to the majestic final act. Once Kong is captured, the viewer is led to believe everything is going the right way… until it’s not. The final sequence sees Kong escape and spread chaos in the streets of New York City.
Despite Skull Island being the unequivocal horror setting of the movie, the final act taps into a terror the audience hasn’t come to terms with up until then. Kong is not in his natural habitat anymore. He’s in “our” world now. And he is furious. These dynamics create a ticking-bomb tension that will fully explode in the climax of the film, and that serves as the ultimate juxtaposition of Peter Jackson’s remake to the horror genre, as it follows the typical “low point – apparent high point – lowest point” horror structure.
Pulling It All Together
Although the similarities surely don’t stop here, the analysis provides more than enough evidence in favor of King Kong being a sublime film and an incredibly efficient horror film that will probably fuel the nightmares of the easily impressed.
But, of course, that is one of the many interpretations – what are your thoughts about it? What feelings did this film summon when you first watched it? King Kong (2005), directed by Peter Jackson and starring Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody, is currently streaming on Peacock Premium, so make sure to check it out or have a nice rewatch if you’ve already seen it. Either way, let’s see if you can spot any other horror elements in this wonderful film!
King Kong (2005). Official Universal Pictures Trailer.
|Federico was born on July 20, 1998, in Trieste, Italy. Film enthusiast for as long as he can remember, he graduated in Philosophy at the University of Turin. His lifelong dream is to become a storyteller, and he’s currently planning his next step to (hopefully!) make this dream come true.|