The 1976 King Kong really is quite magnificent in its badness. It's not that it's a unjustified remake of an all-time classic film, those are are all over the damn place, that's not worthy of attention. Even if this one is especially unjustified (after Psycho and Seven Samurai, I'd be inclined to call the 1933 King Kong just about the finest movie ever besmirched with a remake). Rather, it's the scale of the miscalculation that went into that remake that makes King Kong truly remarkable. The film is the pinnacle of the career of the legendary, beloved, notorious madman-producer Dino De Laurentiis; his Intolerance, I'm sure he intended, or his Ben-Hur; his attempt to spend just the most God-damnable amounts of money on a gargantuan spectacle that would represent everything that could be poured onto a movie screen; instead, it's closer to his Cleopatra.

Oh, sure enough, King Kong made money, if that's all we care about; it even won a special Oscar for its visual effects work (which was immodestly erratic; some of the finest process shots of the pre-Star Wars '70s unashamedly rubs elbows with alarmingly terrible composited images of Jessica Lange pasted in on top of the background in images that look in every way less convincing than similar images in the original King Kong, 43 years prior), and picked up nominations for its cinematography and sound. It got halfway decent reviews at the time, including an outright rave from Pauline Kael. So no, not a woozy, Cleopatra-sized disaster, in any way other than the aesthetic. For, not that I want to call Kael or the Academy liars, but King Kong '76 is pretty much entirely fucking awful, and awful in that magical way that only a De Laurentiis super-production could possibly have managed. For something born in such flatly craven, mercenary terms - it was, somehow, supposed to be the producer's answer to the smash-hit Jaws - King Kong is breathtakingly idiosyncratic. Which is a very nice way to put it, if I do say so myself.

To its credit, the film wastes no time pretending that it's going to be even a little bit levelheaded or subdued. To solve the immediate problem facing any modern-set variation on the 1933 King Kong scenario - to wit, how do we justify bringing a giant gorilla to New York in the absence of the gee-whiz showmanship of an itinerant film director trained in the devil-may-care '20s? - screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. offers up a loudmouthed oil company executive mounting a massive expedition to find an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean, where he's absolutely convinced they'll find a huge oil field. Tallying up the leaps of logic and outright plot holes Semple has to order up just to get us that far would be a job in itself, but we're just getting warmed up: we also need to get hippie primate scientist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges, who uniquely out of the whole cast has nothing to be ashamed of in his performance - in a middle-sized role, Rene Auberjonois almost makes it, but then his asinine drunk scene pops up) on the ship as well, and so the filmmakers offer a dazzling display of flim-flam in the hopes of keeping us from notice that a primate scientist has no natural interest in following the doings of oil surveyors. And we still haven't met Dwan! Yes, Dwan. She switched the "w" and "a" around to sound more interesting. This is a character that 26-year-old Lange, in her very first screen performance, somehow has to make sensible, without giving into the insistence of seemingly every line of dialogue given to her that Dwan is so loathsomely stupid that she'd be better off  disintegrating in the stomach acid of a giant ape than darkening our cinema screens. She puts up a good fight before failing, too; I think it's when she asks Kong what his sign is that I started actively rooting for her to die, but of course that's not on Lange. There's plenty of other things that are on Lange; her complete failure to modulate her gestures, or her confusion about how to interact with the giant robotic Kong hand, which results in a lot of scenes of a screaming woman, terrified for her life, obligingly leaning into the ape's massive paw so that he can grab her without any trouble.

Still, Lange's not half bad in comparison to Charles Grodin, as the craven Fred Wilson, executive for Petrox and inadvertent monkey hunter. I'm pretty sure, based on Grodin's background in comedy and almost everything he does here, that he tallied up all the available evidence and concluded that King Kong was to be a parody. Not an unfair assumption, mind you. But if it is supposed to be funny, that fact was never communicated to director John Guillermin, whose qualification for the job was directing all of the scenes in The Towering Inferno that didn't involve special effects. There's a definite self-mocking, campy tone to a lot of the jokes scattered around the film (Semple was one of the guiding voices of the self-mocking, campy Batman television series with Adam West), but King King itself is flat-footed and almost painful bereft of camp. It is, I would go so far as to say, quite sluggish, letting scenes just hang there as the actors mill about without being pushed into delivering their lines, or reacting, or anything. Weirdly, it takes very nearly the same amount of time to reach the island in this film as in its 1933 predecessor, about half an hour (which also represents a much shorter percentage of the running time of this two-and-a-quarter-hour gas bag of a film), but it feels so much longer here. It's a sodden movie; no chance of comedy there.

No chance of good visual effects, either, not really. This film's Kong is mostly Rick Baker in one of this gorgeous gorilla suits, with all manner of mechanical add-ons courtesy of the great Carlo Rambaldi, but the film has not a goddamn clue what to do with it - and frankly, Baker doesn't know how the play the part without walking around like some dude in a gorgeous, expensive, detailed gorilla suit. Often there's a shot that completely fucks up Kong's scale: not the way the first movie does, by forgetting if he's 18 or 24 or 50 feet tall from scene to scene, but by framing him so poorly that he looks like an adult human male standing in a model. This can, of course, be charming: see, for example, every single Japanese giant monster movie with practical effects. It's not charming here.

My word, I just dropped the plot like a hot potato, didn't I? So Dwan is the sole survivor of a yacht explosion, and she happily joins the crew on their adventure towards a mysterious fog bank that, Fred is certain, hides an island from the modern world. Naturally it does, and if you manage to ignore all the scenes where Auberjonois prattles about oil science and Grodin mugs and hollers and talks about the corporate office, this part actually resembles what a King Kong movie ought to be, more or less. The "less" being how magnificently the script loses the thread on Dwan at about this point, going all-in on being a light romantic film between the human woman and the giant gorilla. In due course, it becomes clear that the island won't yield any oil, and Fred drums up a back-up plan: bring Kong back to the States, where he will be the centerpiece of Petrox's new ad campaign. Oh...kay. The standard shenanigans occur, with the recently-constructed World Trade Center replacing the Empire State Building (the shot of Kong starting to scale the building is bad even among the worst effects shots in the movie).

There's no reason it has to be bad, although once "Kong is the mascot for a greedy petroleum company" leapt from the "maybe" pile into the actual plot, there was also no real chance it was at all likely to be good. Still, it should have been better than this. Between the leaden directing and the unfocused acting, there's not much besides Richard H. Kline's admittedly very lovely cinematography to keep us from really just dwelling right on how damn dumb the script is at every single moment. And it looks ratty - overlit, awkwardly cut together, with typically crummy compositing, outside of the few genuinely brilliant moments (which, in what I'm sure is no coincidence, all take place at night). If this is what bleeding-edge, Oscar-worthy effects work looked like in 1976, it's no wonder that Star Wars made such a gargantuan splash in 1977.

Amazingly, this is so even despite the giant pile of cash De Laurentiis plunked down to make the film. That money, of course, went into making one of the great legendary boondoggles in the annals of cinema: a life-sized robot Kong. It was Rambaldi's magnum opus, and it cost almost $2 million out of the film's $24 million total budget, and the fucking thing didn't work (it's seen in one scene out of the whole movie, with only on the order of half of a minute or less of screentime). That, I think, is the most perfect way to frame this whole movie: it's the King Kong made by history's most ludicrous film producer who wanted 40-foot robot ape as the star of his picture. Everything else about the film follows quite naturally, if we accept that baseline insanity as where the film was always going to idle.

It's so... flagrantly idiotic, building up one massive contrivance after the next, presenting hugely unlikable characters - our designated hero, Jack, hoots and cheers when Kong up and murders about a dozen human beings, and of course Dwan and Fred start off as intolerable jackasses - and offering only the most lugubrious spectacle in return. There are flashes of the lovely film that could have been: the expressions on Kong's face are astoundingly complex and varied, and more of that might have been enough get us invested in him, the way it's so easy to care for Willis O'Brien's sweet dumb brute in the 1933 film. In those scenes where Lange figures out what she's doing (never the ones with Kong, often the ones with Bridges), something potent clicks, and we can almost perceive the wonderful career ahead of her, even for 30 and 45-second stretches. It is pretty, and John Barry's score is pretty emphatic and fun. Tighten it up, give Grodin a couple of good smacks, and shoot down that hilariously wrongheaded robot idea in the planning stages, and even the whole oil subplot almost fails to be the stupidest shit conceivable. Almost.