Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s Kong: Skull Island.
Before the King of Kaijus takes on Kong in a couple years time, another maverick indie director offered us a more grounded take on the myth of the giant ape. Not too grounded, mind, as it’s set in the seventies and stars John C. Reilly as a stranded, borderline loopy pilot and Sam Jackson as a polemic military leader.
Kong: Skull Island didn’t land with critics in the same way Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla did back in 2014. That movie, which pitched the titular creature as The Undertaker coming back for his millionth Wrestlemania in a row and just barely making it out of the ocean, was more bothered with the people who were maybe getting squished under his massive feet, than the beast himself.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings Of Summer) wisely eschews this idea (though it worked remarkably well in Godzilla) to make his King Kong the central character throughout. That doesn’t stop a wildly unbelievable Tom Hiddleston (in a vastly tightening tank top) and Brie Larson (armed only with a camera and a quizzical look) trying to steal the limelight.
Delighting purists no end, Vogt-Roberts brings Kong back to his empathetic roots. He doesn’t necessarily rescue the girl, Fay Wray-style (one couldn’t possibly imagine Larson swooning in quite the same manner as the iconic starlet) but Kong makes his presence known with cool, calculating and quietly-assured menace.
When Reilly’s character tells the assembled crew of miscreant soldiers that Kong is king around these here parts, we believe him. Far from being the scariest thing hiding in the jungle, there are tree spiders, giant water buffalo and the aptly-named skull crawlers, which further tie Skull Island‘s to Jurassic Park, arguably the greatest monster adventure movie ever made.
The cast of horrifying creatures assembled here is impressive, if ultimately forgettable. Where Vogt-Roberts excels is in selling the tactility of the world to us, shooting on location in Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia. It makes all the difference, the island given an otherworldly, yet irresistibly grounded feel throughout.
Horror fans will delight in spotting an explicit nod to Cannibal Holocaust‘s most infamous shot, but this is assuredly (grown up) Jurassic Park territory. There are some pulse-quickening sequences and shocking deaths, but Skull Island‘s qualifications as a Not Quite Horror movie have more to do with atmosphere and the wide variety of monstrous oddities on show than full-on scares.
Still, with a view to Godzilla and Kong going head to head in 2019, this is a nice pairing with Edwards’ similarly dark (but still family-friendly) Godzilla. It’s certainly more colourful and goofy, but that nod to one of the most shocking horror movies of all time, along with the many beasties on offer suggest Vogt-Roberts meant for us to take more from this excursion than purely what’s at surface level.