In honor of the release of Kong: Skull Island here’s the story of a very different kind of King Kong movie:
“Hey, you’re a movie guy. Have you ever heard of King Kung Fu?”
When you become known as the film buff in your office you tend to get plenty “have you ever heard of?” questions, both from those looking to stump you and those simply wanting to discuss their own favorite vaguely obscure movie. In my experience, such questions rarely stump you, but on this particular day I had to ask, “King Kung Fu? What’s that?”
My co-worker’s eyes lit up with delight, clearly eager to tell me the story of my town’s locally made quasi-King Kong movie from the 70s. He even knew some of the people who were in it, and happened to have a DVD on hand to loan out to me. What I watched later that night was part B-movie schlock of the highest order, part time capsule of what my town, Wichita, Kansas, looked like when its amusement park was still functional, convention center and zoo still new and baseball stadium still occupied by an actual minor league baseball team.
The plot is a broad comedy re-telling of King Kong (a gorilla is set loose in the city, fancies a woman named Rae Fey, climbs a tall building) mixed with any number of martial arts movies (this gorilla also happens to have been raised in a Chinese monastery where he learned kung fu), giving King Kung Fu the feel of something born entirely of its era. It reflects both the then-surging martial arts genre (e.g., Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” came out the year Kung Fu Kong started filming) as well as the general craziness of the 70s B-movie scene. This is, after all, the era that gave us such cinematic gems as Killdozer! (1974), about a bulldozer going on a killing spree after being exposed to a meteorite, and Werewolves on Wheels (1971), about, well, a werewolf biker bang who also happen to be Satan-worshippers. Add to that a kung fu-fighting gorilla doggedly pursued by a local sheriff who, for some reason, looks and sounds like John Wayne (played by local TV actor Tom Leahy)? Yeah, that makes sense. Heck, it’s positively tame by comparison.
In fact, King Kung Fu’s tameness was oddly one of its marketing hooks. The trailer [below] ends with the tagline “At last…entertainment for the entire family!”
Quick sidebar: That goofy “we’ll just put out an APB on that A-P-E” line always makes me laugh.
However, very few families ever showed up. Actually, very few people showed up at all. Shot entirely in Wichita between 1974 and 1976, starring local talent (almost all of whom never again worked in movies) and costing $100,000 to make, King Kung Fu didn’t premiere in a theater until 1987, following an 11-year period in which producer Bob Walterscheid had to beg, borrow and steal to secure the necessary $80,000 to fund the editing process. He told the local paper, “Everybody knew going in to kiss their money goodbye unless we were lucky.”
Lucky, they were not. King Kung Fu only ever played in 11 theaters. “What was intended to be our springboard became an albatross, so to speak,” Walterscheid said. “I would have to say we got about 20 percent return on our investment.”
In a more just world, King Kung Fu would have at least ended up in front of Joel or Mike and their robot pals on Mystery Science Theater 3000. They would have found plenty to mock, wooden line readings to undercut, peculiar-looking actors to harp on. For example, the male lead is like a Burt Reynolds stand-in with a higher-pitched voice, naturally opening you up to Smokey & The Gorilla gags.
To be fair, unlike some other MST3K offenders King Kung Fu never takes itself too seriously, signaled right away by an opening segment which reads: “Filmed in Simianscope.” It’s not like anyone who made King Kung Fu is under any delusion about its quality. Walterscheid joked, “Most people look at it in the evening so they can drink. It isn’t the worst movie in the world. It isn’t the best, but it is what it is.”
There’s a pull-quote for the poster: “It is what it is.”
I, however, agree with Walterscheid’s self-deprecating assessment. King Kung Fu is most certainly not the worst movie ever world. There are countless other locally made low-budget films, such as Manos: The Hand of Fate (1966), the pride/shame of El Paso, Texas, which would aspire to King Kung Fu’s charming mediocrity. In recent years, King Kung Fu has even morphed into something of a cult classic for those who are just now discovering it, often through YouTube where a full-length copy is available for illegal streaming, much to Walterscheid’s dismay.
Opinion of King Kung Fu around town has always and continues to be mixed. Is it a local embarrassment or innocent lark? This divide was replicated in my office where my own personal discovery of King Kung Fu and general giddiness over its B-movie charms led to the DVD being passed from person to person. Some returned the DVD with an unmistakable “you are now my enemy for making me watch this piece of shit” expression on their face. Others weren’t nearly as offended but would have rather not subjected themselves to 96 minute of bad movie. Only a couple saw the fun in watching a bad, but sometimes genuinely funny B-movie that also happened to be set in town.
It would be amazing if King Kung Fu was, well, amazing, and if it had launched Walterscheid, writer-director Lance D. Hayes and others into successful film careers and brought more film and TV productions to the city or state (to be fair, at least 80 movies have been filmed in Kansas). Sadly, though, King Kung Fu is not so much a local boys done good story as it is local boys done something. As Hayes put it, “Good or bad, I got a movie made, and how many people can say they did that?”
Today, Hollywood is again mining the King Kong franchise for blockbuster material, likely spending more on a single day of catering for Kong: Skull Island than Bob Walterscheid did in nearly 15 year of filming and editing King Kung Fu. We now have Skull Island and will have, if all goes well, a new King Kong Vs. Godzilla a couple of years from now to enjoy. However, once upon a time a bunch of people in Wichita, Kansas wondered what a martial arts King Kong movie would look like, and after seeing that to fruition they retreated back into cinematic obscurity, never getting nor landing a La La Land-esque “here’s to the dreamers” audition. Few get to be Emma Stone, but back in the 70s even fewer got to be Bob Walterscheid and Lance D. Hayes. They got a movie made. It’s a goofy movie that falls apart at the end, right around the time they clearly ran out of money, but, dammit, it’s a movie.
Hey, there’s another pull quote: King Kung Fu – “Dammit, it’s a movie.”
Last year, Walterscheid and several of the actors got to take their well-deserved bow when they were invited to attend the Tallgrass Film Festival’s special 40th anniversary screening of King Kung Fu. I wasn’t there, but I like to imagine them walking on stage to the all-too-appropriate sounds of “Kung Fu Fighting.”