1961/Director: John Lemont/Writers: Herman Cohen, Aben Kandel
Cast: Michael Gough, Margo Johns, Jess Conrad, Claire Gordon, Austin Trevor, Jack Watson, George Pastell
Producer/writer Herman Cohen is a name that will be popping up here at the Cafe on a regular basis. Eventually there will be posts on his great dirve-in classics The Bride of the Gorilla, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, his AIP classics like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and How to Make a Monster, and Horrors of the Black Museum. In fact Konga is not our first introduction to the works of this dedicated film-maker. I reviewed Trog starring Joan Crawford and Michael Gough, a few posts back and it, like Konga, was one of the color films Cohen made while in England during the 60’s and 70’s. He would also make the thriller Berserk (I do not even know if I have that film here or not. I need a hunchbacked, mute assistant to sort out all the stuff I have on DVDs or on my hard-drive) with Crawford while in England and I understand most people like it more than Trog, but I thought Trog was pretty darned entertaining. Appearing in five of his British productions was actor Michael Gough who seems to have been given free reign with his roles and he had the time of his life hamming them up to the extreme. While some consider his ultimate over-the-top achievement to be the insane curator and scientist Edmond Bancroft in Horrors of the Black Museum I think he is utterly hysterical as Dr. Charles Decker in the sadly underrated Konga.
During the late 50’s and into the 60’s giant animals and insect swarmed over the surface of the planet, usually the products of atomic radiation or explosions. Most of these unruly brutes were confined to downtown Tokyo or the deserts of the Southwest United States. But for a brief periods some giant monster decided to vacation in Europe and we were treated to some fairly intriguing films like 20 Millions to Earth, Reptilcus, Gorgo, The Giant Behemoth and a couple others before the creatures all had their visas revoked and sent back to Japan and the States. Cohen seemed to have an ongoing interest in killer ape type films and with Konga he made perhaps his best man-in-a-monkey suit ever. The title obviously is a reference to King Kong and in one poster I saw online the title was given as King Konga. Konga is a movie that is really savaged online and is undeserving of the venom it receives. But then maybe these film viewers never grew up with Saturday afternoon Tarzan films or late night creature feature fare. It may be unimaginable to people born after at least the invention of the VCR, mush less DVDs and computer media players, that there was a time when there were basically three TV stations to choose from and the programs on those stations represented the totality of what you were going to see on the tube at any given moment. Of course there were affordable drive-ins and matinees back then but when you a kid with no money and no car you learn somehow to make the best of what you have before you. I grew up in a world where huge Styrofoam boulders hurled by Hercules always bounced off people before they slowly collapsed. In real life they would be flattened to a pulp instantly. I also grew up on more than a few men-in-monkey suit adventures. And come to think I do not know if I have ever seen a genuine gorilla run amok in a movie. The costumes either got better after 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes or they began using computer graphics after that technology developed. What actor would actually want to deal with a real gorilla in a rage?
Make no mistake that the most enjoyable aspects of Konga are Gough’s take no prisoner style of overacting and the corny ape costume. The dialog is hokey but not in an American B-movie style, but in a British B-movie style and I have come to see that is certainly a difference in the way Americans approach a low budget horror film compared to their British counterparts. While Yanks seem to realize they have a turkey on their hands they have some fun with it, the Brits really seem to want to raise even something as ludicrous as Konga to some higher level. Luckily director John Lemont (born in Canada but lived and worked in England) and Gough follow Cohen’s B-movie instincts and Konga never becomes anything too serious. If what I just said sounds like some sort of criticism of British cinema let me be clear that some of my favorite films of all time were British films of the late 50’s to early 70’s. I do not mean only horror films but the social dramas that starred great actors like Terrance Stamp, Tom Courtenay, Dirk Bogarde and James Fox. These are some of the best movies ever made. But we are here to discuss Konga aren’t we?
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Konga is more about the maniacal obsessions of one Dr. Charles Decker than a giant ape. The King Sized gorilla does not really appear until the last fifteen minutes of the movie actually. There are actually four stages of development for Konga: a baby chip, a grown chimp, a grown gorilla and then a giant gorilla that actually does little damage to downtown London. Not as much as Godzilla would do in his sleep in Tokyo or Osaka anyway. Botanist and University Professor Decker was presumed dead in the jungles of Africa after his small engine plane went down and burst into flames. He suddenly appears from the wilds of deepest, darkest Africa one day with a little chimpanzee in tow. Now this scene is simply marvelous. Actor Gough looks utterly uncomfortable with the little chimp and as he is giving an interview at the airport he is holding the chimp and compulsively rubs the darned thing nearly bald. In one scene he is leaning forward in the chair and rubbing the chimps ear thoughtlessly. This scene is mentioned by a few other reviewers of the film so I am not alone in my amazement at how unrelaxed Gough seems to be with the little guy. Anyway, during the interview Dr. Decker explains that he stayed in the jungles and lived with natives of his own accord for one year in order to pursue experiments with some of the insect eating plant life there, that he calls insectivorous with a mad twinge in his voice, and that he has discovered some sort of genetic link between the plants and human beings and that soon his discoveries will have many biology textbooks rewritten. With no further delays he is back to his post at Essex College and his extremely nice campus housing with a laboratory in the basement. He shares the details of his adventures with his assistant Margaret over a warm glass of brandy. As the conversation progresses it becomes clear in a vague British way that Decker and Margaret (Margo Johns) were once more than just friends. Decker is as cold and distant and just down right callus as any pompous snob could be and yet Margaret seems to the desperate type who fears being an old lonely spinster. Her feathers are ruffled still more by all the attention and concern Decker lavishes on Konga, the baby chimp. Decker is clear that Konga is crucial to his experiments in genetics and that the chimp will change forever the world when he helps to prove that there is an evolutionary link between plants and animals.
While he lived with the natives I the jungles of Uganda he discovered that certain plants had properties that when concocted into the proper potion can make life forms grow larger. Exceptionally larger. And if that weren’t enough the potion also puts the receiver under the mental control of the person who administers it to them. That is down right convenient. The first thing to do, after shooting the house cat who licked up a little of the potion, is to give little baby Konga an injection in his rump. I wonder what Gough was thinking as he had to bend down behind this little chimpanzee and, I assume, pretend to stick a hypo in its arse. After some worbly visual effects Konga is now an adult chimpanzee who is soon serving tea on a platter to Margaret, who has now warmed up to the furry fella a bit more. Decker’s greenhouse is now filled with fantastic insectivorous plants. One looks like a huge egg plant with its tongue hanging out. Another is a huge Venus Fly Trap, the type you used to be able to order out of the back of comic books, only much larger.
Well Decker must still pay the bills and he back in the classroom showing a film documentary he made while living with in native village. He explains how lucky he was to rescue all of the photographic equipment from the quickly descending aircraft before he bailed out, and let the pilot plummet to a fiery death. He has some after class words with his curvy, bombshell student named Sandra Banks (Claire Gordon), who not only fills out a sweater quite nicely but is also his most promising and dedicated student. He wants Sandra to assist him with his class more and with some outside projects as well. She is tickled to no end to help the professor in his studies but Decker is simply oozing with lechery. None too happy about the situation is Bob (Jess Konrad) who is smitten with Sandra, but she has made it clear to him that her studies and career come first. The guy would probably be portrayed as jock in an American film but here is simply some awkward nice guy who is sure he can win the girl if he is given the chance. Later Decker has a meeting with Dean Foster who read some about Decker’s claims of standing modern evolutionary theory on its head in the newspaper interview form the airport. The Dean and Decker are soon in a heated debate where basically Decker is called a madman and told he will have to take some time off to rethink his position on established school approved theories. Decker is a guy who easily gets pissed off and when you take a egomaniac with a volatile temper and mix it in with a super-growth serum that also gives the administer mind control abilities and I think you may have some serious problems on your hands.
Decker takes none to kindly to being called mad and having his tenure threatened so he hightails it home and injects the tea serving Konga with yet another dose of the serum and after some more worbly visual effects Konga transforms into a full grown gorilla, or a full grown man in a fairly decent (for the time) gorilla suit. No point in splitting hairs here over the fact that a gorilla and chimpanzee are two different species since this is a minor flaw in most all ape films. And anyway, what would a giant chimp look like? A gorilla most likely. Now this leads to another issue most all ape flicks had, and that is how in the hell can a full grown gorilla get around town without causing a commotion. Now I suppose here Konga only had to get from Decker’s dwellings on Essex College campus to Dean Foster’s place but it still stretches the imagination a tad that someone would not notice the brute lumbering about. Needless to say he bursts ungraciously into the Dean’s study and kills him. Decker is a suspect because the heated argument (which he terms a debate between professionals) was over heard by Dean Foster’s secretary. Decker is as arrogant and pompous as any man can be while being interviewed at Scotland Yard but is released because the police are looking for either an animal or incredibly strong man.
Decker holds a cocktail party later for friends and faculty and there meets Professor Tagore (George Pastell from the excellent Hammer version of The Mummy) who it just so happens is conducting almost identical experiments as Decker and is at the point where he is ready to announce his finding to the scientific community. Decker has not worked this hard to be robbed of glory now and so later he pays Tagore a visit at his laboratory and brings Konga along with him to make sure his point is clear. The scene where Gough orders Konga to attack is simply fantastic. He bellows the command in a maniacal fashion that perhaps on he or Richard Burton could have pulled off. Now that Decker has found a way to handle problems with anyone who stands in his way he decides to use Konga to remove the obstacle between him and the luscious Sandra; duffy Bob. Any ambivalence Decker may had about how to settle matters with Bob are erased when Bob basically assault him and kicks his academic ass while Decker’s and some of his class are on a field trip. Bob is simply jealous and lets Decker know he does not want him interfering in his romantic plans for Sandra (though she has basically blown him off repeatedly). Well Konga shows up and kills poor Bob right in front of his own home. I think all these murders takes place in a span of time of just a few days. Decker just cannot control himself. Margaret has let Decker know too that she is absolutely aware of what he is doing and yet she will not go to police so long as he agrees to make an honest women of her finally, to which he agrees with the utmost sincerity, until her back is turned and it is plan that Decker is not the least bit interested in Margaret as anything other than someone to fill up his syringes.
In what is the most unsettling scene of the movie Decker invites Sandra to his place to show her his research and offers her the position of his assistant. He shows her the hot and humid green house with all his strange plants and then loses all control and then starts manhandling her in a scene that Gough must have decided had to be utterly over the top to work. He plants the most awkward and sloppy series of slobbery kisses ever put on film on her reluctant face while proclaiming his love for her. Poor guy must have really gotten lonely out in the jungles. Margaret over hears the entire nauseating conversation and in a jealous rage runs down to poor Konga’s cage and inject him yet again and gain control of him. Problem is she gives him just a wee bit too much and he grows to King Kong size proportions and crashed through the roof of the house. He picks up an immobile rag doll version of Margaret and throws it to the ground and kills her. Sandra has her arm caught by a huge Venus Fly Trap plant and is, presumably since we never see it happen, killed by it in some grisly fashion. Outside Konga grabs Decker, who keeps yelling “let me down Konga” and heads off on a less than climatic rampage into downtown London. I cannot think of another giant ape film where a man is held by the beast and not a beautiful female that the ape has become enamored with. Actually nothing much happens to London at all and Konga is actually killed by machine gun fire from the British Army who arrive on the scene in mere minutes. Konga hurls Decker to the ground before dying and in the final scene reverts back to a baby chimp in a pretty strange looking closing shot. One of Gough’s “greatest” performances in my humble opinion.