After conquering the drive-in market with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and the proto-gore Grand Guignol scene in Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), producer Herman Cohen set his sights much higher with Konga (1961), an absurdly inadequate heir to the original King Kong. In its original advertising especially, Konga brazenly promised thrills along the lines of the 1933 classic ("Not since King Kong!" screamed the posters), but instead delivered a throwback to the cheap Monogram mad scientist pictures of the 1940s. This reviewer remembers being deeply disappointed seeing the film for the first time as a child. After impatiently sitting through the first 75 minutes of non-existent thrills, the Big Ape finally appeared during the last reel, brought to unconvincing life via cheap visual effects that compare unfavorably even to Japanese monster movies of the same period. A true challenger to the original Kong probably would have cost at least $4 million in 1961 dollars, but Konga was likely made for around $500,000. King Kong this was not.
Decades later I saw the film again at MGM, in a new 35mm print struck in preparation for the DVD release. That screening proved to be a completely different experience, for as an adult it was possible to appreciate Konga as high camp, with some of the fruitiest dialogue ever written for one of the most over-the-top performances in the history of sci-fi / fantasy cinema. That memorable performer is Michael Gough (later famous as Alfred the Butler in the Batman movies), cast here as Dr. Charles Decker, an aloof and arrogant botanist who emerges from the African jungles after having disappeared and presumed to have died many months before.
Decker returns with a baby chimpanzee, Konga, and strange carnivorous plants heretofore unknown to civilized man. Returning to loving assistant Margaret (Margo Johns) and his position at Essex College, Decker spends his evenings mincing about and trying to put to work his theories of an evolutionary link between human and plant life, which involves injecting Konga with a serum he's devised. Almost instantly the chimp grows into a full-sized adult, and a later injection makes Konga even larger, about six feet tall and perhaps 400 pounds. He does not, however, turn into an incredibly large chimpanzee; instead, Konga the big chimpanzee turns into a man in a gorilla suit. (The IMDb credits George Barrows in the role of Konga, but it may have been another man in Barrows' familiar gorilla skin.)
In a half-dozen or so of Cohen's films, which he co-wrote with Aben Kandel, a domineering scientist uses hypnosis or other means to control a much younger, handsome young man (never a woman) to do his bidding - for instance Whit Bissell's Svengali-like power over Teenage Werewolf Michael Landon in that film, and Michael Gough's domination over his assistant-turned-killer in Horrors of the Black Museum. In much of his work but the later films especially, there's also a gay subtext running through these pictures, perhaps most overtly in Black Museum. The same template is used for Konga, only in this case the character of the dominated young man is an ape, making the picture play downright perverse at times. ("We know each other so much better than the world suspects," says Decker of Konga.)
Another facet of Cohen's pictures is their general air of misogyny, which might be offensive were his pictures not so hilariously goofy. Margo Johns' Margaret is a very typical Cohen woman, a long-suffering and self-destructive female mooning after Dr. Decker for no clear reason, considering he continually treats her like something less than dirt while openly, clumsily lusting after buxom blonde college student Sandra (Claire Gordon). For all their suffering and heartache, Cohen's women inevitably perish in the final reel, and often exist solely to give the male protagonists someone to talk to.
And indeed it's that talk, the exchanges between Decker and Margaret especially, which give Konga the campy charm it has: "What are you having with your poached eggs," Margaret asks over breakfast, "Murder?"
The odd thing of it all is that Gough was and is a fine actor capable of a subtlety completely absent in Konga. Even within the horror genre, in which he has been strongly associated with since Horror of Dracula (1958), his performances have varied greatly, suggesting that some of his directors have encouraged him to camp it up, or perhaps that, without a strong director/script to guide him, Gough took it upon himself to play these parts in the grand Vincent Price manner.
Outrageous as he is, Gough much more than the cheap giant ape effects is reason enough to suffer through Konga. Along with Christopher Lee, Gough is virtually the last survivor of classic British horror cinema, and as bad as They Came from Beyond Space (1966), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), Trog (1970), Horror Hospital (1973) and countless others might be, Gough's presence was always greatly appreciated by genre fans. Gough and Cohen (who can be glimpsed early in the film, appearing as an extra buying a newspaper) did five films together and remained friends until Cohen's death.
Extravagantly billed in "SpectraMation," a non-existent widescreen animation process (so the name would suggest), what's onscreen for the big finale are little more than a few modest miniature sets and clumsy, obvious matte shots. In some scenes a completely un-lifelike doll stands-in for Gough when Konga carries Decker in his hands through the streets of London. ("Put me down, you fool!") In other shots, the actor is matted into the action, but since Gough is clearly standing, not dangling, from Konga's clutches, the effect is unusually phony.
Video & Audio
Konga is presented in a disappointing unenhanced 4:3 widescreen transfer matted to about 1.66:1. The ratio chosen by MGM appears incorrect. Financed as it was primarily by American International Pictures (AIP), Cohen's agreement was probably to deliver a film in either CinemaScope (or its equivalent) or 1.85:1, which this seems to be. Reformatted for 16:9 TVs, the image is almost perfectly composed with a bit extra headroom, further suggesting 1.85:1 is correct. Originally printed by Eastman Color, hues are strangely muted (though probably accurate to the original release), with weak flesh tones but strong primary colors, especially the green and purple walls in the background, the cumulative effect at times resembling the look of a hand-painted lobby card. The mono sound is fine; English and French subtitles are available to those who want them.
As usual for recent Sony titles, viewers are assaulted with multiple accusations of pirating ("You wouldn't steal a car...") and stern warnings from the FBI and Interpol before sitting down to watch this $11 DVD. These endless warnings doubtlessly are annoying far more consumers than they are deterring would-be thieves. There are no Extra Features.
Just as Konga was originally made to cash in on the original King Kong, Sony's DVD clearly hopes to snare consumers desperate for more giant ape action in the wake of the Peter Jackson's big-budget King Kong remake. Somehow, the timing of this DVD seems entirely appropriate.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.