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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Konga (Blu-ray)
Konga (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // December 3, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 25, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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After conquering the drive-in market with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and proto-gore Grand Guignol 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/PRC mad scientist pictures of the 1940s. This reviewer remembers being deeply disappointed seeing the film for the first time as a youngster. 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 crude 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 made for around $500,000. King Kong this was not.

Decades later I saw the film again at MGM, in a new 35mm print. 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. (The unconvincing rubber puppets resemble Venus flytraps and something like boxing gloves with tongues.) Returning to adoringly faithful 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 gorilla, Cohen and co-writer Aben Kandel unaware or unconcerned that they're two entirely different species of primates. Further, the big ape is from this point a man in a "monster" gorilla suit quite unlike real-world gorillas. (The ape-suit is the one often used by American George Barrows though apparently worn by Paul Stockman in Konga.)

In a half-dozen or so of Cohen's films, which he co-wrote with 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 logical 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?" (Margo Johns genuinely looks embarrassed having to read that line.)

The odd thing of it all is that Gough was 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. One of the last survivors of classic British horror cinema, in movies as bad as They Came from Beyond Space (1966), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), Trog (1970), Horror Hospital (1973) and countless others, Gough's presence was always greatly appreciated by genre fans who mourned his passing in 2011 at the age of 94. 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 in 2002.

Extravagantly billed in "SpectraMation," a non-existent widescreen animation process (so its 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 because his legs never dangle but instead look glued together.

(The only fairly elaborate miniature is one of Big Ben, and watching the new Blu-ray, I began to wonder: could that miniature be the same one built for the logo seen at the beginning of movies made by Britain's London Films? They had stopped making new movies a few years prior, and the effects shots in Konga are from precisely the same angle, probably because it appears only two sides of the tower were built. And, significantly, Konga does not destroy it. Could it have been lying around, and Cohen's effects crew "borrowed it?")

Video & Audio

Licensed from MGM, which issued a flat widescreen transfers many years back, Kino's new Blu-ray of Konga is a winner, the 1.66:1 transfer derived from a new 2K master. The image is impressively sharp throughout (excepting dissolves and other process shots) and the primary, garish color really pops as never before. The DTS-HD Master audio, mono, is also fine. English subtitles accompany this Region "A" disc.

Extra Features

Considering all the outré Kino titles accorded audio commentary tracks, it's almost bizarre this lacks one entirely, and that supplements are limited to a radio spot, image gallery, and trailer.

Parting Thoughts

Konga is a pretty awful movie, but for Michael Gough's over-the-top scenery-chewing, it can be enormously enjoyable when viewed with the proper spirit. Recommended.

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