September 17, 2012

King Kitsch

Konga (1961) - Poster
Now Playing: Konga (1961)

Pros: An ultra-hammy, ultra-mad scientist; Ripe, unintentionally (?) hilarious dialog; A smorgasbord of sci-fi cliches; Cheap effects, including a laughable gorilla suit
Cons: All of the above if you're not in the right frame of mind
Added Bonus: See She Blogged by Night for other entries in the Camp & Cult Blogathon!

I doubt that Merian C. Cooper fully appreciated what he was starting when he created King Kong.  In the decades following the big ape's appearance, the movie-going public's taste for all things colossal grew, slowly at first, then in the 1950s soared to the box office skies fueled by atom age fears. Atomic testing unleashed The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Godzilla (1954) on an unsuspecting world. Then the always inventive Japanese squared the circle by pitting the old against the new in King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962). The rest, as they say, is movie history writ LARGE.

And then there's Konga. Now mind you, Konga was not the first Anglo-American co-production featuring a giant beast loose in the streets -- The Giant Behemoth rampaged through London in 1959, thanks in part to Eugene Lourie, the man who introduced us to The Beast from all those watery fathoms. (Coincidentally, Lourie added yet another giant beast, Gorgo, to UK film lore the same year that Konga debuted.)

But where the Beast, the original Godzilla, the Behemoth and Gorgo played the giant monster subgenre pretty straight, Konga charted its own wild and wacky course. In fact, Konga is damned difficult to classify. Yes, it features a gigantic ape menacing panicked city dwellers, but it also features a floridly mad scientist; wacky scientific theories; bizarre, man-eating plants; groovin', hip college kids; a busty blonde damsel in distress; and even finds a couple minutes to show us a travelogue of central Africa. Konga plays like the result of a bet made over a bunch of drinks in a Hollywood or London bar: "-- I'll betcha you can't stuff all these B movie cliches in there and still make a watchable movie!  --Oh yeah, well, I'll see you at the premiere!"

Michael Gough as Prof. Charles Decker
If you ever encounter passionate intensity like this,
run for your life!
Konga starts out innocently enough with the return to London of botanist Charles Decker (Michael Gough), who had spent a year in a remote Ugandan village after his plane crashed. He's brought back a cute young chimpanzee whom he's named Konga, and knowledge of the unique properties of certain species of insectivorous plants courtesy of the village witchdoctor. At the airport, he tells a group of reporters that he's discovered a new, revolutionary link between plants and animals that could cause "a lot of textbooks to be torn up." The next thing we see, he's tearing up plants from his own greenhouse/laboratory to make room for the new African carnivorous plants, much to the consternation of his long-suffering housekeeper and assistant Margaret (Margo Johns).

Her consternation turns to horror when Decker calmly fetches a gun and shoots the house cat after it laps up some spilled serum extracted from the exotic plants.
"You fool! You think I want the biggest experiment of my life menaced by a cat? Even those few drops might have made Tabby swell up to huge proportions! We're not ready for a cat the size of a leopard running through the streets!"
Okay, it looks like the good professor has become a tad unhinged… but you ain't seen nothing' yet!  He proves to the wide-eyed Margaret that his plant serum can alter the shape and size of animals by injecting little Konga, who immediately transforms into a large, mature chimpanzee. Oh, and it just so happens that he added some seeds to the serum which, as he learned from the witchdoctor, affect the will and make the subject susceptible to outside commands. (Take notes, as that will be important later.)

After he gets a dressing down from the college Dean (Austin Trevor) for mentioning his wacky theories to the press, Charles decides to take his experiments on Konga to the next level. The next injection turns the chimp into a large (but not yet gigantic) gorilla. (Attentive viewers will have noted that earlier on, Charles had claimed that the serum could alter the size and shape of animals, so the screenplay covers itself on this supposed discrepancy.) The demented scientist decides to also test the serum's hypnotic properties by commanding the formerly meek chimp to kill Dean Foster in the dead of night. All in the name of science of course!

Konga and his mentor
Professor Decker has a captive audience.
At this point the movie morphs from a sort of African travelogue to an updated Murders in the Rue Morgue, as the police inspectors puzzle over a neck snapped by impossibly strong hands and black animal hairs found at the scene. Next in line for Decker's "experiments" is a rival Indian botanist, Prof. Tagore, who tells Decker a little too much about his work in -- you guessed it -- the use of exotic plant serum to genetically alter animal cells. What a coincidence! (Tagore is played by George Pastell, a Cypriot character actor who popped up frequently in British movies and TV whenever vaguely menacing Indians or Middle Easterners were called for. He worked quite a bit for Hammer, appearing in The Mummy, 1959; The Stranglers of Bombay, 1959; Maniac, 1963; The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, 1965; and She, 1965; among others.)

Margaret quickly catches onto what Decker is doing, but instead of turning him into the police, she tries to blackmail him into marrying her. Margaret's character is another in a long line of B movie female assistants secretly pining for the obsessed scientist who barely notices her. But Margaret takes the cliche even further by being so coldly calculating and selfish. She's more than willing to sacrifice a life or two to snatch her man and become a respectable professor's wife. But even she has her limits. As she reads about Decker's/Konga's latest murder in the morning paper, she finally explodes in exasperation at her husband-to-be with one of the film's most surreal, unintentionally hilarious lines:  "What are you having with your poached egg? Murder?"

Doubly unfortunate for Margaret, Decker is not only a murderer, but an unapologetic lech as well. He spends much of the movie trying to entice one of his more shapely students (Sandra, played by Claire Gordon) into helping him out with some "extracurricular" work. When Decker makes an extracurricular pass at Sandra in the greenhouse, Margaret finally decides she's had enough and injects Konga yet again with the serum so that he can help her deal with the incorrigible professor. Big, bad things happen as a result, and the movie morphs again into the giant-monster-loose-on-the-city-streets subgenre that we all know and love.

Konga rampages through the streets of London
"Hey, do you have a permit to shoot that giant gorilla?"
As big as Konga gets in the latter part of the movie (big enough for the army to have to deal with him), he seems puny in comparison to the colossally over-the-top acting of Michael Gough. Konga is unusually talky for a giant monster flick. At every opportunity, the smug, arrogant Decker is expounding on his bizarre theories and explaining his genius to the press, to Margaret, to the Dean, to Dr. Tagore, to his students, and to you, the poor, long-suffering viewer. No one, including Konga, can get a word in edgewise. Konga finally snaps and rampages through London in the movie's closing minutes. Wiser filmmakers might have reserved at least a little more screen time for the major payoff, i.e., the giant monster, but then, Gough/Decker is a giant ego monster in his own right, and commands every bit as much attention as the giant ape. Like Konga, you can't help but be mesmerized by lines like this:
"The poor layman doesn't know what he's missing. The feeling of losing yourself, not only in work, but in discovery -- a wonderful feeling of peeling off layer after layer, like petals from some rare flower… and finally achieving the ultimate secret! I mean, taking a form of life in one stage and changing it into a higher one in a matter of minutes, where nature itself would take millions of years. … You know what I mean, not only change, but the Godlike power of creation!"
Gough is perhaps best known for his relatively small part of Alfred the butler in the Tim Burton Batman movies, which unfortunately obscures a very rich, very lengthy career in theater, movies and television spanning seven (count 'em!) decades (and with a 1979 Tony award thrown in for good measure). In all those decades of work, Gough was perhaps never more hammy or fun to watch than in the string of B movies he made with writer-producer Herman Cohen (the man who created such immortal titles as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein).

In the late '50s, Cohen was making film deals with the UK's Anglo Amalgamated Films for American International Pictures. In an interview with Tom Weaver (Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants, McFarland, 1994), Cohen relates that he first became aware of Gough through his role in Hammer's wildly popular Horror of Dracula (1958); Cohen's London office just happened to be in the same building as Hammer Studios. Cohen convinced Anglo Amalgamated to put up some money for a nasty little picture, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), featuring a mad crime writer who hypnotizes a young man into committing unspeakable crimes in order to aid him in his research (sound vaguely familiar?).  Horrors is notorious for a gut-wrenching opening scene in which a woman's eyes are gouged out by a pair of binoculars booby-trapped with steel spikes -- supposedly based on a real Scotland Yard case! Gough continued to ham it up outrageously for Cohen's Konga and another cult favorite, Black Zoo (1963). His last two roles for Cohen, in Berserk (1967) and Trog (1970) were tame in comparison (no doubt due to Joan Crawford's starring role in both -- no one, but no one, upstaged Joan!)

In the same interview, Cohen tells an amusing story of almost getting thrown out of England because of Konga. The producer wouldn't take no for an answer when told that there was no way he could get permission to shoot the battle royale with the giant ape in London's Embankment area. He schmoozed with the chief inspector for the neighborhood, and when told that the inspector didn't have a color TV at home, went out and bought him one. Voila, he had his permit:
"The thing that I didn't mention to him was that, at the finale, all hell was going to break loose-- that we were going to shoot sub-machine guns, bazookas, etc., etc. I purposely didn't tell him this! … Well, the [emergency number] got something like three hundred phone calls-- people thought London was being invaded! This was only fifteen years or so after World War II, and they were still worried. I had a lot of apologies to make -- a lot!" [Ibid.]
Well, Herman Cohen may have had to make apologies for Konga, but I won't. It's talky and cheesy and a bizarre mix of B sci-fi cliches, but it's also very entertaining thanks to Michael Gough's generous portion of ham. It's also available on a nice MGM DVD release that makes its lurid colors and cheesy effects pop on your flat screen.

"Not since 'King Kong'...has the screen exploded with such mighty fury and spectacle!"

3 comments:

  1. That is hilarious - I can't believe they set off WWIII just to film the finale! And there is nothing that is not classy about a dude in an ape suit. Great write up, thanks!

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  2. Apparently you can read a spiced-up book adaptation of Konga by Dean Owen [Dudley Dean McGaughey] from Monarch Books (the same folks who owned Charlton Comics, who also published the Konga comics books by Steve Ditko). See http://srbissette.com/?p=1593

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the info-- I was not aware of either the book adaptation or the Charlton comics. Steve Ditko is one of my all-time favorite artists, but somehow his Konga stuff flew under, over or around my radar.

      I hesitate to ask what "spiced up" means, but of course, if I'm curious enough I can always check it out for myself. :)

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