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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Konga’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you lose a lot if you don’t get there fast enough, no matter how big you are about it…

Konga (1961)
Distributed by: American International Pictures (in Western Hemisphere)
Directed by: John Lemont

When you’re promised a kaiju going on a rampage, you’d expect that that would be the main point of the pic:

In the original King Kong, that’s what we get, as promised. Our subject shows up at the 42-minute mark, which out of a 100-minute film, gives us plenty of time for us to have a rampage by a giant gorilla on screen.

So, when you’re promised the same in a King Kong knock-off, you should expect something along those lines, right…?

Right…?

Yes, with an opening like that, there are of course going to be a few small spoilers…

Our film opens after the credits with a yellow small plane flying over the African jungle. It doesn’t end well, as the craft soon plunges into the trees and is engulfed in a fireball.

We then get a scene of a news announcer, sounding like he works for the BBC, but with none of their signage present in the studio. He tells us that the plane carried the botanist Dr. Charles Decker (Michael Gough), who is assumed to have died in the crash.

Faster than your average professor can say to the back of the room, “May I have the next slide, please?” it’s a year later, and Dr. Decker is on the front page of the newspaper being sold outside St. Paul’s. He’s been found alive, and arrives at the airport to a much smaller crowd of reporters than you’d have thought, considering he was on the front page.

There, he tells us that he was saved from the wreckage by native tribesmen, and he spent a year among them studying the plants in the area. He goes on to say that he came back with some fascinating findings he’s going to publish, along with the baby chimp Konga he carries through customs like he was a comfort dog.

Speaking of comfort, we find Dr. Decker at home with Margaret (Margo Johns), who is as he puts it, his “secretary, assistant, housekeeper, confidante, and most of all [his] good friend.” The fact that Margaret has to press him to say that, while noting that he cared more for his lab being in order than how she was, should have been a really, really big red flag, yet she’s still with him doing as he asks.

He does explain to her that Konga is so much more important because the baby chimp will help prove his theories, and will according to Dr. Decker, “become the first link in modern evolution between plant and animal life,” which… Well, no, it doesn’t make sense. It was nonsense when the film came out, and becomes horribly redundant by the time Lewis Thomas writes The Lives of a Cell.

Soon, Denton clears out his greenhouse and transplants the specimens he came back with (again, without anyone at customs stopping him): large, upscaled carnivorous plants. Mind you, Dention claims that he turned them from insectivores into carnivores, but no one in the film or working with screenwriters Aben Kandel and Herman Cohen bother to fix this error, which should give you some sense of how well thought out any of this is.

The new plants become important to Denton’s work when he uses extracts from them to inject into little Konga, first turning him into an adult chimp, and then ultimately into… a guy in a bad-looking gorilla suit. Unless they were going for having the link “between plant and animal life” turn out to be changing branches of the Homininae family, this also is meaningless.

Dr. Denton’s pursuit of this line of inquiry brings him to some pretty dark places. He has a student in his class, Sandra (Claire Gordon), who wants to be studying under him in pursuit of knowledge, while Denton just wants her under him ifyouknowwhatImean… This annoys to no end Bob (Jess Conrad), a fellow student who fancies Sandra and doesn’t care for the instructor getting in his way.

Surprisingly, it’s not having an inappropriate relationship with a student that gets Dr. Denton in trouble with Dean Foster (Austin Trevor), but his wild claims about his research when speaking to the press. The Dean is on the verge of formally putting Denton on sabbatical, but before he can do so, Konga is put to use by his benefactor, and the Dean meets an untimely, brutal end…

We continue along like this following the same pattern: Someone ticks off Denton, Denton hypnotizes Konga to kill that person, rinse and repeat. Konga is used to get rid of two of the doctor’s rivals, fellow scientist Professor Tagore (George Pastell) whose research is in the same area as Denton’s, and Bob. Things look to be going swimmingly for Denton until he tries to force himself on Sandra, at which point Margaret tries to shock the money tonight, which doesn’t go well…

So: We finally get to the meat of the movie, when we get a British kaiju on the rampage…

At the one-hour thirteen-minute mark…

With only seventeen minutes left in the film…

It’s hard to say which is more unforgiveable, that only 18% of this giant monster film actually has a giant monster in it, or that those seventeen minutes are practically impossible to enjoy. Cohen would tell Tom Weaver in Attack of the Monster Movie Makers that post-production on Konga took eighteen months to complete, but the final product suggests more that they didn’t actually try and do anything during that time until the night before deadline.

The film’s less of a rip-off of King Kong than it is of The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Given how many times American International went to the Edgar Allen Poe well, it’s not out of character for them. And having a guy in a gorilla suit at human scale is definitely a lot cheaper easier to film than putting that actor on a bunch of miniature sets.

If anything, the bigger monster that might have been able to carry the film on his own was Dr. Denton. As written, the character’s a mad scientist who checks off so many boxes on the form listing horrible things to do: Unethical research. Disingenuous accounts of his conduct and research methods.

Exploitation of his assistants. Violating university policies. Inappropriate relations with students. His behavior comes close to how Crick and Watson treated Rosalind Franklin, before we consider the murders, sexual assault, and storing dangerous biologics in a residential area.

Michael Gough takes all of this off the page and has it go on the centrifuge for way too long. He’s a display of arrogant diversions to keep you from seeing the over-the-top evil he’s about to thrown himself into with gusto. You’re not sure as you watch him doing this whether he doesn’t know how much he’s hamming it up, or doesn’t care; for all we know he deliberately took it as far as he did out of contempt for the material. You almost feel sorry for the rest of the cast, trying (in some cases badly) to keep a straight face while their star nearly knocks down the walls better than the ape does…

Amazingly, Lemont is able to work around Gough’s mania and poor special effects and still turn in something interesting to look at. Having the ability to shoot in Eastmancolor with a bright popping pallet allows him to cover a multitude of sins, until the last seventeen minutes when the scenes set at night blur his backgrounds and destroys the illusion.

In addition to being in color, Konga is as far from its inspiration as it could be. About the only thing the film shares with King Kong are the racist, colonialist subtexts, which since England had only just started decolonization makes perfect sense. Other than that, it’s a small movie trying to be what it can’t and maybe shouldn’t have been.

Which unfortunately didn’t realize it couldn’t deliver the goods until it was too late in the game…

 

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