Saturday, 15 March 2014

Konga (1961)

A deliriously mess of a film, Konga represents an all too rare UK based attempt at a giant monster film. With a great performance from Michael Gough, some endearingly awful special effects, and a script that mixes a range of influences from King Kong to Poe, we get a film that is ridiculous but never less than entertaining.

After disappearing for a year in Africa, Dr Charles Decker comes back with a baby chimp and some crazy ideas about a way of growing plants and animals to an enormous size. As he slowly loses his mind he decides to use his discoveries in order to get rid of his enemies – but has he created something way beyond his control?

Despite the British setting and cast, Konga was actually the brainchild of American producer Herman Cohen, the man behind 50s horror hits such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and How to Make a Monster. Cohen moved to the UK to make the delightfully lurid thriller Horrors of the Black Museum, which also starred Michael Gough as an arrogant sadist with a taste for murder, albeit one who works in journalism rather than science, and the film proved to be a big success. When asked to make a follow up, Cohen opted to move into more fantasy rooted territory.

Although King Kong is the most obvious influence, judging from the posters at least, the only element borrowed for Konga is the presence of a giant ape, and that does not show until the final act. A more obvious source is the Edgar Allen Poe story “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, from which it borrows the idea of a primate being trained to carry out the murderous wishes of its owner. However, an interesting twist on this comes when Decker's assistant Margaret also trains Konga to bump off what she sees as her rivals for the Doctor's affections. This makes Konga become something akin to the "Monsters from the Id" from Forbidden Planet.

Gough chews the scenery from the outset, but also gives Decker an oily, sinister aspect that stops his performance becoming grating. Make no mistake, he is definitely evil - he shoots his pet cat dead "in case" it interferes with his experiments - but Gough never resorts to foaming at the mouth theatrics, instead playing Decker as cool and sometimes charming, which would make for a chilling character if the situations were not so ridiculous and the dialogue not so portentous.

With such a dazzling lead, the other characters in the film are inevitably going to get overshadowed. However, Decker's assistant Margaret is fairly memorable, utterly devoted to him, turning a blind eye to his crimes, and only getting on the moral high ground when she learns he has been eyeing up one of his students. And, this being set "Between the end of the Chatterley ban, and The Beatles' first LP...", Dr Decker's students are hilariously dated, with lots of sensible sweaters and Trad Jazz.

However, just as entertaining as the star and the script are the special effects, especially the Gorilla costume. Despite starting (and ending) the film as a chimpanzee, one of the side effects of Dr Decker's growth serum is to, once he reaches a certain size, turn Konga into a gorilla. Herman Cohen had previously worked on "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla", and while I am not sure if it the same costume (or the same man in the costume), it is certainly a similar quality. Elsewhere, we get some ridiculous man eating rubber plants, straight out of Little Shop of Horrors, and when Margaret gets picked up and thrown around by Konga, it is very obviously a miniature doll.