Sunday, July 10, 2016

Konga (1961)

Biologist Dr. Decker (Michael Gough) was lost in the jungles of Uganda for over a year following an airplane explosion. When he makes a surprise return in England, he brings with him a cute little baby chimp named Konga, and an exquisite line of speechifying about how many textbooks will have to be rewritten once he reveals all he has found out in Uganda. But it’s not time yet, of course.

Turns out, his house keeper, secretary, assistant and unofficial (we are British, after all) girlfriend Margaret (Margo Johns) quickly learns, Decker has befriended a witch doctor who provided him with valuable insight into a much closer relationship between plants and animals than science generally suggests, as well as ways to use this knowledge to induce certain genetic changes. Decker goes on to prove this by harvesting parts of the huge, incredibly fast growing flesh-eating plants he has brought with him from Uganda, mixing them with some hypnotic seeds into a nice green fluid (all mad science fluids are green, as you know) and injecting Konga with it.

At first, this turns baby Konga into a full-grown chimpanzee, but of course, that’s not enough for long. After a heated confrontation with the deacon of the university where Decker teaches when he’s not obsessed with growth (GROWTH!), Konga gets his next shot, which doesn’t turn him into an even larger chimp but into a dude in gorilla costume. SCIENCE! Decker then uses Konga to get rid of the deacon. This is – of course! – only the first murder the ex-chimp will have to commit for Decker. Margaret cops to the whole “my boss/boyfriend murders people with a gorilla” thing rather quickly, but as long as Decker is willing to make an honest woman out of her, a bit of mad science murder is quite alright with her.

That is, until Decker decides he’d rather have a younger, blonder and more pneumatically-breasted model of an assistant instead of Margaret.

A Hammer movie, this British monster movie directed by John Lemont certainly isn’t. In fact, it’s as close to the ideals of the US monster movie as British films got at the time. However, it does display rather more temperament than comparable US – and UK productions, to be fair – at the time of its making usually did. I’d be tempted to call the film’s approach “pop art” even though it is certainly a few years early for that sort of thing in genre cinema. A pioneering effort in making a monster movie for the UK teenager? Gosh, now I’m making Konga sound good when it is actually just so unapologetically batshit insane it turns out to be highly entertaining.

This film does have everything you might want from a monster movie, after all: Michael Gough vigorously overacting his way through dialogue reaching from the absurd to the ridiculous, teenagers who act as if they were actually made out of wood, a mad scientist who not only proves his mettle by his ranting and raving but also by shooting his poor cat, much new knowledge about the mating rituals of mad scientists (which include much ranting, surprisingly enough), a gorilla suit meant to represent a chimp, and for the finale the most polite giant monster rampage imaginable (as if the film makers were Canadian, even) that replaces Fay Wray with Michael Gough and a Michael Gough doll. It is rather glorious.

It is particularly so because Lemont breaks various of the monster movie rules of his time by sparing us the square-jawed heroes (or indeed any boring sympathetic characters, unless you count the wooden teens) and even better, by pacing the film in such a way that things aren’t only starting to happen forty minutes in. Indeed, this is certainly among the paciest monster movies of its era made outside Japan, with little time spent on anything that might bore an audience that really came to see a giant ape. Okay, “giant” the ape only becomes for the final non-rampage, but that sort of things is not much of a problem when the non-giant ape scenes are as entertaining as they are here.

But what valuable lesson can the film teach us? Mad scientists should keep romance between themselves and their killer apes!

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