Konga (1961) -****½
The same year that Great Britain got its own Godzilla in the form of Gorgo, it also got something like its own King Kong in this completely shameless little film. I say “something like” because Konga spends more time being Murders in the Rue Morgue than it does being King Kong, but its final twenty minutes are full-on big rubber monster action at its finest (well, maybe not...). This is also a movie that does not believe in dicking around. While Gorgo spends easily 45 minutes puttering around on a tiny island off the Irish coast and hanging out backstage at Dorkin’s Circus, Konga has laid all the cards on the table within the first quarter of an hour.
How’s this for pacing? The first shot is of a small airplane, seen from the ground over a dense jungle. The plane’s engine is sputtering, and in no more than two minutes, it falls out of the sky. Instantly, we cut to a news telecast, in which the anchorman announces the disappearance of renowned botanist Charles Decker (Michael Gough, from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The Crimson Cult), who is believed to have died when his plane crashed in the jungles of Uganda. And then the next thing we know, it’s a whole year later, and we’re looking at the front page of a newspaper, its headline heralding Decker’s return to civilization. Had this been an American flick of its time, this chain of events would have consumed at least twenty minutes; in Konga, it uses up about five. We then see Dr. Decker give a press conference, at which he answers questions about his year in the jungle and hints at amazing scientific discoveries he made while he was stranded in Uganda. In particular, he alludes to work he did with a rare species of insectivorous plant, the implications of which suggest that “a lot of textbooks will have to be rewritten.” Decker is accompanied at this conference by his chimpanzee, Konga, whom he brought back with him from Africa.
Next, we meet Decker’s assistant/housekeeper/live-in non-girlfriend, Margaret (Margo Johns). She never gave up believing that Decker was alive, and she spent the whole year that he was away keeping his home and laboratory exactly as he left it. She feels a bit snubbed by Decker’s apparent lack of gratitude, but he swears he means her no insult, and feeds her some 50’s-style bullshit about the lack of sentimentality that characterizes all scientists. We’re maybe ten minutes into the movie, and already Decker’s dropping subtle hints that he may be a budding evil genius. He goes to the greenhouse, where he viciously uproots all of the flowers that Margaret had so faithfully maintained all those months-- he needs to make room for the exotic plants he brought home from the jungle, and the flowers have “outlived their usefulness.” Face it, only evil geniuses ever use that expression. In the next scene, we see that those plants have positively thriven in Decker’s greenhouse, and again, we are faced with weighty evidence of evil genius-hood-- all the plants have mouths, and many of them have fangs! And they’re goddamned huge, to boot. At about twelve minutes, Decker is feeding raw steak to his Venus man-traps, and saying worrisome things about how he has “changed their fundamental nature from insectivorous to carnivorous.” And finally, the kicker-- Decker shoots his fucking cat when it sneaks into his lab and starts licking the experiments! At last, fifteen minutes into the film, Decker conducts the experiment for which everything else has been setting the stage. He fills a syringe with green fluid distilled from his monster pitcher plants and spiked with the seeds of an African zombie-making herb, and injects Konga with it. The chimp (which has thus far been an infant) instantly grows to full adulthood, and Margaret, who had been doubting Decker, gushes about how she sees at last the genius of her boss’s work.
Dean Foster (Austin Trevor, from Horrors of the Black Museum and The Day the Earth Caught Fire), at whose university Decker teaches, is rather less impressed. When Decker comes to him with stories of African plants that bear close biochemical relation to animals, whose extracts can be used to control minds and kick ontogenic and phylogenic development into high gear, the dean basically calls him a madman, and forbids him to talk about his research in any public setting. This doesn’t sit well with Decker, and after a brief shouting match, he goes home and injects Konga with some more of his jungle juice. This time, the ape grows from a full-sized chimp into a six-foot man in a gorilla suit. (Let’s take a moment to discuss this gorilla suit. The thing has amazingly expressive facial features, so it was clearly created expressly for use in this movie, rather than being an off-the-rack costume that was hired out to save money. This being the case, why the hell didn’t the filmmakers order the special effects department to make them a chimpanzee suit? Hello?! Konga’s supposed to be a chimp, right?! Believe me, I know the difference between the two species, and this suit definitely represents a gorilla.) Decker then hypnotizes the new and improved Konga, and sends him to kill Dean Foster.
During this middle section of the movie, Decker repeatedly uses Konga to get rid of his enemies and rivals. After Dean Foster, he has Konga take out an Indian (or perhaps Pakistani) scientist (George Pastel, of The Stranglers of Bombay and The Mummy) who is conducting research that closely resembles his own. Then he orders a hit on one of his students, the jealous boyfriend of a pretty, intelligent girl named Sandra (Sex Farm’s Claire Gordon), for whom Decker has developed a letch. And the astonishing thing is that Margaret knows what’s up the whole time. In fact, she uses her knowledge of Decker’s crimes to leverage him into promising to marry her-- do you believe that shit?! I certainly didn’t. But Margaret doesn’t know about Decker’s unhealthy crush, and she finds out in the worst possible way. After the “mysterious” murder of Sandra’s boyfriend, Decker invites her over to his house for dinner-- he pitches the idea to Margaret as a way to throw the police off the scent, to present himself in the guise of the compassionate mentor. After dinner, Margaret catches Decker and Sandra in the greenhouse, just as Decker is putting the moves on the girl, telling her that Margaret has “outlived her usefulness as an assistant” and that he needs a “young, fresh mind” to help him with his future work. Margaret turns away when Decker begins kissing and groping the girl (Sandra doesn’t like it any more than Margaret does), and runs back to the house, where she shoots up Konga with more jungle juice and re-hypnotizes him to obey her commands. One small problem: the injection makes Konga start growing again, first to about ten feet in height, then to at least 25 feet, and finally to something like King Kong-size. Naturally, Decker’s house was never intended to contain a 50- or even 25-foot ape, and Konga’s rapid expansion completely destroys the building, taking Margaret with it. The ape then goes for the greenhouse, and after he smashes in the roof, he gives Decker the old Fay Wray treatment (while Sandra gets her arm bitten off by one of the carnivorous plants, just for the hell of it). Konga goes downtown, carrying Decker (note that no matter how big Konga gets relative to the scenery, he never gets any bigger relative to the scientist), and does a fair amount of panic-inducing (but very little city-smashing) before his inevitable confrontation with a company of heavily armed soldiers. And for once, the army doesn’t come out of a monster movie looking like a bunch of fools.
On the whole, Konga makes a surprisingly good model for how to do this sort of thing. Conspicuously absent is the drab, stultifying, documentary-style direction that ruined so many monster movies during the 50’s. At no point does the film get bogged down in lengthy scenes of military officers conferring before a large-scale map or arguing around a chart table. The action is wisely spread throughout the story, rather than concentrated in one vast blow-out during the final half hour-- a commonly made mistake that usually proved fatal to all but the shortest of monster movies. The dialogue is appropriately overwrought, the “science” is suitably muddle-headed and absurd, and every member of the small cast rises admirably to the occasion, playing out their roles to preposterous excess. And best of all, there’s no annoying little kid to be found anywhere! This is how such disappointing movies as Gorgo and The Gorgon ought to have been handled, and Konga proves at last that there are at least a few Brits who know how to make a monster movie (as opposed to a horror movie, which is not necessarily the same thing).