Saturday, April 14, 2012

KONGA: King Kong's British Cousin

Look, I understand why Netflix Instant would feel justified in recommending some giant gorilla movies to me after all the Godzilla flicks I've watched this week, but I'm still holding a grudge over this Konga debacle...
Dear Netflix: Consider this my report.
 Konga is a 1961 British movie about a mad scientist and his giant gorilla, and is exactly as thrilling as one would imagine a 1960s British monster movie to be. The tag line on the poster (see above) is “Not since ‘King Kong’ has the screen exploded with such mighty fury and spectacle!” It should read, “The most polite and well-behaved giant monster in movie history awkwardly mugs for the camera before becoming mildly irritated and standing around waiting to die,” but I suppose honesty isn't considered a virtue among movie merchandisers.
I don't recall Mothra having quite so many tentacles.
 The tediously slow story begins with a botanist, played by Michael Gough (who decades later would become Alfred the Butler to Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney’s Batmen) returning to America with his chimpanzee, portentously named Konga, and announcing a breakthrough in his research: By injecting animals with a serum made from plant cells, he can make them grow to many times their original size. Everyone tells him he is insane, and they are correct, but everyone is so British and proper about it that this conflict contains no entertainment value whatsoever. 

"Master Bruce, there appears to be a giant ape wandering aimlessly about Gotham City. Perhaps you could have it stuffed and mounted in the Batcave. The taxidermist could pose it like it's fighting the T-Rex."

The pace picks up ever so slightly when he injects Konga with the serum, transforming him from a 3-foot-tall chimpanzee into a 6-foot-tall gorilla (or an actor in a gorilla suit to be more precise). Yes, that is correct... the serum not only makes him larger, but causes him to change species. No one in the movie remarks on this turn of events.
Knowing what the movie has in store for him, Konga assumes the position.

Rather, what follows is an extremely mild series of violence. Konga does not go on a rampage, as one would expect from this sort of film, as such behavior would be considered bad form. Instead Konga remains completely obedient to the mad scientist, who sends him out to murder a handful of people on his shit list, including an old scientific rival, and a male student who is cockblocking his attempts to seduce a young blonde female student. Really, the whole thing plays out like a typical English drama about a college professor’s midlife crisis, except that every now and then a man in a preposterous gorilla costume ambles on screen, strangles someone, and leaves.

"Tonight on Masterpiece Theatre... gakk!!!"
So no rampage, just a small pile of corpses for the police to investigate and puzzle over their cause of death. One probably wouldn’t expect the wake left by a chimpanzee/gorilla/plant hybrid on a killing spree to require the efforts of a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to get sorted out, but as I have already mentioned, this is a very British monster movie. The only thing Konga is missing is a giant cup of tea to sip while extending his pinky finger.

"Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with the Gorilla."

Finally, in the last few minutes of the film, the mad scientist’s wife has had all she can take of her husband’s pursuit of the young blonde student, and decides that the best course of revenge is to inject Konga with a massive amount of the growth serum. Konga grows a few more feet in height and, enraged, proceeds to... gingerly sweep some of the scientific equipment off the lab table in front him. Konga then picks up the wife (who momentarily screams in front of a still-green green-screen before being transformed into a stiff child’s doll with a completely different haircut), and throws her to the floor of the lab, where she dies and reverts to human form.

My hat's off to the set photographer. All of the promotional stills look better than any scenes in the actual movie.
Punching through the ceiling, Konga proceeds to grow to a few stories in height, crashing out of the mad scientist’s cardboard home altogether. Now we're talking! Moving around to the greenhouse in back, he watches through the glass roof as the young blonde student struggles to pull away from the mad scientist’s lecherous advances. Seeing Konga looking down on him, the terrified scientist releases the girl, who stumbles into a giant flesh-eating plant that swallows her arm up past her elbow.

It could be worse, she could have stumbled into one of these:
It's like Little Shop of Horrors with... you know, I'm just going to stop there.
This is the last we see of her, so we have no idea if she escapes, having only lost an arm to the monstrous Venus flytrap, or if it eventually managed to swallow her whole. Instead, we have more pressing concerns, such as Konga grabbing the mad scientist and going on a leisurely stroll through town with him.

"Not now, you big dumb ape, I was about to score! Chicks can't resist my giant penis plants!"
In Konga’s grasp, the scientist is sometimes a doll in an unconvincing black suit, sometimes a superimposed human being held by a nervous-looking, frozen-in-place gorilla, and sometimes, for close-ups, a human surrounded by perfectly still fur against a perfectly still city skyline. Regardless of his form, the scientist’s only dialogue for the rest of the movie is a brief list of variations on the phrase “Konga, put me down!” As Konga meanders through London, he absently swipes at a few panicked citizens on the ground below him, who continue to run away until they realize he’s come to a complete stop in front of Big Ben for no apparent reason, and stop to gawk at him. I say “no apparent reason” because nothing in particular seems to have caught the monster’s attention, nor does he seem to have any King-Kong-ripoff-style plans to climb the famous clock tower. No, he just stands and awaits his fate, as cops pull up in patrol cars and get out and stare at him for awhile (which reminded me of Robin Williams’ stand-up routine about how police in England don’t carry guns, so if you commit a crime, all they can do is shout, “Stop! Or I’ll say stop again!”)

"Hmmm, I wonder if I can reach any of those people down there. No? Oh well. At least I didn't drop this mannequin."

But then the military arrives and sets up a machine gun turret. Disgusted, Konga throws the doll of the mad scientist down to the street below, which like his wife’s before him, reverts to human form in death. Konga then stands in place and allows the military to fire thousands of rounds of ammunition into his chest which, while doing no visible damage, does eventually result in him dropping dead and reverting to chimpanzee form a few feet away from the scientist.

Above: The Monkey Shot.

And that’s it. The most unintentionally entertaining part of the movie for me was Konga’s facial expressions, since even though his gorilla mask was predictably goofy, it did allow the actor within to convey a range of emotion with his eyes. And these emotions were consistently bizarre and in-Kong-ruous to the scene at hand. If one were actually trying to make sense of the movie, it would be easy to imagine that the size-and-species-changing serum that Konga was subjected to had side effects that included mental and emotional derangement. But since there is no sense to be made, I will wrap up this review by saying that I think a video editor could get a lot of comedy mileage out of dubbing in Konga’s thoughts to match the ridiculous, and quickly shifting, expressions on his face. And of course editing out all the boring British conversations that make up most of the movie.

"It's the rhythm of the island, and like the sugar cane so sweet
If you want to do the Konga, you've got to listen to the beat"
Having lost 90 minutes of my life to this movie monstrosity, I was unable to just put this affront behind me and get on with my life, so I followed my usual course of action and began to Google all the information I could find about it. Amazingly, I discovered that this movie spawned a couple of Charlton comic book series, so of course I immediately set out to find a complete set on eBay

Konga vs. the Hermit Crabs?
Until that arrives, check out these awesome Konga images from hollywoodgorillamen's Flickr photostream. Personally, I'm going to see if Peter Jackson can help me scrub this memory from my brain.

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