(thanks, Movie Trailer Graveyard!)
While it’s not the worst man in a gorilla suit sci-fi/horror hybrid out there (Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla or A*P*E*, anyone?) 1961’s KONGA is nevertheless a terrifyingly bad movie that’s worth a watch for a few reasons. You’ll marvel at the ferocious, scenery chewing by Michael Gough’s mad botanist/scientist Dr. Charles Decker, the kitchen sink plot that tosses in carnivorous plants, terrible, inaccurate science, botany and biology, a love triangle that’s actually a square that gets whittled away corner by corner as the film progresses and some mostly lousy special effects that make this a total howler. I’ll get back to the ape suit later and the man in it, as both are another key to making this film so hysterically funny.
You have to admire a film that wants you to believe that Dr. Decker returns from his year-long trip to Africa (he’s actually missing and presumed dead!) with some strange ideas, some recipes for a serum that can make plants and animals grow to extreme sizes and a cute baby chimpanzee. His plant experiments end up creating a number of oversize man-eating varieties including (eek) some that look like gigantic black rubber penises with green veins a’poppin’ and red tongues hanging out (seriously). Before that rolls around in your head too much, Decker’s real showpiece is Konga, that baby chimpanzee he gives his serum who SOMEHOW changes into a gorilla (Wait, WHAT? Science takes another hit, folks POW!) before using his new “pet” to get revenge on a few of his peers (spoilers inbound, but it doesn’t matter because even if it’s all given away, this one’s worth seeing for the laughs it provides)…
Konga is a pretty efficient murder machine thanks to the good Doctor’s flashlight hypnosis trick (a botanist who can hypnotize? I guess everyone needs a hobby), but Decker’s attentions soon turn to perky Sandra Banks (Claire Gordon), one of his female students in the university class he finds time to instruct. Sandra just so happens to have a suitor, one Bob Kenton (Jess Conrad), but all it takes is a generous application of hypnotized Konga to take him out of the picture for good. Of course, the fact that Decker is currently romantically involved with a woman older than the nubile miss Banks named Margaret (Margo Johns) who doesn’t want him to have a hot young blonde on the side (AND who happens to be his lab assistant/accomplice) adds to the fun. After a few rampages as a normal-sized man in a gorilla suit (he gets delivered to a few murder sites by a plain panel van), Konga gets shot up with a bunch of that serum by Margaret, who plans to send him out to do a bit of gene pool cleaning. But fate (and the script) have other ideas.
As Margaret looks on in horror (for way too long!) Konga has grown to ceiling size, knocks a burner over in a mini tantrum, picks up and kills Margaret (or a big-headed doll that looks like her). He then shoots up in size again, busts out of that lab building and goes on a little (okay, BIG) rampage. Slowly. VERY Slowly. Oh yeah, he manages to grab poor Doc Decker in his clutches before he sets out on his leisurely stroll downtown. That languid pace he keeps afterwards as people run screaming away in mock terror makes this part of the movie pretty awesome (in a bad way), by the way. Between the crowd pretending it’s frightened and a now gigantic Konga walking as if he’s an old fat man at a mall, you’ll be howling and yelling at that big ape to step it up with the big ape like destruction. Whomever drew the short straw and ended up in the suit is taking his sweet time and walking as if that suit is too hot and he’s trying VERY hard not to break a sweat because you can’t ever really wash out a gorilla costume properly.
Even funnier, you’d THINK Sandra would at the very least escape Decker’s lecherous clutches once Konga grabs him and be the sole survivor of the former four cornered triangle, right? Maybe she’d race right on down to the local constable in a ripped dress and a bit of stage dirt and get a scene where she breathlessly wails out how she didn’t know Doc wanted to grope her for grades or whatever he was planning and how that big former chimp’s hand crashed through the ceiling and took that bad man away. Nope, the poor girl is chomped to death by some of the doc’s man-eating plants. Ouch, and I’ll let you guess which ones do her in. Hint: It’s not the obvious answer, ladies and gentlemen. Hey, this is a family show! That said, the fact that so many people die BEFORE Konga gets huge and so few die afterwards is kind of bizarre (and yes, also quite amusing).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Konga sleepy step rampage is going to put you on your back on the floor laughing because he seems to change size a few times, getting larger and smaller from one shot to the next, sometimes within a few seconds of (is Konga fifteen feet tall or 50? 100? 27? You got me, kids!). As noted earlier, his trundling gait is bad enough, but the fact that he also looks somewhat like Homer Simpson in an ape suit makes the final section of the film even crazier. Speaking of crazier, the guy in the suit has maybe three expressions, tops. You get wide-eyed, wide-eyed side to side glances and wide rolling eyes, mostly in close-up shots as if the director shot all the face takes in one go and had them edited into the movie. That and he looks as if he’s tapping his foot in one composite scene waiting for people to run faster so he can keep on truckin’ away.
While some of the model work is impressive (well, to a point), it’s when you see Konga next to buildings holding one of those dolls that you realize the scale is WAY off, as if the doll, er person he’s grasping as absorbed some of that serum and grew a bit too much as well. Also, the process effects can be okay in one scene (for 1961) and wretched in the next, but by the time the military rolls in and starts shooting up the sky (conveniently and amusingly missing buildings Konga is RIGHT next to and Konga, as well!), you’ll be hypnotized by the badness on display even as the predictable ending rolls up a bit longer than it should have taken to occur. Yeah, it doesn’t end well for the big ape or Decker, but King Kong is the one crying here because this travesty was probably the FIRST giant ape film many saw back in 1961.
The main reason for watching this is Michael Gough’s all-out scenery eating work as Decker. He’s a complete wild man, screaming it up and slamming out dialog with relish, overpowering everyone else and carrying the film completely. One of the funniest “shock” moments in the film comes when his pet cat gets into the lab and drinks up some spilled serum. Decker snaps at Margaret for leaving the door open, whips out a pistol and puts two bullets into the cat (off screen). Margaret’s delayed reaction look is priceless and Decker’s line “Even those few drops might have made Tabby swell up to huge proportions!” is one of many that will have your eyes swirling in your head. Margaret gets in a good one as well during a breakfast scene where Decker is reading about one of Konga’s victims and she’s about had it with his murderous ways. As he’s gloating, she snaps out “What are you having with your poached egg? Murder?!” To which Decker calmly replies “Margaret, I can’t stand hysterics. Especially in the morning…” Check, please!
For all it’s badness, this film has a pretty loyal following and it’s easy to see why. It’s dumb as a box of rocks, loud as a box of dropped rocks and has one actor carrying everyone else until that big fat ape carries him off and into movie history. KONGA may not be the best bad film that you’ll see, but it certainly tries its best to keep you hooked in until the bitter end. Grab some friends, cook up some REAL popcorn and maybe bake some banana bread if you like it and make this a double feature with another British sci-fi non-classic (that’s actually a much better film in a few respects), GORGO. You can thank me later… or not.
Hey! If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Now you have MORE reading to do, as this post is actually part of The Accidentally Hilarious Classic Movie Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently. I’d expect you to be popping over there soon enough (as in NOW) to check out the other posts by some fine and talented writers, but don’t tell them I sent you because the films I’ve written about are so terrible that maybe I’d be embarrassed to admit I actually like them to some extent.
Let’s just keep THAT a secret now, shall we? SHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!