Thursday, October 16, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 11: Konga (1961)

One of the more amusing types of films you'll ever encounter are those that either definitely were sold based on their poster before a script existed--like many of American International Pictures' output--or certainly seem to have been. Particularly amusing are those films whose plots take a sudden sharp turn in order to resemble anything like the film their poster promises.

Take Konga, for example. Based on the name alone, you might correctly infer that this is a King Kong knock-off. If you saw the poster, you'd be even more convinced that that is exactly what you were getting.

Yet, upon viewing the film you might conclude that you were sold a false bill of goods. Well, up until the last few minutes, that is.

Oh, and look who's proudly presenting the film to us: American International Pictures! We open with a single engine plane flying over somewhere in an area the foley artists want us to think is tropical. The engine sputters, the plane flies too low and then erupts into massive flames. Cut to a British newscaster explaining that a private plane carrying famed botanist (as if there is any other kind in movies) Dr. Charles Decker has gone down in Uganda, and after a week's fruitless searching it is feared that he and his pilot are dead.

The next scene is a newspaper salesman shouting that Charles Decker has returned to England after a year lost in Uganda. Dr. Decker (Michael Gough!) is greeted at the airport by the English press, who manage to g most of their interview without commenting on the bizarre fact that Decker has a baby chimpanzee clinging to his neck. He explains that he bailed out of the plane just in time to avoid sharing his pilot's fate. He found a nearby native village, where he was nursed to health and was able to further his studies of inectivorous plants ("What are those?" asks dumb reporter. "Plants with animal characteristics," Decker bewilderingly replies) and believes his findings will force evolutionary scientists to "tear up a lot of textbooks."

No, he has not found a Crocoduck.

Oh, and the chimp? That's Konga, and without the little ape's guidance Decker would not have found the native village and survived. The two have become inseparable since so Decker couldn't dream of leaving the little fleabag behind. Back home, Margaret (Margo Johns),Decker's housekeeper and long-time friend--or, "long term friendzoned" based on how she bristles when he refers to her "just a good friend"--jokingly complains that after a year away from her his first concern was all for the new cage for Konga and not for her or his pet cat. Decker barely makes some half-hearted apologies before he is ripping up all the plants in his greenhouse that Margaret carefully tended in favor of the bulbs he's brought from Uganda and turning up the heat in the greenhouse to 90 degrees.

Before you know it, his greenhouse is full of enormous carnivorous plants that--in defiance of actual behavior of said plants--are constantly bobbing around and snapping their jaws open and shut on empty air. Decker happily runs about the greenhouse, feeding chunks of meat to the plants and pruning their leaves. He explains to Margaret that there is a hormone in the plants' leaves that is the key to all his work. He wastes no time in brewing up a serum in his basement lab that he intends to use to on Konga. Decker explains that the village witch doctor put him onto the formula, which can make any animal grow huge rapidly and helpfully renders the animal extremely susceptible to suggestion. So you can make anything into a giant that will also obey your will.

Unfortunately, Margaret didn't close the lab door and the cat got in and began licking up some of the spilled serum Decker is so keen on. So, Decker pulls a revolver from the cabinet and puts two bullets into the cat. When Margaret, not unreasonably, points out that shooting your cat is a Goddamned crazy thing to do, Decker counters that he has worked too long and hard for a damn cat to ruin his experiment. Those few drops would quickly have made the cat grow to the size of a leopard, and how would they explain that?

So Decker tells Margaret to bury the cat in the yard later and moves on to injecting Konga with the formula. Via the magic of an epically awful "wavy lines" wipe and zooming in on an object and then optically inserting it into another shot, Konga goes from a tiny chimp to slightly bigger chimp. Margaret is amazed and Decker is positively beside himself with glee.

Decker resumes his teaching duties at the University in the time-honored tradition of boring his students with a lecture on what he did during his vacation. In this case, by lecturing them on the habits and customs of the Phoney-Baloney tribe he recuperated with whilst showing them footage of what is clearly several totally unrelated African tribespeople. For instance, Decker tells his students that the Fakey-Fake tribe do not normally "scarify their bodies" whilst the film reel shows tribespeople with the typical bone through the nose, hooped earrings, and decorative scarification. At any rate, none of his students bother to ask what the Hell this anthropology lesson has to do with botany.

Among Decker's various students is a young couple, Sandra (Claire Gordon) and Bob (Jess Conrad). Sandra is an eager, bubbly blonde of the naive ingenue variety who just really, really likes botany and thinks Decker's extreme interest in her is just because she's his star pupil. Bob is a jealous doofus of the borderline controlling variety, so naturally even if Decker's interests were wholesome he'd see them as lecherous. Decker is interrupted in his after class discussion with Sandra by a summons to Dean Foster's office.

You see, Dean Foster (Austin Trevor) is concerned that all the press interviews Decker has been giving are reflecting poorly on the university by making it look like they hire reckless mad men. Decker objects to the muzzling that the Dean is suggesting, that he has proved it is possible to inject plant extracts into animals (well, yeah) and that he is close to discovering the key to the evolutionary link between plants and humans (wait, what?!)--but the Dean is adamant. Decker relents, saying he understands that it's fine to make an ass of himself but not at the expense of the university. Poor Dean Foster has no idea that he just tried to step on the dreams of a mad scientist, however.

So Decker goes home and injects Konga again. This time, through the magic of that awful "wavy lines" wipe, Konga grows from juvenile chimp to--a man in a gorilla suit. It's a pretty good gorilla suit as these things go, very expressive and all...but it's still a gorilla. There is no explanation for why Konga turns into a gorilla, other than this movie was made in 1961 and giant apes had to be gorillas. Especially because popular culture at the time saw chimpanzees as cute, largely gentle animals and gorillas are fearsome, powerful killing machines. Never mind it's actually the other way around.
Pictured: what happens when a chimp gets big.
Decker hypnotizes Konga and now the film's true plot kicks into gear. Rather than a King Kong rip-off as its title and poster promised, he film is more of a Murders in the Rue Morgue rip-of. Decker sends Konga to throttle Dean Foster to death. Naturally, Scotland Yard is puzzled because the Dean had no known enemies and the only evidence at the scene are black hairs belonging to some kind of animal--but no zoos or traveling circuses have reported any escapes.
Never trod on a mad scientist's dreams.
Of course, Margaret knows what's up. She confronts Decker in his greenhouse full of carnivorous plants, and after letting him know that she is fully aware of what he's done--she essentially blackmails him for her silence. Decker smugly advises that he doesn't really need her silence because no one would believe her anyways, but he agrees to give her what she wants to show how "generous" he is. So, Margaret demands he marry her. Decker shrugs and agrees that he'll do so after the semester ends so they can have a honeymoon.

So, rather against his wishes, Decker throws a party that evening at his home so they can sell their engagement. One of the guests is of particular interest to Decker, an Indian botanist named Professor Tagore (George Pastell) who is working along the same lines as Decker himself. Tagore is very interested in how plant hormones can influence animal growth. Decker advises that he would love to go over Tagore's research further, so Tagore hands him his card and tells him, "Come after midnight. Be sure to knock loudly on the door as I have no servants." I'm sure he forgot to add, "Also, all my neighbors are away and my home is completely soundproof."

So Decker visits Tagore and, after determining that Tagore's research is still far behind Decker's own, Decker has Konga kill Tagore. I mean, you can't be too careful when you want to take full credit for a discovery, right? Decker steals Tagore's notes and has Konga smash Tagore's lab. So now Scotland Yard has two bodies with no seeming connection beyond the same black hairs found at the scene.

A third will be on the way shortly. Decker takes his class on a field trip to collect plants and has Bob and the other students (including a very cute nerdy redheaded girl in glasses named Hermione, naturally) sit on the floor in the back of his van while Sandra rides up front. Then Decker has Sandra stay with him the whole time, culminating in a downpour forcing the others to seek shelter in a ranger cabin while Decker and Sandra go to get the van. While the kids listen to the least happening music in the cabin and dance around, Decker and Sandra come in laughing with his coat over them and her arms around his waist.

That's all Bob can handle. When Decker sends the class back to the van while he closes up the ranger hut, Bob stays behind. He tells Decker to leave Sandra alone. Decker's rather snarky responses make Bob angrier and angrier and when Decker slaps him, Bob flies into a rage and begins to strangle the crazed botanist. Of course, Bob has no idea how stupid it was of him to stop short of killing Decker and he's even dumber for begging Decker not to report his nearly murderous outburst.

But of course Decker is all to willing to keep mum. After all, the police will never be able to make the connection when Bob is ambushed by Konga as he is getting onto his motorscooter to go see Sandra. That Konga does not steal the motorscooter after strangling Bob to death is the movie's true missed opportunity.

Even Margaret is a bit stumped as to why Decker had Bob killed and she confronts him at breakfast with the film's greatest line, "What are you having with your poached eggs, murder?!" Margaret also points out to Decker that if he doesn't stop all these killings that Scotland Yard will eventually wise up and his research will be ruined. Decker sees her point and agrees that they should soon pack up and return to Uganda to lay low. He'll dispose of Konga, too, which horrifies Margaret. First, though,he should throw the cops off the trail by inviting Sandra over to dinner in order to make it seem like he's comforting a mourning student.

Of course, what Decker really wants is to get Sandra alone in his greenhouse. Once there, overcome with lust for her bullet bra and sweaty skin, Decker declares he wants Sandra to take Margaret''s place and join him in Uganda--and then he attempts to force himself on her. Margaret overheard this and decides to engineer her beloved mad scientist's comeuppance by injecting Konga with the remaining serum and hypnotizing him to follow her orders.

"Just make sure the plumber catches a red shell in the third lap, you hear me?"
Unfortunately for Margaret, the serum makes Konga do is growing thing again and the film's special effects take a hilarious nose dive. The now 15-foot ape decides to smash the lab and start a fire. He then picks Margaret up, or an obvious doll facsimile, and unfortunately listens all too well she orders him to "put me down" and he tosses her into the fire. Konga then grows to 40 feet tall and smashes out of the house and wanders over to the greenhouse. After peering in at Decker molesting Sandra, he smashes through the ceiling and grabs Decker. Poor Sandra gets her arm caught in one of the giant fly-traps, which we've been told can dissolve anything.

You know it's a film with a dim view of humanity when the only character who did nothing wrong is almost raped and then gets her arm eaten by a plant.

Konga carries Decker around London in a series of truly terrible effects shots. Konga does no real damage beyond occasionally swiping at crowds and terrifying people, but the military still rolls out the big machine guns and bazooka troops as Konga stands in front of Big Ben, doing nothing. The military declares they've no choice but to bring Konga down despite him having not been much of any threat.

"Quick, someone take a shot of me leaning on it!"
Now, despite the fact that the current scaling indicates Konga is around 200 feet tall, he's not any bigger in relation to Decker. And despite his height, the animated tracer fire and bazooka explosions from the military barrage indicate they are missing for most of it. Hilariously, Konga retaliates by throwing Decker at the soldiers firing on him. Eventually, Konga succumbs to no visible injuries and--in true werewolf fashion--reverts back to a tiny chimp. Somehow Konga and Decker lie dead beside each other and, The End.

"Well, he's still a better catch than Bob!"
Konga is not precisely a good movie, but boy is it a damned efficient one. It runs about 90 minutes and wastes precious little time in setting up its central premise and setting its titular gorilla loose to kill rival scientists and rebellious youth. It has a lot to recommend it to fans of b-movies. You have terrible nonsense science, a mad scientist the film is so eager to prove ruthless that it has him refuse to donate flowers to a hospital mere minutes before he shoots his own cat, a guy in a gorilla suit strangling a teenager on a Vespa, and finally a truly pitiful giant monster rampage.

Hell, the segments with Decker's students feel like a particularly square version of the rock-and-roll pictures of the same vintage--minus the music that isn't pathetic.

Where the film definitely becomes harder to swallow is when its misanthropy gets the better of it. As I said, even poor Sandra is deemed worthy of a horrible fate--even if the fly-trap doesn't out right kill her, she still gets to have her arm slowly and excruciatingly digested.

Konga is therefore a tough film to recommend. It's a lot of fun when it's firing on all cylinders, but sadly that doesn't include the woefully unimpressive rampage of giant Konga at the end of the film--which is just downright dull.

But up until then, it's a pretty happenin' party. And you know you want to see a jerk on a Vespa get murdered.

That concludes day 11. Go see what everyone else chose for K by clicking the banner above.

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