October 12, 2010

KONGA (1961) - attack of the giant hypno-gorilla-chimp

(1961, UK/USA)

UPDATED, November, 2013

Years of late night TV showings have kept Konga alive in the memories of 'bad monster movie' fans. Less gruesome but just as enjoyable as Horrors of the Black Museum, this was made by much the same production team, at the same studio. It may be a pale rendition of King Kong, but even official Kong movies continued to use a man in a suit for 25 more years. Furthermore, I believe Konga is the first giant gorilla to grace the screen in colour, debuting the year before Toho's King Kong Vs Godzilla.

While many horror reviewers rate it very low (like half a star), I think they're missing the point. Konga shouldn't be taken so seriously. For the continuously fractious antagonist, the restrained and polite teenage students, the completely ignored science (a baby chimp mutates into a giant gorilla), and the explosive overacting duels between Michael Gough and his co-stars.

Dr Decker returns from a disastrous African research trip with some rare plants and a baby chimp (no problems with customs, strangely). After making some outlandish, long-winded claims to the press about crossing the scientific divide between plants and animals, he soon finds himself in conflict with the Dean of Essex College, where he lecherously lectures. Continuing with his researches to prove his claims, he breeds his giant plants and injects their sap into the monkey.

But I'm telling you the plot. Needless to say, the chimp/gorilla can easily be hypnotised to sit in the back of a van and leap out and murder the doctor's rivals. But everything goes tits up when a giant-sized Konga rampages through suburbia...

Michael Gough is as over-the-top as the strain on his heart will allow, but still gets upstaged by the gorilla suit. Young pop singer Jess Conrad plays the student rival for the object of his affections, and a young Steven Berkoff (with hair!) is one of his college colleagues. Jack Watson (Vault of Horror, Tower of Evil, The Wild Geese) plays a rather wooden detective with the worst line in the whole movie (it's in the trailer). George Pastell, fresh from ordering Christopher Lee about in The Mummy, again flashes his turban. Probably cast because he's good at getting throttled...

The tone is alternately sedate and dramatically frantic. Schizophrenically switching between wholesome family values, and as much outrageousness as producer Cohen can get past the censor - with a teacher ravaging his buxom student, the doctor shooting a cat at point blank range (twice), as well as murder, mayhem and the wanton destruction of modelwork.

While Gough acidly pontificates on what he does and doesn't like in a relationship (I'm reminded of Kenneth Williams without the laughs), it's all a bunch of lies to keep his assistant off the subject of marriage while he lusts over a double-D student. I also realised that Gough talks for most of the movie. Loudly.

But there's isn't a dull moment with all the bad science, bad drama, man-eating plants (well, woman-eating plants) and many of your favourite plot points from many other Cohen productions. Heavily influenced by the strong-headedness of Dr Frankenstein, acting above the law in the name of science, this at least beats Willard to the routine where the murderer chauffeurs around killer animals.

Some of the compositing matte work is still impressive - to this day, you still can't easily say how they did every single shot. But the obvious modelwork and repetitive use of the limited techniques are what stick in the memory. Oh yes, and the gorilla suit. Besides the extremely expressive eyes, lit better than Joan Crawford, this shows precisely what's lost when you don't have a dedicated gorilla expert inside a gorilla suit. He shrugs, he strolls, he rolls his eyes, just like a grumpy stuntman... every close-up of Konga makes for great comedy. He always cracks me up.

The carnivorous plants in Dr Decker's greenhouse are also impressively animated. Not quite as bizarre as the shadowy mutations in Die Monster Die! but these get much more screen time. Some snap, some wiggle, some just look extremely phallic in an otherwise repressed post-1950s atmosphere.

OK. It's a bad movie with a monkey-suit, but it can't be dismissed as a kiddie flick because of its barely restrained sexual obsessions, and occasional sadistic violence. The ending even achieves a little poignancy. After all, in everything bad, there's always a little good.

I get an extra kick from this film, knowing that it was shot near to where I live. The locations include the streets around Merton Park Studios (see the previous entry), Croydon High Street (standing in for Westminster), a college in Putney (for 'Essex College'), and of course the forest field trip to Hammer Studio's favourite, Black Park. I think I'm even starting to recognise certain trees in there.

Part of Konga's rampage can still be visited here - over the road from what's left of Merton Park Studios...

Konga was last released in 2007 as an MGM Midnite Movies DVD double-bill with the equally bizarre Yongary. I watched it on this 2005 edition (pictured above), a nicely-restored 1.66 letterbox edition (non-anamorphic). No extras or Konga trailer though.

2013 UPDATE: the UK finally got Konga with the nicest looking DVD to date, from Network (above) - rich colours and a wider-framed aspect - now also presented in anamorphic 16:9 widescreen. It includes rare photos, the trailer and a brand new introduction by teen star Jess Conrad.

Network Distribution's page for the 2013 DVD of Konga, including the original trailer...

Here's an interview by Tom Weaver with writer/producer Herman Cohen on
the making of Konga. This was a big budget for Cohen, inflated by the optical special effects work).
 US DVD reviews and screengrabs at Giallo Fever, at DVD Drive-In, and even Konga comic books at The Uranium Cafe.

My article about other cult movies shot at Merton Park Studios.


  1. I think a healthy hunk of Konga's schizophrenic tone--and moment of poignancy--can be attributed to Gerard Schurmann's score, which jumps back and forth excitedly between themes even in the opening credits. (Sadly, the jarring jump in the end titles music is clearly a case of astonishingly sloppy chopping. But Cohen was wise enough to usher the score off to the side as Big Ben chimed over Decker and his poor little monkey in its shadow.)

    I'm crazy about Michael Gough, even when he's in total grot like Batman & Robin or tiny roles in arguably better films like Venom, and his Cohen films are the primary reason. He plays such a complete and utter hateful bastard so delightfully in all of them, but of course he is at his most outrageous in Konga when he finally puts his grotesque moves--and slobbering tongue--on his student. (And things get so unimaginably worse for her! She does not catch a break at all, does she?)

    I also can't say enough about Margo Johns, who made her character so sympathetic in spite of its bitchiness and inexplicable jealous attraction to rotten, sneering Decker.

    And yeah, that line IS a forehead-slapper. Woof. God, I love this movie. Gorgo is cold toast to Konga's delicious hot stew.

  2. Great observations.

    I can watch Gough in anything. He just needs to ratchet up the anger a little more slowly...

    Now don't go dissing GORGO. Though the ideal match would have been KONGA's cast with GORGO's special effects.

  3. I have not seen this in about a year but it was great. Michael Gough was perfectly over the top. It all all the elements of a fine AIP fine but situated in London. A really fun movie that looks good as well. Anythng with a man in cheesy ape suit gets two thumbs up from me.

    Bill C

  4. Konga will be released on a Region 2 DVD by Network on May 13th, 2013 and is available for pre-order from amazon uk. It seems a lifetime ago now since I went to see this at the pictures as a 14 year old in 1961. We thought it was great in those days. The music score helped it no end and the main reason it works so well is because Michael Gough plays his part absolutely straight. I could watch him in anything. He was a fine actor.

    David Rayner,

  5. I'll buy KONGA again when it hits on UK DVD. The US DVD doesn't look great on widescreen TV. I'm sure this new transfer is better.

    David, did you see it as a doubke-bill? What else was playing that day in 1961? Any idea?

  6. When I went to see it, the supporting film was "The Hellfire Club", starring Keith Michell and Peter Arne, in'Scope and colour and with the tamest orgy scene ever to be passed by the censor with an "A" certificate. I have the complete Front-of-House set for "Konga", but only one still from "The Hellfire Club" set.

    David in Stoke-on-Trent.

  7. I'm glad you remember! Yes, HELLFIRE is very tame, redeemed mainly by Peter Cushing.

  8. I write more about Michael Gough, who I'll watch in anything, in my HORROR OF THE BLACK ZOO review...