“Not since King Kong has the screen exploded with such mighty fury and spectacle!” That was what the 1961 British/American international co-production of Konga proclaimed in their ad campaign, and they may have been overstating their case just a tad. Producer Herman Cohen had greatly admired the 1931 King Kong and thought a giant ape in colour would do gangbuster business. Unfortunately RKO was not cool with someone else remaking King Kong so instead they charged Cohen $25,000 solely for the rights to the name of Kong, and stayed completely away from the source material. The result was less King Kong and more along the lines of Murders in the Rue Morgue.
The film opens with a news report of a plane crash in Africa that was carrying famed botanist Dr. Charles Decker (Michael Gough), a year later headlines announce the startling return of Doctor Decker. I wasn’t born until the tail end of the sixties so my experience with this era is rather limited, but I was always under the impression that “Free Love” and the Vietnam War were two the key elements of that era which would have garnered heavy press coverage, not so much botanists. I’m not saying botany isn’t important but I doubt newsboys were yelling “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” when it concerned university professors and their exploits with plants. Of course the doctor in question here is of the mad scientist variety and so maybe worth a few extra paragraphs in the Sunday times. It turns out that he has returned from the darkest jungles of Africa with a technique that allows the combining of plant and animal cells that would allow the manipulation of their very genes. When he begins experimenting in his home laboratory the results are startling.
Doctor Decker has worked out a way to create giant carnivorous plants, you know for science and stuff, but this movie isn’t about man-eating plants so you can forget any ideas that we will be getting Michael Gough and one of his plants singing “I’m a Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” because this movie is about a giant ape. He believes that if you squash the leaves of these plants the juice they emit will cause animals to grow, and for this he has his faithful chimpanzee Konga to experiment on. We’d earlier learned that it was this chimp that had led Decker from the crash site of his plane to the village that cared for him and basically saved his. That he is willing to not only experiment on a chimp he professes to care for but on one that also saved his life makes him seem like a bit of a dick. Yet his level of dickishness has not even begun. When he spills a bit of this formula on the floor, and his housecat laps some of it up, he casually goes over to a drawer, pulls out a gun, and shoots the poor thing. This upsets Margaret (Margo Johns), who is Decker’s housekeeper/assistant, but he explains he’s just not ready for a giant cat to be roaming around the house. So yeah, asshole.
Margaret is an interesting character as she is madly in love with a man who is clearly indifferent to her, when the body count starts up all she does is demand that he marry her or else she will got to the police. He agrees to marry her, but they’ll have to wait until the end of the school term, which is his way of saying “I can’t marry you now and will totally not kill you when you’ve outlived your usefulness.” So by the time Konga kills her we’ve lost any sympathy for this poor spinster. And just how and why does this film have a body count you ask? Well first at the university Decker’s boss Dean Foster (Austin Trevor) tells him to stop talking to the press about his insane theories about the evolutionary connection between man and plants. This does not sit well with Decker who later that night gives Konga the growth serum, and with a few hypnotist commands sends him off to kill Foster. Then at a dinner party he meets Professor Tagore (George Pastell) whose research is in the same vein as Decker’s. Not one willing to share the glory in this discovery with anyone else Konga is sent out to kill the rival scientist and destroy his lab.
The final victim on Decker’s kill list is Bob Kenton (Jess Conrad), a student of Decker’s who is quite concerned with the amount of attention the good doctor has been giving Sandra Banks (Claire Gordon), Bob’s girlfriend. And Bob has every right to be concerned as Decker clearly wants to get in that young co-eds pants. After class Decker approaches Sandra and tells her how amazed he is with how much she’s changed in the last year, “There’s a maturity about you now, Sandra, and how pretty you’ve grown.” Call me old fashion but I prefer my mad scientists to be less overtly creepy.
Doctor Decker also attempts this rape within earshot of Margaret, right after she overhears him tell Sandra how useless she is and that he needs a younger fresher mind as an assistant. You’d think a brilliant scientist would know not to commit rape when you’re fiancé is in the other room, but I guess mad scientists move to the beat of a different drum. Unfortunately for everyone the spurned Margaret rushes to Konga, hypnotizes the beast to only obey her commands, and injects it with more serum so that it will be bigger and stronger. This was a tactical error as the ape grows to an immense size and immediately kills Margaret.
An ever increasing in size Konga interrupts Decker’s attempted rape, Sandra flees from both Decker and the giant ape, but before she can get away her arm is seized by one of the carnivorous plants. Strangely we never find out what happens to her, Konga seizes Decker and carries the jerk away, while the last we see of Sandra is her screaming while the plant munches on her arm. For what is ostensibly a “giant ape” movie it’s rather mean spirited and cruel.
It’s also not that much of a giant ape movie. Konga doesn’t move from gorilla size to King Kong size until an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie, and that’s not good when your film is only ninety minutes to begin with. We don’t even get any giant ape rampage, all we see Konga do is wander up and down the London streets, doing absolutely no damage to any of the surrounding buildings, until the army shows up and kills him.
Decker gets his just deserts when Konga chucks him at the attacking army. Something King Kong never thought to do with Fay Wray and those pesky biplanes. So Decker is killed by his creation, a staple ending for a mad scientist, and Konga reverts back to chimp size. The End.
I’m not sure exactly what kind of film producer/writer Herman Cohen and director John Lemont were trying to make as it doesn’t remotely resemble the film they were ostensibly paying homage to. I’m guessing budget constraints had something to do with Konga’s lack of gigantism for the bulk of the film’s running time, but how a horny professor bent on scientific glory was supposed to translate into a King Kong analog is beyond me. What we did get was an amazingly fun over-the-top performance by Michael Gough along with a really bad ape suit on an even worse ape actor. Which is entertaining in its own awful way.
Ignoring all the bizarre character decisions and plot threads that are never resolved I am left with but one question, “How can you have a giant ape stand next to London’s Big Ben and not have him knock it over?”
As a King Kong rip-off it fails on pretty much every level, but as a crazed murdering mad scientist movie it does have much to offer (mainly unintentional laughs). Michael Gough is quite a blast to watch and is pretty much the only redeeming element in this film.