Saturday, 28 June 2014
A brief pre-credit sequence in this fifth Zatoichi instalment has Ichi performing a bit of a ‘greatest hits’ set – using his hearing to identify the sound of a crooked dice, splitting candles in two and effortlessly slaughtering a bunch of random guys. “Help, it’s Zatoichi!” shouts one of them, signalling the start of the first entry in the series in which our hero seems to have become a widely known (and widely feared) celebrity within the films’ world.
As the story proper begins, Ichi is already being courted by the emissary of a nearby gang boss who wants a word with the famous swordsman. “I won’t fight or perform sword tricks… but I do appreciate fancy meals”, he says, apparently enjoying the attention.
Not everyone is yet aware of his unbeatable rep though, and Z is soon involved in a skirmish with a gang of sword-for-hire samurai goons who have been hired to kill him for a rival gang. When the bodies have fallen to earth a few seconds later, the emissary Ichi was accompanying is dead, and he is instead left facing Ohisa (Reiko Fujiwara) - the wife of one of the slain men, and an independent and cynical woman who appears suspiciously unmoved by the death of her husband. Allowed to depart unharmed by the ever-courteous Zatoichi, she is soon in cahoots with the lower level fixer who hired the Samurai, intent on getting one over on Ichi and making some cash in the process.
Meanwhile, our hero soon has his sword out yet again, after his path is blocked by a dying elderly man who begs him to find and protect a young girl entrusted to his care. Discovering the girl in question (Shiho Fujimura) cowering in a shack in the woods, Ichi is incensed when he learns that she has incurred the wrath of a local daimyo by stabbing him with a hairpin when he tried to rape her. “There’s no one worse than a samurai”, spits our favourite mass-murdering yakuza, before he commences cutting a path through numerous of the lord’s retainers on his way to deliver the girl – who is the daughter of a wealthy Edo merchant, it transpires - to safety.
By now, the patterns that will presumably define future Zatoichi films are beginning to solidify, and this one is the first that feels like a mere routine genre caper, rather than functioning as an independently compelling drama. Rather than managing to become an engaging character in her own right (as previous female leads have, however conservative the role of women in these stories may be), the fugitive girl never amounts to much more than a pure macguffin, being passed back forth between the squabbling factions like a bag of gold.
And, rather than the conflicted and anguished character we’ve encountered in previous instalments, Zatoichi here spends most of his screen time as the confident, invincible good guy, wading into a mess of contrived potboiler plotlines and efficiently sorting them all out in a satisfactory and morally upright manner. A simpler vision of the archetypal pulp hero, with his moments of rage and weakness emerging more from Shintaro Katsu’s characteristically intense performance than from any prompting in the script.
Much as Kenji Misumi’s original Tale of Zatoichi riffed heavily on ‘Yojimbo’, so ‘Zatoichi on the Road’ seems to return to Kurosawa for inspiration, as scenes in which Ichi traverses hostile territory with the girl in tow can’t help but recall similar moments in ‘Hidden Fortress’, whilst the conclusion offers another fairly obvious variation on that of ‘Yojimbo’, with Ichi playing back-and-forth games with two rival gangs on the long, narrow main street of a seemingly empty town.
For the first time since ‘Tale..’, Ichi can also be seen here bargaining for his martial services (his price is 30 gold coins in case you were wondering – perhaps another nod to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro?), and at times here he seems to be actively enjoying the yakuza conflicts he is embroiled in – a contrast to the disdain and disinterest his character usually expresses for such fussing and feuding.
More interestingly, ‘..on the Road’ also gives us the first instance in the series of a female villain, with an enjoyably ballsy performance from Fujiwara, whose scheming and acquisitive Ohisa offers a refreshing contrast to the gentle paragons of virtue who have made up the female cast in previous instalments. (I also found it amusing that Ichi doesn’t seem quite sure how to deal with this turns of events; his self-imposed code of honour forbids him from killing a woman, so instead he has to content himself with just shouting at her and shoving her around a bit in the hope she’ll go away.)
The visuals here tend to fall back a bit on the gloomy, slightly unconvincing sets of film #3, and the production generally lacks the vibrant colours of film #4, but nonetheless, these Zatoichi films are always nice to look at, and Akira Ifukube again raises our spirits with some excellent music, using themes that are perhaps more dissonant and shamisen-heavy than his earlier Zatoichi scores. The supporting cast is extremely likeable in this one too, with a fine array of craggy faces and cackling cronies livening up the ranks of yakuza, and the simpler, more stream-lined action movie plotting rattles along nicely, providing a welcome break from the more convoluted digressions that occasionally bogged down the preceding films.
Unfortunately though, a chambara film lives or dies by the quality of its final battle, and the one here proves a bit of a damp squib, especially in comparison to the spectacular climax of ‘Zatoichi the Fugitive’, which immediately preceded it. I mean…. it’s still an *ok* samurai showdown, with Ichi indulging in almost as much mass slaughter as in the previous film, but it just feels a bit static and unexceptional. Despite aping ‘Yojimbo’, Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s functional direction never really rises to the challenge, and the backlot ‘main street’ set looks conspicuously clean and artificial, lending a bit of a hokey “b-western” feel to proceedings - a world away from the mud, blood and dust of the Kurosawa set-pieces that so obviously inspired it, or indeed the rich and detailed production design seen in ‘Tale of Zatoichi’s concluding gang war.*
Whilst ‘..on the Road’ may be the weakest Zatoichi we’ve encountered thus far though, it should be stressed that it’s the loser in an extremely strong field, and that it still stands tall as an effortlessly entertaining genre movie with verve and character to spare, even if, unlike its predecessors, nothing in it really lingers long in the mind after viewing.
Looking forward to films #6, #7, #8 and beyond, I find myself wondering to what extent the series will tend to follow the pattern set by this one, drifting into a rut of formula pictures, and if so, how long it will take before some more enterprising writer or director steps up to kick things back into gear. Well, if you’ve bothered reading these reviews up to this point, I’ll assume you’re in for the ride along with me, and, given that even a comparatively minor entry like this one still provides a thoroughly satisfying evening’s viewing, I don’t anticipate *too many* bumps on the road ahead. ‘Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold’ hit screens in March 1964; it will hit my eyes soon, and should hit this blog sometime in July, gods willing.
* A pretty ubiquitous director at Daiei through the ‘60s up to the studio’s bankruptcy in 1971, Yasuda helmed, amongst other things, both sequels to Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s The Great Yokai War, the studio’s historical kaiju movie ‘Daimajin’ (1966), four more Zatoichi films, two ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death’ pictures, and another Katsu vehicle, ‘Hoodlum Priest’ (1969). As such, I think it’s probably safe to say we’ll be meeting him again on this blog before too long.
Saturday, 21 June 2014
Having reviewed the first two installments in Michio Yamamoto’s trilogy of Japanese vampire movies, I feel duty-bound to take a crack at the final film, although to be honest I don’t have a great deal to say about 1974’s Chi O-Suu Bara (rough translation: ‘The Bloodthirsty Roses’), which reached American shores under the fittingly generic title ‘Evil of Dracula’.
Whereas the first of Yamamoto’s films was creepy and touched interestingly upon past and future J-horror tropes, and the second one had a memorably hypnotic and dream-like feel to it, ‘Roses..’/’Evil..’ offers no such points of interest, instead telling a by-the-book vampire story in a wholly predictable fashion, as if deliberately trying not to draw too much attention to itself amid the avalanche of Western gothic horror product that was finally spluttering to a halt around the time of its release.
The set up – in which a handsome young teacher (Toshio Kurosawa) travels to ‘the remote North’ to take up a post in an isolated private school – begins with yet another reiteration of the “Harker arrives at Castle Dracula” opening, as filtered through Universal, Hammer and innumerable parodies/imitations thereof. Thus the teacher arrives in an otherwise deserted Western-style cobwebbed mansion, and is greeted by Shin Kishida, playing the reclusive, daylight-shunning principal (GUESS WHO?). After this, the Girls’ School setting shifts things more toward a pattern reminiscent of Hammer’s ‘Lust for a Vampire’, released a year or two earlier, whilst some business with white roses turning red as the vampires feed seems to reflect the influence of Roger Vadim’s ‘Blood & Roses’ (1960).
Although the summer holidays begin shortly after the teacher’s arrival, a bunch of pupils continue to hang around on the slightly flimsy pretext that one of their fellows is bed-ridden with a mysterious ailment (GUESS WHAT?), and they have stayed on to keep her company. Thereafter, things proceed like clockwork. Some of the girls get bitten, some don’t. None of them have any personality or defining attributes, so it doesn’t really matter either way. Teacher meets a friendly doctor who clues him in on the ways of the supernatural, then ums and ahhs for about forty minutes of screen time before eventually venturing into the crypt to stake the undead fiend and his bride…. and that’s about it, plot-wise.
It is ironic that ‘Evil..’ should take its cue from ‘Lust For a Vampire’, as, in stark contrast to that film, Yamamoto maintains a grimly serious tone throughout, completely refusing to give in to the kind of humour and sex appeal that added a spark to many an uninspired vampire movie in the early ‘70s. Whilst few would want a Japanese remake of the fairly woeful ‘Lust..’ (though ask me again after a few beers and I might change my mind), the opposite approach taken here proves just as unsatisfactory, and, lacking as it is in the kind of dramatic engagement that would justify such dour solemnity, the film swiftly drifts toward tedium.
In keeping with Yamamoto’s earlier horror films, there is almost no reference to Japanese culture here at all, and the notion of a European gothic horror story taking place in the mountains of Hokkaido (or wherever), complete with genre-appropriate clothes, architecture, food and so on, seems more ridiculous than ever. Perhaps looking to offset this incongruity, the film’s sole concession to originality comes via its explanation of how vampirism came to Japan in the first place. Naturally enough, it seems it grew from a foreign / Christian source, an idea that was touched upon in ‘Lake..’. Thus a legend is recounted explaining how a European shipwrecked in Japan during the 17th century was tortured by the Shogunate until he rejected his Christian fatih and spat upon the cross, thus damning himself and apparently succumbing to vampirism.
“The white man lost his god and went mad,” the exposition-spouting doctor succinctly observes, before a drained colour flashback shows us this biblical-looking pilgrim fleeing across a conveniently placed desert, as he develops a taste for blood and vampirises a young girl, thus establishing the lineage of which our present-day Principal Dracula is a direct descendent.
Unfortunately, Kishida, who was pretty cool as Dracula in ‘Lake..’, seems a bit under the weather here, and, whilst he looks the part, his screams and growls (a highlight of the earlier film) are slightly lacking in conviction. A shame. A moody, Baudelaire-quoting teacher in the film’s Renfield role briefly adds a touch of interest, but he soon wanders out of the story for some reason, and with the rest of the cast too bland to carry a plywood coffin, let alone a movie, there is little left after the aforementioned flashback to hold our interest on the human side.
Generic as it is though, ‘Evil..’ is at least quite stylishly executed, suggesting that Yamamoto’s technical chops as a director have grown a little in the three years since ‘Lake..’, even as his apparent disinterest in narrative momentum has remained a constant. The sets from the previous movies have been scrubbed up and rebuilt a little, looking a bit grander as a result, and, more noticeably, the mountain setting allows for some very fetching rural location photography that helps create some richly atmospheric moments; a couple of spooky woodland scenes with fog rolling in off the lake prove particular highlights.
Vampire stalk/attack sequences are both more frequent and more skilfully realised than in the earlier films, with Yamamoto’s penchant for slow-moving, dead-eyed, marble-skinned vampire girls very much coming to the fore, and there are a few fairly gory moments to enjoy. Within the walls of the school, there are some good corridor walks and prototype jump-scares, and the special effects used for the final vamp disintegration scene (yes, another one) are quite impressive.
Riichirô Manabe’s score is excellent too, probably my favourite thing about this movie in fact, and definitely the best work Manabe did on this trilogy, with ‘Bitches Brew’-esque jazz squiggles accompanying the opening train station sequences, and waves of dissonant electronics, tremoloed synth pulses and distorted wah-wah guitar later doing a great deal to liven up the vampire sequences. Really great stuff.
But again – despite a higher quantity of vampire business realised with a greater degree of cinematic skill, there is nothing here that will make much of an impression on anyone who has seen more than a handful of Western vampire films, with no imagery that lingers in the mind after viewing and little to save us from mere clock-watching as Yamamoto’s characteristically sluggish pacing becomes increasingly trying through the long trudge of the middle half hour.
I don’t want to rag on ‘Evil..’ too hard, because as noted, it’s a reasonably well made and atmospheric gothic horror film with some effective moments. So instead, let’s just sum up by saying that there is absolutely nothing here to make horror fans jump out of their seats to track down a copy, but, if you’ve got the candles lit and the curtains flapping one dark night, and feel the need for a wholly conventional, soporifically paced vampire film with a certain amount of style, Yamamoto’s got your number.
Tuesday, 17 June 2014
Saturday, 14 June 2014
Cover design and photograph by Denise York.
Cover design by Denise York, photographs by Resnais.*
Like the Arthur Upfield book featured here back in April, the words and imagery on Nicolas Freeling’s trilogy of Amsterdam-set crime books have an intriguing sort of vibe about them that encourages me to actually sit down and try reading them (and the gratuitous Simenon comparisons in the back cover blurb certainly don’t hurt either). I will report back, perhaps.
Those with frighteningly long memories may recall that I posted the cover for ‘Because of the Cats’ a few years back, but it’s always worth seeing again right?
Hopefully one day I’ll find a copy of ‘Love in Amsterdam’ to complete the trilogy (I trust it has a matching cover design utilising nifty red and blue target motif), and all will be right with the world.
(Oh, and as a final note, I like the look of the supremely disreputable looking ‘Rembrandt’ club captured on the front of ‘Gun Before Butter’...)
* Not THAT Resnais, surely…? [Yes, that Resnais -- see comments. - Ed.]
Saturday, 7 June 2014
Having started work on a series of posts earlier this year examining the British-made films of American ex-pat producer Herman Cohen, I confess I’ve found myself repeatedly staggering to a halt when it comes to writing about the very film that inspired me to undertake such a questionable venture in the first place. I’m sure those who have seen the film will know where I’m coming from when I say: what can you possibly write about ‘Konga’? If any motion picture justifies the text equivalent of a stunned, awkward silence, it is this one.
In common with many people who actually *like* genre films, I’m often reluctant to engage with the ubiquitous “so bad it’s good” mentality, not only because I have an increasingly low tolerance for the accompanying snark and the unpleasant attitudes of cultural superiority that underlie it, but also because, as has frequently been pointed out elsewhere, that formula as commonly used is a something of an oxymoron. More often than not, it is applied to films that are imaginative and entertaining on their own terms, and thus successful and to some degree ‘good’, with no qualifiers needed, whilst the vast majority of genuinely ‘bad’ films remain on the shelf unwatched, for the simple reason that they’re too dull to attract anyone’s interest. (To avoid a similar fate, I will save the rest of my diatribe on this subject for another day.)
Sometimes though, you get a film like ‘Konga’ that practically stands up and demands to be counted in the “so bad it’s good” category, meaning that writing about it without falling into the attendant critical pitfalls becomes a tough gig indeed. In fact, one of my first thoughts after viewing the film was something along the lines of “could this be the closest British cinema ever got to a ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’?” On further reflection though, I suspect that the circumstances that led to ‘Konga’s creation are very much the opposite of those that produced Ed Wood Jr’s magnum opus, even if the results are similar vis-a-vis their unprovoked assaults on normal cinematic protocol.
You see, whereas Wood’s best-known films become fascinating and engaging as a result of the poignant discrepancy between their creator’s earnest ambitions and the resources and skill needed to realise them, ‘Konga’ by contrast is a professionally funded (if admittedly low budget) movie put together by experienced film industry professionals. It is far too competent to qualify as a work of Uncinema, in spite of its frequent craziness, but it is rendered unintentionally extraordinary by vestige of the filmmakers’ sheer cynicism, laziness and disdain for their audience.
Case in point: all you need to know about ‘Konga’, really, is that it is a film in which a chimpanzee who is fed growth hormones grows up to be a gorilla, whilst a world-renowned biologist looks on without batting an eyelid.
That an incident of such obvious stupidity can have made it to the production stage without anyone pointing it out seems inconceivable, and thus we must look at the producers’ rationale for including it. The fact is, obtaining the use of both a trained chimp and a moth-eaten gorilla suit was probably easy enough for a low budget movie production. Trying to factor in either a real gorilla, or else some sort of giant-sized chimp costume, would have proven a lot more costly and difficult. So, they just went with the path of least resistance.
I don’t know anything about Herman Cohen’s manner or personality – for all I know, he might have been an erudite man of letters and a great humanitarian. But, solely from watching his movies, it’s hard not to imagine him, chomping on a cigar at this particular production meeting, saying; “For chrissakes, just shoot it already! Chimp, gorilla… the kids who go to these movies, they won’t give a FUCK.”
Well, I give a fuck, Mr. Cohen – in fact I’ve just spent the best part of half an hour pondering and writing about the whole chimp/gorilla issue, and I’m a busy man (ahem). But nonetheless, I’m not here to criticise. In fact, I’m really glad that things worked out the way they did. After all, if Cohen and his collaborators had just made a logical and carefully considered reworking of the old King Kong formula, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be talking about it here today. It is the sheer, couldn’t-give-a-fuck sloppiness that lies behind just about every creative decision in ‘Konga’ that helps make it such a deliriously joyful experience.
Things are frankly absurd right from the outset, as a fateful plane crash in the jungles of Uganda is represented by some plane flight footage that looks like it was probably filmed on a bit of scrubland near an amateur airstrip in the South-East of England, with canned “jungle noises” dubbed in over the top. Cue a post-production ‘explosion’ effect just as unconvincing as the kind of CGI nonsense you might see in a 21st century straight-to-cable movie (so I suppose ‘ Konga’ was ahead of it’s time in that respect at least?), and we cut straight to a radio studio, where an announcer informs us that a private plane bearing Professor Charles Decker, the famous English botanist, has been lost during “an exploratory trip to Africa”, leaving the Professor missing presumed dead. Cut again to a newspaper stand, as the seller barks, “read all about it, Professor Decker, crash survivor, returns after year in jungle”, and, having got that bit of initial set up out of the way in admirably concise fashion, we now meet the man himself, addressing the nation’s journalists (all three of them) upon his return to London airport.
The presence of Michael Gough in full ‘sombre & imperious’ horror movie mode bearing an inquisitive chimpanzee in his arms is a strange sight to take in, and if the ladies & gentlemen of the press are understandably a bit taken aback by the Professor’s new-found best buddy (“Konga has a name and a place in my heart.. we’ve grown rather attached to each other”), wait until they hear what else he has to say for himself.
“You mean what YOU CHOOSE TO CALL civilisation?” he immediately throw in when questioned about his delayed return to the developed world, and if that alone wasn’t enough to get your Mad Scientist Alert buzzing, his vague exclamations about “a new species of insectivorous plants”, “a revolutionary link between plant and animal life” and the necessity of “tearing up a lot of text books” should make things fairly clear.
“That little chimp is the first in a long line of kings, kings of the earth!”, Decker shortly thereafter announces to his all-purpose assistant, secretary, cook, housekeeper and lover Margaret (Margo Johns), and we can pretty much seal the deal.
Soon after that, Decker is busy tearing up the flowers Margaret has lovingly tended for him in the greenhouse, declaring that they have ‘outlived their usefulness’ (a phrase that Gough manages to turn into something of a catchphrase through the rest of the film) and will go on to serve as mulch for the crazy new carnivorous plants he’s brought back from Africa. By the time we find him inspecting the conspicuously gigantic cage he has ordered to be installed laboratory (not to mention shooting his pet cat in an outburst of fevered, egotistical rage), you might think that the rest of the movie pretty much writes itself, but, lazy and cynical though it may be, ‘Konga’ is nothing if not imaginative.
Where it could easily have just gone for another tedious “man finds a big ape, brings to city” story, the decision to mix things up with a Frankenstein mad scientist yarn, complete with a dose of horror/slasher business in the middle section and a decidedly queasy side order of poorly written domestic abuse drama, proves a heady brew indeed, and the screenplay that’s supposed to pull it all together (credited to Cohen and his regular co-writer Aben Kandel) offers up such a relentless tirade of barely thought out rubbish and questionably-inspired, cheap-jack buffoonery that even the most notorious b-movie trainwrecks that the USA produced in the previous decade start to look like sombre works of scientific speculation by comparison.
For a start, Decker’s man-eating plants are wonderful. Absolutely foul creations, they consist of veiny black phallic shafts with lolling red tongues that sway back and forth, chomping at anything that comes near them. Really the stuff of nightmares, and one pities the poor sods on the special effects crew who had to crouch underneath operating them through lengthy scenes of heated melodrama that take place in the greenhouse. (There are also carnivorous venus fly-traps, and what looks like a brood of killer avocados.)
Meanwhile, the aforementioned chimp / gorilla transformations are accomplished via the age-old horror movie means of “wobbly screen” effect plus some dodgy green-screen ‘enlargement’, but when Konga assumes his final (or at least, normal gorilla sized) form, I’m confident that all true connoisseurs of the man-in-a-suit gorilla will agree, the suit used in ‘Konga’ is truly a thing of beauty.
Fitted out with shag-carpet fur, permanently smirking facial features, wild, independently mobile eyes and ill-fitting hind-quarters that cause him to lumber about rather in the manner of a toddler who’s filled his nappy, Konga is an icon of everything that’s great about low budget monster movies, sharing the slightly unhinged charisma of classic-era Godzilla as he effortlessly steals every scene he’s in, providing a happy, grinning contrast to what seems like hours of Michael Gough doing his “biggest-bastard-in-the-world” thing.
trivia page on IMDB:
“Producer Herman Cohen first considered using "ape" actor Steve Calvert, who had worked with Cohen on Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), but Calvert had retired from performing in his gorilla suit. Cohen turned to another renowned "ape" actor George Barrows, but only hired Barrows' gorilla costume, not Barrows himself. The actor Paul Stockman was instead chosen, based primarily on being a good fit for Barrows' costume. Barrows was annoyed when his gorilla costume was returned from England in bad shape.”
So now you know. As an aside, I’m absolutely thrilled by the suggestion in this factoid that not only was being a ‘gorilla suit performer’ a valid career choice in this era, but that said performers actually owned and maintained their own personal suits. There’s a lot of fun to be had for someone researching that whole milieu, I’m sure.
Having acquired his own hypnotically suggestible, English speaking gorilla in record time, and with a good forty minutes or so still to go before the film’s finale gets underway, Decker does what any self-respecting paranoid psychopath would do, ‘testing’ his creature’s ‘obedience’ by means of murdering those whom he perceives as standing in his way. This he accomplishes largely by means of driving his creepy and highly recognisable black van to the home of his victims, before letting Konga out of the back and ordering him to go in and KILL, KILL, KILL, whilst the doctor lurks about somewhere nearby.
A fool-proof method, I’m sure you’ll agree, and clearly far less likely to arouse suspicion than just doing away with his ‘enemies’ in some more conventional, non-ape related manner. But again: who’d bother watching that movie? The best of these murder sequences features George Pastell, Hammer’s go-to guy for non-specific ‘ethnic’ roles (you can see him portraying swarthy foreigners of one kind of another in ‘The Mummy’, ‘Stranglers of Bombay’ and ‘The Reptile’), as a turbaned rival botanist who ‘threatens’ Decker’s work. The moment when Konga reaches through a set of shelves to strangle him, perfectly on cue, before indulging in some spirited laboratory trashing, is a lot of fun.
Margaret is a pitiful creature, and Decker’s treatment of her is comically foul from the outset. “Now Margaret, you know there’s little room for sentiment in the life of a scientist,” he smugly explains to upon his glorious return from the jungle, and things go downhill from there as his barely disguised contempt for her crashes unhappily against her equally mysterious devotion to him.
Johns does her best to portray Margaret as a headstrong & intelligent woman, but the sexist dynamics of the script render it a wasted effort. Given Decker’s singular lack of charm, the curious question of why she puts up with his odious and patronising behaviour in the first place remains unaddressed, and even later in the film, when it becomes obvious that he has been busy sending a giant ape out to cold-bloodedly murder people, she initially keeps quiet and sticks with him. Why? Because the hateful, loveless psychopath has promised to MARRY her if things go well for him, and that would obviously be a happy ending, right?
Though poorly written and camply performed, these power games carry a real fingers-down-the-blackboard discomfort that belies ‘Konga’s status as a quirky throwback to ‘50s monster movies, instead prefiguring the more squalid and upsetting strain of domestic dysfunction that would begin to predominate in British horror during the ‘70s.
At this point, we might pause to question why a scientist of such high standing that his exploits are recounted on the front page of newspapers still has to hold down a job teaching beginners level biology to a class of disinterested yahoos what looks to be a local Further Education college. Perhaps there is some transatlantic confusion going on here regarding the use of the word ‘college’ as opposed to ‘university’, but that still doesn’t really account for the discrepancy between the Dean sitting in a wood-panelled study earnestly contemplating his institution’s historic reputation, whilst the student body appears to consist mainly of sub-normal 30 year olds who sit sniggering at school desks and leap up for break-time when the bell goes. (“Now as you can see, in addition to leaves and stems, these ferns have roots, which collect water”, Decker tells his class of full-time botany students at one point.)
In my review of Horrors of the Black Museum, we touched upon Cohen’s tendency to put ‘teen’ characters in his movies, “so that the teenagers can relate to someone in the film”, but if these jiving goofballs are his idea of audience-surrogates, the level of contempt he must have had for the people who paid to see his movies is simply staggering.
Despite Sandra’s declaration that she intends to forsake boys to concentrate on her dedication to “chemistry and physics” (so… not biology or botany then?), Claire Gordon’s blank eyes and practiced smile radiate nothing but cue-card reading emptiness – really an astonishingly bad performance, and a reminder that some of acting here hasn’t much improved since ‘..Black Museum’, despite the presence of some stronger players in the supporting cast.
Of course, Decker is determined to have his way with the young hussy whether she likes it or not, even sending Konga out to take care of her equally witless boyfriend, and when he finally gets her alone in the greenhouse, the sight of Gough aggressively pawing this ‘teenager’ is as horribly distasteful as you’d imagine, even as the bizarre, phallic plants waving softly in the background push the whole scene into the realm of utter surrealism. (He also offers her “greater glory than any woman has ever known”, which seems a bit rich coming from a guy whose plan doesn’t seem to extend much beyond living in the jungle with an army of hypnotised gorillas.)
Bad news for all concerned within the movie, but good news for us the viewing public, as we finally get to see our simian hero strut his stuff, free of Michael Gough’s overbearing influence.
Ar, yeah, that’s the stuff.
“Fantastic,” says the gent pictured below in a manner that delighted Island of Terror and delights me no less, “there’s a huge monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose on the streets!”
As befits a man with such a clear grasp of the situation, he’s onto the ‘war office’ by ‘radio-telephone’ within seconds, and the official response to Konga’s brief reign of terror takes shape.
Before we finish, it’s only fair that we should throw in a quick word on director John Lemont. He had a pretty short career in film, but in addition to orchestrating the myriad absurdities of ‘Konga’, he also directed, produced and co-wrote two other films – ‘The Shakedown’ (1960) and ‘The Frightened City’ (1961) – neither of which I’ve seen, but they both look like really solid British crime films with great casts. I think we can safely say that these Cohen productions were never really “director’s films”, and, like poor old Arthur Crabtree on ‘..Black Museum’, one suspects that if questioned about ‘Konga’, Lemont’s reaction might well have been along the lines of “It was a cheque, for god’s sake! Why can’t you leave me alone?!”. ‘Konga’ was the last feature film he directed.
In Lemont’s favour, we can at least give credit where its due and say that ‘Konga’ does actually look a lot nicer than ‘..Black Museum’, with better compositions, a more workable aspect ratio, improved use of colour and, for the most part, more lively performances and better pacing. None of which is likely to do much to salve the director’s bruised dignity in the face of a movie in which a red-headed rag-doll is used as a stand-in for the lead actress as her character is waved around by a man in an ill-fitting gorilla suit, but I’m prepared to believe he did his best.
And as to Michael Gough, well let’s just say that if Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were both sometimes upset at the ribbing they got from the snooty British theatrical establishment for their participation in horror films, Gough must have had balls of steel to hold his head high in the West End whilst ‘Konga’ was in the cinemas.
Between his roles for Cohen and his occasional turns for Hammer, Gough was busy with enough TV work to keep ten lesser men in employment, and managed to keep his parallel career in theatre ticking over too, so I’ll assume he approached things in the right spirit and didn’t let the type-casting that resulted from roles like this one get to him too much. After all, if somebody trashes your work in films as worthwhile as ‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ and ‘The Gorgon’, you’ve got a right to be annoyed. If they’re gonna give you hard time for hamming it up in ‘Konga’, there’s not much to do except smile and nod and point to the new car that’s driving you to rehearsals for that Ayckbourn play you’re doing next month.
Quite a leap from that to the unedifying fate our favourite love-to-hate thespian meets back in ‘Konga’, as an extremely unconvincing dummy with super-imposed Gough-head is thrown from a hairy paw onto the unforgiving cobbles of Westminster. With Margo Johns unceremoniously chucked into a fire, Claire Gordon apparently eaten by a venus flytrap and only a corpse-stiff Michael Gough pleading for his life with the big ape, there’s no ‘beauty killed the beast’ sting in the tail here – just a few more braces of machine-gun fire, and one of the most poignant closing images even seen in the canon of monkey-related cinema.
What lessons can be draw from this excursion to Herman Cohen’s hideously amoral universe, you may well ask. Well, if you’re going to kill someone in a fit of jealousy or paranoia, probably best just get on with it without getting any giant animals involved - that would seem to be the main one; a doctrine which was followed in word if not in spirit when the Cohen/Gough team reunited once more, to complete their inglorious trilogy with 1963’s singularly odd ‘Black Zoo’. We’ll be getting round to that one soon, so, once again: you have been warned.