Saturday 7 June 2014

The Songs of Herman Cohen:
(John Lemont, 1961)

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.

Before moving on, I think it is worth quoting verbatim the following anonymous contribution to ‘Konga’s 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.

Alongside all the monkey business and suggestive rubbery flora though, there is a slightly nastier, more modern edge at work in ‘Konga’ too. All of the Cohen/Gough movies feature this slightly disturbing undercurrent of dysfunctional relationships and emotional abuse (much of it generated by the sheer toxicity of Gough’s beastly characterisations), and ‘Konga’ is no exception.

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.

Like Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein (to whom he bears more than a passing resemblance), Dr. Decker’s affected scientific coldness certainly doesn’t preclude the potential for sexual lust, and, with Margaret having ‘outlived her usefulness’ in that regard, the second half of the film has him setting his sights on Sandra (Claire Gordon), the top student in his ‘college’ class, as the story’s unsavoury melodrama moves into full swing.

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.

Anyway, as you might well imagine, Decker’s attempts to seduce Sandra are creepy beyond words. “This may not have anything to do with class work, but I can’t get over how you’ve grown” he says in his mock-gentle voice as he imparts tutory ‘wisdom’ to her after class, and it gets more cringeworthy from thereon in. Urgh.

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.)

It is this grim scene that of course leads directly to ‘Konga’s inevitable and much celebrated transformation into a proper Big Monster Rampage, as the neglected Margaret finally snaps and shoots Konga up with a huge overdose of the growth formula, setting free and ordering him to KILL, KILL, KILL his sort-of creator.

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.

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

I loved all of Mr. Gough's raves and rants in this film, and others such as Horrors of the Black Museum. I'm only sorry he never got to "go ape' on Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney in the Batman films.