Yeah, I Sat Through It Again: Konga (1961)

Konga (1963)Dir: John Lemont
Cinema 4 Rating: 3

There are any number of time-battered and cliched statements that the citizens of this unintelligently-designed human world use to describe their experience of sitting through a movie of which they are not exactly enamored. Looming large amongst these worn-out barbs is 'Well, there's an hour and a half I'll never get back again!" 

Oh, great. Would you have discovered radium within those 90 minutes if you weren't watching that insufferable movie, Madame Curie? Were you going to sail to friggin' India, Vasco de Gama? 

You know what you were going to do with that time, you whiny jerk. Probably sit at home on your ass watching bad television and devouring buckets of fast food, like any decent, red-blooded, patriotic 'Murican. Or sit around listening to a close friend drone on and on about the drama in their life, only so that you can interject now and then with a roughly similar situation in your life, mainly just to hear yourself talk and to remind yourself just how much more important your life is than friend's. Or maybe you'll just sit around fingering your ass. Must feel good to be filling your precious time with a worthwhile activity.

We'll ignore the fact that I might be speaking from my own experience (sssshhh...) and bolt laboriously forward with an example of evolutionary adaptation to cinematic nature...

Ladies and Gentlemen! Feast your eyes upon the center ring! My amazing buddy, the Great Robear will astonish you with his ability to justify the existence of any -- any! -- comedy film in the world, just by dint of its having even a single halfway amusing line within its frames! This is far from a condemnation of Bear's cinematic taste -- occasionally, his mynah-like gift for remembering throwaway lines from a fourth season episode of Laverne and Shirley comes in very handy at a party -- this is merely to point out that despite the fact he is often times watching utter crap, he still takes something from each movie that he considers worthwhile from the experience.

My particular bent is towards horror, science-fiction and just plain odd films, and while Bear would probably show little interest in most of the films in my collection, as I would his, we can often come together and get something from an experience many people would consider a huge waste of time. Even though I am no fan by any means of the Friday the 13th series of slasher films, sitting around for 24 hours with Bear watching the first nine films of the series straight through was a delightful if exhausting time. Even if the films were nearly all sub-par horror exercises in and of themselves, we made it our own unique and personally edifying experience, making comparison lists of each film, tabulating the various murder methods used in each instance and counting up each and every feminine mammalian protuberance that dared to expose itself to the screen. (I believe our lovingly tendered lists, however, are lost to antiquity.)

What I saw were our slightly differing approaches to getting through those films: Robear delighted in throwaway lines by minor characters and out-of-left-left-left field plot flourishes, punctuating each one with his unique chortle of maniacal glee. While I, too, found most of these amusing, my internal battle was with the staid trappings of the time-worn basics of the slasher "plot", such as it is, and trying to work out the odd timeline for the few characters in the series who do make it from, say, Pt. IV to Pt. V to Pt. VI, albeit altered and really showing little connection to the previous film. That said, both of us found something to keep us occupied through the run; whether or not we actually enjoyed the films was besides the point. We found something in the experience, and the films, to make the time spent enjoyable and worthwhile to ourselves.

And I was also able to understand Robear's viewpoint, and recognize the fact that I was not far removed from him in execution of my movie-collecting habits. While he tapes or buys nearly every comedy film in sight (the walls of his den are laden with films I wouldn't even approach for a single viewing), my similar approach was to horror and science-fiction. I would be lying to say that, even with my disdain for the Friday the 13th series, 7 of the 9 films for our marathon event didn't come from my tapings off of HBO and Cinemax in the '80s and '90s. (They did; we only had to rent two of them -- the most recent.) I had nearly every horror or science-fiction film, most of dubious distinction, that ever dropped onto cable through those years on tape in some form. And I usually justified my owning them solely by dint of their being in those genres. The fact that I disliked the bulk of them didn't enter into it. But some of those that were terrible, I loved for rather obscure reasons.

To the point: as a result of this propensity for having copies of mostly terrible cinema about my home to complete some phantom goal of undefined movie-collection "completion" (an immensely impossible task), I have almost always had a copy of Konga lying around. "What is Konga?", you may ask. Hitting on the fact that even the worst movie can contain a richly satisfying performance by an actor mired in the only genre that will hire them (sadly, the bread and butter of Lance Henriksen's career these days), I present to you an atrocious King Kong-ripoff from the early '60s, produced by a battering ram of a producer, Herman A. Cohen, who never met a crummy idea he couldn't make crummier, and featuring a tiny chimp who grows up, in a complete bastardization of evolutionary process, into a big gorilla. Said growth is not natural, of course; it comes via the meticulous tampering with secret formulas derived from recently discovered jungle plants by Doctor Charles Decker, a somewhat fey but certifiable madman brought to life on the screen by the incredible Michael Gough.

Modern readers will know him as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman's butler in the Burton-Schumacher films, and this distinction was wonderful at the beginning, but Gough's worst habits begin to betray him near the end of the series. Gough, in conjunction with being a rather accomplished actor, also carries with him one of the profession's most lethal and unwieldy weapons: hamminess. All great actors are capable of using the ham effect, and all of them to varying degrees of success (take Sir Laurence Olivier, for a prime example). Gough's more famous compatriots in screen terror in the '50s and '60s -- Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price -- all perfected its use in these films, but were still able to pull out effective and supposedly deeper performances in so-called mainstream productions when called upon.

I am really not aware of just where Gough lands on the greatness scale -- I will leave that to others to determine, but he did win a Tony in 1979, and was nominated for another a decade later -- but in Konga, he shows the mark of a true actor. Yes, the lines he is hired to deliver, such as "Even those few drops might have made Tabby swell up to huge proportions!", are highly ridiculous and poorly written. But, when delivered by Gough, they glow with a feverish Shakespearean tint that makes you believe that his now deceased pussy, shot to death by the doctor lest it rampage across London, really will go all Godzilla on the Thames if not put down mercifully. Every line that Gough drops is a grenade of over-the-top juiciness, and yet he invests each one with his very soul, as if he believed every goddamned ridiculous word, and making believers out of us in the process. And when he makes his move on the Lolita-like college student who has captured his heart, the scene oozes with creepy pedophiliac lust, even if the resulting fight with the girl's paramour seems more up the bad doctor's alley. (Gough's doctor never really seems all that "straight", even when seemingly obsessed with the girl or planning marriage with his weary lab assistant slash fiancé.
Many would discount this film entirely simply for the fact that it has all of the earmarks of a terrible film: bad script, bad gorilla suit, bad special effects. This is a perfectly sane position to take: when Konga sprouts from chimp to gorilla, the man-in-lame-ape-suit takes to the streets, but the only real rampaging he does is on the doctor's home. Thereafter, he pretty much just stands behind buildings and roars a lot until the film's Big Ben climax. Konga's outburst of non-violence is documented by a cop on the street thusly, and lamely: "Fantastic... There's a huge monster gorilla that's constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!" Freudians would probably delight in the scenes where the student confronts the collection of vicious African plants in the doctor's lab, some of which sport large black phallus-like stems, all pulsing with large red veins. (Truly, I am surprised Cohen got away with that one.) And remember, anytime there is a Venus Flytrap with a mouth as big as a cow's head, someone is going to get caught in it eventually. It just goes without saying.

Yes, all signs do point to "atrocious" with Konga, but only until you take Michael Gough into account. Despite the film's demerits, the one thing it does not have is bad acting. It might seem like bad acting, but it is perfectly suited for the job. Gough, and his cast, say all the wrong lines the perfectly right way. I've gotten through worse films with far less.

Such as, hmmm, Pretty Woman... and that piece of crap was nominated for an Oscar...


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