Column: The Vault of Secrets: Konga (1961)

By Orrin Grey

Konga (1961). Directed by: John Lemont. Starring: Michael Gough, Margo Johns, Claire Gordon.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is the British answer to King Kong and a spiritual sibling (in more ways than one) to previous Vault of Secrets alum Gorgo, which was released the same year. I watched it on a double-bill DVD set with our previous film, Yongary, Monster from the Deep, though the two films really couldn’t be more different.

Written by Herman Cohen, who had previously penned such teen monster party movies as I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, The Headless Ghost, and How to Make a Monster, Konga was originally shot under the working title I Was a Teenage Gorilla. Following the success of Cohen’s first British-made film Horrors of the Black Museum, which also starred Michael Gough, Cohen was asked to write another exploitation film and, given his affection for the original King Kong, opted for a giant ape film. Or, rather, opted for an eventually giant ape film. Perhaps the most striking thing about Konga, in the annals of giant monster movies, is that it’s actually not about a giant monster until about the last fifteen minutes. For most of its running time, Konga‘s titular ape is actually just a normal-sized ape, by which I, of course, mean, “guy in an ape suit.”

Michael Gough plays the world’s douchiest adventure botanist who, upon returning from a year spent in Africa after a plane crash, fills his greenhouse with giant animatronic carnivorous plants (in grand adventure botanist style), and sets to work on a formula that will skip evolution ahead and make things grow. In between being cruel to his assistant/housekeeper/lover, murdering his own cat, and being unbearably smug all the time, he tests his formula on his pet chimp Konga, who accompanied him back from Africa. The formula not only makes Konga grow, but also appears to transform him into a gorilla. Or rather, a guy in a rather saggy gorilla suit.

In addition to making Konga bigger, the formula is also supposed to make him susceptible to Michael Gough’s commands and of course the only possible way to test that is to make Konga kill. So, for the majority of the movie’s running time, it is only a regular killer-ape-on-the-loose movie, with Michael Gough using Konga to knock off his various rivals. It isn’t until Gough’s beleaguered assistant learns that she’s being thrown over for a younger model and gives Konga a massive dose of the formula in the film’s final reel that Konga grows to a size large enough to tower over buildings and then embarks upon what is probably the least impressive rampage in monster movie history. Less a rampage, in fact, than a sort of leisurely stroll through London, only to then be summarily shot to death in spite of, frankly, not really causing much damage, except to Michael Gough, his house, and his assistant. The best bit of the whole affair is undoubtedly the guy in an ape suit smashing up a miniature lab, this in spite of the fact that when he picks up the assistant, he’s clearly just holding a doll. Maybe the reason for the lackluster rampage is that Michael Gough had already chewed so much of the scenery that there wasn’t any left for Konga to stomp.

Along the way, there’s a lot to like in Konga, most of it Michael Gough’s delightfully hammy performance as the just-completely-evil-from-top-to-bottom doctor. There are also some Saul Bass-ish opening credits, followed by the English countryside standing in for Africa. There’s a sub-plot with Michael Gough attempting to seduce his pretty young student, which is abruptly cut off by Konga’s lackluster rampage, though we’re all left wondering what happened to the girl at the end. The last time we see her, her arm is stuck in one of the carnivorous plants. Did she die? I choose to believe that she grew up to be a badass adventure botanist with a bionic arm.

Like Gorgo, Konga was adapted into a comic book series from Charlton Comics, featuring artwork by Steve Ditko. The film’s producers also paid RKO Pictures a whopping $25,000 dollars (The film’s entire budget was only around $500,000) for the rights to use King Kong’s name in the promotion of the movie, which is why you can see it plastered almost as large as the title on Konga‘s very misleading poster.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when a different kind of monster runs amok in Merry Olde England.