Konga was made under the working title of I Was a Teenage Gorilla. Not because this had anything to do with the plot, but rather because producer Herman Cohen had previously scored a massive success with I Was a Teenage Werewolf and its follow-up I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. Cohen was a Michigan-born B-movie impresario who switched from publicity to production in the early fifties, unleashing the likes of Target Earth and Bela Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla in the process. Though he tried his hand at all types of low-budget picture – comedies, Westerns, even a boxing movie starring a young Leonard Nimoy – it was the box-office receipts of I Was a Teenage Werewolf that convinced him to stick to horror. Teenage Werewolf was immediately followed by a Teenage Frankenstein, plus Blood of Dracula and How to Make a Monster, all for American International Pictures, drive-in specialists and the home to Roger Corman.
Using his previous experience as Columbia Pictures’ sales agent for Detroit, Cohen brokered a deal with British company Anglo Amalgamated in order to see his AIP movies distributed in the UK. (He’d worked with them briefly in 1954 on a quota quickie by the name of River Beat, which has only recently resurfaced on DVD.) As part of the arrangement he brought AIP’s founders Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson to London and, in typical B-movie producer fashion, hit upon the idea for his next project. A visit to Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum inspired Horrors of the Black Museum, a co-production between the two companies that would also kick-start a new stage in Cohen’s career. He remained a maker of horror movies, only this time they would all be British.
After Horrors of the Black Museum came The Headless Ghost, a light-hearted genre effort set in a haunted castle, as well as Black Zoo, the Sherlock Holmes-Jack the Ripper tale A Study in Terror, two with Joan Crawford in the form of Berserk and Trog, and the Jack Palance-starring Craze. Cohen also had some uncredited involvement on Circus of Horrors, plus, of course, there was Konga. Horrors of the Black Museum is generally considered the classic among this bunch – it has the endorsement of Martin Scorsese, for starters (and will soon be receiving its own DVD release from Network Distributing). But Konga is the one which most obviously harks back Cohen’s drive-in past. Though played entirely straight it has that same gonzo energy as his American pictures, not to mention a blend of outlandish plot developments and saleable commodities like bopping teenagers. The fact that this all takes place on British soil only makes it all the more fascinating. Indeed, one of those bopping teenagers is played by a 22-year-old Steven Berkoff!
As the title suggests Konga takes its inspiration from a certain 1933 production. Though the original King Kong would be followed by an almost immediate sequel (The Song of Kong arriving a mere nine months later), the whole franchise hadn’t really kicked into gear by the time Cohen began work on his screenplay with regular collaborator Aben Kandel. King Kong vs. Godzilla would emerge a year after Konga’s release and by the decade’s end there would also be an animated television series, plus a slew of remakes, sequels and rip-offs to come, but before all of that giant and/or murderous apes were much more likely to show up in a cheapo B-movie guise. Funnily enough, Cohen had his hand in two of them; not just Bela Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla, but Bride of the Gorilla too.
Konga is a chimp. He’s brought into the UK by Michael Gough’s British botanist, who’s been missing-believed-dead in the African jungle for the past year. During that time he’s discovered revolutionary connections between plant life and animal life; he’s also gone a little mad. Creating a jungle-like climate in his London greenhouse, he grows some giant insectivorous plants and injects their vital fluids into tiny Konga… only Konga doesn’t stay tiny for long. Furthermore, Gough has hypnotic powers over his primate companion and uses them to settle personal vendettas. Love rivals, scientific rivals – in fact, just about anyone who gets in his way – all find themselves succumbing to the ape’s murderous grip.
Apart from Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, British cinema didn’t really do mad scientists. One would pop up from time to time in pictures such as Womaneater (involving a flesh-eating tree!), but with nothing like the regularity of their American counterparts. As such, it’s an utter delight to see Gough having an absolute whale of a time as he seduces one of his teenage students or sends Konga off for another kill. Importantly, the actor plays it completely straight (perhaps having learnt a thing or two from Cushing and Christopher Lee when he appeared alongside them in Hammer’s first Dracula pic) and such seriousness goes a long way. He and Cohen would collaborate on five British horrors together, though it happened almost by chance. Horrors of the Black Museum was written with Vincent Price in mind, only for Anglo Amalgamated to suggest a homegrown lead – after all, it would prove to be much cheaper than shipping in an American and putting him up at the Dorchester for the duration.
Arguably, the all-Brit assembly only adds to the fun: there’s something really quite entertaining in having mostly hilarious B-movie dialogue delivered in cut-glass accents, not to mention a giant ape going on the rampage near Parliament Square. With that said, the hokier aspects are nicely balanced by some genuine quality. As well as Gough (who was never less than excellent throughout his career) we also have Gerard Schurmann whipping up a pleasingly energetic score and Desmond Dickinson installed as cinematographer. Best known for his work on Olivier’s Hamlet, he takes a clear delight in the garish possibilities of Eastmancolor; the green wallpaper in Gough’s living room is a particularly lurid sight. John Lemont’s direction, meanwhile, is workmanlike but sufficiently pacey. He’d been mostly active in episodic television, which more than likely explains his no-nonsense approach. And that, of course, is exactly what the material demands. We may not have had drive-ins over here, but that doesn’t mean British cinema couldn’t replicate the drive-in movie. As B-pictures go, Konga is up there with the best.
Konga is finally getting a UK DVD release thanks to Network Distributing’s ‘The British Film’ initiative. The film was previously available in the States as part of MGM’s ‘Midnite Movies’ range, where it was paired with Yongary, a South Korean monster pic from 1967. This new release comes from a brand new transfer and looks to be in a decent condition. There is the odd bit of damage and dirt, but we are otherwise dealing with a pleasingly clean image and some suitably garish colours. The original 1.66:1 aspect ratio is also adhered to (filmed in ‘SpectaMation’ according to Saul Bass-ian opening titles!) and anamorphically enhanced. There are no optional subtitled, though the original mono soundtrack is clear and reasonably crisp.
As for extras, supporting actor Jess Conrad pops up as soon as you’ve placed the disc in the player for a quick introduction, plus there’s room for the original trailer and a gallery consisting of lobby cards, VHS sleeves and so forth. Also, be sure to pop the DVD into your laptop or PC as you’ll also find a quartet of press books (in English and German) presented in PDF form. Be warned though, one of them reveals each of Konga’s victims and should be avoided until after you’ve caught the movie.