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"That little chimp will become the first link in modern evolution between plant and animal life," proclaims soon-to-be-mad scientist Dr. Charles Decker (Michael Gough). The botany professor is back from a year in the deepest jungles of Africa with exotic plants and a cute little chimpanzee named Kongo destined to grow into a lumbering stuntman in gorilla costume. Yes, his experimental growth serum causes the creature to change both size and species, not that anyone really notices the latter in Konga (1961), the bargain-basement King Kong (1933) knock-off from American producer Herman Cohen.
Cohen had made a name for himself with low budget, high concept exploitation fare like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and How to Make a Monster (1958) for American International Pictures, but found a whole new angle when he went to England to make the British co-production Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). The lurid thriller, starring Michael Gough as an arrogant crime writer turned sadistic killer whose gruesome murders are inspired by real-life cases documented in Scotland Yard's Black Museum, delivered production value (widescreen and brutally vivid color) and classy talent on a budget to AIP.
Initially pitched under the title I Was a Teenage Gorilla, Konga reunited Cohen with his Black Museum star Michael Gough and co-writer, Abel Kandel. Gough was largely known for his stage work but no stranger to film (his credits include The Horse's Mouth  and Women in Love ), and he had established his horror credentials with a meaty role in the Hammer production Horror of Dracula (1958). Today he is most recognizable as Alfred the Butler in the nineties big screen revival of Batman inaugurated by Tim Burton. Cohen brought in British director John Lemont, whose relatively brief film career consisted mostly of crime films such as The Shakedown (1959) and The Frightened City (1961), and it's Cohen's stamp that really defines the film.
Konga is a giant ape movie to be sure but Gough's Dr. Decker is a mad scientist in the mode of Peter Cushing's Dr. Frankenstein from Hammer's series revival: arrogant, superior, and not above knocking off rivals (both scientific and romantic) or anyone else in the name of progress his progress, of course. And as in Black Museum, Gough's vindictive character turns to hypnotism to control his minion, only this time it's a gorilla under the effects of growth serum and mind-controlling jungle drugs. Sort of like a sci-fi twist on Murders in the Rue Morgue. His loyal and adoring assistant (Margo Johns) pays little heed to the early signs of his ruthless megalomania (such as shooting his pet cat and sending the new super-sized Konga after the troublesome college dean). It takes something more serious than mere murder, like his lecherous designs on a curvy blonde student (Claire Gordon), to rouse her wrath, and she proves that she is not a woman to be scorned.
The color is bright and bold, especially in the exotic greenhouse of wild carnivorous plants, a wild collection that could be the flora of a psychedelic space jungle, all writhing stalks and snapping mouths and curling tongues looking for their next meal. "We had to use a lot of ingenuity in place of money," recalls Cohen in a 1994 interview. Almost as strange is the color scheme for the interiors painted in shades of avocado, mauve, and peach and those are the laboratories!
Konga finally reaches Kong dimensions in the final act, smashing out of Decker's red brick manor house and through the glass ceiling of the greenhouse, and the tightly-budgeted production gets full value from the marvelously built set for the stand-out scene. Konga's inevitable rampage through London, however, where the giant simian towers over city buildings and crowds run for their lives, was accomplished with traveling mattes, an effective but difficult process that dragged on long after principal photography ended. It took "over a year and a half to get those bloody special effects done perfect," according to Cohen. "Konga was in color and that's whole different bag of beans. To have Konga hold Michael Gough, what I had to do there was matte five different scenes on one frame." For long shots, the production saved some special effects money by substituting dolls for the actors. Konga's lumbering rampage through London's nighttime streets inspires the film's most memorable line, when one bobby blurts out: "Fantastic! There's a giant gorilla that's constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!"
The finale was shot on location in the Embankment area of London, where Konga could rage and roar with Big Ben looming behind him. Cohen's production manager, Jim O'Connolly, warned him that he'd never get permission from the Metropolitan Police to shoot on the streets, yet Cohen did just that after meeting the precinct inspector. "The thing that I didn't mention to him was that, at the finale, all hell was going to break loose that we were going to shoot sub-machine guns, bazookas, etc., etc." In Cohen's own words, "I had a lot of apologies to make" more than a few citizens were startled by gunfire breaking out in downtown London in the middle of the night but apparently all was forgiven for Cohen remained in Britain for many more productions, among them Black Zoo (1963), also starring Michael Gough, and Berserk! (1967) with Joan Crawford.
Producer: Herman Cohen, Nathan Cohen, Stuart Levy, Jim O'Connolly
Director: John Lemont
Screenplay: Herman Cohen, Aben Kandel
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Film Editing: Jack Slade
Art Direction: C. Wilfred Arnold
Music: Gerard Schurmann
Cast: Michael Gough (Dr. Charles Decker), Margo Johns (Margaret), Jess Conrad (Bob Kenton), Claire Gordon (Sandra Banks), Austin Trevor (Dean Foster), Jack Watson (Supt. Brown).
by Sean Axmaker