The small-scale British film distributor and production company Anglo-Amalgamated, which started up in 1945 and was run by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy until 1969, earns at least a footnote in any discussion of the British Film Industry during the ‘50s and ‘60s, for its involvement in the distribution of the first twelve movies in the Carry On franchise and for initiating, from its now semi-legendary Wimbledon-based Merton Park Studios, a number of fondly regarded black-and-white second feature film serials, including the long-running “Edgar Wallace Mysteries” and “The Scales of Justice” series’. But it also played a key role in the course that was taken by the British horror film during the years immediately following the release of Hammer’s influential X-rated colour Gothic horrors “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Dracula”, thanks to its involvement in the production of what is often referred to as (in a phrase originally coined by critic David Pirie) its ‘Sadian Trilogy’.
After the popularity of Hammer’s attractive new formula became apparent within the industry in the late-‘50s, pressure began to be exerted on the BBFC’s then Secretary John Trevelyan for him to be more lenient on the spate of cash-in Brit horrors being produced by small independent production companies in various attempts to repeat the winning combination of lurid colour and morbid thrills which appeared to be at the root of the Hammer success story. Hammer’s product was proving so enormously popular at the British box office, and providing a much-needed injection of cash flow into the failing industry just when the faltering British economy made such a development particularly welcome, that other producers and distributors were falling over themselves to hitch a ride on the horror bandwagon, although few of them displayed the artistry and taste evident in the work that was now regularly emerging from the Thames-side Bray Studios family outfit.
Nevertheless, a brief window of opportunity was opened up between the spring of 1959 and May 1960, when a number of sensationalist and lurid exploitation melodramas managed to find their way onto British screens, just before the BBFC realised what they had potentially unleashed upon the masses and clamped down even harder than before. The Anglo-Amalgamated trio of terrors were major beneficiaries of this unexpected window of leniency; headed by Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” -- a classic which guaranteed A-A’s place in history despite the wave of critical disdain vented on the movie at the time -- Cohen and Levy also oversaw Sidney Hayers’ gruesome “Circus of Horrors” at Beaconsfield Studios while Merton Park provided the home for the A-A production of American exploitation king Herman Cohen’s “Horrors of the Black Museum” – one of the most infamous British horror films of the period thanks to its gruesome images of sadistic torture and unabashedly lurid tone, unprecedented at the time of the film’s release and not repeated for many years afterwards – which was directed by “Fiend Without A Face” helmer Arthur Crabtree. Cohen, the mastermind behind such American drive-in B-Movie ‘classics’ as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and “How to Make a Monster” turned out to be a dab hand at smuggling the most outrageously lurid material past the censor, and A-A were prompt in also employing him behind the scenes of “Circus of Horrors” in an advisory capacity to help it achieve the same results.
But although “Horrors of the Black Museum” invariably gets a mention in any discussion of the British horror scene of the late-‘50s/early-‘60s, it is almost always written about in tandem with its partners in the so-called Sadian Trilogy. In fact, Herman Cohen also produced a second movie for Anglo-Amalgamated not long after “Horrors of the Black Museum”: an outrageously over-the-top B-Movie monster flick with the same star, Michael Gough (who was back yet again two years later for Cohen’s “Black Zoo”), giving much the same lip-smacking, scenery-chewing performance as before, and with many of the same personnel reconvening behind the scenes on what often look like exactly the same sets, in a cheap exploitationer shot in similarly garish Eastmancolour, with flat direction from John Lemont that has the appropriate effect of making the whole spectacle look even more like an quaint ‘50s Home Counties version of an EC Comics strip come to life.
The movie in question is “Konga”, and although the sadistic cartoon cruelty of “Horrors …” has largely been eclipsed here by amusingly bizarre dialogue and some major camp silliness courtesy of Cohen and his long-time screenwriting partner Aben Kandel, who between them furnish the screenplay with some almost surreally clunky humdingers which are delivered with commendably earnest straight faces by the cast in what is actually an almost endlessly quotable flick, this outlandish attempt to bring a cut-price “King Kong” to the streets of Croydon (substituting for the London Embankment) has its own specific pleasures, which are made all the more pleasing to the eye by the wonderfully reproduced colour photography of Desmond Dickenson. The titles make much ballyhoo out of the claim that the movie is being presented to us in something called ‘Spectamation’, which turns out to be a special name dreamed up for the crude process photography used here to make a baby chimp turn into a bloke in a gorilla suit who’s meant to look as though he’s as tall as Big Ben through having him amble about in front of a projected backdrop.
But I’m jumping ahead here … In fact, I’m jumping way ahead, because although the poster and the title may suggest the idea that this is a monster-gorilla-on-the-rampage-flick, that part of it actually only takes up the last ten minutes or so of the movie. The rest of this minor classic is another example of Cohen/Kandel using the mad scientist trope as a metaphor for all sorts of sexual freakery and wacky obsession, which very quickly stops being subtext and is thrust full square ‘in yer face’ the moment Gough starts using his greenhouse to grow exotic meat-eating plant specimens he’s brought back from Africa with him which, after a week of being exposed to hothouse temperatures, start to look exactly like a twisted combination of snapping Venus flytraps with vagina dentata attached and a selection of obscenely swollen circumcised inflatable black penises!
Now that I’ve piqued your interest, let’s return to the initial set-up for all this madness, which, with typically awkward amateurishness, is delivered via a mixture of newsreader-explaining-the-bits-of-the-plot-we-couldn’t-afford to-film shots and working class newspaper vendor bellowing ‘read all about it’ on a London street corner. With these crude methods of plot elaboration we manage to cover a year of the story in one minute as we learn of the loss of famous botanist Dr Charles Decker’s light aircraft while he was on an expedition in the Ugandan jungle, and of his subsequent re-emergence a year later after having in the meantime been presumed dead by the authorities and his colleagues. A gaggle of polite hacks gather at the colourful airport lounge to interview Decker (Michael Gough) as he now flies back to London, clutching a briefcase in one hand while coddling a baby chimp with the other!
It turns out that friendly local natives nursed the patrician scientist back to health after he bailed out over the jungle, and showed him secrets of nature concerning ‘plants with animal properties’ which have the potential to ‘re-write the scientific textbooks’. As for the chimp that Decker seems so attached to? Apparently the little fella led the stricken botanist to the native villagers who saved his life in the first place. Decker named his hairy friend Konga: ‘he has a name and a place in my heart,’ he tells the assembled hacks, dreamily. One person not so pleased about Dr Decker’s newfound proclivity for simian companionship is the female assistant whose been left on her own back home for the last year, or rather his ‘secretary, assistant, housekeeper, confidante and good friend’ Margaret (Margo Johns), who has diligently been tending her boss’s floral blooms in his greenhouse and keeping his affairs in order the whole time he’s been missing, while refusing to believe against all evidence to the contrary that Decker was really dead. Decker lives with Margaret in a chintzy-looking suburban household as though they were a conventional couple, yet despite fulfilling the above stated roles (which Decker reminds her about at every given opportunity) they’re not actually married, and the relationship seethes with barely concealed obsession on Margaret’s part but complete indifference on the scientist’s side of the sofa. In fact, we can intuitively tell that they’re an odd pair with just one look at that ugly, sickly lime green and purple home décor marring Decker’s living room.
Margaret is seriously aggrieved that Decker appears to think more of Konga the chimp than he does of her, but complains about it in the politest of genteel manners. She discreetly mentions how he barely wrote to her at all after he was first discovered alive (‘you should understand Margaret, that letter writing in the jungle is quite a chore,’ he drolly advises in dismissive response to this complaint). When he did write, Margaret couldn’t hep noting that ‘there was nothing about me!’ in his missives ‘you didn’t even ask me how I felt,’ she cheerfully reminds him; instead, detailed instructions for the preparation of a cage that might provide suitable comfort for little Konga upon his return proved to be Decker’s only concern, and Margaret gently pleads for her boss to at least ‘show me a little warmth’. But Decker is having none of it: ‘you know there is little room for sentiment in the life of a scientist,’ he scolds, adding nonsensically, ‘this little chimp will become the first link in modern evolution between plant and animal life!’
Worse is to come when Margaret proudly shows Decker how she’s religiously been tending to the colourful flora in his greenhouse while he’s been gone, only for him to start tearing out the flowers with his bare hands and hurriedly hurling them over his shoulder in order to create space for his new roots, brought in especially from Africa. ‘You could have at least cut the flowers first,’ says Margaret trying to be reasonable about the insult and attempting to sound philosophical about this casual disregard for her green-fingered efforts; ‘they could have been sent to a hospital to brighten the lives of the sick.’ ‘Generous …’ allows Decker ‘… but stupid!’ No, the torn up blooms are to be used as mulch to nurture the new meat-eating penis and vagina-shaped plants the obsessed scientist now plans on growing in their place. A native witch doctor in Africa showed Decker that these roots contained ‘human properties’ and he plans on extracting such ‘properties’ from the leaves of the home-bred gigantic-growing species and injecting the resultant serum (which is also to include seeds from a plant which can induce obedience and subservience) into his beloved Konga. The plan almost comes a cropper immediately when the couple’s pet cat Tabby licks up some of the serum from a spillage on the floor of Decker’s home basement laboratory. ‘You’ve neglected Tabby shamefully!’ bemoans Margaret, still smarting over Decker’s exclusive devotion to his chimp pal. The scientist resolves that issue pretty comprehensively when he spies the ginger moggy licking up some of the precious elixir meant for the ape: he takes out a pistol and shots it dead on the spot! You fool! ‘Do you really think I want the biggest experiment of my life menaced by a cat?’ Shouts Decker hysterically, Gough giving it his all here, as though delivering a rousing piece of barnstorming theatre. ‘Even those few drops might have made Tabby swell up to huge proportions. We’re not ready to have a cat the size of a leopard running through the streets!’ As Decker throws a blanket over it, we catch a glimpse of the stiffened feline’s blood-splattered corpse and with that, the precise tone and lurid pitch of the rest of the film has been firmly established.
With his genitalia mimicking, flesh-eating plants now very nicely taking shape in the hothouse, Decker resumes his role as teacher to hip, jazz-listening ‘youngsters’ at the local college, giving lectures in ethnological studies while screening home movies shot while he was stranded in the jungle (which allows the film to briefly get diverted into mondo footage featuring true-life native customs territory!) despite affecting a dispassionate air of detached scientific curiosity about the matter, it seems Dr Decker has developed rather a liking for one particular young would-be botanist blonde bombshell in his biology class, called Sandra (Claire Gordon), much to the chagrin of her vesper-riding boyfriend Bob (Jess Conrad). ‘This might not have anything to do with classwork,’ Decker informs Sandra, ‘but I can’t get over how much you’ve grown!’ Both Gordon and Conrad appeared together again on screen ten years later in Pete Walker’s “Cool It Carol”, but even Walker couldn’t have come up with anything that was any more sexually charged with cartoon camp than this. ‘I should like to guide you in your development,’ smarms Decker leeringly when his adoring student asks to hear all about his latest project; ‘but there shall have to be “extra-curricular experiments”!’
While jealousy, lust and infatuation quietly simmer on the back-burner in the Decker, Bob and Sandra triangle, our heroically imperious researcher into biological heresy has managed to grow Konga, via his newly developed serum, from baby chimp to adult sized ape in seconds after one injection, and from adult chimp to man-sized (and rather cross-eyed) gorilla thereafter – bounding across the species barrier in one large (and uncommented upon) leap. By now, Margaret, unaware of Decker’s obsession with one of his bustier young pupils, is fully on board with his experiments, but when the Dean of the college to which Decker is affiliated threatens to have him ‘rested’ at the next faculty meeting when the maverick scientist tells him how his new serum means that he ‘will be able to change the shape of human beings!’, Decker reacts by proceeding to hypnotize Konga into becoming the vehicle for his vengeance on anyone who might cross him, driving the powerful gorilla about at night in the back of his van to be unleashed upon whomever has lately earned his ire -- in this first case, the Dean himself.
The gorilla is clearly a manifestation of Decker’s Freudian id, a Hulk-like animalistic means of the scientist being able to displace his aggressions and carry out the most heinous selfishly motivated acts of violence while all the while continuing to allow himself to believe in the idea of his own scientifically dispassionate aura, as someone who is unaffected by such dark emotions. The Dean’s convenient removal from the scene is explained away as being merely an ‘experiment’, carried out to determine whether or not obedience was indeed one of the properties Decker had managed to convey with the serum. ‘In science, a human being is only a cypher,’ he chirps. Relating cold blooded murder to the ‘sacrifices’ made every day by thousands of laboratory mice, rabbits and other animals called upon to lay down their lives for science, Decker assures a suspicious Margaret that he would have had to kill someone eventually: ‘It could just as easily have been a char woman or a street walker,’ he insists, by way of offering reassurance that his motives are totally pure. Well, that’s all right then! Margaret is eventually placated after Decker promises to marry her once the school term is finished, but further Konga-facilitated deaths prove necessary: a rival who threatens to do an Alfred Russell Wallace on him (that’s a reference for the History of Evolutionary Biology fans among you!) -- played by professional foreign villain in numerous ITC series of the ‘60s and ‘70s, George Pastell -- has to be disposed of in his home laboratory; and the Bob and Sandra situation again flares up dramatically on a school outing to collect mosses and ferns in the countryside, necessitating even more drastic measures involving the angry ape.
In almost any other movie involving mad scientists and giant apes, the two teen protagonists would be the heroes of the story and Bob would come to Sandra’s rescue at the climax to save the naive student from both Konga and Decker’s evil clutches. That’s not quite how things play out in this fevered version of events. In fact, Bob comes over as being little more sympathetic than the lust mad Decker, and his jealously is almost as all consuming (‘you really ought to control your temper,’ Decker rather hypocritically chides his rival at one point after a particularly violent altercation; ‘you could end up killing someone!’); Sandra’s fate meanwhile, is never fully resolved after the deranged final act is set in motion with Margaret overhearing Dr Decker propositioning the student in the hothouse after she’s been invited to tea, and thereafter being prompted by her ensuing jealousy to attempt to hypnotise Konga herself into now becoming an agent of her vengeance instead of Decker’s. This appears to confuse the shambling gorilla to such an extent that he starts growing again, and inexplicably becomes 50ft high. This effect is achieved by placing the extra whose occupying the gorilla suit in a scaled down model version of the original laboratory set, and having him clutch a floppy, ginger haired child’s rag doll that’s supposed to be Margaret! The experience of being torridly groped and mauled by Decker amid loads of waving penises while a giant bog-eyed gorilla peeps on her through the greenhouse window from above, topples the unfortunate heroine into the vicinity of the snapping maws of one of the hothouse’s Venus flytraps, and Sandra is last seen with one of her arms being chowed on by the flesh-eating plant in question. We never do find out if anything of her survives, because the movie then switches gear completely as the now gigantic gorilla goes on not so much a rampage as a sedate, rather confused stroll around London, clutching his master (or rather another doll) in one hand, while Gough’s voice can all the while be heard on the audio track peevishly pleading ‘Konga! Let me go!!’
Scotland Yard, it should be mentioned, have remained steadfastly of no use whatsoever throughout the entire movie, never getting much further than establishing the fact that black hairs belonging to a chimp or some other related species have been found on the spot of every crime, then rushing to the scene when reports start coming in that: ‘there’s a huge monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the street!’ After this they can do little more than stand and gawp as Dr Decker’s lifeless crumpled body is hurled to the ground by his former pet and the army finally unleashes a barrage of bazooka, grenade and rifle fire at the poor bamboozled-looking ape, who actually hasn’t done that much wrong since becoming a giant other than loiter near Big Ben looking perplexed.
“Konga” is one of those films that transcends its wrongness on every level, with mad dialogue, over-wrought acting and vivid photographic hues all enabling it to live much more fully in the mind than this kind of nonsense has any real business doing. It’s one of the most purely enjoyable romps of its kind that I’ve seen for some time and Network’s marvellous disc is frankly a must-buy. Any British horror fan who thinks this is one of the dregs of the genre they can afford to skip is doing them-selves a major disservice. The disc features an excellent transfer and comes with a trailer and a photo gallery of stills, publicity materials and video sleeves. PDFs of press materials are included and there’s also a brief introduction before the film starts by one of the stars, former pop performer Jess Conrad.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!