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KONGA (1961)
Director: John Lemont

Producer Herman Cohen and American International Pictures’ (AIP) executives James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff always believed that the largely neglected teenage movie audience could be a very profitable one for their low-budget drive-in releases. More often than not, major studios would cast men and women in their 40’s portraying characters in their teens and 20’s while producers like Walt Disney catered to youngsters under twelve. The improbable pairing of teenagers and classic monsters seemed like an unusual combination, but in 1957, that concept was put to a very successful test with I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. Made for under $150,000, the film ultimately grossed millions in profits and quickly prompted Mr. Cohen and AIP to produce similar, but no less successful efforts such as I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (1957), BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957) and HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (1958). By 1959, Mr. Cohen found he could make films of the same nature in color and Cinemascope in England where production costs would be less. His first American/British co-production was HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and its co-feature, THE HEADLESS GHOST. These films were released stateside by AIP to enormous profits. Mr. Cohen’s final co-production with AIP was in 1961 with a film originally titled "I Was A Teenage Gorilla." After a title change to the simpler KONGA, it was released on a double bill with the Vincent Price/Jules Verne effort, MASTER OF THE WORLD. Now, after nearly five years of delays and re-scheduling, our friends at MGM/Sony have finally unleashed KONGA to DVD by itself (not part of their successful Midnite Movies double-feature series) and believe this reviewer, this presentation is a visual delight in every way.

The plot of KONGA follows the basic Herman Cohen horror film formula of an authoritative figure (here played by Michael Gough more or less repeating his role of Edmund Bancroft from HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM) dominating an unfortunate youngster (in this case a young chimpanzee turned murderous gorilla). After spending a year in Uganda, Dr. Charles Dekker (Gough) returns to England with a strange species of plant whose enzymes can be converted to a special serum that stimulates growth in mammals. In addition, the serum also makes the animal obedient to the person administering the drug. The subject of Dr. Dekker’s experiments is the chimpanzee Konga and after a first test, the creature grows from baby chimp into an adult chimp. When Dr. Dekker’s university boss Dean Foster (Austin Trevor) threatens to fire him, the scientist administers more serum and changes Konga from an adult chimpanzee into a seven-foot tall gorilla (how this species changes from chimpanzee into gorilla is never explained). Dr. Dekker uses the hypnotized Konga to brutally murder Dean Foster and later a rival colleague, Professor Tagore (George Pastell) and young student, Bob Kenton (Jess Conrad), whose beautiful (and very busty) girlfriend (Claire Gordon) Dr. Dekker covets. When Dr. Dekker makes his lecherous moves on the young woman, his present fiancée, Margaret (Margo Johns), is none too happy and injects Konga with an overdose of growth serum which causes the ape to grow to over 60 feet tall. With Dr. Dekker in his hairy palm, Konga marches through London until the climax in front of Big Ben.

Just as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN and BLOOD OF DRACULA were updated versions of the Universal classics with teenagers in the roles previously held by Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, KONGA was meant to be an updated version of RKO’s 1933 KING KONG. Well…as far as that is concerned, this film does not quite make it (then again, how many films have topped the original KING KONG?), but taken into its own absurd terms, it’s an entertaining 89 minutes that perfectly illustrates the drive-in era of AIP.

Many critics have labeled KONGA as dull or too talky, and perhaps it is in spots, but when you have Michael Gough chewing at the scenery and stealing the show from all the other actors (and even from Konga in some scenes), the film is anything but dull. In many genre films, Mr. Gough is very reserved and soft spoken (like in Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), but in the Cohen films, his maniacal side comes to the surface and he often portrays bitchy and condescending characters in a hammy sort of way that seems to work for this type of film. Mr. Gough would work for Mr. Cohen three more times… THE BLACK ZOO (1963), BESERK! (1967) and TROG (1970).

The other actors in KONGA are serviceable if not remarkable. Margo Johns is passable as Dr. Dekker’s jilted fiancée, Margaret. Claire Gordon as Sandra Banks is not much of an actress, but has other beautiful attributes in which one can easily understand why men young and old are turned on to her. Hammer actors George Pastell (THE MUMMY, CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB) and Jack Watson (THE GORGON) make appearances as well as Leonard Sachs (the lawyer from Hammer’s SCREAM OF FEAR). Jess Conrad as the doomed Bob Kenton was a well-know pop star in the 1960s. After his singing career waned, he remained active on British television. He even made a 1983 guest appearance on the ever-popular ARE YOU BEING SERVED? as a golf instructor.

MGM’s transfer of KONGA is done with their usual impeccable style that genre fans have come to expect. The 1.66:1 non-anamorphic image is superb with a magnificently clean picture. Colors are very sharp and just get a look at Margo Johns’ flaming red hair as an example. The VHS version MGM released back in 1998 was from a grainy British source with dull colors and a bit of a blurry image. This DVD is mastered from the original American elements, and it puts the VHS version to shame. The audio is crisp and is available in English only. There are optional English and French subtitles. The only other extra is a group of previews from other Sony DVD releases.

With the forthcoming December theatrical release of Peter Jackson’s KING KONG, a plethora of studios are digging into their vaults for giant ape thrills. Warner’s release of the RKO original (with SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG), Universal’s upcoming double feature of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (in widescreen…FINALLY!!) and KING KONG ESCAPES (arguably one of the most eagerly awaited DVD titles for Toho fans) plus MGM/Sony’s KONGA all prove the marketability of filmdom’s most famous gorilla. Now if we can get MGM/Sony to continue those magnificent Midnite Movies in 2006… (Joe Cascio)