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December 27, 2005

The Monster who would be "King"

Ishiro Honda - 1954
Eastern Eye PAL Region 4 DVD

Peter Lemont - 1961
MGM Region 1 DVD

I was six years old in 1957. I had finally persuaded my parents that we needed a television set. One day my fellow First Graders were talking with much excitement about someone or something called "King Kong". I found out it was a movie about a giant gorilla. Since I hadn't quite understood all of the mysteries of how television worked, it was up to my mother to make sure that I made my appointment with this "King Kong". As it turned out, I missed the beginning of the film, but turned on just in time to see Fay Wray and the crew make it to Skull Island. This was probably just as well because even now, I find the set-up sequences for King Kong a bit dull. When the movie was over, I asked my mom how they were able to teach a giant gorilla to climb that really tall building. She mentioned something about "special effects", and that what I saw was not a real gorilla.

Even though I have greater understanding about how films are made, I still like to watch a good, and sometimes not-so-good, monster movie. I haven't yet seen Peter Jackson's version of King Kong, although I did see the 1976 version that almost killed Jessica Lange's acting career. Thanks to Jackson's film, studios are releasing some of their monster movies onto DVD. Among the films newly available on DVD is Gorgo. While this film does not quite answer the oft pondered question, "What would a monster movie directed by Jean Renoir look like?", the film is one of several directed by frequent Renoir collaborator Eugene Lourie. It is also quite possible that Lourie should be reconsidered for his role in popularizing the monster movie.

Even though it is often mocked for putting a guy in a rubber costume, the original, Japanese version of Godzilla is a pretty good film. Without Raymond Burr, the film just has one big guy lumbering around Tokyo. The original narrative is a straight-forward account beginning with several ship mysteriously vanishing. Without Burr, we get to see more of Kurosawa superstar Takashi Shimura as the scientist who explains the origins of the giant monster, and then, in a plot point borrowed from The Thing, pleads for the life of the creature for future studies. Memories of the destruction of Tokyo, as well as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are not far from the surface. Much of the success for Godzilla belongs to Eiji Tsuburaya. While some of the special effects are obvious, there are several reasons why the original Godzilla works better then the sequels. Much of the special effect work is disguised by having much of the film take place at night, so that Godzilla is frequently an inky black presence wandering through darkness. The care in creating the best special effects given relatively limited resources combined with the earnest story telling make Godzilla the classic Japanese monster movie. And while the film did not succeed in being the the anti-war statement that director Ishiro Honda intended, Godzilla probably introduced more people to Japanese cinema than any other movie.

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum is Konga. At the time of its initial release, this movie didn't play at a theater near me, so I settled for reading the comic book based on the film. The film was produced by Herman Cohen, a name associated with several beloved, if dubious cinematic achievements. Maybe I'm reading more than intended but Konga begins with Michael Gough vigorously stroking his monkey. As the scientist looking for a link between animal and vegetable life, you know that Gough is questionable when it is revealed his relationship with his female assistant (Margo Johns) is platonic. Even more alarming are the man eating plants Gough has brought back from Africa along with the monkey. In addition to the usual venus flytrap type plants, some other plants resemble giant black veiny penises. For reasons not made clear, Gough wants to experiment with the monkey Konga to make him larger. His lab assistant accidentally spills some of the formula and the house cat catches a couple licks. Gough grabs a conveniently placed pistol and shoots the cat, insuring that Kong will be in the PETA Hall of Fame. Gough finally tests his formula, and we witness the monkey grow into a baboon and eventually into a man in a really bad gorilla costume. Gough hypnotizes the gorilla to strangle various people that are in his way. Gough also has designs on making a young student played by Claire Gordon his new lab assistant. Gordon's feelings for her teacher are hardly reciprocal as indicated when Gough tries to swallow the tonsils of the object of his unwanted affections. Johns, the jilted non-lover, gives the gorilla a heavy dose of the growth formula only to become the first victim of the ever growing ape. Little effort is made to disguise the fact that Johns is replaced by a dimestore doll in some shots. The giant Konga bursts out of the basement lab, snatching Gough in one hand. Gordon is last seen having an arm chewed up by a man-eating plant. Gough takes on the Fay Wray role, being squeezed like a tube of toothpaste, while casts of dozens run in panic on the London Streets. King Kong has the Empire State Building, while Konga has Big Ben, not to climb on, but just as part of the scenery. The giant Konga, who doesn't appear until the last fifteen minutes, is killed by a hail of bullets after tossing down a "Ken" doll that substitutes for Gough. How bad are the special effects? Let me just say that I had a newfound appreciation for the magic of Bert I. Gordon.

If I ran Hollywood, I would immediately remake Konga with a bigger budget, but again with a mature male star. My first choice has always been Warren Beatty, with his character keeping the same name. This proposed film would end with a variation on the closing line of King Kong, with the declaration that, "It was Beatty killed the beast."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 27, 2005 05:54 PM


Well, that does it.

"Konga" just went on my Netflix queue.

Posted by: flickhead at December 28, 2005 09:32 AM