Monday, 17 May 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: K is for Konga (1961)

You may well have seen the title of this film and the poster there  and thought ‘Oh no, a rubbish King Kong rip-off’. Well, you’re not entirely wrong – Konga is about a large ape and the ending does feature said simian going on the rampage and laying waste to a great city – although it’s not so much laying waste as stumbling about a bit and bumping into things and the city in question is actually Croydon pretending to be central London. However, for the most part Konga isn’t very much like the  older ape film at all, instead happily ploughing its own demented furrow.

The film’s director is John Lemont, who has a few interesting B-movies to his credit, but nothing else suggesting the inspired madness of Konga. For the true guiding spirit of the movie we must look to producer and co-screenwriter (with regular partner Aben Kandel) Herman Cohen, who had previously given the world I Was a Teenage Werewolf and its various follow-ups and, working in the UK, Horrors of the Black Museum (also available from Network), a film for which the word ‘lurid’ could have been invented. Konga has many of the Cohen trademarks, including absurd dialogue and a laughable attempt at portraying the era's youth culture, but another key Cohen ingredient, the  homoerotic relationship between a middle-aged mad scientist type and a hapless teenage boy is here replaced by an even stranger interspecies relationship between a middle-aged mad scientist type and an ape.

The mad scientist in question is botanist Dr Charles Decker, played by Michael Gough, who also brought his overripe, lip-smacking style to Horrors of the Black Museum and Cohen's later, American film Black Zoo.  Decker was stranded with a mysterious African tribe after a plane crash but has now returned to the UK, and his post at the prestigious Essex College, accompanied by a very cute baby chimp called Konga. He’s also brought back the tribe’s arcane knowledge of a mysterious link between plant and animal life, and sets to work applying it, tearing all the pretty flowers out of their beds in his greenhouse to make way for his new experiments. This causes much consternation to his housekeeper, secretary and assistant (as she's always long-windedly referred to throughout) Margaret (played by Margo Johns, a sometime Emergency Ward 10 regular with the appearance and general demeanour of a 1950s children’s TV presenter). Margaret’s also Decker’s lover and straight away is jealous of the new addition to the family – ‘You didn’t ask once how I felt – Konga came first!’ Yes, Decker’s relationship with his new pet seems rather closer than it probably should be – ‘Please leave, I want to be alone with Konga’ he demands at one point.  Most alarmingly of all, he later breathes heavily to the creature that 'We know each other better than the world knows'.

But it’s not just Margaret who’s been thrown over in favour of Konga. ‘You’ve neglected Tabby shamefully’ she chides when the cat comes to the greenhouse in search of food. And to prove his lack of concern Decker wastes no time in whipping out a gun and shooting the poor animal when it starts lapping at his special formula. ‘Even those few drops might have made Tabby swell up to huge proportions!’ he shrieks in the face of Margaret’s protests. Poor Tabby.

Before long the greenhouse is heaving with sinister carnivorous plants, the most alarming being a number of black, veiny, extremely phallic specimens with forked tongues (it's hard not to ponder what was happening in the designer's psyche at the time). Pleased with these results (and who wouldn’t be?), Decker administers his growth serum to little Konga who, by the magic of a wobbly camera effect grows larger each time until he eventually evolves into a man in a highly unconvincing gorilla suit. When Essex College’s fusty old dean expresses scepticism about Decker’s theories the doctor sends Konga after him. Trying to justify the killing to a horrified Margaret, Decker claims that ‘I would have been forced to kill someone through Konga, just to prove my experiment was right!’ Despite it making no sense whatsoever she seems quite happy with this explanation, but nonetheless blackmails Decker into making her his wife rather than his housekeeper, secretary and assistant (unfortunately she’s upstaged in her big dramatic moment by the phallic plants sticking their tongues out over her shoulder). But Decker doesn’t want to go through with it just yet: ‘In the eyes of the world you are still my housekeeper, secretary and assistant’.

By this time Decker and Konga have acquired a taste for blood (as well as a special van which Decker drives Konga to his victim’s houses in). Next on the hitlist is Professor Tagore (all-purpose rent-a-foreigner George Pastell, playing an Indian complete with turban this time around), who has rudely pre-empted all of Decker’s work (except for the killer gorillachimp bit).

Lest we think Decker's desires are all unnatural, we learn that his head’s also been turned by one of his students, enormous-chested Sandra (Claire Gordon). But despite seemingly irresistible chat-up lines like ‘I can’t get over how much you’ve grown – and I of all people should understand growth’ she doesn’t seem all that interested in him. Decker’s attempts to seduce her during a field trip to look at mosses and ferns end up in a fist fight with her boyfriend Bob (pop singer Jess Conrad, looking very cute in his sweatertastic early 60s fashions but giving a performance of awe-inspiring ineptitude). Bob’s not the brightest of sparks – when Decker replies to his threats with ‘Leave her alone? How? She’s a student in my class’, poor Bob can only rejoin with ‘Don’t throw a load of questions at me! You’re trying to confuse me!’ It’s not long before poor simple Bob and his Vespa fall foul of the marauding Konga. His death leads to the film’s most blissfully ridiculous line as Margaret confronts Decker over the newspaper report at breakfast: ‘What are you having with your poached egg – murder?’

But Margaret’s old news: Decker plans to make Sandra his new assistant (and possibly secretary and housekeeper too). When jealous Margaret gets wind of this during a visit from Sandra to look at Decker’s big phallic plants, she lets Konga out of his cage, planning to set him on her faithless employer. Unfortunately (and illogically) her attempts at hypnotising the mangy beast simply result in him growing to enormous size, crashing through the roof and promptly squashing her. Confirming our suspicions that there was something funny going on between the two of them, Konga chooses the silver-haired doctor rather than the leggy blonde as his Fay Wray and heads off to destroy central Croydon – I mean London. The police swing into action – officers are helpfully informed that ‘There’s a huge monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’ – and Konga is rather anticlimactically shot dead.

And there you have it – Konga, as enjoyable a piece of cinematic lunacy as you’re likely to find anywhere and a glittering gem of Britsploitation that’s nowhere near as well known as it should be. The only thing left to say is, dodgy plants and motheaten gorilla suits aside, just what an absolutely gorgeous-looking film Konga is. Photographed by veteran Desmond Dickinson in ‘Spectramation’ (whatever that might be) the colours practically glow, making Konga perhaps the handsomest phallic-plant and killer-chimp movie of 1961.

I promise you this film is even better than the trailer makes it look:

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: J is for Jack the Ripper (1959)

I’ll be honest – my reason for choosing this film is that it’s the only vaguely appropriate one I could find with a title beginning with J (whose idea was this stupid A-Z thing anyway?). I approached with trepidation, as despite having had it on DVD for ages, I’d never managed to get all the way through it without falling asleep. Also, I remembered from previous (attempted) viewings that it had a particularly nasty case of American Hero Syndrome. This is a disease that affects British films of all eras, but was particularly common in the 50s, when an often woefully conspicuous American lead is brought in, in a naked attempt to appeal to the US market. Often it’s a third- or fourth-string star whose career’s on the rocks – in the case of Jack the Ripper the American in question is  Lee Patterson, who was actually Canadian but made a good living as a rent-a-Yank in British films. He plays a visiting American detective working on the case alongside gruff old Eddie Byrne, and making him stick out like even more of a sore thumb than normal is his huge 1950s quiff, which somehow doesn’t quite go with the movie’s ostensible 1880s setting.

The title probably gives you a good idea of what this one’s all about: Notorious serial killer targeting prostitutes in the East End of London, etc. Don’t expect a deeply-researched account of the investigation into the crimes or an ingenious solution based on the evidence at hand, though: Jimmy Sangster’s script doesn’t even edge toward historical accuracy. All the characters are fictional, and it transforms the most famous unsolved crimes of all time into a basic murder mystery plot with all the sophistication of an episode of Scooby Doo. It being established early on that the Ripper must be a medical man, there are two main suspects – one is grumpy, moans about women with loose morals and is regularly seen carrying a knife about, the other is cheery and likeable and only to willing to help the police with their investigation. You probably don’t need to see the film to work out which one’s the killer. In this film, the Ripper’s on a quest to find a woman called Mary Clark, stopping ‘ladies of the night’ in the street to ask if they are she and then rather unfairly slicing them up anyway when they say they’re not. The first of these is bit-part queen Marianne Stone (playing, in a typical credit for her, ‘Drunken woman’) in a pre-credits sequence

The depiction of Victorian London’s pretty much what you might expect: All fog, top hats and comedy drunks (one of whom is played by the great Esma Cannon, who steals so many scenes in the early Carry On films). There’s also an alarming range of thoroughly unconvincing stick-on facial hair everywhere you look, and people say things like ‘The emancipation of women I’ve heard so much about – so you’ve been bitten!’ That line’s delivered by John Le Mesurier, providing this film’s ‘Ooh look, it’s him!’ quotient as the sinister Dr Tranter, who’s so suspicious throughout the film that he might as well have been called Dr Whore-Killer. The would be emancipatee is his ward Anne (every film set in Victorian times has to have at least one ward), played by Betty McDowall, who looks rather like a brunette Judy Geeson. Much to Tranter’s horror she’s being romanced by Patterson, who at one point takes her to a very classy-looking music hall to see the can-can. Backstage, Hammer regular George Woodbridge plays a rich pervert drooling over a new dancer in topless scenes (the dancer, not George) filmed especially for the continental market. That’s a sort of sleazy highlight of the movie, the only other one being the Ripper’s eventual death when he tries to evade the police – crushed under a descending lift.

Well, I managed to stay awake all the way through this time, but I can’t deny that Jack the Ripper’s a tedious slog for most of its length (which seems lengthier than it really is). Directors/producers/photographers Robert Baker and Monty Berman (whose joint credit makes them seem like a downmarket Powell & Pressburger) would soon afterwards score a major hit on TV with The Saint and had previously produced The Flesh and the Fiends, a wonderful version of the Burke & Hare story with Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence, which Jack the Ripper isn’t a patch on. But if you ever desperately need a British exploitation-type film beginning with J…