This post is my contribution to The Great Villain Blogathon.
In the history of the cinema, there have been many great villains. Being that I am a classic horror film fan, I have been exposed to several of the most outstanding bad guy performances of all time. But when it comes to pure outrageous villainy and sheer on-screen wacky wildness, very few actors can compare to Michael Gough.
Michael Gough (1916-2011)
Like many of his British acting contemporaries, Michael Gough had a distinguished stage career. He also made appearances in several distinguished film productions, such as Olivier's RICHARD III, OUT OF AFRICA, THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, and Martin Scorsese's version of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. But today Gough is known for primarily two things--playing Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred Pennyworth in the Batman films directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, and starring in numerous low-budget horror & science-fiction films of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
Gough made so many movie shockers that some have called him "the poor man's Peter Cushing" (does that make Peter Cushing "the rich man's Michael Gough"?). It's kind of unfair to compare Peter Cushing with Michael Gough--both men had many things in common, but they each had their own style. Michael Gough was far more flamboyant than Peter Cushing--a flamboyance that is readily apparent in such films as 1961's KONGA.
KONGA was one of the many roles Gough played for producer Herman Cohen. Cohen had started making low-budget thrillers in the late 1950s with such titles as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF and I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN. Cohen moved to England from America and cast Gough as the lead villain in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. Cohen would use Gough in just about every film he made after that, and Gough provided these pictures with just about the only entertainment value they really have today.
Michael Gough was an excellent choice to be a classic horror film villain. With his gaunt face, snake-like eyes, and haughty manner, he fit perfectly into the wild, weird cinematic world of Herman Cohen. Movies like KONGA have all sorts of crazy, illogical things going on, but Gough handles the proceedings in such as way as to seem as if it's just another day's work.
When Gough starred as a bad guy in a Herman Cohen movie, he didn't just act mean--he took it to a whole other level. He didn't just smirk and sneer--he turned his whole body into a giant smirk. Watch Gough get into a shouting match with someone--which he does about half-a-dozen times in KONGA--and you'll see him twist his face into nearly 25 different configurations. When he's working for Herman Cohen Gough is about as subtle as sledgehammer. In any other movie he would look ridiculous--but in a production like KONGA Gough becomes the whole show, and that certainly is the main reason Herman Cohen used Michael Gough so much.
In KONGA Gough plays expert botanist Charles Decker. At the start of the film Decker has returned to England after being stranded in Africa for a year due to a plane crash. In Africa Decker has discovered a growth serum, and he has brought back a young chimpanzee named Konga. Decker returns to his home/laboratory, which was maintained during his absence by his devoted housekeeper/secretary/assistant/lover, Margaret (played by Margo Johns).
It isn't too long into the film that we see what kind of person Decker is. As he starts to process the growth serum, he spills some of it and his pet cat starts licking it up. Decker yells at Margaret for letting this happen, then pulls out a gun and puts two bullets in the poor cat. Obviously Decker isn't the most tender guy in the world.
Decker also goes back to his teaching job at the local college. One of his students happens to be a voluptuous blond named Sandra (Claire Gordon). Decker tells Sandra how much she's grown while he's been away (while sneaking a peek at her cleavage). Decker's return to civilisation has gotten so much publicity that the Dean calls him into the office. Any normal person would try to get along with the Dean, or play him off, but Decker almost immediately starts shouting at him (Gough really goes off in this scene).
Decker isn't worried about the Dean firing him--he's going to get rid of the Dean. Decker has injected little Konga with his serum, turning the young chimp into a man-sized gorilla--or, more accurately, a guy in a cheap-looking gorilla suit. Decker takes Konga over to the Dean's house, and Konga kills the Dean. This leads to several scenes showing the police trying to investigate, a common occurrence in a Herman Cohen production. Despite their lurid titles and bizarre plots, the Cohen films really don't have much to them (except for Michael Gough). It's more fun to read about one of Cohen's horror films than it is to watch them.
Instead of lying low, Decker becomes even more arrogant and vicious (if that's possible). Decker orders Konga to kill another scientist working on a similar growth formula. He also winds up getting in a fistfight with Sandra's jealous boyfriend Bob--so the poor kid gets offed by Konga as well. The ultra-enabler Margaret is distressed by these murders, but she's so devoted to Decker she keeps going along, even though Decker basically takes her for granted.
After Bob's death Decker invites Sandra over for dinner, ostensibly to "console a valued student". Leaving a miffed Margaret to put away the dishes, Decker takes Sandra out to the greenhouse, which is full of strange rubbery-looking over-sized plants, all injected with the growth serum. Decker tries to force himself on Sandra....but Margaret has been outside, seeing what has been going on. She runs to the laboratory, injects Konga with even more serum, and tries to get the animal to kill Decker....but Konga grows to King Kong-like proportions, and destroys the house (and Margaret).
Michael Gough putting the moves on Claire Gordon
Konga reaches through the top of the greenhouse, picks up Decker, and heads for London. It is here that the movie should be picking up steam, what with a giant monster on the loose in a large city....but the climax is pretty disappointing. Konga simply plods around, carrying what appears to be the equivalent of a Michael Gough action figure. The giant gorilla does not cause any major destruction--more than likely due to the film's budget.
The most famous image from KONGA
Eventually Konga winds up next to Big Ben (an image used throughout the film's publicity and advertising). The goofy beast just stands there with a dumb look on his face, while a very, very small squad of soldiers starts to fire rifles and machine guns at him. (Most giant monsters have to face off against tanks and heavy artillery.) Before Konga bites the dust, he throws down the Gough-doll the same way a child discards an unwanted toy. After Konga dies and falls to the street, he reverts back to his normal chimpanzee size, and the bodies of Decker and Konga lay side-by-side as the movie ends.
The worst thing about the ending of KONGA is the fact that it takes Michael Gough out of the equation. He spends the last part of the film pretending to squirm in Konga's paw, yelling out the same lines over and over again: ''KONGA!! PUT ME DOWN!!" It's beyond silly to use Michael Gough as a Fay Wray substitute when you have a hot blond like Claire Gordon in the picture. The way the movie should have ended: Decker takes control of the giant Konga, and has him carry away Sandra. This would allow Gough to have a great final scene where he confronts the authorities and tells them he will have Sandra killed if they do not back away.
When it comes to giant monster movies, KONGA is nowhere near the top of the class. What enjoyment one gets out of it is due mainly to Michael Gough's performance. You can call him over the top, or hammy....but when it came to his horror film roles Gough usually gave an all-out full-tilt spectacle of villainous acting. There's no explanation why Decker goes so off the rails, and no authority figure comes on at the end to make any excuses for him. Decker is just a plain nasty SOB, and Michael Gough makes him one of the great movie villains.