Tuesday, 22 March 2016
This 1932 M-G-M horror melodrama, based on the stage play by Chester Devonde and Kilbourn Gordon is a rarity and not often discussed within the genre, perhaps because it is essentially a jungle soap opera with only suggestions of the macabre. The one element that does work on a vividly Grand Guignol level is the central performance by Walter Huston as Deadlegs Flint, a bitter, wheelchair-bound monomaniac consumed with the need to avenge an old score on his ex-partner Gregg who stole his wife deep in the heart of the African jungle setting. Huston is terrific in the role, a cigar-chomping, grizzled piratical tyrant – reprising his part from the original Broadway Biltmore run in 1926.
He rules the servile natives, his chattering chimp Kong, white cronies Hogan and Cookie (Mitchell Lewis and Forrester Harvey) and his mistress Tula with an iron hand, which doesn’t stop those closest to him from ripping of his brandy and cigarettes behind his back. The most subversive of his camp is Tula, played by Lupe Velez, in real life known as the ‘Mexican Spitfire’ due to her fiery temper and sexuality, a monicker that gave rise to a same name film series capitalising on her personality before her tempestuous life flamed out suicidally at age 36.
Flint subjugates the natives with tricks that create the illusion of his having real magical powers of a voodoo doctor, as well as bribing them with booze and sugar lumps. He has used this blend of the supernatural and cynical greed as a hold over the villagers to construct an 80 mile zone that he controls all access to for the last 18 years while he bides his time plotting against Gregg, ‘The man who sneered’, and left him lame, on a wall calendar.
Flint had arranged to have Gregg’s daughter Ann (musical star Virginia Bruce) raised by nuns in a Cape Town convent, feeding her the myth that her father is a missionary of God. Hogan is sent to bring her to Flint, posing as one himself. Her cloistered purity is then horribly degraded over two years as Flint reduces her saintly innocence to the level of a run-down alcoholic hooker before bringing her into his camp.
Fortunately, aid comes in the unlikely form of grimy and drug-addicted Doctor Kingsland, played by Conrad Nagel, an actor whose matinee-idol looks brought him fame from the silent era easily into the talkies. He shows his character versatility by entering the world of Kongo against type, tottering in a soiled suit and hopelessly dependent on the druggy properties of Biang root. He falls almost literally for Ann after a toxic episode with Tula weakens his resolve and increases his addiction temporarily. Flint wants the doctor to operate on his legs and ghoulishly detoxes him by an off-screen slitting of his chest: ‘I’m gonna puncture ya and let the leeches do the rest…” Ann rescues him from the worst excesses of the blood-sucking treatment outside and the operation on Flint is undertaken.
When Gregg arrives in the compound, Flint discovers that his plot to shock his old rival with the appalling state he has driven the man’s daughter to backfires when Gregg reveals that Ann is in fact Flint’s daughter, a cruel twist of biological fate later used in the Jean de Florette films. Flint is so crushed by the news that his conscience finally gets the better of him. He is unable to save Gregg from being killed by protective tribal henchman Fuzzy, but at least manages to send Kingsland and Ann to safety while he holds off the natives. In a touching moment before sacrificing himself to the marauding villagers, Flint finds it in his soul to pray for the lovers, and then hauls himself out of his wheelchair to meet his doom under the natives’ onslaught.
The theatrical source behind Kongo is evident on screen - the stage production was based in Flint’s store and the film rarely steps outside the set, relying on long, talky expository scenes that are often less than engrossing or cinematic before the climax heats things up. The actors give the piece a sweaty energy and commitment, yet Kongo’s third-act parental revelation and business skulduggery belong more to melodrama than horror cinema…