Thursday, 5 January 2017
SON OF INGAGI (1940)
July 1940 saw the release of a rare horror film that was the first to feature an all-black cast of actors. The bad news is that the result, Son of Ingagi, is abysmal, on a level with the very worst of the later 1970s Blaxploitation efforts. The title refers to a now-obscure curio, Ingagi, a discredited 1930 faux-documentary. Arguably the first in the found-footage genre, it was essentially a fake filmed record of a Congo expedition uncovering a remote tribe’s rituals that included bestiality with gorillas. It was later exposed as really being made in Los Angeles after a viewer reportedly recognized an actor playing one of the tribesmen and stunt-man Charles Gemora came clean with a signed affidavit confessing to having portrayed the lead gorilla.
The resulting court case disputing the provenance of Ingagi didn’t stop Hollywood Pictures Corporation putting Son of Ingagi into production (distributed by a company called Sack – supply your own puns). There is no connection however except a tenuous link with equally unconvincing man-in-a-monkey-suit shenanigans. Despite its affirmative action for African-American talent, the only ground-breaking for this film is in the soil for its own hasty burial.
The director Richard C. Kahn was already noted for making entirely black-cast movies such as Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938) and The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) yet this misfire looks unavoidably like the work of amateurs.
The pedestrian plot of this flimsy vehicle concerns newlyweds Eleanor and Bob Lindsay, a classy Alfred Grant partnered with a dire Daisy Bufford (whose previous credits are almost entirely ‘uncredited’ including 1939’s Gone with the Wind – draw your own conclusions). They decide to spend their honeymoon in their new home but their friends gate-crash in order to hold a surprise party. Meanwhile, there is the formidable Dr Helen Jackson at hand (Laura Bowman), a passably irascible former African missionary who firstly hires Spencer Williams’ overweight bumbler Detective Nelson to change her will and then drops the bombshell on Eleanor that her birth folks were killed by a tornado, she was in love with her father and could almost have been this winsome bride’s mother. This isn’t the only secret she’s been harbouring: Jackson also has an ex-jailbird brother Zeno (Arthur Ray) who knows she came back with $20,000 in gold and he wants half. What he doesn’t know is that she also brought back something even more startling – N’Gina (Zack Williams) - a mute ape-man with a face coated in yak hair leaving a mask of human features around the eyes and nose to resemble an overgrown chimp.
Jackson’s simulated simian is at least house-trained enough to be signalled into action by her use of a gong-striker when Zeno attempts to blackmail her. A revolving painting and a sliding wall reveals this pitiable shambler who lumbers over to frighten Zeno into fleeing. ‘Terror reigns when the giant of the jungles breaks loose!’ shrieks the poster hysterically, but even after N’Gina drinks Jackson’s mystery potion he’s too slow to terrify. He’s also a dead loss in the later shoddy bid for comic relief when portly Nelson makes a late-night sandwich twice in the couples’ kitchen, each time having it stolen by N’Gina behind his back.
The performances are not helped by a leaden script of wincing clunkiness written by the aforementioned Spencer Williams. Jesse Graves’ Chief of Detectives walks in on N’Gina and tries his hand at tough-guy talk in between pistol shots: “I see ya don’t like the taste of lead, do you Jungle Man?” he swaggers, before dissolving into high-pitched girly screams as N’Gina descends on him like a thrift-store carpet. On seeing his boss’s dead body, Nelson goes for either laughs or PTSD-inspired confusion by shouting “Help! Police! Murder!” Wasn’t that supposed to be him?
After roughly sixty minutes of tiresome stage-bound scenes that resemble a bad TV play, the newlyweds escape from their now-blazing house having imprisoned the not-exactly rampaging N’Gina down below in a makeshift cage. As they watch their dreams of cosy domesticity going up in flames, Bob sums up their situation: "Anything's better than living...in that horrible house".
Further law enfarcement is provided when another senior cop arrives and is told by them that Nelson was trapped in the house too. The cut to an obvious doll’s-house sized model on fire makes this highly unlikely. “A brave man and a brilliant detective,” laments the officer, making me wonder if he has the right address.
Fortunately it turns out that Nelson managed to escape in time - a fate that could not be said for those who sit through this wasted opportunity, well-meaning though its conception may have been for black artists.