Kongo (1932) is the only notable film that director William Cowen made in his admittedly brief career. Having seen two of his other four features — Half Marriage (1929) and Oliver Twist (1933) — I’m inclined to call Kongo a fluke. The film is a remake of the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney West of Zanzibar (1928) — in fact, it uses a good bit of footage (most of the more elaborate exteriors) from the earlier film. (This was fairly simply accomplished with the addition of a soundtrack — some of which was appropriated from the same year’s Tarzan the Ape Man. Well, unruly natives seen in long shot might be saying or chanting just about anything.) However, it’s worth noting that star Walter Huston actually originated the role of the vengeance-crazed “Deadlegs” Flint on Broadway in 1926, so there’s a certain justice in him inheriting it from the late Lon Chaney.
And Huston undeniably throws himself into the over-the-top Jungle Gothic dramatics with everything he has. It actually turns into a much more nuanced performance than anything in the first two-thirds of the film would suggest. This is, after all, a character whose face is a riot of scars (“Have you ever seen such an Adonis?” he asks Lupe Velez in one of the early scenes) and who sleeps in a never-seen attic room with his pet chimpanzee. He’s brutish, mean, and lives only to revenge himself on the man (C. Henry Gordon) who crippled him and ran off with his wife — not for either of those things, mind, but for sneering at him. His plan? To reduce the man’s daughter to prostitution, promiscuity, alcoholism, and finally to have her burned alive by the natives on her father’s funeral pyre — once he kills the man, of course. He’s not someone you’d invite home to meet mother. And neither is this film.
The remarkable thing about Kongo is that it’s actually much more grim and nasty than the Browning-Chaney film — and those boys were known for dwelling on the sadistic and unpleasant like nobody else. Well, Kongo beats them at their own game. Everything has been goosed in the sleaze and seediness department. In no particular order we get drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, possible incest, degradation, sadism, people being burned alive — pretty much everything you can think of, even a hint of bestiality and a deliberate “wardrobe malfunction.” So, basically, it’s trashy stuff — but it’s choice trashy stuff. Plus, it’s all the more alluring because it came from MGM — the bastion of middle class morality. How it happened, I have no idea. But I’m kind of glad that it did.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Kongo Thursday, Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.