Director: William J. Cowen
Starring: Walter Huston, Lupe Valez, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Bruce, C. Henry Gordon, Mitchell Lewis, Forrester Harvey, Curtis Nero
Though more forgiving of films that are reductionist and stereotypically bigoted towards different cultures from the 20s through 50s, I still have a difficult time dropping all my own biases and beliefs to appreciate films made in an era where it was acceptable. This gets in my way of my appreciation of Kongo, an otherwise creepy and sweaty horror tragedy that bleeds atmosphere. Though it does not aim for shocks or scares, it aims to disgust and repel the viewer with it’s degradation of the human body and spirit. It twists and contorts our perception of humanity through the mangled body of the twisted protagonist, Flint , a man so driven by the desire to revenge he degrades not only his own existence, but that of a young woman who he believes is his enemy’s daughter.
Set in the depths of Africa, Flint has convinced the natives that he is a voodoo God through the use of a few simple magic tricks. It’s all part of his master plan to avenge the man who crippled and stole his wife 20 years ago, though he attests it’s not for these actions, but rather his “sneer”. Brought to life by Walter Huston, reprising his Broadway role, it’s clear that the horror comes as much from the man’s paralyzed body as his disturbed mind. Horror has always been deeply rooted in “perversions” of the human body, from Frankenstein to Cronenberg’s The Fly, there is little more that is upsetting than a body that isn’t as it should be. Though Flint is only paralyzed, the film emphasizes the grotesque nature of his disability, by having him crawl around and have Huston constantly fussing and bringing attention to his legs. This reminds me very much of Freaks, where entire conversations seemed entirely superfluous to the audience watching one of the “freaks” perform some sort of task like in a slideshow. Though, this film never aims to sympathise with Flint’s condition, it’s just a display of his frightening body.
The film’s greatest horror is the treatment of Ann. When she was born, Flint had sent her to a convent in order for her to be brought up “pure” and right, only to rip her away at 18, to destroy her spirit and take away her purity. Though mentioned only in passing or hinted at, his degradation seemed to have included rape and sending her to a madhouse in Zanzibar. There are also implications that she worked as a prostitute and now, dying of some disease, he medicates her with alcohol only to worsen her condition.
The film’s saviour, is quite ironically, a junkie who just happens to stumble by. He’s also a doctor, and on that virtue alone, is kept to eventually treat Flint for the pain in his legs. The man comes to love Ann and vows to save her, though ironically, is first saved from his addiction by Flint himself.
Though most of the horror comes from degradation and humiliation, the film also has a very strong atmosphere that actually is very reminiscent of Val Lewton’s work in the 1940s. Darkness and fragmented lighting is used, particularly Venetian blinds. Though the treatment of Voodoo and African culture is extremely problematic, the use of obscure traditions (some of which are still alive today unfortunately, notably the practise of Sati in Hinduism), and strong music adds to the creeping atmosphere.
By Justine Smith