Horror of mad science and palingenesis in Konga (1961), August 31 2013

Palingenesis is, generally speaking, a belief in reincarnation, but in science it represents a belief in a life force which can jump from miasma, to mineral, to plant, to animal, to human. It is conceptual, a gateway conceptualized notion of creativity and evolution. An interesting subgenre of horror expressive of the belief are movies about evil plants. And a subgenre of those are plant life movies fixated on the Venus Flytrap. Konga (1961) is an interesting study of the issue. In it, Michael Gough plays Dr. Decker, a classic brit mad scientist who comes back from being lost in Africa with a knowledge about the continuity of plant and human life. Early on, he shows his consort examples of the special plants that have animal appetites. They look a lot like African versions of mandrake plants, with a somewhat human cast about them

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Thus, it is that the Bantu speaking tribes believe in a plant that can develop animal appetites. The plants grow ridiculously fast, and large, introducing another cross-generation–with rubber. And then too these are done up as kind of botany king kongs, with black heads, lolling red tongues, veined shafts, and an obvious likeness to black rubber penises.

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The movie also has a terrific venus flytrap, whose appetite for flies and its ability to secrete enzymes with decompose insect life, is likely the basis of this vegetable vampirism (and, indeed, in Nosferatu, the venus flytrap is given its first job in the mythology, as is explicitly referred to as the vampire of the plant world).

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It is important that Decker was believed dead for a year, and then found his magic plants. He comes back with Konga, who is now his slave, and his plants, which are his minions. The mandrake was born of the last ejaculate from a hanged man, in sites of hangings. As such, it represents a kind of coffin birth, derived from the action of death, not life. Decker’s mind has been turned by his experience of death, now he wants his experiments to serve him. His creations arise from his degenerate, some might say undead mind.

From these plants, he extracts a serum, and this he uses to turn his little monkey Konga into a gorilla, which he then uses as a golem to kill his competition, making him a classic mad scientist indeed. He chose not to make his plants killers, though at one point they do lunge. The movie chose to focus on the transmission of his mad thought into magic plant, mad serum, and then enlarged ape.

But the movie is most interesting for how it works out the translation of this palingenesis into the humans involved. The dean, when he hears Decker declare that plants can evolve into humans, declares him mad, and gets himself killed for it. But what about his wife, and then a student he has a fancy for. The wife remains entirely subservient throughout, or until the end, and we even find out that she is not his wife, but serves him. She remained all buttoned up, throughout. Only once, when he lays out his plans, in the greenhouse, does she show any physical quality, and is upset at the heat, which makes it impossible to think. She is figured out by the décor of their life together, which seems fussily formal, all porcelain and teacups

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In this setting, the dishes communicate the brittleness of the life and their relationship in it. One element of the movie that I like more than any other is the odd décor they live in (copied in Hartog House). They live in a purple room, filled with flowers

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Its an odd, Lenten color to live in, and its made even better with pink—pink!—candles, and blue wainscot

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A display of flowers indicates that this too is a kind of hothouse, a place of fertilization, but of his madness. At no time are these two shown kissing or being affectionate, and there is absolutely no sign of sex. They relate by voice, and by her concerned looks away alone. Decker seems to fertilize her with his eyes only, or, the only other time there is feeling between them, with, on her sweat. It is only when she is made sweat shiny by the hothouse heat that she gets affectionate. I suppose this is the kind of nonsexual generation that palingenesis takes between them. Purple may be a color of flowers, or of evil plants, its an odd color. Made odder still to me in that I recollect in my own mid-60s childhood there was a room in childhood home with turquoise carpets and loveseat, and a purple—purple!—wraparound couch. The room also had large, large lamps, with bulbous silver bases engraved with images of langorous plants. That the purple is the flower element of the plantform dynamic of the rooms is made evident by the fact that it interchanges, in another bizarre color scheme, with light, and a very grey, waxy green

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This not only also posits porcelain as a kind of flower, but that plant supports flower, but plant is where the real fertility is, flower is just transient blossom. Therefore, while
purple represents the flourish of polite affection, the sex is in the green.
And, in fact, the main room of the house is green, green!

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The greenness is supported by landscape paintings, which contribute to the hothouse atmosphere, and by red tassle standing lamps, with are clearly flora of the hothouse, brought in to warm the house. It is an amazing color scheme, used well in a collegial party scene. But, then, too, this is a critical scene in the movie. Throughout, Decker has been lusting after his prize student Sondra. At one point, Sondra’s boyfriend takes offence at his attentions and gets himself killed by Konga for it. Sondra is all blonde hair and bosom. In classic early 60s style, her hair bouffants up in a puff, then there is a full drop of body behind: it is a floral arrangement of hair. Her bust is the most prominent thing about her (but she has great brains, apparently, too). Even more thrilling, is that Sondra is not quite aware of how busty she is, and unaware of the effect she has on men. She is a classic buxom blonde of the era, cavorting her favors carelessly, sending out pollen and seeds (and she is dressed in yellow and orange often). Here, she is indiscreet enough, after her boyfriend’s funeral no less, to come back to the Decker house to have tea with him and his wife and she is wearing a low cut sweater in front of a buttonup wife and her breasts are pointed and bursting out of her top, shooting bullets of desire at their who-me? unintended target. She has become, then, another doll, another figural plant, another mandrake, another magic palingenetic plant.

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The wife represents classic English beauty, restrained, coiffered, legs crossed above the knee, long skirt, sharp-boned, severe, haughty; Sondra represents the trashy beauty of those rock and roll kids, open, bouffanted, knees blazing, short skirt, fleshy, soft, round, laidback and casual about her appeal, but uppity too. At this point, they finish tea, and Decker wants to show her the hothouse. They get up to leave, Sondra leads, wrinkling, fairly creasing the screen down the middle with her bullet breasts, bosoms, really, parted by a sweater (it is important she wears a pollenlike sweater, and that, doing so, as we will see, it will make her sweat). The wife looks on, fine with them doing some business.

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But in this hothouse of green, flowers all around, the impact of those breasts, as they go profile to the camera, means that Becker cannot keep his hands off of her, and without even thinking, or her taking any offense, she puts his hand on her back

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And, then, as a landscape blossoms, and a large bouquet of flowers does too, he slides more arm in behind that hand so that by the time they leave the room Sondra is straight up all bosom and he has wrapped his whole hand in around her, embracing her (it is not clear that Sondra at this point is aware something is wrong its rather shocking, in itself

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But the wife, alerted now, collar up, tea service in front of her, erect in defense, and in fragility, certainly sees that something is wrong, that that arm was way over the top, she looks on, alerted to a problem, concerned, and so the final crisis is set in motion, and she follows them, to see what’s what

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The fact that the painting on the wall over the mantel in this room is now revealed to be a Thames view of some patriotic event, ships, flags, very British, indicates too that she stands up for British propriety against these mad violations of decorum.

Once in the hothouse, Decker begins his assault. He is erect, she is all flower, profile, hair

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As she listens with surprise at his declaration, flattered that he thinks she is intelligent enough to be assistant, then immediately concerned that he wants her to work alongside of him, a term that suggests something more than work, this, and the heat in the hothouse, brings up her sweat, the sweat not only highlights and gives contour and relief to the bone structure on her neck and check, but it runs down into her cleavage, and opens up a spot of cleavage wider, she is aroused, in the terms of the movie

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As he continues the only thing that changes in the shot is that the sweat builds up, and runs down more shinily, on her chest, he skin, in her cleavage, she is still staring him directly in the eyes, the camera and the world is now only looking at that sweat on her skin

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In this way, sweat, as the human equivalent to pollen, is the instrument of the dynamic, the attraction, it is rare thing, sweat to be animated in this way.

When it then comes to the crisis, she moves, he asserts himself, and she backs away, turns her shoulder, and puts her hand to her sweaty chest, to the place of the arousal represented here, the pinpoint of cleavage between her bullet breasts, the touch not only touches the sweat, but sizes the sweater tighter on her bosoms, making one nipple point out more, and the other breast surge out rounder and fuller, contoured by shadow and wrinkle, centering of the nipple point, which makes the whole of it fuller on the eye, a bullseye breast on camera, and so while ostensibly a gesture of who me? denial, it is, in the universe of nonsexual palingenetic sex, an avowal, because it represents, in shifted abstraction, her touching herself, and at the place of her consciously unwanted arousal. Not only that, she is now surrounded by, surprise! the big black red veined penis shaped plants, they are coming up behind her, and he is just a human manifestation of them

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Only at this point does the heat get to her, the sweat now profuse, and she goes crazy, she has to get out, this is a point of maximum arousal, so he pounces. Her eyes are wide, mouth open, shoulders up, elbows out, bare, he breasts now surging under all this movement of her arms

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(this is a standard pose of craziness in the 60s, you can see it in Reincarnation of Isabel, for example, where, a breast already bare, it serves the dramatic, compensatory purpose, to animate flat film to become more real, and jump out at you, by using the elbows as surrogate breasts, to stick them out even more than can in real life (this is too much of coincidence not to be a figure of the cinema at the time; I strongly suspect that as a gesture of dramatic body language it is entirely obsolete).

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As a gesture, it is likely deeply descended, in history, from the elbow out posture that, in art history, is acknowledged as being an apotropaic, protective gesture, saying that I will protect you all, here, then, a woman does it, for a submissive reason, I receive: I will become part of the sex, and protect the future of the race

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And then the venus flytrap grabs her arm, her arm, representative now of her pledge of participation. Her arm is wet now with sweat, it is represented as phallic formed, the flytrap rudely, with spikes, and friction, envaginates it (in the deep logic of this act it could be said to be a figure of what is called fisting, a deep sex fetishistic practice which literally involves a kind of crawling back into the womb) (a reminder that all women represented in palingenetic horror are womb-en only),

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(there is a deep sex automasochism here too, as in surreal lore in the early 20th century, the teethed-edged flytrap, bristling its spiky smile, closing on its kill, was an emblem of the vagina dentata symbolism, a notion that may still live in on post-Alien monsters, but also the Lorelei monster, but, here the flytrap closing, back again in Nosferatu: a plant to do this, it is just an elemental, chilling thing

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And then he makes his physical assault, but it is a pretty poor physical assault. He doesn’t grab her breasts, he doesn’t knock her down, he doesn’t tear at her skirt, or push up her skirt, he doesn’t rip off her panties and try to force himself on her, he just tries to make her submit to him with a kiss, meaning that he ends up slobbering all over her cheeks. She is wet with sweat, he rubs that wetness, by contributing more wetness to it, with his saliva, she recoils, but in his embrace, seems to have to take a lot of that onto her. That alone, in palingenesis, a rubbed exchange of fluids, might be enough. And then back at the lab the now vengeful wife wants to undermine this procreation to make Konga bigger and under her control so that she can use him to kill him but but the power of his mania is so great that she ends up giving him too much Konga grows gigantly, representing now the palingentic phallus out of control, leading to death, and kills her and then comes after them.

It is also of passing, meta interest, that when Konga grows large, and the movie had to show the wife in his paws, they made use of an unsatisfying fake device that even Ray Harryhausen made use of, the use of a clay puppet, here, a puppet, very much like a voodoo doll

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This presto change erection in animal form then comes in on them, and breaks up the assault. But the amazing thing is that after cutting away to the lab, and all that, the scene cuts back to the hothouse, and Decker is still only twisting and turning with her, trying to get that slobbery kiss. And then when Konga sees them, he attacks, Sondra is let go, and Becker will die for his hubris.

The point is difficult to explain, explainable only as a shift or change of key. If, in movies, straight on depictions of actual sex, as it progresses to intercourse and orgasm is in the key of A, then movies under less open regimes had to find a way to represent it but in the key of C. So everything in sex, kiss, feel up, feel crotch, make out, fondling of breasts, removal of clothing, oral fluffing, positional changes, writhing, intercourse, doing it, and orgasm, is front loaded to a premature and abstract depiction of the same. She too in self arousal is the vessel of abstract rendition. So when she sweats, that is her becoming wet, lubricated, her cleavage becomes her crotch, the dark point of cleavage where breasts converge her vulva, her hand of conscious refusal on that spot is her hand unconsciously touching herself there in self-arousal, his slobbering kiss is oral sex on her, her face become the clitoris of her apparatus, and the exchange of sweat and saliva is an exchange of cum and semen, it is a floral, plantlike, nonsexual palingentic act of reproduction. But then it is derailed by the wife’s rage and Konga’s beserk attack. So, Decker was a dead man, who gave birth to mandrake progeny, in a palingenetic universe, where plant, animal and humans mated nonsexually to propagate his plan, but it went awry when he wandered. It’s an odd thing.  But it may be another reason why these pre-exposure movies have about them a punch, they have packed in them a lot of unseen things, which are still felt below the surface–and the belt.

In the mythology: the mandrake

This can only be a stub, but mandrake lore is essential to the mythology behind the history of the Von Hohenheim, Riemenschneider, and especially Mandragore family. The mandrake lore is the basis of “Rhineland voodoo,” and for the designation of Germany as Germanica, a kind of Africa in Europe, on the Dark Continent of old Europe, in the stories. It is strongly suggested as well that the potential of mandrake lore was amplified by contact of Rhineland peasants with African servants of emissaries from Lisbon and Benin in the courts of central Europe in the sixteenth century. Where there is, in the mythology, contact, there is also sexual contact, the mixed-race progeny then contributing to the devisement of the universal kingdom of Nilos, in 17th century German courts.

The fact that the mandrake is a progeny of a death, and a kind of coffin death, explains why the problem of undeadness runs repeatedly in all the family branches. The mandrake also at some point was transformed by alchemy or magic into a way to procreate undead humans, leading to the creation of Alraune figures, with the only expression of this idea being the 1922 movie Alraune, with Paul Wegener, that is vegetable humans, progeny of the dead. The novel, Love to a Mandragore (2008) describes how Von, modelled on Erich von Stroheim, an uncle in the Von Hohenheim tree, in his Hollywood Hills home, undertook murders, in the 1940s, including that of the Black Dahlia, named after a flower, in order to explore mandragorism, and then fell in love, in a retelling of the Alraune tale, with a mandragore, with disastrous results for him. The book also includes elements of that essential evil plant movie, The Werewolf of London (1939) with Henry Hull.

Ray Harryhausen has an ur role in the mythology in so far as, as a Herrenhausen, which is a close translation of Hohenheim as well, he brought palingenetic ideas to American cinema for a second generation of gothic influence—and which had a direct influence on me.



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