The “guy in a gorilla suit” is synonymous with cheap genre film quickies. If you had a budget of pocket lint and pennies, you could knock out a low rent schlockfest where your monster was some variant of an ape in no time flat.
Hell, John Landis did just that in the early 1970s with his film, Schlock.
The ape as a monster/antagonist/friend/hero has one hell of a cinematic legacy. Nowadays the Sharksploitation flick is the subgenre that gets all the attention for how outrageously endless it is. But apes did it first.
Cinema of the 90s is experiencing its moment of nostalgic rediscovery of late, and with that comes the opportunity to dig into films of that decade and view them through a modern lens. The 90s also had its fair share of ape-centric genre entertainment. We had the (rather good) remake of Mighty Joe Young, the baseball flick Ed, and the based-on-real-shit-that-actually happened period film, Buddy – where a rich lady played by Rene Russo attempts to raise a gorilla.
And then you have the movie Congo, the subject of this article. In the wake of the earth shaking success of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Hollywood began adapting the works of Michael Crichton with the zeal typical of Hollywood when something makes it big. 1995 produced Congo – a big budget production directed by Frank Marshall.
Become the next Jurassic Park it did not, but it at least doubled its budget despite poor critical reception.
For those not in the know, Congo is a movie about a group of scientists from a communications company who set out on an expedition into the, you guessed it, Congo to find out what happened to their field team looking for a rare diamond mine. The team died suddenly and violently, possibly at the hands of mysterious, yet unidentified apes. Dr. Ross (Laura Linney) brings along primatologist and animal trainer Dr. Elliot (Dylan Walsh) and his ape, Amy, who he has trained to speak using sign language and sophisticated technology that verbalizes the words she signs.
Amy also drinks martinis.
Thrills and chills abound as the team run afoul of hostile governments, hungry, hungry hippos, and yes, those violent apes that took out the initial ground team.
Age does funny things to films. Films that were once absolute gems can lose their luster. And films that seemed like goofy misfires can accrue charm as they mature over time. Congo is one of the latter movies. I can’t say I was too fond of the film back when it was first released. I don’t know what I wanted, but it was probably something along the lines of Jurassic Park…but with gorillas. Having recently rediscovered the film, after not having seen it since it hit cable back in the 90s, I can say the experience was like seeing it for the first time all over again.
This film is wacky, guys. Like, really wacky. No expense was spared with the sets, locations, and especially the Amy effects – which of course were handled by Stan Winston Studios. Despite the money on screen, there is an odd sense of artifice to the film that can’t be ignored.
While location shooting did take up a big part of production, reality was not a goal when depicting the jungles here. In a way, it harkens back to the visual language of classic adventure films of this ilk where sets and matte paintings dominated the frame. This makes sense considering Crichton himself conceived the story as an homage and update to King Solomon’s Mines. Congo definitely taps into that pulpy spirit. This is an old school adventure for the modern day. Modern by mid-90s standards, that is. I’m rather convinced Marshall had his tongue planted firmly in cheek while directing the film, because it’s just too over-the-top for it to be accidental. The man is no stranger to humorous thrills; he did direct the total classic that is Arachnophobia, after all.
The pulp adventure tone is only accentuated by a fantastic cast absolutely hamming it up in the best ways. Ernie Hudson walks away with the whole film as the field guide Monroe Kelly. Hudson sinks his teeth into the park with effortless charisma.
Tim Curry is also along for the ride as the treacherous Herkermer (get it? Like a Herkimer diamond?) Homolka. No stranger to accents in his career, Curry summons one of the most over-the-top Romanian accents I’ve ever heard in a film. He’s completely gonzo here, and Curry alone is pretty much half of the camp appeal that Congo offers.
Also, Bruce Campbell shows up for the first 10 minutes or so, making you wish he was the lead instead of Walsh. No offense to Walsh…Linney and Walsh are serviceable as the heroes, but they can’t keep up with their co-stars having the scenery for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The final act of the film is when the action/adventure and sci-fi shenanigans really kick into high gear. We have hidden temples and caves. All kinds of overly-designed 90s movie tech is on display. We have lasers, motion guns, and enough computer displays to fill two movies. The killer apes make for genuinely intimidating foes. Winston and Co. knocked it out of the park with everything they did, and Congo deserves to be mentioned alongside Winston’s more famous movie accomplishments.
Time has been kind to Congo and it is begging for wide rediscovery in my opinion. It’s got a certain colorful, campy charm oozing out of every frame. Despite its PG-13 rating, it also has a handful of gnarly images for all the gore-hounds out there. Where else can you find a film with a talking, martini drinking gorilla named Amy and Tim Curry using the most outlandish accent imaginable?
In the 90s, my friends. Only in the 90s.