The “guy in the gorilla suit” is synonymous with cheap genre films. If you had a budget of pocket fluff and pennies, you could knock out a low-rent schlockfest where your monster was some variation of a monkey in no time.
Hell, John Landis did just that in the early 1970s with his movie, Schlock.
The monkey as monster/antagonist/friend/hero has quite a cinematic heritage. These days, the Sharksploitation movie is the subgenre that gets all the attention for its outrageously endless character. But the monkeys did it first.
’90s cinema is having its moment of nostalgic rediscovery lately, and with that comes the opportunity to dig into films from that decade and see them through a modern lens. The 90s also had its fair share of monkey-centric genre entertainment. We got the (pretty good) remake of Mighty Joe Youngthe baseball movie Edand the period movie based on some real shit that actually happened, Buddy – where a wealthy lady played by René Russo attempts to raise a gorilla.
And then you have the movie congo, the subject of this article. In the wake of the resounding success of Spielberg jurassic parkHollywood began to adapt the works of Michael Crichton with typical Hollywood zeal when something gets big. 1995 produced congo – a big budget production directed by Frank Marshall.
Become the next jurassic park it didn’t, but it at least doubled its budget despite poor critical reception.
For those who are unaware, congo is a film about a group of scientists from a communications company who go on an expedition to the Congo, you guessed it, to find out what happened to their field team searching for a mine of rare diamonds. The team died suddenly and violently, possibly at the hands of mysterious but unidentified apes. Dr. Ross (Laura Linney) brings primatologist and animal trainer Dr. Elliot (Dylan Walsh) and his monkey, Amy, whom he 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 comes up against hostile governments, hungry, hungry hippos and, yes, those violent apes that took out the initial ground crew.
Age does funny things to movies. Movies that were once absolute gems can lose their shine. And movies that looked like goofy duds can gain in charm as they mature over time. congo is one of these last films. I can’t say that I liked the movie too much when it came out. I don’t know what I wanted, but it was probably something like jurassic park… but with gorillas. Having recently rediscovered the film, having not seen it since it hit cable in the 90s, I can say the experience was like seeing it for the first time.
This movie is wacky, guys. Like, really wacky. No expense was spared with sets, locations and most importantly Amy effects – which of course were handled by Stan Winston Studios. Despite the on-screen money, there’s a strange sense of artifice in the film that can’t be ignored.
While location filming took up much of the production, reality wasn’t a focus when depicting the jungles here. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the visual language of classic adventure films of this ilk where sets and matte paintings dominated the setting. It makes sense given that Crichton himself designed the story as a tribute and update to King Solomon’s Mines. congo definitely taps into that luscious spirit. This is an old school adventure for modern times. Modern by mid-90s standards, that is. I’m pretty sure Marshall had his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek during the making of the movie, because it’s just too over the top to be accidental. The man is no stranger to humorous thrills; he achieved the classic total which is Arachnophobiaafter all.
The pulp adventure tone is only heightened by a fantastic cast that does it in absolutely the best way. Ernie Hudson walks away with the entire film as field guide Monroe Kelly. Hudson sinks his teeth into the park with effortless charisma.
Tim Curry is also in the game as the traitorous Herkermer (understood? Like a diamond Herkimer?) Homolka. No stranger to accents in his career, Curry summons one of the most exaggerated Romanian accents I’ve ever heard in film. He’s completely gonzo here, and Curry alone is about half the camp call that congo offers.
Also, Bruce Campbell appears 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 useful as heroes, but they can’t keep up with their co-stars having the decor for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The film’s final act is where the action/adventure and sci-fi shenanigans really kick into high gear. We have hidden temples and caves. All sorts of over-engineered 90s movie tech is on display. We have lasers, motion guns and enough computer screens to fill two films. Killer monkeys are truly intimidating enemies. Winston and Co. knocked it out of the park with everything they did, and congo deserves mention alongside Winston’s most famous film achievements.
The weather has been good for congo and it requires a broad rediscovery in my opinion. It has a certain colorful, campy charm that oozes from every frame. Despite its PG-13 rating, it also has a handful of gnarly images for all the gore dogs out there. Where else can you find a movie with a talking, martini-drinking gorilla named Amy and Tim Curry using the craziest accent imaginable?
In the 90s, my friends. Only in the 90s.