By TOM WEAVER
I Was A Teenage Werewolf. Teenage Frankenstein. How To Make A Monster. There are very few 1950s horror films that are
as well remembered as these near-legendary titles, and
they represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg
in the amazing career of writer-producer Herman Cohen.
The Deroit-born Cohen made his first films (including
Bride of the Gorilla) in the early 1950s during
his association with Realart Pictures honcho Jack Broder,
and he continued to specialize in horror right up through
the 1970s; today he operates (with partner Didier Chatelain)
Cobra Media, which also leans heavily toward the horrific
in its roster of titles. In the late 1950s, Cohen shifted
his base of operations to England, turning out titles
such as The Headless Ghost and Horrors of
the Black Museum -- and one of the finer examples
of Simian Cinema you're likely to come across: Konga!
TOM WEAVER: Whose idea
HERMAN COHEN: Nat and
Stuart Levy were so excited about the business that
Horrors of the Black Museum did in England and in Europe
(it was a very big hit there), they said, "Herm, can
you do another exploitation type of picture?" Well,
I had always flipped over King Kong and Mighty
Joe Young and all that, so I came up with Konga
and Aben Kandel and I started writing the script.
a lot more special effects than any of your other pictures.
HERMAN: We did a tremendous
amount of special effects with Rank Labs. I supervised
them myself, all these effects. For the scenes where
Konga's a giant, the head of special effects at
Rank labs, a wonderfully clever guy named Victor Marguetti,
developed a traveling matte technique that employed
yellow sodium lights; Konga was the first picture that
they used it on. Some of the effects of Konga, when
he's big, are really good, rock steady. Konga
only cost about $500,000, in color, but the effects
were so good that people thought the picture cost millions.
How long did
it take to supervise the effects on Konga?
HERMAN: Eighteen months
- over a year-and-a-half to get those bloody special
effects done perfect. It just went on and on and on,
'cause it was trial and error. AIP was after me constantly
-- "Where's the picture? When are we gonna get the picture?"
They didn't realize how much F___king work was involved,
'cause they never used special effects at that time.
AIP came to special effects pictures prior to Konga
were th Bert I. Gordon jobs.
HERMAN: Yes, but Konga
was in color, and that's a whole different bag of beans.
To have Konga hold Michael Gough, what I had to do there
was matte five different scenes on one frame.
I assumed that
you built a giant ape arm.
HERMAN: Are you kidding?
We didn't have money to build a giant putz at that time
You also had
the actor in the ape suit on miniature sets, just as
he was starting to grow.
HERMAN: For a cheap picture,
those miniature sets that we built were pretty good.
I worked my ass off. In fact, I don't think I ever worked
harder on a picture than I did on Konga. And
don't forget those giant plants that we had in the greenhouse
scene. My art director Wilfred Arnold and I did a lot
of research on those plants -- I had to go to all kinds
of places with him, in the Kew Gardens, here and there.
They were based on actual carnivorous plants. We had
them made at Shepperton Studios. But it was exciting
to do this on spit. We had to use a lot of ingenuity
in place of money. Luckily, I had an enthusiastic crew
almost got thrown out of England 'cause of Konga.
Once Konga grew into the giant ape, I needed to shoot
the streets of London from the embankment. Jack Greenwood
and [production manager] Jim O'Connolly told me, "Herm,
we can't get permission. The Metropolitan Police will
shut us down." I was also told you can't bribe an English
bobby; unlike in New York, Chicago, Detroit or L.A.,
it won't work. So I had to take things in hand. I went
to meet the inspector in charge of the precinct in Croyden,
which is the jurisdiction of the Embankment area. I
sat and visited with him for a long time, talked about
all different subjects, on and on. Then we got to talking
about television, and he said, "Oh, I wish I could afford
a color television set." That was my opening -- I went
and bought him a color television set, and I had it
sent to his home. And suddenly I got permission to shoot
on the streets in London! The thing that I didn't mention
to him was that, at the finale, all hell was going to
break loose -- that we were going to shoot submachine
guns, bazookas, etc., etc. I purposely didn't tell him
easier to get forgiveness than permission.
HERMAN: That's what I
figured. We had permission to shoot from 12 midnight
until five in the morning, each night for four or five
nights. And on the last night, the night when we were
going to shoot the finale, who should come out but the
inspector, to have biscuits and a cup of tea with me
and see how everything was going! I said, "Gee, it's
awfully late for you to be up, it's like two o'clock
in the morning." I wanted to get rid of him, but there
were also a couple of sergeants that were with me all
the time -- I didn't tell them what was going to happen
Anyway, comes the final scene
and we blaze away: I had told all my people, "Have the
trucks ready, 'cause when we're done, we gotta split!"
Which we did! Well, the 999 emergency number got something
like 300 phone calls -- people thought London was being
invaded [laughs]! This was only 15 years or so after
World War II, and they were still worried. I had a lot
of apologies to make -- a lot! There were a few old
women who claimed that the excitement affected their
health, all kinds of shit. The Metropolitan Police gave
me the addresses of the ones who were threatening to
go to the Consul and what have you, and I had to go
visit each one of them in person and charm the bejesus
out of them, which I did, fortunately. Jack Greenwood
Jim O'Connelly and I went and bought like 20 boxes of
chocolates, which are terribly expensive in England,
flowers, all sorts of crap for them. They took the candy
and flowers and kissed me goodbye [laughs]!
With a title
like Konga, people started making comparisons
to King Kong.
HERMAN: Which was fine
-- which was what I wanted! We paid RKO so that we could
use in our ads the line, "Not since King Kong
... has the screen thundered to so much mighty excitement!"
I paid RKO because I didn't want them to think we were
stealing it. We paid 'em $25,000 so there would not
be any lawsuit.
you came back to Hollywood and made Black Zoo.
HERMAN: That was an original
idea of mine, and then I hired Aben Kandel to work with
me and we wrote the script together, I built the zoo
right here at Raleigh Studio [formerly Producers Studio]
on North Bronson -- the entire zoo that you saw in that
picture was an interior set.
You must have an animal anecdote or two.
HERMAN: Well, one of our
lions escaped during the shooting of the picture, and
we had front page headlines in all the papers! Everybody
said I must have done it as a publicity stunt, but it
actually happened. A full-grown American mountain lion
named Chico, three hundred pounds, broke loose and dashed
out through a door. We immediately removed the cast
and crew from the set, and someone was broadcasting
warnings over loudspeakers for all the various studio
personnel to take cover -- this all happened just before
lunch, and everybody was told to stay in their offices.
The police were called and they surrounded the studio,
and there was also a helicopter announcing over a loudspeaker,
telling the children at the nearby schools to get off
the playgrounds and back inside the buildings! More
than 50 police officers with their cars blocked off
streets and were searching for him. And the lion's owner,
Ralph Helfer, was asking 'em not to shoot the thing.
This went on for an hour or so before they recaptured
him -- he had squeezed himself into a sub-basement under
the soundstage, down through an electrician's crawl-hole
in the stage floor. And he was scared stiff, the poor
thing. Well [laughs], at least we got a lot of publicity
out of it!
Tom Weaver is the author of Science
Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster
Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland