I love pre-code movies. There’s just something about them. The subjects they tackle at times feels like they could have been made today but there’s some subject matter that wouldn’t fly today. Heck I’m not sure how they got away with the material back then.
Take today’s Sunday Matinee Kongo (1932). Originally a stage play it was made into a silent movie called West of Zanzibar by director Todd Browning with Lon Chaney Sr. starring as the lead character Dead-Legs. The silent version isn’t bad and seems like a lighthearted almost pleasant thriller compared to the sleazy 1932 sound version.
The 1932 sound version stars Walter Huston (who starred in the original play) as Deadlegs Flint, a twisted crippled man who uses simple magic tricks and fear of voodoo to manipulate an African tribe into doing his evil bidding. Huston has two henchmen that also do his bidding and Lupe Velez is his assistant. He also has a vicious monkey that looks like it wants to bite the entire cast. The film starts in the jungle where Huston and his cronies live. The tribe shows up to see Huston work his magic. Huston can’t walk and uses a wheelchair or a rope that he uses to climb upstairs and downstairs to get around. The magic show consists of Huston playing with fire and then he cuts Velez’s head off, puts it on a table, lets her talk, then boom! Her head’s attached again. Huston uses the tribe to get revenge on a white ivory dealer, a man Huston refers to as the “man who sneered”.
It seems that the man crippled Huston and stole Huston’s wife. Part one of his revenge has Huston getting the tribe to dress up and scare the local workers so they can steal the ivory from the man. Part two is a little more nefarious. When Huston’s wife returned to him, she was pregnant. She died but the baby lived. Huston took the baby girl and sent her to a convent for 18 years. It’s 18 years later and Huston sends one of his henchmen to fetch her from the convent with the promise that she will finally meet her father.
Huston instead sends her to a brothel and whores her out and gets her addict to booze. Then he brings her to him so she can finally meet her father. Meanwhile a drug addicted doctor stumbles into Huston’s camp. Huston decides that the good doctor can perform a surgery on Huston to relieve him of his back pain. It won’t make him walk but he wants the pain to stop so he can enjoy the show. Huston also has instilled the belief in the tribe that when someone dies, all the family members must be sacrificed on the funeral pyre. Now all the pieces are in place, it’s time to finally confront the “man who sneered”.
This is a delightfully twisted film. It’s as far from politically correct as you can get. Huston is excellent as Deadlegs. He’s a ball of hate that couldn’t care what happens to any other living being. This is definitely one of those movies that you can say “they don’t make movies like this anymore.”