Studio: Kino Lorber/Something Weird
Release date: January 5th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
While the phrase “exploitation” is now synonymous with the grindhouse filmmaking of the 60s and 70s, the urge to provoke, tiilate, and, well, exploit has been there. The first pornographic films were exhibited within a year of the medium’s inception, and it didn’t take long for hucksters everywhere to figure out that people would pay money to see taboo subjects. This rang as true as ever as movies moved into the sound era, when the world was still large and mystical enough that faux documentaries like Ingagi could lure an audience into a movie house to simply glimpse at wild exotic sights from foreign lands. One of the more shameless productions of this or any other era, Ingagi captures the breadth and width of the exploitation experience, for better and for worse as it ticks off all of the boxes associated with this type of filmmaking. There’s an outrageous hook (“come see native women sacrificed to gorillas!”), incendiary imagery (animal cruelty abounds), and an altogether problematic treatment of race and foreign cultures (it’s about as sensitive about these subjects as you’d expect a 1930s exploitation movie to be). But the clincher? Ignagi was a total scam, its own sordid history ultimately more interesting than just about anything it put up on the screen—a fate shared by many of its exploitation brethren, of course.
Less a documentary and more of a filmed sideshow, Ingagi purports to showcase the exploits of London adventurer Sir Hubert Winstead, who took a crew to the Congo and encountered the strange customs of the “natives” (realized with a mix of archive footage and actors in blackface). What follows is a rote, episodic travelogue of sorts, with each change in scenery capturing one unseemly sight after the other as animals are captured or killed on camera to form a queasy cinematic menagerie. Snakes, alligators, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and gorillas all parade onto the screen, only to be subjected to various cruelties and a camera’s gaze that sees them less as majestic creatures and more items to be collected. The African natives are treated with a similar condescension: they’re curious subjects doing odd things, and there’s no attempt to gain any insight to these people or their customs.
Narrator Louis Nizor is essentially a carnival barker calling attention to this display of sideshow grotesquerie, which doesn’t have much of a narrative thrust beyond “get a load of this stuff!” The crude camerawork and ragged editing render the routine monotonous, with only the occasional establishing shot (including some impressive flyover footage) worth noting. Of course, that’s the byproduct of several factors, some technological, others artistic—you could understand if perhaps the filmmakers thought stuffing enough salacious images into the frame would suffice. In this respect, Ingagi might be exploitation in its purest form: a series of provocative imagery meant to excite or perhaps even anger an audience. This huckster bluster manifests most obviously in the film’s “climax,” which finally delivers the promise of women being “sacrificed” as sex objects to a gorilla in a ludicrous sequence involving actresses and men in primate costuming. It says a lot about Ingagi that this troubling depiction of native culture is also its only spark of imagination. It’s also kind of a hoot that they sold an entire movie off of this premise, only to deliver it at the last second in laughable fashion.
Even more galling? The gambit worked. Ingagi shattered box office records wherever it played, taking in over $4 million until the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association barred it from theaters under the grounds of fraud. After a little detective work on their part, the jig was up: not only was most of Ingagi produced in Los Angeles with actors, but it also appropriated footage from previous productions (most notably Lady Grace Mackenzie’s “Heart of Africa”). Its two British subjects (Winstead and partner Daniel Swayne) didn’t even exist, rendering the entire premise fraudulent enough that the Better Business Bureau also intervened to shut down the movie. If the goal was to garner attention—and with exploitation filmmaking, this is always the goal—then Ingagi was an unqualified success, perhaps too much so since this attention undercut the other goal: making money, which producers William Alexander and Nat Spitzer clearly planned on doing by teasing a sequel*.
And while it may not be any consolation to them, this ordeal ensured that Ingagi would be enshrined in the annals of exploitation cinema forever. With a reputation that’s now preceded it for nearly a century, it’s become a notorious title whose legend has only grown with its elusiveness. Several titles have shared similar fates over the years, but this is an especially fascinating case from the early days of Hollywood because it shows that this filmmaking scene has always thrived on the same primal urges of showmanship. Ingagi is nothing if not a precursor to the mondo films that would become popular decades later, when filmmakers would push the envelope even further in their attempts to shock viewers. Ingagi proves that the more things change, they stay the same, right down to its immediate influence: the MPPDA was swift to update the Hays Code to forbid nudity, while RKO, emboldened by the film’s success in the movie houses it owned, eventually produced King Kong. The latter is a reminder that a two-way street has always existed between Hollywood and its exploitation fringes, each feeding off the other in a symbiotic relationship intertwined with celluloid. While Alexander and Spitzer might not have done it in the way they envisioned, they managed to tell a hell of a story after all.
*This obviously never happened, but Son of Ingagi did tout itself as a successor a decade later despite having no ties to the original film. The cosmic ballet of exploitation goes on.
Even though DVD has now existed in four decades now, home video companies routinely manage to uncover films that have gone unseen since the VHS era. With Ingagi, Kino and Something Weird Video have arguably pulled off the pièce de résistance: this is a movie that’s never been released on home video. Incorrectly thought to have been lost, it’s actually been preserved by the Library of Congress for decades, and one of those prints was restored in 4K resolution for this release. The result is as solid as can be expected considering the source material: there’s plenty of noticeable blemishes and missing frames, but it’s hardly unwatchable. Short of actually watching the print itself, it’s hard to imagine Ingagi ever looking much better.
For supplements, Kino has included two commentaries: the first finds exploitation expert Bret Wood providing his insight into the film’s production and legacy, while the second one features historian Kelly Robinson providing some crucial context for the film. A brief featurette about the film’s restoration is also included. Even though the film itself might not live up to its infamous legacy, this release is an early home video highlight for 2021, if only because Ingagi is such a curious piece of film lore that will be of interest to any exploitation devotee. This era of schlock doesn’t often garner the prominence of its more outrageous descendants, but it’s absolutely foundational in illustrating the genre’s evolution. Fittingly, Ingagi is something of a missing link helping to bridge one era to the next.
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