Lost, with Mushrooms

When I was a wee lad, I saw this strange Japanese film on TV. It was part of the Saturday Afternoon Matinee that has been a major influence on my creative aspirations over the years. But unlike the other Saturday Afternoon fair like Buck Rogers or the old Flash Gordon Serials, all I remembered for years about this movie was a haunting unreality, a sense of dread as these characters ran around, slowly turning into Mushroom People.*

Recently I decided to put this here Internet to the test and see if I could track down information about this movie, maybe even dig up an old VHS copy so that I could see if it really was as weird and fun as I remembered. Sure enough, Matango (US title: Attack of the Mushroom People) has an IMDB entry and was recently reissued on DVD.

The film was made in 1963 by Toho Company Ltd., the same studio that made Godzilla. In fact the director, Ishiro Honda, made his name directing many Kaiju, most notably, several of the subsequent Godzilla films.

But Matango is something altogether different. The Wikipedia entry mentions the odd parallels between Matango and Gilliagan’s island, with the seven castaways representing the seven deadly sins. Which is intriguing, though in tone and ambience, the film is much more in the vein of Lost, but with mushrooms.

The sense of dread and something intangibly odd is present from the beginning, and at several points, could run off into a typical monster movie direction (going into the haunted house, answering the evil telephone and stopping mid escape to have sex so the bloodthirsty maniac can catch up), but instead, this film subtly subverts all of those tropes. Though, I guess subverting them is the wrong idea; the movie predates most horror films and so most horror film cliches and so isn’t consciously subverting any of them. But we’ve come to expect lazy writing wearing it’s metaphors inside out in an attempt to appear post-modern or Ironic with a capitol I, and so we often expect there to be certain monster movie cause and effect scenes. Matango instead lets the character’s drive the story to the inevitable conclusion, skirting into the monster movie world, but staying close to the blurry edges so that it still overlaps the naturalistic world. This way, we manage to get most of the way through the film before the men in rubber suits show up. We see their silhouettes and brief glimpses of them but just enough to make the full out Mushroom mayhem at the end seem plausible rather than contrived. In this sense, it has a nice Lovecraftian turn to it, slowly pushing us int the fantasy world one twist at a time, so that when we realise we’re in a monster movie, it’s too late and we have had some moments of genuine suspense.

Of course, the movie isn’t perfect. Some of the editing is weird and jumpy. It’s hard at times to tell if this is a stylistic choice to heighten the sense of disorientation or just technical flaws (the infamous Toho Style) showing through. What is most striking though is the bleak tone. The characters overtly critique Japanese society and civilization as a whole, ultimately deciding that maybe we’d all be better off in the jungle eating mushrooms instead of living in the soporific splendor of Tokyo (or New York, or Los Angelas or Savannah…). This sort of nihilistic edge is hard to find in any film, let alone one made in 1963.

I give it 4 out of 5 stars for some MST3K worthy dialogue in the first act and the minor technical flaws. Maybe it should be rated a half star lower, but I’m biased, due to it being part of the creative influence from my childhood. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun, weird and utterly creepy movie.
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* These half remembered images of lugubrious mushroom people and the beshroomed forest in which they lived found their way in to my novella, The Machine of the World. Everything is inspiring.