Lost in the Mushroom Forest

This week, Boing Boing is running a series called Mind Blowing Movies, all about the weird and fun films they saw while growing up, which warped their wee little minds. I thought I’d play along, describing my encounter with… The Mushroom People!

When I was young, I saw this strange Japanese film on TV.

This was back in the days before 24 hour cable and streaming movies, when broadcast TV was run by local affiliates who had to fill large blocks of airtime as cheaply as possible. They did this by running blocks of  old sci-fi and horror movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It shows just how much has changed, as these days there is no way the Networks would ever let the local Affiliates waste six hours of add space on reruns of Buck Rogers serials, Roger Corman horror flicks from the 60s, or movies that didn’t even get top billing at second run drive-ins. But these were different times, man.

But unlike the other Saturday Afternoon fair, 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. Luckily, my Google Fu is strong, and a few years ago I was able to track down the movie and discovered it was called Matango, or as I knew it so long ago, Attack of the Mushroom People.

The film was made in 1963 by Toho, 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 ambiance, 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, as the movie predates most horror films (and thus 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 at play. 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 realize we’re in a monster movie, it’s too late and we have had some moments of genuine suspense.

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 wherever). This sort of nihilistic edge is hard to find in any film, let alone one made in 1963.

These half remembered images of lugubrious mushroom people and the beshroomed forest in which they lived eventually found their way in to my novel, The Machine of the World, proving that the best thing a parent can ever do is let their children watch, unattended, whatever weird old movies they can get their hands on. It’s the only way to be sure they’ll grow up to write science fiction novels and entertain strange notions. otherwise, they might want o be a doctor or lawyer or something tedious and useful.