‘Matango’ AKA ‘Attack of the Mushroom People’ (1963) Review

“Yeah. I ate mushrooms. Now you know.”

It’s like I’m not even trying now. There is absolutely no connection to the holidays in Matango. Not even a single scene with snow. And it’s another Japanese horror movie, after I just did one last week. What’s wrong with me? (So much.) Maybe I’ll mix things up and actually watch a holiday themed horror movie for next week. Maybe.

If we’re talking truth in titles, this should actually be called Attack of the Mushroom People in the Last Ten Minutes of the Film. It’s an indelible and psychedelic attack, to be sure, but man… it was a lot of pointless bickering and unexpected musical numbers to get there.

Matango was recommended to me back in 2013 when I intimated that I’d watched the most WTF film I’d ever seen. (This was House, or Hausu – the 1977 surreal ghost story by Nobuhiko Obayashi.) I’d never even heard of Matango, but the descriptions made it seem just as full of batshit craziness as House – as hard as that was to believe. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t live up to the descriptions. Not that there isn’t some craziness in Matango – but nothing to the level of ‘bananas bananas bananas.’

Matango was directed by Ishirō Honda, the man who brought us the first Godzilla film (and many subsequent kaiju films). It’s competently made, but Honda seems to have taken the subject matter of the film – based roughly on a short story by William Hope Hodgson – seriously, resulting in a much darker tone than most of his previous work. It’s a film that features mushroom people – treating it as a drama was probably a mistake.

The Medium
I watched Matango streaming and dubbed on Amazon Prime. It wasn’t a horrible dubbing job – probably as good as you could get for 1963 – but I’d have preferred to see it subtitled. Everyone’s a little too cartoony sounding – especially given how menacing the music is.  It’s also available on FlixFling. Nominally the version on Prime is in HD, but it’s not noticeably so.

There doesn’t seem to be a Blu-ray release anywhere but Japan. There are a number of DVD releases available – the one from Tokyo Shock being a recent one.

The Movie
Despite being called Attack of the Mushroom People, the vast majority of Matango features little in the way of fungal homonids – we don’t even catch a glimpse of one for 43 minutes, unless the crew of ‘the yacht’ count. It’s mostly in a disaster movie template, with a disparate group of people on a (3 hour) tour whose yacht is damaged by a storm. They’re forced to take shelter on a deserted island. An island that sports an extraordinary growth of mushrooms…

Most of the character interaction in the film is arguing and petty posturing, primarily among the men. The rich guy is a cowardly dick, the deckhand is a thief and wannabe rapist, the writer only has a tenuous grasp of reality and the Philosophy Professor is expected to do all the Science! because he has a secondary education. The women represent the Whore and the Virgin stereotypes – but at least the Whore can sing. Which she does. At length.

I’m making fun of the film, but it IS quite good in spots. The music and lighting is often effective. When the group finds a shipwrecked cargo ship it’s eerily covered in mold and mushrooms, inside and out. The way they dressed the set is damn impressive – I could almost smell the mold and had to stifle the urge to cough. There’s no sign of the crew – but evidence seems to suggest it was a kind of research ship – maybe engaged in working with radiation.

Despite the mold and the possible radiation poisoning the gang decides to hole up in the larger ship. Unfortunately for our survivors, there’s very little in the way of food on board. Soon they’re stealing food, hiding food and paying hundreds of thousands of yen for a handful of turtle eggs. There’s always the abundant mushroom growth on the island, but the Professor urges everyone to avoid them as there’s no way of telling which are poisonous and which are not. Starvation isn’t their only problem, however – there’s also the question of what happened to the crew.

Spoiler alert: the crew are all mushroom people now. And, at a later point, they attack.

The mushroom people and their mushroom garden ARE visually pretty interesting when they finally show up. Steamy psychedelic colors and a constant high-pitched moaning help create a surreal and menacing atmosphere. With the outside pressure of strange creatures menacing and the internal pressures of starvation and interpersonal difficulties, it’s only a matter of time before violence breaks out and the survivors are menacing each other as much as the mushroom people are.

That’s when we start to realize that the mushroom people are probably the former crew. Eating the mushrooms is what begins the process, of course, and we’ve already got an idea of where things are headed because of certain culinary indiscretions on the part of the writer character earlier.

There’s some tension and menace around people eating the mushrooms and beginning the change, with some psychedelic musical numbers and decent makeup work. When our hero, the Professor (the only one who lives, as we’ve already seen in an opening sequence) heads into the depths of the island looking for his girlfriend we’re ready for some major fungal freakshow. The costumes and sets don’t disappoint, with man-sized toadstools and misty, mushroom filled scenery. Still, the big attack sequence descends into farce fairly quickly, with the Professor ping-ponging between stiff and moaning man-sized mushrooms before walking briskly away.

The Professor does survive, somehow getting off the island and back to Tokyo – but not unscathed, as he reveals to his doctors that, alas, the lure of the mushrooms was too strong…

The Bottom Line
Matango should have brought the mushroom people in earlier or should be a lot shorter. It could also benefit from having a lighter tone or a sense of humor about itself. There’s some fun to be had with the characters and the ship – I expected a Scooby-Doo-like chase through the various rooms at one point – but it all goes on too long with little resolution. Fun to waste time with on a rainy (or snowy) Sunday afternoon – but not as much fun as your average Godzilla movie.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.