MATANGO: ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE (Mania.com)
Review Date: Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Science fiction pioneer William Hope Hodgson is little known today, but in the early 20th century his popularity rivaled that of H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. H.P. Lovecraft was among his admirers. It may be that Hodgson's stories lacked the magnetism of Wells they generally featured stock characters that were confronted with a weird menace. It may also be that because Hodgson didn't survive into an era of greater mass communication (he was killed in World War I), he was never able to promote his works as much as Wells. Whatever the case, one of his most haunting tales was "The Voice in the Night", in which a group of shipwrecked sailors was gradually taken over by a fungus growing on the fog-shrouded island. MATANGO, based on this story, is to date the only film adaptation of Hodgson's work, though his influence is for the most part unknowingly reflected in half horror and sci-fi films ever made.
A pleasure cruise sets sail from Tokyo harbor. On board is seven people: the skipper, first mate, a movie star, a millionaire, a college professor, a shy virginal girl, and just so the comparison to a certain sitcom doesn't become too pronounced a mystery author. The yacht runs into a storm, stranding the seven on a secluded island. There doesn't seem to be much food on the island, save the mushrooms that grow plentifully, though no one dares to eat them. Mystery brews when another ship is found derelict on the beach, its crew vanished. Apparently it was a research vessel conducting experiments on the fungi, but there are no clues as to what became of the crew, except to say that some of them disobeyed orders and ate some mushrooms.
Soon, some of the newcomers begin to succumb to starvation as well, and they too disappear. However, evidence seems to indicate that someone or something has been making nightly visits to the ship. Holdout Akira Kubo (who continued with director Ishiro Honda for several more pictures) is confronted with the ghastly truth: those eating the mysterious mushrooms have been turning into oversized, hostile 'shrooms' themselves!
In America, the film was tagged with the sensationalistic title ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE, which was enough to have it immediately dismissed by anyone over the age of 16. However, this is actually a weirdly atmospheric horror film from the director of many Godzilla pictures. The art direction is excellent, as mold and fungus seem to be spreading from the corners of every frame. The drug references are not ignored, as it's made clear that the fungus has a psychological as well as a physical effect. It may even be wholly psychological, with the effect of the mushrooms causing hallucinations via spores even before they're ingested. During scenes in which the climactic "attack" takes place, it looks more like the creatures are trying to embrace our hero than kill him, which makes it all the more horrifying.
On the negative side, the film creeps along too slowly most of the time. Today's audiences are quick enough at picking up on the psychodrama among the cast, and have already seen enough castaway movies to be a few steps ahead. The opening scenes are further marred by a ridiculous song performed by boatnik Kumi Mizuno, the only lyrics for which are "La la la!" The folks at Media Blasters are savvy enough about this high camp moment to include the song with some of the DVD menus. But though some aspects of the film are hopelessly old fashioned, its chills are unforgettable. The film has been unavailable on home video save for a VHS release from Something Weird Video, which was quickly withdrawn when NAFTA went into effect, and the US version only shows up rarely on television. Despite this, people have been describing scenes from it from memory for the past 20 years to get me to identify the film for them, testimony to its staying power.
Media Blaster's DVD is the first decent release this film has ever received in the USA, and they hit a home run the first time out. The widescreen Tohoscope image is so vivid that it takes on a 3-D quality at times, and they've not only given us both the original Japanese soundtrack and an English track, but punched up the English track for an additional 5.1 track. In addition, they've followed the welcome trend of many US releases of Japanese films in the past year and reproduced some of the extras from the Japanese DVD. A commentrak (with English subtitles) has the lead Akira Kubo (now nearly 70) reminiscing about the film with an unnamed moderator, and also talking about his long career in show business. It's a rare treat to hear the voice of such a familiar actor from so many old Toho pictures.
Another survivor of that era, Teruyoshi Nakano, was the chief assistant f/x director on MATANGO, and appears onscreen for a 27-minute video interview. He discusses how they used recent developments in technology and age-old tricks to make the movie, his comments illustrated with clips and production drawings. The disc also presents the original trailer, plus trailers for four other Toho science fiction pictures. But what may be one of the oddest DVD extras ever created is an 18-minute spoken word performance by MATANGO's adapter Masami Fukushima, accompanied by film clips and stills.
Copyright © 2005 Brian Thomas, author of the massive book VideoHound's DRAGON: ASIAN ACTION & CULT FLICKS.
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Mania Grade: A-
Disc Grade: A
Reviewed Format: DVD
Rated: Not Rated
Stars: Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Kenji Sahara, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Hiroshi Koizumi, Miki Yashiro, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Eisei Amamoto
Writers: William Hope Hodgson (story), Masami Fukushima, Shinchiro Hoshi, Takeshi Kimura
Director: Ishiro Honda
Distributor: Media Blasters
Original Year of Release: 1963
Suggested Retail Price: $19.95
Extras: Anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1; English DD 5.1 & 2.0; Japanese mono; English subtitles; audio commentary track (with English subtitles); interview; spoken word featurette; trailers