*. I came to Matango not as a fan of director Ishiro Honda, the man who created Gojira (and who went on to direct seven more Godzilla movies for Toho). Instead, I’d read William H. Hodgson’s 1907 short story “The Voice in the Night,” which is the somewhat stodgy but nevertheless still quite effective horror tale that Matango was loosely based on.
*. Hodgson’s story has a sailing ship encountering a man who tells of being abandoned on an island with his fiancé where an invasive species of mushrooms infect people and turn them into fungi, a fate that the unhappy couple share. It was first filmed as a standalone episode for the TV show Suspicion in 1958 that you can watch online. It’s more faithful to the original story but not very good. Matango was the second adaptation.
*. I wanted to like it. It’s a movie with a certain reputation that doesn’t quite rise to a cult among monster-movie fans. Apparently Steven Soderbergh wanted to remake it but couldn’t get Toho’s permission, and Guillermo del Toro also ranks it as a favourite. It was controversial in Japan because the make-up effects on the faces of the people turning into mushrooms resembled radiation burns. For many years it was an obscure, shlocky title, having been released directly to television in the U.S. as Attack of the Mushroom People and later on home video in the U.K. as Fungus of Terror.
*. Unfortunately it never lives up to its promise. I’m not sure what direction they were trying to go. The story is genuinely creepy, but the film isn’t scary at all. Of course the full-blown mushroom people look ridiculous in their totally Toho rubber suits, but they’re made to seem even sillier with the oddly giggling soundtrack and the fact that they seem mostly harmless.
*. The real danger the mushrooms present lies in their addictive quality. Once you’ve tasted wild ‘shrooms you can’t get enough. Much as with The Stuff, it soon becomes more a case of it eating you than you eating it.
*. This addiction angle is apparently what drew Honda to the project, who saw the film as a serious comment on youth culture in Japan at the time. Which would be interesting too, but again it’s not a point that’s clearly made. The group stranded on the island are starving so it makes sense they’d eat the mushrooms. And as it is, the ‘shrooms don’t result in cases of reefer madness but basically just make everyone happy and mellow. All the final-stage creatures seem to want is a hug. Nor is it all that effective as a swipe at rebel youth, since the gang stuck on the island are too old.
*. I can understand Soderbergh wanting to take a crack at a remake. There’s potential here throughout. I loved the set of the infected ghost ship, and the mushroom garden might have been something truly original and grotesque instead of the chintzy rubber plantation it looks like. People do get fungal growths and they’re disgusting, so if the effects had been better it could have been a real stomach-turner. The ending that has Akiko going full Betty Driscoll from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers could have been so much more sinister. The group dynamics, especially given the open question of who has eaten the forbidden fungus, might have played out like The Thing. So many might-have-beens.
*. Murai’s expression of loss at the end is nicely ambiguous. “I’d be happier living on that island than in this city.” Which makes sense if you’re turning into a mushroom and that’s where you lost your girlfriend. There may be an evocation here of a demonic fairyland. But what does he mean when he says that the citizens of Tokyo are just the same as the mushroom people? That in a modern, urban society we’re all drugged-out zombies anyway? And why is such a message tacked onto the end? It hasn’t been developed at all or even introduced up to that point, despite the presence of a few flashbacks from the characters.
*. There’s no question this is a lot better than your usual Toho creature feature. But it leaves you with the feeling that it could have been even more. I’d like to think it could still be remade and something salvaged but at this point that ship has probably sailed. For better and for worse this is all the Matango we’ve got.