Psychotronic Ketchup: Matango [aka Attack of the Mushroom People] (1963)

Part of my purpose in relating to you my identification with It Came From Hollywood the other day (click here to read that post), was to set up exactly why I had not seen the Japanese horror film Matango until a couple of weeks ago. Truthfully, the introduction of both It Came From Hollywood and the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film pretty much go hand in hand, and in trying to explain one, I felt the need to break down my history with the other. But with Matango, which appears in the PEofF under the American release title of Attack of the Mushroom People, my only connection came from a scene which appears in Hollywood.

That the scene is taken completely out of context from its place in Matango is not a surprise if you have seen the whole of Hollywood. The scene appears in a section about musical sequences, and portrays a Japanese group on a yacht who are engaged in a little sailing and a little bad music-making. A nightclub strumpet strums a ukelele, and then dances about the deck teasingly and suggestively singing a "la-la-la" series of nonsense, while the men on the yacht leer at her with seeming lust. A pair of shots of the ship's captain, resplendent in official captain's hat, pipe and cravat are the real gutbusters in the scene, and the mood left is one of "Look how cheesy those Japanese movies are!" Sure, it might be, but a glance at the film proper reveals a mood of grandly atmospheric creepiness that quashes any "cheesy" notions that may be lurking in your head after seeing its treatment in Hollywood. Even after the Mushroom People show up (who are admittedly rather cheesy-looking, though still creepy...)

What is cheesy anyway? Is Matango given this rough handling because it is a Japanese movie, or because it was
made in the 1960s, or because the characters are dressed in horrid fashions, or because the song is a silly trifle, or is it all of these elements? Aren't American films of the same period guilty of some of the same crimes against fashion and music, even some rather highly acclaimed films of that time? Doesn't everything viewed from 15-20-44 years distance take on a certain cheesy air, whether nostalgically recalled or not? The laughs from viewing Matango's shipboard scene don't really manifest themselves when you watch the actual film, for that scene is sandwiched by a grim, well-designed opening scene (of the sort that Tarantino loves to pay tribute in his own films) where our narrator stares with his face (unseen by the audience, so you know there might eventually be some sort of payoff) out of a window while he begins his strange tale, and then after the aforementioned musical sequence, some awful savaging of the other female character's ego via some sharply barbed insults tossed off by the ship deck singer, who in addition to her nightclub career is also a prostitute. Outside of the music break, there is little joy on this supposedly fun trip to sea; other people have mentioned the Matango cast's similarity to Gilligan's crew, which appeared on television at the same time as this film's production, and there might be something to it, as the occupations of the two groups of people are remarkably similar. But there is very little humor involved in Matango, and most of the film involves brushfire disputes between various contingents within the survivors of the ship's eventual grounding on a forbidden-seeming deserted island.

I will not detail much of the film's plot beyond this -- for there are eerie surprises in store -- except to say that the television show of
which I am immediately reminded is Lost. The battles between the survivors, the lengths to which they must go to survive, the supernatural unease in the air (and the plot), and even a couple of character flashbacks all lead me to wonder whether J.J. Abrams grew up watching this movie, and was perhaps inspired in some small way on his journey to creating Lost, if only superficially. There is a marvelous shot of a ship which is found wrecked on the island, and its shredded and cobwebbed masts could easily be the ghost ship of anyone's nightmares. And gosh, the ship just happens to be a lost scientific research vessel loaded with possible answers to the island's many mysteries -- could this be the precursor to The Hatch?

For me, the trip to the island is strange and compelling enough to warrant my eventual purchase of the film. Honestly, I had no idea that the yacht-singing scene was from this movie -- as I had not seen it before, I had never connected one to the other. When it showed up, I was both elated because I had stumbled onto another missing piece on my Hollywood list, and afraid, because my assumptions from the scene were that the film from which it was derived just had to be cheesy. Cheesy or not (truly, the feeling is subjective), that this was the first film on my Psychotronic list left me feeling thrilled about entering into this venture.

This feeling would go away with the next film. How time flies when you are having fun...

Matango (1963) Director: Ishirô Honda
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

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