Monster Bites - Growing on You

MATANGO (1963)

Like a lot of oldschool Toho movies there's something that gets lost when they're given another title. Names like Fungus of Terror and... Attack of the Mushroom People. Oh brother. In most cases of course these would probably be quite apt, but here it's not quite a good fit for the material at hand. Ishirō Honda had just finished Godzilla vs. King Kong marking the big fella's first foray into full colour. However this is a drastic change of pace in terms of the tone and the overall style. At its core this is still island mystery b-movie and a film about people eating mushrooms that have some very bad side effects. But it's certainly not another light hearted monster romp.

The opening is told in retrospective as professor Kenji (Toho regular Akira Kubo) explains that all his friends were lost at sea during a boat trip, although he believes they're still alive. We're then introduced to our cast of characters, which admittedly is a problem because they're all so unlikeable. As well as the skipper and his first mate there's a writer, a singer, a college student, and also the guy wealthy enough to pay for the yacht and the voyage. They bicker and argue, and some of the men salivate over the two women on board while at the same time declaring this vessel is no place for a female. It's par for the course unfortunately as these character traits will be amplified when things go awry.

Events soon do of course take a turn for the worse as they hit a storm and the boat is wrecked by the weather. Without any means of directing themselves or even being sure of their location they drift until the boat reaches a strange island. It seems like a stroke of luck at first, but this place doesn't seem to have any wildlife and is always covered in fog. Birds are seen avoiding the land and although there are a few things to collect as food the only local fauna is a kind of mushroom that could be poisonous and is avoided. Later they do manage to scrounge up a few roots and some turtle eggs, but otherwise it's a rather desolate setting.

The best part of the first act is this investigation as the survivors come across another much older shipwreck, and find that it's full of weird scientific equipment and everything is covered in mould. Maybe it's just me but this is a far creepier idea than any sort of monster attack, and it's an atmospheric set piece that fuels the uneasy mood of the whole story. Ghost ship locations are nothing new of course, but there's certainly an added layer to the idea in this case. Quite literally. Unfortunately none of the characters get killed this early on and the place is cleaned up far too quickly considering the amount of rot growing everywhere.

The bickering however is made worse by the situation and the middle of the story is where this starts to drag as people begin to get hungry for more than just food. They argue, they slack off work and the pull guns on each other. In some cases they resort to stealing rationed food or sneaking into the woods where the suspect mushrooms are growing. The logbook of the older ship suggests that they effect the mind, but it's all pretty vague beyond yet another suggestion that they were researching atomic radiation. It's never clear if there's a source for this possible mutation of life nearby or if it has anything do to with the place itself. It mainly seems like a graveyard for ships because of the sea currents and weather.

Finally when something less than human boards the vessel late one night we get a look at what could be one of the previous crew members, but it's weirdly anticlimactic and the scene just ends when the gang sees what might be a person. However there are moments that are effective and the whole setup with everyone going stir crazy and acting selfishly is fairly effective. Even if the time they're actually stuck on the island seems rather brief. Fortunately this is all building to the last twenty minutes or so in which the tension comes to a boiling point and things really get crazy.

The climax is a hallucinatory nightmare full of weird imagery and eerie locations as the reality of what is going on is revealed. It's more body snatchers than fun sci-fi action, bringing a new perspective to the phrase you are what you eat. Despite a few rubbery looking costumes in a couple of shots it's certainly a departure from the silliness of giant monsters and flying saucers, showing that Honda was just as adept at jumping between this kind of thing in one project to family friendly fare in another. The middle of the story is sometimes patience testing, but the last few sequences and the melancholy conclusion are worth the wait.



Now then onto something far less heavy going, but also far less consistent. Another tale of alien visitors wearing motorcycle crash helmets, this is also a story about a race of guys from space who want Earth women. The 1950s science fiction craze in a nutshell. There's no way to take any of this seriously of course, it's all about what kind of absurd trimmings the film makers will bring to the table when telling this kind of story. In this case a lot of primary colours and laser battle effects. Perhaps too many?

The opening of the story shows us the power of this nefarious band of galactic losers as they unleash earthquakes on the world before a giant robot climbs onto the surface. A ridiculous drilling machine with legs, it rampages across the countryside before fighting against the military. In the biggest twist the army actually wins for once and the machine is thrown into a ravine and smashed. Beyond this things settle down, and while it's still a colourful invasion story it never quite gets back up to the same kind of spectacle seen in the first set piece.

The aliens don't want to eradicate us, though they know they can. They just want to show off and threaten the human race into compliance. It doesn't stop them kidnapping people though. As things progress it all becomes a bit repetitive unfortunately as the alien base, a big white dome, is bombed over and over again while it shoots back with ray weapons over and over again. This is the film's undoing as it becomes obvious that the intriguing action from the first act isn't going to make a come back. It has a lot of fans and there are some fun moments and a few great sets full of neon tubes. But overall it's not amongst the best entries in the Toho back catalogue.