Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Halloween 2014: October 8
Attack of the Mushroom People
If you were to rank all of the Toho monster movies based on how big their cult following is, the “Godzilla” movies would obviously be at the top, followed by other well-known creature features like “Rodan” or “Mothra.” True obscurities like “Half-Human” or “Space Amoeba” would be near the bottom. Somewhere in the middle would be “Matango,” a film with a growing following among monster kids. For years, the movie was laughed off because of its ridiculous American title, “Attack of the Mushroom People.” If you look pass that goofy title, you’ll find a strange, unnerving film.
Told in flashback by the lone survivor of a shipwreck, the film beings with seven vacationers sailing across the ocean on their yacht. When the waters turn choppy, the mix of entertainment industry insiders, college students, and sailors quickly find themselves lost at sea. The boat drifts onto a strange island, obscured by fog. There’s no food on the island, leading to much in-fighting among the lost travelers. What there is plenty of are mushrooms, some of them as big as people. Though reluctant to eat the strange fungus at first, starvation causes the shipwrecked crew to eat the mushroom which leads to unpredictable, bizarre, and terrifying side effects.
“Matango” is also unusual for a Japanese horror movie because of the themes it addresses. The story, of shipwrecked vacationers trapped on an unexplored island, is right out of English adventure literature of the 1800s. The film is not particularly character focused. The cast is defined mostly by archetypes. The credits even list them by their descriptions, such as “Singer,” “Sailor,” “Student,” “Writer” and so on. The way loosely-defined people are isolated in one location and picked off by a monster recalls the old dark house movies of the thirties and predicted the slasher flicks of the eighties. “Matango” gives lip-service to the hallmarks seen in Toho’s other monster flicks. It’s suggested that the malicious fungus might be the result of nuclear radiation. However, the movie is more interested in mystery and suggestion, making it less like a kaiju film and more like a traditional Japanese ghost story. That “Matango” is atypical among Ishiro Honda’s genre films shouldn’t come as a surprise. The script was adapted from the story, “The Voice in the Night” by English author William Hope Hodgson.
The mushroom people of the title are easily the most fascinating portion of the film. Along with “Eyes Without a Face” and “The Manster,” “Matango” is an early example of the body horror genre. After eating the island’s mushrooms, the inhabitants begin to… change. They are first affected mentally. The first side-effect of eating the mushrooms is euphoria, ironically recalling the chipper opening. Slowly, fungus starts to sprout on the skin. The effect is disturbing and disgusting and, in all likelihood, was meant to evoke radiation burns. More mushrooms grow on the skin until, as seen at the end, people transform into shaggy beasts, their heads replaced with huge caps. The costumes could potentially come off as silly, and have from time to time, but the film treats them with utmost seriousness. When the remaining uninfected human is surrounded by the mushroom people, the scene is creepy as hell. This is partially due to Honda’s frantic direction and Sadao Bekku’s nervous, jittery score.
Richard Franklin is a director I keep meaning to explore more. As part of the Australian New Wave, he made cult thrillers like “Patrick,” which I saw years ago and remember vaguely liking, and “Road Games,” which I really need to get to some day. Franklin’s big break in the U.S. came with “Psycho II,” a clever continuation and as good of a sequel as the original could have ever gotten. After that, you’d expect Franklin’s career to take off, right? But it never really did and that might be the fault of “Link,” which was dismissed by critics in 1986 and sank at the box office. Yet I’m a sucker for a good animals-run-amok flick and, when I saw “Link” at Monster-Mania this past weekend, just had to pick it up.
In a mansion nestled in the Scottish countryside, anthropologist Dr. Steven Philips has been training apes to act civilized. He lives with three apes, a young chimp named Imp, Imp’s aggressive mother Voodoo, and the orangutan Link, Philip’s crowning achievement. Link dresses in a butler’s uniforms, tends to the house, knows how to light matches, and even communicates with Philips using a simple computer. However, when young zoology student Jane Chase moves into the mansion, it throws the balance of the strange family off. Link turns on his master, does everything he can to isolate Jane in the house, and terrorizes her.
Despite these successful moments, “Link” has an uncertain tone. Richard Franklin seems to be going for humor a few times. The Kinks’ “Apeman” is winkingly used a few times throughout. Jerry Goldsmith’s electronic score recalls an organ-grinder’s chirping, which frequently undoes any attempt to build suspense. Link’s behavior is, at times, pushed to far. When the orangutan is pushing a van over a cliff or triumphantly lighting a cigar, you wonder if the film is going for camp. Yet some sequences come very close to genuinely frightening. Franklin’s skillfully employs first-person-perspective during a chase scene across the mansion’s lawn. His quirky direction includes some interesting tracking shots. The script sputters some in the last act, when Jane’s boyfriend and his friends drive up to the mansion. The story works much better when its about a single woman trying to survive against a dangerous animal.
“Link” is about as uneven as its reputation suggests but, at its best, is fascinatingly unexpected. The ending, which reveals a previously-thought-harmless chimp as anything but, is a nicely mean, ironic joke and a good example of what Franklin did well. When going for flat-out scares, “Link” works fairly well. When going for comedy, it becomes off-putting. The two elements don’t mix well either. Perhaps if the film was more self-assured in its weirdness or more confident in its scare-factor, it could have been a classic. As it is, “Link” monkeys around a little too much. (Sorry again.) [6/10]
On a Deadman’s Chest
Though it never attracted name-directors the way, say, “Masters of Horror” did, occasionally “Tales from the Crypt” episodes were directed by popular filmmakers, like William Friedkin lensing “On a Deadman’s Chest.” The episode revolves around a heavy metal band. When the lead guitarist gets married, his relationship with the front man starts to fall apart. The lead singer obviously doesn’t like the why the marriage is changing his best friend, band mate, and roommate. In time, he plots to kill the woman. Feeding on this murder is a magical tattoo he gets that seemingly has a mind of it, showing his inner-most, darkest thoughts.
“On a Deadman’s Chest” is another aggressive, violent, mean-spirited episode of “Tales from the Crypt.” It’s not too difficult to see what attracted Friedkin to the material. The story’s theme of misdirected macho rage fits in pretty well with “Cruising” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” It’s also not difficult to read a homoerotic subtext into the episode. Danny and Nick are introduced playing on stage together, shirtless. The bond the two has pushes past typical friendship into something deeper. Danny’s rage at his friend’s new relationship can pretty easily be read as romantic jealousy. The episode’s sole murder scene, where Danny smashes Scarlett’s face against a glass shower door, treats violence in the same brutal way many of Friedkin’s films do. The magical tattoo premise is mostly an afterthought but does provide some nasty, body-horror at the very end. The cast, like Yul Vazquez or Paul Hipp, are pitched at a constant hysterical level. Tia Carrere, playing an amusing variation on her “Wayne’s World” role,” and the late Heavy D as the voodoo-practicing tattoo artist, are more relaxed and entertaining. In addition to its graphic violence, “On a Deadman’s Chest” is also loaded with sex and nudity. It’s a heavily exploitative episode but one that has fun with its content, both the explicit and subtextual type. [7/10]
The opening narration of “Avatar” makes the episode seem more prescient then it actually turns out to be. Jack, instead of Fiona, talks about how easy it is for some people to become obsessed by virtual worlds and how their life inside an online video game can take over. Instead of following this thread down a worthy rabbit hole, “Avatar” gets incredibly goofy. While Fiona is staying with an aunt in New York, Jack and Cary watch after her computer. After opening an e-mail intended for Fi, Molly, Jack, and Cary are sucked into a digital world. Soon, they realize a young boy named Jordon is responsible for this situation and the virtual world that trapped Fiona’s family was meant to trap her instead.
“Avatar” does an interesting thing by putting its main character into the background. Fiona only appears in a few scenes and is off in another location for the whole story. It’s a good thing Molly, Jack, and Cary are all well-developed characters by this point. Beyond its promising start, “Avatar” comes off as especially cheap. Most of the episode is confined to the tour bus sound stage, as the characters bound around green-screen locations. (This, ironically, makes the fantastic virtual world seem incredibly mundane.) When Molly confronts Jordon, she explains the episode’s themes rather bluntly, that manipulating someone into loving you is not the same thing as them loving them. This is unusually lazy for “So Weird,” which is normally much better at enacting its themes organically. The best moment in the episode comes when Jordan reveals to Molly and the boys that he knows so much about Fiona because she’s uploaded pictures and stories about her entire life to her website. And all of this before “cyber-stalking” or “social media” were even things. Though it has some interesting ideas, “Avatar” mostly comes off as an episode made to save some time and money. [5/10]