Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 8

Matango (1963)
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.

The biggest attribute “Matango” has is its fantastic atmosphere and its genuinely eerie setting. The opening credits are sunny and carefree, the vacationers having fun on their boat, the titles projected on the white sails. As soon as they arrive on the island, that tone completely reverses. “Matango” is shrouded in fog. Vague images appear out of the mist, like the trees of the forest or the derelict ship, which becomes the setting for most of the film. The creaky floorboards of that ship - which make noise anytime some one walks on them -  or the always open portholes - perfect for strange creatures to peer in through - increases the film’s unsettling environment. Birds avoid the island and the wreckage of multiple ships wait just beneath the waves. This setting is enhanced by the film’s use of color. The strange experiments found on the abandoned boat are often bathed in red or yellow. The forest, especially after the mushroom people reveal themselves, feels truly alien, like another world. “Matango” is one of those movies that could be watched without sound and be just as effective, based on the creepy visuals alone.

“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. 

“Matango” stands out against Ishiro Honda’s films for another reason too. His usual theme of global unity and humanity banding together is nowhere to be seen. In fact, “Matango” is actually downbeat and nihilistic. The film is, primarily, a survivalist story. As soon as they arrive on the island, the characters begin to plot against each other. They steal and horde food. They conspire against one another. An important sequence has Kasai, the owner of the yacht, threatening the women, saying they never belonged on the trip in the first place. The affection of the two women provides a lot of drama in the middle section and is a good example of how the cast squabble, instead of focusing on surviving. In time, they turn on each other, with guns and knives. Some of these elements might be slightly tedious to those familiar with survival stories like this. Yet it builds into “Matango’s” chilling finale.

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.

The final scene has the sole survivor wondering if humanity is truly any better then the mushroom people. This speaks to “Matango’s” uncharacteristically downbeat tone. Like the later “Night of the Living Dead,” it suggests that people are more of a danger to themselves then the monsters outside. It’s offbeat premise, unnerving special effects, and eerie direction makes the film a highly effective horror film. Kaiju fans who have never seen it before are in for a pleasantly nasty surprise. [8/10]

Link (1986)

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.

All of the apes in “Link” are played by the real deal, which takes the film a surprisingly long way. The film emphasizes the raw power of the apes early on, when a baby chimp can’t be pulled out of its cage. Knowing how dangerous the primates are makes the early parts of “Link” a slow-ticking suspense machine. You know that Link and his cohorts are going to attack in time and it’s just a matter of when. When the titular orangutang is introduced in a, rather literal, monkey suit, carrying around people’s luggage, you feel his humiliation. The way Dr. Philips’ treats the animals has an unsettling affect. He scolds a full-grown chimpanzee like it was a child, and not an animal that could bite his face off. When the ape-shit hits the fan in the second half, “Link” features some successfully intense sequences. Link pulls a man down a well, tears an arm through a mail slot, punches a hole through a door, and displays his raw power. The animals are surprisingly good actors, conveying a lot with their faces and body language.

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.

Probably the biggest problem “Link” has is its leading lady. Elizabeth Shue seems very uncomfortable with the material. Her line reading is flat throughout. When things really go bananas (Sorry) in the final third, she never conveys a true sense of panic or fear. Her delivery of one line, describing Dr. Philips’ fate, is so care-free tha it’s almost funny. The character doesn’t come off as very smart either, since it takes her far too long to realize her employer is dead. Maybe the sexual aspect of the story didn’t sit well with her… That’s right, it’s implied that Link’s murderous rage is spurned by Jane rejecting his romantic advancement. While preparing for a shower, and stripping nude, Jane notices that Link is watching her. The ape then stripes his own clothes off and presents himself to her. A better movie probably could have taken this idea to some really intriguing, perverse places but this winds up being another weird element that makes up “Link’s” weird stew.

“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]

Tales from the Crypt: 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]

So Weird: Avatar

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]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

A very different Toho Sci-Fi/Horror entry. "Matango" is dark and ugly. The characters are loaded with flaws and can never be counted on to do what you'd expect them to do. This offers up some fun in that there are arguments and situations that quickly escalate into life and death situations. And the weird part is, there's seldom a monster around that's stirring the problem pot.

More often than not, the crew and guests of their shipwrecked yacht fight for food and control on a strange deserted island. The only real rule is 'Don't eat the mushrooms'. While the mushroom threat sort of reveals itself earlier in the movie, the rather creepy mushroom people don't take front and center until about and hour or more into the run time. And yes, the ending scenes do get sort of creepy.

This doesn't fit the usual Toho creature feature template. It's odd and it's different and is more of a tale of survival than a battle with beasts. (6/10)