Column: From Strange and Distant Shores: Matango (1963)

By Orrin Grey

Matango (1963). Director: Ishiro Honda. Cast: Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Hiroshi Koizumi. Country: Japan.

When I was first approached about writing this column for Innsmouth Free Press, one of the first questions I asked was whether or not I would be given free rein to cover old movies as well as new ones, and when I asked that question, I had one movie foremost in my mind: Matango.

I remember reading about Matango many years ago on a movie review site somewhere. Back then, my interest in weird fiction was just beginning to solidify into its current state and the review had me at the words “mushroom people”. It wasn’t until I actually tracked the movie down for the first time that I learned it was an adaptation of one of my favourite weird short stories, William Hope Hodgson’s seminal fungus story “The Voice in the Night”.

Though it’s hard to imagine that Matango wouldn’t be worth watching (I already told you it’s based on a Hodgson story and that it’s got mushroom people), it’s also hard to imagine that it would be very effective. But it is.

It’s the kind of movie that’s difficult to get people to take seriously – at least, before they’ve seen it. First off, it’s from Toho Company and director Ishiro Honda, both best known for their Godzilla movies. Second, it is, as I mentioned, about mushroom people. Third, it is, in fact, sometimes known variously as Attack of the Mushroom People or Fungus of Terror, which, while sort of awesome, doesn’t necessarily instill confidence.

Surprisingly, though, it’s remarkably easy to take Matango seriously when you’re watching it. This is partly due to its basic adherence to the source material. While it pads out Hodgson’s story with additional characters and an obligatory-feeling reference to nuclear testing, it keeps fundamentally close to the basic facts, bleak themes, and haunting aesthetics of the original tale.

It looks better than you might expect, too. The sets are incredible, full of fungus-covered derelicts and mushroom-filled glades. And when the mushroom people, themselves, finally turn up, they’re not only some of the best rubber-suit monsters you’ll ever see, but they have to be heard to be believed.

On top of all that, there’s some of the usual survivors-turning-against-each-other drama, more than a dollop of body horror, and a framing device that would be right at home in Lovecraft. The end result is a surprisingly creepy and effective movie of weird horror, and one of my favourite monster films. Not half-bad for a company and a director best known for their city-smashing kaiju extravaganzas.

Bio: Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters. His stories of cursed books, mad monks, and ominous paintings have appeared in Bound for Evil, Delicate Toxins and, of course, at Innsmouth Free Press, among other places. He can be found online at www.orringrey.com.

Matango is available through Amazon.com