This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of one of my favorite movies: “Attack of the Mushroom People.” It’s sort of “Gilligan’s Island” meets “Little Shop of Horrors” with a touch of “Nosferatu.” First released in Japan in August 1963 under the title “Matango,” the film had a limited run in American theatres as “Attack of the Mushroom People” two years later; before appearing on American television shortly thereafter. I saw it on TV one summer afternoon in the mid-1970s, during my grade school years, and took an instant liking to it. That was around the same time I first read Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire.” A woman who worked with my mother convinced her I was mature enough to read that book, so my mother let me. And, I developed a lustful fascination with the book. Thus, commenced my yearning for the darker sides of life and – in case you were wondering – explains a lot about me.
“Mushroom People” begins quietly. A psychiatrist is summoned by a colleague to a Tokyo mental hospital. They’re perplexed by a new arrival; a young man recently plucked from a boat floating aimlessly off the Japanese coast. He mumbles incoherently; apparently the only survivor of an ill-fated pleasure cruise. He’s quarantined and speaks from the shadows of a dimly-lit room. But, he finally starts to relay his story; taking us back…back to when it all started on a bright, sunny day. He and some friends had decided to take a brief trip aboard a yacht. An unexpected storm (as if there’d be any other kind) swamps the vessel and slams it onto the shores of an island. The tale takes an ominous turn when one of the men announces that he can’t find the island on any of his maps. Things get creepier, though, when the castaways happen upon the wreck of an old ship not far from their damaged yacht. They decide to take refuge aboard it and are surprised to discover journals left by the crew. The journals reveal something even more mysterious: the island is shrouded in fog most of the year. And, they also offer a warning: don’t consume any of the mushrooms that grow on the island! No, don’t! Seriously! Don’t! Aw, hell – you know that warning comes too late. But, it gets worse – much worse. The assemblage soon has the collective feeling that they’re being watched. They begin hearing strange sounds in the night and think they see movement in the thick foliage. The movie score – heavily laden with organs and water phones – tells you every step is one movement closer to disaster. Then, all hell breaks loose, and the term ‘magic mushrooms’ takes on a more perverted connotation.
I like the movie in the same twisted way I like “Barbarella,” which came out five years later. It’s pure campy sci-fi stuff. You can’t take it seriously, despite the facial expressions of the performers. But, I’m certain the cast and crew of such films have fun with it during production. As a writer, though, I’m naturally curious about the state of mind the original scribes were in when they conjured up the story. “Barbarella” was based on a French comic strip. I can only surmise the screenplay for “Attack of the Mushroom People” was composed by some hermit with a vengeance against humanity. I can empathize. We writers are a curious lot, but we can also be dangerous. Trust me.
As silly as the plot sounds, this is one movie I’d definitely like to see remade.