Insomniac Cult Movie Theater: Creature from the Black Lagoon & Matango
It’s that time of year again. When the days get short, the weather gets cold, Christmas is well in the rear window, and there’s not much to look forward in the bleak winter world. Yup, it’s time for another round of Andy’s good ol’ fashioned yearly seasonal depression.
And with seasonal depression comes the inevitable insomnia. However, my loss is your gain as one thing I am oft to do when having difficulty sleeping is watching selections from my ever increasing library of older movies from the 50s through the 70s. Especially those movies that have a distinct cult feel to them. Old Sci-Fi in particular is a favorite as there’s nothing like the delirium of no sleep to get into the mood to enjoy someone else’s fever dream of monsters in rubber suits, rocket ships, and in some cases rather clever social allegories hid behind tons of goofy looking make up.
So without further ado, here are two reviews of some of those movies from my sleepless nights in hopes of giving all of my Ghosts of the Stratosphere readers something interesting to read before they head off to the land of Nod.
Creature from the Black Lagoon
Of the two movies on today’s blog, this is probably the more well known by most people. Even if they have never seen the actual picture, the Gill Man as he’s now known is a heavy hitter among the most famous of the Universal Monsters, right up there with Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. In fact, given how much I like old black and white monster pics, even I’m a little ashamed with the fact that I hadn’t seen it until this year.
Originally presented in 3-D despite in being filmed in B & W, this movie tells the tale a scientific expedition into the Amazon to search for the fossil remains of lost amphibious humanoid who legend says might have lived deep within an feared section of the river called the Black Lagoon.
It turns out that the team finds more than just fossil remains as a living breathing creature still resides there and is evidently horny. Yes, he spends most of the movie lusting and creepily stalking the sole woman brought a long on the expedition as she swims around the Lagoon like something out of a Ester Williams movie.
I’m not sure whether he actually anatomically correct to do anything with her once he gets his scaly paws on her, but like a dog with an old sock, he definitely won’t let go. Maybe he just likes carrying her around, like a cat or a beautiful handbag, as that’s all he seems to do the couple times he captures her.
Anyways, the Gill Man then starts murdering members of the crew that stand between him and his brunette beauty, even going as far as barricading the exit of the Lagoon with broken trees to block the expedition’s escape by boat.
But in the end, the Gill man is riddled with bullets and seemingly dies in a showdown with the husband of his lady prize. Thus ends the story of this fishy foe…well until the made “Revenge of the Creature” a year later and then “The Creature Walks Among Us” a year after that.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
Again this was a movie that I should have watched a real long time ago I feel. Maybe it was because I thought it was going to be of poor quality given that it’s sequel “Revenge of the Creature” was the first movie MST3k ever riffed on during their years at the Sci-Fi Channel. That gave the franchise a bit of a dubious feeling to me as movies done on one of my favorite shows of all time never end up being very good.
However, this one is genuinely well made, with an extremely well designed monster, some interesting dialogue and characterization, and of course the absolutely breath taking underwater cinematography.
Done by William E. Snyder, it is simply something to behold, especially when you think about its all done with practical special effect work. For someone that likes movies made the old fashioned way, the amount of care, timing, and planning to shoot some of these scenes must have been staggering.
In fact, I think my biggest complaint with this entire movie is the fact that the actor that played the part of the Gill Man in the underwater scenes, Ricou Browning, is not credited at all for his tremendous work. I mean I think of the sheer physicality that would be required to do some of the aquatic acrobatics needed for some of these scenes is worth an award of some sort. Instead, this “unknown stuntman” suffered years of obscurity for his vital role in making one of the truly great monster movies of all time.
I mean there’s this scene in which he swims on his back in a full monster suit keeping time perfectly with actress Julia Adams who plays the part of our diving damsel in distress. That’s impressive, folks, I don’t care how you slice it.
Final Grade: B+
Yeah, this is somewhat of a no brainer. Unlike it’s sequels, this movie does succeed at being not only full of tension and adventure but also originality. The notion of an underwater monster rising from the deep to devour us is as old as humanity itself so it really does tap into some primal fears a bit. However, again the way in which it was shot, the strong special effects, and the iconic monster design of the Gill man all add up to a wonderful cinematic outing.
The only reason it’s not an “A” movie is that the motives of the Gill Man in lusting over the female lead are a little weak. It would have worked better if he was just out to kill everyone for entering into its territory. That would be more of an instinctual animalistic response and more fitting with the ferociously of the threat the Gill Man poses.
This 1963 horror film directed by Ishirō Honda looks like on the surface to be a standard B movie about the attack of the killer mushroom people. But just like Honda’s work on the original Godzilla movie is more of an allegory for the fears about nuclear age, Matango is also another exploration by Honda of much more darker themes than the film might imply at first.
In fact, the movie was almost banned in Japan after many took offense to the striking similarities between some of the people that started to transform into the mushroom creatures and the victims of atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So you can tell that Honda wants to tell a very particular story here and isn’t afraid to pull punches in doing so, but we’ll get to that part in my reflections section.
Anyways, at first the story seems to be mad ramblings of a lone psychiatric patient about a doomed sailing excursion he took with some of his friends some time ago. After a storm destroys most of their boat and the world thinks they are dead, they find themselves washed up on a mysterious island populated by all kinds of giant mushrooms. The mushrooms and the rot and decay that accompanies them is so prevalent that when the group eventually finds an abandoned tanker ship that also washed ashore, it’s near collapse despite it only being shipwrecked there a year before them.
The search of the tanker ship reveals it was an scientific expedition, to investigate reports of strange mutations in the area caused by nuclear testing, primary among them these enormous man sized mushrooms. Although the tanker and it’s supplies give the group a temporary respite in their quest for survival, soon their little community breaks down into ugly infighting as starvation begins to set in. Many on the island want to eat the mushrooms to survive but the Professor of the group forbids it after they see what seems to be grotesque half human half mushroom creatures wandering aimlessly around the island.
But one by one, they all succumb to the temptation of eating the deadly mushrooms and like those that have come before transform into the same creatures. That is all except the Professor who somehow escapes to one day become the long psychiatric patient espousing warning about the island of the deadly Matango and how he will never be free of that wretched place.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
At first, you are tempted to believe that this movie is a bunch of Kaiju fueled shlock similar to a lot of movies that might appear on MST3k as well, such as Gamera, or any of the Sandy Frank films like “Time of the Apes” or “Mighty Jack”.
In fact, actually when you start thinking about the collection of people that gets washed up on the shore of the island in Matango, it’s almost identical to the crew from the ill fated 3 hour tour from Gilligan’s Island. You have a skipper, a millionaire, a professor, a lanky guy in stupid looking hat. You even have a sultry “movie star” and the more wholesome innocent farm girl type. It was really uncanny how close the movie duplicated that group even though that show didn’t air on CBS until a year later in 1964. Who knows, maybe Sherwood Schwartz was a fan of this movie or watched once on the late late show while he was writing the pilot of the series.
However, if you actually watch this film, you find it’s a dark and disturbing picture of what hunger and desperation can do to common people, and the darker parts of human nature, such a lust, greed, social bigotry, and finally murder. Indeed, the tale of Matango is actually more of a cautionary tale about drug addiction disguised as a goofy monster movie about killer mushrooms. So you can imagine my shock when I finally realized what I was actually watching, and in that shock I couldn’t really look away.
I mean sure some of the parts by modern standards are hokey and dated, the story drifts a bit from time to time, but the base premise is terrifyingly real. It’s at it’s core a story of privileged yet aimless young adults cast adrift in a deadly Sargasso sea of their one desires, and watching each of them succumb to tasting the forbidden fruits before transforming like so many that have came before into the monsters they once feared. I mean, it’s the whole “white suburban kids getting mixed up with narcotics” tale that’s at the heart of the opioid epidemic right now.
I feel like in this age of Hollywood where nothing is a new idea and everything is a copy of something from the past, this movie is begging to be remade. And if some one had the cajones to do it with again the focus being the self destructive power that drugs can have on those that are lost and broken deep inside, it could be incredibly moving cinema, even if it stars mushroom tip penis monsters fighting Gilligan and his gang.
Final Grade: B-
I will say that the movie does take a little while to get going which is the main reason it dropped in grade as far as it does. However, once it gets settled into the mysterious island motif and its more disturbing and stark portrayals of the lengths humans will go to survive, it actually becomes quite a gripping little movie. I can understand why in some sub sections of cinema buffs, this obscure tale of fungi mutants is somewhat of a cult movie diamond in the rough.
Honestly, it’s more of a psychological horror film than a goofy monster flick, and a huge departure from some of Honda’s other more fun and kitschy pics like Mothra or King Kong vs. Godzilla. I will say it did a lot to renew my faith in that old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and I’m not sure I’ll ever dismiss another Japanese monster movie again as only out dated camp that’s usually only good to riff on after you’ve had a couple beers. You never know when you might have another Matango on your hands.