There is a recent documentary entitled Fantastic Fungi (2019) which is narrated by Brie Larson (1989-) and while it’s probably a fantastic adventure through the world of different fungi on the planet – there are a few narrative feature films that fascinate me possibly more since I have first seen them. Surprisingly, there just isn’t very many fungi movies but the ones that do exist I find alluring and engrossing. They’ve grown on me!
Let’s start in the middle somewhere with the Japanese movie Matango (1963) aka Attack of the Mushroom People.
“The steps are slimy, it’s fungus,” says one of the cast members of Matango, which is a kind of mushroom, as they climb some steps in an abandoned ship. They are shipwrecked on a remote island where giant fungi grow, their yacht having been caught in a storm.
The castaways are short on food and the cache of Spam they find in this other shipwrecked boat won’t last forever! Just don’t eat the local mushrooms!
But someone already has and this woman says: “Once you start, you can’t stop!”
Yes, they are addictive and even the mushrooms on the island move around as if they have legs of their own and were once human.
“They’re now mushrooms,” says the hero about those who have tasted forbidden mushroom flesh.
And we learn there is no help for those who have tasted it…
Matango may take a while to get to the island but once they’re there, it’s not a bad movie and a cautionary tale to anyone who may mix up mushrooms with toadstools in real life, among other things!
But a fungus movie that threatens the world is the best fungus movie. And Unknown Terror (1957) aka The Unknown Terror is one of those movies. Low-budget that it is, this film is set in South America in a remote village where there exists a cave…
The stars of the film are John Howard (1913-95 heart failure), who was in the Bulldog Drummond features of the late 1930s, Paul Richards (1924-74 cancer) who some may recognise as a mutant from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Mala Powers (1931-2007 leukemia) who probably peaked opposite Jose Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950).
The Unknown Terror was directed by what must be a Quentin Tarantino favourite, Charles Marquis Warren (1912-90 heart aneurysm), or at least Tarantino homages him with the Samuel L. Jackson character Major Marquis Warren in his film The Hateful Eight (2015).
The Unknown Terror more or less kicks off with the King of the Calypso Sir Lancelot (1902-2001) singing a song at a party in the United States…
Lancelot’s song Shame and Scandal was used to underline the Holland family’s apparent disgrace in I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and he made his mark there as a singer in that highly successful film.
And so, Sir Lancelot is used as the carrier of a message in his song used in The Unknown Terror. While the black-tie audience listen politely, he sings: “Man must suffer to be born again” through several choruses… and then an Indian from a South American village is called on stage to decipher its meaning and tell them where The Cave of the Dead is. It was really just a religious song and the native declines almost in horror – until he is bribed to show Howard, Richards and Powers where this cave is, as one of their friends was last heard of entering it and then disappeared.
At the South American village, the three encounter a balding doctor who has lived there “forever” and he has a habit of collecting “fun-jeye” which he pickles in jars along with the cooked fruit that he favours as well.
Eventually, the two men are taken to The Cave of the Dead. They descend some 200 feet and discover a cavern where strangely deformed Indians attack them… Later on, with Howard injured, Richards returns with Powers and it’s then that a strange fungus is unleashed, growing at an unprecedented rate… Trapped in the cave with the “fun-jeye” threat – you seem to die if you get engulfed by it – Richards and Powers ponder how they may escape as the entrance has been blasted shut by a nasty native!
With special effects that look like someone’s washing machine or bubble bath has overflowed along with liberal doses of shaving cream… The Unknown Terror reaches a reasonably good climax and those who like movies which are set in caves may like the sets and special effects… But it has the stain of ultra-low budget which no detergent, no matter how bubbly, can remove! I like it anyway.
Then there is the cheap, cheap Mutiny in Outer Space (1965) which will take us out of orbit for a spell. It’s cast has a couple of interesting actors, as it tells of a space station where upon a fungus being found on board, leads to a general revulsion for quarantine by some. Something not uncommon in the world of Covid these days!
“You know what that could mean, Major Towers?,” says one officer, who obviously thinks the whole thing is a conspiracy, or maybe not: “We’ve got to spray the whole station with fungicide.”
It has already killed the captain as it has “literally eaten him up” which is “a pretty terrible sight”.
Yes, it’s some sort of flesh-eating fungus that has come from the moon and leaves an eyeball protruding from a mass of gory material that was the captain.
“Is there fungus, or not?,” asks Francine York (1938-2017 cancer), who is one of the more interesting actresses in the movie, as they peer at what looks like a hairy arm or leg under the microscope – but it really is something very deadly.
“That looks like some kind of fungus… if it is, we could be in a lot of trouble.”
Another doctor says: “I’m not as well versed in fungi as you are” upon discovering that if fungi enters the bloodstream it can kill.
So, this fungus from the ice caves of the moon is about to wreak havoc and it could wipe out the Earth if it ever reaches there.
Written by Arthur C. Pierce (1923-87), who had a boom period around this time with the United Pictures Corporation movies he wrote entitled Cyborg 2087 (1966) and Dimension 5 (1966), he also made a film called The Human Duplicators (1965). He had already directed Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1965) starring John Agar (1921-2002 emphysema).
Soon the space station in Mutiny in Outer Space faces self-destruction from within or annihilation by the authorities on Earth to save the planet from infection.
“The fungus, it could get loose,” is the line spoken before the actual mutiny on board the station. It happens! Or fungus happens!!
The fungus in this movie isn’t as terrifying as the one faced by the cast in The Unknown Terror because when it covers the outside of the space station it looks like it has been dipped in candy floss aka fairy floss. The direction isn’t as good either. The epic candy floss shot of the space station in space reminds me of, and could have influenced, The Green Slime (1968) with its endangered station covered by tentacled monsters.
As for the sound of the fungus dying, it is not new as it is a stock effect used when destroying the aliens inhabiting the corpses in Invisible Invaders (1959).
Mutiny in Outer Space was shot in six days at Producers Studio in Hollywood where many of the United Pictures Corporation films were made.
It was there that Pierce made The Human Duplicators as we go off course for a while. It was shot around the same time as Mutiny in Outer Space and also had the same director and producer Hugo Grimaldi (1912-98) although Pierce directed uncredited. The pair also produced the movies.
The Human Duplicators is about aliens who wish to infiltrate and build a colony upon the “advanced society of the planet” Earth as a part of their “galaxy domination program.” They send an agent played by Richard Kiel (1939-2014 heart attack), a few years after his appearance as Eegah! (1962). With a plan on the scale of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), it doesn’t take long for them to find someone advanced, which is a surprise… But there are scientists I guess who are smart – but not smart enough for these aliens! There’s a murder and the aliens are behind it…
Thank God that George Nader (1921-2002 heart failure) is around to investigate. He made this just before he had success with the series of Jerry Cotton films in Germany and his style in this movie is similar to the persona he used as Cotton.
The Human Duplicators was shot using Eastman Color and possibly the same lab to process as the United Pictures Corporation (UPC) movies because the colour has the same quality of those movies shot around the same time in the same studio. Certainly, similar stock music was also used for all of them.
“He’s a funny old guy who wants complete privacy, must be a famous doctor or something,” is the intelligence of the co-workers that Nader has to work with… So, in not time the world will be saved!
There’s a picture of what looks like Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! (1965) actress Tura Satana (1938-2011 heart failure) who Nader reckons he wouldn’t mind putting under surveillance. It’s credited to Tura’s sister Kim Satana who is a dead ringer, for sure, in her only screen credit.
Like the UPC films, The Human Duplicators uses Bronson Cavern albeit with a stock shot of stalactites and an animated bat which leads to an underground entrance. It is no wonder that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 have mercilessly lampooned this movie.
The film has an atmosphere a lot like UPC’s Castle of Evil (1966) in the mid-section and one underground stairway looks similar to one used in Dimension 5 (1966). I guess they just shifted the scenery at Producers Studio to make it look a bit different for each film.
Androids used in the devious plan shatter upon contact with the ground… Don’t ask why. My favourite line in the movie is when a policeman tells a rather upset blond Barbara Nichols (1928-76 liver failure) who can’t make up her mind if her voice is dumb Brooklyn, plain Brooklyn or just plain dumb: “Yeah, don’t try to talk now.”
Surprisingly, The Human Duplicators is one of writer Pierce’s better scripts and it goes to show the incestuous and intimacy of the UPC films with this one and to a lesser extent Pierce’s Mutiny in Outer Space.
Another one of the more interesting actors in Mutiny from Outer Space is Harold Lloyd Jr. (1931-71 effects of a stroke). He was the alcoholic and gay son of silent screen legend Harold Lloyd (1893-1971 prostate cancer). It is reported that Jr. would often have violent lovers and would return home to his father’s mansion battered and bruised after being bashed. Lloyd Jr. was out at a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable and so there was no doubt his film career would be unsuccessful as a leading man.
He starred in The Flaming Urge (1953), which could have been a pun for his homosexuality, about a man obsessed by fire who is suspected of arson. That film also stars other tragic thespians Cathy Downs (1926-76 cancer) and Jonathan Hale (1891-1966 gunshot to the head). Lloyd Jr. also appeared in Frankenstein’s Daughter (1959) and did cabaret performances. A talented singer, he released a song called Daddy Bird under the name of Duke Lloyd and apparently released an album the year he made Mutiny from Outer Space. It was the same year that the actor suffered a major stroke from which he never fully recovered and he died three months after his father in 1971.
The Flaming Urge is a very low budget movie and the only film by its director Harold Ericson (no info) and co-writer Ray Pierson (no info).
Lloyd Jr. is a tie salesman in a small-town menswear store where the very mention of “fire sale” cues dramatic music.
“I chase fires too,” says Hale, as the boss of the store Mr Chalmers, who relates to Lloyd about how he too lost jobs because of his affection for fires in buildings. At the very sound of a fire engine, Hale invites Lloyd Jr. to slide down his very own private fire pole and join him at the latest fire. Nice to have a kindred spirit.
As for the rest of the movie, the arsonist turns out to be someone trying to impress the boss. Lloyd Jr’s acting is adequate and while he resembles his father, he is no great screen presence.
That the producers go back to the silent era kind of suggests that nepotism was involved and that the movie was a one-off vanity production funded by Lloyd Sr. But, sadly, The Flaming Urge didn’t set the world on fire for Lloyd Jr and it shows its poverty row credentials with an appearance by actor Herbert Rawlinson (1885-1953 lung cancer) who died the same year only a day after shooting his last scenes for Ed Wood’s Jailbait (1954).
Another Lloyd Jr. film appearance, albeit a tiny one, is in the Mamie Van Doren (1931-) vehicle Girls Town (1959), which if it is related to Boys Town, it is a place where, if you don’t conform, the Alpha chick will violently bully you.
“One fungus among us,” says bad girl Gloria Talbott (1931-2000 kidney failure) in a fitting line, at least for this article, about Van Doren.
Girls Town has a cast you can’t resist which includes singers Paul Anka (1941-) and Mel Torme (1929-99 stroke) and of all people, the former mistress of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940 heart attack) and gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham (1904-88 congestive heart failure). And in it, Van Doren is an overaged juvenile delinquent sent to Girls Town for a crime which her younger sister committed.
Typical of the era, it has some nice songs by Anka and an appearance by The Platters. It’s okay, but I prefer director Edward Bernds’s (1905-2000 peacefully) Reform School Girl (1957) with Gloria Castillo (1933-78 oropharyngeal cancer) and Edd ‘Cookie’ Byrnes (1932-2020 natural causes).
Back to Francine York, who was in Mutiny in Outer Space and her other achievements in the world of low-budget cinema include Space Probe-Taurus (1965), director Larry Buchanan’s (1923-2004 complications of a collapsed lung) Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966) and Ted V. Mikels (1929-2016 colon cancer) The Doll Squad (1973), which could have inspired Charlie’s Angels with York playing a female operative named Sabrina like Kate Jackson (1948-) in that 1970s series.
“Always wondering if the next planet will be like the one before,” ends the ponderous opening narration of Space Probe-Taurus with a very succinct observation about why man bothers to try and leave Earth in the first place. Man needs to sort out his mess here before he goes on to destroy another planet.
This latest expedition into space shows that psychological testing wasn’t properly done beforehand as Francine York’s astronaut calls the captain a “fat head” with some malice before turning on her heel to enter the next room on the probe.
“Well it’s too late to turn back now,” says another astronaut just before they come into contact with an unidentified space ship.
They enter the ship and kill the lifeform on board and as one of the astronauts says quite sensitively: “The face was kind of a nightmare” while another says: “Was he ugly…”
The lifeform more than resembles the head used in David L. Hewitt’s (1939-) The Wizard of Mars (1965) and is in fact the same one. What a year for incestuous movies!
But it is the astronaut who makes the ugly crack who is the wisest when he says meeting with another lifeform will never end well: “One of us is going to be a minority group and then next thing you know… Whammo!… We’ll be trying to blast each other out of existence.”
This just underlines the opening spiel of the film in that the world is always going to be full of problems. Meanwhile, one of the astronauts dreams of being on Earth on a beach with a woman showing he’d rather be there than in space, while York gets sexually harassed by the same astronaut who literally won’t stop breathing down her neck.
Space Probe-Taurus is the only movie written, produced and directed by Leonard Katzman (1927-96) who had a long history as an assistant director in b-movies. He struck pay dirt in the late 1970s as the producer of the hit tv show Dallas (1978-91). He was also the nephew of Sam Katzman (1901-73) who produced Rock around the Clock (1956) and the special effects howler The Giant Claw (1957).
Again, Space Probe-Taurus was filmed at Producers Studio
York says when she sees what really is an honest to God ordinary crab although a giant one: “What a horrible looking creature.” It seems the spaceship is sent way off course and they have landed on a strange planet. They run across some humanoid underwater creatures and they’re pretty deadly – but it still turns out to be the planet they’ve been searching for the whole time!! I guess that the aqua-men are such a minority they’ll easily be wiped out of existence … as we do on this planet to the real natives. No worries, let’s start anew!!
While this film offers nothing particularly new, as a microcosm of humanity, it has some insight into itself and is watchable if not particularly memorable.
But I’ve strayed far off course from the fungus movies I was meant to be discussing in the first place. Space Master X-7 (1958) is my favourite fungi movie of all.
Written by George Worthing Yates (1901-75), who was a prolific sci-fi screenwriter that created several screenplays for Bert I. Gordon (1922-) including The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958), not to mention my favourite Tormented (1960). He also did screenplays for It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). He also wrote the story for them.
Space Master X-7 is his forgotten screenplay, which he wrote with Daniel Mainwaring (1902-77), whose credentials include Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Further credentials include the previously mentioned director Edward Bernds, who also made Queen from Outer Space (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959) on the coat tails of this movie. Not that much was spent on it, as it seems the screenplay didn’t inspire much funding for this threadbare production.
Space Master X-7 stars Bill Williams (1915-92 brain tumour) and former child actor Robert Ellis (1933-73 kidney failure) who died at the young age of only forty. Ellis was incredible as a young Buster Keaton type in the film April Showers (1948) and played Hotshot in Gidget (1959). His career obviously not thriving after the Jerry Lewis film Don’t Give up the Ship (1959), he retired in 1961 to concentrate on producing short films and to raise a family.
The movie is as relevant today as it was then, with its two main characters who are military personnel who must track down a fungus brought to Earth from the planet Mars which has escaped a laboratory. It’s deadly ever-growing spores threaten to turn Earth into a red and dead planet just like Mars.
Dubbed ‘Bood Rust’ by a scientist who has studied it, this scientist isn’t the nicest man in the world and his bio-security isn’t terribly good either at his home laboratory. His ex-wife has come to visit with some unfinished business and ends up taking spores of Blood Rust with her as she travels across the country. So, its relevant to the failure of stopping Covid.
“What I’d do to be working with him,” says a jug-eared Ellis, who has a Master’s Degree, about his former professor, despite him having “a streak of cruelty in him a mile wide.”
Yes, the professor dies as he is consumed by Blood Rust after his wife leaves in a huff.
The professor is played by actor Paul Frees (1920-86 suicide by painkiller) whose voice is iconic and narrated dozens of movies and was used in many cartoons. He had an uncredited role in The Thing from Another World (1950) as Dr. Vorhees. Any relation to Jason?
“This place must be completely destroyed… burn every stick of it – burn it to the ground,” are Frees dying words in an emergency call to the military.
Ellis saves a tape recording which shows that what they did end up burning was a “highly destructive fungus” which grows rapidly and “may be carried unwittingly by any person who has contact with the organic matter on their clothing or their skin.”
There are worse things than an outbreak of SARS-like bacteria after all!
The chase after the wife happens after they hear her argumentative voice on the tape.
Space Master X-7 shows just how human honesty is integral in the tracking down of infectious diseases or in this case Blood Rust. Dishonesty leads to further outbreaks and there are a lot of dishonest, or simply stupid, people in the world.
The wife thinks she’s implicated in something worse as the military are keeping a lid on the Blood Rust while putting out a description of her. She is played by actress Lyn Thomas (1929-2004) and she is hiding among the passengers on a flight to Honolulu with Ellis on board to hopefully find her before it’s too late.
She has changed her hair and clothes since her last sighting and this passage on the plane is the best part of the film as her luggage in the cargo hold is leaking ever-growing fungus. It may burst into the cabin area and force the plane down over the Pacific!
Bernds may not be a master of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock but the actors do what they can in the limited set of the plane.
This cheap black and white fungus movie isn’t the greatest show on Earth but the failure of the World Health Organisation to stop Covid gives this film new resonance should there be an even worse threat in the future. Frightened people do silly things like avoid the authorities… We may not be a dead planet quite like Mars yet and Blood Rust may look like a heavily topped cheese pizza but it is horrifying just the same. The film’s Airport (1970) like sky climax must have been inspired by the previous year’s Zero Hour! (1957) although this one is pure science fiction invention.
To finish with a flourish of “fun-jeye”, perhaps the ultimate fungus feature is the post-Apocalyptic zombie movie The Girl with all the Gifts (2016). Modern audiences will be more thrilled by this movie than by any of the previous ones I have mentioned.
Glenn Close (1947-) makes an unlikely appearance as a scientist who is using part-zombie children to find a cure for the fungal infection which has wiped out much of the world’s population. It has turned them into violent zombies in the same vein as 28 Days Later (2002). Like that film, this is a British production set in England.
Based on a novel by Mike Carey (1959-), who also wrote the screenplay: Carey is a gifted comic book writer who worked on X-Men Legacy among others. Sorry, I’m not up to speed on comics but The Girl with all the Gifts is a good screenplay which features Bond girl Gemma Arterton (1986-) and Paddy Considine (1973-) in the cast. The gifted performance in this film is from 13-year-old Sennia Nanua (2002-) as a young girl named Melanie.
Carey got a BAFTA nomination for his work and he won a British Screenwriter Award for Outstanding Newcomer. So, I’m really not imagining this is a good movie!
The CGI is in overdrive as it creates horrid zombies gathering en masse and also gives us a city which looks very genuine as it crumbles and decays beneath the overgrowth. I won’t say any more about this one. Just check it out, like you should get that fungal infection in your toe nail checked out… before it spreads and takes over the world… Too late!!