What feels like a lifetime ago but was, in actual fact, only a decade, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I co-edited a little anthology called Fungi that was about, well, I think the title makes it fairly clear. This was the culmination of a pretty much lifelong fascination with fungal creatures, on my part, and was specifically kicked off by Silvia and I chatting about Matango.
As part of the process of putting Fungi together, we created a database (now likely lost to the mists of time) of fungal stories, movies, and so on. It contained a few of my favorites, including William Hope Hodgson’s germinal short story, “The Voice in the Night,” as well as various adaptations of same, such as the aforementioned Matango. It also included more obscure favorites, such as the moldy corpses of Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin alongside things I had never read or seen.
Of those latter, the one that jumped highest on my personal list was The Unknown Terror, which has the distinction of maybe being the earliest fungal horror film, even beating the “Voice in the Night” episode of Suspicion by a year. What’s more, the fungal horror of The Unknown Terror is far from incidental. Not only is there a fungus-filled cavern, there are multiple fungus people, before all is said and done.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Unknown Terror was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, a guy best known for making Westerns. In fact, most of his other feature film credits occupy that genre, and he also helped to co-create the TV series Rawhide. Before he became a director or a screenwriter, though, Warren wrote stories for the pulps – a place where the plot of Unknown Terror would have been right at home.
Warren didn’t write this picture, however. The sole screenwriting credit belongs to Kenneth Higgins, whose only other horror credit is the jokey 1943 flick Ghosts on the Loose, starring Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids. Nowhere in the film’s credits or background is any reference to Hodgson, and yet any story that involves fungus turning people into things owes something to “The Voice in the Night.”
Though it was released as the front-half of a double-bill (with Back from the Dead, also directed by Warren), Unknown Terror was always going to be a B-picture. It was a product of Robert Lippert’s Regal Pictures, a production unit under 20th Century Fox created exclusively to shoot B-movies in Cinemascope, as a way to assure theatre owners that there would be plenty of features in that format.
As such, The Unknown Terror spends an unfortunate amount of its time on colonial fears of “native superstitions” or on lengthy caving sequences that call to mind MST3k jokes about rock climbing. Once they do finally reach the fungus cavern, however, it’s pretty great. Not only is the cavern itself full of cobwebby fungus that’s delightfully rubbery, it’s also home to several fungus people, who look sort of like lumpy Morlocks.
And all of that is before the fungus itself begins pouring down. It seems that the villainous doctor character, played by film heavy Gerald Milton, has discovered a type of fungus that grows incredibly fast. So fast, in fact, that you can watch it happen, represented in the movie by what look like thick soap suds being poured down the cave walls in what is actually one of the better set-pieces in all of ’50s horror.
The other interesting thing about The Unknown Terror comes far from the fungus cave, at the very beginning of the film, when we are treated to performances (including a theme song of sorts) by the “King of Calypso,” Sir Lancelot.
Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard, better known by his stage name Sir Lancelot, will be familiar to longtime readers and vintage horror fans for his appearances in several of Val Lewton’s classics from the 1940s, perhaps most notably I Walked with a Zombie. Here, he is performing a similar role more than a decade later, doing much of the heavy lifting required to convince us that this film takes place in the Caribbean while also providing exposition about the MacGuffin at the heart of the narrative.
“Down, down, down in the bottomless cave,” Lancelot sings, “Down, down, down beyond the last grave / If he’s got the stuff of fame / If he’s worthy of his name / He may get another chance but he’s never more the same / He’s got to suffer to be born again.”