Fantastic Fest 2023: Mushrooms Will Keep You Guessing Until the Very End

Image provided by Fantastic Fest

I had no idea what to expect from Mushrooms. The Fantastic Fest plot synopsis was about as bare bones as possible, but it did promise one thing. This film was supposedly a spellbinding mystery that would pay off in spades, and that was enough for me. I love slow-burn horror mysteries that leave your jaw hanging when the credits begin to roll, so I was instantly intrigued. I couldn’t wait to check this movie out, and after finally getting the chance to press play on my screener, I’m happy to report that it’s a mostly satisfying experience.

Mushrooms was written and directed by Paweł Borowski, and it stars Jędrzej Bigosiński, Maria Maj, and Paulina Walendziak. When the film begins, we see an elderly woman alone in the woods picking mushrooms. We don’t know who she is or why she’s out there, but she seems perfectly happy going about her work. Then, when she unexpectedly comes across an engaged couple who are in a bit of a pickle, everything changes.

The couple are dressed in ridiculous costumes that look like they came straight out of the 1700s, and the man explains that he and his fiance got their silly-looking clothes while hanging out with some friends who work at a theater. They drank a bit too much the night before, and their friends left them out in the woods by themselves. They ask the old woman to help them get to the nearest town so they can find their way home, but she’s understandably skeptical. The couple’s story is very suspicious, but after a few moments, she gives in and agrees to show them the way back to civilization.

From there, Mushrooms essentially becomes one big exercise in doubt and uncertainty, as you simply can’t be sure if these people are telling the truth. Do they really just need a helping hand, or are they actually trying to con this nice lady? What’s more, the woman herself is a bit questionable too. Is she really as harmless as she appears, or is there more to her than meets the eye? You have absolutely no idea, and up until the very end, that mystery will have you on the edge of your seat as you go back and forth trying to figure out just what is going on here.

See, the movie gives you very good reasons to think that both the couple and the elderly woman are going to end up being the bad guys of this story. For starters, the couple give each other some suspicious looks every now and then, and the man has to “heed nature’s call,” as he puts it, a bit too often. It very much seems like they’re up to something, so you don’t trust them for a single second.

But that doesn’t mean you completely trust the old lady either. Sure, she seems nice at first, but as Mushrooms progresses, you get the sense that there’s something sinister hiding behind her seemingly kind and gentle exterior. For instance, it quickly starts to feel like she’s leading the couple around in circles, so you begin to suspect that she has malicious plans of her own.

On top of that, the film has a couple of subtler motifs that appear to point in that direction as well. Most noticeably, there are a handful of times when the characters mention some poisonous mushrooms that look dangerously similar to edible ones, and you might start to think that the elderly woman is like these deadly fungi. Sure, she looks like she wouldn’t hurt a fly, but deep down she may actually be just as threatening as those tricky mushrooms.

Mushrooms poster

Along similar lines, Mushrooms also has a bit of a spider theme, and there’s even a scene where the old lady points out that spiders catch and kill all the vermin we don’t like. So again, it seems like this might be a low-key hint that the woman is catching these people in her insidious web with plans to torture or kill them later on.

My mind was spinning as I tried to piece all these clues together, and I kept forming and reforming theories about what was really going on. To the film’s credit, I was never able to make up my mind about which one I thought was right, so when I got to the third act, I really had no idea how the story would play out. I was on the absolute edge of my seat, and I couldn’t wait to find out the truth about these shady characters.

Then, when Mushrooms finally pulls back the curtain and lets you in on its secrets, I have to be honest, it’s a bit underwhelming. Granted, it’s by no means bad, so I wouldn’t say I disliked the ending. I mostly enjoyed it, but I just don’t think it’s quite as interesting as everything that leads up to it.

In particular, there’s an almost M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist here (and I mean that in a good way), and it feels like the filmmakers put a few too many of their eggs in that basket. It’s almost like they expected the twist to leave us stupefied, so they didn’t put quite as much effort into the rest of the ending (although I’m sure they worked equally as hard at every single scene in this film).

However, for me, that surprise didn’t hit nearly as hard as it was supposed to. Sure, it caught me off guard, and I did appreciate that. But it didn’t leave me with my jaw hanging, so like I said, I was a bit underwhelmed by this ending.

That being said, I do have to give Mushrooms a ton of props on a thematic level. I can’t get into any specifics without spoiling the movie, but I can say that the twist pays off on the poisonous mushroom motif in a surprising way. It’s not at all what I was expecting, and it gives the film a great message that’s both timely and timeless.

So on the whole, I had a really good time with Mushrooms. Sure, it’s not perfect, but the good in it far, far outweighs the bad. It’s a great horror mystery that will keep you on the edge of your seat right up until the end, so if you get a chance to see it at another festival or when it gets a general release, I highly recommend that you check this movie out.

Mushrooms had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 23, and it played again on September 26.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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