The “Most Appealing Movie With the Least Appealing Subject” prize on the festival circuit in recent months has surely been owned by “The Creeping Garden,” an improbably delightful documentary about — deep breath now — slime molds. Packaged to recall 1970s sci-fi classics (like “Phase IV” and the ’78 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), good-humored but not campy in its regard of some genuinely fascinating research, and full of trippy visuals, this science-fair bonanza would have been a midnight staple in the era of “The Hellstrom Chronicles.” Today, Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp’s feature will have to build its cult following primarily via download sales, though it certainly rewards bigscreen exposure. Following several festival dates and a brief U.K. theatrical run last year, it’s slotted to open at New York’s Film Forum in the fall.
Thriving mostly out of sight under rotting logs and other places where moisture and bacteria are plentiful, slime molds were long classified as fungi, and briefly as an animal form — because unlike most plant life, they not only grow but can move. (In laboratory settings they can “run” a petri-dish maze to get to a food source.) In fact, they are neither, but rather a weird and wonderful if little-studied part of Mother Nature. More than a thousand varieties have been recorded to date, assuming wildly different forms, though the U.K. types we see here are mostly bright yellow in color. They can live for decades, can “hibernate” in adverse circumstances, and have no brain, yet possess a kind of primitive intelligence that is capable of making decisions and surviving simple problems.
The directors approach their oddball subject from a number of different angles. Neglected by establishment scientists, slime molds have benefited from the curiosity of amateur enthusiasts, with dedicated forest roamer Mark Pragnell an unpretentious protagonist to whom the pic frequently returns. We also spend time with visual artist Heather Barnett, computer scientist Ella Gale, composer Eduardo Reck Miranda and others, all of whom have made unique uses of slime molds in their own creative research. It’s quite intriguing to hear Miranda “jamming” at the piano with musical sounds triggered by electrodes registering the emotional responses of slime molds to stimulate — though by this late point, the episodic film has slightly overstayed its welcome.
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Nonetheless, “The Creeping Garden” is much more entertaining than one could reasonably expect. The handsome widescreen presentation is highlighted by plenty of striking images in which molds’ movement (usually 1/20 of an inch per hour) is sped up through time-lapse photography. The drolly sci-fi tenor is furthered by a soundtrack of retro electronica, and onscreen titles styled after 1970s “futuristic” quasi-computerized typefaces.