"Abracadabra, I sit on his knee. Presto, change-o, and now he's me! Hocus Pocus, we take her to bed. Magic is fun...when you're dead."
I remember repeatedly hearing this poem on television ads spoken by a terrifying ventriloquist dummy that looked and sounded an awful lot like Anthony Hopkins. I was 15 years old at the time, a couple years shy of being able to attend an R-rated movie by myself, but luckily, my mother enjoyed taking me to see thrillers like this one, Magic.
Released nationwide on November 8, 1978, Magic received mostly positive reviews from critics. In fact, Gene Siskel ranked it #9 on his list of the 10 best films of 1978. The movie is "certified fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes at 83%. As usual, however, a few dissented, claiming it was a bloated rehash of one of the segments from the 1954 British classic, Dead of Night, which also featured a ventriloquist dummy.
During its theatrical run, it earned $23.8 million at the box office. To put that number in proportion, it was the 23rd highest-grossing of the year. (Adjusted for inflation, that is about $87.5 million in 2014.) The box office champion for 1978 was Grease at nearly $160 million. This was the year that Halloween set records for an independent film by earning $47 million. Magic was the 4th highest-grossing horror movie, following Damien: Omen II at $26.5 million and Invasion of the Body Snatchers at $25 million.
So how well does it hold up nearly 36 years later? Very! It is definitely dated by specific content, but not with the overall story, so Magic exists not only as an entertaining movie, but also as a nice time capsule of the mid-to-late 1970s. When explaining the career plan he has hatched for his client, Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) states that it's "the same low-key approach we gave Steve Martin last year. Tom Snyder, Mike Douglas, all leading to Carson. If he asks you back..." That's a lot of fun for someone familiar with the personalities mentioned.
Otherwise, it's a timeless tale of split personality or, since it's never actually explained in the movie, possibly demonic possession of an inanimate object. Magic was billed as "A Terrifying Love Story", apparently wanting to focus on the relationship between Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins) and Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). But for me it has always been about the relationship between Corky and Fats, his creepy doll. Peggy Ann is just the catalyst for the really good stuff that happens.
Living under the threat of constant disappointment from his dying father, Corky is a sad sack of a magician, barely maintaining the attention of audiences at a seedy New York nightclub. But a year later, he's a rising star due to the addition to his act of an X-rated ventriloquist named Fats. When a required medical exam pushes him to his emotional limit, Corky and Fats head to the Catskills where he rekindles his feelings for Peggy Ann. This unleashes jealously in Corky's alter ego, leading to bloodshed.
Magic was the 13th theatrical motion picture in Anthony Hopkins's career and he's mostly terrific. However, I don't think he's at his best yet. Too often he makes the jump between calm and soft spoken to unhinged and ranting without any transition in between. There's no doubt, though, that the role was good practice for his most chilling performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs 13 years later. (In one eerily prescient scene, Corky offers Peggy Ann a glass of hearty burgundy. "It's very medicinal," he says. It reminded me of the famous line from Lambs, "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.")
The performances of the co-stars are more perfect, particularly that of Burgess Meredith. Wearing sunglasses indoors and chomping cigars, he's still in Rocky mode. "That's why they call me the postman - I deliver." But at times he's quieter than Mickey was in Rocky. He's part of one of my favorite scenes ever in a horror movie. Realizing that Corky has some serious psychological problems, he challenges him to go 5 minutes without making Fats talk. It's a brilliantly staged and acted sequence with nearly unbearable suspense and fatal consequence.
From there it's downhill for the characters and a downhill ride on the rollercoaster of a movie that is Magic. It's dark and it's scary and you're not sure what exactly is going to happen in the end. Supposedly directing it as a way to earn cash to make his pet project, Gandhi, Richard Attenborough works outside his usual genre, but with terrific results. Written by Hollywood legend William Goldman, based on his novel, I don't particularly like the way it ends. It's a little bit of a twist, but I'd rather have been left wondering about Peggy Ann's fate. At the very least, the final freeze-frame shot is unnecessary.
Regardless of my nitpicking, I love Magic. I could watch it over and over again and continue to enjoy it every time. I wouldn't recommend every movie from this era, but this is a must-see from any era. It was one of my favorites from my teenage years and remains one of my favorites today.