Thursday, October 30, 2014

Magic (1978)

"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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Oh, Incredible Melting Man, how bad are you?  Let me count the ways…  Your budget is so low you can’t even afford to use stock footage of Saturn; instead, you use public domain images of the sun and a moon satellite.  Your script is so weak that the entire plot, according to Mystery Science Theater 3000, is that “a guy is melting.”  And you are ranked among the Bottom 100 list of films on the Internet Movie Database.  Yes, you are indeed a bad movie.

I knew that when I saw it at the Enid Drive-In, perhaps the last 1970s horror movie I remember seeing there.  I never watched it again… until now.  Guess what?  It didn’t get any better with age.  The sad thing is, I watched it recently on a Shout Factory Blu-ray and it looked incredible.  But isn’t there a saying about a pig in lipstick?

I’m going to be a little more generous than MST3K and IMDb by saying I think there’s the kernel of a decent plot at the heart of The Incredible Melting Man.  A “guy” goes to Saturn, is exposed to a solar flare through the rings of the planet and returns home to find he’s become a monster.  However, nothing is done with that plot.  Steve West (Alex Rebar) escapes the hospital and goes on a killing spree.  That’s it.  Why does he do it, though?

Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning) and General Michael Perry (Myron Healey) are hell bent on finding him.  Why, though?  Twice, there are clues about some reason they need to locate him by the next morning.  I guess that pays off in the end, but it’s not emphasized enough throughout the movie to make the story interesting.  And it’s not so urgent a matter that the two can’t stop and share a lovely dinner with Nelson’s wife, Judy (Ann Sweeny).

I don’t have as much trouble with the movie’s plot as I do with its execution.  Boy, is it badly directed and edited!  Scenes drag on and on.  A nurse runs down a long hallway… in slow motion.  A decapitated head floats down a stream… all the way down.  And we see characters climbing stairs… every flight?  Really?  Writer/director Williams Sachs seems to know nothing about building suspense.  Short scenes propel a movie forward.  Long scenes grind it to a halt.

The Incredible Melting Man is an odd mix of a movie.  Supposedly, it was intended as a parody of horror films, but during its production, it was decided to take a more serious approach.  The “funny” scenes that remain seem out of place.  Instead of adding humor, they add a stink to the entire production.  For example, a sequence where Judy’s mother and “friend” stop to pick lemons on the way to the aforementioned dinner is physically painful to watch.

And with an overall serious approach, lines that might ordinarily provide a little comic relief are instead simply groaners.  For example, “You mean he’s radioactive?” with the response, “Just a little bit” is just plain stupid in the context.  Conversely, serious lines become hilarious.  After tracking West with a Geiger counter, Dr. Nelson finds evidence in a tree that he’s been there, “Oh, God, it's his ear!”  Yep, it melted right off of him.

The makeup by Rick Baker is somewhat impressive.  However, there’s no progression in the melting process.  West is constantly dripping at the same rate and then all at once collapses in a heap next to a trashcan to completely disappear.  (Sorry, spoiler.)  It’s like his body is not just melting, but also producing fluids.  Otherwise, he’d be gone in the first five minutes.  (Supposedly, Rebar refused to wear makeup that would have shown a gradual progression.)

It also bugs me that Dr. Nelson keeps learning so much about the state of The Incredible Melting Man during his pursuit.  “He’s getting stronger all the time.”  “His mind is so decomposed now.”  “He seems to be getting stronger as he melts.”  How the hell does he know this?  Sure, there’s a string of bodies in his wake, but Nelson has no real evidence on which to base his statements of fact.

There are a couple scenes in The Incredible Melting Man that I actually enjoy.  Remember the head that floats down a stream?  Well, it eventually reaches a little waterfall and tumbles over the edge, cracking like a melon when it hits the rocks below.  That’s the best special effect in the movie.  And in the finale, someone is thrown over a railing to land in some electrical wires.  He slides between the wires in a gruesome shower of sparks.

But then, here’s how the movie ruins a perfectly good moment.  To get maximum effect, I would think a single quick shot of the burning body on the ground would be enough.  Not here.  The camera lingers forever… and then we see it from another angle… and another.  I’m afraid the filmmakers know nothing about how to make a genre movie.

On paper, The Incredible Melting Man is no worse than any number of 1950s B-movies about irradiated monsters roaming the countryside.  That fact alone makes the advertising slogan used to promote the movie absolutely senseless:  “The First New Horror Creature.”  What does that even mean?  If it implies originality, forget it.  With this movie, there is good news and bad news.  Good news first: it’s only 84 minutes long.  Bad news: it’s 84 minutes long.

Tomorrow: Magic!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It's Alive (1974) and It Lives Again (1978)

Of all the movies I've watched this month, I think the one that maintains the best feel of the 70s is It's Alive.  Perhaps it's the peace sign wallpaper in Chris Davis's room, the wardrobe and cars of the characters, or because smoking is allowed inside a hospital.  As Frank Davis (John Ryan) lights up a cig in the waiting room while his wife is giving birth, he and other men talk about how they're slowly poisoning themselves.  That's one of the few attempts the movie makes to explain why his baby turns out to be a monster.


On the way to the hospital, Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell), who had her first child in 45 minutes, comments that this pregnancy feels different.  During childbirth, she cries that something's wrong.  A doctor replies, "No, it's just a really big baby."  Yeah, and it's deadly, too.  It kills most of the people in the delivery room before escaping the hospital.  This scene is extremely chilling.  It's a great start to a movie with great intentions, even if they're not always fully realized.

At the core of this crudely made, yet surprisingly effective, horror movie is a heartfelt debate over what to do with this creature, when it is found.  Frank believes, “It’s not an animal.  It’s human.”  But nearly everyone else disagrees, “It kills like an animal and when we find it, we have to kill it like one.”  Some are even less clear about what they think it is, “We’re not talking about a retarded kid (apparently not politically incorrect in the 70s), we’re talking about a monstrosity of some kind.”

My favorite scene in It’s Alive, although much better in my memory than when I recently re-watched it, is when the baby is on the loose and a milkman pulls up to a house to make a delivery (again, dated for the 70s).  He climbs into the back of his truck and there is an unseen struggle inside.  Glass breaks and milk starts running out the back of the truck and down the bumper, pooling on the street below.  Soon, the white milk runs red with blood.  Our imaginations are left to paint a picture of what happened.

It’s Alive was one of Rick Baker’s (seven-time Oscar winner for makeup) first theatrical movies.  We see the baby only in fleeting shots… a bulbous head here, a fanged mouth there.  It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of the creature he created.  But writer-producer-director Larry Cohen must have believed (as many do) that the less you see of a monster, the scarier it is.  If that’s the case, I just wish the editing were better.  Too many shots end abruptly or cut away too quickly to achieve the desired suspense.

It’s not a spoiler to tell the twist at the end of It’s Alive, considering I’m going to proceed to talk about the sequel.  No sooner is the baby issue resolved than Lt. Perkins (James Dixon) receives a phone call.  Another one has been born in Seattle.  It doesn’t really matter what caused the mutation… radiation, birth control pills, abortion attempts, or even smog.  What matters is that it could be happening nationwide.  And that’s where It Lives Again (aka It’s Alive 2) begins…

John Ryan is back as Frank Davis, who infiltrates a baby shower in Tucson to warn expecting parents Eugene and Jody Scott (Frederic Forrest, Kathleen Lloyd) that their unborn baby fits the profile of other monster babies born around the country.  Not as grisly an opening as It’s Alive, it’s still creepy when he’s the last remaining guest at the party and the Scotts don’t know who he is.  Davis tells them that, “doctors all over the country are watching for abnormal babies so they can terminate the pregnancies.”


A Time magazine story has made Davis somewhat of a celebrity.  That’s probably why he carries any credibility at all with the Scotts.  Sticking to his guns that his baby was not a monster, he says, “He forgave me.  Is that an animal?  Is that a monster, that can forgive me?”  He now facilitates a covert operation that sends a mobile delivery unit that’s “going to save the lives of so many children.”  He claims, “It’s happening and it’ll continue to happen to thousands, perhaps millions, before the century is out.”

Since the parents know what to expect when Jody gives birth, there’s a different dynamic in It Lives Again than there is in It’s Alive.  First, there’s time for speculation about the cause of the mutation before the baby is born.  “Vitamins, supplements, vegetarian diet… I bet that’s what they’ll say caused this.”  Second, as she goes into labor at the hospital (no cell phones in the 70s, so there’s a communications snafu between Frank and the Scotts), she screams, “You have no right!  It’s my baby!”

Fast forward (although getting there is more laborious in the sequel than it is in the original) to a facility in Los Angeles where Frank and his crew are protecting and studying two other babies, Adam and Eve.  Yeah, they went there.  They’ve learned that the babies have a mental capacity of infants 21 months old and bear a “striking resemblance” to each other, “almost like brother and sister.”  Dr. Perry (Andrew Duggan) claims they’re “a new race of humanity that will finally eclipse our own.”

I found more humor in It Lives Again than in It’s Alive.  The compound in Los Angeles used to be a private academy, so innocent signs from back in the day now carry ominous meanings: on the front gate, “Drive Carefully, Children at Play” and at the pool, “Swim at Your Own Risk.”  The latter is particularly scary when Eugene takes a dip in the pool, a clawed hand breaks the outdoor light, and then there’s a plop into the water.  One of the babies then attacks him.

We see more of the babies in the sequel, which is overall a better-looking movie.  I’m guessing Cohen had a bigger budget after the success of It’s Alive.  Since many glimpses of attacks include full body shots of the babies, I think they’re puppets.  They’re certainly not animated enough to be more than that.  But if you think three times the number of babies equals three times the horror, you better think again.  Two are quickly destroyed, leaving the finale to a single monster, just like the original.

It Lives Again is much slower than It’s Alive.  At the same time, it covers a longer period of time.  In fact, the passing of time is unclear.  Jody is up and around pretty quickly after the baby tore itself from her womb.  Also, one minute Frank can’t go to the compound because he might be followed by the “bad guys”; however, the next minute he’s already there.  Ultimately, it all comes down to the same debate: what if the babies aren’t compatible with the human race?  Do they destroy them?

The difference in the sequel is that the father is not so sure the baby should survive.  In the finale, the baby makes his way to the house where the Scotts are staying, via a child’s birthday party (I love the claw mark in the cake), and it comes down to an emotional struggle between Eugene and Jody, who wants to protect it.  When put face to face with the mayhem it causes, though, will they relent?  No spoilers this time, though.  I’m not going to talk about the second sequel, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive.

Tomorrow:  The Incredible Melting Man!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Five years after the release of Frogs, of which I wrote earlier in this year's Countdown to Halloween, the "Nature Gone Wild" or "Eco-Horror" film subgenre was still going strong.  Post-Jaws, there was no sign of it waning, at least not in the 70s.  Movies were released about killer alligators, barracudas, crocodiles, dogs, ants, grizzlies, bats, whales, piranhas, snakes, worms, octopi, and buffalo.  But one of my favorite of these movies is 1977's Kingdom of the Spiders.

The message here is not in the least bit subtle: DDT is bad.  This pesticide for insect control was commonly used until concern grew over carcinogenicity, bioaccumulation and health effects on wildlife, not to mention the concern that some insects developed a resistance to it.  DDT was banned in 1972, but is identified several times in Kingdom of the Spiders as being the cause of Verde Valley, Arizona's pest problem.  It is also mentioned as being useless in ridding the county of its pest problem, "I don't think DDT is gonna kill them."  (FYI, DDT is still manufactured today, but sold only to countries that allow its use.)

In Kingdom of the Spiders, use of DDT has caused the size of spiders to grow ("spiders this size become immune") and they are "600 miles from where they should be," migrating through Verde Valley to a new home.  On the way, they vacation in huge spider hills, primarily on the farm land of Walter and Birch Colby (Woody Strode and Altovise Davis).  "There must be hundreds of them from what I can tell!"  Livestock on their farm starts dying from "massive amounts of spider venom."

The timing couldn't be worse, which is usually the case in Nature Gone Wild movies.  The Verde Valley Fair is approaching and it sure looks like the dusty town could use some income from the revenue the annual event would generate.  The mayor doesn't want to take any chances and decides to spray the countryside anyway.  But the thing about spiders, killer or not, is that not only can they take refuge in a shoe in your closet, but they can also hide in the nooks and crannies of a small airplane, causing it to eventually crash and burn.

The drama of Kingdom of the Spiders plays against this backdrop, but it's really a more intimate story of survival among a group of people holed up in Washburn's Lodge.  More time than typical in these movies is spent giving the characters a backstory.  When we first meet veterinarian and ladies' man Rack Hanson (William Shatner), he's horsing around with his sister-in-law, Terry (Marcy Lafferty).  Apparently, "his brother got killed in 'Nam the second day he was there" and he's in the potentially uncomfortable position of falling in love with her.

Thank goodness Diane Ashely (Tiffany Bolling) from the Department of Entomology at the University of Arizona, Tempe arrives to assess the situation and provide Hanson a romantic distraction.  She helps uncover the aforementioned facts about the spider invasion.  She adds that insecticides have been killing off the food supply, so spiders are becoming aggressive.  It is the romantic triangle of Rack, Terry and Diane, plus a handful of other potential victims, who barricade themselves inside the lodge.

This leads to the thing I appreciate most about Kingdom of the Spiders.  There's no one with a plan to put an end to the spider attacks.  It doesn't turn into an action movie with huge explosions and elaborate plans to get rid of them.  It's simply about trying to survive.  That helps with the suspension of disbelief and ultimately makes it less of a disappointment.  It also means that the movie can have a dark ending, not necessarily a "twist", but certainly a "gotcha."

The camerawork is clever.  For example, there are multiple point of view shots close to the ground that represent various spiders approaching their prey.  The makeup is terrific.  For example, the spiders often cocoon their victims in webbing, so you can easily represent a grotesque dead body without being bloody or gory.  And the script has its sly moments.  For example, after the spiders' natural predators are considered as a means to destroy them, we see one of the spiders devouring one of its predators, a large rat.  As for the dialogue, any movie that uses the phrase "slick as a gnat's ass" is just fine in my book.

Kingdom of the Spiders is a surprisingly good suspense thriller, certainly better than other Nature Gone Wild movies I saw at the Trail Drive-In during the mid-to-late 1970s.  (I particularly despised Empire of the Ants and The Food of the Gods.)  It's got a definite B-movie feel, but I wouldn't go any further down the alphabet to describe its style.  Don't let the title fool you; I recommend you watch this one.

Tomorrow:  It's Alive and It Lives Again!