Dir. Richard Attenborough
Written by William Goldman
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter,
MAGIC is a 1978 psychological horror film directed by Academy Award-winner Richard Attenborough (GANDHI) scripted by Academy Award-winner William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, THE PRINCESS BRIDE) and starring Academy-Award winner Anthony Hopkins, Academy-Award-nominated Burgess Meredith, Academy-award nominated Ann-Margret, and the Academy-Award-worthy boobs of Ann-Margret. It’s about a evil killer ventriloquist dummy.
Wait a second, what? Those guys have enough Oscars between them to field a professional baseball team, and they made a killer dummy movie? Does that mean that when James Wan made that ridiculous DEAD SILENCE movie that looked like an adaptation of a Goosebumps book he was actually setting himself on a path to make some of the most classy and beloved films of the next few decades? Maybe Wan can finally make that Gandhi sequel where he comes back to seek revenge against everyone who fucked with him. GANESH SENTENCE, perhaps?
Anyway, obviously I had to see this thing. Problem was, when I first heard about this movie it was impossible. It hadn’t been seen since 1978, when it received some lukewarm praise and promptly disappeared mostly without a trace, precluded from appearing on video due to byzantine legal mumbo jumbo which was not resolved until, as near as I can tell, around 2006. I had searched fruitlessly for this movie in my youth, eventually giving up until the box suddenly and unceremoniously appeared on my netflix queue. I was elated -- a cinematic gem which for years was beyond my reach could and, obviously, now would appear at my door. But could it live up to the obvious greatness that was its destiny?
The answer, amazingly, is yes. This is a pretty fuckin’ great movie. It’s a artfully made, well-acted, subtlety creepy little mesmerizer, full of wonderful touches and memorable moments. It has pretty much everything you’d want out of an evil dummy movie, but also a lot of things you wouldn’t expect -- things like emotions, drama, pathos. You know, girl stuff. In fact, rarely have I ever seen such a pulpy concept pulled off so classily without completely betraying it’s basic genre premise. I was worried Attenborough was too classy a guy to really find the meat in a evil dummy slasher movie, but actually I think he’s kinda into it. He just finds other things interesting too, and manages to balance the highbrow with the lowbrow pretty successfully. I guess I should have known he had some pulpy impulses (he starred in serial killer flick 10 RILLINGTON PLACE and ghost story SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON) but man, he freakin directed GANDHI. His brother narrates nature documentaries. I mean, the guy’s basically the Man With No Name of classiness, drifting into town with a monocle and top hat and using nothing but his erudite diction to teach the rowdy outlaws how to properly appreciate high culture, opera and aged brandy.
Anyway, the movie begins with skinny, youthful Hopkins as fledgling magician Corky Withers. Corky lives with his dying mentor, and has just --after years of preparation-- performed in public for the first time. Only, it was a crowded, noisy open mic night, no one way paying attention, and he was too nervous to effectively sell them on how impressive his trick are. His moves are flawless, but when stuttering, sweating Hopkins tries the ultra-difficult “rising aces” trick and no one even notices, he snaps and flips out a little bit. It’s our first hint that although Corky seems like a nice, shy guy, he may not be all that stable.
Cut ahead to one year later: Corky has the place packed, and his cigar-chomping agent (Burgess Meredith) is close to signing him for a lucrative television deal. So what’s changed? Only one thing: Corky has added a bawdy dummy named “Fats” to his act, allowing him to stay the shy straight man while giving his act a much-needed boost in the charisma department. Of course, it seems like Corky is almost never without Fats these days, and in fact Fats has the uncomfortable habit of talking inappropriately even when he probably shouldn’t, for instance during business meetings. But you know how artists are, with their wacky eccentricities. Everyone’s fine with it until Corky suddenly panics at the prospect of a routine medical exam and secretly flees to a remote town in the Northeast, where he finds boarding at the residence of an old high school flame (Ann-Margret). She’s married, but it’s to that asshole Ed Lauter (hey Ed, Brian Posehn called, he wants his beard back) so she’s sort of intrigued by this odd duck from her past. And. uh, his new dummy pal.
Well, we can all see where this is headed. Corky’s cracking up and trying to keep it under wraps, and Fats is getting increasingly bossy about pursuing more aggressive solutions to Corky’s problems. Basic dummy movie stuff, but Hopkins and Attenborough add an unexpected layer of sadness to all the out-of-control dummy escapades. Without belaboring the point, they impress upon us that Corky really is a fundamentally nice guy. He’s just a insecure, sensitive kid who wants to make a living doing his magic tricks, but unfortunately the stress of trying to live his life has caused him to crack. Or become possessed. Or something.
One nice thing about the movie is that it’s very deliberately ambiguous about where exactly Fats is coming from. Sort of like Calvin and Hobbes, the movie never seems particularly interested in explaining the nature of his reality, instead focusing only on the fact that to Corky, he’s very real, and to everyone else it’s obvious that he’s just a dummy. Fats talks on his own, but never moves without Corky touching him -- is he some kind of malicious spirit that acts through Corky, or is Corky just hearing his own crazy thoughts filtered through the made-up personality of someone less inhibited? Attenborough’s not telling, but he correctly identifies the more interesting strand as Corky’s psychological instability and hence focuses most of his attention on that. Whether or not there’s anything else going on here, he wisely (and with unusual discipline for this genre) leaves to your imagination -- though he can’t resist leaving in one single gloriously suggestive shot where Corky gets up from the couch and Fats --normally corpse-still when not being operated-- follows him with his eyes. Woah, is that a game changer, or just an isolated window into how Corky sees the world?
There’s plenty of good creepy dummy action, of course (particularly for you sufferers of automatonohobia, as you can plainly see from this terrifying early trailer, which if you believe the real-life ventriloquist in the DVD interview was only ever shown once before it had to be pulled from the air for freaking people out). Fats is a particularly unnerving dummy, --even more so once you realize he’s sort of an exaggerated parody of Hopkins’ own face*-- but the creepiest thing about him isn’t his appearance or his screechy 30s-gangster voice (also provided by Hopkins, though as far as I can tell not through ventriloquism) but the control he exerts over Corky. Interestingly, he doesn’t come across as entirely villainous. He’s sometimes encouraging and even helpful, but he’s also an out-of-control id, your friend who always goes too far. Fats is Tupac from JUICE, but he’s in your head and he can make you do whatever he wants.**
This changes the whole dynamic of the horror from what could be a malicious/supernatural angle to one of control. There are murders here, but it’s Corky’s lack of control over his own actions which is truly terrifying. He’s helpless, reduced to standing around and getting his better nature shouted down time and time again. Possession is always a deeply creepy concept, and here we get to see it uniquely literalized.*** Corky’s a prisoner in his own head, well aware that what he’s doing is wrong but utterly unable to stop himself. Which brings us right back to that undercurrent of sadness which runs at least as deep as the horror. He wants to be sane, he really does, but that boat has sailed long ago if there ever was a chance to board it to begin with. He knows he’s nuts, he knows he’s out of control, he knows this can’t end well, but he’s completely and utterly powerless to stop himself. Hopkins’s performance as the stuttering, flop-sweating psycho has all the desperate tension of a trapped animal, pathetic and dangerous at the same time and all the while never quite grasping the enormity of it’s predicament. It’s pretty phenomenal, actually. Hopkins and Fats are the showpiece here, but it should also be said that Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, and even ol’ Ed Lauter add layers of humanity to their characters, making them more than just potential victims. There’s an unforgettable scene when Meredith’s character finally figures out just how far out into the deep end Corky has gotten, which plays out tense and awkward and might even be funny except for the look of profound, quiet sadness that suddenly ages Meredith what looks like ten years. He’s not horrified, not even afraid -- but it kills him to suddenly see this promising young man’s hopes and dreams vanish in the blink of a dummy’s eye. Although I guess it doesn’t kill him as much as being literally killed, which is certainly one upside.
Attenborough knows when he has a good thing going, so as director he mostly stays out of the way, not getting especially fancy with the photography and never letting the pace get too slack. He’s got some good atmospherics in the New England location, particularly an isolated lake which feels simultaneously stagnant and menacing. But really, the only other element of the production which asserts itself is Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent and imaginative score. It’s a typical moody orchestral score for the most part, but whenever Fats is getting up to trouble, this maddening, atonal harmonica lick clambers over top of everything. It’s nothing by itself, but its occurrence is so random and out-of-sync with the normal score that it’s deeply disconcerting (and actually nicely musically illustrates the dominating, abrasive presence of Fats in Corky’s brain). Man, when was the last time you heard a score that honestly struck you as innovative? Probably the last time Jerry Goldsmith gave a shit, sometime back in the mid-70s before Hollywood broke his spirit.
Apparently, Gene Wilder was originally up for the part of Corky over the then-unknown Hopkins, which needless to say causes the mind to practically reel at the potential (producer Joseph Levine said no). As great as Wilder would obviously have been, though, I think the combination of these particular elements on this story at this point in their careers would be pretty much impossible to top. Everyone brings their A-game, delivering everything you’d expect from this kind of high-class professional, and then, amazingly, each also brings something unique and unexpected which somehow end up still meshing together into a highly cohesive, deceptively elegant package. The end result is probably too impossible to categorize for most audiences to easily embrace it -- to genre for the arty crowd and too staid for the horror nuts -- but if you’re willing to just accept it for its own weird dichotomous self, there’s enough power in this sad, eerie and strange tale to take you just about anywhere it wants you to go. Presto chango! This is one dummy you won’t mind taking control of your mind.
*Supposedly, Hopkins asked for the dummy to be delivered to his apartment when it was completed so he could get a feel for it’s weight and mobility. A few hours later he called the producers and told them that if they didn’t come get the thing right now he was going to chop it up. He didn’t know it was going to look like him, and it freaked him out so badly he almost quit the movie. When you can make Hannibal Lecter panic at the very sight of you, you’re probably doing pretty good for a horror movie icon.
**And also he’s made of wood and has Anthony Hopkins' hand up his rectum, so in that sense a little different.
***Actually it also has some things in common with that Not of The Living Dead series I did on Romero. It would fit nicely into that sequence, I wonder if Romero ever saw it?