Saturday, 3 December 2011

Magic (1978)

Magic is an evil-ventriloquists’-dummy movie. The problem with evil-ventriloquists’-dummy movies is that they’re fairly predictable, and Magic is more predictable than most.

The only real question with such movies is whether the dummy represents some supernatural force or whether it represents a part of the ventriloquist’s own personality. Whichever option the film-maker chooses the plot will hold few surprises.

In this case we have Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins) who has spent years being a magician’s assistant before finally summoning up the courage to try to make it on on his own. His first attempt is a disaster and he not only bombs he also loses his cool and insults the audience. This is our first clue that Corky may be a little unstable and it comes much too early.

Within a year Corky has become a modest success, a success that is entirely due to his new partner Fats. Fats is a ventriloquist’s dummy, but his foul-mouthed hyper-confident persona provides the perfect foil to Corky’s insecure, painfully shy and socially inept persona.

Corky’s success has gained him an agent, Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith). Greene is confident he can take Corky from his present level of success to the next level - success in the world of network television. The prospect of success terrifies Corky and he flees back to his home town. When he gets there he encounters his high school sweetheart Peg (Ann-Margret). He’s never forgotten he and she’s never forgotten him.

Corky and Peg rekindle their high school romance but unfortunately Peg now has a husband. It’s not just an awkward romantic triangle, it’s a romantic quadrangle, since Fats is every bit as jealous as Peg’s husband. Ben Greene manages to track Corky down in his rural hideaway and is horrified to discover that Corky is totally out of control. He wants Corky to seek psychiatric help and in one of the movie’s more memorable scenes he challenges Corky to keep Fats quiet for five minutes. Corky is of course unable to do so.

The Corky/Fats relationship spirals further and further out of control while the return of Peg’s husband puts even more pressure on Corky.

Not unexpectedly all this eventually leads to violence, murder and madness.

The first choice for the role of Corky was Jack Nicholson, but Anthony Hopkins shows he can overact every bit as outrageously as Nicholson. It’s a bravura performance but the weak point to it is that Corky is really not a very sympathetic character. Luckily Ann-Margret is on hand to lend the movie some much-needed balance. She provides the emotional core of the movie because she’s the only character who is even halfway to being a decent human being. She’s an underrated actress and she gives a splendid performance.

Burgess Meredith is never less than entertaining and he has a lot of fun as the brash agent with a love for enormous cigars. The relationship between Corky and Greene is one of the more successful elements in this movie.

As for Fats, the idea of having a foul-mouthed ventriloquist’s dummy must have seemed terribly clever back in the 70s but it’s an an idea that gets old very quickly.

Richard Attenborough is one of Britain’s greatest actors but as a director he’s less than inspired although certainly competent.

Magic fails to produce the necessary cinematic magic to make its story truly compelling and the horror is all too predictable. As an exercise in psychological horror it lacks impact since Corky is clearly not playing with a full deck even before the arrival of Fats.

Umbrella Entertainment’s Region 4 DVD is full frame and generally unimpressive and cannot be recommended under any circumstances.

1 comment:

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I would nominate 'The Ventriloquist's Dummy' segment of the wonderful Ealing anthology DEAD OF NIGHT as the high benchmark of this subgenre. But MAGIC does have its moments and is a significant improvement over Lindsey Shonteff's rather dour DEVIL DOLL.