If you were an impressionable young lad or young lady of a certain age growing up in the 1970’s, the TV commercial for this film probably scared the piss out of you and more than once at that. I was 14 and at the time this came out and man, it freaked the hell out of me, especially when it popped up late at night.
That meant I just HAD to see it back then, even if it meant sneaking into a theater playing it. Of course, being the more carefree 70’s, that bit of stealth action wasn’t necessary at all, So I managed to get in with a friend from school and ended up being a bit disappointed that the film, while good, wasn’t as chilling as the TV spot. Of course, a few years later I saw it again and got a new appreciation for it, so I’m probably just like a few of you who also caught this back in the day.
As a straight horror flick, it’s not a gory slice-fest at all, but Anthony Hopkins does a great job as Charles “Corky” Withers, a down on his luck magician who attempts to make a big comeback as a ventriloquist with a lookalike dummy named Fats. Of course, that dummy happens to be no dummy when it comes to getting Corky’s personality to liven up a bit and although his act is a success, Corky bails on a chance to hit it big because he’s unwilling to take the required physical and mental examinations. Well, that and the fact that Fats is more animated offstage than he is on without Corky’s assistance… eek. Still, his little bit of bonus confidence helps him hook up with his high school flame (of the unrequited variety) Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margaret!) and although she’s married (to a big jerk of a husband at that), she and Corky have a fling that sets her husband off… and Fats as well.
Spoiling the rest would set some cursed dummy after yours truly with a suitcase full of sharp knives, so all I’ll say is there are a few surprises here and thankfully, the film doesn’t rely on a massive body count to be chillingly effective. Director Richard Attenborough (!), whose only other “horror” related film was 1964’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon, gets some great performances from his cast, although Hopkins so intentionally underplays Corky that he’s almost invisible whenever stronger characters are on screen with him. Those other characters include the great Burgess Meredith as Corky’s agent, Ben Greene, Ed Lauter as Duke, and David Ogden Stiers as Todson. Like the best ventriloquist dummy come to “life” flicks (Dead of Night being the go-to classic here), the film plays with your expectations and kicks you hard in the kneecap once you think it’s going down a certain path.
(Thanks, Pants Halo!)
At a tidy 107 minutes, Magic won’t wear out its welcome at all (unless you were expecting a huge body count and gallons of gore). But thanks to the solid acting, wonderfully unsettling Jerry Goldsmith score that latches onto your spine and starts shaking it (you’ll likely never want to listen to a harmonica again) and some excellent editing, this is one that will linger in your own wooden head long after those credits have rolled. It’s a tad tricky to track own on a disc, as there’s been a few rights issues for a while keeping it from a quality transfer. But go look it up and check it out if you do find it. Of course, you may be so creeped out that you give actual ventriloquists a wide berth when you see them, so I’d imagine if there’s a union for these wood-whisperers, they’d prefer you NOT check this out any time soon. Hey, let them try and stop you.
Hmmmm… then again, I can see Jeff Dunham going on a killing spree with his group of stupid-looking puppets if he ever gets wind of this flick getting a big reissue one of these days, or worse, he doesn’t get to be the star of the remake.