Friday 3 April 2020

MAGIC (1978)

Directed by Richard Attenborough. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter. Horror, US, 1978, 107 mins, cert 15.

“It was you the whole time...I hope I don't die first, is all...”

Back in 1978, way before Chucky and Annabelle, but some considerable time after Hugo from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), director Richard Attenborough chanced his arm by bringing William Goldman’s novel and adapted script to the screen with Anthony Hopkins chancing his arm by sticking it up a creepy ventriloquist dummy.

MAGIC was Attenborough’s only directing foray into the horror/thriller genre - his follow up project turned out to be the multi-Oscar laden GHANDI. It’s a well-crafted portrait of psychological breakdown and all-consuming schizophrenia with shades of PSYCHO (1960). Corky (Anthony Hopkins), is an unsuccessful meek and mild stage magician who hits the big-time by reinventing his act with the addition of a snappy foul-mouthed sidekick ventriloquist dummy named Fats. 

The film’s pedigree is undeniable. Hopkins throws himself into the role hook line and sinker and delivers an unbridled tour-de-force performance, even taking illusion and ventriloquism lessons before filming in order to pull-off his voice-throwing magician routine in-camera. Burgess Meredith provides sterling support as Corky’s cigar smoking agent Ben Greene, “The Postman” (because he always delivers). Having discovered Corky, Ben secures a potentially lucrative network TV contract for his client, the only stumbling block being the network’s insistence on a routine medical examination. Corky panics (presumably due to a fear of what the psychological tests might find) and flees New York heading back to the rural wooded Catskills where he grew up. Taking a log cabin by a lake, he meets (and hooks up) with his old high school crush, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). Having been far too shy in high school to act on his yearning, Fats’ persona imbues Corky with the swagger to finally act on his feelings. Inconveniently, Corky gets caught in a love-triangle because Peggy Ann is married to her alcoholic high school boyfriend, Duke (Ed Lauter).

Corky’s agent pursues him into the Catskills and stumbles in on one of his client’s argumentative meltdowns with his dummy Fats. This leads to one of the film’s most effective scenes when Meredith’s character challenges Corky to keep Fats quiet for a full five minutes.  

It’s a film which incrementally creeps up (and out) thanks to Hopkins’ sleight-of-hand performance instilling the genuinely unsettling Hopkins lookalike dummy with a palpable sense of menace. To this end, Victor Kemper’s cinematography cunningly frames Fats in ways that suggests the dummy is an active participant and teases the occasional twitch from the wooden doll in the shadowed periphery. Attenborough orchestrates a couple of surprisingly violent and bloody sequences which jar (in a good way), and the lake setting provides suspenseful mileage thanks to a corpse that firstly won’t stay dead, and then won’t stay submerged. Proceedings are accompanied by a typically lyrical and rich score from legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith, with initially soothing strings punctuated with a disconcerting harmonica. 

The sharp robust HD transfer is really good with an appropriately authentic cinematic feel (by all accounts an improvement on the previous US release). This is praise indeed because I’m a fussy old git when it comes to PQ! 

And yet – despite its obvious qualities both on and off screen - the film doesn’t quite fully satisfy. Perhaps it because for a film that’s called MAGIC, there ultimately isn’t any narrative misdirection to surprise the viewer. The final act kind of feels like it needs to pull a rabbit out of its hat. 

*** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

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