To this day, my father is always delighted to relate a story about my much younger self and how I dealt with horror flicks; well, really just the commercial for a particular one: the 1978 Richard Attenborough film, Magic. The ad was simply a close shot of the ventriloquist dummy featured in the movie as he recited a little poem; as he “spoke”, the camera tracked in closer and closer to it’s face, the eyes and features all moving about so mechanically, so symmetrically…so goddamn creepily. I only recall seeing it once back then, because every subsequent time I noticed even the slightest flicker of it on the old Zenith floor-model (this is dad’s favorite part), I would jump up and haul ass outta the room; only when mom called down the hall and told me it was over would I return. That thirty-second spot dictated my time in the living room that fall of 1978; it seriously screwed up some Starsky and Hutch nights, I tell ya…
Corky Withers is an amateur magician with a lot of talent but not a lot of luck. He’s coming into the biz at a time when magicians just aren’t all the rage anymore, and the lackadaisical stares he gets from the cheap nightclub audiences he plays to only serve to anger him. His aging (and dying) mentor urges him to “use his charm” to win over the audience; the socially-inept Corky finds that the only way he can accomplish this is through using ventriloquism to spice up his act. This brings him unbelievable success; within a couple of years, he’s sitting at the top of the entertainment game, playing to packed houses and even having an agent. As it was back then, it’s not long before television comes knocking, and Corky’s agent manages to wrangle him appearances in Vegas and even the venerable Tonight Show.
Finally, the BIG big time is within his grasp; the network wants to offer him his own pilot show. All he has to do is sign on the dotted line, and submit to the networks routine medical exams. Well, ol’ Corky really takes an inordinate amount of offense to this; much to the surprise of his agent, he bugs out and returns to a lakeside resort near where he grew up, presumably to “get his head on straight”. As part of the bargain, he seeks out the girl from high school that has haunted his memories for years, Peggy Ann Snow, whose family happened to own the resort. He finds her still there, still lovely, having been given the place by her parents; unfortunately, he also finds her in a largely loveless marriage, and her husband, Duke, soon to be arriving back from a business trip. The two still connect, however; his manipulation of his dummy, Fats, keeps her laughing, and through this laughter a romance is kindled, deep feelings the pair had for one another resurfacing with a vengeance. However, once Peggy’s husband returns, Corky’s agent tracks him down, and the two of them begin asking a lot of questions, the real question becomes fearsomely apparent: between Corky and Fats, who is the puppet, and who is the master?
This movie has a lot of punch, even rewatching it years later. Goldman’s novel was a well-crafted tale of psychosis all on its own, but it was the performance of Anthony Hopkins that sold the story as a film.
It’s apparent from the outset that something is a little off with our boy Corky, but Hopkins colors the character with a boyish kind of innocence that makes the audience sympathize with him; gradually and meticulously, we watch as layers of Corky’s persona are stripped away, revealing his projection of any real ambition or personality that he possesses into Fats. That said, in the dummy it can truly be said that Hopkins played a dual role (it’s credited as such); not only was Fats crafted to be a sinister caricature of Hopkins, but it was Hopkins himself that voiced the figure. Here the duality is most apparent; his vocal intonations and chilling delivery make it seem as if we really are watching not only two different characters, but two different actors. The depiction of the two personalities and their struggles against one another is frightening and convincing, with the Fats being the physical embodiment of the disorder; this facet really provides a unique outlet for the madness. Rounding out the cast is the perpetually lovely Ann-Margret as Peggy, who nails the role of a married woman drowning in loneliness effortlessly; familiar gruff character actor Ed Lauter plays her volatile husband, Duke, knowing that he’s losing his wife but unable to fend off his own anger to change it; and a wonderful (albeit small) performance by perennial favorite Burgess Meredith as Corky’s firm but caring agent, Ben Greene.
The film offers no real gore and a low body count, but for a different yet highly effective look into pure psychosis, it’s a gem; the story and performances make it a tense and frightening flick even without exposition. I would put it in the same category as Psycho in terms of a film that examines the madness that can manifest itself in a person; poor Corky could easily find himself a spiritual counterpart in the unfortunate Norman Bates. Like the eerily similar-named Anthony Perkins, Anthony Hopkins gave us a psychopath with his character that was terrifying, yet pitiable at the same time.
Before there was Hannibal, there was Magic.
P.S. As usual, I’ll throw the trailer on here for you Fellow Fans; I dunno if I’ll watch it or not 😉
JUST CLICK HERE