Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme


When you look at the credits of MAGIC, you’re tempted to expect some real magic dust floating around. What we have here is a film written by the Oscar winner William Goldman (ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, MISERY, CHAPLIN…), directed by the Oscar winner Richard Attenborough (GANDHI, CHAPLIN), scored by the Oscar winner Jerry Goldsmith (THE OMEN) and starring the Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). Unfortunately, none of the Oscars were won (or deserved) for MAGIC. Actually, a more cynical mind could announce MAGIC thus: ’From the writer of DREAMCATCHER, by the director of A CHORUS LINE, with a star of FREEJACK!’’ And such a blurb would better prepare you for the actual accomplishments of this particular flick.

MAGIC is based on a tired old schtick about a ventriloquist domineered (and ultimately driven crazy) by his dummy. In this instance, Anthony Hopkins is fighting an uphill battle for his sanity, but how much can you expect from a guy whose stage name is ’Corky’? ’Corny’ is more like it: it covers perfectly both his appearance and his ’entertainment’ act. When the card tricks fail he draws upon the dummy, and has a moderate success with his wooden, foul-mouthed alter-ego berating his corniness. A manager on the look out for new talent (Burgess Meredith, from ROCKY) immediately wants to place this nonsense act on national TV, but Corky’s insecurities get the better of him, and instead of fame and fortune he grabs his dummy and opts for – a mountain resort run by his highschool-sweetheart Peggy (Ann-Margret). Will Corky be saved by his puppy love, or destroyed by the puppet love?

This being a horror film, there’s never any doubt as to the outcome. After all, we’ve all seen numerous variations on the ventriloquist vs. dummy theme, and MAGIC is, basically, it: a TWILIGHT ZONE episode padded for length with some improbable romance. It’s improbable because regardless of how bad her current marriage is, Peggy is not so desperate (or blind) to keep tolerating advances of a man so clearly unbalanced and dangerous as Corky (no matter how silly it sounds putting ’Corky’ and ’dangerous’ in the same sentence). She doesn’t seem to mind him yelling at her, ordering her around and acting like Norman Bates’s crazier brother: she invites him to bed nevertheless. Alas, a lady’s love bringeth no salvation! Corky eventually goes off-balance and starts a killing spree. That is, if you can call a body count of two – a killing spree.

The technical credits are all-around decent: the photography by Victor Kemper (DOG DAY AFTERNOON, EYES OF LAURA MARS) is solid, and captures nicely the beauty of the Catskill Mountains as well as some of the doll’s creepiness. Attenborough’s direction is workmanlike, just what you’d expect from someone who agreed to make this film only because the producers promised to fund his epic GANDHI afterwards. The acting cting is very good, especially Meredith. Hopkins, in his pre-Hannibal days, is perhaps too convincing as a seedy psycho (his portrayal much helped by his experiences from the trenches of anti-alcoholic battles). Surprisingly, Jerry Goldsmith let us down this time and phoned-in an unimpressive, utterly forgettable score.

They may try to sell MAGIC as a ’serious drama’, but make no mistake: this is third rate material straining towards something like respectability. As such, it reminded me of another similar attempt of an up-and-coming director and a big star to raise a silly premise to artsy heights. Yes, I’m talking about Oliver Stone’s THE HAND (1981) where Michael Caine battled his disembodied hand (or was it just schizophrenia?) with slightly less psychological profundity or complexity than you’ll find in Corky’s schizoid fight with his own self. As a drama MAGIC fails because it is so silly, one-dimensional and predictable. As a TWILIGHT ZONE wannabe it fails because it eschews the ambiguity of ’is-the-doll-alive-or-is-Corky-just-insane?’ and instead presents its protagonist as a mere pathetic nut right from the start. As a horror film it fails, simply, because there’s not much horror to be found anywhere around. Small body count, barely interesting characters and situations, unimaginative scares and long stretches of pointless drama and romance work against the overall effect. Simply put, this was way better when it was a 40 minute segment in the classic anthology DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) or a 25 minute episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. At 102 minutes MAGIC overstays its welcome and mostly undercuts the magic of its ancient idea.

Although the film itself does not really merit a special edition, it gets one nevertheless. On disc 1 there is only the film (pity they couldn’t get Anthony Hopkins for a dual commentary: one as himself, the other as Fats the naughty puppet), and it is a Widescreen Presentation enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is probably the best that could be, considering the film’s age, and there are only minor quibbles with certain scenes where the dark is not black enough. The sound is a very good Stereo 2.0 with optional 5.1 and DTS. Disc 2 contains the extras, more than you’d expect from a half-forgotten film: ’Screenwriting For Dummies’ featurette is a short but valuable interview with Goldman, while the most entertaining is probably ’Fats And Friends’ featurette where a real ventriloquist who worked on the film talks about it and also showcases his skill with the actual dummy. You also get an ’Interview with Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper’, an ’Interview with Anthony Hopkins’ produced for Spanish TV, Anthony Hopkins radio interview (accompanied by the images from the film and behind the scenes). There are also English and Spanish radio spots, English and Spanish TV spots, English trailers (some spooky stuff there!), a stills gallery and even a silent Ann-Margret makeup test. The additional features are approximately 75 minutes all together, and you can view them all as one single piece.

Dejan Ognjanovic

 

Directed by Richard Attenborough

English language

USA / 1978 / 102 minutes

Colour

Special Features:
Screenwriting For Dummies featurette
Fats And Friends featurette
Interview with Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper
Interview with Anthony Hopkins
Anthony Hopkins radio interview
English and Spanish radio spots
English and Spanish TV spots
English trailers
Stills gallery
Ann-Margret makeup test

Region 2 / PAL
Anamorphic widescreen (in 1.78:1)
Stereo 2.0, Optional 5.1 and DTS

MAGIC

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