Monday, April 5, 2010

I ate his liver with some wood chips and a nice chianti

Unless I’m crunching on nachos, I don’t normally make noises while watching films. No yelps, rare gasps. I couldn’t even tell you what my actual scream sounded like, which I suppose is a good thing although it seems, as a horror fan, somewhat sad.
Upon watching the trailer for Magic, I realized something. As I released loud “ew. ew. ew. agh. eiahhhhhh”s  at seeing a closeup of a smiling ventriloquist’s dummy taunt the audience--or just me!--with a nonsenical poem, it dawned on me that the last time I made such noises involved plastic jaws dropping and moaning in David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap.

Big shocker: Dolls scare me.

But you know what? Watch this:

And convince me your pants are clean.

Quick Plot:
A young Anthony Hopkins plays Cork, a struggling magician in need of a gimmick. Enter Fats, his foul-mouthed wooden doppleganger and genuine crowd pleaser. A few sold-out NYC shows and a warm fuzzy agent Ben "Gangrene" (played by the most comforting actor in cinema history, Burgess Meredith) later, Cork and Fats get an NBC pilot deal. Fame, fortune, and funny voices all in one!
Naturally, there’s a catch. Before signing the Standard Rich And Famous Contract, Cork is supposed to take a medical test. He refuses on the grounds of his ‘principles,’ which we can infer may have something to do with his strange and extremely fraternal relationship with the wooden man quipping on his knee.

Cork flees the big bad city and returns to his childhood home in search of Peggy Ann Snow (Ann Margret!), the girl that got away. Now married to an outdoorsy husband who travels a lot, Peggy is quickly charmed by Cork’s newfound confidence and outspoken puppet companion. They make sweet swelling-soundtrack worthy love while ominous harmonica cues capture a possibly jealous Fats unamused by his friend’s diversion.

Is Fats a Chucky-esque killer with New Yawk charm, or a mere scapegoat for the unstable mind of the unstable accented Cork? The answer is fairly obvious and not really part of a twist, but the way director RIchard Attenborough (yes, the amber cane wielding John Hammond from Jurassic Park) plays with the pair’s relationship is always intriguing. Hopkins is a marvel, particularly when speaking in the insanely terrifying cackle of a large-headed doll. Mostly though, Magic is more disturbing than jumpy.
Yes, every single closeup of that wooden monster made me wince. I mean, look at the thing:
Ick ew ick aghhhh. 

But putting aside personal fears-
Let’s focus on the strange sadness of Cork’s fragile mind. While we never get much of a backstory, it’s clear that Fats isn’t the best influence on our shy magician. Sure, he wears matching sweater sets--
(which would be adorable if it wasn’t disgustingly terrifying)
but like the cool guy in any tale, Fats has the power to turn his weaker-willed friend into something fearsome. Nobody knows this better than Gangrene who, in the film’s most arresting scene, challenges Cork to go five minutes without being interrupted by Fats. It’s the most uncomfortable segment I’ve seen in some time.
Credit also goes to novelist/screenwriter William Goldman for crafting such a neat and haunting dynamic. Couple that with the careful notes played by Hopkins--note the little things, like how his voice slowly starts to resemble Fats as his madness becomes more apparent--and the fine direction by Attenborough and you have an unnerving and tragic tale.
High Points
Ann Margaret’s presence is solid (and her breasts are quite fabulous), Hopkins is super as Cork and all the more impressive as twisted voice of Fats (odd that the actor can do an American accent in dummy form but not human), but it’s Meredith who truly makes Magic something truly, well, magical. Part of it may be my personal attachment to the actor, who made me cry in everything from Rocky to an animated version of Puff the Magic Dragon I got for free at Wendy’s, but the actor’s work as the sharp, but compassionate agent brings out the true tragedy of Cork’s state of mind

Mild Spoiler:
Although the body count is minimal, the two major kills are incredibly frightening. The camera shots of Fats swinging his surprisingly heavy body towards the camera and later, holding a tiny switchblade in his tiny non-opposable fingers is enough to give a hardened doll-watcher like me nightmares
Low Points
I suppose I could quibble with the fuzzy explanation of Fats' birth and Cork's lonely childhood. While we can infer from a very '70s flashback that Cork's dad was less than impressed by his son's whittling, I wanted a little more history of just how something as terrifying as Fats could come to be 
Lessons Learned
The definition of cute=Ronald Regan, at least according to dummies
Having a limey dad (who oddly enough, enjoys American football) and growing up in the Catskills will cause you to speak with a distinctively British accent unless, of course, you’re throwing your voice

NYC cab drivers are crappy secret keepers

Lessons From the Holy Book of Hollywood Agents
Never forget that an actor killed Lincoln
No man must ever touch a Rolls but a Rolls man

While Magic is more akin to Psycho than Child’s Play, I still find myself twitching nervously every time I see this:

The film is worth a careful watch for a whole lot of reasons, from its surprising pedigree to sad themes and absolutely positively undeniably creepy villain. The DVD has several features, the best of which is a 30 minute short that details the history of ventriloquism (always evil) and the making of Magic, including neat tidbits about how even Hannibal Lector was terrified of the dummy designed to bear a slight resemblance to his own mug. Fats himself gets the last lines, and while his self-aware attitude is funny in the latter Chucky style, he remains, in every moment of his existence, the kind of thing that makes me go agh. 

and stop it!

Excuse me while I go tend to my nightmares.


  1. While I too have a fear of dolls but mostly just ventriloquist dolls...,.there's something about Fats' large head and boyish good looks that make me not as scared...

    Or maybe I just like seeing him as an extension of Anthony Hopkins. Not sure. But I do know that there is no love story more touching than that of Fats and Cork. RIP friends. And lovers.

  2. Good movie--Hopkins is excellent, and yes, Anne Margret looks amazing for her age(I mean, she was so old! She was 37, and...holy crap, I'm older than that now...please...kill me...)

    Also, how do you people update your blogs so much? Crap, I'm a slacker.

  3. Funny Andre, I think it's the giant head that MAKES him scary. Apparently Hopkins had to take Fats home before filming to get a feel for him, and was so freaked out by its resemblance that he called Attenborough at midnight to get the thing out of his house. The thing scared Hannibal Lector! How can you be so brave???

    Ann-Margret was only 37 in this film? Wow. She looks absolutely stunning as always, and maybe it's just that I'm so used to seeing her as a young Elvis banging teen, but I assumed she was much older here. I guess that bean bath in Tommy didn't do much for wrinkles. At least her breast looked great!

    And how DO we update so often. Not sure. A combination of uppers, inactive social lives, DVR that means no commercials ever, and sorcery. I do fear however that baseball season is going to start marring my movie watching, as the horror show that's bound to be the NY Mets will be scarier than anything on DVD.

  4. I'll always remember her as the chick with Conrad Birdie. My parents loved that movie, so I got to watch it many times. And she was very hot back then too.

    Baseball? What's that?

  5. Loved this movie too. Methinks it's time for a re-watch. And seriously, you guys with your update frequency makes me seriously look like a slacker too...

  6. It comes on every fall around Halloween but I didn't wanna bother watching it cut. I feel like I would be missing a few things if I did.

    Strange enough, doll flicks either make me feel really sad or burst into a fit of laughing hysterics. It's my bipolar trip.

    But it's Hopkins and your review is great so it's worth a shot.

  7. Baseball: a 2-4 hour activity involving overpaid, poorly spoken men typically between the ages of 22-40, watched by a good portion of the United States, Latin America, and Asia, often by viewers who possess no personal talent but believe with near certainty that they could perform the activities with far greater skill.

    Matt: Update more. Not just so I can read your fine site, but more so that I don't feel like such a nerd by being efficient.

    And Ashlee, this is one of those perennial AMC rotations and while no ratings cuts would be necessary, the pacing and mood are so important that I would definitely say it's better to just sit through it without interruptions. I definitely understand your point about doll flicks. You either fear them or just think they're silly. Come to think of it, Child's Play 3 sort of serves as prime reminders of what happens when you don't treat a killer doll with any gravitas but still expect to make an effective horror movie.

  8. I enjoyed this one, and thought the ventriloquism and Hopkins were both top rate. I really didnt mind the slower pace either.

  9. The slow pacing works, I think, because you're constantly sick with fear that Something Really Bad Is Coming. You just can't make a film with a creepy dummy and not pay it off, even though Magic does it in such a more interesting way than you'd expect.

  10. I have never even heard of this movie. It looks PERFECT! I must see it. In fact, I just opened netflix in a separate window.
    AND... done!
    (I may add Practical Magic too)
    That mini Hopkins looks adorable and I <3 Burgess Meredith.

  11. Adorable, terrifying, potato potahto. Or not! Fats is not cute! He is cruel! And-agh ick agh. He makes me squirm!

    Burgess Meredith, on the other hand, should be made available in teddy bear form.