Take heart kiddies, for every movie that is not quite as good as you recall there is another film that is way better than you remember. Take RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH’S 1978 deadly dummy opus MAGIC for example; once you adjust to the idea that there’s nothing supernatural going on, it’s really a fantastic, character-driven, psychological horror movie. My history with the flick goes like this: the notoriously kindertraumatic TV commercial creeped the crap out of me as a critter and then when I mustered the bravery to watch the movie as a teen (in the height of the gore boom), I found it to be as threatening as a splinter. Maybe my bloodthirsty expectations were too high but sorry, the bludgeoning of BURGESS MEREDITH wasn’t going to cut it. Flash forward to today-ville and I’ve changed my plea to semi-obsessed. I’d say the changing of my tune is due to my need for on screen violence lessening and my getting older and relating to the characters more. Plus, I recently very much enjoyed the book that it’s based on by William Goldman.
Call me crazy but I think one of life’s great pleasures is reading a book that a movie was based on (or one of those tie-in novels based on a script). It’s so fun to contrast and compare and every added or altered tidbit is a prize. Goldman’s novel MAGIC solidified the film for me and although he certainly did a marvelous job on his adapted screenplay, I now have a better grasp of what was missing in the movie (for me) all these years. Unsurprisingly, my qualms are kindertrauma inclined. The book does a far better job filling us in on the main character’s troubled childhood and abandonment by his mother, which goes a long way in explaining his mindset. Additionally, the central love story makes more sense when we are privy to the characters’ full history together. Finally MAGIC’s sly shell game finale works fine in the book but not at all on screen. Too little effort was made to adjust to the changed medium and I think it would have been better to drop the misdirection and go full on cat & mouse mode. Anything would be better than the film’s bizarre last scene that stomps all over what should have been a bittersweet final note.
So there’s a couple things I’d rather were done differently but that doesn’t mean I can’t still love it. At its core, MAGIC is pretty straightforward morality tale about the horror of loosing one’s sense of self in an effort to achieve acceptance. ANTHONY HOPKINS portrays Corky Withers, a down on his luck magician who ads an obnoxious ventriloquist dummy to his act in a last ditch effort to save his career. The dummy “Fatts” is basically Corky’s dark side, a wooden manifestation of his id. He’s sort of like a precursor to an internet troll who “speaks his mind” and becomes popular with those who are cathartically thrilled by hostility but unwilling to pay the consequences themselves.
At first Fatt’s cutting aggressiveness is a watershed for socially stumbling Corky and he becomes a magnet for success but his alter ego becomes harder to keep in line and soon there’s a question of which persona will dominate. Like many an addict, Corky is left choosing between a mutant-self that promises plenty but threatens to eclipse him and an authentic self whose track record is marred by seclusion and little joy.
Seeing MAGIC all cleaned up on DVD in its proper ratio reveals it’s certainly a lot more atmospheric than I remembered. The run-down lake house property that much of the film’s later action takes place in, is deliciously dank, gloomy and downright ill-boding. The real stars of the show however are its two (or should I say three?) lead performances. I think we all know what ANTHONY HOPKINS is capable of. Truth told, our guy’s weird accent in this movie is so all over the place that it’s nearly kaleidoscopic but it matters zero because he’s impossible to be bored by. Creepily, his very last line in the film “Kiss the girl goodbye” I swear, is full on, 100% Hannibal Lecter, to the point of giving me chills. It’s almost like you can hear Hannibal being born in this movie…I kid you not. The way HOPKINS is able to bring both Fatts and Corky to life is impressive indeed and God bless ATTENBOROUGH for leaving in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment with Fatts clearly moving on his own accord, just to keep us on our toes. And then there’s ANN-MARGRET who’ve I’ve been in love with ever since she sang a lullaby to Pebbles on THE FLINTSTONES as Ann- Margrock. She’s every shade of charming and effortlessly pushes the point that MAGIC is as much a tragic love story as it is a horror/thriller.
Geez, I feel like I haven’t said enough about Fatts! I totally get my younger self’s desire to see him leaping around like a mad monkey slashing folks (as Chucky would soon do) but there’s no denying how creepy Fatts is just chilling out, sitting still. The fact that he is designed to vaguely resemble HOPKINS certainly adds much to his unsettling quality and rarely has a non-human been such a scene-stealer. And that voice! That voice, I’m sure has launched countless nightmares. Um, where is the remake of MAGIC? That’s what I’d like to know. Talk about your sleeping giants! All you’d need to do is cram some action into the final act, add a dream sequence in which Fatts massacres a busload of children and then cast SAM ROCKWELL and NAOMI WATTS as leads. Throw out a trailer that perfectly mimics the original trailer and then sit back and watch the money roll in! Who could resist it? Not me. Anyway, if you haven’t seen MAGIC in a while, watch it again and just prepare to forgive it for not ramping up the thrills in the climax. And do read the book, I highly recommend it! And don’t forget to listen to the theme song “Magic” by Olivia Newton John (Don’t correct me, my fantasy world is an improvement on reality)!