Judge Brett Cullum had to get in touch with his inner dummy before reviewing this film.
Fats: Abracadabra, I sit on his knee. Presto, change-o, and now he's me! Hocus Pocus, we take her to bed. Magic is fun…we're dead.
Brett: Evil ventriloquist dolls have been around in films since a 1925 Lon Chaney production called The Unholy Three and 1929's The Great Gabbo. There was also the cult classic Devil Doll, and of course Chucky in all his Child's Play glory. Yet Generation X-ers remember 1978's evil dummy picture Magic best, thanks to its ultra-creepy child-scaring ad campaign. Growing up I collected ventriloquist puppets. My favorite was a brown-suited, bow-tied little man named Bob. Thanks to a special retainer that closed my teeth in a clench to correct an overbite, I was adept at making the dolls speak. Anytime I had a babysitter I didn't like or an overnight sleepover guest I didn't want, all I had to do was make Bob say "Magic is fun…we're dead!" to send them screaming into the suburban night. Magic has a special place in my heart, so I decided to pull Bob down from the attic and have him help me with a review.
Bob: Welcome to play time you geeky movie wankers! Don't be afraid, I'm in control of the court now. Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night. I'm going to make Brett a f***ing Internet star! (eyes dart) What's with the dashes Mr. Editor, you scared? [Ed. Note: Yes. Very.]
Facts of the Case
Brett: Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) plays flailing magician Corky. He's not so hot onstage, because he has no personality. He's too shy. So he gets a friend to help him out—a foul-mouthed puppet named Fats. Suddenly Corky and Fats make an unbeatable team, and their career takes off. But he refuses a physical for a chance to be on national TV, which had been arranged by his manager (Burgess Meredith, Oscar nominee for Rocky).
Bob: That's when the story gets really interesting. That ripe bastard that played Hannibal the Cannibal gets his due from a psychotic piece of wood.
Brett: Corky and Fats run home to the Catskills to get their heads together. But who should be there but Corky's high school love, Peg (Ann-Margret, an Oscar nominee for Tommy)? Peg is in an abusive, loveless marriage, and is only too happy to see her old flame. She agrees to run away with Corky, who plans to exit show business altogether. Fats isn't too happy about this, and decides to take control of Corky. People must die, because the show must go on.
Bob: Psychotic schizophrenia is fun…everyone's dead. Except the dummy! When's the damned sequel coming out?
Brett: First, there was the best-selling book by William Goldman (Oscar winning screenwriter of All the President's Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), who had also written Marathon Man. The source novel was written as a fictional diary from the dummy's point of view. Goldman agreed to write the adaptation when the rights were bought to the story. He improved on the original in many ways, fleshing out the characters and adding some drama. Interestingly enough, Magic was almost a Norman Jewison film starring Jack Nicholson and Laurence Olivier. At various times in its production history, it was also slated to be a Mike Nichols project for Gene Wilder or Chevy Chase. But when Oscar winner Lord Richard Attenborough (A Bridge Too Far) was brought on, he thought it should be Sir Anthony Hopkins. (Funny thing—Ann-Margret was attached to her part since day one.) Attenborough only made the movie because the producers promised to help fund his epic biopic Gandhi.
Bob: And the dummy was changed out several times, because the first one was too cute and they wanted it to look like Sir Anthony. Hopkins was none too excited when that happened, because suddenly he had to live with a doll that looked like him. And at one point a toy company wanted to produce a doll tie-in to sell Fats to children everywhere, but one screening of the film changed all that.
Brett: And then there was the television commercial.
Bob: Yes, the TV ad actually only ran a couple of times. Angry parents called television stations across the country in great numbers to claim the ad with the dummy reciting the poem scared their children. The little pussies!
Brett: The movie holds up well as a psychological thriller, but it's not really a horror movie by modern definitions. Think of Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining, eliminate the ghosts, and replace them with a doll. Magic is like a long episode of The Twilight Zone which goes on for an hour and forty-seven minutes. The acting is great, the doll is creepy…
Bob: The doll kicks ass! Abso-f***ing-lutely brilliant. He's the star.
Brett: Yes, the doll does kick ass. The movie creeps along at a glacial pace in the first couple of reels, but once the bodies begin piling up the tempo kicks in to overdrive. It's a great chance for Anthony Hopkins to display his acting chops in an early career role.
Bob: But the dummy steals every scene. Except for any part where Ann-Margret loses her sweater. Wowza!
Brett: The disc's presentation is solid. The menus are fully animated with Fats reciting his infamous poem. The transfer was directly supervised by the cinematographer, Victor J. Kemper (Tommy Boy). Magic looks very good on DVD, with appropriate black levels and a flair for shadows. It looks its age in certain spots, and it's a little soft and color-faded like most movies from the late '70s. Unfortunately the sound mix is merely the mono track of the original release, but it's clear. The extras were produced in conjunction with Blue Underground, and they're quite extensive. Two vintage interviews with Hopkins, all the trailers, a new interview with the cinematographer, a picture-only make-up test for Ann-Margret, radio spots, and a photo gallery.
Bob: My favorite extra was the thirty minute featurette called Fats and Friends. In that crucial documentary they examine the roots of ventriloquism, and show you all sorts of myths and legends about my favorite friends. What you may not know is magicians and dolls have been together for hundreds of years. And that all ventriloquists have two things in common: they are all self-taught, and they all do it before puberty. The show is hosted by Fats himself, and the man who claims to be his operator, Dennis Alwood.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Brett: Magic is a fun relic of my youth. Yet it doesn't seem quite as scary now that I'm all grown up and can watch it in my living room.
Bob: Yeah, nothing like the good old days when we would watch it from out of a sleeping bag in front of the TV after the parents went to bed. Or when we made babysitters watch it, and then you would tape a steak knife to my hand to freak them out. Good times. Those were the days.
Brett: I say Magic is best when you remember it fondly. If it was a significant part of your childhood, then a purchase is a simple decision. Still, the movie seems to have a dated feel. It reminds me of how cerebral horror movies were before Michael, Freddy, and Jason turned them in to pure visceral kill fests. It is smarter than your average thriller, but it is short on true scares and longer on the creep factor. Unlike the book, it's obvious what is really happening in the movie and what is behind it. But it does remain a fun ride
Bob: Not guilty. This movie is better than that Crash crap you made me watch after it. No talking psychotic dummies in that one, and it could have used it. Sandra Bullock as a crazy racist white bitch? Not scary. But give her a doll that shouts "Wetback!" at that locksmith guy? Then you'd have a Best Picture. Imagine all the movies that could be improved by me and my friends. And yet all I can hope for is that maybe Joaquin Phoenix will follow up Walk the Line with The Edgar Bergen Story. Remember kids—if it ain't got wood, it's crap. Demand the dummy, and buy Magic. Or I'll have to come visit your sorry ass with a steak knife.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
• Featurette Fats and Friends
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