FEBRUARY 23, 2010
Pretty much since I saw/liked Dead Silence (three years ago!), people have been telling me to watch Magic, which was also about a ventriloquist whose doll may be killing people. So I finally got around to it today. I have no excuse for it taking this long; it’s not like I can say “I don’t watch horror movies that often” or whatever. Luckily, it was worth the wait - it’s not a full blown horror movie like Dead Silence was, but the infrequency of the creepy moments makes them all the more unnerving.
The great thing about the movie is that while it certainly plays out as if Hopkins is just a loon with split personalities, but every now and then the doll appears to move on its own, and (though this might just a be an editing error) they sometimes both talk at the same time. I mean, the doll (“Fats”) certainly has Hopkins voice, and even looks like him a bit (it’s the ugliest goddamn puppet I’ve ever seen in a movie, I know that much), but if someone were to say they think it was really alive (in addition to Hopkins’ mental issue), I wouldn’t scoff at the notion.
The key moment of creepiness occurs around the halfway mark, when Burgess Meredith’s character asks Hopkins to go five minutes without “talking to” Fats. It plays out in double time (so when it’s been a minute, Meredith says that it’s only been 30 seconds), which adds to the tension, and it’s a nail-biter of the highest order - on one hand, you’re afraid for Burgess (who is playing the role largely straight, unlike many of his other genre appearances in the late 70s), and on the other, you’re kind of anxious to get an answer over whether or not Hopkins is just batshit or not. And hell, he’s sort of lovable in his normal mode, so you’re also a bit hopeful that he can do it and be OK. Lot of different elements going on, just in one simple scene of two guys sitting there. Great stuff.
Unsurprisingly, it’s hardly a splatter or exploitation movie. The director is none other than Richard Attenborough, who used to direct a lot of films (Gandhi, Chaplin) but is now largely known for sparing no expense and welcoming folks to Jurassic Park. The script is by William Goldman (based on his own novel), better known for Butch and Sundance and All The President’s Men. And Hopkins was probably considered an odd choice, as most of his previous roles were high end, theatrical fare like Lion In Winter or War & Peace, and it would be another 13 years before he took on Hannibal Lecter. . In other words, it’s a CLASSY killer puppet movie, so don’t go in expecting a more serious version of Child’s Play or whatever.
Two things kind of bugged me though. One was the language - it seems like they were using F bombs just for the hell of it, and they all sounded forced. There isn’t any real violence in the film, so without the swearing it probably could have gotten a PG (nudity was allowed in PG back in the day, oddly enough, so Ann-Margret’s brief topless shot probably wouldn’t have been an issue either), so maybe they just threw them in to get an R rating and keep kids out of the theater (“Hey, it’s Howdy Doody! Oh wait....”). The other are some curiously bad overdubs, like when Hopkins is eating with his manager and is clearly saying one thing but we hear another. Worse, they don’t even do the whole line, just the replaced words, and it doesn’t even sound like Hopkins. Really weird, and given that the movie is about ventriloquism, it’s pretty distracting to have a non-puppet moment with weird vocal issues.
Dark Sky’s DVD has some interesting extras. One is a retrospective that starts off with ten minutes about the history of ventriloquism. I assume it’s because they couldn’t get anyone to contribute besides the guy who did the puppetry for Hopkins (this poor sod had to hide just off screen for the entire movie), but he’s a delight to listen to, and after a while he grabs the Fats puppet and does a “joint” interview with him. So, yeah, weirdest retrospective ever. Then the film’s DP talks for a bit, pointing out the creepy shadows of Hopkins’ face that are lit to look like the puppet face and other stuff like that. An old radio interview with Hopkins (played over some outtakes), another TV interview with him that’s half in Spanish, and Ann-Margret’s makeup test are also included, plus the usual assortment of TV spots and trailers (many of which make the film look far creepier than it is). A shame Goldman couldn’t be brought in for some thoughts, at least, but it’s still a good package, and the transfer is quite nice.
One thing that the ventrilo guy reveals is that Chevy Chase was once considered for the role, which would have been amazing if you ask me (no one did, or ever will). But it got me thinking, since we now associate Hopkins with crazy roles, I wonder how the film would work as a remake, with a big comic actor in the role? Jason Segel is a puppet nut, maybe with him in the lead, this could be modernized, and it would regain a bit of the creepiness that has been lost to time and the actor being overshadowed by a far more iconic horror role.
What say you?