Walking the delicate tight-rope between the psychological and the supernatural that has preoccupied mankind since the earliest stories were told by primal man staring through the darkness into star-light- these of course being the cross comparative mythologies, legends, and folklore of practically every culture - Magic evokes the mystery, madness, and macabre possibilities of both the uncanny and all too real with an elegance and honesty rare not only in genre filmmaking but in any movie. That it does so with genuine moments if inspired terror and suspense makes it a successful thriller. That it's themes are ambiguous enough in conception and execution to prevent us from completely knowing whether or not a supernatural agency is truly at work only adds to the its tension and memorable anxiety. As much a probing, philosophically disturbing poem of self-doubt, alienation, and dependence as it is an unapologetic fright-fest, Magic is that rare beast of modern cinema, a horror film that manages to be as smart and emotionally provocative as it is scary.
Delivering the gory goods with gusto in those rare moments when physical moments of terror are needed, the true subversive beauty and effectiveness of Magic lies in the fact that its dedication to characterization largely eliminates the audience's need for cheap scares and shocks - conventional devices so abused in lesser movies whose lack of interesting plot developments, sympathetic characters, or suspenseful pace demands compensation in the form of blood and breasts. A more mature movie than the former type, the filmmakers don't allow their serious, self reflective themes interfere with delivering the basic entertainment that any story needs to be effective. Since Homer wrote of Olympian gods, storytellers have understood the need to hook audiences before attempting to get them to think. Magic's script and direction do precisely that, inviting us to empathize and express sympathy for the title character in the beginning, sharing in his humiliation, anxiety, and sadness, before charging the realistically shot city and rural settings with an almost surreal atmosphere of terror. The characters are likeable enough to care about and identity with, so we care what happens to them, and why.
Based on the best-selling novel of former poet William Goldman, Magic is, at its heart, as much an emotionally scarring ode to loneliness and our need for acceptance as it is a terrifying exposition of our common fear of ourselves, identity, and the conflict between who we think we are, and who we truly may be. Subtitled: "A terrifying love story," the movie is also a loving terror story, the director and writer investing tenderness amidst tension in this sad elegy to long lost loves and impossible futures. The only happiness is in self-sacrifice and the welcoming arms of black oblivion for people whose decency and earnest attempts at love are rewarded by fear, violence, and death.
Anthony Hopkins becomes Corky, a painfully awkward, impossibly shy middle aged man who experienced the culmination of a lifetimes of failures and insecurity one night at a comedy club where both his stage act and emotional stability bombed. Failing as a stage magician and relationships with either the world at large or his own sense of self, Corky, years later, has somehow found the success he so strongly coveted as a ventriloquist. But even now, it isn't so much himself as the personality which he hides behind which greets, faces, and sasses the outside world. The true star of his act is Fats, a menacingly animate, foul-mouthed dummy. This use of a doll, particularly a human-like dummy, emphasizes the major theme of masks and shifting identities in this horrific search-for-self. Despite a sense of moving sadness and regret captured in Hopkins sensitive eyes, Corky's life and career seem to be looking up when, true to the sadistic tone of real life, cranky yet caring agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) gets him the chance to appear on national television. For reasons unknown, Corky bristles at the need for a sanity test for a physical required by the studio, and flees with Fats to upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains. Finding comfort in a secluded, ram-shackle resort, he finds, in a bitter-sweet twist of fate, that it is ran by an old high school sweetheart, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), who has been imprisoned in a n emotionally cold marriage with Duke, a simplistic self-centered mountain man who immediately distrusts Corky. Seeing a chance in Corky, she soon makes plans to flee her old life with him, a fact which Corky repeats to his puppet. Fats has other plans, verbally abusing him in a manner extremely disturbing because it is played straight faced instead of silly. Soon, Corky is clearly in under Fat's control (as, we're led to believe he always was to some extent), the pressures of career and life and women forcing him to retreat into the personality of Fats, a fellow who may be made of wood but who can take control.
Whether Corky commits acts of flinching violence and cruelty because he wants to or because he is truly under the influence of the doll is left ambiguous. This lends further terror to the unnerving direction. Corky's truly likeable if psychotic character, and the saddening situation such likeable if believably flawed people find themselves in, elevates this horror movie into the pathos usually reserved for tragedy. It is a story of pain, isolation, and identity gone horribly bad, and while clearly crafted to scare with violence and themes of psychosis, scenes wherein characters discover who they truly are, and what it is they want most, are as capable of making us think as flinching.
Dolls have long held a place of fear and reverence in the religious and occult systems of the world, treated with both awe and fear by people who see supernatural manifestations of otherworldly power in their dull, frozen features. On the other hand, the use of dolls (as a sort of mask with which to hide behind) as surrogates or replacements for the personality (or layers of one personality) has long been a psychological curiosity, embodying/symbolizing a physical and emotional tool for a person's true, hidden, secret desires and fears. Already, then, Goldman and the director have a culturally charged, archetypal figure with which to evoke uneasiness, fear, and suspense from the audience. And who at one time hasn't been afraid of those frozen-faced, buggy-eyed staring freaks at least once in their lives?!
Besides the few excellent episodes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone series themselves featured a transference of soul and/or mind and identity between ventriloquist and Dummy (and both of which share more than one similarity in plot, character, and theme with Goldman's story!), this is one of the few feature-length incarnations of this eerie, disturbing theme. Dealing with issues of identity, power struggle, and the power of creation which date back to the ancient myth of the Greek Pygmillian and ancient supernatural fictions which explored dolls animated either by souls or spell-craft, Magic is realistic in its treatment of a theme that could have easily been ridiculous in the hands of less craftsmen
As with their stellar edition of Henry, Dark Sky Films once again presents a serious, reflective horror movie of substance and subversive fear to home theaters with a package that is respectful of its source and whose technical aspects and extras add knowledge and enjoyment to the viewing experience. The film is presented in a 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen, transfer that reveals the integrity of the compositions and specifications of framing. The picture quality is strong and sharp, reproducing colors and lines with a clarity that emphasizes detail. While grain from the film introduces scant speckling, the overall quality is amazing. The audio is English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, which is happily free from distraction.
While the emotionally hurtful movie is the principle reason to buy this DVD, the extras are a close second. Including "Fats and Friends," an extensive 25 min. documentary by David Gregory, offers a tour of ventriloquist cinema before featuring an interview with Daniel Alwood, a ventriloquist who designed Fats, and the mouthy, murderous doll himself! Alwood discusses his memories of the cast and crew, the movie as a project, and, most exciting, mentions the people who could have been involved with the movie if fate hadn't worked out different. An interview cinematographer Victor Kemper follows, which serves a crash-course in the technical areas of compositions, lighting, and mood establishment. This goodness is followed by radio interview footage from Anthony Hopkins before he ate brains with beans, which plays over an enjoyable set of bloopers and out-takes, followed by a brief unnecessary television clip of still another interview. A make up test with Ann Margaret, still galleries, and such promotional material as trailers and tv spots are also included.
Director Sir Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) uses a poet's understanding of character and atmosphere to craft what is perhaps the greatest cinematic statement on the illusiveness of character and identity in existence. His dark vision of Goldman's challenging story makes it easy to ask just what the differences may be between dolls who behave like people, and people who act and think and react like. . . dolls. A wonderfully presented edition of a terrifying, smart macabre masterpiece, Magic will weave a dark spell on you!
Reviewed By: William P. Simmons
|Released by Dark Sky Films|
|Region All NTSC|
|Extras : see main review|