Magic (1978)

11 Mar

Magic-Richard-Attenborough-1978_portrait_w858

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Magic” is an unsettling but well-made thriller with a nice take on the possessed ventriloquist’s dummy story. And it’s always fun to create stories featuring dolls or dummies with some sort of supernatural entity surrounding them, because they themselves are so wholesome-looking when they’re still that they have to have something sinisterly wrong with them.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Corky, a nervous novice magician who has failed in his attempt at professional magic. Knowing he needs a new gimmick, he comes back as a combination magician and ventriloquist with a foul-mouthed dummy named “Fats.” His act is successful, as he gains an agent (Burgess Meredith) who wants to sign him for his own TV show. Afraid of success, he takes off to the mountains, where he meets an old high school crush Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), stuck in a loveless marriage with Corky’s high school friend Duke (Ed Lauter).

Corky brings Fats with him, and he uses it to amuse Peggy. While Duke is gone, and Corky and Peggy get reacquainted, they develop the relationship that they would’ve had in high school if Corky weren’t so shy. But they also believe that they are soul mates and they wind up making love, leading to the jealousy of…Fats. As it seems, Corky cannot control Fats off-stage, and Fats even talks him into performing murderous deeds to save himself.

The genius of the film is that it’s never fully explained if the dummy “Fats” is alive, let alone evil. While it may seem that Fats may have developed a malevolent personality of its own, it’s never quite clear. Corky and Fats do have unsettling conversations; however, Fats’ lips don’t move unless Corky is controlling him, and yet he still continues to talk. That’s a very clever move and makes “Magic” more of a psychological thriller than a horror film—it presents the implication that maybe Corky is of two minds: the innocence that we see and the psychotic instability that comes from the notion that Corky doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. In that case, it’s really quite fascinating. There’s a lot you could read into this—is the doll alive or just a manifestation of Corky’s id? And how far will it go? Will it go so far that Fats won’t allow Corky to make his own decisions?

The direction by Richard Attenborough and the writing by William Goldman, based upon his own novel, is effective enough to make the story of a possible possessed malevolent doll seem somewhat plausible. There are many eerie, troubling scenes centered around Corky’s unstable mind as he talks with Fats about doing what he wants to do to stay with Peggy, and the way it continues to develop further and further into the horror element is efficiently well-done. Also, the little moments such as Corky teaching Peggy a magic card trick have their own charms.

Anthony Hopkins turns in an excellent performance as Corky, a man who appears to be innocent and balanced, but also disturbed and sad. And of course, I should also credit his work as the voice of Fats, sounding much like a British TV comic (fittingly enough, since he’s made for show business). Hopkins is great in this movie, and so is Ann-Margret, who is fun and charming as the potential love interest. She sparkles throughout the movie.

“Magic” is a terrific thriller with an eerie feel, a strong leading actor, and a suitably creepy doll. I can predict that even those who won’t find this movie scary will still see it as a brilliant character study and psychological case.

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