❉ A beautifully constructed toy of terror, its mechanisms meshing perfectly to deliver just the right shocks at just the right time.
Abracadabra, I sit on his knee.
Presto change, and now he is me!
Hocus pocus, we take her to bed:
Magic is fun! – We’re dead
Over the years, arguably starting with the likes of the folk tales of the terrifyingly omnivorous Wooden Baby or the well-intentioned but destructive Golem, taking in such detours as the tiny, vicious Zuni fetish doll of Trilogy of Terror, the biomechanical creations of Doctor Byron in Asylum (transcribed from Robert Bloch’s tellingly-titled Mannikins Of Horror), and the faceless, lethal Autons of Doctor Who, one of the key figures of horror has been what can best be described as the living doll. A malevolent or at the very least dangerous image or parody of a human being, which comes to apparent or actual life and causes mayhem. Asylum in particular plays on an unsubtle but powerful sub-text: we human beings are effectively God, breathing life into the lifeless clay, or wood, or plastic of these entities – and, like God, often finding that their reactions to this are decidedly rebellious.
And among their numbers, one particular variety rose to prominence – the evil ventriloquist’s dummy. Frequently displaying calculating intelligence which belied that unflattering name, usually discontented with their status in existence and looking to change it, whatever the cost. They tended to break down into two camps: those where the real trouble lay within the ventriloquist’s disintegrating sanity, and those where a more supernatural evil brought the inanimate to vindictive life. And, in the cinema, three key texts brought this unusual figure to enduring prominence.
1945’s Ealing anthology film, Dead Of Night, is rightly regarded as an enduring classic of horror cinema. Its tale of Maxwell Frere (portrayed brilliantly by Michael Redgrave) and his smart-aleck, waspish dummy Hugo made an immediate impression that lasts to this day. In the end, it’s made clear that Maxwell has cracked up under the pressures of his overly successful career: facing an equally precipitous fall from public favour due to an equally talented rival, he projects his hopes and fears onto Hugo. His demons are clearly all in his own mind, and Hugo becomes a handy scapegoat – until Maxwell’s crumbling sanity turns the dummy into his inadvertent Nemesis.
In 1964, the less well-regarded but effective Devil Doll, directed by reliable schlock merchant Lindsay Shonteff, was released. It told the tale of the Great Vorelli, played by Bryant Haliday, a figure as swaggeringly arrogant as Frere was fragile, and his famous dummy – named, with stunning originality, Hugo. However, Vorelli possesses power that is all too real, and Hugo – whose ability to get up and walk to the footlights unaided wows the crowds – is in fact the trapped soul of the ventriloquist’s former assistant, placed in the doll by his ruthless master (the true villain of the piece) via occult means, and Hugo eventually ends up becoming a strange variety of vengeful hero.
And then, in 1978, a veritable army of talent combined to release an unusual new twist to the formula. With Richard Attenborough directing, William Goldman scripting from his own novel, Jerry Goldsmith scoring, and a trans-Atlantic cast of stars including Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, and Burgess Meredith, the time had come for a dummy named Fats to weave his own particular sinister brand of… Magic.
The tale told is deceptively simple: a talented but fading stage magician is urged by his agent to add a new gimmick to his act to revitalise his career. He decides to do so by adding a wise-cracking, cynical dummy as an onstage sidekick but, even as his success is regained, Fats the dummy exerts an increasing, disturbing influence over his own private life. Trouble, almost inevitably, ensues.
It could have been just a shallow re-run of the tropes of previous ‘evil dummy’ films, and at heart its skeleton does remain the same: but what distinguishes Magic, and allows it to flourish in its own right, is the very humanity that it presents. We feel for Maxwell Frere and the enslaved Hugo, but they remain figures very much isolated from the rest of Humanity. Hopkins’s slyly-named Corky – just who is the real dummy here? – is far more defined by his relationships with others: Greene (Burgess Meredith), his hard-nosed but supportive agent ; Peggy Ann (Ann Margret), his old high school object of romantic worship; Duke (Ed Lauter), his dull but decent old school friend; and, yes – Fats, the apparent dummy who becomes his most intimate confidante – and most dangerous adviser.
Almost all stories of this kind end tragically, and it’s not so much of a spoiler to reveal that this one is no exception: but what elevates it most is Goldman’s excellent script. As he showed notably with his novel, and subsequent screenplay for, The Princess Bride, Goldman is often at his best when he takes the beats and well-worn clichés of an overly-familiar tale, and then twists them into something new which engages a jaded audience all over again. And with Magic, he does this by the most deceptively simple gambit of them all: for much of the film, he directs us back and forth between the two time-honoured explanations for such tales – either it’s all in the ventriloquist’s fracturing mind, or else there is some real paranormal or supernatural force at work. In the end, he does definitively choose one of the two, but throughout the whole story there are scenes and incidents which keep us guessing until the closing moments. It’s so simple, in fact, that it could easily go wrong: but, with such talent on both sides of the camera, it exerts a genuine grip, and succeeds marvellously in its aims of telling an engrossing tale – and scaring the living daylights out of us.
The performances are uniformly excellent – Hopkins is on fine form, convincing us of both Corky’s laid-back charm and the seething uncertainty within: Margret as the malcontent trapped within a decent but passionless marriage, yearning to gain the opportunity that she missed; Meredith as the no-nonsense but all-too-human and fundamentally kindly agent whose curiosity and concern is his own downfall. But, perhaps fittingly, the best performance of all comes from Fats.
Previous ‘evil dummies’ like the two Hugos tend to have sharp, angular features, pointed nosed and glass-cutting cheek bones, smart suits: even before their menace becomes fully apparent, they’re somehow aggressive-looking creations. Fats, on the other hand, looks deceptively affable, a picture of stupid good humour with his thick, suggestive eyebrows and unruly mop of hair. He carries the inevitable air of creepiness which comes with any ventriloquist’s doll, but just to look at he seems almost friendly compared to his predecessors, and his unpretentious working man’s attire and broad Bronx accent only add to this feeling of comparative safety. Only as events unfold does he become truly sinister, and the incongruity of his cheery appearance sits all the more unnervingly as he does so.
Meanwhile, Jerry Goldsmith’s score captures perfectly the creepy carnival-esque air that it needs to, and the comparatively unsung but great cinematographer Victor J Kemper gives the imagery exactly what it needs at any point, from kitchen sink realism to near-hallucinatory moments of nightmare. The whole film, in fact, is a beautifully constructed toy of terror, its mechanisms meshing perfectly to deliver just the right shocks at just the right time.
On its release in 1978, it was a reasonable success, but with surprising swiftness it sank into comparative obscurity for a long time, unable to compete with either the sheer classiness of Dead Of Night or the cheery no-frills exploitation of Devil Doll. However, in recent years, it’s experienced something of a revival, and deservedly so: and its recent re-release is fully deserved, and well worth viewing for any fan of horror. Far from being fit only for dummies, it’s a real doll of a film.
❉ Screenwriting for Dummies: William Goldman interview
❉ Archive Anthony Hopkins interview
❉ Victor Kemper: Cinematographer
❉ Ann-Margret make-up test
❉ Fats and Friends: a history of ventriloquism with the film’s consultant
❉ Anthony Hopkins archive radio interview
❉ ‘Magic’ (Cat.No.: 2NDBR4109) is out now on Blu-ray from Second Sight. Order here: http://bit.ly/MagicBluray. Check out Second Sight Films’ new website for new release info and to buy direct at: www.secondsightfilms.co.uk
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.