Directed by Richard Attenborough.
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann Margeret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter and David Ogden Stiers.
Failed stage magician Corky finds success after adding Fats, a foul mouth mouthed ventriloquist dummy, to his act. However, as his fame grows, Corky’s already fragile mental state begins to deteriorate, with Fats seeming to have developed a will of his own.
I don’t know if I’m alone here, but I really fucking hate ventriloquist dummies. Why anyone thinks they are an appropriate source of entertainment is beyond me, but the minute I see one of those wooden beady-eyed Michael Gove look-alikes, I find myself running for the nearest exit. The same thing happens whenever I see the real Michael Gove. So intense is my hatred for ventriloquist dummies that, of course, I had to take a look at a horror film about one; Richard Attenborough’s psychological horror/drama Magic.
Anthony Hopkins gives a haunting performance as Corky, an aspiring performer whose ever-growing fame slowly causes his mind to break apart at the seams. Hopkins’s initially stiff acting perfectly suits the repressed, awkward loner that Corky appears to be. A strange eccentric who merely wants to entertain people with his magic act, but who finds his biggest hindrance is his delicate mental state. As Corky finds love, Hopkins displays a level of dorky charm, acting so odd and quirky that you can’t help but find him endearing, drawing you in with his lonely vulnerability.
It’s as his mind begins to collapse that Hopkins really has you in his grips, his intensity during a difficult card trick being unnerving as we start to see hints of a much darker side to the character. Yet, despite the darker moments, Corky is ultimately a tragic figure, a sad disturbed man who can’t cope with the pressures of his growing fame, his mind splintering as he does what, he thinks, his puppet demands of him. A moment in which, at the behest of his agent, he attempts to keep his puppet “quiet” for five minutes is a chilling and haunting moment as Hopkins superbly portrays the torture that the action is inflicting upon Corky, his eventual crack-up being a sad capitulation. Far from being a terrifying performance, Hopkins’s turn as Corky is ultimately a sympathetic and sad one that that I would rank as one of the legendary actors most underrated.
There are strong supporting performances from Ann Margaret as Hopkin’s love interest, the pair’s scenes together adding some calm and warmth to proceedings, and Burgess Meredith as Hopkins’s agent, the veteran performer’s understated turn filled with humour and father like wisdom.
Based on the novel of the same name by William Goldman (who also wrote the screenplay), Magic could have been a stock ‘evil dummy’ film in which a man and his puppet embark upon a killing spree. Or a Goosebumps style tale of a living dummy. However, Goldman and Attenborough instead craft a more psychological and dramatic story that dispenses with any kind of supernatural tropes opting instead to give us a window into a mental breakdown. This approach makes Magic feel like less of a horror film and more of a character drama that’s a good thing, especially when the script, direction and performances are this strong. The horror elements, while sometimes secondary, are suitably effective at getting under your skin, especially when Fats the Dummy is concerned.
Fats is a creepy creation, his disturbing appearance (looking appropriately like Hopkins) and his foul-mouthed wise-cracking persona never ceasing to unease, his every appearance and utterance sending a chill down the spine. The creepiness of Fats is aided immeasurably by the performance of Hopkins as Fat’s voice, adopting a high pitched exaggerated “Noo Yoik” accent that pierces the air like a razor with his shrieking demands for Corky to do his bidding.
Yet, the film is also funny, with the comic routines of Fats and Corky often allowing for some fast-paced banter that, while crass and bit old fashioned (lots of jokes about sex and wood ‘peckers’), still make me laugh. Other parts of the film made me laugh for perhaps the wrong reason with it having more than a few unintentional laughs. I mean, how can you not watch someone being beaten near to death with a dummy and not crack up?. And while Hopkin’s performance is, for the most part, exemplary, one scene where he perhaps goes too over the top did cause me to burst into a fit of nervous laughter. Although the moment was, admittedly still unsettling as Hopkins’s completely loses it, shrieking and crying as he attempts to resist Fat’s influence.
Magic, while strong on many fronts, is not without its problems. While only clocking in at two hours, it runs a half-hour too long with if often feeling like some scenes have been added to pad the run time out. Also, while Fats is a terrifying presence, any moment in which he doesn’t feature was honestly rather dull. I also struggled to become invested in the soapy romantic sub-plot between Hopkins and Ann Margaret, with it not packing pack the same emotional punch as Corky’s breakdown. However, despite these problems, the performances of Hopkins and his co-stars do sometimes manage to salvage these slower moments.
Thanks to Anthony Hopkins’s creepy yet tragic performance and its story of a disturbed man losing his mind, Magic, while far from perfect, is still an unsettling psychological horror drama and one of the better films about an evil ventriloquist dummy.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★