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Monday, July 9, 2012

Day 191: Magic

What beautiful, unblinking, uncaring, unloving blue eyes

Ventriloquism, with the exception of “comedian” Jeff Dunham, has not been popular in mainstream culture since the 1950's and 1960's. Despite it's fade from the spotlight, ventriloquism and ventriloquist dummies have managed to find a place in horror movies. We've seen them used in movies such as Dead Silence, The Great Gabbo, and The Dummy episode from The Twilight Zone. Maybe it's the emotionless faces or the child-like bodies, but these dummies has an unmistakable creepiness to them making them perfect villains for horror. They are a relatively cheap to make and effective in making audiences uneasy. What makes these movies work, though, is a solid story and a good cast and who is a better than Sir Anthony Hopkins?

Magic is a 1978 psychological horror movie starring Anthony Hopkins (Silence Of The Lambs, Amistad) as Charles “Corky” Withers, based on the novel of the same name by William Goldman. Corky is a magician's apprentice who bombs in his first attempt performing in front of a live audience. His mentor tells him that he lacks personality and needs to gain one in order to succeed. Flash forward a year and Corky's act is a smash hit, thanks to the inclusion of a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy named Fats. His act has gained the attention of powerful agent Ben Green (Burgess Meredith, Rocky, The Twilight Zone). Ben is on the verge of procuring Corky a television show when he informs Corky that he must take a medical exam before the television company agrees to the deal. Corky refuses, basing his decision on principal, and flees to the Catskills in upstate New York. He reunites with his high school crush, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margaret, Bye, Bye, Birdie, Tommy). Corky and Fats charm Peggy, who is unhappy with her marriage to her husband, Duke (Ed Lauter, Cujo, Youngblood). He even performs a card trick that leads Peggy to believe that they have a psychic and spiritual connection. They consummate their reconnection that sparks jealousy in Fats when Corky is alone with him. Ben is able to track down Corky and finds him arguing with Fats. He asks Corky if he can go five minutes without speaking as Fats. He is unable and Ben leaves, vowing to get Corky help for his mental problems. In a fit of rage, Fats convinces Corky to kill Ben. Corky smashes him in the head with Fats and swims out to the middle of a lake to hide the body. The next morning, Fats's jealousy grows even larger when Corky mentions running away with Peggy. Duke arrives back home and suspects that Peggy has slept with Corky. He takes Corky out on a boat to question him when they discover Ben's body on shore. With help from Corky, Fats stabs Duke to death. With “Fats” now calling the shots, what will happen to Corky and Peggy?

"I can't believe that guy is wearing the same sweater!"

Most horror movies involving ventriloquist dummies focus on supernatural elements to turn the dolls into killers. Magic goes the psychological route, with Corky being “controlled” by his Fats personality. Modern audiences would recognize the arguments between Corky and Fats in scenes involving Gollum's inner turmoil from The Lord of the Rings. The move itself is not scary in the sense that you will jump out of your seat or hide under the covers. The movie has an underlying creepiness the grows as Corky's mind begins to fall apart while Fats takes over. The story is pretty straight-forward, but still intriguing, sucking the audience into a movie where a dummy is a main character. The ending is particularly heart-breaking, but fits in well with the movie's overall sadness.

The movie is effective because of the strong performances of Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margaret. Their relationship on screen is very believable which makes the rest of the movie believable. Burgess Meredith is great as Agent Ben Greene and is most identifiable with the audience. Along with Ben, we see Corky's potential and then discover his scary mental state. Hopkins's Corky is stiff and nervous which plays well against the loose and dirty Corky. It's also nice to see a younger Hopkins at work. His split-personality is the real villain of the movie and his interaction with Fats provides more cerebral action than most horror movies. Those who want lots of action and blood will have to find it elsewhere, because Magic just isn't that type of movie.

Three is the "Magic" number

Doll and dummy horror movies are nothing new. While most focus on killer dolls stabbing and tripping human victims, Magic is a psychological trip into a fragile and broken mind. We feel for Corky and want him to succeed, but we know that he cannot. Performances by Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margaret really make the movie work and bring an emotional authenticity not seen in a lot of horror. The movie lacks in action and violence, but it is thrilling and creepy nonetheless. If you like your horror movies smart and cerebral, you'll enjoy Magic.


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