Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Night of Terror #25: 'Magic'

Hello all. My friend Ira Brooker from A Talent For Idleness (and, I've long suspected, the Satellite of Love), has graciously written another post for the 'ror. This one about the film Magic, which I assume at least someone else has seen. Here ya go:

'Magic' stars a young Anthony Hopkins as a deranged ventriloquist named Corky. If you need any more enticement to see it than that, then you and I are very different people. The supporting cast includes Burgess Meredith as a feisty talent agent, David Ogden Stiers as an easily impressed investor and Ann-Margaret as an occasionally topless innkeeper. If you’re not sold yet, you’re dead to me. Magic was also the film Sir Richard Attenborough made in order to finance Gandhi. It’s pretty much a given that evil ventriloquist movies lead to prestige. The legendary Erich von Stroheim followed up 'The Great Gabbo' with 'Queen Kelly,' and Lindsay Shonteff, as we all know, progressed from 'Devil Doll' to 'Voodoo Blood Death.'

Not much about 'Magic' is especially original (other than the notion of an innately off-putting ventriloquist becoming the toast of the East Coast arts scene in 1978), but the execution mostly makes up for it. The opening sequences follow Corky as he rises rapidly from open mic bomber to star of the stage, mentored all the way by Fats, his foul-mouthed little demonspawn of a dummy. When fame proves too burdensome for the fragile, high-strung Corky, he retreats to an upstate getaway run by his old school crush Ann-Margaret and her bullying husband. It doesn’t take long for Fats to voice his objections to the new living conditions, and then the bodies start piling up.

The central question, of course, is whether it’s the ventriloquist or the dummy who’s truly in charge, because that is the central question of roughly 100% of ventriloquist-themed narratives. Like I said, 'Magic' isn’t the most original entertainment you’ll find, but it’s surprisingly gripping. A lot of that has to do with Attenborough’s well-paced, appropriately chilly direction. The biggest factor, though, is Not-Yet-Sir Anthony.

While restraint has never been Hopkins’ defining trait as an actor, he’s good at going big without quite going over the top. Corky’s battles with himself and with Fats are the real meat of 'Magic,' a sweaty, twitchy tour-de-force that keeps the tension level ratcheted several notches higher than it might otherwise be. There’s a fair bit of controversy in the online ventriloquist community (and doesn’t that sound like a hell of a thing to belong to?) about whether Hopkins did his own ventriloquism in this film. I think I side with the camp that believes Fats was voiced by one of the professionals on set, but Hopkins attacks the role with enough conviction that there’s plenty of room for reasonable doubt. As Corky pinballs between rage and timidity under Fats’ constant goading, the film steers just clear of silliness, settling instead into a satisfyingly creepy groove.

Judged as a horror film, 'Magic' is more unsettling than frightening. Judged as a film-film, it’s more accomplished than its premise suggests. Judged as a film wherein Anthony Hopkins plays a mentally ill ventriloquist named Corky, it is without parallel.

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