Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel “THE I IN EVIL”, and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
FANGO Flashback: “MAGIC”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
For a genre so incestuous in terms of producers, directors and shared talent, it’s always interesting to see a prestigious outsider dip their toes into horror. Whether it’s Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme or other award-winning filmmakers who aren’t strictly tied to scare fare, there’s a certain fascination (and financial accommodation) that comes to their genre output that can’t necessarily be associated with those from whom horror hounds know what to expect. And furthermore, even if they do turn in something somewhat familiar to the genre, you can always expect top tier performances, executions and narrative flourishes that remind the audience exactly why tropes were scary in the first place, with few better examples than Richard Attenborough’s exceptionally creepy MAGIC.
For those unfamiliar, MAGIC follows Corky, a mentally unstable yet successful ventriloquist whose career as an insult comedian is on the verge of transitioning from stage to screen. However, when his psychiatric health is questioned, Corky takes off to the lakeside property of a childhood friend, with his dummy Fats in tow. Finding himself falling in love and disillusioned with his career, Corky looks to leave behind showbusiness once and for all… but Fats has other plans, and will kill to get what he wants.
Very much a performance-driven psychological horror film (with slasher elements as well), MAGIC is elevated by William Goldman’s superb script (adapted from his own novel) as well as Attenborough’s fairly straight-forward direction. Attenborough and Goldman both know the power of an intense moment of silence, and offers several throughout MAGIC, all of which make Corky’s descent into madness that much more captivating. And while MAGIC isn’t exactly the most original title in its field, it is effortlessly creepy, especially once the barrier between Corky and Fats becomes dangerously transparent.
Yet perhaps what makes MAGIC stand out is that Corky isn’t necessarily an outright villain; if anything, he’s a more fleshed-out character than most antagonists in the genre. By giving him an emotional anchor in his love interest and cognizance of his own disability, there’s an inherent tragedy to Corky’s story. If anything, MAGIC jumps between genuine drama and ventriloquist-centric killer thriller because of how invested the audience can become in Corky, and how his sociopathic tendencies can filter through behavior outside of Fats. It’s Attenborough at his most Hitchcockian, even if there’s also a hint of Nicolas Roeg and Rod Serling in Attenborough’s approach to horror.
MAGIC also benefits from a fantastic, capable cast who help bring Corky and Fat’s troubled reality to life, with Anthony Hopkins’ immersion into the desperate, fragile Corky anchoring the film in maturity. Hopkins’ also gets to play off an excellent supporting cast that includes a gorgeous and vulnerable Ann-Margret as his love interest and an understated Burgess Meredith as his concerned manager. Yet perhaps the performance to savor- outside of Hopkins, of course- would be that of Ed Lauter as the complex, cuckolded husband of Ann-Margret’s character, the criminally underrated character acting great who often treated his genre roles as if they were Shakespeare.
Overall, MAGIC might not get as much credit as other thrilling horror flicks of the ‘70s, but that certainly doesn’t mean that this tale of insecurity, psychosis and ventriloquism isn’t capable of creeping out modern audiences just as well as its more beloved contemporaries. And while Corky isn’t going to dethrone Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in the mind of most fright fans, he still shows Hopkins’ chops as a psycho with a bit more of a conflicted conscience, elevated by Goldman’s script, an extremely talented supporting cast and the confident guidance of Richard Attenborough.