Magic
R0 - America - Dark Sky Films
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (6th June 2006).
The Film

One of the things I enjoy about reviewing films is that every now and then you get see something that you normally wouldn’t. In many cases it turns out to be rather crap and forgettable, but once in a while you get something in which you have little to no expectation for that ends up being actually quite good. Magic is one of those films, having known nothing about it prior to viewing aside from Anthony Hopkins being in it and that it involved a ventriloquist puppet (yeah-great-whoo hoo!). After about twenty minutes into the film I was hooked, the film created an appropriate sense of discomfort that works well for the story’s sake. Director Richard Attenborough, the same guy who directed Ghandi (1982) and was also John Hammond in Jurassic Park (1993), managed to make something out of a rather ridiculous plot.
Magic tells the story of a magician's assistant, Corky (Anthony Hopkins) who decides to go at it on his own, only to have failed miserably. After his failure he bounces back, this time doing comedy with a puppet he calls Fats. His routine is so popular that his agent, Ben (Burgess Meredith) negotiates a TV deal for him and Fats. Part of the contract states that the studio requires Corky to undergo a medical exam, which he flat out refuses. The issue becomes a deal-breaker and Corky abandons his soon-to-be-famous lifestyle and TV show deal, having secretly moved back to his home town. He decides to stay at a place run by his old high school crush, Peggy Ann (Ann-Margret). During his self-imposed hiatus, it becomes clear why Corky refuses to take a medical test, Fats has developed a mind of his own that controls part of Corky.
What impressed me about this film was Hopkins’ ability to play a character torn between two mindsets, he demonstrates in this film that early in his career he was a formidable performer, and we get to see some semblance of Hannibal (a character he’d play some 13 years later).
Attenborough takes his time in introducing the psychotic mindset that has taken over Corky, he creates a mood that on the outside appears normal and unblemished but at all times you know that something is wrong. It is in these scenes that set up the characters and story that are scored with moody background music that helps create the sense that something is ultimately wrong. The juxtaposition between what is occurring onscreen and the music that underlines it works on a deeper subconscious level as it's something you don’t immediately pick up on it. This is something that is sadly lacking in most of the horror films we see today. Additionally, Attenborough unleashes Corky’s secret on us (and also on Ann-Margret‘s character) unexpectedly and from that point onwards things start to get worse for Corky and the voice in his head that just won’t go away.
Another element that helps in creating the ‘freakish’ factor this film had was the puppet, there is something unholy and disturbing about ventriloquist dummies, perhaps it’s the fact they look like caricatures of people. There’s no better tangible item to associate the freak factor with than a doll (ok, maybe a collection of actual freaks as seen in Tod Brownings’ 1932 film Freaks ranks fairly highly on the list as well), especially a creepy looking doll that looks like its alive, Saw (2004) and Saw II (2005) uses the doll factor heavily, as do other horrors such as Child’s Play (1988) which introduces the character of Chucky, a doll that actually talks and is able to move independently. Although strictly speaking Fats in Magic isn’t exactly alive as Chucky appears to be in Child’s Play’, never-the-less it’s still scary and also carries on the tradition carries on the tradition from other creepy ventriloquist films such as The Unholy Three (1925, as well as another version made in 1930), The Great Gabbo (1929), Dead of Night (1945) and Devil Doll (1964).
For a small, low budget, sadly forgotten film, Magic manages to make one feel completely unconformable, laced with a little dread, and this unfortunately could be the reason why no one has seen this film. That and perhaps the slow build up may turn audiences away. However, despite its laughable plot it’s made all the better with frighteningly real performances from the cast. The overall look and feel of the film compliments the tone in which Attenborough was trying to achieve. There may be better horrors that deal with ventriloquists (see The Great Gabbo as a fine example of this), regardless, horror fans will get a kick out of this film and it comes recommended.

Video

Presented in the film’s original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, this anamorphic transfer does have some problems, mainly softness issues in certain scenes and grain in the dark night scenes, otherwise for a film of its age its surprisingly quite a decent transfer. Colors are well represented and I could not spot any flaws such as edge-enhancement and compression artefacts are kept to a minimum. Dark Sky has done a fine job with this film, considering it could be a lot worse.

Audio

Only one audio track is included on this disc, the film’s original English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track, as expected it does lack any depth, however I was pleased with the overall quality, dialogue is clear and there were no major drop out issues, hiss was kept to a minimum although it does pop up occasionally. Overall it’s a serviceable track that suits the film quite well.
Optional subtitles are also included in English.

Extras

First up we have a featurette entitled Fats and Friends which runs for 26 minutes 54 seconds, this clip features ventriloquist Dennis Alwood. He provides the viewer with a basic history on the art form and its past representations in films, as well as takes us into the making of the film from his perspective as a consultant. He discusses the creation of the doll, the casting of the film and the eventual choice of Hopkins for the lead. He even brings out the original Fats doll for part of the interview. Overall it’s an interesting look at the art of ventriloquism and also the film’s history.

Next up is an interview entitled An Interview with Victor J. Kemper the film’s director of photography, which runs for 12 minutes 19 seconds. Kemper discusses the role of the DP on a film and their relationship with the director; he also takes us through finding the ‘look’ of the film and achieving that through lighting. He breaks down several scenes from the film and tells of the techniques used. This is another informative clip, although entirely brief.

Also included is Anthony Hopkins Radio Interview, which runs for 3 minutes 18 seconds, this radio clip plays over some b-roll footage from the film. In this clip Hopkins talks about his acting career and what led him into it, as well as discusses his role in the film and becoming a ventriloquist.

An Ann-Margret Make-up Test footage follows that and runs for 58 seconds, this clip is silent and features the actress posing in front of the camera. This is an interesting curiosity however not worth repeat viewing.

Also in the disc is an Interview with Anthony Hopkins this vintage interview runs for 6 minutes 8 seconds and sees Hopkins interviewed by a Spanish reporter for what I can only assume is Spanish Television, the questions are delivered in Spanish but Hopkins answers in English, talking about the film and his character. There is minor repetition from the radio interview but this isn’t major.

The film’s theatrical trailer is also included and runs for 1 minute 49 seconds, this vintage trailer isn’t in the best shape but at least it’s included.

A collection of 4 TV spots follow, and include:
- English 1 which runs for 28 seconds.
- English 2 which runs for 26 seconds.
- Spanish 1 which runs for 15 seconds.
- Spanish 2 which runs for 16 seconds.

These clips are in bad condition and include some audio problems, such as hiss, pops and drop outs.

Next up are 3 radio spots that include:
- English 1 which runs for 10 seconds.
- English 2 which runs for 12 seconds.
- Spanish 1 which runs for 28 seconds.

Rounding out the extras on this disc is a photo gallery that features 26 images that include some poster art, lobby cards, production photos and a magazine article.

Dark Sky has released an impressive collection of extras that should provide you with over an hour of content, the only criticism I can make is the lack of an audio commentary, it would have been nice to have the principles back for one of these, however I can understand the possible difficulty in organizing such an event for this DVD release.

Overall

The Film: B+ Video: B Audio: B Extras: B+ Overall: B+

 


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