While it was a staple on late night television in the early 80's and I looked at its video box (with it's image of the top half of the doll's head poking over the title) tons of times during my childhood, it wasn't until Dark Sky brought Richard Attenborough's Magic to DVD that I got the chance to see this cult favourite horror-thriller. It's a shame I waited so long to, as it's certainly one underrated film that supplies enough in the way of drama and moody suspense to work extremely well.
Anthony Hopkins stars as Corky, a wannabe magician who's being mentored by a sick, old illusionist. Upon failing miserably at amateur night one evening, he decides he needs to come up with a new shtick. Learning to throw his voice and ventriloquism, Corky and his wooden sidekick "Fats" (who is constantly insulting him and cracking jokes packed with sexual innuendo) soon find themselves on the fast track to stardom as his manager (Burgess Meredith, hitting all the right notes as the cigar chomping wheeler dealer who's seen it all) has secured him a deal with a network to produce a special in order to showcase his talent.
Unable to deal with so much fame so quickly, Corky soon finds himself retreating to the small coastal town he grew-up in (we know this as we're given minimal, and mostly pointless, flashbacks to his childhood) and staying at cottages run by Peggy Ann (Ann-Margret), who he had a crush on in high school.
From there Magic becomes a leisurely paced "love story" as Corky and Peggy Ann fall for each other despite the fact that she's is married to the bullish Duke (Ed Lauter) and that Fats is becoming more and more jealous as Corky slips more and more into insanity.
It's during the final third that Magic becomes a taut little thriller as scripter William Goldman (who adapted his novel) has Corky completely lose his bearings on reality as people around him start to get killed - seemingly at the hands of Fats (who Corky has begun to believe is a real person, going so far as to have long, meaningful conversations with the doll). It also helps that the few deaths that are on hand are staged quite well and accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's swelling musical score.
Magic could've been an exploitive little flick, but isn't. It's taken a topic that's not used very often in the genre (the only ones in memory are 1964's Devil Doll and a few segments of anthology shows such as HBO's Tales From The Crypt) and spun it into a character driven film that manages to win you over despite a somewhat slow start, a mediocre love story between Hopkins and Ann-Margret, and the fact that Corky really isn't a very likeable guy (even at first he's a jerk freaking out during a card trick and we always feel there's something "off" about him).
Attenborough (who would go on to win an Oscar with his next film, 1982's Gandhi) also manages to give his movie some quiet moments of suspense, building up suspicion in Fats by constantly using close-ups and in the distance shots that almost convince you the doll is, in fact, alive - I swear I saw it blink more than once while watching this...
Hopkins is steady in the lead role and brings just the right "voice" to Fats giving his alter ego a nasally voice that manages to give what's essentially an inanimate object a whole lot of charisma. In fact, the entire cast is pretty solid with Meredith suited and Lauter bringing just the right amount of "oaf" to his role.
If you're looking for a true hidden gem and don't mind more talky, story driven horror, then Magic may just be for you. It deserves to be rediscovered and Dark Sky has done a good job of helping it to be - just forgive it for the truly bad final moment. (Chris Hartley, 5/1/06)
Directed By: Richard Attenborough.
Written By: William Goldman.
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter.
Dark Sky - April 25, 2006
Picture Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen.
Picture Quality: Given a new transfer from the 35mm original negative, I doubt Magic has looked this good in quite some time. It does suffer from a few jagged edges at times and it does show its age during a few moments of mild fuziness, but Dark Sky have delivered their usual "magic" as the transfer here is free of dirt and debris.
Extras: With more special features than you might expect, this is a one well rounded disc worthy of any horror fan's collection.
We get 4 TV spots, 3 radio spots, the trailer, a photo/advertisement gallery, make-up tests for Ann-Margret, an interview with Hopkins taken from Spanish TV, a radio interview with Hopkins that runs on top of behind-the-scenes footage, an interview with cinematographer Victor J. Kemper that's a must for those wanting insight into filmmaking, and the featurette "Fats & Friends" which is hosted by ventrilloquist Dennis Allwood and looks back at the history of the trade and his involvement with the movie.
Visit Dark Sky Films for more info.