Watch It: Magic (1978)
The original commercial for Magic, seen below, was only aired for one day before it got pulled off the air. Angry parents from across the country called their local stations, wanting to know just what the hell they were trying to pull, giving kids nightmares like that. So was the commercial really so gruesome, so violent that thousands of children lost sleep on the same night for the same reason? Nope. It was just a tight close up of a ventriloquist’s dummy, reciting a macabre poem, with a bit of Jerry Goldsmith’s beautifully eerie score—complete with the creepiest harmonica ever recorded—in the background. That was plenty.
Magic tells the story of Corky Withers, an amateur magician who stumbles into fame once he augments his card tricks routine with Fats, a wisecracking dummy. Anthony Hopkins plays both Corky and Fats, which is damned impressive when you considering not only the difficulty of effective ventriloquism but the funny/creepy nature of the dummy’s voice; imagine Mel Blanc’s Bugs Bunny possessed by a libidinous demon. When the pressure of greater fame proves too much to bear, Corky runs away to find his high school crush, Peggy Ann Snow, played by Ann Margaret (who had clearly come a long way acting-wise since her early days in 60′s Elvis Presley flicks).
As the story progresses, the line between performance and reality gets blurry for Corky; it’s never clear just how much he needs Fats in his life. We hear a lot of back and forth between man and dummy and the man doesn’t always win the argument. That isn’t a good thing when the dummy has murder in mind. Yet while Magic does provide some serious chills, those expecting a kill-filled slashathon must have been disappointed when the film came out, because the murders are few and far between. Magic was billed as a terrifying love story, and for once the tagline tells the truth. What you get in this film is a story of two people trying to sort out their unfulfilled, complicated lives and find their way to being together, and the acting is strong enough to make you root for them. It’s just that one of the complications keeping them apart is a dummy that may or may not be a murderous extension of our hero’s mental illness. The fact that Magic was neither a straight horror film or a straight character-driven romance was probably what kept it from reaching a larger audience when it was first released. But that is also what makes it such a respected cult classic today.