The phrase “they don’t make them like they used to” is thrown around a lot in the context of nostalgia, but in the case of the first teaser for Magic, it’s accurate. Imagine sitting around the TV with your family and having this TV spot popping up on screen. The simple but terrifying ad didn’t give away much about the actual plot, but it did instill a lot of traumatic nightmares for any young viewers that happened to catch it. The TV spot was so effective that it’s scarier than the actual film; it wasn’t the straightforward horror story the teaser indicated but much more a psychological thriller. Released 40 years ago on November 8, 1978, Magic is an underappreciated classic and one of horror’s most unnerving love stories.
Written by William Goldman (The Stepford Wives, The Princess Bride), adapted from the novel he also wrote, Magic revolves around a ventriloquist seeking to renew a relationship with his former high school sweetheart. The only problem is that his dummy is the jealous type. That ventriloquist, Corky, is played by Anthony Hopkins. Corky opens the film as an aspiring magician, but lacks the charisma of his mentor Merlin. Socially awkward, Corky chokes on stage and his subsequent outburst toward a less than enthusiastic audience has his ailing mentor warning him to develop a better stage presence and gimmick. Cut to a year later, where Corky has completely turned his show around thanks to the addition of ventriloquism in his act, with his dummy Fats. The act is so compelling that his agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) has lined up a great TV deal for him. But the network requires a medical exam to close the deal, and Corky runs back home to the Catskills out of fear. Corky’s fears are amplified when he renews a relationship with married woman Peggy (Ann-Margret), and Fats isn’t thrilled about it.
Unlike the ambiguity in Goldman’s source novel, the film doesn’t make any attempts to conceal the truth about Fats. Hopkins plays Corky always on the edge, always manic and nervous save for the fleeting moments of calm happiness with Peggy. Fats even looks just like Corky, and is voiced by Hopkins too. Fats is a manifestation of Corky’s id, and Corky is aware of his mental instability from the get-go.
There’s a sadness in Corky’s desire for normalcy despite knowing Fats won’t ever let him have it, but the true tragedy is the way Peggy is caught in the middle. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, it’s easy for her to be manipulated by Corky. Corky is always a means of escaping not just her marriage but her small town, making it easier to turn a blind eye to his erratic behavior. Ann-Margret has the tough job of playing the straight-man against Hopkin’s manic man losing his grip, and she pulls it off well. According to Goldman, he wrote Peggy with her in mind.
Though many names were tied to this film prior to production, from Roman Polanski to Steven Spielberg, the directorial duties ultimately fell to Richard Attenborough, the director behind Gandhi and A Bridge Too Far, but who fans will ultimately recognize as Professor John Hammond from Jurassic Park. Throw in the talents of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (Audrey Rose, Xanadu, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) and a score by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith (Alien, Gremlins, Poltergeist), and Magic became an impressive film inside and out.
Magic wasn’t the first time that a ventriloquist was terrorized by his own dummy, but it’s emphasis on the psychological, Hopkins’ intense performance, and Attenborough opting for straightforward tension without a hint of camp elevated the film into something that holds up well, even if nowhere close to being as scary as the initial TV spot suggests. Moreover, Magic served as direct inspiration for Don Mancini’s original screenplay for Child’s Play, fittingly released almost a decade apart to the day. The story of Corky and Fats may not be as well known, but the influence of Magic is still strong in horror even 40 years later.