Mad Ventriloquists and their creepy dummies have yielded a rich vein of disturbing material for a small but memorable cadre of movies over the years: Lon Chaney in "The Unholy Three", Erich Von Stroheim in "The Great Gabbo", Michael Redgrave in the massively influential "Dead of Night" and Bryant Haliday in the not-so influential British b-movie 'classic' "Devil Doll". "Magic"is not so much influenced by these films as informed by another, much more famous one about split personality and fractured identity: namely, "Psycho". Richard Attenborough competently brings to life William Goldman's screenplay (adapted from his original novel, in-which the big reveal is that it is the dummy telling the story), but draws heavily on the visual language and motifs of Hitchcock's masterpiece in bringing the story from page to screen. The young Anthony Hopkins proves himself a dab hand at playing the Norman Bates-like nerd, Corky, whose frail personality is eventually eclipsed by his murderous, foul-mouthed wooden creation, Fats; and Burgess Meredith turns in a virtuoso performance as Corky's wily, cigar-chomping showbiz agent; but, after an interesting first half, in-which Corky's already rampant schizophrenia becomes gradually more apparent to the audience, the movie lazily succumbs to "psycho" plotting when Corky retreats to a remote log cabin in the Catskills run by a former childhood crush, Peggy ( Ann-Margret) and her taciturn, jealous husband, Duke (Ed Lauter). Time and time again, predictable sequences play out that are already well-known from "Psycho": Corky's dummy propped up in the illuminated window of his cabin, Corky having trouble disposing of a dead body in a lake etc., the saving grace is that Attenborough and director of photography, Victor J. Kemper, are masters enough of their art to be able to make this not-very-original treatment of a potentially fascinating subject, carry itself with a great deal of authority; and there are several memorable moments along the way; not least the scene where Meredith, after catching Hopkins having a full-blown argument with Fats in his secluded cabin, bets him that he can't go five minutes without making the dummy talk!
The film starts with aspiring magician, Corky (Hopkins), telling his dying mentor, Merlin (E.J. Andre) about his opening-night triumph at a downtown New York nightclub. The accompanying visuals illustrate the contrast between Corky's narration and the reality: for, despite his claims, Corky's chronic shyness and lack of stage presence mean he is completely ignored by the bored audience, despite his great skill as a card magician. Merlin soon cottons on, and advises Corky to find some-kind of stage gimmick to draw the punters in. We then cut to a year later, and Corky is now reeling them in at the very same club where he'd previously bombed! His agent, Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) brings along an executive from the NBC network, promising a unique act that would go down a storm on TV. Corky saunters on stage in the same unassuming woolly pullover and slacks he'd appeared in before, and looks just as nervous and un-charismatic. The NBC exec is less than impressed, especially when Corky's first card trick goes wrong. A voice heckles from the back of the room, and Corky challenges his tormentor to come up on stage if he thinks he can do any better; this all turns out to be part of the act -- for the heckler is actually Fats: a large malevolent-looking wooden dummy whom Corky now brings up on stage where he proceeds to insult the audience and tell X-rated jokes in-between Corky's usual round of card tricks. Corky's new Ventriloquism act is a big hit with the TV executives and after numerous appearances on the Carson show, a major TV pilot is on the cards. Corky is strangely unwilling to undergo the medical check-up that is a routine requirement of the contract though, and he flees to his childhood home, eventually ending up secretly staying at an old log cabin which is still being run by Peg: a girl he'd had a crush on as a child but was too shy to speak to.
Corky's complete inability to assert himself, except when it's through the medium of Fats, is apparent to the viewer from the off. While he is unable to relate to, or speak to women in person, Fats seems able to effortlessly charm them with his assertive wit and casual sexism; while Corky is mild-mannered and polite to the point of awkwardness, Fats insults everyone at his leisure, receiving nothing but adoration in return. Like many ventriloquists, Corky continues with the "act" even off stage -- and since everyone plays along in his role-playing, it becomes easier for Corky to mix and flourish socially, using Fats as the icebreaker, than it is for him to cope alone. This much is obvious; but the key moment comes when we see Corky having conversations and arguments with Fats when no-one else is about to witness the act! Now, holed-up alone in the Catskills, Corky's madness (the real reason he would not submit to a medical) takes hold. His new-found fame affords him a foothold with Peg; and, after using a mind-reading trick to charm her into bed, and eventually persuading her to leave her absent husband, Duke, Corky seems to be doing all right: -- until his agent, Ben, tracks him down, and the expected orgy of frenzied murder is unleashed with Fats soon taking control of the situation, and ordering a timid but desperate Corky to commit all manner of atrocities in order to preserve their 'relationship'.
There is never any real suggestion that any supernatural agency is involved in all this; the only small exception comes near the end, when Corky's psychosis has reached its height: Hopkins leaves the dummy on the couch and we see its eyes continue to move when he would not have been able to operate the mechanism from his position! This was actually a mistake! Fats was being operated by real-life ventriloquist, Dennis Alwood, and this miss-timed movement was left in the finished film by Attenborough to add an extra chill at a key moment. The effect is to give the impression that we are entering into Corky's delusion just as he is at his most threatening and deluded. The atmosphere of the film is built up well; mainly thanks to cinematographer Victor Kemper, who lights the movie conventionally for the first half but then runs riot with eerie shadows (the lighting is manipulated so that Hopkins' shadow resembles the dummy -- with exaggerated features -- another idea taken from "Psycho", where Anthony Perkins' reflection signifies his dual identity) in the last third of the film. The biggest scare factor lies in the ugly-looking dummy used as Hopkins' foil. Dennis Alwood created it after the dummy he usually used in his act was rejected for being too cute. That's one thing Fats can't be accused of: it's a truly malevolent bastard of a thing, and with Kemper's shadowy lighting effects casting its grotesque features in all manner of dark expressions, its guaranteed to give even hardened viewers the creeps!
Playing alongside Corky's battles with his agent and his attempts to control Fats, is the subplot about Corky's childhood sweetheart Peg, and her ailing marriage to Duke. The middle-aged Ann-Margret is still looking voluptuous here (and there is a gratuitous topless shot included to prove it) but the character she plays, though at first sympathetic, proves to be superficial and easily influenced; while Duke, her suspicious husband, at first seems unlikable and gruff but reveals an unsuspected vulnerable side when attempting to grill Corky about his relationship with his wife on a tense boat trip. The film seems to be developing along familiar 'female in peril' lines for the final act, but with Peg being morally compromised in the script because of her adultery with Corky (something she blatantly lies about to the hapless Duke) audience sympathy is not entirely with her, forcing the script into a rather dark and ironic twist at the very end, which at least brings some originality to otherwise hackneyed material.
Anchor Bay UK deliver a pleasing widescreen transfer of the film on disc one of this two-disc Special Edition. The original Dolby Digital 2.0 mix plus a 5.1 remix are included as audio options. All of the extras can be found on disc two where we are furnished with a good eighty-minutes' worth of material, making this release well-worth the money. "Screenwriting for Dummies" is a twenty-minute interview with Academy Award winning writer, William Goldman, which features a good many anecdotes about the writing and making of the film. "Fats & Friends" is another long interview, this time with Dennis Alwood, which ranges from the history of ventriloquism to Alwood's work on "Magic" (training Hopkins in the art of ventriloquism and creating & operating the Fats dummy). There is a 1978 interview with Anthony Hopkins about his method of preparing a role, which plays over behind the scenes footage; and another filmed interview with the actor for a Spanish TV station (filmed to publicise "Magic"). There are also the usual radio spots and TV ads (in Spanish and English) plus several cinema trailers including the infamous Fats' talking head trailer which had to be withdrawn for being too scary. Footage of a make-up test for Ann-Margret rounds off the bounty for this entertaining psycho chiller from the late seventies.