MAGIC ****

Directed by Richard Attenborough.

Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter, Lillian Randolph.

Horror/Drama, USA, 107 mins, cert 15.


Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Second Sight Films on 23rd March 2020


Charles ‘Corky’ Withers (Anthony Hopkins – HANNIBAL) is a struggling magician not doing well with his act in the local clubs. After some advice from his mentor he takes time off to work on his act and returns a year later with a new gimmick – Fats, a dummy that Corky works into his routine, which now includes ventriloquism as well as card tricks.


However, just as Corky’s agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith – ROCKY) is about to land him a huge deal for his own TV show, Corky gets jittery and flees for his childhood home. It turns out Corky does not want to take the medical required to have his own show for fear that his secret is discovered – Corky has a personality disorder that manifests itself through Fats, who is beginning to take over Corky’s personality off stage as well as on.


Based on the novel by William Goldman and drawing heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s take on PSYCHO, MAGIC has somehow slipped under the radar of nostalgia for 1970s genre movies, with barely a mention in the ‘Greatest Horror Movies of...’ lists that adorn any number of websites you care to look at. Which is strange because when you break the film down into its various components it has the quality of several of that decade’s big hitters and surpasses many of them when it comes to suspense, direction and performances thanks to a cast and crew on top of their respective game.


Anthony Hopkins is the obvious standout, making Corky both sympathetic and terrifying as he switches from a timid and shy underachiever to confident performer and then to madman seemingly without much effort. It’s a performance that obviously contributed to him landing his most famous role over a decade later but to see it here in a less obvious context, without the pantomime villain moustache twirling theatrics that would come later, is quite astonishing and refreshing, given how big Hopkins’ performances have become. The similarities to Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is an obvious comparison to make but a valid one, although Corky is less twitchy and, unlike Norman Bates, is quite clearly not right from the moment we first meet him, where he is lying to his mentor about how his latest performance has just gone.


Ann-Margret (52 PICK-UP) plays Peggy Ann, Corky’s former childhood love interest with whom he never got it together with but is now pursuing, much to the dislike of her bad tempered husband Duke (Ed Lauter – DEATH WISH 3), and gives her more depth than being just a pretty face for Hopkins to play against. The scenes where Corky, Peggy Ann and Duke all interact are just as tense and full of danger as anything with Hopkins going over the edge with Fats, and as a love triangle it is just as magnetic to watch as any scene where Burgess Meredith shows up and pretty much steals the show from everyone else, delivering Ben Greene’s wisecracks and showing genuine concern for Corky’s health with an authority that comes close to going a little too far at times thanks to some of the dialogue but never does, Meredith pitching his performance with expert precision.


With top notch performances and busy direction courtesy of Richard Attenborough (JURASSIC PARK) MAGIC stops a little short of being a classic thanks to a story that isn’t wholly original and the restraint shown in the writing means it never punches quite like other major studio horror movies from the time, such as THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN or, going back further, PSYCHO. Unlike the creations in the current crop of killer doll movies Fats isn’t that creepy to look at (the doll was designed to look like Anthony Hopkins), that is until Corky brings him to life and the two engage in conversation but it is still Hopkins your eyes are drawn to and it is he who provides the horror in his performance rather than any graphic violence (although there is a bit of that too). The HD transfer is excellent, with colours popping out of the screen and making it look like it was shot a lot more recently than 1978, although the detailed image doesn’t do much for Burgess Meredith’s head that has been shaved to look like Ben Greene has male pattern baldness and looks a bit silly when the light is on him. Nevertheless, small gripes like that aside, MAGIC is a genuinely unnerving and understated horror movie that this long overdue Blu-ray release should hopefully shed some light on and bring to a new audience now that killer dolls are back in vogue.


Chris Ward.


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