Magic (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ever since reading R.L. Stine’s “Night of the Living Dummy II” when I was about seven or eight, I hated dummies. Out of all the “Goosebumps” books in my collection, that one made the most impact on me. Never mind goo that can turn pets into giants, masks that will not come off, and theme parks run by monsters. Slappy put the fear in me. A dummy, one that is supposed to be a source of joy and laughter, becomes a child’s nightmare as she is framed by the ventriloquist’s doll for things she did not do. Just looking at the book’s cover made me feel uncomfortable.

“Magic,” based on the screenplay and novel by William Goldman, is a creepy horror-thriller that does not result to run-of-the-mill scares. A year since falling apart on stage during his magic trick involving cards, Corky (Anthony Hopkins) returns to the very same stage with an assistant: Fats (voiced by Hopkins), a foul-mouthed dummy that audiences just love. Having Fats on stage allows timid Corky to channel his nervous energy into confidence. After several big shows, Corky and Fats became a success. However, when Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), the magician’s agent, tells his client that a TV network wants the duo to appear in a television pilot, Corky is not happy because a medical exam is required.

The material does a wonderful job in keeping us guessing about what exactly is going on between the ventriloquist and his dummy. Is the dummy alive or is Corky cracked up? There are some small but nice touches designed to trigger our curiosities. For instance, when Corky walks away from Fats after controlling his levers, there is quick shot of the doll’s eyes moving on their own. I have been around dummies—and, out of paranoia, I watched them like a hawk each time—but I have never dared to interact with or control one so I don’t know how they function exactly. Perhaps due to the levers resetting, can a dummy have lingering movements even when the person controlling it has just walked away? I’m not completely sure if I want to know.

I enjoyed the way Hopkins modulated his performance. Corky has a reserved personality when Fats is not around. He looks and acts like someone who can be pushed around quite easily. But when the dummy is there, Corky’s voice becomes piercing and he tends to move a little faster. The doll is almost like a drug and the owner is addicted to it. A standout scene involves Ben daring Corky to avoid interacting with the dummy for five minutes. Just two men sitting in front of one another as one smokes a big cigar carries so much tension that it becomes almost unbearable.

There are only a few kills but they are executed effectively. I liked that the stabbings and the beatings are fast and to the point. This way, the focus is not on the act of violence but on the aftermath, like what is done to a corpse after the scuffle. What follows is a consistent buildup of suspense. As shown in many horror pictures, we already know that bodies that have been put away do not stay hidden for long.

Directed by Richard Attenborough, “Magic” is an uncommon horror-thriller because it gets away with minimizing what we expect to be explicit. Anchored by very good performances, especially by Hopkins and Meredith, we are given a chance to focus on the characters and what they hope to get out of a situation. It does entertain by hitting the right eerie notes with excellent timing, but it might also be worth thinking about.

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