Revered English thespian and filmmaker Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1978 psychological thriller Magic was unfairly ignored by audiences of its day and received a mixed bag of reviews, but has since gained one of the most fervent cult followings ever and is rightfully regarded as a classic that respectfully pays homage to films like the 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night , Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and 1964’s Devil Doll . Magic ‘s theatrical popularity was hurt by the fact that its highly effective theatrical trailer — which features a camera zoom-in on Fats the Dummy as he recites the film’s tagline “Abracadabra, I sit on his knee. Presto, change-o, and now he’s me! Hocus Pocus, we take her to bed. Magic is fun…when you’re dead!” — was pulled from television ads after several parents complained that it had traumatized their impressionable children. Director Attenborough supposedly only agreed to direct the film in order to raise funds for his 1982 masterpiece Gandhi , and Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate , Silkwood ) and Norman Jewison (Moonstruck ) were originally approached to helm the screen adaptation of William Goldman’s original novel Magic .
Magic revolves around Corky Withers, a neurotic stage magician and ventriloquist who becomes a sudden nightclub success with his risque vaudeville act when he adds trash-talking dummy Fats to the show. Corky is offered a chance to host his own television show (with Fats as co-host) by prestigious agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), but he’s not ready to deal with fame and retreats (with Fats) to an isolated lakeside cabin that he rents from ex-childhood flame Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). Corky has been conversing more and more with Fats, and soon the wooden puppet takes on a personality of its own in Corky’s eyes. Fats even becomes jealous and criticizes Corky for rekindling his old romance with Peggy while her commercial fisherman husband Duke (Cujo ‘s Ed Lauter) is away on a fishing trip. Eventually Fats is in control of Corky’s mind, forcing him to kill Ben after the agent walks in on Corky having a fierce argument with Fats and wants to have the delusional ventriloquist checked out by a psychiatrist. Corky and Fats also dispose of Duke after he returns home and discovers that Corky has murdered his own agent, leaving Peggy an unknowing widow free to run away with Corky. But when Fats realizes that Corky plans to ditch him completely and spend his life with Peggy and Peggy alone, Fats goes over the edge and threatens to tell the world about the two bodies at the bottom of the icy lake.
Despite some negative reaction from critics upon its release, Magic earned lead star Anthony Hopkins (in his second horror film after Audrey Rose and 13 years before his Oscar-winning turning in Silence of the Lambs ) British Academy and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Actor, which is no surprise considering his intense, emotionally draining performance as schizophrenic Corky. As an interesting side note, the Fats puppet with its cheshire cat grin was created to resemble Hopkins, who took the doll home during filming for rehearsal but became so creeped out by it that Attenborough had to intervene and calm the upset thespian down. Ann-Margret (Carnal Knowledge , Tommy ) was nominated as Best Actress by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films for her deep portrayal of love-hungry Peggy Ann Snow, while diminutive character player Burgess Meredith (Torture Garden , Day of the Locust , Burnt Offerings ) actually won Best Supporting Actor at the same ceremony for his shining performance as the elegant, cigar-toking Ben Greene.
Magic also won the Best Picture prize from the Edgar Allen Poe Awards in 1979 amid strange competition from the comedies Foul Play , The Big Fix , Somebody Killed Her Husband , and the Agatha Christie mystery Death on the Nile . The haunting string/harmonica score by Academy Award winner Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen , Poltergeist ) is one of my all-time fave movie soundtracks — eerie, unnerving, and suspenseful. The cinematography by Victor J. Kemper (Coma , Eyes of Laura Mars ) is icily austere and creates a bleak, wintry atmosphere that suits the grim story well.
Magic doesn’t rely on blood and gore to scare the audience; the grinning face and high-pitched voice of Fats is enough to unnerve anyone! Sir Richard Attenborough has never returned to the horror genre since making Magic , which is a shame because he has a knack for creating edge-of-your-seat tension subtly but effectively. I rate Magic a 9.5 of 10 and recommend it to intelligent horror fans in the mood for some great psychological thrills with a minimum of gore.