Director: Richard Attenborough
Script: William Goldman
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Ann Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter, E.J Andre, Jerry Housar, David Ogden Stiers
Running time: 107 minutes
Year: 1978
Certificate: 15

A nervous audience sees a close up on a dummy’s garishly painted face as it recites a poem directly to camera in a somewhat sinister manner:

“Abracadabra, I sit on his knee;

Hocus Pocus, and now he is me;

Presto Chango, we take her to bed;

Magic is fun; we’re dead…”

This was how this late seventies horror film was promoted as part of its advertising campaign, a campaign which got it into trouble with anxious parents in New York state who complained that it was too disturbing for their kids and it was giving them nightmares. Clearly ‘generation snowflake’ has been around for some time!

Based on William Goldman’s novel of the same name, and adapted by the author for the screen, Magic had been originally told from the perspective of Fats, the ventriloquist’s dummy, but Goldman changed this for the film, and centred the narrative on Fat’s owner, Corky (a brilliant Anthony Hopkins), instead.

Corky is a struggling magician when we first meet him, with a frail mentor who is close to death. After a disastrous amateur talent slot at a local theatre, his mentor suggests that he find some way of making his stage act unique. We then cut to years later and Corky is now a respected magician/ventriloquist who is head-hunted by agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith; excellent as usual) who promises to fast track his career and get him his own TV show.

When Greene looks set to deliver on his promise of giving Corky and, by default, his doll, Fats, fame and fortune, Corky absconds and returns to his roots, in the Catskills, trying to make sense as to what it is that he really wants out of life. He’s pleasantly surprised to encounter the love of his life, Peggy (Ann Margret), who is now unhappily married, but who lets out a lakeside cabin to Corky to assist in his hiding out from the ‘real world’ for a while. The two quickly fall back in love with each other, which creates problems between Corky and Fats, who is jealous of the woman getting so much of Corky’s attention. Finally, the shit really hits the fan when Greene turns up and witnesses Corky having a row with his dummy.

Magic is a slow-burn sort of chiller they rarely make these days. In fact not a lot really happens and the film relies on its leading actor to carry the film, which Hopkins does with aplomb. He’s ably assisted by a small, but excellent, supporting cast who give their all, especially Meredith, who is such a consummate actor. Probably the highlight of the film occurs when the two men face off after Greene has witnessed Corky’s dummy-led schizophrenia in all its full and disturbing glory. He then bets Corky that he can’t ‘not speak through Fats’ for five whole minutes – it’s a tense and quite saddening five minutes! And ‘Fats’ steals all the scenes that he’s in, often over-shadowing poor Anthony Hopkins, and frequently stealing his limelight.

Sadly, Corky’s relationship with Fats is more believable than Corky’s relationship with Peggy, which I didn’t feel was very believable. I felt the chemistry between the leads was lacking, which has an overall detrimental effect on the film as a whole, and leads to a bit of an anti-climax.

The photography, by Victor Kemper, is good, backed up by another satisfying score by Jerry Goldsmith and the film makes good use of some interesting rural locations, even though for much of the film we’re indoors with just Corky and Fats, with possibly one other person.

Apparently Hopkins wasn’t a fan of the doll, which was specially designed to look a little like him and at one point refused to have it stay overnight with him, even though he was supposed to be rehearsing with it. However, the doll obviously didn’t faze the late, great Richard Attenborough as he used to kiss it every morning, as if for good luck!

Magic is definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of killer doll or dummy movies, or just happen to like psychological thrillers with a little more depth than usual.

Second Sight is distributing Magic on DVD and Blu-Ray. There are a number of special features including:

Screenwriting for dummies (15.5 mins) – William Goldman talks about the research that he did into magicians and ventriloquists while writing the book and screenplay.

Anthony Hopkins interview (6 mins) – Hopkins explains that he sees Corky as a schizophrenic, and tells the interviewer that he learned how to do some coin and card tricks, and ventriloquism, especially for the film. 

Victor Kemper: Cinematographer (11.5 mins) – Victor explains how the card scene with Ann- Margret went on to inform how he shot the rest of the picture.

Ann – Margret make-up test (1.5 mins) – Mildly interesting, but it’s a shame there’s no sound.

Fats and Friends (27 mins) – An excellent Blue Underground documentary where consultant ventriloquist Dennis Alwood takes us through the history of the art and goes through some of the films that have featured ventriloquism over the years. He talks about his own involvement with Magic and shares quite a few amusing anecdotes from the shoot. He also explains about the rare phenomena experienced by ventriloquists called spontaneous schizophrenia, whereby a performer will suddenly add in words that they had no intention of saying, as if the doll is alive. Creepy! 

Trailer (2 mins) – The R17 version

TV spots (2.5 mins) – Includes the previously mentioned poem-reciting teaser trailer.

Radio spots (1.5 mins) – The film is sold primarily as a ‘terrifying love story’.

Justin Richards reviews Richard Attenborough's mad ventriloquist film: 'Magic'
3.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

After a lengthy stint as a print journalist, Justin now works as a TV and film producer for Bazooka Bunny. He's always been interested in genre films and TV and has continued to work in that area in his new day-job. His written work has appeared in the darker recesses of the internet and in various niche publications, including ITNOW, The Darkside, Is it Uncut?, Impact and Deranged. When he’s not running around on set, or sat hunched over a sticky, crumb-laden keyboard, he’s paying good money to have people in pyjamas try and kick him repeatedly in the face.

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