You might find this hard to believe, but… when I was a kid, I was too scared to even think about watching a horror movie. Any horror movie. It’s not like I wasn’t morbidly fascinated with monsters and maniacs; it’s an odd quirk of human nature that we tend to become obsessed with the things that frighten us.
But I might have come around to watching scary movies a lot sooner, if it hadn’t been for two specific deterrents.
First: My asshole redneck cousin, who chased me around the house with a doll’s head when I was five years old, henceforth instilling me with an intense fear of dolls (pediophobia). Thanks to a little thing called phobic generalization (proven empirically by less-than-ethical psychologist John B. Watson), that fear extended to dummies and mannequins as well (automatonophobia). Any facsimile of a human being — be it plastic, wood or plaster — would fill me with an indescribable sense of dread.
Second: The trailers, TV spots and radio ads for new horror movies coming to my local theater. In those mythical pre-internet days, the advertising for these movies was particularly inventive — because it had to be. If the ads weren’t memorable, there’s a good chance a film could be forgotten completely (as many often were). Therefore, promoters employed the most ominous narration, condensed all the film’s scariest moments, or even made up new footage entirely to help pitch their scary wares.
Now imagine those two aforementioned fears combined into one perfect moment of sheer horror, distilled down to a mere 30 seconds, and you have the TV spot for Richard Attenborough’s 1978 thriller MAGIC.
Imagine being a young, impressionable kid with an overactive imagination (with or without a fear of dolls and dummies), watching a movie on TV with your family during prime time… and at one commercial break, this unholy abomination appears on the screen:
I’m sure most of you have seen this spot before… and if so, you’ve probably got your own horror story about how it impacted you when you first saw it.
So many people remember the ad, in fact, that a word-of-mouth urban legend soon grew up around it, asserting that it only aired once, then was pulled from subsequent airings due to thousands of complaints from parents, claiming it had traumatized their children.
While I can definitely attest to being one of those mentally-scarred young viewers, I also can state with conviction that this legend is bullshit.
Why? Because the damn thing aired at least three more times that I can remember… each time either sending me out of the room, or launching myself toward the TV to change the channel before that horrifying dummy could recite his macabre little poem — which also appears on the film’s poster:
They finally did drop the teaser in favor of a more conventional trailer, which is still pretty damned disturbing:
It’s ironic, in light of the sleepless nights and bad dreams this thing caused me, that the film it’s promoting is not strictly a horror film, but a psychological thriller (the ad campaign labels it “A Terrifying Love Story”) about an eccentric stage magician named Corky, who rescues his failing card-trick act by adding an X-rated wooden sidekick named “Fats.”
While it’s definitely a creepy tale — thanks largely to an intense, twitchy performance by a pre-SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Anthony Hopkins, who also provides Fats’ voice — MAGIC relies more on gradual suspense than scares, and the demonically creepy dummy (modeled to look like a caricature of Hopkins) is not alive or possessed like ANNABELLE or the haunted figures in James Wan’s DEAD SILENCE, but a physical embodiment of Corky’s sociopathic alter-ego.
It’s not a new story, either; the concept of a ventriloquist losing his will to that of his dummy was explored in vintage films like THE GREAT GABBO, and captured perfectly in the most memorable chapter of the classic 1945 horror anthology DEAD OF NIGHT (pictured below). Since then, it’s appeared in different variations via episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and many more.
Despite strong performances and a haunting score by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, MAGIC falters a bit in its depiction of the protagonist’s unraveling sanity — mostly due to its inability to adopt the primary twist of the excellent 1976 source novel by award-winning author & screenwriter William Goldman (who also penned the screenplay), which keeps Fats’ true identity a mystery until later in the story, employing a nonlinear structure to keep the reader constantly questioning the narrative.
Even if you know the basic scenario from the film, I still highly recommend picking up the book — it’s much scarier than the film.
But still not as scary as that damn TV spot.