Dismissed upon its original release in 1977 as silly and inconsequential, William Sachs’ THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN has never been given the credit that it deserves. Uneven in tone and filled with odd touches that have both intrigued and irritated audiences for years, this “throwback” to classic monster movies was ostensibly doomed from the start. Compromised by producer interference both during shooting and post-production, it’s a testament to Sachs’ skill as a director (and screenwriter) that the resulting film still manages to be both coherent and eminently watchable.
Conceived as an homage to the gruesome horror comics of the 50’s, the original MELTING MAN script (titled NIGHT OF THE GHOUL) was rife with cartoon characters and tongue-in-cheek violence. It was also structured in an intentionally ambiguous way, keeping the fact that the title character was an astronaut from a failed space mission. This gave the ending (which is pretty great anyway) a fun reveal that punctuated much of the vague dialogue.
Several changes imposed onto the film, including an opening that negates the “twist” ending, created a very different theatrical version.But regardless of the changes, the film still retains the skewed morality and juvenile humor of those beloved comics. Several years before CREEPSHOW’s bloody valentine to the genre, MELTING MAN lumbered in and quickly melted away before anyone noticed.
Astronaut Steve West (a surprisingly effective Alex Rebar) is the lone survivor of a failed mission to Saturn. A mysterious radioactive disease has changed his genetic structure, causing his skin to melt. This terrifying predicament also compels the poor guy to hunger for human flesh, which seems to slow down the melting process: “It’s incredible, he seems to be getting stronger the more he melts!”
He escapes from a secret hospital location after attacking and eating an unfortunate nurse (Bonnie Inch). Old friend and NASA doctor Ted Nelson (stoic Burr DeBenning) is tasked with hunting him down while keeping the investigation a secret. As Nelson slowly makes his way around the area with a Geiger counter, a deteriorating West terrorizes the local community. A fisherman is memorably decapitated, a couple (played by Janus Blythe from THE HILLS HAVE EYES and director Jonathan Demme) are attacked in their home and even Nelson’s feisty in-laws find themselves on the menu.
Pressure from General Perry (a broad Myron Healy) and Nelson’s pregnant wife Judy (Ann Wilson) to find the melting, man-eating menace adds to the quirky non-drama. “So, we don’t have any crackers?” a perplexed Nelson asks his wife after she remarks that she forgot to pick them up at the store. Sachs’ dialogue, at times mundane and ridiculous, is often very funny, though much of the “more serious” comic book banter gets lost in translation.
However, the scenes where West is lumbering about and alternately attacking or frightening individuals contain a consistently giddy, tongue-in-cheek sensibility true to the comics. Whether he’s scaring a group of kids playing hide and seek or traumatizing Blythe (who’s amazing) in her kitchen, there’s an intentional sense of absurdity punctuated by moments of extreme violence that create a palpable uneasiness. When MELTING MAN is working, which is most of the running time, it’s an inspired piece of drive-in exploitation.
Sachs’ film has an amiable, episodic quality closer to a TV movie from the era, which gives the more shocking moments a subversive edge. (Imagine watching something like KILLDOZER on NBC complete with severed limbs and hysterical, topless woman.) Cinematographer Willy Kurant (TUFF TURF) offers some compositional panache juxtaposed with plenty of workmanlike point-and-shoot flatness.
The special effects, of course, are the main attraction — and they don’t disappoint. Rick Baker was coming off several big-budget successes (including work on STAR WARS) and wasn’t thrilled with the script. He originally balked at the offer, but was persuaded to take the job after asking (and getting) substantially more money. His melting man creation is still very disturbing, even by today’s standards — and would have been absolutely terrifying, if the film had chosen a darker tone.
Dripping with multi-colored goo and even losing an eye at one point, our man is clearly melting — and it’s gotta hurt! Though the film seems to have been trimmed of some of the more violent set-pieces (West’s cannibalism is played down quite a bit), the brief scenes of violence and gore are highlights. The fisherman’s head that makes its way down a stream, breaking up a bit after falling over a waterfall, is mesmerizing.
Admittedly, some of the grief given to MELTING MAN is completely warranted; stripped of its more comedic leanings, West’s interior monologues and an intentionally vague narrative structure (ruined by post-production reshoots), it definitely feels a bit aimless and underachieving at times. Ironically enough, it appears that once AIP got a hold of it, they would have preferred a more comedic, kid-friendly version. The marketing framed it as a modern equivalent to the classic Universal monster movies, but the R-rating and drive-in theater roll-out surely kept a lot of that target audience at home.
A PG-rating would have ensured most of Baker’s work lost on the cutting room floor — as well as a needless (but famous) topless scene with Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith. Oh, MELTING MAN, you’re such a messy, complicated contradiction!
Sachs’ gives a very funny, informative commentary on the Shout Factory Blu-ray release from a few years ago. In it, he explains why several of the more awkward moments weren’t exactly in his original vision. But this is a defense of the incredible film that was released — not the film that could have been.
While MELTING MAN will never be confused with high art, its audacious spirit and ramshackle charm give it a uniqueness that still resonates today. The goofy, gory extremes that defined the E.C. horror comics are still inherent in the AIP theatrical release, which is evidenced by its small but rabid cult following. While it might be easy to dismiss, and even easier to parody (I’m looking at you, MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000), there’s still something genuinely endearing about Sachs’ film, almost 40 years later.