1978 psychological horror flick “Magic” stars Anthony Hopkins, Burgess Meredith, and Ann-Margret. The Richard Attenborough-directed horror film received a 1979 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay from the Mystery Writers of America, and earned Hopkins BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for his lead role. With its superb screenplay, excellent cast, and fantastic mystery elements, 1978’s “Magic” remains an oft-overlooked horror romp.
Charles “Corky” Withers (Hopkins) is a failing professional magician. Mentor “Merlin” (E.J. Andre) advises Corky to assume a gimmick catering to show business. Flash forward a year, and Corky resurges as one of the most popular magic exhibitions. It’s his combined ventriloquist and magician act, centering on the crude-talking dummy Fats, which fostered such success.
Seasoned agent Ben Greene (Meredith) is prepared to set Corky up with his own television show. However, Corky refuses to sign the contract, and instead travels to the Catskills. Initially, it appears that Corky remains frightened of success. But after reuniting with his former high school crush Peggy Ann Snow (Margret-Ann), Corky begins to work his magic. Although Snow is married to estranged husband Duke (Ed Lauter), Corky woos her with a few card tricks.
“Magic” shines as a technical masterpiece. Hopking plays both Corky and Fats, and while his Corky is a bit stiff, Fats bubbles with personality. Additionally, Corky’s originally one-sided character radically changes as the story progresses. Over the course of the film, it’s clear that Corky is deranged.
Ann-Margret lends an inspired performance as Peggy Ann Snow. Margret plays a realistically indecisive and honest character. Her constant questioning of whether or not to leave Duke and pursue a relationship with Corky feels stikingly genuine. Peggy comes delightfully to life under Ann-Margret who plays her character with an air of charm and innocence. Similarly, Burgess Meredith is terrific as the believably energetic Ben Greene.
Renowned composer Jerry Goldsmith provides a score rippling with somber strings, and eerie, warbling, carnival numbers. Goldsmith’s soundtrack is decidedly understated. Nevertheless, it works brilliantly in conjunction with the cinematography, screenplay, and powerful acting performances for a technical tour de force.
What truly sets “Magic” apart is its sleight of hand. Repeatedly, “Magic” presents a slow boil which proceeds to defy expectations. Additionally, throughout “Magic” the viewer isn’t quite sure if there’s a supernatural element or merely madness. Its finale particularly reminds me of another 1978 horror filck, “The Legacy” starring Katherine Ross and Sam Elliott. Not because the endings are topically similar. Rather, it’s the shocking, unpredictible final scenes which parallel one another. Yet “Magic” concludes on a much bleaker note than “The Legacy.” “Magic” doesn’t pull its final trick until the third act, and there’s a massive payoff. The last shot is remarkably, and refreshingly, dark.
But “Magic,” for all its charm, does occasionally lose its charisma. As a horror film, it’s not particularly effective. That is, “Magic” lacks an atmosphere of fright. Rather, the film creates an air of mystery through its clever masquerade; the relationship between Fats and Corky doesn’t become apparent until the conclusion. Especially early on, Hopkins is a bit wooden. While it’s mostly cohesive, a few flashbacks are poorly placed, unnecessary, and create a disjointed flow.
Still, “Magic” manages to pull one over on the audience. I enjoyed the character progression, particularly from Hopkins’ Corky, and the endearing Peggy. With strong acting performances, taut writing, and a lovely twist of an ending, “Magic” is a truly underrated psychological horror flick.