The Tomb of Terror – Magic (1978)

Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.

I sit on his knee.
And now he is me.
Hocus pocus,
We take her to bed.
Magic is fun;
We’re dead.

This poem not only acted as the tagline for the 1978 psychological horror film Magic, but was also a big part of an infamous television commercial for the film. The spot only ran once and caused a lifetime of nightmares for many children who saw it. The only image onscreen is a close up of Fats, the ventriloquist dummy at the center of the film. As the camera slowly moves in on his wooden face, he comes to life and recites the poem. Once the words are finished his glass eyes roll back in his head. The story goes that after the commercial aired parents flooded the network with complaints that it had terrified their children. The spot was pulled, but the seed was planted. If the commercial was that horrifying, how scary would the actual film be?

The terror doesn’t start immediately in Magic. Instead, the film takes its time building the characters and setting the scene for the nightmare to come. The opening sequence shows off a piece of the film’s brilliance. We meet Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) as he talks with his ailing mentor Merlin. Corky is a magician and has just returned from his first night performing solo. As he regales Merlin with stories of how amazing his set was and how much the audience loved him, the film cuts to what really happened. A nervous Corky does his show in front of about 10 uninterested patrons. As he stumbles and stammers his way through tricks, the lack of enthusiasm finally gets to him. His set ends with him berating the audience for not respecting him or his work. Within this simple scene we understand everything we need to know about Corky. He’s a man who gives the appearance of being calm and collected, but has a rage boiling below the surface.

The film then jumps ahead a year. Merlin has passed away and Corky is now in the care of manager Ben Green (Burgess Meredith, Mickey from the Rocky series). His act has completely changed. Where he was once nervous and afraid, Corky now has the confidence to perform his magic and do it well. This confidence comes from the co-star of his act, a ventriloquist dummy named Fats. Fats holds the audience in the palm of his wooden hand and gets reactions that Corky could only dream of by himself. His magic shows at local nightclubs have become so popular that a network executive has offered him the chance to film a television pilot. “The best magician in 50 years with the first x-rated dummy,” is how Ben describes the reasoning behind Corky’s success.

Unfortunately, one of the network’s mandates before the pilot can be filmed is that they want Corky to undergo a medical examination. This stops the gravy train right in its tracks. Corky refuses to undergo a medical exam. He doesn’t explain his reasoning to Ben, but the audience quickly comes to understand. Corky has mental problems and believes that Fats is real. He holds long conversations with the dummy when no one is around. Not wanting to be certified as crazy, Corky makes a run for it. He returns to his hometown, hoping to get a glimpse at the simpler life he once had. While there, he rents a cabin that is owned by his high school crush Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margaret, Carnal Knowledge).

At first, Corky is as shy and nervous around Peggy as he had been his entire life. He soon realizes that the girl of his dreams isn’t living the fantasy life she once was. Her husband Duke (Ed Lauter, Cujo) is no longer the young stud she married. He’s now a disillusioned alcoholic who frequently takes long business trips. Duke is gone when Corky arrives, and it doesn’t take long for Peggy Ann to tell Corky that she had feelings for him when they were younger too. The two begin an affair, and Corky starts to feel like a normal person again. The only problem is Fats. He doesn’t like the idea of Corky running off with Peggy and leaving him behind. So begins Corky’s struggle to overcome Fats’s hold on his life—but is he strong enough to do it?

Magic is a rare breed. The film could be categorized as a killer doll movie in the vein of Child’s Play or Trilogy of Terror, but it is definitely the classiest killer doll movie ever made. The acting talent is higher than most movies in the horror genre, with multiple Oscar winners and nominees playing leading roles. Years before his first turn as Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins turns in another amazing performance. Both characters share an insanity, but where Hannibal was calm and collected, Corky is a man grappling with his demons. You believe Hopkins for every second as he talks to Fats and is manipulated by him. Hopkins even learned ventriloquism for this role; now that’s dedication! Ann-Margaret is gorgeous as ever as Peggy. The talented actress doesn’t just rely on her good looks; she brings a sadness and vulnerability to the character that makes you understand what it must be like to go from being on top to feeling like you’re on the bottom. As she falls back in love with Corky throughout the film, Margaret also brings an infectious playfulness to Peggy. Burgess Meredith plays the part of the flashy manager perfectly. He steals every scene he’s in and has the best lines in the movie.


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John is the co-host of The Macguffin Podcast, lover of 80s teen and horror films, and an independent filmmaker.

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