Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins) returns from his onstage debut where he performed card tricks, but no matter what he tells his mentor Merlin (E.J. André) it didn't go half as well as he would have hoped. To clarify: the act went precisely as he had planned, he succeeded in every trick he tried, but audience, meagre as it was, simply were not interested, talking amongst themselves, unresponsive even if they were facing the stage, and even walking out as if they had better things to do than sit around watching Corky. So he snapped, letting loose his temper on the nightclub customers who at least were taking notice of him now. But what he really needed was a new act, or at least a new partner...
The whole idea of a horror movie based around a ventriloquist's dummy was not a new one even in the year this was released, the most celebrated instance being the final story in classic portmanteau chiller Dead of Night, but screenwriter William Goldman thought he had what it took to breathe new life into the creaky notion, probably because the fear of dummies was one that never went away. This is also why Magic, which he based on his novel, retains its popularity to this day as it was a pretty big hit in 1978, and many have memories, if not of the actual film, then the film’s publicity where its teaser of Fats the dummy speaking ominous phrases to camera proved nightmare fuel for a generation.
Maybe more than one. But there were problems because it was plain to see the filmmakers had little experience in the horror genre, and their attempts to be edgy more often than not came across as overemphatic and hamfisted. For a start, there was no way you would ever believe Corky and Fats would become a huge success, Hopkins, who could be a very charismatic actor in the right role, was simply too nervy and sweaty from the beginning and throughout his supposed professional prosperity; it was too obvious he was insane, no matter that other ventriloquist dummy chillers preferred to leave an ambiguous note about whether they were acting of their own volition or their performer's, often to at least marginally better effect than here.
Certainly there were occasional nods to Fats operating under his own steam, but Hopkins was too overwhelming as an obviously unbalanced individual for that to be convincing, a collection of haunted looks and tics that might have been better played for black humour or at least something more macabre than what resulted here. In this case, he only had to show up on the screen and we would be wondering when he would get to murdering his fellow cast members, and if it was meant to be that sort of movie he really should have had more victims than the ones Goldman offered him. Quite why one of the Kings of the prestige picture Lord Richard Attenborough was involved here was frankly a complete mystery, as he demonstrated nothing except being out of his depth.
With an appearance to the film that was less doomladen and more listless and gloomy, it was not even amusing to look at, and even Ann-Margret failed to bring a spark to the story as Peggy Ann, Corky’s long-pined after love interest who happens to be married to Ed Lauter, not given much to work with either truth be told. The sole actor to make something of his role was Burgess Meredith as the agent Ben Greene, his gravitas lent a sense of importance to the protagonist's failing sanity and led to the one decent scene in the whole thing where Greene tries to get Corky to persuade him he is genuinely sane by setting aside Fats for five whole minutes. Finally here you get the feeling they could have built on that mood, the psychology, but soon after you were landed back in spurious motivations that would not have passed muster in a cheap slasher if it had not been for the renown of those involved. Other than that, if you were not immediately unnerved by the dummy there was nothing for you here, it plodded along to very little effect otherwise. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.