Thursday, March 12, 2015

Movies That Suck: The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

The-Incredible-Melting-Man-poster.jpg"Ew, that looks gross!" was my reaction upon seeing the VHS of this film one time when I was in Media Play, a now defunct video and book store chain, around the age of 12 or 13. I'd heard of The Incredible Shrinking Man, which I'd read about in a book I had bought about movie monsters, but since I was too young at this point to watch anything extremely gruesome or of an exploitation nature, I wasn't aware that there was a Melting Man too; that VHS cover, which showed the title character in all his goopy glory, was all the proof I needed. That just looked so disgusting, as was the very idea of someone actually melting, which still gets under my skin. But, aside from reading a little bit about the film on IMDB (I remember one reviewer telling him that his mother wouldn't let him watch such junk when he was a kid), I didn't think of the movie hardly at all for many, many years after that day. It was only when Shout! Factory opened up their Scream Factory division and began putting a number of beloved horror films on extras-loaded Blu-Rays and DVDs that I became interested in actually seeing it was added to their list of upcoming releases in 2013. By the time I ordered it along with a number of other Scream Factory releases from Amazon, I was a little bit aware of the film's less than stellar reputation. Again, this wasn't a movie I had read up on extensively but I did know that a number of people said that this movie was terrible and that the makeup effects by Rick Baker were the only highlights, so I knew going into it that it was hardly a masterpiece. However, I was, at the very least, expecting an entertainingly bad movie seeing as how some had described it as such and that it was featured in a special section of 10 So Awful They're Amazing Horror Movies You Have To See in a Rue Mourge Magazine book, 200 Alternative Horror Films You Have To See. What I got instead, though, was an awkwardly-directed and acted, horribly-paced wannabe horror comedy that had nothing but some nicely disgusting, gooey makeup effects to offer. I actually didn't know until recently that the film is on IMDB's Bottom 100 List and while there are movies that I think are worse and harder to sit through than this, I don't think its placement there is completely unwarranted because it really is a nauseating mess of a film, much like its sticky, slimy title character.

While on a history making space-flight to Saturn, astronaut Steve West and his two companions are exposed to a deadly blast of radiation, and although West is ultimately the only survivor, he can hardly be considered lucky. Hospitalized with a bizarre, unexplained ailment that is causing his flesh to melt away, West awakens from a coma and, after realizing what's happening to him, escapes from the hospital, killing a nurse as he leaves. West's physician, Dr. Loring, contacts the former astronaut's friend, scientist Ted Nelson, and the two of them discover that the nurse's mutilated body is slightly radioactive, as West's must also be. Nelson theorizes that with his mind slowly being reduced to mush, West has probably lost all rational thought or sense of himself and will probably only know to kill and feast on flesh, which retards the melting process. Nelson contacts General Michael Perry, who tells him to keep anyone from finding out what's going and agrees to fly down and help him find West. The rapidly dissolving astronaut, meanwhile, is wandering around the countryside, attacking and killing just about anyone he comes across in order to feast on their flesh. As the bodies pile up, it becomes harder and harder for Nelson and Perry to keep the truth a secret from the public and local authorities, making it all the more important for them to find and stop West as soon as possible.

William Sachs, the film's writer-director, blames producer interference for why the film isn't as successful in what it sets out to do as it should be, saying that he wanted to go for something along the lines of a horror comic book and a flat-out parody but, in the middle of production, they decided a straight horror film would be more marketable and took out some of the comedic scenes while forcing him to film some material that was much more straight-laced. While that may be the case, looking at his filmography, it doesn't look like he's been all that successful in his other endeavors either. Before The Incredible Melting Man, he had done a short film called Breakfast and a documentary called Secrets of the Gods, as well as a Western horror film known as South of Hell Mountain and the war film, There Is No 13. After this film, he did another documentary, The Force Beyond, and other B-movies like Van Nuys Blvd, Galaxina (which I recently saw paired with the awful monster movie The Crater Lake Monster on Blu-Ray, although it was apparently his most successful film), Hot Chili, The Last Hour, and Judgement, as well as acting as a producer and writer on movies like Exterminator 2, Servants of Twilight, and Leprechaun. The last thing he had any involvement with was a 2002 family movie called Spooky House, which he wrote, produced, and directed. Maybe it was unfair for me to say that he hasn't been successful at all in his career since The Incredible Melting Man is the only movie of his I've ever seen but, regardless, that's not a very enviable track record and I've also seen him placed on a list of the Worst Horror Movie Directors too. Plus, on the bonus features for Shout! Factory's release of the film, while he does acknowledge the conflict he had with the producers and that the final film was not what he originally intended, he also seems to have a chip on his shoulder about people who "don't get" the humor that is in the film, noting that anyone with something of an imagination would get one of the things that he intended to be funny and such. That, coupled with how he acts like his original vision for the film would have been so great, kind of rubbed me the wrong way and it's discouraged me from seeing his other movies, which I already had little intention of checking out anyway.

Of all the people involved with this film, the one I feel the most pity for is Alex Rebar as the Incredible Melting Man himself, Steve West. According to Rick Baker, Rebar was a major pain in the ass to work with and constantly gave him attitude but, while some of that had to do with the guy thinking he was bigger than he actually was, I can also understand why he complained so much because this has to have been the most thankless, miserable role imaginable for an actor. The poor guy had to wear a mask that looked like a skull with melting flesh on it and then allow his head, hands, and feet to be covered with sticky goo that left him a complete mess and forced him to literally have to peel his clothing off after a day's work. What's more, he's not really able to give much a performance covered in that gunk. Not that his performance in the opening scene in the shuttle before he begins to melt was anything close to be great acting ("You've never seen anything 'till you've seen the sun through the rings of Saturn!", which wasn't even Rebar's real voice and makes me wonder if his actual line reading was even worse than that), but it still must have been frustrating for the guy to be unable to do little else than stumble around the California countryside while coated in that sticky crap. That said, I did find myself feeling sympathy for the character at points. When he actually gets a chance to emote, like when he wakes up in the hospital and sees what's happening to him, as well as during a moment when he sees his melting face reflected in a drum filled with water and smacks it in frustration, he manages to evoke some pathos and get across the idea that he's aware he's continuously losing his humanity as time goes on, much like the character of Victor Caroon in The Quatermass Xperiment (mind you, that movie is infinitely better than this). What's more, I do find the moment right before he melts away where he slumps against the side of a building and loudly yells in pain as his body begins to completely disintegrate to be both disturbing and sad, particularly due to the way his voice has deteriorated by this point. Other than that, though, the character is only notable for the really good makeup effects used to visualize his condition, not for any major piece of acting within the makeup.

Remar may not have gotten many chances to actually act in the film but those who did sure didn't help the film all that much either. I don't know if it's Sachs' original intent for the film coming into conflict with the interference by the producers or if he's just not that great in dealing with actors or what but the acting in this movie is notoriously bad. In the role of Dr. Ted Nelson, Burr DeBenning, whom I remember had a very small role in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, always has the same bored, half-asleep expression on his face and barely ever changes his tone of voice, even when he learns that Steve has killed his wife's parents or at the end when he tells the sheriff not to shoot Steve when they corner him at a water plant. He always seems disinterested and about ready to fall into a coma whenever he's onscreen, which is quite a lot and it affects the viewer as well. They try to give him some personality quirks, like how he gets really offended whenever General Perry hangs up on him or with how he's more preoccupied with their being out of crackers at one point rather than the situation with Steve, but it doesn't make him any more interesting. I do kind of smirk at how senseless and unnecessary his death is, when he's killed by a couple of trigger-happy security guards at the water plant even after he tells them who he is, but that's about as memorable as he gets. I have even less of an opinion of Myron Healey as General Michael Perry. Sachs has said that his intention with this character was for him to be the person who reacts to this ridiculous situation in such a straight, deadpan way that it becomes funny, much like Leslie Nielsen in Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies. The big difference, though, is that Nielsen was hilariously skilled at that, whereas Healey just stands around and acts about as interesting as a block of wood. He's the typical military-type of person who wants what's going on to be kept secret and is constantly getting onto Nelson for divulging that information to people, such as his wife... and that's it. Sachs seems to think that Healey was over-the-top at points in how he played the role, making it funny, but I never found anything enjoyable or memorable about him, and I don't see how raising his voice a little bit to admonish Nelson at points is over-the-top. There's also some plot point he infers about how they have to find Steve by morning, which coincides with another launch to Saturn, I think, but I'm was so bored by that point I was long past caring.

As Sheriff Neil Blake, Michael Aldredge isn't able to do much except ponder what's killing so many people in and around the town and question Nelson about his knowledge of what's happening. When they find Steve near the end of the movie, Blake is really gung-ho about just shooting him but Nelson forces him not to, and he ultimately dies a pretty memorable death when Steve grabs him and throws him off one of the walkways of the water plant, causing him to land on and get fried to a crisp by some electrical wires in the process. Sachs intended for Judy (Ann Sweeny), Nelson's wife, to be the one sane person in the middle of all the craziness here but, instead, her acting is so over-the-top and annoying at points that she's not much different (doesn't she kind of look a little.. off?) She starts out normally enough, trying to make her husband focus on Steve when he's hung up on them not having any crackers, but as the film goes on, she starts to become hysterical in a very ridiculous way, screaming at Nelson and Perry for just standing around, doing nothing, and throwing them out of the house to go make them look for both Steve and her missing parents. Her way of acting concerned for her parents, whom she knows have been killed by Steve, could have been better and the way she acts when she discovers that a loud noise in the kitchen was just her cat knocking over a milk bottle is just odd, as she keeps saying, "You stupid cat," and the like over and over as she cleans up the mess. It's rather appropriate that she spends the rest of the film in a half-asleep stupor after Nelson gives her a sedative to help her relax since her acting wasn't profound anyway. Oh, yeah, and she's pregnant for the third time after having had two miscarriages before and Nelson is worried that this situation might cause her to have another one. Nothing more is said of it after that one time it's mentioned, so it's pointless. And Dr. Loring (Lisle Wilson), Steve's physician at the beginning of the movie, does nothing but act all dour and baffled by his condition and exits the movie early on to go home and get some sleep, the latter of which I wanted to do by that point in the movie as well.

There are a number of interesting side-characters in the film, albeit not for the right reasons in some instances. The infamous Rainbeaux Smith has a small appearance as a model who discovers that the photographer (Don Walters) she's working with is a sleazeball who wants her to take her top off and when she's fighting him off after he rips it down (you can't have her in a movie without seeing her tits), she stumbles upon the grisly remains of one of the Melting Man's victims. There are two little boys (Stuart Edmond Rodgers and Chris Witney) who are trying out some cigarettes and trick a little girl, Carol (Julie Drazen) into playing hide-and-seek so they can leave her out in the woods. Carol runs into the Melting Man but is unharmed, albeit scared out of her mind and thinks that it was Frankenstein (that's Frankenstein's monster, kid!) Judy's parents, Helen (Dorothy Love) and Harold (Edwin Max), talk about whether or not they should get Judy some kind of gift while they're on their way to her house for dinner and they also decided to stop and steal some lemons out of a grove. This ultimately proves to be their undoing since Steve sneaks into the backseat of their car and kills them and munches on their body parts in one fairly disturbing instance in the film. I actually don't mind these two characters since they seem to be a very loving, old couple, with Helen constantly hugging Harold while he's driving, although I'm kind of confused as to why Judy refers to them as her parents since, judging from the way they talk about it, Harold is actually dating Helen. Isn't weird the stuff that I sometimes get hung up on? And speaking of weird, Jonathan Demme of all people pops up briefly here as a guy named Matt who returns to his cabin with his girl only to get attacked and slaughtered by Steve. The first time I saw this movie, I had no idea who this guy was, mainly since he has a moustache and also because I was barely paying any real attention by this point but this is indeed the guy who would go on to direct The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia (he'd actually acted before this and has done so since; according to IMDB, the years before this, he was in Hollywood Boulevard as Godzilla, which just blew my mind when I read that!) His woman, Nell (Janus Blythe), is only notable for horribly overacting when she's acted by Steve and hacks his left arm with a meat cleaver, with the camera lingering on her feeble attempt to act freaked out afterward far longer than it should.

Novelist Richard Meyers perfectly summed up the movie's main problem when he said it didn't have to be anything deep or profound but, at the very least, it should have been exciting. While the title and premise makes one expect an entertaining, B-horror movie, the film itself is a chore to sit through, even with its short 86-minute running time, because it's just so dull. Once the main plot is set up, it devolves into nothing more than watching the Melting Man roaming around the California countryside, killing a person here and there, while Nelson and General Perry try to find him when they're not involved in some unfunny, awkward comedic scenes. The makeup may be impressive but after a while, you realize that's the only entertaintment value, which is not nearly enough for me to call a movie good. In addition to the aforementioned boring characters and awful acting, there are still sequences that go on much, much longer than they should. They're not as excruciating as The Prowler, mind you, but they still drag the movie down and add to the fatigue it makes you feel. For instance, there's a moment where the Melting Man is standing outside of Nelson's house, watching it, while Judy is inside knitting, and for what feels like an eternity, the film keeps cutting back and forth between the two of them. After a while, you're wondering if he's going to stand there all night and while the scene does eventually move on, it doesn't lead to anything but a false scare. An even more egregious example is when, after Matt disappears inside his house, Nell goes inside to look for him and you see her roam around the house much longer than you should. You see her slowly wander through the very small living room at one point, taking maybe 30 full seconds to do so, and after she chops off the Melting Man's left arm, the camera stays on her for what must have been more than a full minute as she stares at the arm on the floor, appears to laugh before screaming, slumps down against the wall, sits there for a bit, and then screams hysterically again in a very bad case of overacting, as if she was waiting for Sachs to cut and when he didn't, she decided to just throw out that last scream. Even the ending isn't very exciting: it's just a drawn out chase at a water plant that's not well-paced and doesn't lead to anything that spectacular except everyone getting killed (although, as I'll go into below, some of the deaths are darkly funny to me). It's hard to get across in words exactly how boring these sequences but, trust me, they're pretty bad.

Maybe the comedic stuff that the producers forced Sachs to edit out in favor of straightforward horror scenes were genuinely funny but, regardless, the finished film fails miserably at being both scary and funny. Not only is there absolutely no tension (although some of the material with the Melting Man is disturbing, particularly when he melts away completely at the end), the comedy that is here is so off-kilter and awkward that I don't get why it's supposed to be funny. Dr. Nelson is fixated on not having any crackers to put in his soup when he should be thinking about finding Steve. Okay... and? Nelson gets irritated because General Perry hangs up on him twice in one day. Okay... am I supposed to find that funny?General Perry is found dead with a turkey leg in his hand. Mm-hmm. These bums see the Melting Man walk across the train tracks, comment on how he's got worse problems than them, and yet, when Nelson and Sheriff Blake come across them and ask them if they've seen anyone, the one bum acts really snippy towards them, yelling, "We ain't seen nothing!" That was unnecessary. Nelson finds Steve's ear on a bush and actually says, "Oh, God, it's his ear." I'm making my dilemma clear yet? I don't know what I'm supposed to laugh at. All of this stuff just feels awkward and weird rather than genuinely funny. Even the ending when Steve's gory remains are shoveled into the garbage doesn't strike me as gut-bustingly hilarious as Sachs seems to think since it was his reason for trying to covince the producers that this couldn't be a serious horror film. Maybe the intended humor is just too weird for me to get or is just my taste but it doesn't work for me, and neither do the bad performances that are intended to be funny. Nelson, like I said, is more or less a somnabulist throughout the movie, Perry is hardly as over-the-top in being a straight man as Sachs feels, and everyone else is either weird or just annoying. The stuff I found to be the least bit funny in a dark comedy sort of way are at the very beginning when that nurse, upon seeing Steve for the first time, drops a vial of blood on the floor and runs overdramatically down the hallway of the "hospital" before crashing through the glass door in a pose that looks like she's in a musical, the part where, for no reason, we're shown a decapitated head floats down a creek before falling over a small waterfall and cracking open with blood and brains spilling out while weird music plays, and the end when Blake gets hurled over the side of a walkway into some electrical wires and gets fried to a crisp, while Nelson gets shot for no reason by some moronic security guards even though he has his hands up and tells them who he is. Other than that, though, I don't find myself snickering at this movie.

I'll give The Incredible Melting Man this: for a low-budget movie, it's well-shot. They make good use of the California landscape, with the rolling hills and the sparsely forested, desert areas throughout them being well-photographed in the gradually fading, late afternoon sunlight. There are shots with the setting sun that are very gorgeous, helping to make California a very appealing state for me personally, as I've always found it to be anyway. Plus, the film's color pallete is very rich and deep, making it one of the prettiest bad movies ever made and helping it to look as if it had more money behind it than it really did. And while I don't think it really deserved a Blu-Ray release, I can't deny that the end result does indeed pop and make the film look as best as it probably ever will. It's too bad that Shout! Factory couldn't have also made it a better movie when they coverted it to high-definition.

As I've been saying throughout this review, the best thing The Incredible Melting Man has to offer are the makeup effects by Rick Baker, a fact that apparently was not lost on the producers and distributors since the movie's marketing almost always mentioned Baker's involvement, saying that he created the, "first new horror creature." (They did go a little overboard on that score, though, giving him sole credit for films like The Exorcist and the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong, both of which he worked on but was hardly the guiding force behind the special effects. William Friedkin was reportedly so livid when he read that on one of the film's posters that he tore it to pieces, while Baker felt compelled to call his mentor, Dick Smith, the main makeup guy behind The Exorcist, and apologize for that credit.) Although Baker is not afraid to say that he thinks the movie is terrible and that he feels he could have made the effects better if he had more time and money, I think they're as effective as they possibly could be. They're gross, slimy, drippy, and sticky and do a convincing enough job of getting across the idea that this character is slowly dissolving into goop. And while Baker originally intended for there to be four distinct stages of the melting which got lost in the editing process, as well as possibly due to Alex Rebar's dislike of the making up process (Baker has said that he had to put Rebar in his place one time when he was giving attitude and claiming that he was a big star in Italy, saying, "I've never heard of you, this isn't Italy, and you're now the fucking Incredible Melting Man, so cut the crap,"), you can still see a progression of the character's look throughout the film. When he first wakes up in the hospital, he's still recognizable as the man we saw in the opening scene, albeit with hideously blistered hands and a more deformed-looking face (I think they should have kept the bandages on him a little longer because that was a good look), but when we see him again afterward, he's the nasty, rapidly dissolving mess that he is throughout the rest of the movie. He doesn't change that much from there until the end, save for losing some body parts here and there, but I think seeing how much he's deteriorated in such a small amount of time since he woke up in the hospital is effective enough and gets across the idea that he's not gone much time left. Like I described earlier, I do think the ending when he melts away completely is kind of disturbing, what with the pained yelling he lets out as he collapses against the side of the building, allowing you to imagine how painful it must feel as his body begins to fall apart, and how we see his hand dissolve away completely and his head collapses in on itself, with blood and slime gushing out everywhere and his left eyeball falling out. It's wonderfully disgusting stuff, and so are some of the other effects like the decapitated head that cracks open on the rocks at the bottom of a small waterfall, the Melting Man's lost body parts like his ear and chopped off arm, and the grisly remains of the Melting Man's victims (what's left of that fisherman is particularly nasty-looking, as is the shot of the Melting Man feasting on the leg of one of Judy's parents). It may not be something for Baker to completely proud of but he, along with Rob Bottin and Greg Cannom, who assisted him, did the best they could with the time and money they had and managed to give this awful movie at least something noteworthy.

I really can't say much about the music score by Arlon Ober since, for the most part, it was pretty generic and unmemorable. The only pieces of it that stick out to me are that utterly bizarre, synthesizer-like bit you hear when the fisherman's head cracks open after falling down the waterfall and this rather sympathetic music that plays during the Melting Man's final moments, leading into some freakish music when he melts away completely and an atmospheric theme for the establishing shot of the next day. Other than that, I can't remember any part of this film's music score, although some of the film's actual sound effects do stick out, like the Melting Man's heavy, Darth Vader-like breathing, the sticky noises he makes when he walks, the distorted sounds of his groans and yells at the end (they're very similar to some of the sounds the possessed Regan made in The Exorcist), and the continual sounds of the dialogue Steve West had with mission control right before his shuttle was hit by the blast of radiation, which are meant to suggest that that's the only rational thing his decomposing mind can conjure up and the little sense of himself that he does retain.

The Incredible Melting Man does have a pretty strong cult following, mainly made up of people who first saw it when they were really young, which I can definitely understand and appreciate and, had I seen it when I was a kid as well, I might have some nostalgic affection for it too; as it stands, though, I've found this movie to be nothing more than unentertaining piece of low budget trash with very little to offer aside from some great makeup effects, occasional bits of pathos with the main character, nice cinematography, and bits of dark humor here and there. The movie is a chore to sit through, with some painfully long sequences of nothing, shallow characters, awful acting, a blend of horror and humor, the latter of which I mostly find to be awkward and weird rather than funny anyway, that, either due to the director or through the interference of the producers, doesn't work, and a music score that's very forgettable save for a few pieces here and there. While this is certainly not one of the absolute worse movies I've ever seen, I don't think it's out of line to find it placed somewhere on those kinds of lists either. If you want to check it out because you love enjoyably bad movies, give it a shot, but I'm not that confident you'll find anything that entertaining about it.

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