The Incredible Melting Man - a closer look
Roll up! Roll up! Come and see The Incredible Melting Man! Just try not to get any of him on your clothes!
When a NASA mission to Saturn goes horribly awry and the crew encounter some kind of freaky cosmic storm, all bar one die. After a vicious cross-eyed nose-bleed, sole survivor Steve West (Alex Rebar) somehow makes it back to Earth but then goes on to suffer from some mysterious malady from beyond the void – he’s melting! And not only that, he’s going ever-so-slightly mad. Discovering that eating human flesh can slow down the process of cell-shedding (huh?), he goes on the run, or the ooze, or the drip, or the gloop, from the virtually deserted and highly unsecure hospital that was treating him and begins a reign of terror across the sunny California countryside. The authorities spare no expense in doing all they can to avoid a panic – they send out one tubby general (Myron Healey) and Steve’s friend and doctor, Ted Nelson (Burr DeBanning), and a Geiger Counter from The Six Million Dollar Man to bring him back in.
It’s a messy situation all right. And one thing’s for certain – it’s only going to get messier.
Let’s get one thing perfectly clear right from the start. There is no possibility of denying that this film, written and directed by Galaxina’s William Sachs, is absolute tripe. In fact, you can see the tripe dripping from the screen almost all the way through. But, at the same time, there is an enormous amount of fun to be had from this exceptionally moist slice of 70’s super-schlock.
I vividly remember when the film came out in the UK, certificate AA on a double-bill with The Savage Bees, that thoroughly risible eco-horror that just pipped Irwin Allen’s big budget disaster movie, The Swarm, to the post – bet that stung. (Incidentally, Freddie Francis delivered a similar tale for Amicus ten years prior with The Deadly Bees. Unbelievably, it was even worse. When it comes to bee movies, don’t believe the buzz!) The trailers made 1977’s Melting Man look awesome, and then the novelisation by Phil Smith hit the shelves with two gloriously impressive covers to choose from. One had a series of stills from the film, the titular melting man in various degrees of mucus-smothered disassembly, and the other boasted a fabulously surreal artist’s depiction of the doomed astronaut caught up in a cosmic shower of molecular nastiness. Being the devout genre addict and fledgling gorehound that I was even then – I bagged ‘em both! And fortuitously, with the “inside help” that regularly enabled my underage self to experience cinematic delights that should perhaps have remained far out of my reach, I saw poor Steve’s icky-sticky rampage and fell totally in love with it upon its initial run.
I knew even then this was a lousy film in almost all respects – but that didn’t matter a jot. I recognised amateurish acting when I saw it, and even though I regularly savoured hokey B-movie idiocies in creature-features on the telly, my tender young brain still grasped the colossal ineptitude of the screenplay quite readily. But there was something vital, something absurd and deliriously kooky about this bubbling stew of exploitational sauces. The title and the horrific plight of the protagonist/antagonist is clearly a reference to the classic SF drama The Incredible Shrinking Man, which was adapted from a Richard Matheson novel which was simply called The Shrinking Man. There was a trace of Frankenstein in the imagery of a lonely outcast monster driven to commit acts of terrible atrocity, and the character is even referenced (well, miss-referenced, actually) by a child who sees his gruesome visage in the woods. The Quatermass Xperiment was clearly an inspiration for the tale of an astronaut returned to Earth with a grim galactic disease that systematically erodes his humanity and turns him into a grotesque fiend. This notion was even ripped-off much earlier with the insipid The First Man in Space. The antagonist’s barely comprehensible penchant for cannibalism is a bonafide nod to Romero’s flesh-eating ghouls. Dawn of the Dead was due out in only a matter of months, but Sachs has cited Night of the Living Dead as a definite influence. Thus, it would be clear that bone-gnawing was all the rage.
With all of this bloody broth in mind, nostalgia clouds practically all objectivity towards a film like this. It is simply godawful and laughable in the extreme, yet these are elements that actually go in its favour. The very concept is daft from the get go. Really, folks, what kind of threat is posed by a Melting Man, no matter how Incredible he might be? What’s he going to do to you, drown you in pus? With bits of him dropping off all over the place, how does he get manage to get stronger? Just why does this interstellar cellular collapse make him want to eat people?
Like the leading man, the plot is just all over the place.Director William Sachs has never disguised the fact that this really isn’t the film he set out to make, due to the ceaseless interference of the producers and the tangent-veering that they forced his screenplay to undergo, removing all semblence of mystery and the ticking-clock suspense of a deadly time-limit. Well, we will have to take this at face-value because he certainly didn’t prove his worth when he wrote what turned out to be the virtually unwatchable Exterminator 2 and then sought to salvage the mangled job that nominal director Mark Buntzman made of it, the result still being one of the worst films I have ever cringed through. Even his Barbarella-riff Galaxina was interminably dull. No amount of mucking-about behind the scenes can account for the wretched editing and direction of a film that should, by rights, have been shovelled into the bin just like the poor meltoid whose sad, sorry saga this film tells. And yet, by some cosmic yin and yang, the agonising plight that befalls Steve West also ensures that Sachs’ opus is much more than merely a bad movie. It is a great bad movie. And that is, indeed, a rare delight.
“Magnificent! You haven’t seen anything ... until you’ve seen the sun through the rings of Saturn!”
Roger that, Steve. Ummm ... Steve ... If you don’t my asking ... ahhhh ... are you sure you’re really a trained astronaut?
The plot is just naff. West’s space mission would have cost billions of dollars and been the work of thousands of people, and been the topic on every TV show and in every newspaper. No matter how secret this disaster is supposed to be kept, the authorities would recruit more than just two dunderheaded buffoons to keep a lid on it. Plus, when the bodycount rises and the splat, so to speak, is out of the bag, why does this pair of supposedly frantic pursuers spend most of their time hanging-out at Nelson’s pad with his jittery pregnant wife, mulling over crackers (for real!) and eyeing-up some cold turkey?
When the good Doc first shows up to check on his crusty buddy at the hospital, he is confronted by the corpse of a nurse, instead. He stands on one side of the autopsy table and actually asks his associate, “Right, what have you got?”, to which the other lab-coated doofus replies with a gesture to the shrouded body, “Over here.” WELL, D’UH!!!!! Like Dr. Ted didn’t notice the cadaver lying there, right in-between them, having come directly into this specific room to see one. This, from the get-go, sets out standard for most of the none-monster scenes. Ill-judged, nonsensical and crammed with nauseatingly duff dialogue.
The acting is deplorable – yet in what is possibly the most shining example of a film that is so bad it is brilliant, this cannot help but add to the entertainment value. Rebar, himself, is probably the best performer in the show because he, at least, has the decency and common sense to hide behind a mask of psychedelic jelly. DeBanning is a wretched actor, however you cut it. His expressions of sincerity and grave concern are completely embarrassing and his line delivery is so bad you’ll find it difficult not to punch his face through the screen. I always used to love his pleas to the two dim-witted security guards in the power plant. “Don’t ... duh-duh-don’t-don’t shoot! I’m Dr. Ted Nelson!” Like that’s supposed to mean something to these bozos. Honestly, I’d have had no hesitation in emptying my gun into him just for his crimes against acting. And listen to his bizarre squeal when he scolds his hand on a hot pan! What the hell is that supposed to be? His wife Judy, played so pathetically by bug-eyed Ann Sweeny, is the very model of bad timing and hideous over-acting. Just watch her little emotional outbursts about her missing ma and pa and try not to snigger. The precocious girl who stumbles across the Melting Man in the woods in a scene reminiscent of the Monster meeting little Maria in Whale’s Frankenstein, is equally deplorable, but she is only about eight years old, and she is leagues better than the two toe-heads that she’s hanging around with. Dorothy Love and Edwin Max who play Judy’s waylaid pensioner-parents are just as wince-worthy to watch, but then you can’t help but feel really sorry for them when the frisky pair of illicit lemon-pickers spy an unwanted passenger making a mess of himself on their backseat. Myron Healey as General Perry is a familiar face, but this is hardly a performance that he would want to remember. If this guy is military top brass, then I’m the Sultan of Swing. And as Nelson’s associate at the vast, unpopulated hospital, Dr. Loring, Lisle Wilson has such an air of utter disinterest in the whole thing that you can tell he doesn’t really believe that anybody is actually filming this dross. Honestly, watch the sequence when he and Nelson take a long, slow ride on some crazy heavy-load conveyor-belt for absolutely no reason whatsoever, spouting banalities about pregnancy and radiation. You can see the life draining out of him with each laborious line he delivers.
Michael Alldredge gets the thankless task of playing the hard-put-upon local Sheriff, stumbling across bodies all day but constantly kept in the dark. These poor guys, like Haddonfield’s endlessly beleaguered Sheriff Brackett, never signed-up for this sort of thing, did they? Hell, even the soon-to-be cheek-munched Healey was a harassed copper in Jaws/Grizzly rip-off, Claws and TV’s The Incredible Hulk before he suited-up in a general’s togs for this outing. So who can blame Alldredge when he gets a little, um, hot under the collar during a moment of, ahh, high tension during the climactic face-off? Gee, and this used to be such a quiet neighbourhood.Special mention goes to the sexy Janus Blythe as a spirited home defender when sloppy Ste comes a-calling.Blythe was previously seen in Wes Craven’s superlative The Hills Have Eyes as Ruby, the cannibal daughter who has a change of heart. Sadly, she also appeared in Craven’s damp squib of a sequel too, although she had the common sense to have her character killed off almost immediately in that risible teenybopper mess. But, hey, hold up. Who’s that working-class denim hero playing her feller, and foolishly going into a dark house to investigate who put the slime on the doorknob? Why, it’s none other than Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs, that’s who. I’ll bet he’s kept pretty silent about this early bout on the wrong side of the camera.
After its theatrical run, the film aired on UK terrestrial TV, totally uncut to boot, and I recorded it off that. Although I haven’t seen the film until this US BD arrived since about 1984, I must have watched my old Betamax tape very, very often because I could still quote the movie in practically its entirety. In fact, viewing it again now, the cosy, comfort factor I felt as Steve West did his thing with soggy sadism was charmingly immense. I giggled like crazy all the way through, coming out with the dialogue and the screams alongside the characters, and even grunting and wheezing in unison with Mr. Melto. I could even chime in with Arlon Orber’s bizarro score!
For its time, the gore is quite audacious. In fact, it is still unbelievable that the film only garnered a AA in Blighty, meaning that you only had to be 14 to see it legally. We’d had Jaws pushing graphic and tonal boundaries for a PG. Years later, Conan The Barbarian and The Sword and the Sorcerer, both comic-book style fantasy romps, were also blessed with AAs and their level of sex and violence was pretty eye-popping. So, despite the puritanical Video Nasty purge that the UK was about to suffer in the wake of Romero/Raimi/Lustig/Fulci and Lenzi, there was a lot of surprising leniency going on during the seventies. Of course, with regards to Melting Man, the censor clearly got the joke and was probably too busy laughing, or snoring, to notice the gruesomeness. Maybe they’d shown him The Savage Bees first – that would have done the trick and put him to sleep. But the trick that Sachs pulls with this is that there is very little to be seen of actual on-screen kills. The gore is mostly confined to the main man, himself, with the rest of the bloody stuff mainly being relegated to murderous aftermaths. That said, you still get your money’s worth when it comes to the good old grue.
Alex Rebar’s 70’s porn ‘tache is the first thing to slide off … and, let’s face it, nobody is going to mourn that. Next, an eyeball will dribble down his cheese and tomato cheek. He’ll even lose an arm at some point, although in true Carl Weathers Predator-style, we’ll clearly spot his real one tucked underneath his mucky hospital gown, especially when squiby bullet-hits almost expose his elbow. “Oh my God … it’s his ear,” Dr. Ted mutters when he finds some Steve-splodge on a leaf, but we’ll just have to take his word for it –he is a doctor, after all – because it’s a fairly non-descript wedge of pizza topping that, to be honest, could be anything from the angsty astronaut.There must have been people at the time who were beginning to wonder just what body part would be discarded next. It would make a great drinking game for Melting newbies to have a swig each time a bit comes away. To eyes that have since become utterly saturated with (and still remain blissfully agog at the sight of) prosthetic makeup FX, it is clear that the latex and foam rubber that Rick Baker applied to Rebar swells him out and makes him altogether larger than he was to begin with, which is especially noticeable when he is supposed to be withering away. But this doesn’t lessen the spectacular visions of the purest ickiness that this film serves up with relish.He is a bloody mess ... like shiny fresh offal. On legs.But even away from the drippy-slippy spaceman, sundry bits and bobs are lopped-off or chewed-away. There’s a nibbled hand casually tossed out of a car window. An arm is hacked-off with a machete. There’s an interesting power-cable incineration that leaves a corpse spewing flame and smoke. The big wobbly nurse whose scream of revulsion possibly started the whole murderous campaign in the first place, lying on the slab with half her head missing is a great effect, but my favourite just has to be the fisherman’s severed noggin getting tossed into the river and floating lazily downstream until, in gloriously close-up slow-motion, it tumbles over a small waterfall and breaks gloopily open on the rocks below. For years, this single effect was one of my personal bloody favourites. It is soooo gratuitous. Just a set-piece about a decapitated head and its own little voyage to oblivion. Sheer gory genius. Arlon Ober’s music elicits a funky guitar belch of woozy debauchery to accompany this cranial eruption too – the whole thing a total celebration of gleeful nastiness. In fact, for me, this is the highpoint of the entire film.
Gory images had long been shocking filmgoers. From the slitting of a cow’s eyeball in Un Chien Andalou to the al-fresco human cook-out in Night of the Living Dead, and from the Kensington splatter in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein to David Warner’s head spinning off his shoulders in The Omen, they had been repulsed and fascinated by such sights. Rick Baker’s assemblage of carnage for Melting Man actually makes the film seem like a sure-fire ancestor to and influence upon Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, whose own celebrated epics for Full Moon/Castle Pictures tended to rely on similarly glistening, gibletty knick-knacks as the smorgasbord on offer here. In many ways, this film was ahead of the curve. Horror films had become steadily more hard-hitting and gritty during the seventies, striving to be considerably more serious and disturbing than the Drive-In fodder than had gone before.
Texas Chainsaw and The Exorcist may have been Grand Guignol, but there was less flamboyance exhibited in favour of weightier issues of social, moral and religious commentary. Halloween and many of the slashers that swiftly followed – Friday The 13th excepted - were also fairly limited in their graphic execution. It wasn’t until Zombie Flesh Easters, Alien, American Werewolf , The Evil Dead and The Thing that the genre reached its most outrageous avenue for creative visual exploration in the art of bodily destruction, and sheer imaginative verve. Melting Man and Dawn of the Dead both hit cinemas during the same twelve months and they, alone, were the comic-book zeitgeist of mayhem and mutilation at this period. Argento had been slicing and dicing for years, but Romero is rightly credited as being the man who flung open the door to wildly excessive gore. In addition, Sachs and Baker should not be overlooked for their part in this filmic swingshift towards more extreme depictions of lurid horror.As badly handled as it is, there remains a trace of genuine artistry here. Though not too much of it is intentional, I can assure you.Like Gary Sherman’s grisly Brit shocker, Death Line, in which hapless late-night tube-train travellers are picked-off and eaten by a deranged troglodyte Underground worker, suddenly plunged audiences to a level of genuine pathos and emotion when it showed the dishevelled killer quietly mourning over the desiccated bodies of his long-dead family, there is a resonant moment of effective poignancy when we see the Melting Man collapse and weep in a moonlit graveyard, horrified at what has happened to him both physically and psychologically, and surely distraught at the crimes he has committed. This is actually a great scene that really embraces the classical horror theme of the monster as a hapless victim of circumstance. There is also a wonderful shot that has the straggly ghoul staggering across the wasteland in the hellish glare of the sun, a ghastly yet pitiful figure, and his final surreal meltdown is both eerily beautiful and quite tragic to behold, with its warbled, ghostly voices from space trickling, like his own viscera, from his drained brain. So, as inane and as silly as it all is, there are elements that, probably purely by accident, provide some heart to the story and make you suddenly stop and think. And care.
Certain images were quite potent, too. That day-sailing bonce, of course, which would justifiably join a slew of other such heady exploits – The Omen, Scanners, The Thing, Re-Animator etc – and the slow-motion fleeing of the terrified nurse as she plunges through a patently sugar-glass door in her screaming desperation to get away from her puss-oozing patient. The slimy hand leaving unsavoury trails on the window would also appear in Zombie Flesh Eaters as a deadhead paws the glass at the sight of Olga Karlotos in the shower. Blythe’s home defence is a wicked precursor to similar tactics seen in Roger Corman’s fun exploitationer Humanoids From The Deep and in the infamous kitchen sequence in Joe Dante’s Gremlins. But Sachs makes a mistake of staying with her reaction shot for much too long, displaying a complete lack of understanding of momentum, mood and pace, and really putting the actress through an unnecessary wringer. Mind you, singling this particular scene out for such criticism is like accusing one baked bean in a pan-full of the tasty critters of being just a little bit too orange.
Interestingly, when one character gets a sudden chomp taken out of his face by a snack-happy Steve, the resulting wound is exactly the size and shape of the turkey leg he has been nibbling on for his supper. But have a look at the semi-surreal moment when Steve shambles down the train-tracks and some hobos see him silhouetted against the lights from a nearby power-plant – it looks as though he is mapped-out against a star-field. Which I think is quite nice. Thoroughly unintentional, but nice. In fact, the reason why this resonates with me is probably because it reminds me of when the film was first aired on TV - it was in a series of SF movies that the channel prefaced with an animated man running through the cosmos. Very striking.
Once you discount the rather poor editing from James Beshears (which is, by all accounts, a vast improvement over how the film looked until Sachs sacked the original editor), the camerawork is quite admirable and inventive. Interiors are quite immaculately framed with shadow and space well utilised. Look at the way Janus Blythe seems to be moving beneath a huge flying saucer created out of the ceiling lampshade in her living room. And check out the wonderful shot of a tiny shambling Steve in the distance as he appears to be walking along a big tree branch in the foreground. There are plenty more occasions when the photography from Wally Curtis is quite inspired for such a low-rent and hokey production, and genuinely elevates the action and the atmosphere.
But lest you get the wrong idea about how this all turns out, the exploitation angle is rarely forgotten, and this is best summed-up in a sequence featuring a saucy photographer who has lured his attractive young model out into the wilderness with the distinct intentions of getting her nekkid in the sunlight.As he paws her top down to expose her bobbling breasts, she inadvertently strays into the grasp of a half-devoured corpse’s hand. Sex and horror, folks. Sells tickets, you know.
Okay, we’d have the Wicked Witch of the West shrieking “I’m melting!” as she shrank away to nothingness in The Wizard of Oz, but cinematic deaths had rarely boasted anything as unsightly and unpleasant as this. Mind you, there had been the lousy, yet imaginative occult chiller, The Devil’s Rain, in which Ernest Borgnine and his satanic followers would spend practically the last ten minutes dissolving into pustulant puddles as a result of the titular deluge. The film was also a clear influence upon Roy Frumkes and Jim Muro’s outrageous meltdown-flick, Street Trash, in hapless winos consumed some stuff so hard it was positively toxic. Chuck Russell’s highly enjoyable remake of The Blob boasted some impressive character dissolves too. Even Paul Verhoeven’s already hyper-violent Robocop had a showstopping scene of someone getting all runny and squishy, courtesy of Rob Bottin and a drum of nuclear effluent. Bryan Singer’s first X-Men also saw someone waste away, Bruce Davison literally liquidising before our very eyes.
But Steve West is the Daddy of all the incredible melting men who have stained the silver screen ... and he does so with all the colours of the rainbow.
Illogical story. Cheap thrills. Mediocre talent. Z-grade, through and through. But The Incredible Melting Man is a justified kitsch cult-classic of bad-boy gristle and gore that you’ve just got to adore.
Scoring a film like this just seems wrong. I'm saying 6, but you know I love it more than that.
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