The great news about this release is that it boasts an AVC transfer that has been supervised by the film’s cinematographer, Victor J. Kemper. There’s been a few of these filmmaker-endorsed titles flitting about recently – The Exorcist, Last Of The Mohicans, Alien and Aliens etc – and this is the type of trend that the format needs to fully utilise where possible. Plus, it sort of negates any critical response to alterations in colour timing, re-framing and whatnot. We can say what we see and how we feel about it, but if it's been okayed by those who really are in-the-know, there is no realistic point in complaining about it.
And, happily for us, Kemper's supervision of this transfer from the original 35mm negative results in a picture that is strong, stable, revealing and consistent.
Kemper shot for 1.85:1 and he composed some rather stately and polished frames, and a distinctive look of dry, autumnal leanness. The film is not a colourful one. What fidelity there is comes over well, with a smidgeon of pinched warmth and only a hazy brand of vitality. The film is deliberately softly lensed, something that you notice all the more when the camera rests upon Ann-Margret, who is bathed in a lightly honeyed glow. Skin-tones are pale, but strangely natural-looking at the same time. The seasonal aesthetic is not as burnished as you might have thought, the picture, to my eyes, coming over as parched and vaguely desiccated. When we see some blood, or the blues of eyes, the décor inside Peggy’s house, the silver glint of a knife, the transfer provides the necessary boldness, but this is not a film, or a disc that provides much in the way of vibrancy.
With the softness of the overall image inherent to the source, the detail on show is far more subtly realised, but it is there, all right. We can see facial texture, especially on Burgess Meredith and Ed Lauter who both have, shall we say, a more “lived-in” appearance. Definition does manage to go down to the level of hair separation, but this is not strictly an image that revels in the finite. Leaves on the deck, woodgrain in the cabins etc, is not wildly rendered with deep detail, and the lighting and overall softness of the image can make such things seem less realised than they are. Clothing and material stand up well under scrutiny, and the overall impression of the transfer’s delineation is of a good, solid and visually authentic standard.
Contrast is fair, but not great, and there can be some fluctuations dotted about the frame. The image can look overly light and hazy at times. But black levels are certainly up to the task, although they do reveal the grain a lot more. The shadows in the trees, and those draped across the lake provide oodles of deep, dark menace even though the film does not really try to get a great deal of mileage out of them. The sight of Fats at the cabin window as Corky undertakes his grim swim across the lake has plenty of deep black to surround it. And the moment when Peg disturbs her newfound lover as he attempts to deal with a body is swathed with reliable darkness.
What I was very impressed with was the way that Kemper’s deep-focus shots come across. We are all well aware of how the streets of New York look, even if we haven’t been there, but Kemper manages to inject a fabulous vitality to them that really stand out in a couple of ground-level views that place us dramatically in the centre of massively bustling main thoroughfares. With the 1.85:1 framing, the reality of the cars streaming about us is startlingly vivid. Later, at the cabin-resort where most of the film takes place, we get some great shots that have, say, Fats somewhere in the foreground, Corky somewhere behind him and the view through an open door trailing off into the distance, and the sense of depth and visual spatiality is extremely well presented. Having said this, though, the film is not dramatically three-dimensional, and some of the landscape shots, by comparison to those city streets and frequently immaculate framings, fall somewhat flat. But, overall, the image has a rewarding and atmospheric sense of depth to it. Closeups work well, too, especially those of Fats, which gain an added degree of unsettling realism because of those eyes and that damn smirk.
With its grain intact, and only a few typical instances where it seems to stand out a little more, the transfer has not had any judicious DNR applied. Edge enhancement does not present any problems and I noticed little to no aliasing going on. All in all, this should please the “Sports-fans”!
Dark Sky sees to it that Magic is not bullied into any unnecessary surround design, although in the case of such a smaller, more intimate film, I would have liked to have heard some subtle atmospherics flitting about in the background, and for a story that deals with the concept of throwing one's voice, I would have thought that there would have been more made of the spatiality and positioning of Fats' dialogue. But, hey, I'm just ruminating, here … for what we have is a PCM Uncompressed 2.0 mono mix that does what it can to breathe life and energy into the movie.
But, first things first. There are two little glitches in this audio track. Both come very early on, but are painfully noticeable. Now, I only have the VHS copy of Magic (and I can no longer play videotapes anyway!), so I cannot say for certain that this odd defect is not apparent on any other version of the film and, thus, inherent to the source. But on two occasions when Hopkins speaks – the first time in the nightclub, and the second over the dinner-table with Ben Greene – his voice becomes horribly and very obviously dislocated for a spell of a few words, and then swiftly rights itself. I ran the offending occasions over and over and the effect was almost as though the lossless track had reverted to a wrongly mixed lossy mono for a sentence and then dropped back into the correct audio stream. Very odd.
But the rest of the track is fine. Let me know if you find any other anomalies though, Sports Fans!
Fats’ sudden screaming and violent attack in the woods is actually quite startlingly realised. The pitch of the anger in his voice (I mean Corky’s, obviously) is well-judged and just high and uncomfortable enough to catch you off-guard and make your heart leap. For a film that relies more upon its dialogue than any other effect, the speech always comes across with clarity and variance. I will say, however, that when people start shouting – well this would mainly be Anthony Hopkins – the voices can become a bit tinny and restricted. But this is not enough to bother anyone, I don’t think. Hopkins’ softly distinctive voice retains that weird lilt from the valley, no matter how hard he tries to put on an American accent, but the sudden transitions from this to his voice for Fats work very well, and his alter-ego’s whiny high brogue is delightfully projected, without sounding distorted or disembodied.
Ambience on the city streets and in the nightclub where Corky works during the first section is certainly okay, though there are no really specific details spotted in these audio-crowded scenes. But hubbub is still nicely realised. Natural ambience is also pretty effective, though obviously limited in breadth and scope. We get to hear the “night noises” of crickets, or whatever, humming and chirruping outside the cabin. Effects such as the impacts around a victim’s head, the splashing of the water during a violent confrontation, or the lapping of the lake and the sluicing of the row-boat’s oars aren’t embellished and probably sound better for their more natural prioritisation within the mix.
So no bugaboo bogus sonics to pep up the soundtrack, and a nice clean-sounding and reasonably active 2-channel spread with only those two weird little glitches, Magic doesn’t let the side down in the audio department by remaining faithful to the source (well, in my opinion, anyway) and delivering its few shocks with appreciable aplomb.
Dark Sky manage to come up with some good stuff for Magic which, let’s face it, could so easily have been shrugged off with just a trailer.
Firstly, in Screenwriting For Dummies, we get a fine 20-minute chat from William Goldman about his original book and how it got picked-up for a movie adaptation, and his subsequent involvement with Dickie Attenborough who took the directorial reins after Norman Jewison left the production. Goldman is on pretty good form, enthusiastic, opinionated and frank about the whys and wherefores of his screenplay’s evolution. There are plenty of anecdotes and the whole thing is light and breezy.
Interestingly, in-lieu of a proper making-of we also get a cool little featurette that charts the history of ventriloquism, with practitioner Dennis Alwood (the technical consultant for the film, and also the guy actually operating Fats from cunningly concealed positions off-camera) leading us through the art form’s genesis in the middle ages, through its parlour room and theatrical development, and on to today. He tells us how ventriloquists only narrowly avoided being burned at the stake during the witch-hunts, and we get to see some vintage performances from some of the greats. He then gives us a potted history of such “devil-doll” movies before moving on to furnish us with some great details about the making of Magic which, of course, he was heavily involved with. Ann-Margret's boobs, scene-stealing, dummies swearing and all sorts of anecdotes are bandied-about, and we get to meet Fats once more, who then goes on to take over the interview. As is usual with a lot of these ventriloquists, except for those who are wise enough to grow a thick moustache like Roger Dikorsy, we can clearly see Alwood's lips moving, and even his tongue flicking about behind them. Not very convincing, to be honest. But Fats is still a real character, regardless, and this is a great little featurette that actually delivers far more than you expect it to.
We get a decent 11-minute interview with cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, who defends and upholds the skills of DOP's before going in to detail on his work on Magic, and how he approached the lighting from a psychological point of view. He informs us of Hopkins actually learning to throw his voice and to perform ventriloquism. I'm still not convinced that the actor didn't just dub Fats' lines after the event, though.
We get a cute but rather pointless one-minute silent makeup test for Ann-Margret, and then we have to endure (well, only if you want to) a brief video interview that Anthony Hopkins does with a Mexican/Spanish film crew. What ruins this, yet provides a rather ironic spin on it all, is the fact that the interviewer speaks English to Hopkins, then translates back into Spanish his own question as well Hopkins' answer. You can the problems that this inconvenient mode of communication enforces upon the session all too easily, and the way in which the whole thing is conduced, with the poor Welshman waiting patiently to be able to speak again, is not unlike watching Corky arguing with Fats.
There is another, slightly better interview that Anthony Hopkins provides for us, but this one is from some unspecified radio session that plays over a montage of scenes and outtakes from the film. Here we learn about the actor's childhood and how he got the acting bug. It would have been better, however, if these outtakes had been a separate special feature, as they look like they could have been quite amusing.
And, finally, we get a selection of trailers, TV and Radio Spots to round out the package. Obviously, a commentary would have been great – especially if it had been delivered by Fats, eh?
Magic was always one of those cool 70's chillers that felt appropriately dark and demented, yet retained something of a glossy sheen. Its macabre atmosphere has, unfortunately, not aged all that well. The tale is tightly claustrophobic, as it should be, but the setting comes over as limited and the developments, as a result, feel forced and contrived. However, rallying against some detractors who have labelled Hopkins' performance as over-the-top, I feel that he hits the character of the deeply troubled Corky with just the right amount of dementia. He is painfully shy to the point of being aggressive, and his only controlled outlet is via Fats. Of course, he is going to be over-the-top. I like the fact that we don't sympathise with him too much, and that his split-personality is given away very early on. It is also to Goldman's credit that Corky isn't bogged-down with too much wallowing backstory or psychological explanation. He just is screwed-up.
Dark Sky put out a very respectable disc, too. The video transfer, supervised by the film cinematographer, is rewarding if a touch unremarkable, and the audio is fine, except for those two irritating glitches. The small roster of special features are quaint, but welcome, and the featurette on Fats and his Friends is suitably wacky and mischievous and leaves us with the rather unsettling notion that the dummy is still alive and speaking his mind.
This is a great release of an often overlooked little thriller and comes heartily recommended to those who prefer cold, clammy chills over explicit shock-tactics. A superb entry in the “evil doll” genre, Magic tries hard to weave its disturbing spell and definitely comes up with an unnerving tone and an intriguing central character – or “two” - but the restrictions of its soap-opera plotting only serve to lessen the suspense at the end of the day. But for fans of Anthony Hopkins, this is almost indispensable.
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