The Incredible Melting Man
|The Incredible Melting Man|
Theatrical release poster.
|Directed by||William Sachs|
|Produced by||Samuel W. Gelfman|
|Written by||William Sachs|
|Music by||Arlon Ober|
|Edited by||James Beshears|
|Distributed by||American International Pictures|
|Running time||84 min.|
The Incredible Melting Man is a 1977 American science fiction horror film about an astronaut whose body begins to melt after he is exposed to radiation during a space flight to Saturn, driving him to commit murders and consume human flesh to survive. Written and directed by William Sachs, the film starred Alex Rebar as Steve West, the antagonist of the title, alongside Burr DeBenning as a scientist trying to help him, and Myron Healey as a United States Air Force general seeking to capture him. It has been described as a remake of First Man into Space (1959).
The screenplay was originally intended as a parody of horror films, but comedic scenes were edited out during production and new horror scenes added. Sachs claims that the producers decided during shooting that a straight horror film would be more financially successful, and that the film suffered as a result. The Incredible Melting Man was produced by American International Pictures, which also handled the theatrical distribution. The film includes several homages to science fiction and horror films of the 1950s. Makeup artist Rick Baker provided the gory makeup effects for the film. He originally created four distinct stages of makeup design so the antagonist would appear to gradually melt, but the stages were ultimately cut from the final film.
The film received largely negative reviews and has ranked among the Bottom 100 list of films on the Internet Movie Database, although even critical reviews complimented Baker's makeup effects. The Incredible Melting Man was featured in the comedy It Came from Hollywood (1982) and inspired the makeup effects for a scene in the science fiction-action film RoboCop (1987). It also featured in a seventh season episode of the comedy television series Mystery Science Theater 3000.
During a space flight to Saturn, three astronauts are exposed to a blast of radiation which kills two of them and seriously injures the third, Steve West (Alex Rebar). He is next shown unconscious in a hospital back on Earth, with bandages covering his face; his physician, Dr. Loring (Lisle Wilson), cannot explain what is happening to West or how he survived the blast. After the doctor leaves, West awakens and is horrified to find the flesh on his face and hands melting away. Hysterical, he attacks and kills a nurse (Bonnie Inch), then escapes the hospital in a panic. Loring and Dr. Theodore "Ted" Nelson (Burr DeBenning), a scientist and friend of West, discover that the nurse's corpse is emitting feeble radiation, and realize West's body has become radioactive. Nelson believes West has gone insane, and concludes he must consume human flesh in order to slow the melting. Nelson calls General Michael Perry (Myron Healey), a United States Air Force officer familiar with West's accident, and the general agrees to help Nelson find him.
West attacks and kills a fisherman in a wood, then encounters and frightens a little girl (Julie Drazen) there, but she escapes unharmed. Nelson tracks West by following his radiation trail with a geiger counter, but only finds his detached ear stuck to a tree branch, not West himself. Perry arrives by plane, and is picked up by Nelson; shortly thereafter, they visit the crime scene where the fisherman's body was found. Sheriff Neil Blake (Michael Alldredge) suspects that Nelson knows something, but Nelson tells the sheriff nothing because Perry earlier told him information about West is classified. Later that night, Nelson returns home to his pregnant wife Judy (Ann Sweeny), who tells him that her elderly mother Helen (Dorothy Love) and Helen's boyfriend Harold (Edwin Max) are coming over for dinner. On their way, however, Helen and Harold are attacked by West in their car, and he kills them both.
When Blake finds the bodies, he calls Nelson, who comes out to identify them. After Blake angrily demands an explanation, Nelson reluctantly reveals West's condition. Nelson believes West is somehow getting stronger the more his body decomposes. Back at Nelson's house, West attacks and kills Perry, although Judy is not harmed. Nelson and Blake arrive just as West escapes. West then stumbles upon the home of a married couple (played by Jonathan Demme and Janus Blythe). West kills the man and attacks his wife, but she drives him away after chopping his arm off with a kitchen knife. Blake receives a call about the attack and takes Nelson with him to investigate. They follow West to a giant power plant, and then up several flights of outside stairways.
Blake tries to shoot West with a shotgun, but the blasts do not stop West, who throws the sheriff over the railing into power lines, killing him. West hits Nelson and knocks him over the railing, leaving the doctor hanging on the side. Nelson appeals to West, reminding him that they were friends, and West decides to pull Nelson to safety. Two armed security guards then arrive and, in a panic, fatally shoot Nelson as he tries to protect West. An infuriated West kills the security guards and stumbles away. After collapsing against the side of a building, he slowly melts completely away. The next morning, a janitor finds his gory remains and casually mops them into a garbage can. The film ends with a radio news report about a fresh astronaut team being sent to Saturn, implying the possibility of a future accident.
The Incredible Melting Man was written and directed by filmmaker William Sachs. Some sources – including the film magazine Cinefantastique and the 1995 book Cult Science Fiction Films – describe the film as a remake of First Man into Space (1959), another film about an astronaut who becomes a monster after an accident in space. Science fiction film historian Gene Wright suggests that the film was heavily influenced by The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), a British horror film about an astronaut who begins mutating into an alien organism after a spaceflight. Sachs claims The Incredible Melting Man was originally written as a parody of horror films. According to Michael Adams, a film reviewer who interviewed Sachs, this is why the film mixes horror with comedic moments, such as when Steve West's detached ear gets stuck on a tree, and when a janitor sweeps West's melted body into a garbage can at the end of the film. Adams claims that this explains several comedic lines of dialogue otherwise inconsistent with the rest of the film, including one moment when homeless men notice the melting West and say to each other, "You think we've got trouble, look at that dude."
Welch D. Everman, author of Cult Science Fiction Films, points to several homages in the movie to science fiction and horror films of the 1950s. The title itself is a reference to the Jack Arnold film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and the final scene when a radio report advertises another trip to Saturn, thus hinting that another accident could occur, was a common device in 1950s horror films. One difference, noted by Everman, is that in the 1950s films, government cover-ups and secret agendas were often ascribed to the good of the general public, whereas The Incredible Melting Man, like many late 1970s films of its genre, suggests otherwise. Variety describes the script, in addition to its horror elements, as "a human story attempting to leave a moral message as to whether society or the horrible creature it is chasing is really the most destructive." The script never fully explains how West's spacecraft returned to Earth from Saturn when West himself was so seriously injured and the other two members of his crew were both killed.
Alex Rebar starred as antagonist Steve West, one of only a handful of film appearances throughout his acting career. Burr DeBenning played Dr. Ted Nelson, and General Michael Perry was portrayed by Myron Healey, who was, Everman notes, often cast as a villain in 1950s science fiction films. Film director Jonathan Demme played the small role of Matt Winters, one of West's victims. Rainbeaux Smith, best known for her appearances in B movies and exploitation films, appeared in The Incredible Melting Man as a model who finds one of West's victims while trying to avoid a photographer seeking to take explicit photos of her.
Producer Max Rosenberg, best known for his horror and supernatural films, provided the financing for The Incredible Melting Man. Samuel W. Gelfman was the film's producer, and American International Pictures served as both the production company and the distributor. According to director William Sachs, the producers decided during shooting that a straight horror film would be more financially successful than a parody, so many of the comedic scenes were edited out and new horror scenes were shot and added to the film. Sachs said he felt the film was taken away from him, and that it suffered as a result because the producers tried to make it both a comedy and horror film, thus failing at both. Sachs said of the decision, "How can a serious horror movie end with the monster being shoveled into a garbage can?"
Makeup artist Rick Baker provided the special makeup effects for The Incredible Melting Man, which included the gradual melting of Steve West. Actor Alex Rebar wore facial appliances that simulated melting flesh, and his hands and feet were fitted with liquid substances that dropped off as he walked, creating the appearance that West's body was falling apart. During one scene, a murdered fisherman's severed head falls down a waterfall and smashes on the rocks below. To create the effect, Baker used a gelatin head with a wax skull and fake blood inside, which burst out upon impact.
Baker created four distinct stages of make-up design for the protagonist, so Steve West would appear to gradually melt as time passed. However, after the film went through two separate stages of editing, these make-up stages were ultimately eliminated from the final cut, and the character looks generally the same throughout the film. Richard Meyers, author of The World of Fantasy Films, said actor Alex Rebar was impatient and uncooperative with the extensive make-up sessions required for the effects, and thus did not wear all of the facial appliances Baker designed. This, Meyers said, may have been an additional factor in the lack of make-up effect stages in the final film. Initially, Sachs did not plan to show any scenes with Steve West before he sustained the radiation poisoning that caused his body to melt, although some such scenes were ultimately included.
Harry Woolman worked on the special effects along with Baker, and Willy Curtis worked as the film's cinematographer. Some scenes included photography errors, including one in which light shines through a kitchen window from outside even though it is supposed to be nighttime. Michel Levesque provided art direction, and the musical score was composed by London Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Arlon Ober.
The distribution of The Incredible Melting Man was handled by American International Pictures, with the involvement of film producer and distributor Irwin Yablans, who specialized primarily in B movies and low-budget horror films. A trailer released for the film attempted to build tension by not revealing the monster right away. Instead, it showed portions of the scene immediately before the nurse is murdered, in which she runs down a hallway screaming and then crashes through a glass window trying to escape from Steve West, who is only shown towards the end of the trailer. In some advertisements, the monster from the film was described as "the first NEW horror creature." As a promotional gimmick, candles were made and sold to advertise the film.
One poster for the film included the statement: "Rick Baker, the new master of special effects, who brought you the magic of The Exorcist and gave you the wonder of King Kong, now brings you his greatest creation, The Incredible Melting Man." Although Baker assisted with the effects in The Exorcist (1973), Dick Smith was the make-up artist who primarily worked on that film, not Baker. The Exorcist director William Friedkin was so angry about the poster that, upon seeing it on an associate's wall, he tore it down and ripped it to pieces. Baker, who did not know about the poster in advance, was horrified by the publicity campaign and publicly apologized for it, claiming: "Dick wanted some help so I first went out to do some work on the dummy whose head turns around 360 degrees. I really didn't do anything creative, I just did labor."
The Incredible Melting Man received largely negative reviews, and has ranked among the Bottom 100 list of films on the Internet Movie Database. Tom Buckley of The New York Times described it as poorly written and directed, calling it one of many poor summer films released "to fill the need of drive-in operators for something cheap to put on the screen for the kids in the cars to ignore or laugh at." The Globe and Mail writer Robert Martin praised Rick Baker's make-up effects and said director William Sachs did an efficient job building tension. However, Martin strongly criticized the script and the acting, claiming "logic and character are jettisoned in favor of suspense and horror", and said the film's positive elements were not strong enough to outweigh the negatives. John Foyston of The Oregonian strongly condemned the film as gratuitously gory with thin, motiveless characters. He declared it worse than the horror film Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), which is widely considered one of the worst films ever made. Rick Worland, a film professor at the Meadows School of the Arts who wrote a book about horror films, said there was "little to recommend" about The Incredible Melting Man besides Baker's make-up effects. Richard Meyers, a novelist who also wrote about science-fiction films, called the film muddled and dull: "Although the movie didn't have to be a sage examination of outer space diseases, it should at least have been exciting." Meyers complimented Baker's visual effects, but said his work was undermined by poor filming and actor Rebar's impatience with the make-up effects.
A 1985 review in the book The Motion Picture Guide wrote, "The film tries to balance horror against morality but ends up shaky at best." The review described the special effects as "all right, but not nearly as gruesome as the film pretends they are." In a review written shortly after the film was released, Variety wrote the film "more often than not succeeds in telling a story and sustaining audience interest", and that the script included not only horrors, but also a human story with a moral message about society. However, the review also called the dialogue "trite", described some scenes as "technically incorrect", and said the film disappointed by lingering on the ordinary characters rather the monster protagonist. Gene Wright, who wrote a book about science fiction films, said the film "attempts to blend pathos with awesome horror, but can't resist going for the gut with a surfeit of gore." Blockbuster Inc.'s Guide to Movies and Videos gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four, and described the it as "unexciting and contrived, though Rick Baker's gross-out makeup is undeniably effective." In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy described it as a better-than-average but "spotty" film, and said director William Sachs injected a sense of "grisly humor" into it. However, Hardy said the protagonist character inspired more laughter than terror, and called the special effects "only routine".
Some reviews were more positive. Welch D. Everman, author of Cult Science Fiction Films, compared the relationship between West and Nelson to that of Victor Frankenstein and his monster in Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein (1818). Everman wrote, "This is the kind of movie we've come to expect from AIP — cheaply made, nasty, and lots of fun." John W. Bowen of the Belleville Intelligencer said he enjoyed the "camp" style of the film, adding, "It's both inexplicable and sad this brain-damaged yet fiercely determined little drive-in bottom feeder never garnered more than a tiny cult following over the years." A 1978 critique in The Review of the News said, "Films like The Incredible Melting Man are not made to be good; they are made to be scary. For anyone looking to raise goosebumps on their flesh, this one is sufficient to give you your money's worth." Matt Maiellaro, co-creator of the Cartoon Network series Aqua Teen Hunger Force, said the film inspired him to start making films himself, adding, "When I was eight, I watched The Incredible Melting Man and knew that horror movies were going to be big religion in my life." Z movie director Tim Ritter said he was partially inspired to enter show business by watching a trailer for The Incredible Melting Man at age nine. Ritter said, "I was too young to see the movie, but the trailer really got into my imagination."
The Incredible Melting Man was released on VHS in 1986 by Vestron Video, and was rereleased in 1994 by Orion Pictures Library, although unlike other Orion VHS releases, it was not digitally remastered. In September 2000, The Incredible Melting Man was once again released on VHS as part of Midnite Movies, a line of B movies and exploitation films released to home video by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Although currently unavailable on DVD in region 1, it was released on region 2 by CMV Laservision on February 2, 2003. In addition to the home video and DVD releases, The Incredible Melting Man has been featured in several film festivals, including the 1987 Visions Film Festival at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, Australia, the 2007 B-Fest in Chicago, the 2008 Horrorama Movie Festival in Englewood, Colorado, and the 2010 Groovy B-Movie Marathon in Durham, North Carolina. Scream Factory is planning a Blu-ray and DVD release for 2013.
The film appears in It Came from Hollywood, a 1982 comedy film featuring a compilation of clips from more than 100 B movies from the 1930s to the 1970s, which are shown between scripted segments performed by comedians. Rick Baker's effects from The Incredible Melting Man inspired the makeup effects for a scene in the science fiction-action film RoboCop (1987). During the scene, Emil Antonowsky (Paul McCrane) attempts to drive RoboCop off the road, but instead accidentally drives into a vat of toxic waste, causing the flesh to melt off his face and hands. These effects were conceived and designed by Rob Bottin, the special makeup effects artist who worked on RoboCop. Bottin was inspired by Baker's work on The Incredible Melting Man, and dubbed the RoboCop effects "the Melting Man" as an homage to the production.
The Incredible Melting Man was featured a seventh season episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a comedy television series in which the characters watch bad movies and make jokes at their expense. The film appeared in the fourth episode of the seventh season, which was broadcast on Comedy Central on February 24, 1996. Michael J. Nelson, the show's head writer who also plays a fictional character of the same name, spoke disparagingly about the film while describing it to the press: "The plot is – and I'm not kidding here – the plot is, a guy is melting. That's the plot."
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