Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Still Not Out on DVD: The Incredible Melting Man

Every dyed-in-the-wool film buff has their personal cinematic Lost Ark: That indelible movie classic that's haunted them for years, yet somehow evaded release on DVD.

For some film obsessives, it's John Huston's The African Queen. Others may bemoan the absence of Nicholas Ray's noir western Johnny Guitar from the domestic digital front (Criterion, incidentally, is supposedly remedying this, soon).

Me, I would readily don the fedora and brave Indiana Jones-style perils for the love of...The Incredible Melting Man.

In an era when even the most obscure vintage horror schlock makes it to the Digital Age (and when something like, oh, Dracula 3000 can be purchased at any frickin' video store), the absence of this mean-spirited little curio from the DVD pantheon sorta surprises me. It's gruesome, gloriously silly, and features makeup effects by a young Rick Baker--all prime reason for digital immortality. I lamented this gem's absence of a domestic DVD incarnation three years ago, and its elusiveness still taunts me.

We share a strange friendship, the Melting Man and I. He first reared his drippy head in 1977 and I was there at the outset, a dorky ten-year-old dragging my ever-patient mom to the local military theater on a school night. Deep down, I knew we weren't gonna exactly be watching Annie Hall (go here for a detailed assessment of the military theater's place in the Drive-In Era Hierarchy of Crap). But The Incredible Melting Man stuck with me like gooey liquified flesh affixed to a doorknob.

Six years later, I saw it again on a double-bill at the late, great Parkland Theater with another yet-to-surface-on-DVD B-chiller, Greydon Clark's Without Warning. During this encore viewing I laughed so loud that the manager asked me to pipe down or face eviction (this, just before a giggling party boy in the back rolled an empty beer bottle down the aisle).

These fond memories induced me to unearth my beat-up VHS copy of The Incredible Melting Man for a peek. And Dear God in Silk Jammies, it still serves up the grotty low-budget goods.

The Incredible Melting Man belongs to that unheralded but beloved sub-genre of science-fiction; the Returning-Astronaut-Turns-Monstrous film, represented in fine fashion by the classic British sci-fi epic The Creeping Unknown, and the underrated 1958 US thriller First Man into Space. Here, space explorer Steve West (Alex Rebar) flies a mission to explore the rings of Saturn, and he brings back a radioactive virus that sets him to melting like an extra-grotesque candle.

Of course, had it just stopped there, IMM would just be another disease-of-the-week movie--An ickier version of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, maybe. But this being a horror flick, there are complications. Steve's extreme case of eczema rots his brain, infuses him with super-strength, and turns him into a ravenous cannibal who ravages the town even as he disintegrates like Margaret Hamilton under a bucket of water.

Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning), an old pal of West's from his pre-gory-puddle days, runs around waving a geiger counter and making astute remarks like, "Oh, God...It's his ear!" His only backup for much of the movie, General Perry (Myron Healy), mocks Nelson for putting up with a nagging wife and freeloads leftovers from the doctor's fridge.

Viewed with grown-up eyes, The Incredible Melting Man plays less like a straight horror flick and more like a crude spoof of one (thereby rendering the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment it received years ago thuddingly redundant). Director William Sachs dispenses with even the slightest backstory, and reels off each of the Grilled Cheese Astronaut's attacks with zero subtlety and nary a whit of suspense: Blood, guts, and glop fly freely, but rather than offend or nauseate, the movie's over-the-top nasty streak induces (maybe not entirely unintentional) giggles; like a grade Z sci-fi flick directed by South Park's Eric Cartman.

The movie's seventies vintage surfaces hysterically, in all sorts of odd corners. Sensitive Dr. Nelson simpers about the cramp a melting super-strong cannibal's gonna put on his wife's pregnancy; the General picks on the poor schmuck for putting up with his spouse's nagging, then Mother-Hens him into keeping the whole gloppy mess covered up Watergate-style; and the everybody-dies finale plays like the downbeat conclusion of every downbeat horror movie of the decade, only written on a Lite-Brite. The actors play it all uber-straight--DeBenning appears to have walked off of the set of an earnest family drama by mistake, and Healey made a mini-career out of impersonating stout-voiced, barrel-chested military men in movies like this and Varan the Unbelievable.

If you like some gore with your cheese, IMM also delivers. Mr. Melty chews an obese nurse's face off, rips a poor fisherman's head from his body and tosses the forceably-liberated noggin down a waterfall (it splits nicely on some rocks at the bottom), eats Nelson's mother-in-law, gets his arm hacked off with a meatcleaver, and fries the local sheriff on some extra-sparky electrical wiring (among other misdeeds of varying severity).

Since we've already talked about bad-horror-movie-strange-bedfellows this week, it bears mentioning that director Jonathan Demme spends a minute or two in front of the camera as a possible Melting Man Happy Meal. And if the thought of the director of Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia sporting a porn-star moustache and getting devoured by a melting cannibal doesn't fill you with unbridled and unrestrained joy, you've wandered into the wrong blog by mistake, Bucky.

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