'70s films, '70s-era, 1970's cinema, Alex Rebar, All Buy Mice Elf Film Festival, astronauts, B-movies, body horror, Burr DeBenning, cannibalism, cinema, drive-in fare, film reviews, films, horror, horror films, horror movie, Jonathan Demme, melting people, Movies, Myron Healey, Rick Baker, sci-fi, science-fiction, special effects, special-effects extravaganza, Steve West, Ted Nelson, The Incredible Melting Man, William Sachs, writer-director
While iconic villains are a vital component to horror films (particularly franchises), they’re also one of the most difficult aspects of a film to nail. Despite the exponential increase in the sheer number of horror films, we haven’t really added many “classic” villains to the roster since the ’80s: while characters like Laid to Rest’s (2009) ChromeSkull and Hatchet’s (2006) Victor Crowley have been in a few films, by this point, they’ve yet to achieve any sort of cultural resonance. One could argue that Leprechaun’s (1993) titular character counts, since he’s now been featured in seven different films (after all, Freddy only had a total of 9 films, including the recent reboot). As with ChromeSkull and Crowley, however, the Leprechaun never really made it to Buzz Bin status: he’s working-class but no hero. There have been many attempts to spawn a new horror icon, over the years, but very few ever end up taking off. One of the strangest of these attempts to craft a bit of zeitgeist came about in 1977 with The Incredible Melting Man, a B-movie with pretensions to immortality.
Despite some pretty impressive makeup effects by a young Rick Baker and a tagline that explicitly announced the filmmakers’ intentions (“The first new horror creature”), The Incredible Melting Man did not go on to spawn a franchise…or even a sequel, as it were. Whether audiences had a hard time associating with the gloopy titular monster or whether the (decidedly rough) production-quality put them off makes little difference. As it stands, The Incredible Melting Man is a complete failure at creating a lasting legacy but pretty successful as a goofy, gory popcorn film.
Astronaut Steve West (Alex Rebar) is part of an expedition to fly through the rings of Saturn when something goes wrong: his nose begins to bleed, things get fuzzy and he wakes up in a hospital. After removing his facial bandages, Steve notices something: he doesn’t look too hot. In fact, he seems to be rotting. This kinda ticks him off (wouldn’t it bother you?) and he pounds the table, apeman-style, before trashing the examination room. A nurse returns in time to get chased by Steve in a scene filmed with the kind of gauzy slo-mo that usually ended ’70s horror films, not began them. She crashes through a glass door (saved a second on opening it, I suppose), Steve’s right there and it’s “Good night, nurse!”
We now meet Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning) and Dr. Loring (Lisle Wilson) as they examine the nurse’s body. Ted knows a little about this situation, since he was Steve’s friend and was involved with the Saturn mission. He’s also the most laid-back, unflappable, milquetoast “hero” of all time: the scene where he describes to Dr. Loring how his wife, Judy (Ann Sweeny), is pregnant with their third child, after two previous miscarriages, has all of the emotional impact of a colonoscopy. Any “clues” he turns up along the way will be greeted with the mild distaste that one might express when finding caterpillars on the cabbages: Ted Nelson may be the “hero” in The Incredible Melting Man but the guy would be a zero just about anywhere else.
As poor Steve stomps around the countryside, leaving gloopy handprints here, a bit of his ear there (“Oh God…it’s his ear,” exclaims Ted, in a way that practically screams “Could I possibly have a refill on my glass of water, please, if it’s not too much of a bother?”) and dead bodies everywhere, Ted is forced to get General Perry (Myron Healey) involved. Together, Ted and the General set out to stop Steve’s killing spree, albeit for different reasons: the General wants all traces of this disaster dead and gone, while Ted only wants to help out his soupy buddy. It all comes to a head at some kind of a factory, where Ted’s friendship will be stretched to the limit and Steve will have to try, if only for a moment, to regain his basic humanity.
When The Incredible Melting Man is rough, it’s really rough. The acting is rudimentary, at best, with some performances being so howlingly terrible that they achieve a kind of gonzo spectacle. Alex Rebar, in particular, is awful: were he to stay “normal” throughout the film, the movie would actually be unwatchable, although getting buried in the melting man makeup restricts his performance to strictly physical, which works wonders. While Burr DeBenning is nowhere near as terrible, he manages to possess as much energy and life as a department-store mannequin (and not the ’80s kind, either). In the world of the over-actors, the under-actor is king and DeBenning rules his roost from a godly height. The musical score is also pretty ludicrous: the final pursuit in the factory is scored by some of the cheesiest wah-wah guitar possible, along with a pathetic rip-off of John Williams Jaws theme.
Among the shoddier filmmaking aspects are some genuinely “so-bad-it’s-great” moments. My personal favorite has to be the one where Steve steps on the fisherman’s sandwich. It’s the oddest, most awkward and just plain confounding scene in the entire film (which is saying a lot): for some reason, we get a close-up of a plastic “monster” foot (think Gwar) stomping awkwardly on a sandwich, as if the “actor” accidentally tripped and was immortalized on film. Another forehead-slapper would have to be Judy’s ridiculously horny mother and step-father, who stop for a little hanky-panky and orange picking in the middle of the night and get a nasty Steve-sized surprise: not only are the actors terrible (bested only by their avatar, Alex Rebar) but the situation makes no sense whatsoever.
Far from being a complete waste of film and time, however, The Incredible Melting Man is actually quite charming, believe it or not. It will never be accused of being a good film, mind you, but it’s a pretty great B-movie. The movie is definitely cheesy (and very, very soupy) but it’s also got a surprising amount of pathos wrapped up within the idiocy. Steve West, when he’s not talking, is a tremendously sympathetic creature and not so far removed from Frankenstein’s Monster or The Wolf Man. He’s a normal man, with normal friends and a normal life, who is completely destroyed by forces outside his command. He’s turned into a monster, hunted by the very government who facilitated his transformation and has his waning sense of humanity constantly appealed to by his former best friend. Steve West is no sadistic Freddy or Wishmaster: rather, he’s a pitiable creature who seems to take no joy in his mayhem. There’s one moment that perfectly illustrates the two halves of this character: after he’s turned into a completely horrifying, shambling mess, Steve looks down into a water-filled barrel, right at his reflection. As he stares, a drop of pus, like a tear, falls into the water, rippling the image. Say what you want but it’s a powerful, subtle moment that manages to perfectly blend pathos and ick factor: in other words, it’s a picture-perfect horror movie moment.
Too much can’t be said about Rick Baker’s phenomenal special effects, which really give the film a sense of identity. While the makeup starts off a tad bit rough, we’re in glorious hardcore mode once Steve really gets to rottin’. At first, I was wondering whether the version of the film I recently watched was censored: an early shot of the dead nurse seems surprisingly tame and cut-off and there’s some weird editing going on. Once we get to the shot of the fisherman’s body, however, complete with ripped-open ribcage and a severed head, it’s pretty clear that not much hit the cutting room floor. Truth be told, The Incredible Melting Man, as befits its moniker, gets severely goopy, so much so that it begins to resemble one of those extended Family Guy vomiting scenes. If your stomach isn’t fairly cast-iron, chances are that Steve’s melted-wax look is really going to rumble your guts: make it through enough of the film, however, and it kind of fades into the background, sort of like all the nudity in Showgirls (1995). For my part, some of the most stomach-churning stuff came from scenes like the one where an unsuspecting young girl puts her hand into a nice, sticky bit of Steve slop: the thought, alone, is undeniably gross but the practical effects make it even worse. Ditto for the final melting scene, which would be echoed a decade later in the gross-out classic Street Trash (1987). While Street Trash would plumb it for laughs, The Incredible Melting Man goes straight for the heart-strings, reminding us that the disgusting pile of wet, red something on the ground used to be a pretty average (if terribly hammy) dude.
While The Incredible Melting Man may not have succeeded in adding another indelible villain to the collective conscience, it ended up being a more than worthy B-movie. It’s not hard to imagine couples going to see this at the drive-in, covering their eyes whenever Steve shambles up into the camera-eye. For folks who grew up on this kind of sensational, B-movie fare, The Incredible Melting Man should more than fit the bill for a night of nostalgia. Just be sure to keep this one away from the dinner hour: for once, this is all about truth in advertising.