Here’s a question for you: what is the primary reason to watch a film? Is it for the performances, the scenery, the cinematography, or to learn something?
You could argue that all of those things are important, but surely the most important point of all is that a film should be entertaining. You could, in fact, include all of the previously mentioned ingredients and still come up with something as dull as ditchwater. But as long as a production entertains you, that’s all that matters.
With that in mind, maybe it’s time to take another look at The Incredible Melting Man. In no way, shape or form would it ever be regarded as a masterpiece; indeed, those critics who have bothered to think about it during the 33 years since its cinema release have done little but chastise it.
Nevertheless, when it turned up on the UK’s Horror Channel recently, I was curious enough to give it a chance – and I’m glad I did.
Clearly made on a shoestring budget by writer/director William Sachs – a man whose career could never be described as illustrious – it opens as three astronauts journey through Saturn’s rings. Only one of them, Steve West, survives; when he awakes in an army hospital, he’s swathed in bandages and we learn his flesh and personality are decomposing at an alarming rate.
For reasons never actually explained, Steve needs to feast regularly on fresh meat to stay alive, and he goes on a murderous rampage across a rural area of the USA, with his former friend, Dr Ted Nelson, and boss, General Perry, in hot pursuit.
The final confrontation takes place at a power station, where those hunting Steve down come to an electrifying end, and Steve himself simply melts away; his liquified remains are cleaned up the next morning by a janitor. It’s a surprisingly low-key and bleak ending.
A quick bit of research on the internet reveals that The Incredible Melting Man was originally intended to be a parody of other low-budget horror films, but that a decision was made to take out the gags during the editing stage, which perhaps accounts for the film’s unevenness, particularly in several of the performances, including that by Burr DeBenning, who plays Nelson. Really he ought to be the glue holding the whole project together – it’s told largely from Nelson’s point of view as he searches for his decaying friend and tries to protect his pregnant wife from impending danger – but at times he clearly seems to be playing it for laughs.
Instead, the horror comes from Rick Baker’s brilliant special effects. We now know Baker for his stunning, multi-award-winning make-ups for the likes of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and An American Werewolf in London, but here, as an unknown, he created something easily as startling – a man whose flesh is melting off his bones as we watch; Steve is oozing and sticky, the sort of ‘icky’, nasty mess that would turn your stomach if it was stuck on the bottom of your shoe, never mind lumbering towards you!
There is a slightly cack-handed attempt at provoking thought among viewers too, as the film tries to reveal the dangers of exploring unchartered areas without knowing the risks involved. It’s a rather hackneyed idea that’s been done to death hundreds of times and is best left forgotten in this case.
But the fact that it features an astronaut endangering his fellow humans after returning to Earth mirrors a strong tradition in British horror and science fiction – for example in The Quatermass Experiment and the 1970 Doctor Who adventure Ambassadors of Death.
Also of note is the fact is was co-produced by Max Rosenberg of Amicus fame, and Jonathan Demme, later to win an Oscar for directing The Silence of the Lambs, makes a cameo appearance as one of Steve’s victims. Janus Blythe (Phantom of the Paradise, The Hills Have Eyes) plays his wife – in fact, despite spending only about five minutes on screen, gives the film’s best performance as fear takes hold of her character and she can’t make her mind up whether to laugh or cry.
To go back to my original point, The Incredible Melting Man features few decent performances, some OK scenery, no great cinematography, and you certainly don’t learn anything from it. However, it does have a certain je ne sais quois that makes it oddly entertaining.
Now, whether it’s a classic or not is another question altogether…
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