“Magnificent! You’ve never seen anything till you’ve seen the Sun through the rings of Saturn” declares the magnificently wooden Alex Rebar at the opening of The Incredible Melting Man, and similarly, you’ve never seen anything until you sit down to watch this film – though only the most fanatical trash cinema fan might declare it to be “magnificent.” There’s no denying the ridiculous entertainment value of this gloriously dreadful film, however, as it mixes a Fifties B-movie plot with spectacular bad taste to create one of the most ludicrous and – if you are in the right mood – entertaining films of the era.
I first saw The Incredible Melting Man in the early 1980s, when it turned up as support feature to – of all things – Every Which Way But Loose. Of course, an audience looking forward to Clint Eastwood’s good ol’ boy capers with a comedy orang utan were scarcely prepared for a film in which the lead character slowly melts, eats people and gets his arm chopped off and which memorably has a long shot of a severed head floating down a stream, tumbling over a waterfall and bursting open on the rocks below. It caused quite a stir. How this film managed to pass the BBFC with a AA certificate – equivalent to 15 now – in 1978, when gory scenes were still being cut from X rated movies, is anyone’s guess. For your teenage editor, the film was everything I’d hoped it would be when seeing trailers on TV and gloopy stills in horror mags.
Watching it again now, I can appreciate other things in the movie. It is, of course, terrible by any conventional standards. But then, how can we actually judge a film that calls itself The Incredible Melting Man? This is the sort of film that is almost critic proof, because it is inherently, shamelessly trashy. The only thing that really matters is this – does it entertain? And I’d say that the answer is a definite ‘yes’. It’s a film that delivers everything you want from this sort of thing – a steady supply of gore, gratuitous nudity, ripe dialogue and as few pauses for characterisation as it can get away with.
The story is pretty simple. Steve West (Rebar) is an astronaut who has something bad happen to him on a Saturn mission. Back on Earth (which seems to take no time at all), he awakens in hospital to find himself covered in bandages and strapped to a bed. Naturally unguarded (because why would you keep an astronaut whose condition is a national security top secret in a secure unit), he removes the bandages to reveal a face and hands that are beginning to melt. Naturally, this discovery forces him to chase a fat nurse through the empty hospital and then eat her.
Mission director Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning) and General Perry (Myron Healey) set out to track Steve down, which mostly involves Nelson wandering through the woods holding a giger counter. Steve, meanwhile, is on a rampage, ripping apart a fisherman (cue the afore-mentioned head scene), frightening children and leaving corpses to be found by a young model and a lecherous photographer (who are here simply to get some bare breasts into the story – given that the breasts belong to cult icon Rainbeaux Smith, I doubt anyone is complaining). As he decays, he seems to get stronger and more deranged. There’s the suggestion that eating people might slow the melting down, though how Steve would know that is anyone’s guess. In any case, he seems to spend most of his time lurking around houses to no obvious reason, attacking a young couple (played by film director Jonathan Demme and Hills Have Eyes star Janus Blythe!) before making his way to a power station for a final showdown with Nelson and the trigger happy cops.
The film is one of a handful of late 1970s movies that essentially channel 1950s science fiction (it would make a great double bill with the equally retro-styled Giant Spider Invasion), and the story here seems clearly inspired by The First Man Into Space and The Quatermass Xperiment, both of which featured astronauts who return to Earth infected with something that slowly causes them to decay, losing their minds and their humanity in the process. It’s a classic science fiction concept, and one that can be given a certain emotional and intellectual clout, but of course here all that is swept aside in favour of gore and mayhem. While the actual violence levels in the film are not that high, the graphic nature of the film is pretty remarkable. It’s not just the continually melting Rebar that will test the stamina of more sensitive viewers, though the shots of him dripping away, an eyeball falling out and eventually melting down completely will be enough to put many people off their dinners; it’s also the burst open head (filmed in loving slow motion!), the half-eaten nurse, the severed limbs and the general gore quota that still manages to be shocking. These scenes are also the best thing about the movie. Created by Rick Baker, the melting man and the gore are of a quality that the rest of the movie doesn’t even come close to. Baker’s work is the real star here (certainly more so than Rebar, who only gets the one scene without the make up and delivers his single line of dialogue terribly).
The rest of the film is pure 1950s though, and it’s easy to see that director William Sachs probably was trying to shoot a comic book style pastiche – according to him, the producers didn’t want a comedy horror and made him shoot more ‘straight’ horror scenes. The film is actually still pretty funny if you are familiar with Fifties science fiction, though how much of the comedy is deliberate is hard to tell. DeBenning is stiff as a board playing the stereotypical scientist, and most of the supporting characters are pretty one-dimensional and, yes, cartoon like. This would usually be a bad thing in a movie, but here, it’s rather appropriate. Good performances of well rounded characters spouting non-risable dialogue would probably be the death of this movie.
In the end, The Incredible Melting Man is exactly what you expect it to be. If you pick up a film with this title wanting something other than what you get, then more fool you, frankly. But if you are a lover of no-nonsense drive in madness or simply want a party movie with tits and gore and no complex plot to get caught up in, then this is for you. And Arrow’s new blu-ray ensures you can enjoy Rick Baker’s effects to their fullest!
Also included here are interviews with Sachs and Baker, and an entertaining commentary track from the director, who is under no illusions about the sort of film he’d made.