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There are films with ambition, films with a message, films crafted to inspire and elate, to inform, to enlighten, to horrify, to criticise corporations and condemn regimes, to act as a rallying cry for the disenfranchised, or sometimes simply to entertain. There is only one film, however, whose apparent sole purpose is to melt.
The resume of writer/director William Sachs does not glitter as the stars in the night: with perhaps the sole exception of this piece of schlock and 1980’s Galaxina, itself only remembered as one of the final films of the tragic starlet Dorothy Stratten, murdered two months after release, and the presence of Stephen Macht, the man who was almost but not quite Commander William Riker, his output has been low end fare which has passed from memory unremarked upon.
The Incredible Melting Man itself was produced in 1977, sandwiched between two UFO conspiracy/alien abduction/ancient astronaut documentaries directed and co-written by Sachs, Secrets of the Gods (1976) and The Force Beyond (1978), and it is debatable whether they have any more connection with reality than this science fiction piece has with science.
In defence of Sachs, the film as released by American International Pictures and now restored Blu-ray by Arrow Pictures was not as he had intended, with a scene-setting introduction filmed against his wishes and incorporated into the print. Heavy with stock footage of solar flares, supposedly standing in for the rings of Saturn, the crew of a deep space mission are suddenly hit with a radiation surge.
Reminiscent of the opening of The Quatermass Experiment but without the ambition, intellect, technical skill, originality or dignity, when the Scorpio V capsule arrives back on Earth (no explanation is given for how it returned from Saturn), two of the three crew two have vanished inexplicably and the sole survivor Steve West (“Alex Rebar as The Incredible Melting Man” boast the credits!) is undergoing a strange and terrible transformation.
Awaking in hospital, he tears the bandages from his face before terrifying a nurse who runs down the corridors in slow motion, pursued by the shambling mess that was once West, dripping bodily fluids and trailing surgical dressings behind him; considering how easily she panics in a crisis, her demise is not considered a great loss to the medical profession, though it allows the first demonstration of auteur Sachs signature composition, known as “hand cam,” as the scene unfolds in the background while the foreground frame is broken by the hand (sometimes two, sometimes melting) of another character.
Concerned physician Doctor Loring (Sisters’ Lisle Wilson) calls in West’s friend Doctor Ted Nelson (the amenable Burr DeBenning, a seventies television regular seen on Kojak, Columbo, The Rockford Files, Starsky and Hutch and Wonder Woman) and explains the situation in a scene inexplicably shot on a moving platform which drowns out the dialogue.
Nelson detects residual radiation at the scene of the crime, confers with Air Force officer General Michael Perry (western star Myron Healey) via split screen then sets about tracking West’s trail with a Geiger counter, the process documented via hand cam, while the rapidly degenerating West sets about terrifying the most unpleasant child actors ever committed to film (“There’ll be no more of those scary movies for you!” declares the mother of one brat who has arrived home weeping) and stumbling through the desert dust, randomly killing pensioners in lemon groves and stalking suburban neighbourhoods as Nelson closes in.
With a staircase chase standing in for the more traditional car chase in the final act, the conclusion once again draws from Quatermass as the creature is brought down by electricity in the single most impressive moment of the film.
Released six months after Star Wars, these two films could not have come from more different worlds. Spoofed by Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in their seventh season, it is astonishing how little plot there is, bad actors staggering around in fields delivering bad dialogue, the budgetary limitations and technical ineptitude – the space capsule is a dead set, flipping switches connected to no lights or monitors, an aeroplane is represented by nothing more than a door – making it astonishing that it was actually given cinema release.
There is no attempt to explore the characters, to question what they’re feeling, what they think West might be feeling, to give him a backstory or a family, to see him tracking back to them, to question whether he might be seeking comfort or if he’ll be too far gone when he gets there and just kill them.
All the characters are empty, but it’s not the fault of the actors, it’s Sach’s painfully amateur script which offers them no scope to breathe, though in the accompanying documentary he admits the inspiration was not highbrow. “This whole movie was my mother’s fault,” he says recalling her job in a paint factory and the chemicals she would bring home. “It’s a glop movie.”
Makeup effects artist Rick Baker, who later won an Academy Award for An American Werewolf in London (1981), was working on the 1976 remake of King Kong, stating that he was actually in the gorilla suit when he received the script and didn’t want to do it as he felt he had graduated from low budget features. Putting in what he felt was an outrageous bid, when the producers accepted he found he was stuck with the job; his team included Rob Bottin (The Fog, The Thing, RoboCop) and Greg Cannom (Vamp, The Lost Boys).
“There’s only so much you can do with a film like that,” Baker reflects sanguinely, though he does offer that it’s a more realistic take on the effects of radiation than the giant bug B-movies of the fifties, though he was not alone in struggling to find the intended humour in Sach’s script.
“I don’t think the producers read the script,” Sachs states, explaining that they wanted the finished product to be serious whereas he wanted the kitsch and horror of a fifties comic book. Citing George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as an influence, the film was to have been called The Ghoul from Outer Space, which belies the original intention that the revelation that West was an astronaut wasn’t to come until the final scene, that there was to be no sight of him other than as the monster. Sachs is blunt in his commentary track: “It ruins him when you see him before.”
While Baker is equally direct with his comment about “not very good performances,” Sachs is warmer in his recollections, saying he knew Rebar as a voice actor dubbing Italian films, DeBenning was cast because of his role in City Beneath the Sea (“He had a comic book face”), that Healey “plays it so straight he’s funny,” and that Ann Sweeny, who plays Nelson’s wife Judy, grounded the film both in her reactions to events and in her relationship with the other characters.
Also included in the special features is the “Super 8” home movie version of the film, a seven minute digest originally condensed to 200ft of film which is an entertaining curio, little more than an FX reel which makes no less sense than the film itself, but as Sachs himself says, “You’re not sitting down to watch Schindler’s List, you’re supposed to have fun.”