It always comes back to this. As far as I can remember watching horror, there was always this kind of film showing on TV: ordinary folk, exposure to something awful (usually nuclear in nature), and then ensuing chaos. Of course I’m talking about the ‘50s and the Atomic Age of Horror, and starting with the title, 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man is intent on paying homage to them. Intent is a helluva word; full of optimism and purpose, it suggests a clear vision to be followed through. However, if it had been, we wouldn’t be left with this hilarious and heartfelt curiosity.
Released by American International stateside in December, TIMM didn’t do great business nor were critics lining up to ladle praise upon it. Every review however did laud Rick Baker’s gooey makeup, and it has been considered the lone shining star in a vacant sky; which is straight up pish posh (excuse my language). What started out as a playful parody (more on that later) lands in a space that houses absurd swings at comedy, B splatter mayhem, and elevated melodrama. Never mind what it was supposed to be; we should be celebrating what it is.
We start in space, as astronaut Steve West (Alex Rebar – Amityville: The Evil Escapes) and two cohorts are busy looking at the sun through the rings of Saturn; some jiggly camera movement and basic reverse photography later, we pick up in a hospital room back on earth. Steve is covered in bandages, bed bound, and his fellow cosmobros are nowhere to be found. When he pulls back the gauze to reveal his melting visage, Steve goes berserk and kills a nurse that flees the building (in slow motion, no less).
Steve has brought back…some sort of STD (Space Transmitted Disease), and he roams the country side peeling heads off of fishermen, horny old folk, and hornier photographers. Meanwhile his good friend Dr. Ted Rogers (the wonderfully named Burr DeBenning – A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) is sent with a Geiger counter to track him down, hush hush of course. Aiding in his mission is his boss, General Michael Perry (Myron Healey – Pulse), who seems more content with taking naps and eating turkey legs than helping out hapless Ted. Can Steve be stopped before he gloops and glops his way into oblivion?
The Incredible Melting Man was a bloodied windshield squeegeed clean out of horror history until the MST3K gang got a hold of it; their well meaning deconstruction of the film wasn’t wrong, and it certainly put it on the radar of folks looking to fill the gaps with choice wtfuckery – which it supplies from frame one.
Here there be: world enveloping scenery chewing, awkward fits of bizarre humor, the aforementioned pustule-y perfect makeup effects of Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London), and breakneck shifts in tone from somber to slapstick. I’m genuinely surprised there isn’t a sad tuba oompa-loomping as Steve slithers through the brushes.
This cacophonic cinematic car crash was not writer/director William Sachs’ (Galaxina) intention, however; his film was to be a parody of the Atomic Monster flicks before producers took over and removed the majority of comedic elements. The thing is, viewed apart from the serious attempts at horror that they constantly slamdance against, the humor simply doesn’t work as planned. It does play in the context of its new environs, though; by being inept at the comedy, Sachs has created not a parody of, but rather a tribute to those movies. Awkward, ridiculous exposition, stiff acting, inexplicable science – you name it, it’s all here. There’s no possible way to make a viable parody of a subgenre that is already long beyond it.
Sincerity goes a long ways round these parts, and The Incredible Melting Man oozes it; whether he set out to make a comedy or not, Sachs tries his hardest to make it good – which is the most subjective word in all of filmdom. The only thing setting this apart from the nuclear nightmares of the past is Baker’s superlative effects work and the gratuitous nudity. (Oh, and a cameo from Jonathan Demme.) Everything else is loaded right off the back of a 1958 military supply truck.
Unfortunately, Rebar didn’t want to go through with the multiple stages of disintegration that Baker had planned, so we’re basically stuck with two levels of infection from Steve: bad allergic reaction (I’m not sure Benadryl works on the rings of Saturn), and pizza landslide. Still, it’s very messy and it works.
Speaking of messy, I really can’t leave without touching on a couple of performances, namely Healey as the slothful General and DeBenning as the laconic, morose Ted. Healey seems to be playing for comedy (even when it isn’t there) as the stern commander with a total of one subject to command. Speaking of Ted, DeBenning should get some kind of award; he’s so laid back he makes Perry Como look like a crackhead – the only time he gets animated is when his wife forgets the crackers for his soup. (He’s not wrong, by the way.)
The horror genre holds as much high art as any other form of cinema; films that move us, question our beliefs, show us humanity as we’ve never seen it before, or even how it truly is. This is not that film. The Incredible Melting Man is low art though; a film that displays all the virtues that drew us to the genre in the first place. It may not be the film Sachs intended, but it’s the film it always should have been.
[Jonathan Note: The Daily Dead team wants to congratulate Scott for releasing his 200th installment of Drive-In Dust Offs! He's brought something truly special to Daily Dead with this column and I look forward to reading his weekly pick as much as Daily Dead readers. His ability to entertain, educate, and bring new context to forgotten gems all in a single article is an incredible talent, and his love for the genre is limitless. More importantly, Scott is an incredibly kind person with a big heart, and someone I'm very happy to call a friend.
To celebrate 200 installments of Drive-In Dust Offs, we're giving Daily Dead readers a chance to win a prize pack, including The Incredible Melting Man on Blu-ray and your very own container of slime.... yes, slime! For a chance to win, all you have to do is like, share, or re-Tweet this on social media:
We'll pick a winner on Saturday, February 23rd. Good luck!
The Incredible Melting Man is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory (NA) and Arrow Video (EU).Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966)