MAY 31, 2011
I wasn’t expecting much from The Incredible Melting Man, due to the fact that it was featured on MST3k and makes a few lists of the worst movies ever made (most of which I suspect are just made by lazy folks glancing at the list of movies that were featured on MST3k, but whatever). But I actually found it pretty fun; once you get past the silly concept, it’s a pretty traditional “unwitting victim on a rampage” movie, with a major downer ending that adds a touch of Romero-esque cynicism to the proceedings.
As I’ve mentioned before, dumb plots are nothing to me. You know what a genre movie with a really realistic plot is? Boring. I bring up the Armageddon defense – show me a better movie about oil drillers going into space to blow up an asteroid if you think it’s so bad. Same with this. I don’t think I’ve seen a better movie about a melting man, and hell, it’s even better than some of the more basic “astronaut comes back from space... but something’s not right!” movies I’ve seen; I defy anyone to tell me that The Astronaut’s Wife is better than this.
Anyway, a big part of what makes it work is its dedication to the R rating. A lot of these things tend to be pretty light, but this movie is grim as all hell. I was almost kind of surprised when a little girl ended up escaping, because it seemed like the kind of movie that would have no problem offing a tyke. Especially in hindsight, since (spoiler) the ending sees the death of both heroes, followed by the tragic titular character sort of moaning in anguish as he literally melts away, with parts of his torso and head just sort of sagging/falling off, until he’s just a pile of mush. His anguished howls are actually kind of disturbing; sure, he’s just killed a bunch of folks, but you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the guy. At least in American Werewolf In London he had someone to put him out of his misery; this poor bastard just cries and melts to death while his best friend lies dead nearby (he was shot by the cops while trying to protect him).
Some of the kills are pretty nasty too. One of the first finds him tearing some poor bastard’s head off, followed by an unnecessarily long (read: hilariously awesome) shot of the head floating down the river and then falling down a waterfall and smashing against the rocks below. And he gets it in turn; a would-be victim cuts his arm off around the one hour mark, and throughout the movie he is losing ears and other minor body parts. And the makeup is incredible for its time; Rob Bottin was apparently inspired by Rick Baker’s work here when he made the melting dude in Robocop, so just imagine that guy for an entire movie and you’ll get the idea. And it may have even looked BETTER, as Baker had designed a few different stages of melting-ness, but the actor (Alex Rebar) refused to put on the appliances. Well, fuck him, even if he was an executive producer of Home Sweet Home. I hated putting on monster makeup too, but if you sign on for a movie you do what you signed on for (especially when you’re not even a big star – this was only his third film, and the others seem to be supporting roles).
Another thing I learned was that the movie was originally written as a parody of these sort of movies, but then they decided to make it a real monster movie, which might explain some of its rather silly plot elements. But it seems this decision was made during the screenwriting process, not during filming, so I’m unsure if the other actors (particularly hero Burr DeBenning) were ever told that this wasn’t supposed to be funny anymore. DeBenning plays Dr. Ted Nelson, a name that pops up with alarming frequency throughout the film (as does the rather unthreatening name of the melting man: “Steve”). Even when the cops are about to shoot him at the end, he keeps repeating his name: “No! I’m Ted Nelson!”. Anyway, he delivers all of his lines like he’s in the middle of some sort of deep depression; even when he’s telling his buddy at work that his wife is pregnant, he looks like he just watched his dog get run over or something. The movie also has plenty of wonderfully odd dialogue exchanges, like when Ted and his wife argue about the lack of crackers in the house in the middle of his telling her that their friend Steve is now an Incredible Melting Man. And of course, DeBenning’s detached line readings just make such conversations all the more hilarious.
I was also endlessly tickled by the extended scene where Ted’s in-laws are seen taking a shortcut as they head to the Nelson house for dinner. Not only are the old folks quite frisky, but they mug their way through the entire scene before the Melting Man takes them out. And the icing on the cake – when Mrs. Nelson hears that her parents are dead, she takes on her husband’s soulless exterior, barely even blinking at the news (Ted of course has no emotion about it, but that’s just the standard Ted Nelson way of dealing with things).
If I had one complaint it would be that the movie gets pretty repetitive; maybe if that jerk Rebar had worn the makeup like he was supposed to it would feel more like it was building to something, but you can pretty much chop out the entire middle of the movie and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Melty has flashbacks to the space accident that exposed him to the radiation in the first place, and while they are of some comedic value (Steve says “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen the sun through the rings of Saturn!” at one point), but the FX are so bad that it renders most of these scenes fairly incoherent. Plus they keep going back to them, which I thought was going to build toward a twist of some sort, like that maybe Steve intentionally killed his crewmates or something, but like the movie itself, you can remove them or mix up their order and it wouldn’t really change your understanding.
But who cares! It’s a movie about a melting man! And it features smoking children, beheadings, old people stealing lemons, and a janitor shoveling the mushy remains of our villain into a barrel as we hear a wonderfully cynical radio announcement about another trip to Saturn about to get under way (one that carries a message from Steve and the other “quarantined” astronauts that they wish their successors well). It’s also presented in a remarkably good transfer on Netflix; I didn’t see the HD icon pop up but it sure looked like it, especially for a cheapie 35 year old movie (one that doesn't appear to be available on DVD in the US at that). Highly recommended if you enjoy mean-spirited schlock. And if you don’t, well, watch the MST3k version I guess.
What say you?