There’s something about a truly lurid movie title that speaks directly to that lizard part of my brain and demands that I have to simply have to see it, no matter what. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, Frankenhooker, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things – all these titles and many more grab you by the shoulders and shakes you vigorously while screaming “For the love of God, WATCH ME!!” directly into your wincing face. A personal favourite of mine was from the 1977 goop-fest, The Incredible Melting Man, a trashy sci-fi/horror flick whose almost vaudevillian title was almost too galling to resist and the fact that I read the tie-in novelization numerous times as a child (a child, people!) meant that the movie was almost destined to fail to live up to it.
And dissolve to:
After a mission to Saturn causes the trio of astronauts to get cosmic tanning session thanks to a blast of solar radiation, the only surviving crew member, Colonel Steve West, discovers that, much like on of the Famtastic Four, exposure to funky space rays has left him with an inhuman condition. However, instead of some cool, marketable super power, West finds that he been cursed to gradually melt away and thus immediately becomes a marauding monster that can only slow his disintegration is to consume human flesh.
After escaping the area where he was being treated and gorging himself on a nurse and a fisherman in order to tide himself over, Steve loses himself into the surrounding woods as his addled brain plays tangled flashbacks of his fucked up mission. Hired to clean up this mess is Steve’s friend and mission scientist, Ted Nelson, who is brow beaten by the tyrannical General Perry to locate and contain this melting murderer on his own in order to keep things absolutely classified (did the public think a manned trip to Saturn wouldn’t be dangerous, or something?) and so Ted spends his nights wandering around in the dark with a gieger counter looking for his former friend while his expecting wife pines at home.
As the body count continues to rise (two of them being Ted’s own in-laws), the search is stepped it include two more people, the local Sheriff and the General himself (way to push out the boat there, guys), but the more Steve dissolves, the stronger he seems to be getting despite the fact that his muscles look like melted pizza.
And so the stage is set for an awkward showdown as the clock ticks down to the launch of another mission to Saturn and Ted vainly tries to get through to his former friend before his body breaks down entirely.
Essentially The Quatermass Xperiment for the Grindhouse generation, I mentioned earlier that I first became rather enamored of the concept behind The Incredible Melting Man after reading Phil Smith’s tie-in novel at a formative age. An amusing example of gruesome pulp horror, it nevertheless took the visceral premise and added characters with back story, a sense of urgency and some truly haunting murder scenes that I found (surprise, surprise) are predictably absent from the film once I finally watched it. Weirdly enough, the exact same thing occurred with Will Collins’ tie-in paperback of Jaws-with-claws wannabe, Grizzly, as William Girdler’s 1976, drive-in, gut cruncher also failed to live up to it’s own novelization that ran with the idea while blessedly free of budget constraint and shitty actors.
Anyway, I digress, and while The Incredible Melting Man is a worthy addition to the pantheon of so-bad-its-good titles that survives solely on their outlandish content, actually sitting through the damn thing can be something of a grainy chore. Murky cinematography, choke-worthy dialogue and flat direction are all to be expected from a low budget flick from the 70’s, but apparently we’re cursed to live in the timeline where a movie about a man who progressively melts while craving blood frequently feels duller than watching the lottery results even though you haven’t bought a ticket.
It doesn’t help that the movie contains an unbroken chain of staggeringly unappealing characters who read their lines like they haven’t quite shaken off the effects of a shot of novocaine – “You’ve never seen anything, until you’ve seen the sun through the Rings of Saturn!” announces Steve with all the passion of someone who has the emotional range of a kitchen appliance. The script doesn’t exactly help matters either, dotting the glistening monster action with an asinine subplot about Ted having to go to absurd lengths to keep Steve’s rampage secret (not helped by the fact that he confesses there’s a conspiracy to everyone he meets – he just won’t tell them what it is) and scenes that attempt to build character and fail miserably by having them take the form of Ted and his wife debating about who’s fault it was that the house is out of crackers.
Also proving to be as malformed as its main character is the movie’s tone, which shifts from grim killings to goofy scenes of an elderly couple trying to steal lemons and then snaps back again to try and be a grim sci/fi thriller. The reason for this is the claims from writer/director William Sachs that the movie originally was supposed to be more of a parody of nihilistic horror flicks like Niggt Of The Living Dead, but the producers insisted on exorcising most of the more humourous aspects, leaving the finish product lacking any real personality whatsoever.
However, not every good aspect of The Incredible Melting Man has sloughed of the movie’s bones and pools into a viscous puddle on the floor. The most obvious reason to watch the film is that it’s a slimy showcase for the work of a young Rick Baker who certainly helps the film do what it says on the tin as he deploys different makeup to track Steve’s deterioration and a selection of equally gruesome body parts to complement all the melting. The slow motion shot of a severed head floating over a waterfall only to crack its skull on the rocks below is tremendously affecting as is a slow pan reveal that Steve’s first victim is missing half a face.
Also, the movie actually manages to get it nihilistic urges across in the impressively downbeat finale as Ted is fatally shot while trying to save his melting friend’s rapidly shortening life as the movie ultimately ends with the sight of Steve’s puddles remains being callously swept up and binned by an janitor oblivious to everything that’s transpired.
But these are only minor good points in a compromised mess of this melt-sploitation movie that ironically fails to hold itself together with any form of cohesion whatsoever.