The First New Horror Creature.
An ambiguous celestial event exposes an American astronaut crew to a blast of radiation. Steve West is the sole survivor of the incident, and when he wakes up in a hospital room back on Earth, he is a changed man—if you can even call him a man at all. His body is rapidly converting into a gelatinous ooze, and his mind, in the words of his friend and caretaker Dr. Ted Nelson, is “decomposed”. Furthermore, “He’ll need human cells to live. His instincts will tell him to kill.” And kill he does, anyone who crosses his path or gets in his way.
The characters are mostly thin, and the movie overall is wildly uneven, but to call it one of the worst movies ever made (as many have done) is quite an exaggeration. It has its fair share of amusing moments (both intentional and otherwise), decent pacing, some great special effects, and a strong history of films—some better, some worse—from which it draws on. It’s typically pretty damn entertaining, and for me, that’s all that it needed to be.
Part of the reason for the unevenness of this movie is that it was intended to be a parody of horror films, according to writer-director William Sachs, but the producers opted for a more straight-forward approach during filming. Many of the comedic elements were dropped in favor of new scenes that were thrown together on the fly and intended to genuinely frighten. Certain of the original undertones can still be found running throughout the movie, but they are not played up as much as they were likely intended to be.
Had the original script been left intact, there’s no guarantee that it would have been a better film. It very well could have turned out worse, as the comedy-horror subgenre is a notoriously difficult one to pull off correctly, and for every SHAWN OF THE DEAD, there’s a dozen TRANSYLMANIAs. If only they had opted for something of a middle ground—a loving homage as opposed to outright parody or outright horror—THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN would probably be a cult favorite today, sitting on shelves alongside NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and FRIGHT NIGHT, rather than being regularly lambasted.
Dr. Ted is our hero here, and he calls in the help of General Michael Perry of the Air Force, and the two set about tracking down this Incredible Melting Man in secret—though Sheriff Neil Blake does start getting suspicious about all these partially-eaten bodies that are piling up.
Almost all of the characters leave something to be desired. We never get to know Steve West as a person, and as the Melting Man, he’s about as deep as a puddle. Ted fares a bit better in the characterization department, but even he comes across as if he’s been given a heavy dose of Thorazine. He wanders through the film with great disinterest and without any sense of urgency, and after Steve first escapes the hospital, he stops at home for lunch before pursuing him. For the most part, he’s much more concerned with soda crackers and General Perry’s lack of phone manners than he is with the oozy-skinned cannibal that escaped from the hospital under his watch—the only exception being when he believes his wife Judy might be in danger.
Perry is partly a stereotype of the tough and stern military man, but he also comes off a bit wishy-washy. He demands that Ted tells no one about Melty, grows angry when Ted tells Judy, then forgives him shortly thereafter in an Aw-Shucks moment. For a high-ranking official, he’s also not very skilled at organizing a manhunt. Mostly it’s just him and Ted driving around randomly between meals and naps at Ted’s house. They occasionally get lucky, like when they stumble upon one of Steve’s ears hanging from a tree, but generally it’s like a deleted scene from AMERICAN GRAFFITI.
Curiously, the two people who had the most personality in the film were hardly characters at all—Judy’s mother Helen and her boyfriend Harold. Their primary purpose was to be attacked by the Melting Man while they were en route to Ted and Judy’s house (who doesn’t hold a dinner party when they’re supposed to be monster hunting?), but the banter between them in their brief scene was a true highlight, character-wise, and you really got the feeling that these two people were lovebirds enjoying their twilight years together.
American International Pictures, who distributed the film, must have had high hopes for THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, as they produced a number of tie-in products to coincide with the release. There was a novelization written by Phil Smith, a home make-up kit, and even a children’s Halloween costume. I’ve read that candles were created as promotional items, but haven’t been able to locate any photos of them online. Etsy user Stexe, however, does have a modern line of Incredible Melting Mandles (and assorted other amazing novelties) that can be purchased from his online storefront.
As the real star of the show is certainly the stellar and goopy makeup effects—including not just the Melting Man himself but the carnage he causes (a juicy severed head stands out from the pack)—we’ll start with them. They were the work of Rick Baker, who had done work for TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST (to which this film is something of a distant cousin) early in his career, and there was reportedly much more we were meant to see, but the lead actor refused to spend the excessive amount of time in the makeup chair that it would’ve required. Baker, of course, also worked on IT’S ALIVE (1974), THE HOWLING (1981), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), the Cantina scene in STAR WARS (1977) and countless others.
According to Starlog #14, Baker was working on the 1976 remake of KING KONG when director William Sachs sent him the script for the project, then called THE GHOUL FROM OUTER SPACE, after seeing Baker’s effects in the movie SQUIRM (also 1976). Put off by the title, Baker nearly refused to even read it, but once he did, he realized the potential that the script had in the make-up department. When production was complete, Baker was touted as “The New Master of Special Effects” in publicity material, some of which stated that he was the man who brought THE EXORCIST to life—a claim which angered William Friedkin to no end. Baker was quick to set the record straight: “I didn’t do anything creative on THE EXORCIST. Dick Smith did all the designing and creative work. I was an assistant who did the physical work…I wish that could be cleared up.”
William Sachs also gave us the speculative documentary THE FORCE BEYOND (1978), narrated by Orson Welles; drive-in film VAN NUYS BLVD. (1979); sci-fi comedy GALAXINA (1980); and the family-friendly fantasy SPOOKY HOUSE (2002). He served as producer on the Dean Koontz adaptation SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT (1991) and the infamous LEPRECHAUN (1993). Missing from his IMDb filmography, though present on some of his online résumés, is the series of BAYWATCH workout videos with Gena Lee Nolin and Donna D’Errico that he directed—something he likely doesn’t brag about at parties; and an early experimental film that was used as a backdrop at Pink Floyd concerts, which he probably does brag about at parties.
Alex Rebar, who played the Melting Man himself, can be found in the rarely-seen LSD freakout movie MICROSCOPIC LIQUID SUBWAY TO OBLIVION (1970); the Billy Dee Williams-Robert Carradine action flick NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET (1987); and AMITYVILLE 4: THE EVIL ESCAPES (1989). He was a “collaborating writer” on the possession film BEYOND THE DOOR (1974), and had solo scripting duties on horror movies TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT and DEMENTED (both 1980).
Our hero Ted was played by Burr DeBenning, who went on to appear in THE AMAZING CAPTAIN NEMO (1978), ALIEN ZONE (1978), Al Pacino’s CRUISING (1980), and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD (1989). His wife here, Ann Sweeny, didn’t have a very expansive career, but she can be seen in episodes of MASH, LOU GRANT, and ST. ELSEWHERE.
Myron Healy, who played Perry, has over 300 film and TV credits to his name, many of them in smaller roles. Some of the more interesting titles include: the Bogart noirs KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (1949) and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950); action film HOT ROD (1950); sci-fi horror THE UNEARTHLY (1957); crime thriller MA BARKER’S KILLER BROOD (1960); killer grizzly flick CLAWS (1977); and comedy-horror GHOST FEVER (1986).
Michael Alldredge, who played the sheriff, mostly popped up on television but also had parts in movies like THE ENTITY (1982), SCARFACE (1983), IRON EAGLE (1986), and ROBOT JOX (1989).
In smaller roles, we have Lisle Wilson (SISTERS, 1973) as Dr. Loring; Edwin Max (COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, 1952) and Dorothy Love (CAGED HEAT, 1972) as Harold and Helen; Janus Blythe (Ruby from THE HILLS HAVE EYES, 1977) and Jonathan Demme (yes, that Jonathan Demme) as Nell and Matt Winters; and Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith (LASERBLAST, 1978) and adult film producer Don Walters as the Model and the Photographer (the latter four all being random victims of the Melting Man).
THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN may have its weaknesses, but how can you not love a cast like that?