Collins’ Crypt: I’m Melting, Melting

BC watched two movies about people melting in the same day and wrote about it.

I certainly didn't plan it, but despite what I consider to be a relative lack of horror movies in which the protagonist melts for the entire runtime, I managed to watch two of them in the same day. One was The Incredible Melting Man, which I was revisiting courtesy of Shout Factory, who is releasing the film on Blu-ray in a minor special edition this Tuesday as part of their increasingly awesome (and wallet-killing) Scream Factory line. The other was Thanatomorphose, a new body-horror film which is well on its way to being the most oft-misspelled title of the past several years (I keep wanting to call it "Thanosmorph"). Luckily for me, the two films couldn't be less alike - their melting protagonists are the only thing they share.

It doesn't take much effort to spot the difference; after all, even if it was still around, it's doubtful that Thanatomorphose would ever end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, as the other film was (in its final season on Comedy Central before switching to Sci-Fi Channel, where it might have aired before or after a showing of the actual movie). More in line with art drama than traditional horror movie, this Canadian production tells the story of a nameless heroine (played, quite bravely, by Kayden Rose) who gets infected somehow (through sexual activity is suggested, but the movie never bothers with any specifics) and spends the nearly dialogue-free movie cataloging the stages of her rotting away. It starts with minor stuff you might brush off - an unexplained bruise, an easily made cut, a strand of hair coming out - but it's not long before it's apparent that something is very very wrong, as the bruises start covering more of her body, wounds open and never shut, etc.

Let's be clear - this movie is "gross". Writer/director √Čric Falardeau doesn't shy away from showing a single awful thing that happens to Rose over the course of the film's slightly overlong 100 minutes, and the makeup team has done an incredible job showing her gradual decline. I assume the movie HAD to be shot in sequence, as it's not like a typical monster movie where there's a few distinct stages that can be applied - she looks different (read: worse) in every scene, as less and less of her skin is visible and body parts begin to fall off. But what makes it unnerving is that Rose doesn't really panic even when that starts to happen - there are no doctors (she never even leaves her apartment) or even much in the way of concern. She shrieks every now and then, but it's out of pain, not fear or even disgust - she reacts to her finger falling off with as much shock as she did when she discovered the first bruise.

She also continues as if nothing much is wrong, working on her art pieces and even seducing a male interest (in one of the film's most nauseating images, he puts his hands on the back of her head as she gives him oral, his index finger directly on a still bleeding wound). Falardeau doesn't seem to think much of the men in this movie; her boyfriend is an abusive asshole and this other guy forgets about his concern for her well-being as soon as she drops to her knees. But then again, since she barely seems to care much about her condition, why should they? It's a puzzling film to be sure, with a few scenes that may be hallucinations, not to mention the question of why this is only happening to her (it's certainly not contagious), but in a way that helps, not hinders, its status as one of the year's most unique and worthwhile genre films, provided you can stomach it.

The Incredible Melting Man, on the other hand, is geared more for the drunken midnight crowd. We might not know the names of a single character in Thanatomorphose, but the hero in Melting Man makes sure to say his own name about eleven thousand times, often to hilarious effect (particularly near the end, when he repeatedly shouts "I'M TED NELSON!" to cops that have guns drawn on him, in a manner one might shout "I'm innocent!" or whatever). What makes it even funnier is that he's one of the most laid-back, hilariously inconsequential "heroes" in movie history, showing more concern that his wife forgot to buy crackers than he does for his best friend, the titular Melting Man (real name: Steve West), who underwent some sort of radiation exposure while on a mission to Saturn. There's some half-assed conspiracy/coverup stuff; Nelson is reprimanded by his superior for telling his wife about West's accident as "Nobody can know!", though it's never quite clear why NASA is being so sinister. It's also unclear why a man would invite his boss over for dinner while all of this is going on, but it adds to Nelson's wonderful reinterpretation of the word "anti-hero".

I also never quite understood what Incredible Melting Man hoped to achieve by killing folks every now and then. I thought there would be some sort of built in nonsense where he could consume flesh to slow/reverse the melting process, but he just gets worse throughout the film, despite racking up a decent body count (5 or 6). I guess he just went crazy, but there's still a shred of his humanity in there as he saves Nelson's life in the climax, so I dunno. All I know is, Nelson's attempts to find/save him are limited to wandering around with a Geiger counter every now and then, calling his wife to give vague status updates, and telling cops his name. And thanks to writer/director William Sach's bizarre idea that we shouldn't know anything about Incredible Melting Man until the end, there isn't much to his character to make him sympathetic - if Sachs had his way, what little we do know would have been revealed at the end, so it would have been 80 minutes of a random melting guy killing people while a vague friend of his tries to find him when he's not scolding his wife for forgetting the crackers.

But it's definitely worth seeing, not just for the unintentional comedy (it doesn't even need Tom Servo to be funny), but also for the early FX work by Rick Baker. Apparently the actor playing Incredible Melting Man was a pain in the ass and didn't want to deal with Baker's more elaborate makeup ideas (which were also hindered by the budget and short production time), so he had to scale it back - but it's still a pretty impressive getup, one that looks great in high def. Incredible Melting Man is only seen in human form in his flashbacks; after about 20 minutes he already looks like Ms. Rose looks like in the 3rd act of Thanatomorphose, which is to say, fucking disgusting, with goop constantly dripping from his face and hands, leaving smears (and the occasional body part) on anything he brushes against while making his journey around the San Fernando Valley. Baker also provides a couple of great prosthetics for the kills, including a terrific head that is hilariously smashed like a watermelon at the bottom of a waterfall. And it's astonishing to read up on the film (or watch the included interview) and see who was on his team: future wizards Rob Bottin, Greg Cannom, and Craig Reardon all worked under Baker, a team that would have given any horror fan a massive coronary had it been assembled for a bigger budgeted production 10 years later. It might not be the proudest moment of any of their careers, but it holds up now, 35+ years later, and for its time was nothing short of astonishing.

The makeup in Thanatomorphose is also impressive, by the way. Credited to David Scherer, none of it could have been easy (it's certainly not flattering) for Ms. Rose, and while it's less "goopy" it's probably more realistic and thus more horrifying, particularly in the final scenes where she's barely recognizable as a human being. At one point I was sure she was basically dead and that the 20 minute time remaining was somehow misleading (sometimes screeners have a chunk of dead air at the end), only to watch in horror as she did indeed get worse. Also (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!), neither of our melting protagonists are miraculously healed, and it's kind of interesting that they both go out almost the exact same way - crumbling to the ground, struggling to make one last move, only to turn into mush. Surprisingly, despite the bigger team on the other film, its Scherer who opts to go the time-consuming stop-motion route, with the last bits of flesh disintegrating to show a skeleton underneath, whereas Baker went for more of a "rotting pumpkin" approach that is equally sickening (but had me wondering where the bones went). While Incredible Melting Man was the villain of his movie, it's hard not to feel sad for him as he melts away, especially compared to the girl in Thanatomorphose, who clearly didn't care much about her condition.

In short, it just proves that when it comes to the horror genre, you can take the same bizarre concept and make two very different movies out of it, with the later film never feeling like a copycat or even an attempt to outdo its "predecessor". Hell it wouldn't surprise me if anyone involved with Thanatmorphose had never even SEEN The Incredible Melting Man, nor would I probably make the connection had I not happened to watch them back to back. And I recommend both, albeit for very different reasons - Melting Man was one of the last "Oh no! Science will destroy us!" horror movies that started in the 50s, released just before slashers and more traditional monster movies took over for the late 70s/most of the 80s, and the interview with Baker is worth the cost of the disc alone. Finding Thanatomorphose is a bit trickier right now; it's currently on the festival circuit and as far as I know does not have distribution lined up in the bigger territories. However, if you're attending the Fantasia Film Festival, not only am I supremely jealous of you, but you can catch it on August 3 (Saturday) at 11:45 pm. I'll try to keep tabs on its distribution progress; not only will I love to talk about the movie with folks once they've all seen it, but I'd be impressed with whatever studio takes a chance on something so, for lack of a better term, completely fucked up.