The Incredible Melting Man (1977) -***½
Watching First Man into Space was a frustrating experience for me. See, I could tell the whole time that I should have been enjoying the movie, which after all featured such seemingly sure-fire elements as a psychiatrist with expertise in metallurgy, lots of cool stock footage of X-planes, and a man who returns from a test flight to the threshold of space as a blood-drinking humanoid casserole. But because the Producers’ Associates studio had a peerless knack for discovering directors who could turn any script in the world into a stultifying ordeal of tedium, First Man into Space ended up fulfilling hardly any of its potential. It was, in short, just crying out for somebody to remake it.
Enter William Sachs. Sachs is not what you would call a talented man— this is the guy who would later direct Galaxina, you know— but he was in the employ of American International Pictures in the late 1970’s, and AIP in those final days of its existence tended to attract a different sort of incompetent than Producers’ Associates had twenty years before. Maybe it was because the studio was in financial trouble; maybe it was because Roger Corman had split some years before to set up New World Pictures (say what you want about Corman the director, but Corman the producer knew talent when he saw it); maybe it was something else altogether. But whatever the reason, AIP had lost by that point just about all of its top echelon of filmmakers, and was left with a lineup roughly on par with Larry Buchanan— people who simply didn’t have a clue, and what’s more, didn’t have a clue that they didn’t have a clue. People, that is to say, like William Sachs. I don’t pretend to know what gave Sachs the idea for an update of First Man into Space, but I think I’ve got some idea what sold his bosses at the studio on it. It ended up being a hypnotically awful movie, but you’ve got to give The Incredible Melting Man credit for one thing: it features what has to be the most revolting premise for a monster movie ever!
While the credits roll over an image of outer space, the usual crackly radio voices clue us in to the fact that the Scorpio V manned mission to Saturn is about to lift off for the voyage home, and... Oh my God. The movie hasn’t even started yet, and Dr. Science is already buttoning up his lab coat and asking that I turn the reins over to him for a moment. Okay— a manned mission to Saturn? That involves landing on the planet itself? Right off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why this is ridiculous. First of all, Saturn’s mass is approximately 95 times that of the Earth. Because it is primarily a function of mass, the force of gravity on Saturn is also about 95 times what we encounter at home— more than enough, in other words, to squash the human body into a little glob of hyper-dense protoplasm. Second, even if you found a way to overcome that problem, you still couldn’t land astronauts on Saturn, because, as a Jovian planet, it has no distinct surface! When you penetrate the atmosphere of Saturn, all you’re going to find is more fucking atmosphere, at least until you reach the planet’s metallic hydrogen core. And considering that the pressure and temperature at the core aren’t too far removed from what you’d find inside a small star, you sure as hell don’t want to go sending a manned spaceship there! But William Sachs knows none of this, so astronaut Steve West (Alex Rebar, from Amityville: The Evil Escapes and Tales of Canterbury) and his two crewmates do indeed begin the film by blasting off from Saturn. But before they even pass the inner margin of the planet’s rings, something happens to the ship— but don’t bother asking me what, because Sachs didn’t seem to think that detail important enough to include in the script. All I can tell you is that West comes home in a coma while his comrades come home dead.
Some months later, Steve is still comatose in a hospital, his head completely wrapped in bandages. His physician, Dr. Loring (Lisle Wilson, from Sisters and Cotton Comes to Harlem), looks over his chart and mumbles something about nothing he tries having any effect. Loring then orders a grossly fat nurse in an ill-fitting uniform to switch the plasma currently feeding West’s IV drip for a couple units of whole blood; the nurse must do this herself, Dr. Loring says— the whole business is supposed to be a secret, and we can’t have any of the orderlies finding out about it. Loring then goes off to have a talk with a colleague of his by the name of Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning, of J.C. and The Amazing Captain Nemo), leaving Nurse Fatty to her duties. While the nurse is away getting the blood for his IV, Steve unexpectedly awakens from his coma. First he looks at his hands, which he finds to be covered in hideous, open sores. Then he notices the bandages on his face; getting up off of his gurney, Steve pulls the bandages loose and makes his way over to the nearest mirror, which reveals that the flesh is quite literally melting off of his skull! When the nurse returns, Steve inexplicably attacks her, kills her, and then flees from the hospital.
Ted Nelson ends up being the one to examine Nurse Fatty’s corpse, which he finds in partially eaten condition. As he explains to Loring, this is because Steve instinctively understands that the only way he can retard the disintegration of his body is to ingest living human tissue to make up for what he’s losing. Nelson figures West’s brain is already so deteriorated that this instinct is just about all that’s left of his mind. Thus, Steve can be expected to kill virtually everyone he comes into contact with, and the more people he kills, the longer he himself will survive to menace society. Nelson places a call to General Perry (Miron Healey, of Claws and Panther Girl of the Kongo), the military man in charge of covering up the whole Scorpio V affair (‘cause it’s the 70’s, and covering shit up is just what the military did in those days), to tell him that Steve has escaped. Perry says he’ll be right over to help with the search and capture operations.
We’re maybe fifteen minutes into the movie at this point. Seriously. We’ve also come to the end of the plot. From here on out, Steve West will roam seemingly at random around the countryside, killing people completely at random and becoming more and more disgusting to behold with each passing scene. Meanwhile, Nelson and General Perry will comb the area for any trace of him— by which I mean literally that Nelson and Perry will do all the combing. What? You were expecting an organized manhunt? A company of soldiers dispatched to the trouble spot with some vague and sinister cover story about communists or drug dealers or black separatists? Some kind of large-scale police involvement, possibly with the FBI weighing in as it becomes increasingly obvious that the local cops are outclassed? Sorry. That would have cost money, you see, and all of that went to paying for Rick Baker and his awesomely gross Melting Man effects. So the only people who end up in on the search are a physician, a general, the doctor’s pregnant wife (Ann Sweeny), and the county sheriff (The Entity’s Michael Aldredge), the latter of whom begins playing a halfway meaningful role only once Steve has racked up quite a serious body count. In between murders and search scenes (you’d think it would be pretty damn easy to find a guy who is not only radioactive, but who leaves an unmistakable trail of molten flesh behind him everywhere he goes), we’re basically left with that greatest bane of the horror fan’s existence, the Moseying Monster film. But most of those murders are a hoot and a holler (my favorite: the artfully composed shot of Steve’s shadow tossing the fisherman’s head, which then sails into the frame, lands in the water, and floats downstream until it goes splat at the bottom of a waterfall), and a monster as nauseating as Steve is a pretty compelling sight, even when moseying is all it’s up to. Besides, do you really watch a movie called The Incredible Melting Man for its story?