“It’s a glop movie,” writer-director William Sachs admits with a shrug on the special features of The Incredible Melting Man, his hilariously misbegotten 1977 science-fiction/horror movie. And this is absolutely true: The main reason The Incredible Melting Man still gets talked about in cult circles—beyond being mocked in the seventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000—are the gloppy makeup effects by the legendary Rick Baker. The “melting man” of the title, an astronaut who returns home infected from a voyage to Saturn’s rings, stumbles around the movie like an unlicked ice-cream cone left in the summer sun, french vanilla and raspberry swirl pouring from the top. This isn’t refined, subtly detailed makeup artistry—it’s blood and pus applied with a trowel. The word “vat” is used more than once in reference to Baker’s materials.
But the sad truth about The Incredible Melting Man is this: It’s a compromised glop movie. Working on the cheap for American International Pictures, Sachs claims he intended a winking nod to science-fiction comics from the 1950s, as well as classic monster movies, but his vision was so mangled by the producers that he nearly took his name off the film. In the decades since its release, the film has tasted the sweet nectar of infamy, spending some time on the IMDB’s Bottom 100 rankings, but it remains a guilty pleasure for some, particularly fans of Baker’s old-school gross-out effects. He’s the real auteur of The Incredible Melting Man, and the sole discernible reason a new special-edition Blu-ray has found its improbable way into the world.
The first compromise happens immediately: Sachs’ original version saved the fact that its monster was created via a trip to Saturn for a third-act twist, but in the finished film, his transformation is right up front. Alex Rebar stars as mustachioed astronaut Steve West, the lone survivor on a mission that ends with him in a hospital back on Earth, fighting an infection that’s turned his hands into gnarled, bloody mitts and his face into goulash. Consumed with rage, the human monster kills a nurse and flees the hospitals, leaving top-level government operatives (and eventually, dumbstruck local lawmen) to track him down before he harms more people through radiation or decapitation. Chief among them is Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning), who casually mentions that his wife, after two miscarriages, is pregnant again, should that happen to be relevant information later. There’s also General Michael Perry (Myron Healey), an Air Force officer who’s familiar with Steve’s plight, but is otherwise remarkably little help. While they’re futzing around, trying to contain this disaster, the monster is somehow both decomposing and gaining more strength, and attacking people indiscriminately (including the great director Jonathan Demme, who has a bit part as a hapless victim).
Beyond the makeup and gore effects, the most distinctive element of The Incredible Melting Man is how much of a throwback it is to Z-grade 1950s science fiction, to the point where it barely resembles a movie from 1977. If not for the gore, a bit player doffing her top (courtesy of American International Pictures, no doubt), and some weird, almost avant-garde touches on the soundtrack, nobody would be able to tell the difference. The space effects are stock footage of a completely different grain from the rest of the movie, but the wooden performances are what stands out. Sachs actually likens Healey to character actor turned spoof legend Leslie Nielsen, but the entire cast reads their lines as if Marlon Brando and Method acting had never happened. It’s so uncanny that it almost feels deliberately retro.
Still, even if The Incredible Melting Man were deliberately retro, re-creating the look and feel of a stultifying drive-in undercard isn’t exactly a laudable achievement. It doesn’t seem that difficult to track down a slow-moving man-beast who leaves pools of glop (and facial features) wherever he goes, but poor Dr. Ted just pokes around with his Geiger counter like a retiree trolling the beach with a metal detector. The events that pass between Baker’s makeup effects are as arid and nondescript as the California valley on which they were shot. It helps to have Mike, Crow, and Tom Servo around as company.
Here’s where releasing a spiffed-up bad movie pays off—in behind-the-scenes dirt and “what went wrong” ruminations. An interview with makeup special-effects artist Greg Cannom shows how much people loved working with Baker, who was just coming off Star Wars. But better is a 20-minute documentary with Sachs and Baker reflecting on their experiences. Sachs opens by saying, “This whole movie is my mother’s fault,” goes on to note his losing battles with the producers over virtually every aspect of the film, then claims The Incredible Melting Man is “not Schindler’s List” and should be enjoyed with “popcorn and a Big Gulp.” For his part, Baker laughs off the suggestion that the film was meant to be a horror-comedy, saying the bad performances and editorial choices explain why it’s so funny. He also claims that he tried to price himself out of working on the project, only to be surprised when his salary demands were met. And there are endless riches on Sachs’ commentary track, which sifts through the wreckage scene by scene.