Color, 1977, 86 mins. 16 secs.
Directed by William Sachs
Starring Alex Rebar, Burr DeBenning, Myron Healey, Michael Alldredge, Ann Sweeny, Rainbeaux Smith
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/RA 4K/HD), Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD-R) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Released in the waning years of American International Pictures, The Incredible Melting Man was part of a noble attempt to keep the drive-in monster movie tradition alive when it opened in December of 1977, closing out a run that year including Empire of the Ants, The People That Time Forgot, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Tentacles. The cheapest of the bunch and completely lacking in star power, it compensated by focusing on its title character, a memorably drippy creation from a young Rick Baker just after his work on the big studio redo of King Kong. In fact, Baker became the main focus of one of the film's trailers, a rare feat for a makeup artist and a sign of major things to come when he became the first competitive Oscar winner for makeup for 1981's An American Werewolf in London. As for the film itself, it's essentially a cinematic link in the "astronaut comes back with monstrous surprise" tradition between The Quatermass Xperiment and Lifeforce, with a peculiar personality of its own courtesy of some outrageous touches from director William Sachs (Galaxina, Van Nuys Blvd.).
During a space exploration of the rings of Saturn, astronaut Steve West (Rebar) is the only survivor after a sudden energy blast. He awakens upon his return mostly covered in bandages and, to his horror, discovers his skin is liquefying. In a panic, he kills a nurse and escapes into the nearby countryside where he kills random people he encounters to harvest the human cells he needs to survive. West's friend, Dr. Ted Nelson (DeBenning), is brought in and uses a Geiger counter to track the morphing menace while the U.S. military tries to keep it all under wraps. Simultaneously dealing with the fragile pregnancy of his wife, Judy (Sweeny), Ted deduces that West is getting stronger as his humanity fades away and must be stopped at all costs.
Anyone with a fondness for '70s drive-in films will find a lot to enjoy here, from the gigantic "presented by" credit to Amicus co-head Max Rosenberg to familiar faces like Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, Jonathan Demme, and a rare significant role for Lisle Wilson, best known for throwing an ill-fated birthday party for Margot Kidder in Brian De Palma's Sisters. Tonally it's all over the place with moments of gloppy violence (including a crazed bit involving a severed head and a waterfall) and quirky comedy moments, the latter remnants of Sachs' original intention to make a semi-satirical monster movie. The producers took control of the film to create a more straightforward monster movie, moving the astronaut portion of the plot to the beginning and removing any mystery angle from the creature's origins. In the process they also took out or reshot the goofier moments, which makes the ones that still remain really jump out at you. Whatever compromises may be in the end result, it's definitely entertaining and charming with a bit of pathos coming through during the finale as well.
A mainstay on home video with multiple VHS editions (from Vestron, Orion, and MGM among others), The Incredible Melting Man first hit DVD in 2011 from MGM as a halfhearted MOD release. It was treated far more respectfully in 2013 with a Scream Factory Blu-ray featuring a nice scan of the feature itself and a fantastic audio commentary by Sachs who's full of stories about the shoot, casting, reshoots, narrative reshuffling, the intention to mimic the tone of comic books, and moments of "bitching" that would never fly with MGM's current commentary standards. A 2022 reissue from Vinegar Syndrome is even better, offering a 4K UHD and Blu-ray package sporting a gorgeous transfer of the film itself from the original 35mm camera negative with the UHD especially benefiting from HDR that gives it a robust, striking color palette throughout (those trees!). The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also pristine and comes with optional English SDH subtitles. The Sachs commentary is ported over on both formats, while the new Blu-ray carries over the two significant video extras from the Scream Factory release: a good-natured combo interview with Sachs and Baker (19m37s) about this "glop movie" inspired by Night of the Living Dead originally entitled The Ghoul from Outer Space, and a short separate interview with special effects artist Greg Cannom (2m56s). In the new "It’s a War" (31m7s), Sachs goes into more detail about his career and artistic origins, his experiences in film school, and the battles with financiers and producers popped up throughout his projects. "Just Show Up" (15m2s) is new interview with script supervisor Sandy King (who went on to a slew of John Carpenter collaborations) who covers her early days in the industry, her potential move into animation, her memories of working on scenes at the power plant, and the support her team had to give Baker during some of the more frustrating moments. Also included are a teaser and trailer (stuck together when you click on the original trailer option) and a 55s gallery of posters and stills, versus the 4m22s one on the Scream Factory release.
VINEGAR SYNDROME (Blu-ray)
SCREAM FACTORY (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on September 20, 2022.