The Incredible Melting Man (1977) Retrospective

SUMMARY
During a space flight to Saturn, three astronauts are exposed to a blast of radiation which kills two of them and seriously injures the third, Colonel Steve West (Rebar). He is next shown unconscious in a hospital back on Earth, with bandages covering his face; his physician, Dr. Loring (Lisle Wilson), cannot explain what is happening to West or how he survived the blast. After the doctor leaves, West awakens and is horrified to find the flesh on his face and hands melting away. Hysterical, he attacks and kills a nurse (Bonnie Inch), then escapes the hospital in a panic. Loring and Dr. Theodore “Ted” Nelson (DeBenning), a scientist and friend of West, discover that the nurse’s corpse is emitting feeble radiation, and realize West’s body has become radioactive. Nelson believes West has gone insane, and concludes he must consume human flesh in order to slow the melting. Nelson calls General Michael Perry (Healey), a United States Air Force officer familiar with West’s accident, and the general agrees to help Nelson find him.

West attacks and kills a fisherman in a wood, then encounters and frightens a little girl (Julie Drazen) there, but she escapes unharmed. Nelson tracks West by following his radiation trail with a geiger counter, but only finds his detached ear stuck to a tree branch. Perry arrives by plane, and is picked up by Nelson; shortly thereafter, they visit the crime scene where the fisherman’s body was found. Sheriff Neil Blake (Michael Alldredge) suspects that Nelson knows something, but Nelson tells the sheriff nothing because Perry had earlier informed him that any information about West was classified. Later that night, Nelson returns home to his pregnant wife Judy (Ann Sweeny), who tells him that her elderly mother Helen (Dorothy Love) and Helen’s boyfriend Harold (Edwin Max) are coming over for dinner. On their way, however, Helen and Harold are attacked in their car by West, and he kills them both.

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When Blake finds the bodies, he calls Nelson, who comes out to identify them. After Blake angrily demands an explanation, Nelson reluctantly reveals West’s condition. Nelson believes West is somehow getting stronger the more his body decomposes. Back at Nelson’s house, West attacks and kills Perry, although Judy is not harmed. Nelson and Blake arrive just as West escapes. West then stumbles upon the home of a married couple (played by Jonathan Demme and Janus Blythe). West kills the man and attacks his wife, but she drives him away after chopping his arm off with a cleaver. Blake receives a call about the attack and takes Nelson with him to investigate. They follow West to a giant power plant, and then up several flights of outside stairways.

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Blake tries to shoot West with a shotgun, but the blasts do not stop West, who throws the sheriff over the railing into power lines, killing him. West hits Nelson and knocks him over the railing, leaving the doctor hanging on the side. Nelson appeals to West, reminding him that they were friends, and West decides to pull Nelson to safety. Two armed security guards then arrive and, in a panic, fatally shoot Nelson in the face as he tries to protect West. An infuriated West kills the security guards and stumbles away. After collapsing against the side of a building, he slowly, and completely, melts away. The next morning, a janitor finds his gory remains and casually mops them into a garbage can. The film ends with a radio news report about another astronaut team being sent to Saturn.

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DEVELOPMENT
Alex Rebar, in one of only a handful of film appearances throughout his acting career, starred as Steve West. Burr DeBenning played Dr. Ted Nelson, and General Michael Perry was portrayed by Myron Healey. Film director Jonathan Demme played the small role of Matt Winters, one of West’s victims. Rainbeaux Smith, best known for her appearances in B movies and exploitation films, appeared as a model who finds one of West’s victims while trying to avoid a photographer seeking to take explicit photos of her.

PRE-PRODUCTION/ POST PRODUCTION
The Incredible Melting Man was written and directed by filmmaker William Sachs. The idea for the film came to him when his mother, working in the office of a spray paint company, showed him “gooey stuff” which was used as a basis for spray paint and jokingly suggested that he should do a film featuring that material. During writing, Sachs was influenced by The Night of the Living Dead and wanted to give the film a 1950s horror film feeling.

But the final film, with its structure changed by the producers in post-production, has been described by some sources as a remake of First Man into Space (1959), another film about an astronaut who becomes a monster after an accident in space. Science fiction film historian Gene Wright suggested that the final film was heavily influenced by The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), a British horror film about an astronaut who begins mutating into an alien organism after a spaceflight. Sachs, however, had never seen either of those films, and his original screenplay had a very different structure. He had originally written the script for The Incredible Melting Man as a parody of horror films. According to Michael Adams, a film reviewer who interviewed Sachs, this was the reason that the film mixed horror with comedic moments, such as when Steve West’s detached ear gets stuck on a tree, and when a janitor sweeps West’s melted body into a garbage can at the end of the film. Adams claims that this explains several comedic lines of dialogue otherwise inconsistent with the rest of the film, including one moment when homeless men notice the melting West and say to each other, “You think we’ve got trouble, look at that dude”.

During post-production, as the producers decided to change the film into a more serious horror film, they filmed numerous scenes for that purpose without the participation of the director. Among those scenes is the entire prologue of the astronauts in space and West waking up in a hospital–these are the only scenes in which Rebar’s face is seen without makeup. Additionally, the film was extensively re-edited by the producers.  The version of the film shot by Sachs had not included any scenes with West before he sustained the radiation poisoning that caused his body to melt.

In Sachs’ original version, the film opened with the wide-angle shot of the nurse running through the hallway; this would not have been in slow motion, unlike the final film, where the producers played it back slowed down. Only later would viewers have gradually learned the background of the melting man. All the scenes showing the astronauts in space and the lead character in the hospital were re-shot during post-production without influence by the director, and Sachs criticized both the acting in those scenes and how they restructure the film. There are logical problems in the final film due to the re-shot scenes; it is never fully explained how West’s spacecraft returned to Earth from Saturn when West himself was so seriously injured and the other two members of his crew were both killed.

Welch D. Everman, author of Cult Science Fiction Films, pointed to several homages in the movie to science fiction and horror films of the 1950s.The title itself is a reference to the Jack Arnold film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and the final scene when a radio report advertises another trip to Saturn, thus hinting that another accident could occur, was a common device in 1950s horror films. One difference, noted by Everman, is that in the 1950s films, government cover-ups and secret agendas were often ascribed to the good of the general public, whereas The Incredible Melting Man, like many late 1970s films of its genre, suggested otherwise.

SPECIAL EFFECTS
Rick Baker created four distinct stages of makeup design so that West would appear to melt gradually as time passed. Rebar wore facial appliances that simulated melting flesh, and his hands and feet were fitted with liquid substances that dropped off as he walked, creating the appearance that West’s body was falling apart.

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“It’s pretty gory stuff,” laughs Rick Baker, “People who like nasty horror movies will enjoy it.” Baker, acknowledges that the intricacies involved in creating Steve West’s collapsing visage were fairly difficult to pull off for the film. It was a really fun movie to do and I really liked the producers,” he says. “But it’s a low-budget movie and, no matter what you do, it looks like a low-budget movie, I had a three-hour makeup involved here and maybe fifteen or twenty minutes for its application. So, the final makeup is not all that it could have been. We made a lot of appliances and designed a lot of effects that we couldn’t use because we just didn’t have the time. Rob Bottin and Craig Reardon also assisted Baker.

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Rick’s involvement with the Melting Man dates back to when he was still cavorting about on the Kong set. Bill Sachs had seen some of the effects I had designed for Squirm. He sent me the script during the filming of Kong. At that time it was entitled The Ghoul From Outer Space, which is just about as bad as you can get. I just looked at it and thought “Gee, I think I’m past that stage of my career where I have to do pictures that sound like this. I wasn’t even going to read it. But I did, and I thought it had some interesting effects going for it. But I thought, they probably couldn’t afford to do everything correctly. I gave them my bid. And Sachs wanted me to do it no matter what the cost.” Rick consented to create the Melting Man.

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According to the script, the putrefaction process reverses itself only when the unlucky astronaut has consumed enough flesh and blood to offset his own loss. Baker immediately began work on inventing a makeup that would portray Col. West in his varying stages of disintegration. Budget problems, however, occasionally got in the way of progress. “We invented the disease from space so I could do the makeup in a way that would make sense. I designed it, first using a life-mask of myself just to develop the melting process. It worked very well. I came up with this synthetic flesh material that was poured onto a foam rubber appliance. I had a skull with veins and bones protruding completely covered with the flesh. It solidified, looking quite normal. When it heated up, it melted at room temperature. It poured and dripped out of the face, exposing the bone underneath. It stuck to people’s fingers. But, when it came down to it, we didn’t have the time to use it properly in the film so we used rubber masks with Karo syrup poured all over it. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” he smiles.

In spite of various limitations. Baker managed to conjure up some memorable effects for the motion picture. There’s a great scene involving a fisherman which I hope finds its way into the final print of the film. A fisherman (played by one of the movie’s producers, Sam Gelfman gets his head ripped off by the Melting Man. It’s thrown into a river. It goes downstream and over a waterfall. It hits the rocks below and splits open. I kept telling everyone, I can do this, but it’s not going to be easy to get his head to open nicely .. like a real head and not like a coconut. They let me do it correctly, but they shot it from a couple of different angles. In one angle, you don’t even see the head hit the bottom. In the cut of the film I saw, the head shattered and it looked fine. We did some other strange effects as well. The Melting Man loses an arm. That was pretty weird. And, of course, he eats his victims, too, so I had to create a half eaten head of a nurse. A lot of stuff like that.”

However, after the film went through two separate stages of editing, these makeup stages were ultimately eliminated from the final cut, and the character looks generally the same throughout the film. Also, Rebar was impatient and uncooperative with the extensive makeup sessions required for the effects, and thus did not wear all of the facial appliances Baker designed. This might have been an additional factor in the lack of makeup effect stages in the final film.

 I remember that a guy named William Sachs wrote it and directed it, I think he was from New York and he had sold the script to the producer Sam Gelfman. I was brought on by Peter Cornberg, an old college buddy, who was the associate producer on that and also on Sweet Sugar. By the end of the film, Sachs and Gelfman were at odds and I guess Sachs got fired, so they asked me to direct the last few days of shooting. I do recall that it was Rick Baker, believe it or not, who did the make-up. And one of the things he did was… he had this “melting stuff?” It was like kero syrup and baby powder mixed together. And he kept dumping it on top of this poor guy’s head! The whole movie And he goes, “Oh no! Not more goo, not more goo!” And they said, “You gotta do this, you gotta do this!” And the other funny thing is that they would never let the guy run! They wanted him to do this dragging-the-foot, Allah the Mummy shtick. Which was amazing, as how would he ever catch anyone? It was just another job to pay the rent. It was also one of those jobs I took to pay the rent when I met Paul Lewis, who eventually produced Werewolves on Wheels.  

– Art Director: Michel Levesque

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DISTRIBUTION/ RELEASE
The Incredible Melting Man was produced by American International Pictures, which also handled the theatrical distribution. The film includes several homage to science fiction and horror films of the 1950s.  The film was commercially successful, but it received largely negative reviews, although even critical reviews complimented Baker’s makeup effects.

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CAST/CREW

Directed by   William Sachs
Produced by Samuel W. Gelfman
Written by     William Sachs

 Starring   
Alex Rebar
Burr DeBenning
Myron Healey
 Music by  Arlon Ober

 Distributed by    
American International Pictures (USA)

 Makeup Department
Rick Baker    …       special makeup effects
Tina Lewis    …       makeup artist
Dulcie Smith  …       makeup artist
Rob Bottin     …       assistant makeup artist (uncredited)
Greg Cannom         special makeup assistant (uncredited)
 

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