If you’re looking for a movie about a guy who melts, you can’t go wrong with The Incredible Melting Man. This conscious throwback to ’50s sci-fi horror was a hot item in 1977 among kids of a certain age, who didn’t know it was retro; all we knew was that it was gross, it was rated R, and we wanted to see it. In every neighborhood there was probably an older kid who got his big brother or even his parents to take him to see it, and we younger kids gathered around and heard an exaggerated synopsis — the gross-parts-only version. Then, years later, we caught up with it on video and found a rather clunky, atrociously acted potboiler apparently consisting entirely of the Melting Man shambling around the woods and dead-ass scenes of his pursuers sitting around talking about him. “This is the most feeble excuse for a search I’ve ever seen!” exclaims the wife of the doctor hero (Burr DeBenning, the poor man’s Bill Bixby) who must track down the titular dripper; she was MST3K-ing the movie long before it actually made it onto MST3K.
During a space shot near Saturn, a crew of astronauts are exposed to some harsh radiation; unlike Reed Richards and company, who got superpowers, these space cowboys come back dead, except for the even less fortunate Steve West (Alex Rebar), who wakes up in an underpopulated hospital to discover that he’s become a Rick Baker project. Baker, who of course went on to bigger and better things (he worked on the second-unit crew on Star Wars the same year), devised a memorably revolting monster, whose flesh audibly plops onto the landscape in fat pale drops. Today, the character would likely be handled with CGI, but such wonders were not then available to Baker, who just built a skull head around Alex Rebar and then slathered it with goo. Steve is supposed to look skinnier the more flesh he sheds, but he just puts on more weight in the form of slimy latex.
The Melting Man, as promised, melts a lot. For his other trick, he feeds on the faces of random people he encounters in or around the woods, including Jonathan Demme in an inexplicable cameo and a scarcely less explicable mustache. (Maybe he did the role as a favor to Rainbeaux Smith, who appeared in his Caged Heat and has a bit here as a model who loses her top to a sleazy photographer.) Demme dies tastefully offscreen, though a fisherman isn’t allowed the same fate; he gets face-chomped, and the camera then lingers twice on his severed head floating down a river, whereupon it topples over a waterfall and splats onto the rocks below. Writer/director William Sachs must’ve been a fish sympathizer.
Even the military gets in on the Melting Manhunt, though Sachs didn’t have the budget to show a platoon of soldiers suiting up in HAZMATs for the mission, so we get one crotchety general (Myron Healey) who hangs around the noble doctor and even has dinner with him and his wife. The Melting Man is frequently shown stumbling around in broad daylight, and with the inevitable trail of goo and body parts he’s leaving, you’d think he’d be easy to catch — especially since he moves at such a crawl, bringing to mind that classic EC horror story cited by Stephen King, the one where a zombie says “I’m coming for you, but I have to come slowly…because pieces of me keep falling off…”
The idea of a guy slowly dripping away — his too, too solid flesh melting, thawing, and resolving itself into a dew — is a potent one, and David Cronenberg got a lot of mileage out of a similar concept (handled with far more intensity and seriousness) in The Fly. As it is, the movie is beloved by so-bad-it’s-good acolytes, and I had a pretty good time with it; then again, I have a pretty high threshold for unmitigated cheese. Somehow, despite the fact that we know precisely nothing about Steve West other than his occupation, we feel sorry for him. He probably would much prefer not to have to chew on people’s faces, but he has to — and who among us would not eat a face or two given the circumstances?
As for William Sachs, he’s still in there pitching; his last credit was 2000’s Spooky House, starring Ben Kingsley and Mercedes Ruehl. Sachs’ best-known film besides The Incredible Melting Man is probably Galaxina, with the soon-to-die Dorothy Stratten as a robot. The ads billed the Melting Man as “The First New Horror Creature,” a debatable claim, but melting men were hard to find back then and remain so today, despite such promising sightings as Bruce Davison in X-Men and Paul McCrane in RoboCop. At the very least, Sachs gave the world a unique horror creature, gave Rick Baker and Jonathan Demme paychecks when they probably needed the cash, and gave generations of bad-movie fans a gift that keeps on giving.