Long before he hit the horror big time with his groundbreaking effects on 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, makeup artist Rick Baker was making Hollywood bleed, ooze, and gush. He started his career in the early seventies, creating nightmares in films like It’s Alive, Squirm, and the attempted reboot of King Kong. His big break came in 1977 when he created aliens and creatures for a little film called Star Wars, but that same year he contributed to another classic of the sci-fi/horror genre, The Incredible Melting Man.
The Incredible Melting Man begins with a manned space mission to Saturn. Out of the three astronauts on the spacecraft, only one returned to Earth alive – Steve West (Alex Rebar from Amityville: The Evil Escapes). West is placed into the hospital for observation, but what the doctors find is horrifying; West is melting, and as he melts, he gets physically stronger. Steve escapes from the hospital, killing a nurse in the process. Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning from A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) finds that the nurse’s body is radioactive, and determines that West is suffering from a type of radiation poisoning that has driven him insane, giving him the urge to devour human flesh in an attempt to slow the melting of his body. Dr. Nelson enlists the help of one of West’s Air Force colleagues named General Michael Perry (Myron Healey from Claws), and a local policeman named Sheriff Neil Blake (The Entity’s Michael Alldredge) to try and track West down, following his trail of radiation and mutilation before he can do more harm.
It’s not just a clever name; The Incredible Melting Man is literally about a man who melts, and it’s incredible. Written and directed by William Sachs (Galaxina), the film was originally conceived as a parody of science fiction/horror, but American International Pictures was not in on the joke and the film was finished and sold mainly as a strict horror movie. The Incredible Melting Man wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, harkening back to the old serialized journey-into-space films, as well as classic monster-alien movies. The way that the Melting West moves is reminiscent of a Romero-type zombie, and the method by which he always catches his victim despite the fact that they are running full speed and he is walking slowly would make any slasher proud. By the end, the picture turns into a full-blown action movie, with a police shoot-out and plenty of electrifying stunts. The Incredible Melting Man is an unabashed sci-fi melodrama, and it makes no apologies for it.
As originally written, The Incredible Melting Man was a comedy spoof of the science fiction genre along the lines of The Slumber Party Massacre. With this knowledge, it’s easy to justify the film’s tongue-in-cheek attitude – the situations and dialogue are pretty laughable. The purely comedic aspects of the film ended up either not shot or on the cutting room floor, and the horror elements were brought to the forefront in an attempt to cash in on the resurging monster movie and alien invader craze of the seventies. The film ends up existing somewhere halfway between the two genres, looking like a horror film, but with a half-baked and unfinished narrative. It’s fits in perfectly with low-budget B-movies of the fifties, and even was mocked on an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” For as strange of a film as it is, The Incredible Melting Man has developed quite a cult following.
Because of the re-edit, the pacing of The Incredible Melting Man is a little weird. The film clocks in at under ninety minutes, and the final cut appears to have editor James Beshears (who is a sound editor by trade with credits that include Friday the 13th: A New Beginning and Day of the Dead) struggling for coverage. Just about every scene feels drawn out in an obvious attempt to lengthen the running time. There are several pointless shots of West just wandering the landscape aimlessly. In one scene, West rips the head off of a fisherman, and the camera follows the disembodied head down the stream and over a waterfall for no reason other than having something to put onscreen. During West’s escape, his nurse runs down hallways and outside (right through a pane glass door, because when a Melting Man is chasing you, you don’t have the time to “push to open”) trying to get away, and the entire shot, while compelling, is shown in slow-motion, bringing the scene to a dragging halt. Once the backstory behind the film is known, the editing troubles in The Incredible Melting Man become more evident.
The best effort to transform The Incredible Melting Man from comedy to horror comes from the music. The score is provided by Arlon Ober (Bloody Birthday, Q: The Winged Serpent), and his soundtrack makes it clear that the viewer is watching a movie that is designed to scare them. The music is a fun combination of classic sci-fi zaniness and full-blown horror melodrama, giving it the retro-monster feel for which Sachs seems to have been aiming. Without the music, the producers might have won; The Incredible Melting Man would have been a lot less scary.
The most memorable aspect of The Incredible Melting Man is easily Rick Baker’s makeup effects, and rightfully so. Although it’s a far cry from the type of work that audiences would come to expect from him in the eighties, his work on The Incredible Melting Man is impressive nonetheless. The melting man effect was achieved by covering Alex Rebar’s head with a skull cap, then applying the blood, guts, and gore to the entire apparatus. Over the course of the film, the gore was re-applied over and over to signify the progression of the melting. There are other special effects in the film – people getting shot, heads getting ripped from bodies – but the most intense effect is the titular melting man, and Rick Baker pulls it off. If there’s one thing that people remember from The Incredible Melting Man, it’s the melting man.
Even though 1977 would be a banner year for Rock Baker, the best was yet to come. Baker would end up becoming one of the most sought-after and influential effects makeup artists of all time, working with horror icons like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and David Cronenberg over the course of his career. However, in 1977, he made The Incredible Melting Man, and it sits right next to Star Wars on his resume.