FANTASIA OBSCURA: A Hollywood Legend Makes His Own Inauspicious Debut

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

And sometimes, you put yourself through a lot of pain for a small, sad service.

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Distributed by: American International Pictures

Directed by: William Sachs

Sometimes you wish you could forget it. A small, obscure, out-of-the-way stop, like a town over 20 miles off the exit down a dirt road. A town that, were it not for visitors like you every once in awhile, might just dry up and blow away.

Or melt, if the metaphor really mattered to you.

The focus of our film is astronaut Steve West (Alex Rebar), who we meet while performing his duties as commander of Scorpion 5 on a flight to Saturn. He and his crew in their Apollo capsule (mock-up) are flying through the rings around the planet, just as a major solar flare inundates the craft and causes bleeding from West’s nose.

No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense how an Apollo capsule could carry a crew of three about 746 million miles or why, if the sun’s flares could affect them all the way out there, they didn’t just burn Earth to ash as it absorbed some of that energy. But that’s not what the filmmakers were worrying about, so let’s move on.

When next we see West, he’s in the hospital, catatonic, and being checked on by Dr. Loring (Lisle Wilson). While the doctor sends the nurse to get whole plasma, West awakens from his state and checks himself in the mirror, an act which, much like the film itself, was a mistake.

West escapes after scaring the nurse, forcing her to flee through a plate glass door, and begins going after people in the area. Driven by his exposure to radiation in space that’s causing him to degenerate, he tries to stay alive through eating healthy human cells and drinking human blood, though it’s a struggle for him to stay ahead of his decay.

Out there looking for West is Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning), his friend and head of the medical team overseeing West, and General Perry (Myron Healey), the head of the project, who’s under strict a deadline to find West.

The two of them go on a lonely search for West — and no, the filmmakers don’t deal with this either! Yes, NASA’s budgets have never been optimal, but they’ve always had considerable resources for astronaut recovery beyond two schlubs who happen to be living in the area who have to be forced to call in local assistance, in this case Sheriff Blake (Michael Alldredge).

We get less of a cat-and-mouse game and more of a few random appearances where the melting astronaut shows up and does his thing for the crowd, his pursuers kinda-sorta on his tracks before they finally meet.

What makes this film worth another look? Other than the fact that the creature effects are the work of the SFX legend Rick Baker, who according to an interview taped in 2013 (which contains some gruesome footage from the film), tried to turn the project down by pricing himself out of consideration, and then when they met his price stayed on the film. (Which would explain why NASA only sent a two-man team…)

Or was it an appearance by Cheryl Lynn “Rainbeaux” Smith, who appears as a model who refuses to do nude work for her sleazy photographer, as part of Smith’s downward spiral after Lemora?

Actually, what brings us here is this guy:

There’s a scene in the film where West pays a visit to the Winters, a young couple who come home from a movie. The husband, Matt, notices gloppy bits of West on the doorknob and asks his wife Nell (Janus Blythe) to stay outside while he goes in to investigate.

Ultimately, Nell has to fend off West, using a cleaver to remove his left arm. Matt, sadly, dies off screen after this scene, coming and going very quickly through the film.

You might recognize the man playing Matt: That’s Jonathan Demme, who went on to much bigger things later on.

Now, during the 1970s, Demme was working as a writer and director, having gotten his break in the business after doing a stint as Roger Corman’s press secretary. Just about all of that work from this period was beyond the scope of this column, principally doing women-behind-bars films like Caged Heat and small-focus action tales like Fighting Mad.

Like many filmmakers on the fringe, he was willing to take small parts here and there, do a favor for fellow filmmakers, and/or pick up a few bucks on the side. And as a small-time director looking for new projects, he was in a good position to get on the ground floor within the emerging music video genre, doing early pieces like Suburban Lawn’s “Gidget Goes to Hell” from 1980.

By the time this film was but a speck in his rearview mirror, Demme was back on the highway and had gone onto much, much bigger things. When you think of Demme shooting a film with women in prison, the only thing that comes to most people’s minds is Clarice visiting Doctor Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. When you think of Demme and small-focus action, you think of Andrew Beckett trying to keep his dignity in Philadelphia. And when you put music and Demme in the same thought, you get Stop Making Sense.

We lost Jonathan Demme on April 26. And we’re left with this performance, the only way we could pay tribute to him in this forum.

Best to remember him in some manner, before that moment just melts away.

NEXT TIME: In space, no one can hear you scream or cry, “Aiuto! Salvami!”

About James Ryan 96 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…