Misunderstood Monsters | The Burning Need to Be Heard in ‘The Incredible Melting Man’
By Matt Konopka
Welcome fellow monster kids to Misunderstood Monsters. This is where I, Matt Konopka, sink my fangs into all sorts of beasts, ghouls, and creatures from above while I search for the humanity behind their frightening exteriors. From monster favorites such as The Wolf Man to obscure monsters like the whistling Shadmock, there is more to these fiends than bad hair days and gooey tentacles. Within them all is a piece of ourselves.
“Listen to me.”
People are funny when it comes to being told something they don’t want to hear. They close their eyes, plug their ears, and treat anyone trying to pop their blissful bubble like a disfigured horror to run screaming away from. Society’s harbingers might as well be the mutated monstrosity from The Incredible Melting Man (1977).
Written/directed by William Sachs, The Incredible Melting Man centers around an unfortunate astronaut named Steve (Alex Rebar) who returns to Earth after witnessing a solar flare that blankets his body in radiation. The incident soon causes him to begin melting, transforming Steve into a mindless monster who attacks everyone he encounters. Not wanting word to get out, the military tasks Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning) with hunting Steve down before the public learns of the terrible thing roaming their small town. Meanwhile, the countdown to launch plays over and over again in Steve’s mind, a constant reminder that his time is running out.
Outside of the effects from master creature designer Rick Baker, The Incredible Melting Man is as much of a mess as poor Steve. I suppose that’s why, in an odd twist of irony, the movie is obscure to the eyes of this generation. Unwatched. Unloved. Unheard. Just like its doomed monster. Yet there’s a sad honesty dripping off of this B-movie that we’d be remiss not to listen to…society always runs from whatever ugliness makes us uncomfortable. Be it a goopy face that looks like a human sundae left out in the sun or an urgent threat, we look away. But we shouldn’t. We can’t.
One such crisis is Global Warming. Though The Incredible Melting Man isn’t about that, it came just two years after the term first surfaced and certainly feels like an early response to the issue. Most of us know it doesn’t mean “shit gets hotter,” but some still misinterpret it that way, so it’s no surprise to see the horror of that concept expressed with a guy melting from extreme exposure to the sun. Whatever Sachs’ intentions, the parallels between Steve’s condition and the growing chorus of panicked scientists that our society shuts out are difficult to ignore.
Soon after Steve is exposed to the sun, he wakes up in a hospital bed and makes his way over to a mirror, where he peels back the bandages which cover him head to toe. Beneath is a hideous face that sends him into a panic. That’s not him. That can’t be him. But it is. The discovery is similar to how we react when we learn something terrible; we don’t want to believe it, but not believing doesn’t make it untrue. I imagine that’s the same way scientists must feel when they collect the data signaling disaster in the future. How terrifying that must be, to have that kind of knowledge. How awful to find that no one cares.
The Incredible Melting Man’s monster is not a monster but a desperate man looking for help. He knows what’s coming. He needs someone to listen to him. But no one pays attention to something so revolting. The nurse who first encounters Steve flees upon seeing his face instead of giving him the care he needs. That shot of her running in slow-motion down the hall stretches on forever, but it’s one of the more poignant moments of the film because it applies to both the characters and the audience. Run all you want, there’s no escaping the truth. Whether it’s looking back at you in the mirror or chasing you down a hall, it finds you eventually.
Unfortunately for Steve, no one takes his problem seriously. Everyone from the military to the scientists to Dr. Ted trivializes the issue as if their melting man is a lost dog and not a walking pile of radioactive waste. Time and again we hear someone say that Steve is “only a little” radioactive as if that matters when he’s leaving his gross goop in the river that provides the town’s drinking water. The issue is handled in such a nonchalant manner that Ted is tasked to singlehandedly track Steve down, a job he seems incapable of at best. The stench of incompetence amongst officials runs rancid through the film. It’s only towards the end that General Michael Perry (Myron Healey) admits, “we just weren’t prepared for anything like this.” Reminds me of how we’ve had decades to prepare for the effects of Global Warming yet have hardly progressed an inch.
In-between campy death scenes and bad dialogue, Sachs grants us an intimate look at the goopy blob that is Steve as he shambles underneath a setting sun all alone. At one point, the melting man rests in a graveyard, as if accepting that help isn’t coming. I feel that way sometimes when I bring up serious issues with friends and family regarding politics or the environment. Usually, I’m met with “I don’t do politics” or a dismissal of the situation. There’s something so defeating about that. Some of us refuse to discuss the problem and acknowledge that our existence isn’t the sunshine and rainbows we want it to be, so we go on pretending.
For such a goofy monster movie, The Incredible Melting Man packs a slimy punch in the way it hammers this theme home through the finale. Ted has chased Steve into a power plant. The distraught doctor reaches through to him by being the first person not to shriek at his appearance…only to be shot down by two security guards before he can explain what’s happening. Those guards shoot the messenger without hesitation. People silence what they fear. Ignorance is bliss, after all. Then, in his last act, Steve collapses into a heap before melting away into nothing. It’s a sickening scene, but not just because of Baker’s stomach-churning FX. As one final nail in the proverbial coffin, the film’s last images are of a janitor cleaning up Steve’s wet remains, not questioning what they are, not caring, while a voice on a radio mentions another launch to Saturn’s rings. The government learned nothing.
Is this all horribly depressing? It sure is! But the intent of the film isn’t to make us feel hopeless. It’s to plop us in the squishy shoes of those who are trying to open our eyes to an impending crisis. We still have time to hear them. But the hourglass runs thin. Are we going to continue to shut it all out, or look past the ugliness of those warnings and finally listen?
Matt is a writer and wannabe werewolf who began his love of horror at the ripe old age of 3 with Carpenter’s Christine. He has a horror podcast called Killer Horror Critic which he does with his wonderful wife and has previously been published on Bloody Disgusting, Shudder’s The Bite, and Daily Grindhouse. You can also find more of his reviews and ramblings at his blog, KillerHorrorCritic.com.
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