Presto chango, and now he is me.
Hocus pocus, we take her to bed.
Magic is fun; we're dead."
Failed stage magician Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins) manages to revitalize his career with the addition of ventriloquism to his act; unfortunately, he also begins to manifest a split personality through his dummy, Fats, and when about to hit it big with a television deal, he flees rather than submit to the required medical examination.
Heading to the Catskills, Corky encounters his old high school crush Peggy (Ann-Margret) and her grouchy husband Duke (Ed Lauter). Meanwhile, Corky's agent, Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), has pursued him and quickly becomes suspicious regarding his mental well-being. Shortly thereafter, the situation turns violent.
This film contains examples of:
- Adaptation Distillation: Goldman's novel would have been very hard to put on-screen as it was written.
- Affably Evil/Faux Affably Evil: Fats tends to alternate between the two of these.
- Asshole Victim: Duke, subverted that despite his rocky marriage and being a Crazy Jealous Guy, he still remains polite to Corky out of appealing over their high school-dated friendship rather than confront him for his affair with his wife, confiding that he still loves her and is afraid to lose her.
- Becoming the Mask: Fats's personality gradually consumes Corky's. Corky stops Fats from pulling a Split-Personality Takeover at the end by killing himself.
- Cool Old Guy: Corky's agent Ben.
- Daylight Horror: Fats "stabbing" Duke to death occurs the morning after Corky killed Ben (and, subsequently, the morning Duke found the corpse).
- Demonic Dummy: Fats. He managed to scare Hannibal Lecter, for God's sake.
- Description Cut: In the opening scene, Corky tells his mentor Merlin all about what a rousing success his first magic show was, while we see that it was actually anything but.
- Disposing of a Body: Corky throws Ben Greene's body in the lake... only for it to be discovered during a fishing excursion.
- Downer Ending: Corky stabs himself in order to stop Fats... except the last scene implies that Fats now resides in Peggy.
- Driven to Suicide: Corky mortally wounds himself to stop Fats from murdering Peggy.
- The Film of the Book: Done in a much more straightforward manner than the kaleidoscope-esque novel, which changed time period, location, and point of view swiftly and left important information, such as the identity of Fats the dummy, unknown for extended periods of time.
- He Knows Too Much: Both Ben Greene and Duke are killed after discovering the dark truth about Corky and Fats.
- Hero Antagonist: Duke and Ben Greene, who are swiftly replaced by Fats after they are killed.
- Ironic Echo Cut: After Corky rents the cabin from Peggy.Corky (to Fats): I carried her picture all these years, and she didn't remember me.Peggy (to herself): He didn't remember me.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Duke.
- Jump Scare: Fats "stabbing" Duke to death.
- Leitmotif: Jerry Goldsmith's score includes one of these for Fats, a little two-note harmonica riff.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It is left ambiguous whether Fats is just a manifestation of Corky's split personality or a supernatural demon possessing him to kill. The ending implies the latter, when Peggy begins to speak like Fats.
- Reference Overdosed:Fats: Hello, everybody, this is Mr. Norman Maine! My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you! You have nothing to fear but fear itself, nothing to give but blood, sweat, and tears, nothing to lose but your chains! Here he is, boys! Here he is, world! Heeeeeere's FATS!!
- Split-Personality Takeover: Attempted near the end when Fats tells Corky that he is going to call all the shots from now on, starting by trying to get him to kill Peggy. Subverted in that Corky ultimately uses the knife on himself.
- However, the last scene implies Fats managed to do this... with Peggy.
- Tragic Villain: Corky.
- Villain Protagonist: Corky.
- Wham Line:
- Following the deaths of Duke and Greene, Corky decides to run away with Peggy to Paris and abandon Fats in a trunk. Fats takes to pleading from within the trunk as Corky begins to pack... only to then switch tactics.Fats (sing-song): I'll telllll...Corky (stopping): ...what'll you tell?Fats: Everything.
- A subtle one, that both ends the movie and implies that Fats may not be dead:Peggy: I'm warning you, Cork... Don't play hard to get with me... 'Cause I'm a woman, seeing I can always change my mind again... (In a Fats-like voice.) You may not get this oppor-fucking-tunity tomorrow!
- Following the deaths of Duke and Greene, Corky decides to run away with Peggy to Paris and abandon Fats in a trunk. Fats takes to pleading from within the trunk as Corky begins to pack... only to then switch tactics.