Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I Am the Last Omega Man Legend on Earth

He penned some of the best stories of our age and many of my all-time favorites. For print, film and television, the list includes The Legend of Hell House, Somewhere in Time, Nightstalker and the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes, just to name a few. With the rare ability to be compassionate and terrifying at the same time, his work has been instrumental in shaping modern taste for the supernatural. For years I meant to read I Am Legend, Richard Matheson's 1954 novel that spawned the films The Last Man on Earth (1964), Omega Man (1971) and last year's I Am Legend. Finally, I have! And though not one of the adaptations succeeds in capturing the brilliance of the novel, each manages to bring an interesting aspect of the story to the screen, while creating legacies of its own.

In all true horror stories, of which I think Shelley's Frankenstein is one of the most perfect, what the psyche and soul endure in the face of monsters, more than the monsters themselves, is what matters most. I Am Legend was ahead of its time in that it was first to bridge several genres at once in a truly modern tale. It fits perfectly in the mold of post-war literature that explores all that was unleashed by the atom bomb. Like Bradbury, Heinlein, et. al, Matheson considers life in the wake of broken civilization and what that new, rebuilt society might be like. But Matheson's take is groundbreaking by blending horror and sci-fi together into a power punch. The science of vampires? Bacterial infection and blood drinking? The last human going mad in the midst of it all? Fantastic! And for that, generations of readers and writers, such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz are forever grateful. If aspects of Cell, for example, feel very much like I Am Legend, it's no surprise. King dedicated the book to Matheson and George Romero. And if Night of the Living Dead seems old hat, knowing how much earlier Matheson did it, consider that Romero meant it as an "homage" to his predecessor. There would be no infected zombies, no diseased apocalypse, no 28 Days Later, etc., without the very keen and prescient mind of Richard Matheson. There would also not be a little girl who falls into another dimension under her bed, a wing-walking creature to terrorize William Shatner, Duel, or a crazed knife-wielding Zulu doll to cross Karen Black's eyes, just to name a few of Matheson's cultural treasures.

Of the three films, Last Man on Earth (1964) is the most faithful to the book, though it's no surprise that Matheson was disappointed with it. Vincent Price is too fussy and un-he-manly to play the savagely depressed Robert Neville, though not one of the three Nevilles manage to achieve the intensity of the printed character. I haven't been able to find out why Neville's name was changed to Morgan in this version. Reportedly, Fritz Lang was originally attached as director in what was intended as a Hammer Films production titled Night Creatures. Matheson worked for a time in the UK on that version of the story and wrote a second draft of the screenplay when producers assured him that the first would never clear censors. Hammer eventually decided to pass on the project and it went to Robert Lippert, known as the "Quickie King". He shot the film in Italy and had to dub several of the actors' voices. The off synch, a setting that was definitely not anywhere in the U.S.A., low production values, continuity gaffes and odd performances all add up, unintentionally, to a weird horror. Despite its shortcomings, a generation of writers and filmmakers for whom the film meant an introduction to Matheson's story were profoundly affected, and many credit The Last Man on Earth for spawning the entire zombie genre. This is the only one of the three versions that keeps to the book's essential, bitter ending – that the infected nonvampires who survive are profoundly altered by the disease. Their new society, shown in black shirts and lock-step in this film, is not one you'd want to be a part of.

Jeff Stafford, senior editor at TCM.com, has done a great job of compiling behind-the-scenes info about the film. The following quotes are excerpted from his pieces on tcm.com.

"In another interview for Tom Weaver's Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes, Matheson stated that The Last Man on Earth 'was inept - in fact, I put my pen name, Logan Swanson, on it...they should do it today with, say, George Miller directing it and Harrison Ford playing the lead; it would make a wonderful movie. Of course George Romero has done it so many times now; the first time was Night of the Living Dead. I caught that on television, and I said to myself, 'Wait a minute - did they make another version of I Am Legend that they didn't tell me about?' Later on they told me he did it as an homage to I Am Legend, which means, "He gets it for nothin'." [laughs.]

Vincent Price was questioned about the making of The Last Man on Earth in Rome by Tom Weaver in Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. He recalled, "The problem doing The Last Man on Earth was that it was supposed to be set in Los Angeles, and if there's a city in the world that doesn't look like Los Angeles, it's Rome. We would get up and drive out at five o'clock in the morning, to beat the police, and try to find something that didn't look like Rome. Rome has flat trees, ancient buildings - we had a terrible time! And I never was so cold in my life as I was in that picture. I had a driver and I used to tip him a big sum to keep the car running, so I could change my clothes in the back seat.'"

The Omega Man (1971) is only seven years after the first film version of the story and a world apart. It adapts the vampires into deadly Luddites -- a robed anti-science mob. The Omega Man posits the infected as a controlling mass that burns and destroys all people and ideas that it finds offensive. There is no room for free thought in their clan, which they call "the family", and like the Manson zombies, they follow their leader, Mattias, without a second thought. Though the back-to-nature movement was in full swing by 1971, the Family's love of the primitive is shown to be just that, without a progressive aspect to it. The last woman on Earth in this version is Rosanne Cash, and the mixed-race relationship between she and Neville was rare on film for that time. We know what year it is by the fact that the very last movie Neville has access to is Woodstock. Now that would be apocalyptic!

This is my favorite version of the story so far, straddling sci-fi, blaxsploitation and action genres. Matheson didn't care for it though, as it departed so much from his original story. He comments in Tom Weaver's Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes: "The first one was poorly done, but it did follow the book. The Omega Man bore no resemblance at all to my book, so I can't comment on it. I had absolutely nothing to do with the screenplay but they did pay me a very small remake fee."

The screenplay for The Omega Man was penned by John and Joyce Corrington and is what I Am Legend (2007) would be based on. In The Omega Man, survivors that Neville's blood will eventually cure begin again in a utopian fashion, a much brighter prognosis than that offered in Matheson's story. As in The Last Man on Earth, Neville's death at the hands of the vampire/Luddites will be seen as a Christ-like sacrifice, quite literally. The (almost) last of his kind, destroyed by the intolerant mob of others.

The newest version of I Am Legend was some 13 years in the making and had, at one point, Ridley Scott attached as director and Arnold Schwarzenegger on as Neville. Producers, directors and actors came and went, and Will Smith was eventually attached around 2002. This version prefers the notion of benign survivors in its ending as well. True, Neville will once again sacrifice himself for the greater good, but the new society is comprised of healthy survivors who will undoubtedly do things right this time round….right?

In this version, the story has been relocated to New York, a great setting for the post apocalypse. The CGI of the city is awesome, but the zombies look as if they escaped from a poorly rendered computer game. As one of only a few live actors in the film, one reviewer noted, this really does make Robert Neville the last man on Earth. Smith is fine as Neville, though again, not nearly as tortured as his print inspiration. He's a truly 21st century update though – well dressed, sound in body and mind (mostly) and fully equipped with the right gear. Shrek replaces Woodstock and Marley stands in for the classical music of the other versions. Interestingly, there is more of a peace/love aspect to this telling than is found in the The Omega Man. God's will also enters into the fray in the character of Anna, who is guided by heavenly voices to Robert Neville. Reportedly, there was an alternate ending to this version in which the vampires show they have retained some humanity and spare Neville's life. It would have given them more dimension to be sure, but an ending in which Neville lives would have been a fatal departure from the original story.

A notable absence from all film versions of I Am Legend is the macabre sexual attraction that Neville feels for the female undead, all of whom taunt him by flashing their wares outside his house. In the book, sexual frustration is a key part of his emotional disintegration and adds a great dimension both to Neville and the vampires.

There are rumors that Matheson has signed off on a sequel to I Am Legend, which would be surprising. I'd rather see, in some years, the original story trotted out for a fourth telling. Some tales are so good they don’t suffer from repeated versions. And besides, no one has gotten it right yet.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ghost Story: A Haunting Failure

I haven't had time to check the library yet, but somewhere out there is an essay titled "How the '80s Almost Killed the Period Film". Someday I hope to explore this premise further -- how decades' worth of best filmmaking practices were suddenly forgotten. How lighting became a lost art and anything old or eerie had to be so blown out and diffused as to be nearly invisible. Well, in the case of Ghost Story (1981), it looked like the horror genre was also set to take a hit during that decade. Thankfully, it suffered only a temporary set back that year.

Ghost Story is one of those theatrical releases that gives the impression it was made for television. Was the cast displayed in little photo boxes across the bottom of the one-sheet, like an Irwin Allen film? I don't think so, but it should have been. It's taken me 27 years to get up the steam to watch this movie. A tender youth at its release, I knew three of the cast (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Fred Astaire, Melvin Douglas, John Houseman) from their black & white glory days. Seeing them old was wholly unappealing to me as a kid. Minus glamor and dash, their personas were replaced by generic wrinkled age. It cemented the sense I'd grown up with that all the best times and people had passed their prime long before my birth. Depressing. So it was only this week, while trapped in the house on a rainy day when I should have been doing many other things, that I found the movie On Demand and decided it was time.

Now, as per the premise of this blog, I love schlock. I celebrate the so-bad-it's-good. But this movie was awful. I might even call it the unscariest AND unfunniest unscary film ever made, with weak performances from what were once the pride of Hollywood and even worse acting from their young and then-unknown counterparts. Unexplained characters appear and disappear. It is so dull as to be nearly unwatchable. So lacking in tension that I almost forgot it was on. Heck, I almost forgot what I'm writing about! And did I mention those period sequences?

Clearly, the story itself holds promise, which is what makes its execution all the sadder. One hopes that Peter Straub's novel is better. Alice Krige's performance is not so bad as the undead and unforgiving love interest. But the rest of the cast...? Through '70s television I'd grown accustomed to the abuse of fine, aging stars. Love American Style, The Love Boat...need I say more? But the phenomenon is especially hard to take in Ghost Story. Surely these former idols did not want to be remembered en masse in this mess! And Patricia Neal fares no better. Do I sound disappointed? Bitter? I guess I am. After so many years, I held out hope the film would be better than I imagined, a hidden gem, a pleasant surprise. But no. Some mysteries are better left unsolved. And unfortunately, it was the last film appearance for Astaire and Fairbanks. Douglas died later that year, after having finished The Hot Touch.

I did learn something unexpected through this viewing: I'm no less squeamish about seeing the once vital heroes of Hollywood's golden age fade and dessicate than I was as a kid. It's hard to have such a vivid reminder of what will happen to all of us. So I guess there is something scary about Ghost Story after all.