I’ve been looking back at Richard Matheson’s seminal I AM LEGEND and the various movie adaptations the book has spawned. This week, Charlton Heston in 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN.
My horror movie education began with double bills of Hammer classics and Universal monster movies which used to be shown late Saturday nights on the BBC. When my parents bought our first VCR, a whole world of possibilities was opened. For the first time I was able to record and watch films I’d otherwise miss because they were on too late on a school night or because my parents didn’t think they were appropriate (please remember – I was very young, and this was the height of the Video Nasties craziness which outlawed 99.9% of the films I wanted to watch).
I remember recording mainstream horror movies such as ALIEN and THE OMEN and watching them endlessly for as long as I was able (usually until Dad needed the tape to record something else – tapes were damn expensive back in the day, and we had the sum total of four of them).
THE OMEGA MAN was another film I watched again and again until I could pretty much recite the script, and until re-watching it for this feature, I hadn’t seen it in a long time. I expected it to have dated badly, but Charlton Heston’s post-apocalyptic antics really took me by surprise. I knew I’d watched the movie through the rose-tinted spectacles of innocence and youth, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is a clunky and horrendously dated film.
Chuck plays Robert Neville who, in this version of the story, lives an isolated life of relative comfort in a funky pad which, for some inexplicable reason, reminded me of Batman’s cave (and I’m talking Adam West Batman here, not Christian Bale or that Affleck person). More than any other I AM LEGEND adaptation, this film is a product of its time. Watch the trailer and you’ll see what I mean, then click the link for my thoughts.
A couple of weeks ago I kicked off a retrospective look at I AM LEGEND by looking at Richard Matheson’s landmark book and promising to re-watch the three film adaptations which have been produced to date.
To my mind, this first adaptation – the Vincent Price starring LAST MAN ON EARTH from 1964 – is the best by a long shot, and that’s surprising given the increasing budgets and advances in technology used to make movies in the fifty-or-so years since it was made.
Or maybe it’s not surprising at all?
Maybe it makes perfect sense that a small, low-budget movie like this should come closest to matching the claustrophobic tone of Matheson’s book. Without the distraction of summer blockbuster state-of-the-art special effects, all we’re left to focus on is Vincent Price’s intense portrayal of Robert Morgan (confusingly re-named from Neville in this version of the story). When the world outside has shrunk to one man’s area of reach, why would we want to look any wider?
At this point I’d usually include a trailer, but LAST MAN ON EARTH is in the public domain (according to some sources), so I’ve embedded the entire movie below care of the Internet Archive.
Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND is a remarkable book. Do a straw poll of a hundred horror authors and ask them to name the single piece of fiction which most influenced them, and I’ll wager that a good number will cite I AM LEGEND. It’s not just authors – the same is probably true of film-makers too. You can’t read the book without having scenes from George Romero’s original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD play out in your head.
There’s no question, therefore, that this is an hugely influential novel, and the fact it’s been filmed on no less than three occasions is further proof of that. Interestingly, though, it’s also a remarkably slight book, coming in at less than 200 pages. So how does Matheson cram so much into so little? I decided to try and find out. There will unavoidably be spoilers ahead.
As I type I’ve literally just finished re-reading the book for the umpteenth time. I thought it would be interesting to give you my thoughts on the novel and then, over the next few weeks, to look at each of the film adaptations in turn (and if you’re not aware of the movies, they are as follows: LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE OMEGA MAN and I AM LEGEND).
I’m sure you know the basic plot by now but, just in case, here’s the back cover blurb: Robert Neville may well be the only survivor of an incurable plague that has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him.
By day, he scavenges for food and supplies, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. But all the while the infected lurk in the shadows, watching his every move, waiting for him to make a mistake…