Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense

Three Adaptations of I Am Legend

One of the best books I read in 2018 was the sci-fi/horror classic I am Legend by Richard Matheson. Matheson wrote it in 1954, years before he became famous as one of the creative forces behind The Twilight Zone. It’s a grim, powerful, novel about isolation and trauma, centering on Robert Neville, the last surviving human being. A global pandemic has turned the rest of humanity into vampire-like creatures who persecute Neville by night whereas he slaughters them by day. As the years go by, Neville is increasingly consumed by loneliness, sexual frustration, grief at the loss of his family, suicidal urges, and an ongoing angry dialogue in his own head, which he tries to extinguish with a river of alcohol. The book concludes with a psychically weighty twist worthy of the best Twilight Zone episodes.

Many of Matheson’s works were successfully adapted for the big and small screen. I have recommended a number of the excellent results, including Night of the Eagle, Tales of Terror, Dracula, and the Amelia segment from Trilogy of Terror. Given that track record, it’s not surprising that movie makers thought that I am Legend could be spun into cinematic gold. This week I examine three of these adaptations.

Producer Robert Lippert was the first to have a go at Matheson’s novel and managed to land the man himself to work on the screenplay. Initial plans were for Hammer Studios to make the film under the title The Last Man on Earth, with the legendary Fritz Lang being mentioned as a possible director. Unfortunately, financial problems and British censors got in the way, turning it into a low budget 1964 Italian production directed by Stanley Salkow. For Matheson and for many viewers as well, the resulting cheap production values and bad dubbing of Italian actors were enough to sink it, but I feel more kindly toward the film than that.

Vincent Price got to me as a glum Robert Neville, proceeding through a regime of staking vampires and burning bodies by day, and getting drunk and moody at night. Price often hammed it up on screen, but to the extent he does that here it fits with how Neville is portrayed in the novel. The vampires in the film (who are more reminiscent of the zombies that George Romero later made famous after being inspired by this movie) are simply not scary enough to make the suspenseful part of Neville’s dilemma sufficiently frightening, but the alienating and agonizing parts come through very well. Also, The Last Man on Earth deserves praise for being the only adaptation to keep the morally complex twist ending of the novel. Warts and all, I give thumb’s up to this version of Matheson’s book even though it’s certainly not at a level to make one stand up and cheer.

Seven years later, the book was re-adapted with a more respectable budget for Charlton Heston, who had a following among science fiction fans based on Planet of the Apes. In this version, titled The Omega Man and directed by Boris Sagal, the vampires have been replaced by an albino mutant cult who hate modern technology as personified by Army scientist Neville. Unlike in the novel, the film is packed from the first with comic book action scenes laced with explosions, stunts, and machine gun fire. Also unlike the novel, the character nuance and twist ending were removed, leaving a crusading hero versus bad guys storyline. That said, the few scenes showing Heston alone in his fortress apartment, trying to hold his sanity together as the mutants torment him each night, are really well done.

No one could mistake this for anything other than a 1970s movie, from the Manson Family-esque mutants to the painfully stereotypical African-American characters, who feel like they wandered off the set of a blaxploitation flick shooting on the next lot. Indeed, the whole thing could have lapsed into camp if not for Heston’s credible, strong-jawed performance (which at times recalls not only his role in Planet of the Apes but some of his religious movie roles as well), matched nicely by Anthony Zerbe as the leader of the mutants. It sticks less closely to the novel than does Last Man on Earth, but it’s more exciting to watch without being dumbed down.

The third adaptation of I am Legend kept the same title. This 2007 film is a mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith. The film dispenses with the emotional core of the novel from the very first scene, giving Robert Neville a dog companion to give him comfort and to whom he can talk. The dog in the book shows up only halfway through and dies soon thereafter, painfully raising and then dashing Neville’s hopes of an end to his isolation. The canine companion here is used well to motivate some suspenseful encounters and also to give us one scene with real emotional power (kudos to Smith there), but its presence insulates the audience from experiencing the sense of isolation that made the book so haunting. The vampires here are bad CGI creations who act like the super zombies in World War Z, so filmgoers are protected from experiencing any complexities there as well. The filmmakers shot an ending that introduced a slight note of ambiguity about the vampires in the final scene, but when it didn’t “test well” with audiences (apparently someone reported experiencing an independent thought) the producers replaced it with an uncomplicated heroic end for Neville and a happy clappy conclusion for the audience. Naturally, this slick cop out of a movie made a mint at the box office.

So there you have it: Three films which were just not as great as the book on which they were based. Some novels are very hard to bring effectively to the big screen. Much of the power of Matheson’s book comes from Neville’s internal fulminations and struggles, and if you turned all that into first-person narration it would be an incredibly clunky film script. Because Neville is alone almost all of the novel, a screenwriter is also deprived of the usual opportunities for dramatic tension and dialogue between characters. It’s also a downbeat novel with psychic nuance, and that’s unlikely to please millions of film goers who come to the theater expecting simple up-with-people stories that they can stare at while stuffing their face with popcorn. It’s not an accident that as the adaptations got further and further away from Matheson’s book, they made more and more money at the box office.

So my strongest recommendation this week is not a film but a book: The only way to appreciate Matheson’s excellent novel is to actually read it. If I had to watch one of the three adaptations again, I would choose The Omega Man on balance. Yet I remain part of the cult following who sees significant strengths in The Last Man on Earth (which is in the public domain you can watch it here).

Comedy Horror/Suspense

House on Haunted Hill

Producer/director William Castle was part film maker and part carnival barker, being famous for gimmicks such as placing nurses in theater lobbies ostensibly to aid any viewers who were overcome with fright, wiring seats to give mild shocks when a monstrous “Tingler” came on the screen, and, for this week’s film, pioneering “Emergo” technology which released a skeleton on a wire to sail over the audience. In 1959, he made what I consider his best film as a director: House on Haunted Hill.

Set at the historic Ennis House in Los Angeles, the film’s agreeably silly plot features menacing millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) who has offered a disparate cast of characters $10,000 to spend one night surrounded by ghosties and ghoulies. The event is allegedly a party for his current, faithless, wife Annabelle (Carol Ohlmart), who herself fears sharing the fate of her mysteriously deceased predecessors. The guests are a mousy secretary in Loren’s company (Carolyn Craig), a handsome test pilot (Richard Long), a stuffy psychiatrist (Alan Marshal), a money-hungry newspaper columnist (Ruth Bridgers) and the alcoholic survivor of some of the people who have been murdered in the house (Elisha Cook Jr.). The closing credits also include another cast member, in typical Castle tongue-in-cheek style: a skeleton appearing as “himself”.

I first saw this film on television when I was about 5 years old, and it gave me nightmares for months. I could not appreciate then what I can now, namely that Castle always served his horror with side dishes of corn and ham. There are certainly creepy moments and shocks in the film, but there is also campy fun, much of it courtesy of old hands Price and Cook. It’s also progressively amusing over the course of the film that the majority of Carolyn Craig’s dialogue becomes “Eeeeeeeekkkk!!!!!!!”.

House on Haunted Hill is spooky fun in the best Castle tradition. I recommend it for strong entertainment value and as the high point of the movies Castle made himself.

I say “by himself” because Castle was later associated with one of the greatest horror films in Hollywood history, albeit with an assist. Not long before he died, Castle purchased the rights to Rosemary’s Baby and brought the project to Robert Evans at Paramount. Evans wisely agreed to let Castle produce the film only if Roman Polanski helmed the project, and a classic film was born.

p.s. In case you are wondering, here is the fun-loving Castle’s “Emergo” gimmick in action.

British Horror/Suspense

Masque of the Red Death

Low budget film genius Roger Corman once said the two films he was proudest of were The Intruder (a searing film about racism and civil rights which I recommended here) and the superb horror movie Masque of the Red Death.

Corman had been enchanted by Edgar Allen Poe stories since reading The Fall of the House of Usher at age 11. After directing a number of schlock black-and-white films made in 10 day shoots, he persuaded James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkhoff to let him do a Poe adaptation and to make it a “big budget” movie: Not only would it be in color, but he would have 15 whole days to shoot it! With his usual brilliance at spotting affordable talent, Corman cast as the lead Vincent Price, an actor who otherwise might have faded into obscurity along with his youthful good looks. The Fall of the House of Usher proved a big money maker, and an enduring cinematic collaboration was born (Corman, Price and Poe, often joined by other terrific horror actors and writers).

I have recommended the Corman-Price-Poe film Tales of Terror, which while a lot of fun is not as impressive cinematically as Masque of the Red Death. The latter was filmed in the United Kingdom because the government at the time had a film production subsidy policy, giving Corman more to work with financially than usual. The film also benefited from the cinematographer being the gifted Nicholas Roeg, one of the many soon to be famous film artists who was nurtured in the university of Roger Corman. Couple those virtues with Corman’s scrounging ability — he recycled much of the opulent set of Becket here — and you have the best looking of any of the Corman-Price-Poe films.

The plot of this 1964 release comes from the Poe story of the same name, with a subplot drawn from Poe’s Hop-Frog. The story opens in a foggy forest in Medieval Italy, where a mysterious figure cloaked in red foretells of a coming plague (His face is never seen, and I assumed his wonderfully sonorous voice was provided by the late Christopher Lee, but it turns out to be John Westbrook). Meanwhile, the rich, cruel, Satan-worshiping Prince Prospero terrorizes the peasants, and casts a lustful eye in particular on a lovely, impoverished lass named Francesca (played by Paul McCartney’s one-time beau Jane Asher). As the plague spreads through the land, Prospero’s castle fills up with both his greedy courtiers and his unwilling prisoners. Debauchery and nastiness ensue, coupled with ample surrealism and existential dread for good measure.

Corman was utterly in command of his material by this penultimate entry of his Poe cycle, and benefited from a strong script by R. Wright Campbell and the legendary Charles Beaumont (co-creator of the Twilight Zone). The almost hallucinatory ambiance of the film makes it both uniquely unnerving and a foreshadowing of the more experimental film style that would flower as the 1960s went along (including the moments when Corman strains for artiness a bit too much). As for the actors, this may be Vincent Price’s most impressive horror performance: he dominates every one of his scenes. Of the many good supporting performances, particular praise is in order for the little-known Skip Martin. As Hop-Toad, a wronged dwarf who seeks revenge, Martin conveys impressive emotional power. He had the bad luck to work in the pre-Peter Dinklage era where good parts for little people were virtually never written into films, but at least he made the most of his opportunity to shine here.

Masque of the Red Death succeeds as a horror film and also as an art house drama. Congratulations to Corman and his crew, as well of course to the magnificent Edgar Allen Poe.


Tales of Terror

Low budget whiz Roger Corman revered Edgar Allen Poe and brought his stories to a new generation through film. The best known is probably Masque of the Red Death (my recommendation here), but most of them are rewarding, including Tales of Terror.

This 1962 film is a trilogy of stories based on four different Poe stories: Morella, a pastiche of The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The stories are well-employed in the script of the late, great Richard Matheson, whose ability to infuse new, um, blood, into hoary tales I have praised many times. Vincent Price anchors the film with three lead performances, which vary in tone from lugubrious to frothy to sepulchral.

Price is joined by two aging stars who still know how to deliver the goods. Peter Lorre makes a fine boozy bully in The Black Cat and Basil Rathbone lends gravitas to the role of Carmichael, the hypnotist who tries to hold Valdemar at the point of death in the final story. The roles of the women characters however are comparatively flat, with the female performers cast mainly for their looks.

Many horror films, including some of the most famous, include some element of camp, and Tales of Terror is very much in that tradition. Price and Lorre enjoy themselves enormously in The Black Cat, inviting the audience to laugh at them as much as be frightened by the murderous proceedings. As a viewer, you should bring eggs for this part of the film, because these guys are bringing the ham.

In addition to the tension and fear generated by the three stories, the film makes for good horror viewing because Corman, as always, was experimenting as he went along. Some novel special effects are on display, all of which work pretty well. On the small screen, some of the Cinemascope trickery at the screen edges will be lost, so see this one on the big screen or in letterbox format if you can.

In some people’s minds, Corman is nothing but a schlock merchant, but that’s not fair to him. Like Richard Rodriguez, he has a genius for improvising in a low-budget environment. He shot movies on the sets of other movies while they were being torn down, writing a script each night to take advantage of whichever set would be gone by the end of the next day. He told Peter Bogdanovich that “Boris Karloff owes me a few days of filming, let’s make something out of that”, which became the nail-biting Targets. And he also helped launch many future superstars, including Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Francis Ford Coppola. I was absolutely delighted when Hollywood finally woke up and gave the 83-year old Corman an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, because he’s long been the kind of disruptive, creative force that the film industry needs to maintain its vitality.

Drama Mystery/Noir

The Web

When I was in graduate school, I shared an apartment with a fellow student who was also a film buff. One night we were watching television and saw a commercial announcing that our cable provider would soon start carrying a channel called “American Movie Classics”. We sat there mesmerized as the advertisement trumpeted that the new service would start with a series of films with Barbara Stanwyck, followed by a run of Cary Grant movies, and then a Gary Cooper retrospective.

We sat in stunned, dry-mouthed silence for a moment, until I said “Well, we’ve got to make a decision: do we cancel cable or drop out of graduate school so that we have more time for old movies?”.

My roommate responded immediately: “Totally drop out of graduate school”.

We resisted somehow, despite becoming AMC addicts and later TCM addicts. One joy of these channels was re-watching old favorites, but a distinct pleasure was viewing a quality film that had somehow been lost — not generally remembered, not listed in most film guides, but still able to entertain an audience if ever it were rediscovered. One such movie with which I had the latter experience is The Web.

This 1947 film, which is also shown under the title Black Velvet, is a nicely crafted noir featuring Edmond O’Brien as a dedicated, hard-charging young lawyer named Bob Regan. Regan falls under the spell of wealthy corporate powerhouse Andrew Colby (Vincent Price) and his sultry secretary/mistress Noel Farady (Ella Raines). He begins working for Colby on what seems a simple assignment, but it quickly takes a violent turn that draws him into a web of murder, intrigue and lies. He is meanwhile attracted to Noel, and she seems to reciprocate, but only to a point because Colby’s hold over her is strong. Meanwhile, hard-nosed police lieutenant D’Amico (William Bendix) watches over the developments with suspicion, and wavers between acting like Regan’s friend and his enemy.

The Web (1947) | It's a double-cross – a triple murder, with ...

Many people only know Vincent Price as “the King of the Grand Guignol”, but he had a fine career in Hollywood before all those scary movies. Otto Preminger’s excellent Laura is probably Price’s most widely-respected non-horror role, but he’s even better here: Silky smooth, handsome, assured and at the same time devious and dangerous.

Ella Raines is also at the top of her game, exuding a Bacall-esque sassy/tough sexuality as she is torn between the two leading men. O’Brien gives an appealing and believable performance as a man in way over his head, and Bendix plays the tough cop memorably as a sort of wiser older brother (and for once in a film noir, the cops are actually smarter than the hero!).

To be an all-time noir classic, The Web would have needed slightly tighter pacing and more quotable lines of dialogue, but it’s still an entertaining, well-made film that with the aid of cable classic movie channels (God Bless ’em) has been re-discovered by a new generation of viewers. Make yourself one of them.