Monday, October 26, 2015

13 Films Of Halloween:
LAST MAN ON EARTH

LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)

Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danielli.
Written by: Richard Matheson (as Logan Swanson) and William Leicester.
Directed by: Sydney Salkow.
Produced by: Robert Lippert (owner of a movie theater chain in the Bay Area!)




Okay, I am a huge fan of the Richard Matheson novel I AM LEGEND, even though I haven't read it in years. I first read it, probably in high school. Still have that copy. If you don't know who Matheson is, he's the guy who wrote all of those TWILIGHT ZONE episodes you remember. Seriously - make a list of 5 episodes and I'll bet at least 3 of them are his. Anyway, that's how I discovered him. I was a fan of old THE TWILIGHT ZONE TV show, noticed that Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, discovered that he wrote books, too... and Stephen King called his haunted house book HELL HOUSE the best horror novel ever written. And Matheson also wrote the book that was made into INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, one of my favorite Saturday afternoon Sci-Fi movies. Matheson was also the screenwriter on all of the previous Corman Poe movies except PREMATURE BURIAL.

This was the first adaptation of I AM LEGEND, which would be made twice more - once with Chuckles Heston and once with Will Smith (and is up for a reboot now)... and was the inspiration for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (so just about every modern zombie movie owes its existence to the book). Here's the thing - no one has ever done a completely faithful version of the book. So, several years ago they decided to correct that, and make *the book*. A screenplay was written that everyone loved - exactly like the book (which is awesome by the way). They needed a star, and Ah-nuld stepped up - not the guy I see playing Robert Neville, who is kind of a typical 1960s suburban husband. But I would accept Ah-nuld if the movie was like the book, rather than like that ultra macho mindless Heston version. Then Ah-nuld became governator and the project was shelved.... Until someone dug it out and did a bunch of rewrites and some more rewrites and suddenly it was nothing at all like the book... and so they made it with Will Smith, and it is the *least faithful* version of the book! I can only hope that this new reboot goes back to the theory of making a more faithful version of the book. Until then, this old movie from the 1960s is the best version.



The book is kind of a through-the-looking-glass commentary on 1960s suburban life - the kind of stuff on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and OZZIE & HARRIET and FATHER KNOWS BEST. Robert Neville is the typical suburban husband and father who carpools to work every day with his buddy Ben Cortman... then a plague breaks out that turns everyone into vampires. Now all of his neighbors and everyone he knows lives at *night* and he is the sole person who lives by day - his world has been turned completely upside down.

His car pool buddy Ben Cortman is now the leader of the vampire clan in his suburban town (I think it was either Pasadena or Glendale in the novel) - and comes for him every night, pounding on his door and screaming for him to come out... so that they can kill him. Every day Neville goes from house to house through the town, searching for the vampires and driving stakes through their hearts... mostly searching for the leader, Cortman. The people he stakes - are his neighbors, his friends. It's a terrible job, but they become an army at night... and soon they will be powerful enough to get through the barricaded windows and doors of his typical suburban home. Every morning, his lawn is littered with dead vampires - people he knows. He has to clear them, take them to the giant bonfires that were designed to burn the dead when the plague had just begun taking lives...



The film opens with the sun rising on the horizon, which may just seem like a nice shot... but it is life or death for Robert Morgan (Vincent Price). Next we see some spooky shots of a city - empty. Not a single person on the streets. No cars moving. Nothing. As we get closer - there are cars wrecked on the side of the roads and dead bodies in the streets. What happened? A sign in front of a church says: The End Has Come!

Now to suburbia - and Robert Morgan’s typical suburban house... dead bodies on the lawn. The alarm goes off, and Morgan wakes up. It’s 3 years after the apocalypse - the plague which wiped out everyone but himself. He goes about his typical morning - coffee, checking the garlic wreath on his front door, checking his electricity generator in the garage... where his typical suburban station wagon is housed. Unbolting and opening the garage door, and loading up all of the dead bodies on his lawn into the back of that station wagon, using his ham radio to see if there is anyone else out there... but he is alone.



A map on the wall shows all of the sectors of the city where he has searched for their “nest” - the place they hide from the sunlight during the day. He grabs a bag of wooden stakes and heads out for the day... a typical day in the life of Robert Morgan. His first stop is the fire pit where he disposes of the bodies. Then he goes shopping - an abandoned supermarket where he picks up garlic and supplies. Then he goes searching for sleeping vampires... staking the ones he finds. Then disposing of those bodies at the fire pit. Then he heads home before dark. New garlic wreaths for the doors and windows, and then night... alone in the house as they attack, lead by Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) his old car pool buddy from before the plague. “Morgan come out! Come out!” He cranks the music to drown out their voices.

The next morning, it begins again...

He begins making a new batch of stakes on his lathe... then quits and goes to the mausoleum where his wife’s coffin is... and accidentally falls asleep there. When he wakes up, the sun has set! The vampires rule the world. He must get past an army of vampires to get back to his car, then speeds away.



At his house, Ben Cortman waits for him and an army of vampires surround the house. He gets out of the car and makes it to his front door, battling vampires along the way. Once inside, he is safe. That night, he plays home movies of his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) and daughter Kathy (Christi Courtland) in happier times... his daughter’s birthday party. Ben Cortman is there - they were best friends before all of this. Morgan breaks down...

28:45 minutes in, Morgan flashes back to before the plague...

Kathy’s birthday party. Ben Cortman comes with presents - Kathy showers him with kisses, then goes to play with all of the other kids. When she is gone, Ben shows Morgan a newspaper story - Hundreds Killed By Plague. The plague is carried by the wind, will it reach the United States? Ben and Morgan are scientists working on the plague.



Weeks later, the winds are blowing and Kathy is sick. The plague? Or maybe just the flu? Virginia claims to feel fine, but she is secretly ill as well. Morgan is worried about Kathy... Virginia is scared.

At the Mercer Institute (like the CDC) Morgan and Ben try to solve the riddle of the plague. The streets are filled with bodies, which the government tries to take to the fire pit. The rumor is that if the bodies are not burned... they come back. As vampires. Morgan thinks these are just crazy rumors, Ben thinks it’s possible that the virus can cause vampirism. That’s crazy talk...

Kathy contracts the plague... and goes blind. The final stage before death. He and Virginia do everything they can to see to her medical condition. Virginia wants to call a doctor, but Morgan warns if they call a doctor the doctor will be forced to report Kathy as infected, and... They want a funeral, but if she dies under a doctor’s care they will take her body to the huge bonfire pit and toss her in with the others. There is nothing as sad and horrible as the mass pit where they burn the dead from the book... And that is also in this Vincent Price version.



Morgan’s turn to drive, he goes to pick up Ben and head to work. Ben has hung garlic wreathes from his door and gone into full survivalist mode - he’s not leaving the house ever again. Morgan drives to the lab alone... and find the lab vacant except for his boss Dr. Mercer. The only two people left to find the cure.

When Morgan goes home, he sees one of the government trucks driving down the street. His daughter Kathy has died... Virginia is practically catatonic. She called the doctor and...

Morgan gets in his car and races to catch up with the truck. There are crowds of people at the fire pit, mourning their loved ones as they are thrown into the flames. Morgan breaks though the lines, chased by guards, and tries to stop them from tossing Kathy’s body into the fiery mass grave. Instead, gets there just in time to see her body thrown into the pit with all of the others.



A few days later, it’s Virginia who has gone blind... and then dies from the plague. Can he call for the government truck to take her corpse to the fire pit? “No. I won’t let them put you there. I promise. I won’t let them put you there.” So he sews her up in a shroud and sneaks out in the middle of the night with her corpse in the back of the station wagon... and buries her somewhere beautiful. Under a nice tree. Where she can be at peace. .

Night. Home. Alone. He hears a sound... a whisper... “Let me in. Let me in.” The front door knob is moving! He opens the door to see who’s there...



His wife Virginia, covered in dirt! “Robert... Robert...” She tries to embrace him, to sink her teeth into him and feed off him. He backs away... This is the love of his life... back from the dead! A miracle. He just wants to hold her in his arms. Kiss her. Tell her how much he has missed her, how much he loves her... But instead he must pound a stake into her heart! This scene destroys him... and destroys us.

52:45 we come out of the flashback, Robert Morgan remembering what he was forced to do to what was once his wife. Outside his car pool buddy Ben Cortman - after he turns into the car pool buddy from hell - and his gang have torn the station wagon apart. These two characters had a *history* and a *relationship* which brings drama and baggage to the scenes where Cortman and Morgan battle each other. Having to kill his friends and neighbors by day is gut wrenching - a normal guy having to do terrible things to survive. But this is his new life, and has been his life for three years, now.

The next morning Robert wakes up, survey’s the damage.



He goes car shopping, comes home with a new station wagon. As he parks it, he sees the dog poking around for food. He tries to catch it, but the dog speeds away. The animal hasn’t stayed alive all of these years by allowing itself to be caught. But the dog is *hope* - another living thing! He isn’t the last living thing on earth. He searches for the dog without success... but does find a group of vampires staked with iron bars. That means there is another *human* alive somewhere.

Back at home he tries the ham radio again, trying to find that other human out there. Hears the dog yelping outside. Unbolts his front door and goes out to get him... the dog has been injured. Brings him in, tends to him. Morgan now has a friend... at 60 minutes.



He checks the dog’s blood... it has the plague. He’s forced to stake it before it turns on him. There is no hope.

As he is burying the dog, he spots a figure in the distance... in the daylight... a woman? 62 minutes in, Robert Morgan is not alone. He chases the woman, who runs like hell. He finally catches her. “Wait! I couldn’t be out here in the daylight if I was one of them. You know that they can’t come out until sundown. Do you want to come with me? Or do you want to face them?” She comes with Morgan... following him home as the dog did.

At Morgan’s house, he makes dinner for her. She is Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), her husband died in the plague. Morgan grabs a bunch of garlic and pushes it against her face, she turns away - and he accuses her of being one of them. He doesn’t trust *anyone* anymore. She says she watched her husband torn to pieces by those... things... and now he thinks that she is one of them?



Morgan relents, apologizes, and serves her dinner... but she isn’t hungry.

That night, Ben Cortman pounds on the door and yells fro Morgan to come out. He tells Ruth that Ben used to be his best friend, but now? “When I find him I’ll drive a stake through him, just like all the others.” She wonders how he can do that to someone who used to be his friend.

Morgan wants to give her a blood test, to make sure she isn’t infected. She just wants him to trust her - no blood test.

That night, Morgan hears her coughing in her room and goes in to see if she’s okay - discovers her shooting up! She admits, she *was* one of them. But now she is cured, as long as she gets her injection every night. A cure. “We’ve had it for some time, now.”



“We?”
The vampire society... she’s a spy sent to find out what Morgan knows, but it seems he knows much less than they do. “We’re alive. Infected, yes, but alive. We’ve organized a society.”
“And you want me to join?”
“You *can’t* join us. You’re a monster to them. Why do you think I ran when I saw you? Even though I was supposed to spy on you, I was so terrified... from what I’ve heard about you. You’re a legend in the city. Living by day instead of night, many of the people you destroyed were still alive. You are a monster!”
She tells him they are coming for him tonight, and he job is to keep him here, in the house, until they come. To kill him. For all of the murders that he has committed.




She passes out... and when she wakes up, Morgan is giving her a transfusion of his blood. His immune blood has cured her. He gives her a wreath of garlic, and she can breath it without getting sick. She’s cured! Morgan says he can cure *everyone* with his blood. That’s when the Vampire Military comes to capture Morgan. They kill Ben Cortman and all of the “uncured” vampires and chase Morgan through the streets. Eventually they corner him in a church... and they stake *him*. As he lays dying, Ruth comforts him. “They were afraid of *me*? And he dies.

“We’re all safe now.”



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Though I haven't read the novel in years, one of the things I loved about it when I first read it was how it looked at vampires *scientifically* - all of the vampire lore gets a logical explanation that makes complete sense. In the book, Neville doesn't begin as a scientist, the part of his days not staking his friends and neighbors is spent trying to figure out what happened - and that leads him to learn about science and learn about the plague at the abandoned public library... which gives us all of these amazing logical reasons behind vampires being killed by wooden stakes, and garlic repelling them, and light burning them. You read the book and begin to believe that vampires *could* really exist. That feeling is in this film as well - with Morgan testing the blood of the dog and then Ruth.

The book's title comes from the end - a huge twist where we discover that Neville is a monster to the vampires. To them, he's a serial killer. I think they could have pulled that twist end in today's popcorn world in the Will Smith version or even this new reboot. I think as long as 99% of the film has Neville as "hero", that 1% where we reveal he's a monster won't rock the boat too much. And he's still a vampire killer - which may be a good thing to most of the audience. But to those of us who were looking for more than popcorn, that end would have had us thinking about being on the right side or wrong side in a war - is there really any difference? On both sides, people are killed.

There's a Matheson short story about a suburban guy who cuts himself shaving... and bleeds oil. Now, everywhere he looks he sees people eating greasy food and realizes that he's lived with his eyes closed his entire life - and he is a robot. I think the end of LEGEND and this Price film version has Neville opening his eyes... and Cortman and all of the vampires are not really any different than they were before - they still have their eyes closed. They see him as a monster... and he gets a chance to see them as people.

It's strange that this cheapo Vincent Price version you can download on the internet for free is closest to the book. Even though Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for this version, *he* thought it got watered down on the way to the screen due to budget limitations and censorship restrictions and used a pseudonym. The film was shot in *Italy* subbing for suburban USA and every movie had to be acceptable for general audiences - and the book deals with the sexual issues of being the last man on earth surrounded by naked vampire women who are using their bodies to lure him out to their undeadly embrace. Matheson wished the film had more money and more artistic freedom, but oddly the two films made when with larger budgets and more freedom ditched what makes this story great - it holds up a mirror to *our world* and *our lives*. But, maybe this new reboot will be a faithful version. Who knows?

Bill



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