Tuesday, June 25, 2013

RIP: Richard Matheson

Yesterday Richard Matheson died. He was one of my favorite writers and I read some of his books again every year or two. To say he was the most important horror writer *ever* would probably not be hyperbole. There would be no Stephen King without Matheson (and King is the first to say it). Matheson brought horror into the modern world, and one of the great things about his stories is that he made you believe they were *scientifically* possible. HELL: HOUSE (greatest haunted house novel ever written) is about the *science* of haunted houses. He made monsters believable in a world that was beyond superstition.

You have seen TV shows or movies either written by Matheson or based on his novels and short stories.

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Have you seen SOMEWHERE IN TIME? Based on his novel.

Have you seen that TWILIGHT ZONE episode with Shatner in the plane and the gremlin on the wing? Based on his short story.

Have you seen KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER? His screenplay.

Have you seen DUEL? The Spielberg TV movie about the killer truck? His story and his screenplay.

Have you seen that movie where Karen Black is chased through her apartment by the little devil doll? His story and his screenplay.

Have you seen INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN? His novel.

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Have you seen those great old Edgar Allen Poe movies with Vincent Price (directed by Roger Corman)? He wrote the screenplays.

He wrote something like 16 episodes of TWILIGHT ZONE, and you know all of them.

He wrote so much stuff, I can't list it all. And he influenced so many writers (like King) that things he *didn't* write probably wouldn't have existed without him.

I could go on, but instead I'm going to re-post the review of the terrible Will Smith version of I AM LEGEND and recommend the book if you haven't read it. On FaceBook I posted the first line of his first published short story (BORN OF MAN AND WOMAN)... and people posted how much they loved that story. That means it made a big impression on them, because they *remember a sentence from it*. How many stories can you remember a sentence from?

Matheson was from that era of science fiction and horror that gave us Bradbury and all of the greats. I hate to pull a "good old days" thing, but there was a golden age of sci-fi and Matheson was part of that. We have lost a legend.

- Bill

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I AM LEGEND (2007)

Okay, I am a huge fan of the Richard Matheson novel, 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. An Matheson also wrote the book that was made into INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, one of my favorite Saturday afternoon Sci-Fi movies.

I AM LEGEND has been made twice before, once with Vincent Price and once with Chuckles Heston... 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 faithful version of the book. So, several years ago they decided to correct that, and make *the book*. 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 the Heston version. Then Ah-nuld became governator and the project was shelved....

Until someone dug it out and did some rewrites and some more rewrites and suddenly it was nothing at all like the book... and so they made it.

My problem with the film is that it's kind of one note. I thought it started out good... then just kept going on a straight line without changing or escalating or twisting or becoming dramatic or anything else... which means it becomes more boring with every minute until it just turns to crap with a silly ending.

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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 is been turned upside down.

His car pool buddy Ben Cortman is now the leader of the vampire clan in his suburban town (Glendale?) - and comes for him every night, pounding on his door and screaming for him to come out... so that they can kill him. Almost the same way he used to knock on the door in the morning for Neville to come out so that they could go to work. The world has turned from Day to Night... and Night to Day.

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...

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Neville is the last man on Earth, and extremely lonely. During the day, the streets are *empty* - except for the occasional corpse. He has no one to talk to, no one to be with... and that is never going to change. In the novel, he is the *loneliest* man on Earth. The isolation is slowly killing him. And at night, the female vampires *know* he wants female companionship... and strip and thrust, trying to lure him out. One of the things that always ends up on the cutting room floor in the cinema versions of Matheson's novels is the sexuality. In SHRINKING MAN the protagonist's penis shrinks, too - so even if his wife wanted to have sex with a man the size of a boy, he couldn't satisfy her. In HELL HOUSE the Belasco House was the site of Satanic orgy's... and this leads the professor's quiet wife to be possessed by spirits and do some very naughty things. Did she like it? Matheson was writing in the time when Playboy was born, and people were talking about sex... and Matheson made sex issues into part of his stories. Not in a prurient way, but as an aspect of character. Neville is the last man on Earth, and longs for female companionship... and sometimes considers opening the door to one of those naked female vampires.

None of that stuff is in the new movie. The creatures aren't people he knows, just CGI fake looking monsters, and who cares if you kill them or not?

But he doesn't kill them - the typical suburban dad from the book has been turned into a top military scientist who was working on curing the plague... and still is. He wants to *help* these vampire-creatures, not kill them. And, because he's a scientist *and* a badass army guy, he's got all the heroic bases covered. He's the *perfect* guy to deal with this sort of problem (unlike the character in the book who had to grow and change in order to deal with it). (Note: The character in the Price version was also a scientist, mostly just to give us an exposition scene about the plague and how it works... but he was still a suburban guy with a station wagon, not a badass.)

And everything from the novel has been blunted or thrown out - In the book, his daughter contracts the plague, and he and his wife do everything they can to get her medical attention... but she dies. They want a funeral, but instead must 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... which is also in the Vincent Price version. The dead daughter is a major part of the Price version, and when she dies she's put in the back of a huge truck filled with dead people and *dumped* into the fire pit like trash... as Price tries to stop them. Heartbreaking.

The dog death in the Will Smith version is no substitute for the daughter's death... or the wife's death and return... and death again. Actually, it’s not really instead - because the dog is in the book and Price version, too... and dies, so they've just cut the emotions out of the story and made it bland.

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That's the big scene in the book - Neville's wife gets sick... and dies. He is supposed to take her to the big bonfire, but can't go through that again... so he sews her up in a shroud and buries her... and then she comes back - covered in earth - dead... and wanting to feed off of him. 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 when we read the book.

Instead we get a dead dog and a scene where his wife and daughter are the victims of an accident - never to be seen again.

And the "Alpha Male" in the Will Smith movie is a poor substitute for his car pool buddy Ben Cortman - after he turns into the car pool buddy from hell. Those two characters had a *history* and a *relationship* which brought drama and baggage to the scenes where Cortman and Neville battle each other. By making the "night seekers" just monsters they rob drama from every scene they are in.

Having to kill his friends and neighbors by day was gut wrenching - a normal guy having to do terrible things to survive. In the film we have a hero who does heroic things (search for a cure). Nothing dramatic about that. It's a person doing what is already in their nature.

Though I haven't read the novel in a couple of 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... 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. None of that in the film - it's just a bunch of creatures.

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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. A monster. I think you could pull that twist end in today's popcorn world. 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 are 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 is 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.

This movie wasn't the Matheson book and it sucks... and it's strange that the cheapo Vincent Price version you can download on the internet for free (LAST MAN ON EARTH) is closest to the book. But, maybe 20 years from now, they will make a faithful version. Who knows?

- Bill

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