Friday, August 14, 2015

Monster Serial: THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)

By Patrick McCray

If the last man alive... a man who battles zombie vampires by night and faces the existential dread of staking and burning bodies by day ... can be embodied by that rugged and manly survivalist, Vincent Price, then maybe humanity does have a future.

If the above scenario (sans the elegant raconteur and bon vivant, Mr. Price) sounds familiar, it’s because I just described the premise of Richard Matheson’s groundbreaking novelette, I AM LEGEND.  Robert Neville survived the pandemic that either killed the rest of the population or turned them into vampiric mutants.

By day, he works diligently to secure his home and supplies.  By night, he simply holes up in his fortified, suburban one-level and ignores the attempts of the vampires — led by the Oliver Hardy-like Ben Cortman — to lure him out and join them for dinner, wink-wink.

So, in this film version, why is Neville called “Morgan,” while evil neighbor, Ben Cortman, gets to stay Ben Cortman ... and looks like Tab Hunter?

That was the first question on my mind as a teenager when I watched Vincent Price in and as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH… clearly, a film version of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND?  Not only a film version, but the most faithful adaptation of the three.  The others are Boris Sagal’s dizzying, comic bookish THE OMEGA MAN with Charlton Heston and the 2007 version with Will Smith, written by the man being held on charges for writing BATMAN AND ROBIN and the 1998 LOST IN SPACE.

My relationship with THE OMEGA MAN — one of my favorite movies — has been the subject of a prior rhapsody.  Rhapsody Part Two involved finding the book.  Even with Louisville’s 1980’s plethora of used book stores, that was a task as impossible as finding the supposedly ubiquitous Marilyn Ross DARK SHADOWS novels.  At the time — around 1984 — my father had a lot of business dealings on the west coast.  I still beam with pride at the in-the-name-of-geekdom abuse of power he exercised when he dispatched various assistants and interns to search around San Diego to dig up a copy of I AM LEGEND.  Believe it or not, it wasn’t easy.

I always take this as a good sign.  It means that people like a book too much to trade it out for fifty cents and shelf space.  In the world of the bibliophile, where shelf space is gold, that’s saying something.  

The book was the tie-in copy for THE OMEGA MAN, and so it had a great painting of Heston at his surliest and most jogging suitiest on the cover.  Must be more of the same, right?  I fondly recalled the depth and nuance that Vonda McIntyre gave to the scientists on Space Station Regula One in her novelization of THE WRATH OF KHAN.  Surely, a master such as Matheson must have done the same, right?  I locked myself away to cherish every word, certain that it would add even more detail to the adventure of alienated, middle-aged squaredom that I loved so dearly.

Um, no.

No.  This has nothing to do with THE OMEGA MAN.

Zip.  Nada.

It was better.

In fact, it might have been the most adult book I had read up to that point.  I don’t mean adult in a stolen-copy-of-Erica-Jong sense.  I mean actually, emotionally mature.  What a spare and sad study in the slow torture of solitude.  A book like that might have really helped the kid in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.  For an only child in a neighborhood populated only by the elderly, living with a single parent who was rarely home, that story made life seem much, much less lonesome.  It felt that way because Richard Matheson understood.  And because he understood, that meant that someone knew what it was like.  And if someone knew what it was like, then I wasn’t really alone.
That was my logic, anyway.

So, that made me Neville.  Who were the vampires?  I dunno.  I never really thought about it.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I knew that I didn’t have to be alone all the time.  I could be playing sports, going to summer camps, or engaged in similarly homoerotic activities, but these held little interest for me. Maybe there were no vampires, but I sure knew what Robert Neville felt like.  If he’d had a life totally unlike the one in the book.  But it doesn’t matter.  You get the idea.
When I taped THE LAST MAN ON EARTH off of cable, it was both delightful and wildly confusing.  It was very much the book.  Only set in Italy.  With changes.

The film was originally supposed to be a more prestigious production (with Fritz Lang in talks to direct it at one point — the imagination boileth over), but Matheson was so unhappy with the direction that things took that he eventually removed his name from the project.  If he’d known what was coming with THE OMEGA MAN and The Fresh Prince of the Apocalypse, he might have counted his blessings.

For all of the areas of similarity, there are just as many differences.  Wisely, to keep it from having that MARK TWAIN TONIGHT vibe, the film spends a lot of time in flashbacks.  The effect of watching Neville’s daughter and wife waste away from the pandemic in both body and spirit is the most horrifying part of the film.  The vampires don’t really form a society so much as they stratify into “vampires” who are almost  cured and ones who are not.  The Almosts are pissed at Neville — um, I mean “Morgan” (Vincent Price) — for doing his Last Man on Earthly duties of staking them during their sunlight slumbers, but how was he to know?  They seem organized.  Why not just leave him a note?  “Hey, Morgan.  We’re going to put on red pajamas when we sleep.  If you see us in red pajamas, leave us alone.  We are not evil.  Oh, and Tuesday is trivia night if you want to come.  Signed, Epstein’s Mother.”

Something like that.  But if they had, we’d have no movie.  Nor would we have the heavy-handed and honestly chilling post-WW2 Italian Guilt portrayed via the Almost Cured’s black-clad police force chasing Neville — hell, I mean Morgan — into a church (one carefully depicted as having no crucifix). The black suited Almost Cured (or Almost Vampiric, if you’re a pessimist) take exception to Morgan denouncing them as “freaks,” claiming that he’s actually the last (real) man alive.  They spear him in the chest and… scene.

Okay, so it’s an ending that falls apart.  It doesn’t have the Christ analogy of OMEGA MAN, nor does it 100 percent fulfill the irony of the novel, in which Morgan — damn, I mean Neville — finds that he’s their boogeyman.  But this is never going to be a story that ends happily.  The journey is the point, and what matters in a journey like this is its passenger.  Again, Vincent Price defies expectations and presents the most credible “last man” imaginable.  Why?  Because he has no real training for this, but he’s pulling it off anyway.  He can’t make fortresses and elaborate traps.

This essay is one of dozens featured in our new
book, "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial."
Morgan — there, I got it — is just a guy.  His home is just secure enough to allow him to survive.  We completely understand the madness he battles. As I have found again and again, Price excels at defying expectations and delivering emotional truth. Be wary of those too eager to cry “Ham!” at classical actors.  Those are the actors who truly play the middle notes on the emotional keyboard so well.  Why?  Because they understand the power of the extremes, and can justify them rather than simply ape them.

Price had several one-man shows in his time, including DIVERSIONS AND DELIGHTS, a stage play in which he played Oscar Wilde.  What perfect typecasting!  It’s to Price’s tribute that his other, great (almost) one-man-show should be the diametrical opposite in character, language, and tone.  Combined with Matheson’s story and (some of his) language, we have a film that is bleak, but never depressing.

Does it beat the idea of Price in Heston’s OMEGA MAN jumpsuit, machine gunning mutants and macking on Rosalind Cash?  I’ll leave the answer to you. For me, the matter is clear.

PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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