Saturday, June 29, 2013

In Memoriam: Richard Matheson 1926-2013

Writer, known for science-fiction and fantasy. I Am Legend. The Shrinking Man (which Hollywood turned into The Incredible Shrinking Man, screenplay by Matheson himself) Hell House. What Dreams May Come. Bid Time. Stir of Echoes. Adapted his short story "Duel" into a TV movie directed by Steven Spielberg Wrote many episodes of The Twilight Zone, including one of its most famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet". Wrote the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within". For director Roger Corman, he adapted four Edgar Allen Poe stories (the titles, anyway) to the screen. Adapted what was at the time an unpublished novel (by Jeff Rice) into a TV movie starring Darren McGavin called The Night Stalker, which later became a series that, though short-lived, still pops up on cable from time to time, and was the main inspiration for the long-lived series The X-Files.

Richard Matheson was a close friend and the best screenwriter I ever worked with. I always shot his first draft. I will miss him.

--Roger Corman of the most important writers of the 20th century

--Ray Bradbury

 For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov.

--Steven Spielberg

He fired my imagination by placing his horrors not in European castles and Lovecraftian universes, but in American scenes I knew and could relate to. ‘I want to do that,’ I thought. ‘I must do that.’ Matheson showed the way.

--Stephen King

Wonder why Spielberg and King spell their first names differently. That could be a Matheson story right there: "The Mystery of the Monikers"--but I digress.

“But are his needs any more shocking than the needs of any other animals and men? Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from his child? The vampire may foster quickened heartbeats and levitated hair. But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician? Is he worse than the manufacturer who set up belated foundations with the money he made by handing bombs and guns to suicidal nationalists? Is he worse than the distiller who gave bastardized grain juice to stultify further the brains of those who, sober, were incapable of progressive thought? (Nay, I apologize for this calumny; I nip the brew that feeds me.) Is he worse, then, than the publisher who filled ubiquitous racks with lust and death wishes? Really, no, search your soul, lovie--is the vampire so bad?” 

"...suddenly he thought, I'm the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a
majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just
one man.

"Abruptly that realization joined with what he saw on their faces --
awe, fear, shrinking horror -- and he knew that they were afraid of
him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a
scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with. He was
an invisible specter who had left for evidence of his existence the
bloodless bodies of their loved ones. And he understood what they felt
and did not hate them. His right hand tightened on the tiny envelope
of pills. So long as the end did not come with violence, so long as it
did not have to be a butchery before their eyes...

"Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he
did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was
anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept
came, amusing to him even in his pain.

"A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the
wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while the
final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in
death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of

Sometime in the early 1950s, Matheson was watching the 1931 movie version of Dracula and “My mind drifted off, and I thought, ‘If one vampire is scary, what if the whole world is full of vampires?'" The result was I Am Legend, part horror story, part meditation of what it means to be human, to be normal.

Officially, Legend has been brought to the screen three times, with the emphasis on horror. Well, whadya expect? Film is a visual medium; you can't just show someone meditating, can you? Actually, the first version kind of tries. The Last Man on Earth (1964), starring Vincent Price,  emphases the titles character's loneliness, a loneliness only interrupted by battles with dead folk that aren't quite the vampires of Matheson's novel. What they are exactly I'll get to a couple of paragraphs down. Matheson wrote the screenplay himself under the pseudonym "Logan Swanson". Though he acknowledged the finished product followed his book pretty closely, Matheson was disappointed with the results, mainly because of the low budget. He also felt Price, appearing in a monster movie where he wasn't one of the monsters for a change, was miscast. I think the movie works despite the low budget (I've read that it was an U.S. produced movie shot in Italy to save money. So what, did the cast and crew get discount airline tickets or something?) I thought Price was good, too, though, truthfully, even if I were a bloodsucking monster, I'd be a little leery about taking him on.

The second version of I Am Legend came out in 1971. This time called The Omega Man, it starred Charlton Heston as a man not only upset that he's seemingly the last member of the human race, but that the monsters who come out at night are so gauche. Why can't they appreciate fine art, fine wine, and classical music the way he does it in his fortified penthouse? The monsters themselves have Gold Medal-flour white skin and--leapin' lizards!--no eyeballs. The film is notable for an interracial kiss and a suggestion of sex between Heston and Rosalind Cash, at a time when that was still rare on the big screen. Unfortunately, there's little chemistry or--despite one playing a right-wing militarist and the other a Black Nationalist--sexual tension between them, though if two such people ever got together back in 1971 it probably would have been the end of the world. Really, this movie is pretty ambitious in the way it tries to combine horror with late '60s-early '70s social relevance. However, it just doesn't take. The best thing about this film is the always-scary Anthony Zerbe as a TV anchorman-turned-ghoul. Not surprisingly, he's more convincing playing the latter.

The latest version, this time actually called I Am Legend, came out in 2007. I haven't seen it, but it got good reviews, and who better than Will Smith to survive a world holocaust?

Those are all the official versions of Matheson's novel. There was also an unauthorized version, in 1967. At the time, George Romero was a young director of commercials and industrial films who wanted to escape that rut by making his own horror film. A fan of I Am Legend, he saw this new film as a prequel of sorts, showing the vampire plague at the very beginning. Except these weren't vampires, either, but zombies, though the term in never used in what shaping up to be the most influential horror film of all time, The Night of the Living Dead. Romeo has never cited the first screen version, The Last Man on Earth as an influence, but the two films look very similar. The final  scene in the earlier film where the hero fights off an army of the undead would have fit right into Romero's version, except that he couldn't afford Vincent Price. Instead, a local Pittsburgh actor by the name of Duane Jones played the zombie-battler. Noone ever mentions it in the film, and Romero himself has said it played no role in his casting decision, but Jones was black. That he--SPOILER ALERT--gets killed not by the monsters themselves but a trigger-happy redneck gave the film much more social significance than could ever be found in the more self-consciously provocative The Omega Man made a few years later. Who knows? Maybe the 1971 version was so self-conscious BECAUSE of Romero's film. Social significance aside, we're currently living in an age of zombies. There's the popular AMC series The Walking Dead, a book, The Zombie Survival Guide, and a movie out in theaters, World War Z. All can be traced to the novel I Am Legend. So you have Richard Matheson to thank for it all (or to blame if you're one who yearns for a return to werewolves)



OK, enough with the animated corpses already. Matheson wrote other things as well.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) screenplay by Richard Matheson. If you found The Last Man on Earth too upsetting, let me reassure you that Vincent Price is back to playing a creep in this one.


The Twilight Zone: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" OK, I admit the "gremlin" is obviously just some guy in a costume, but even THAT would be a rather odd thing to see 20,000 feet up, don't you think?

Matheson could be funny when he wanted to, never more so than when he wrote the screenplay for The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

There's a thin line between horror and humor.


  1. He also felt Price, appearing in a monster movie where he wasn't one of the monsters for a change, was miscast

    As much as I love Richard Matheson's work, and mourn his death, I must defend Vincent Price's honor... he shoulda oughta been a major leading man.

    I will also never cease to say that, as much as I love Alec Guinness, Star Wars would have been so much cooler if Vincent Price had played Obi-Wan Kenobi.

  2. Welcome to the blog Big Bad Bald Bastard.

    Here's the exact quote from Matheson about Price's performance in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH: "I think Vincent Price, whom I love in every one of his pictures that I wrote, was miscast."

    So Matheson did approve of Price in THE COMEDY OF TERRORS and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, as well as three other Roger Corman-directed Poe movies. However, Price played a villian in all those movies. Maybe he just couldn't accept him as a good guy. I could, and did, and obviously you did, too, in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH.

    Price was a major leading man--if by "leading man" we talking top billing--in the low-budget drive-in fare of the 1940s and 50s. It would have been nice to see him as a leading man in big budget movies from the same period.

    STAR WARS? I think it would have been cool to hear Price's voice come out of Darth Vader's mask. OK, bad guy again, but he was good at that, and, man, imagine the scene in RETURN OF THE JEDI when the mask comes off.

  3. Goodness, so many comments I wrote are missing I think goggle/blogger is angry. If I can remember the most wonderful comment I wrote I might try to re-post it.
    As always your write the most interesting posts.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. Maybe google/blogger has contracted the zombie/vampire virus, parsnip.


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