Like a lot of genre fanboys my age, I first encountered the work of Richard Matheson through the citations of Stephen King. And once you read I Am Legend it's impossible to digest books like 'Salem's Lot without recognizing the foundation laid by the true master of suburban terror. However, Richard Matheson is not some dusty "Father of Modern Horror" best left acknowledged rather than consumed. Last night, after getting word via Twitter that he had passed at the age of 87, I immediately went to the local bookshop to snatch a copy of his short fiction. As I munched over a fast food dinner I read the terse tension of "Duel." It's a terrific bit of boogyman writing - a simple act from a careless mind leads to a torturous assault on the everyman. Matheson took us out of the far off, exotic hoodoo and brought the beasts to our doorstep - Stephen King ran with it, but even he couldn't muster the power and fear of the all-time-great apocalypse novel. The Stand struggles to match the weight and intensity of what Matheson did in just 160 pages.
Published in 1954, I Am Legend is the story of The Last Man on Earth, Robert Neville. Each day he raids the shops & homes of Los Angeles researching what caused the end of man, and possibly what could save it. At night he retreats to his fortified bunker as the rest of humanity has been transformed into vampiric scavengers. These are not the vein sadsack Draculas of Bram Stoker or Anne Rice. These are beasts. Monsters. Real horrors that taunt him from the streets, aching to snap their fangs into his neck and complete the consumption of the earth. I Am Legend is a dystopian downer with bursts of terrorizing siege action, and it climaxes with a fantastic Twilight Zoney philosophical twist that's all in the title. It's astonishing how effective it is with its scares, and walloping with its heartbreak - all under 200 pages, something doorstop bestsellers often fail to grasp. And, yeah, I Am Legend is the perfect book for the big screen...
The book has been adapted three times already, but they keep screwing it up!!!! God Damn Hollywood, how can you possibly be this inept when the source material is so simplistically brilliant?!?! In 1964, Vincent Price certainly grasped the doom & gloom of being The Last Man on Earth, but his Dr. Morgan stumbles around a shanty set, beating upon faceless vampires without ever scratching the mythic dread of the conclusion. 1971's The Omega Man barely resembles the source material, but Charlton Heston's turtle neck sex machine is sooo dang charming even when he's swimming the deep end of crazy town. The Omega Man is a rather striking bit of disco cheese that elevates itself into earnest exploitation through performance and audacity. And easily my favorite of the three adaptations. Will Smith's 2007 extravaganza gets the title right, but squanders it all in the last act. For most of the film I was flabbergasted by its faithfulness to the novel, and Smith's relationship with the dog is one of the sweetest & saddest representations of man's best friend I've encountered in cinema. The fact that they ignore the genius of the novel's climax shows that the producers either didn't have the balls to follow through or were utterly dense to its impact. We finally get to hear "I Am Legend" uttered on the big screen and it's laughable. Do I dare ask for a fourth adaptation? Give it ten years. I sometimes have fantasies of a low budget (what's that $50,000,000 these days) version directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt. Can't you just see a fifty year old Pitt laying the undead to waste?!?! Forget Word War Z sir, this is where you should be exploring the human condition through the filter of genre.
Of course, the general consensus is that if you're looking for the great I Am Legend cinematic experience than you look towards George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. For a low budget filmmaker with just enough jingle jangle in his pocket, it's easy to see the appeal of I Am Legend as the base for a screenplay. He had access to a house and a group of wannabe actors. A shelter from an outside force. A siege film. Plague. Damn scary. The modern zombie certainly owes more to Matheson's vampires than the haitian undead seen on screen before 1968. We currently live in a walking dead world where every third horror film seems to involve a brain eater, and it's impossible to imagine the current state of the genre (for better or worse) without Romero's zombies, and in turn without Richard Matheson.
As you're growing up geek, even if you skip past Stephen King, George Romero, & I Am Legend, you're eventually going to stumble upon Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Richard Matheson wrote 16 episodes of the anthology series, most of which spawned from his own short stories. His most famous episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is a staple in this household, and we watch it every year around Shat Attack. William Shatner's recovering madman boards a plane and comes face-to-face with a furry gremlin. It's dated, goofy, melodramatic, and George Miller's big screen version is certainly more successful. But Shatner sells the hell outta his psychosis and it's rather painful to witness the rejection from his spouse - an element missing from Lithgow's nightmare. Other Matheson highlights from the series are Lee Marvin's "Steel" (also the basis for Hugh Jackman's Real Steel), Agnes Moorehead's teeny tiny "Invaders," the time traveling "Last Flight," and that other Shatner tale "Nick of Time."
Matheson wrote one Star Trek episode, "The Enemy Within." I don't see it get a lot love these days on the internet (where all geek matters are settled, right?), but as a Shatner obsessive it is essential viewing. A transporter accident splits Captain James T Kirk into two personalities. One good, honorable, and a little meek. The other one bad, alcoholic, rapey, and filled with screams. The good Captain Kirk tries to coax the bad Captain Kirk back into the transporter room, but in the end it comes down to some nasty Kirk on Kirk violence. It might not be a significant moment in genre television - it's certainly no Twilight Zone - but I couldn't write this post without giving it a little love.
A couple of years ago, I read a great interview with Richard Matheson in the pages of Fangoria. In it he bemoaned the various adaptations of his work (the I Am Legends, Richard Kelly's underrated The Box, A Stir of Echoes), but when the interviewer reminded Matheson of his own liberal adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe for Roger Corman, the novelist did some serious backpedaling. I was a little bummed. Not just because Matheson seemed to have disdain for what others had done to his work (I suppose that's only natural), but mostly he seemed to have little enthusiasm for those colorful Vincent Price adventures. Sure, they're working on the flimsiest of skeletons, but The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, & The Raven are whole heaps of fun and some of the most joyful work to come from Vincent Price. Well...in Usher, Price is at his most dour, but The Raven is an absolute lark with its Boris Karloff wizard battle and animal transformation hijinks. They might not have been Matheson's proudest moments or the most influential, but they certainly helped Roger Corman take claim of his B Movie Empire. It's possible that if The House of Usher had bombed then Corman would have faded into obscurity and the cinematic landscape would be a far blander arena. No Matheson = No Corman = No Scorsese, Coppola, Demme, Dante, etc. Ok, that's extreme and unreasonable...maybe...
Finally, I can't talk about Richard Matheson without mentioning the loony monstrosity of Jaws 3D. It has to be one of the clumsiest and lamest sequels ever crafted, and at least some of it came for the pen of Matheson (at least two other writers worked on the script). I've enjoyed the film since I was a wee lad; possibly only a 4 year old could find the merits of this dreck, and I'm sure most of my youthful glee came from the Sea World setting. Having recently partaken in a Fish & Chips Alamo Drafthouse screening, I am still a firm believer in its horridness but I can't shake the giddiness of long ago. And I can't help but take sick glee from the fact that Matheson contributed to the bastardization of Steven Spielberg's first blockbuster after having jumpstarted Spielberg's career with the television movie Duel. It's a small world, and Hollywood is even smaller and delightfully incestuous.
This has all just been a long winded way of thanking Richard Matheson. His work has been with me for nearly 20 years, and I will continue to revisit his worlds for the rest of my life. And I look forward to experiencing the future stories of those standing on his shoulders. The next Kings, Romeros, Spielbergs.