The L.A. Times says “sources” tell them that John Davis, a 20th Century Fox-based producer who was involved with ALIEN Vs. PREDATOR and the will Smith vehicle I, ROBOT has optioned the rights to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
The book is a loosely connected selection of short stories, some that have little to do with the planet, others that are more refelctions on Bradbury’s feelings about a view of Mars that he read about and loved as a child, and knew as an adult writer had no substance in reality. So many of them are delicate fables, morality tales, or slight slices of subdued nightmare.
Trying to adapt them into a cohesive science fiction narrative is somewhat akin to attaching a jet engine to a child’s kite made of newspaper and balsa wood.
Richard Matheson made a game attempt in the TV mini-series THE MARTIAN CRONICLES (1980).
Despite a cast that included Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, Darren McGavin, Barry Morse, Bernadette Peters, and Fritz Weaver, the production was generally turgid and disappointing, though with a few moments that captured the magic of some of the stories. Variable production design (from imaginitive to extemely bland), and substandard FX work gave it a slightly cheezey look.
Various stories from The Martian Chronicles that appeared on the very low-budget RAY BRADBURY THEATER worked as well or better, freed of the need to link together.
So, the idea of a major feature film version of a short story collection does not strike me as a very good idea. Could the rights have been obtained to make a film like I, ROBOT (2004)?
That film was based on a screenplay called Hardwired that Fox liked, and had some similarity to Issac Asimov’s robot stories. So, since they had the rights to the I, Robot collection, the Susan Clavin character and Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were inserted into the story.
The results were an entertaining Sci-Fi action-murder mystery that held little savor for readers of the original stories.
Will the same road be taken? Only time will tell.
The L.A. Times says “sources” tell them that John Davis, a 20th Century Fox-based producer who was involved with ALIEN Vs. PREDATOR and the will Smith vehicle I, ROBOT has optioned the rights to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
USA Today features pictures and press info on the in-production SF film REAL STEEL. (click on photo for larger view)
Directed by Shawn Levy (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM), takes place in the near-future setting of 2020, by which robot boxers have replaced humans in the ring.
Hugh Jackman plays one of these replaced fighters, now out of work and trying to bond with the son (Dakota Goyo) he barely knows.
If the story seems somewhat familiar, it’s because it’s based on Richard Matheson’s short story Steel, which was adapted into a harrowing episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, starring Lee Marvin as the desperate former pugilist.
The script has gone through many hands, beginning as a 2005 screenplay by Dan Gilroy (FREEJACK), Jeremy Leven (CREATOR), and current screenplay by Leslie Bohem (TAKEN) and John Gatins.
Says Jackman on the plot:
“The heart of the story is this father and son relationship and in comes this junkyard robot called Atom that the kid’s in love with… I abandoned the kid pretty much at birth. But we come together because the boy’s mother has died. We have a lot of distance to make up. It’s through this mutual interest in robot boxing that they find a way to come together and form a bond.”
Not too surprisingly, REAL STEEL is a DreamWorks SKG film for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures.
However, one minor surprise is that the filmmakers went with the expense of building 19 full size, 8-foot tall animatronic robots, for the performers to interact with — at the advice of executive producer Steven Speilberg.
The actual fighting scenes will be realized with digital visual effects and motion capture supervised by boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.
Director Shawn Levy is quoted as saying: “There are some things only visual effects can pull off. But when you give an actor a real thing, in this case a real 8-foot-tall machine, to interact with and do dialogue opposite, you get a more grounded reality to the performance.”
REAL STEEL is due in theaters November 18th, 2011.
See the link Above for more details.
The talented fantasy writer Charles Beaumont died tragically young at the age of 38 in 1967. He is now the subject of a fascinating new documentary film by Jason V. Brock that explores his life and career. CHARLES BEAUMONT: THE SHORT LIFE OF TWILIGHT ZONE’S MAGIC MAN will be showing on Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 3:00pm at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, where many of Beaumont’s friends will be on hand to discuss his career after the screening, including Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, John Tomerlin and director and producer Jason and Sunni Brock. Marc Scott Zicree, the author of that excellent book, The Twilight Zone Companion will serve as moderator.
That same night, The Egyptian will pay tribute to Beaumont by showing a double bill of Beaumont’s 1961 adaptation of his own novel filmed by Roger Corman, The Intruder, starring William Shatner, along with Burn Witch, Burn, Beaumount’s collaboration with Richard Matheson in adapting Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife to the screen.
Since Richard Matheson will be unable to attend the Egyptian Theatre premiere of the film, due to his bad back, I recently spoke with him asking him to share some of his memories about his good friend Charles Beaumont. Here is what he told me:
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When did you first meet Charles Beaumont?
RICHARD MATHESON: After I first moved out here in 1951 he stopped by to visit me with a friend of his at my apartment and then I later went to visit him and I met his wife, Helen and his baby son, Chris. We became friends right away and decided to collaborate on writing scripts for half-hour TV-shows, because we were both new at it and television was still very new. So we started writing scripts and learning from each other. We wrote for many different shows, including a lot of westerns. The first one we did was Buckskin, followed by Wanted: Dead or Alive and later on, I wrote six episodes of Lawman on my own. By the time The Twilight Zone came along, we were both established so we wrote all of our Twilight Zone shows on our own.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Had you seen or were you influenced by the classic John Ford and Howard Hawks movies before you began writing the western TV shows you worked on?
RICHARD MATHESON: Oh, sure. I’d have seen quite a few of them, but whether they influenced me or not, I have no idea.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When you were starting out, both you and Beaumont shared the same agent, Ingo Preminger, who was Otto Preminger’s brother. Did that connection ever get you any interviews for a job with Otto Preminger?
RICHARD MATHESON: It did for Chuck, because at one time he was going to write the screenplay for Bunny Lake is Missing. He had met Otto Preminger when he went out to Michigan and watched them shooting Anatomy of a Murder with James Stewart and Lee Remick. I don’t know exactly what happened, but Chuck never wrote the screenplay for Bunny Lake is Missing.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: By the time you collaborated on Burn Witch, Burn, both you and Charles Beaumont were already established as solo scriptwriters, so what led you to do this particular script together?
RICHARD MATHESON: We went out to a bar one night and started talking about the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber. It had already been made into a movie at Universal that was called Weird Woman with Lon Chaney, but we both felt it hadn’t been done very well. We also thought that someone should re-make it. Being good friends, we decided to do it ourselves. At the time, Chuck and I were both working for American International, so we did it on speculation, because we knew we didn’t have the rights to the novel. When we finished the script we showed it to Jim Nicholson (the President of American International), and Jim Nicholson liked it very much. AIP then brought the rights to the book from Universal and paid each of us $5,000 for the script.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did your collaboration actually work?
RICHARD MATHESON: What we did is have a meeting and work out the basic storyline and then we divided up the writing, so I wrote the first half and Chuck wrote the second half. Our script writing styles were very similar, so after we wrote our own sections, we met again and combined our two sections into a final draft. We would also make comments and suggestions about the work we each had done on our own.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Who decided to call it Burn Witch, Burn?
RICHARD MATHESON: I think it was probably Jim Nicholson. I didn’t like that title, because it was taken from a totally different novel [by A. Merritt], who had also written Seven Footprints to Satan. Chuck and I wanted to use the original title from the novel, Conjure Wife. I remember Chuck also had this idea for promoting the film, suggesting that every man should wonder if his success was really due to his own efforts, or if he was possibly married to a witch.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In England the picture was re-titled The Night of the Eagle.
RICHARD MATHESON: Which was a slightly better title. Later, I did a script for AIP that was an adaptation of my short story “Being.” I expanded the story into an action–science-fiction picture. It was about a couple on a cross-country trip and they get caught on this farm where a farmer and his wife imprisons them so they can feed them to an alien creature. That was when I learned to never make a joke at AIP. This creature was a bunch of ooze, so I said, “Listen, we can call it ‘Galactic Octopedular Ooze,’ and you can call it G.O.O. for short.” Then the next thing I know, there was an announcement from AIP that they are making a picture called G.O.O! Don’t open your mouth and make bad jokes, because they’ll come back to haunt you. That was the lesson of that. That was actually a very good script, but once again it never got made. Later on AIP turned it into a TV movie called It’s Alive (1969) with Tommy Kirk. I never saw it, but I’m sure it was awful.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s interesting, because Daniel Haller told me that right after Peter Lorre made The Comedy of Terrors, he had a meeting with Lorre about directing him in your script for Being, and he said Peter Lorre was quite excited about playing the farmer who feeds people to this creature and that Elsa Lanchester was going to play his wife!
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and Peter Lorre was also going to appear in another script I wrote for AIP called Sweethearts and Horrors, where he played an inept magician who had this fire sequence in his magic act and he burns down every theater he has ever worked in. Unfortunately, Peter died before they could get it made, but he was a very charming man. Early on, they did a TV show from my short story “Shipshape Home” that featured Peter Lorre as a janitor in this apartment building, but it was re-titled something else. I think my original title was The Janitor With Three Eyes – that’s what sticks in my mind, but it was only shown on some obscure TV show, so it was hardly seen [The show was actually re-titled Young Couples Only and shown in 1955 on Studio 57, a little-known anthology series.]
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You and Charles Beaumont each did four scripts for Roger Corman, mostly for his Edgar Allan Poe films. The big exception was when Charles Beaumont did the rather daring script for The Intruder in 1961, which was about racial tensions in the south. Did either Beaumont or Corman ask you to appear in that picture?
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, they did but I just didn’t feel like going out to Missouri while they were shooting it. The Intruder may actually be Roger’s best picture, yet it was the only time he made a film that didn’t make any money. I thought William Shatner was superb in it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: William Shatner also appeared in two episodes you wrote for The Twilight Zone around that time: “Nick of Time” and the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and those were two of my own favorite episodes. I thought Bill Shatner did a marvelous job in both of them. In fact, when I moved back to Long Island in 1954, I used to go out of my way to watch Bill Shatner whenever he appeared on a television show, so I was very pleased when he was cast in those episodes of The Twilight Zone.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What was your reaction after Charles Beaumont started acting so strangely due to his illness?
RICHARD MATHESON: Well, initially we all thought he was drinking too much, but it turned out that wasn’t the problem. He was becoming ill, but for a long time nobody had any idea of what was wrong with him. Finally the doctors diagnosed him as having either Alzheimer’s or Picks disease.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What were some of your favorite short stories by Charles Beaumont?
RICHARD MATHESON: “Black Country” was one of my favorites. I remember Chuck reading it to all of us when we got together at his apartment one night, and we were all blown away by it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: “Black Country” is mentioned in Jason Brock’s documentary as the first work of fiction that ever appeared in Playboy magazine.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and Chuck wrote some great articles for Playboy, as well. He became a regular contributor, and wrote an article about Chaplin, and he and Bill Nolan got together and wrote this anthology of racing articles called The Omnibus of Speed.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s something else that is brought out in this new documentary, Beaumont’s love of car racing. Did you ever go to see him race?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, I never did. I wish I had.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Since Beaumont died so young it’s strange to consider that he might just as easily have died in a car racing accident.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and that would have probably been a better way to go!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After seeing this new documentary on Charles Beaumont, I started reading some of his early stories and I was astounded by how subversive some of his ideas must have seemed during the conformist McCarthy era of the ’50s. In “Miss Gentilbelle,” a sadistic mother makes her son dress up and act as if he were a little girl, while in “The Crooked Man,” (first published in Playboy in 1955) Beaumont gives a very vivid description of a gay sex club in the future, where same sex couples are the norm, and heterosexual marriage is outlawed!
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, Chuck wrote some really wonderful stories.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Even before “The Crooked Man” appeared, I was surprised to find the scene in your first novel, Fury on Sunday (1953), where you have the main character allow a brutal guard in a mental hospital to have sex with him, then afterwords he kills the guard and escapes! Years later, you included another graphic depiction of a gay rape scene in Hunted Past Reason.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and when I wrote a screenplay for Hunted Past Reason, which I originally wanted to call To Live, I cut that rape scene out because it really accomplished nothing. There was already enough motivation for him to chase the guy, so it really wasn’t needed. I also wrote a six-hour mini-series with Peter Straub, for ABC. It was based on Philip Wylie’s old novel, The Disappearance. It was the study of what the world would be like if there were nothing but woman, and what the world would be like if there was nothing but men. Wylie tried to explain it with Mickey Mouse Science-Fiction, which was really unnecessary.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Both The Crooked Man and The Disappearance would certainly end the debate over gay marriage!
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, or else everybody would have to become celibate, like a priest.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You don’t use a computer or the Internet, do you?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, I’m still living in the past.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s rather strange that two noted science-fiction writers like yourself and Ray Bradbury don’t use a computer or the Internet.
RICHARD MATHESON: That’s right. I just finished a new novel and it was all written down by hand.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The last time we spoke you told me you hadn’t written anything for over a year, because you weren’t in a writing mood. Then after Bill Nolan heard that he said, “So what. You’ve already written enough!”
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, but since then I got back in the writing mood and I started a new novel that I’ve just now finished. It will be coming out early next year. It’s called The Other Kingdom, but I don’t believe in telling people what it’s about beforehand. But now I don’t feel like writing again!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You also have a lot of upcoming movie projects in development. Hugh Jackman will be starring in Real Steel, based on your short story “Steel “; Summit Entertainment is preparing Countdown, based on your story, “Death Ship”, and the producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald are going to make your ghost story Earthbound into a movie.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, I just signed the contract for Earthbound.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you make any suggestions to them about who you would like to see direct it?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, I had nobody in mind. I think two women are going to be producing and directing it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Really? Maybe Katherine Bigelow will direct it.
RICHARD MATHESON: I don’t think so, but she would be a good choice.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Are you writing the script for Earthbound?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, I seldom do scripts anymore. I did write a script for Earthbound a long time ago when Roger Corman wanted to buy the book from me. I had lunch with Roger and he wanted to shoot it at his studio in Ireland and I had already written the script, but for everything, all the rights to both the script and the book he only offered me $25,000! I would have retained no rights or residuals, whatsoever. By that time I didn’t need the money, so I turned him down. It wouldn’t have made any money for me, compared to what it would have made for Roger.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you see the presentation to Roger Corman of his honorary Academy Award?
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, I watched that on TV and it was nice, because Roger has been a good independent producer for a long time.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After writing the first two Poe movies for Roger Corman do you recall why he asked Charles Beaumont to write The Premature Burial instead of you?
RICHARD MATHESON: I couldn’t do them all. I only wrote with one hand! The type on one would still be warm, and they’d be at my door, ready to shoot the next one. I was probably busy doing something else at the time, so Roger got Chuck Beaumont and Ray Russell to write The Premature Burial. At the time, we were both working on The Twilight Zone, so when I wasn’t available to do The Premature Burial, Roger called in Chuck.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I see you have just been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, in Kansas City.
RICHARD MATHESON: No, it’s in Seattle. Or maybe it’s in Kansas too, I don’t really know.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I thought it was sponsored by The University of Kansas, but I never heard of them before, so maybe I’m wrong.
RICHARD MATHESON: I had never heard of them, either.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s nice though, because it’s an award for your lifetime of achievement.
RICHARD MATHESON: Well, my lifetime still isn’t over yet, although I’m only alive thanks to my doctors!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: For which all your fans are very grateful. In fact, since Charles Beaumont’s career mirrored yours in so many ways, it’s fascinating to speculate on the great success he might be enjoying now, if only he had lived.
RICHARD MATHESON: Oh, there’s no doubt that if Chuck hadn’t died he would have become one of the top screenwriter’s in the business. He was such a talented man. Chuck was also much more involved in writing for major movies than I was.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: One thing I liked about this new documentary on Charles Beaumont was that nearly all of his friends are interviewed and talk about him. The only major voice missing is Rod Serling, due to his own early death.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, sadly both Chuck and Rod died before their time.
Additional information and tickets for the screening of Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man can be found at the Egyptian Theatre website. The DVD can be pre-ordered HERE.
When Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House came out in 1971, its fusion of traditional haunted house elements with explicit sex and violence was quite shocking, as most horror novels prior to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist avoided graphic material in favor of suggesting the shudders. While not up to the high standard of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House yet clearly inspired by it, Matheson’s book attempted to become the ultimate “haunted house” tale, incorporating a number of psychic phenomena that had not been previously combined into one ghostly story.
When James Nicholson, co-head of American International Pictures, split from Samuel Z. Arkoff to create his own company, Academy Pictures, he selected Matheson’s novel to be the basis for their first feature, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, and he hired Matheson (who had scripted many of AIP’s Poe-inspired films starring Vincent Price) to adapt his novel into a screenplay. Unfortunately, executive producer Nicholson passed away while the film was in production, and it was sold to 20th Century Fox.
The early ‘70s had seen the development of more explicit horror films such as THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, which introduced nudity and lesbian to the mass market horror film; however, horror films were still sold mostly to teens, so Matheson scaled back much of the sexual element in his novel to allow the film version to garner a PG-rating. (He also expressed concern in a Cinefantastique interview that in the then-new era of openness, equating sex with evil acts would be laughable, though a key element of his story condemns not sexual per se, but sexual repression).
Amusingly, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE opens with quotation on the reality of the psychic phenomena depicted attributed to Tom Corbett, a known “space cadet” (one of Matheson’s sly jokes). As in his classic novel I Am Legend, Matheson takes the trouble to look up scientific terms but not to understand them. Hence, the energy is described as electro-magnetic radiation, or in other words radio waves, microwaves, terahertz radiation, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays, which are all types of EMR and have nothing to do with souls, ghosts, or spirits.
The story’s premise is fairly simple: An elderly man worried about his imminent demise hires a parapsychologist physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and two mediums, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall) and Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin of THE INNOCENTS), to investigate the Belasco residence (known as “Hell House”) and report back proof, if any, on the existence of life after death. An expedition some 20 years before to this “Mount Everest of haunted houses” had resulted in the destruction of all participants by madness or death, except for Fischer.
Hell House represents a self-contained world, one in which, as Fischer points out, the windows have been blocked up to keep anyone from peering in on the socially unacceptable goings-on inside. Years ago, it was inhabited by a wealthy eccentric named Emeric Belasco (Michael Gough, appearing uncredited), a character Matheson based on Aleister Crowley. Belasco is described as a man who encouraged others to experiment with debasement and debauchery, leading to a long list of crimes against humanity (“Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism… not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies”) which are mentioned but never actually depicted in the film version.
To ramp up a sense of verisimilitude, in both the novel and the film, Matheson divides sections by identifying a specific date and time when each incident takes place. This is a device that was later borrowed by Stanley Kubrick for THE SHINING. Unfortunately, at least in one instance, a stock daylight shot of the Belasco exterior is shown while the caption indicates night time event.*
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is the first ghost film, I believe, that depicts the phenomenon of ectoplasm, which we see emanating from the fingertips of Tanner, who is supposed to be a mental medium, unlike Fisher, who is a physical medium. In other words, spirits speak through her, whereas Fisher manifests observable phenomena. However, this distinction breaks down, as there is more than enough telekinetic and poltergeist activity on display for each medium. Despite the budgetary limitations, this is a very active haunting, and the sense of anything can happen at any moment aids in greatly enlivening the film.
On the other hand, in adapting his work to film, Matheson has shortchanged his major characters. While Roddy McDowall is very enjoyable playing the closed-off “only in it for the money” Fischer, Benjamin is more heroic in the book. There, he rescues all of the other characters at one time or another — saving Tanner during an attack, pulling heavy equipment off of Barrett, and keeping Barrett’s wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) from drowning in a nearby tarn during a sleepwalk. Most of the scenes of Fischer aiding the others have been omitted from the film version.
Another crucial change is that the novel’s Barrett is somewhat crippled. He is a skeptic eager to prove that a machine he designed can dissipate the negative energy in the house and stop all the haunting; Hell House represents his opportunities to put his machine in action. It is clear in the novel that Barrett has developed a life of the mind, but has neglected the physical side of life, including his sex life with his wife. The very fit Revill seems miscast for the part as originally conceived, though he ably limns the character’s arrogance and cocksuredness as well as his dismissive way with his colleagues.
In the book, Ann clearly loves her husband, but longs for the intimacy that has been denied her. This makes her susceptible to Belasco’s libidinous influences, and so she throws herself sexually at a shocked Ben Fischer, and when he rejects her advances, seeks sexual solace from an unequally uninterested Tanner as well, a lesbian come-on scene the film omits entirely.
Florence’s part is diminished as well. She comes to believe that the ghost attacking her is that of Daniel Belasco, Emeric’s son, who reminds her of her late brother, who was forced to do the bidding of others. Believing she has found Daniel’s body, she buries it, hoping to put his spirit at rest, but such is not to be. She generates the theory that Belasco is like a general who can force other spirits in the house to do his bidding while he keeps himself behind the lines. Unfortunately, without having sketched in the background as to why she is so vulnerable to “Daniel’s” influence, she instead comes off as incredibly credulous and reckless, rather than as a participant who picks up a piece of the overall puzzle.
One of the most horrific scenes in the book comes off quite muted as well. Florence makes the mistake of allowing the spirit of Daniel to make love to her. (In the book, the spirit even sodomizes her in the shower). Instead of transitioning Daniel to love and peace hereafter, she gets abused and discovers herself making love to a corpse, leading to a particularly horrific entendre when she tells the others that Daniel is “in her.”
There is a mystery to be solved here, and Belasco’s duplicity must ultimately be uncovered. Matheson does leave visual clues as to the source of Belasco’s anger and frustration in each of the attacks he makes on the “guests” in hell house. While not as flashy as modern-day ghost stories, LEGEND takes the time to build up character and unease before unleashing its horrors, so that we care about the people these phenomena are happening to and have an emotional investment in hopes for their survival.
LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is a well-crafted low-budget effort, but it lacks the superior story, characterization, scares, and performances of the Robert Wise classic THE HAUNTING. Nevertheless, director John Hough crafted a decent ‘70s horror that has proved influential on such subsequent projects as POLTERGEIST (which combined the idea of depicting all the various kinds of ghostly phenomena with Matheson’s story “Little Girl Lost”), William Malone’s remake of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and Stephen King’s ROSE RED, as well as numerous televsision series showing scientific teams investigating haunted houses and other ghostly locations. In fact, Matheson is in many ways the link from the Gothic horror of the past (including his famous work on Corman’s Poe pictures) to the modern-day scares of Stephen King (who has acknowledged his debt to Matheson’s I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and Hell House, all set in modern times).
Fox’s DVD release is anamorphically enhanced and at last presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85. The colors have a muted look and there is a touch of grain, both of which are common to many ‘70s movies. The dual-layer disc also has a very high average bit rate. An additional perk is that Fox Video has given it a very reasonable sell-through price.
Both the film and the book have their limitations, but each made its own notable contributions to the development of the horror genre, and I found re-experiencing them to be quite enjoyable. They are both definite milestones in opening new territory for horror to explore in terms of adult content and taking a scientific approach to psychic phenomena.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973). Directed by John Hough. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel Hell House, published 1971. Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, Letterboxed, Widescreen, NTSC. Cast: Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver.
- To be fair, the fog-bound sky is just dark enough to almost pass for night.
Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend may not be as famous as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it is as least as influential on the development of modern vampire cinema. Not only have there been three official film adaptations; Matheson’s science-fiction approach to vampirism prefigures the majority of modern film treatments of the subject, and the novel’s story of a world overwhelmed by the living dead has served as the template for an apparently deathless parade of apocalyptic zombie movies, beginning most notably with George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. That is quite an achievement for a rather short novel with only a single major character and very little dialogue. Still, the question is whether the book is any good in its own right, or is it just a well of inspiration for the cinema? To some extent, it depend on whom you ask: Leonard Wolf, in his pioneering work A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, dismisses I Am Legend as boring, but in his undead encyclopedia V is for Vampire, David J. Skal (Wolf’s heir apparent as the premiere commentator on all things undead) calls the book a “masterful science-fiction/horror-thriller.” Matheson’s tale may not quite be a masterpiece, but it is an engrossing experience that deserves to be appreciated on its own literary terms, not just as a seminal piece of horror history.
Set in Los Angeles, 1976 (which at the time of publication was over two decades in the future), the novel tells the tale of Robert Neville, apparently the only survivor of a plague that has turned the rest of the world in vampires. The story begins by presenting the day-to-day monotony of Neville’s struggle for survival – growing garlic, repairing his generator, carving stakes – while he struggles with loneliness, despair, and sexual frustration. At first Neville spends his time feeling sorry for himself and mourning the deaths of his wife and his daughter, drinking heavily and blasting out classical music to drown the sound of the vampires who swarm around his house every night, hungering for his blood. After a close call (he stays out too late one day, arriving home after dark, when the vampires are out), he gets his act together and begins to approach his problem analytically, searching for answers: Why do vampires fear the garlic? Do they have to avoid running water? Why is a stake through the heart effective? And after centuries in the darkness, how did this ancient plague manage to overrun the entire planet?
Working on the theory that vampirism is a disease, Neville systematically proves that garlic creates an allergic reaction in the infected, that the myth about running water is only a myth, and that piercing the heart is not necessary: any large enough wound will allow oxygen into the body, causing the bacillus to parasitize its host and sporulate, the spores spreading on the wind to find new victims. The plague managed to overwhelm the Earth because the spores were carried on the dust storms that swept the planet after a nuclear war (referenced only briefly in the dialogue, during one of the book’s flashbacks).
However, Neville runs up against an obvious roadblock: a bacillus in the blood would not explain why the undead fear the cross and avoid their reflection in a mirror. Eventually, he recalls that, as the world plunged into chaos, a wave of apocalyptic religious revivalism swept the world, implanting old superstitions into the minds of those who were killed and resurrected by the plague. Their brains no longer fully functional (which explains why they never thought to burn down the house where Neville hides out), they believed themselves to be damned creatures who must shun religious icons, and their self-loathing creates a hysterical blindness that prevents them from seeing their own reflection. (Matheson specifies that only Christian vampires fear the cross; for Jews, the Star of David does the trick.)
Neville befriends a dog that has somehow survived, but the creature turns out to be infected, and Neville is unable to cure it. The dog’s death is a turning point for Neville, after which he gives up even the illusion of hope for companionship. He resigns himself to facing life as it is, realizing that the vampires are not the formidable creatures of legend but a “highly perishable” race that can be defeated.
Two years later, Neville resembles a hermit who has stopped shaving and cutting his hair. He has neither hopes nor dreams, but his life is secure. His one diversion is hunting for Ben Cortman, a neighbor-turned-vampire who retains enough intelligence to avoid Neville’s efforts, realizing that he is being singled out for special attention.
Neville’s daily routine is interrupted by the arrival of Ruth, who runs away from him in fear (hardly surprising, considering his appearance). Neville catches and questions her, but her explanations for how she has managed to survive are not fully satisfying. When Neville tests her blood, he realizes that she is infected, and she knocks him out, leaving a note to explain that there are others like her – living vampires who have found a treatment that keeps them alive even though it does not cure the disease.
Ruth’s note warns Neville to leave before her comrades come back for him, but Neville stays. Six months later, the new society of living vampires shows up, wiping out the undead – including Cortman – and imprisoning Neville. The Last Man on Earth is to be executed for the murder of the many living vampries he killed (including Ruth’s husband), but Ruth slips him a poison so that he may escape the executioner’s noose. In his last moments, Neville realizes that the standard of normalcy is a majority concept: in the new world, he is the abnormal one, the lone monster who comes without warning to destroy loved ones without mercy. He is Legend.
Through experiments on the dead vampires he had discovered that the bacilli effected the creation of a powerful body glue that sealed bullet openings as soon as they were made. Bullets were enclosed almost immediately, and since the system was activated by germs, the bullet couldn’t hurt it. The system could, in fact, contain almost an indefinite amount of bullets, since the body glue prevented a penetration of more than a few fractiosn of an inch. Shooting vampires was like throwing pebbles into tar.
– from I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The strength of the novel lies chiefly in two areas: the characterization and the scientific approach to vampirism. Matheson takes a tired cliche, the stuff of old-fashioned Gothic tales, and morphs it into a modern, credible, science-fiction action-adventure story, loaded with thrills and horror. More than that, he gives us a memorable Everyman hero, a working class guy who rolls with the punches – and punches back. There is enough gun-play and other action so that one can easily imagine a young Clint Eastwood playing the part, but the character also has a thoughtful, introspective side – pretty much a necessity when you have no human companionship left.
Matheson does an impressive job of keeping the story going with only one character, who is called upon to act and think but seldom to discuss. Not only does he have no human comrades; the vampires are inarticulate. (The only words we hear from them are Cortman’s repeated refrain, “Come out, Neville!” – urging Robert to give himself up to the vampire throng surrounding his house.) A few flashbacks provide glimpses of how the world fell apart. Matheson captures Neville’s despair over having to throw his dead daughter into a pit where the dead are consigned to flames, in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading. And the resurrection of Neville’s wife is a nice, traditional “horror” scene. Later, in the scenes with Ruth, the dialogue chews over some heavier material – regarding the relative merits of the emerging new society – without sounding too heavy-handed.
There are some mis-steps. Neville realizes early on that not all the vampires he hunts are dead, because some of the infected that he stakes are still breathing. Yet it never occurs to him to make any distinction between them, and the reader is left wondering why the novel makes the distinction at all – until the third act revelation regarding Ruth.
Decades before the AIDS epidemic, Matheson’s portrait of a group of people who are infected but able to live with the disease, thanks to some miraculous drug cocktail, seems prophetic. Yet for some reason, Matheson seems uncomfortable with the drug explanation for the new order of vampires and has Neville realize, after looking at Ruth’s blood under a microscope, that “bacteria can mutate” (into what is never explained – the idea is never developed further).
At times, the book reveals its age. Although Neville traverses large cross-sections of Los Angeles, his mind remains rooted in White Male Reality. There is not a hint of awareness about the ethnic nature of any of the neighborhoods he passes through. The one black character shows up for a two-paragraph flashback (providing a tiny piece of exposition) and promptly disappears: he isn’t even named; he is just “the Negro.” While discussing the question of whether a cross would frighten non-Christian vampires, the best word Matheson can muster for followers of Islam is Mohammedan, which sounds a bit awkward compared to Muslim.
No doubt unwittingly, Matheson also reveals the pitfalls of de-mystifying vampires: robbed of their satanic cache, they are not very frightening. The blood-suckers in I Am Legend are dangerous only because of their superior numbers, and even then Neville can often outmaneuver and outfight them. As individuals, the dead vampires are not particularly interesting. Only Cortman, who still has a glimmer of intelligence, stands out ever so slightly, but he is not likely to topple Count Dracula from the throne of Vampire King.
The real horror in the book is not the vampires per se; it is the existential dread of being alone, of realizing that one’s culture – the beliefs and assumptions that are an almost unconscious part of daily living – is ephemeral, a construct held in place by society, and if that society disappears, everything else disappears with it. Neville’s final revelation – that he is the monster in this new world order – strikes a knock-out blow to the reader with more impact than any philosophical treatise. The ending of the book opens wide your sense of wonder not to uplifting glories of a bountiful future but the unacknowledged emptiness lying beneath the veneer of civilization.
Despite the book’s cinematic potential, there has never been a great film adaptation of I Am Legend. The first, aborted attempt was for Hammer Films in England, but the British censor would not approve Matheson’s script. Fans can only shakes their heads in regret. The film was scheduled to be directed by Val Guest, and one suspects he would have delivered something along the lines of his two Quatermass movies, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and QUATERMASS II – two black-and-white gems of science-fiction horror.
The first adaptation to make it all the way to the screen was 1964’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. Although relatively faithful to the novel, the film was hampered by an obviously low budget, and Vincent Price was seriously miscast in the lead, here named Robert Morgan. The film captures some of the gloom of the source material, particularly in scenes of Morgan disposing of his daughter’s body in the vast smoking pit where the dead plague victims are consigned.
The script, credited to Logan Swanson (Matheson’s pseudonym) and William F. Leicester, makes a couple interesting changes. Unlike Neville, Morgan is not a working class man but a scientist, presumably to make his study of the disease more believable. Also, Morgan makes frequent broadcasts on his ham radio, hoping to contact other survivors – something that the book’s Neville never considered. Most significantly, in the film, Neville is capable of effecting a cure by using his own blood – an unscientific piece of dramatic license that turns out to be rather pointless, since he is killed before his cure can do any good for the world at large.
Seven years later, Charlton Heston starred as THE OMEGA MAN (1971). Considering the action-thriller elements of the book, Heston was a better choice than Price to play the lead, here again named Neville, and the car chases, fisticuffs, and gunfire are handled well enough to make the film reasonably entertaining. The best sequence is probably the opening: instead of introducing us to Neville’s routine at home, we first seem him traveling the streets of empty downtown Los Angeles – a striking series of images – before realizing that the sun is low and he must return before dark.
Unfortunately, the script replaces the vampire element with mutants created by biological warfare, and the essential disturbing idea of the novel – that normality is changed and Neville is now the monster – is ignored in favor of a rather conservative approach, in which Neville (still a scientist as in LAST MAN ON EARTH but now also an officer in the army) remains the undisputed vestige of the old order, who will wipe out the new society and restore things to the way they once were.
As before, Neville is immune to the plague , but there is a difference: In the book and the previous film, the protagonist had been bitten by a bat with a weakened strain of the bacillus. In OMEGA MAN, Neville was the recipient of an experimental cure that arrived too late to save anyone else, but the potential cure remains in his blood. Taking the idea from LAST MAN ON EARTH one step further, OMEGA MAN has Neville’s blood provide the immunity that will save mankind and restore them to dominance of the planet.
In 2007, the most recent adaptation of the novel – and the first one to use its title – reached movie screens in the form of the big-budget I AM LEGEND, starring Will Smith. Despite the title, the film is as much a remake of THE OMEGA MAN as it is an adpatation of the novel. Again Neville is a doctor working in the military, who is first glimpsed on a lonely trek in a major city (this time New York). In a nod to THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, he frequently broadcasts on the radio, hoping to contact other survivors, but many of the other elements are lifted from the Heston film. Again, we have mutants instead of vampires. (At least those in OMEGA MAN were articulate, mimicking the new society that emerged at the end of the novel; these mutants are merely videogame style rampaging monsters.) Also, in OMEGA MAN, Neville has a statue of Caesar to whom he speaks as if conversing with a friend; in LEGEND, Smith’s Neville has a small community of mannequins with whom he carries on conversations.
By far the best official version of the book, I AM LEGEND still falls short of its source material, thanks mostly to some unconvincing CGI mutants and a final act that borrows too much from OMEGA MAN, with Neville once again acting as the sacrificial martyr whose untainted blood will save the world. It’s too bad. The idea of a science-fiction vampire story is no longer new, but Matheson’s book still has the makings of a great movie, and with a few minor alterations to update the details, it could be translated to the screen virtually intact, without any Hollywood improvements. Instead of another UNDERWORLD or BLADE, the world could use another adaptation of Matheson’s novel – this time, one that stays true to the LEGEND.
Thanks to the impending blockbuster theatrical release of I AM LEGEND last month, Warner Brothers Home Video dug into the mothballs and unearthed 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN, offering it on DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray disc. THE OMEGA MAN did not much critical respect in its own time, but over the years it has developed a pleasant patina of nostalgic affection, which is clearly shared by the makers of I AM LEGEND, who borrowed almost as much from this film as they did from Richard Matheson’s excellent 1954 novel I Am Legend, on which both screenplays were based. The greatest benefit of viewing the new DVD OMEGA MAN is that the crisp, clear image strips away the varnish to reveal the truth underneath, which is that this is not a very good film. Rather, this is one of those quaint artifacts from the 1970s when Hollywood, after the cultural shift of the ’60s, was trying to make hip, cool films that would appeal to modern audiences, even though the underlying ethos was just as square as ever. The result is enjoyable but, frankly, silly.
Borrowing only bits and pieces from Matheson’s story, about a lone man besieged by a world of vampires, OMEGA MAN omits more than the bloodsuckers; it completely overthrows the essential idea of the book, which is that “normalcy [is] a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.” In a world overrun by the walking dead, the last man alive has become the abnormal one, the freak of nature perceived as a monster by those whose kind he kills. The profound impact of this idea – the existential despair upon contemplating that human standards are ephemeral in the face of catastrophic change – is abandoned in OMEGA MAN, where Charlton Heston’s Robert Neville resolutely remains the film’s standard for normalcy.
Heston is not just the “Omega Man”; he is quite literally “The Man” – the archetypal white authority figure – and he never evinces even a flicker of doubt about his own moral superiority. Both a doctor and a soldier, he carries a gun, and he’s not afraid to use it. He may be a healer, at least theoretically, but mostly he’s interested in exterminating the opposition, not helping them.
This is understandable in the context of the story, because the competition is equally dedicated to destroying Neville, and they have him outnumbered. The “Family” (as in “the Manson Family”) are a group of albino religious fanatics led by Matthias ( Anthony Zerbe), a former news anchorman mutated into a Messiah for the post-apocalyptic New World Order. Although Zerbe gives a powerful performance, the philosophical conflict between him and Heston is undermined because the game is rigged: the Family is drawn in in such one-dimensional brush strokes that they might as well be cartoon figures. No longer the living dead, these mutants (the result of bacteriological warfare) are clearly meant to be a depiction of what would happen if the Woodstock generation had a shot at running the world: they hate the old establishment; they hate technology; they hate the military; and they hate Neville, the last remnant of the institutions responsible for the worldwide destruction. (Just to hammer home the point, the opening sequence of OMEGA MAN features Neville watching WOODSTOCK.)
The fact that Matthias is, to some extent, right (science and the military did unleash the plague that killed most of the world’s population) is more or less ignored, and the morality of Neville’s quest to kill the Family is never questioned. If they were vampires – soulless, reanimated bodies – this would be easy to accept, but these are victims of the plague, and Neville (we eventually learn) has the means to cure them, but he knows it would be worthless to try. There can be no negotiation or settlement; you’re either with Neville, or you’re against him.
This approach extends to the allies that Neville eventually finds: we know they are the good guys because the accept the wisdom and authority of the Establishment figure. Lisa (a black woman played with some verve by Rosalind Cash) initially strikes an almost militant attitude toward Neville, until she warms up to him and goes to bed with him. That the film does not shy away from an inter-racial romance is laudable, but in the context of the film, it feels like a strong female character learning to submit to a superior white man because he’s just too damn virile, smart, and attractive to resist. Lisa’s brother, the one “good kid” who fails to mindlessly follow Neville’s dictates, ends up dead for naively offering a cure to the Family (thus “proving” that Neville was right not to even try). Lisa’s comrades, a band of survivors who look like some kind of a commune, represents the film’s approving portrait of how “good” youth society should behave: they prove they are okay by acknowledging Neville’s greatness with barely disguised religious awe: “Christ, you’re blood could save the world!” exclaims one.
That statement supposedly refers to the immunity that Neville may be able to pass on to others, but the symbolism is so obvious that it almost overwhelms the plot point. In case you missed it, the director visualizes it for you at the end: In a sequence that beggars the imagination, Neville even gets speared, just like Jesus on the cross, and then stands propped up against a fountain until morning, just so the director can have him hold that oh-so-powerful crucifixion pose.
Not only is the symbolism heavy-handed; the action is badly staged and absurdly anti-climactic. Neville is wounded but Matthias does not finish him off. Lisa is infected and wants to join the family, but stays by Neville. The script hints that his is because daylight is rapidly approaching, but the footage looks like midnight, and a fadeout only amplifies the sense of time slowly passing in darkness. When dawn does break, the people from the commune drive up in a jeep, pick up Lisa (who will no doubt be cured by an injection of Neville’s redeeming blood), and then they just drive away, leaving Heston to sink into the waters of the fountain, his arms spreading out at the appropriate angles. That’s it. No drama, no impact, no resolution, no nothing.
Thus ends this pretentious yet curiously entertaining relic of the 1970s. Seen today, the film is obviously a missed opportunity; it may be fun, bu it could have been great. The early scenes (of Neville foraging through the deserted streets of Los Angeles) have an almost epic quality, and it is easy to see how they inspired similar footage in 2007’s I AM LEGEND. Too often, however, the film has that over-lit, made-for-TV look that infected too many features films in the ’70s, and Ron Grainer’s score (an incongruous mix of jazz and lounge music) is almost laughable in its dated attempt to make the proceedings sound hip.
THE OMENGA MAN seems to be a film that fell victim to its own aspirations. Making a movie about vampires was not good enough, so instead the writers tried to update the material and make a contemporary statement. Twenty-seven years later, vampires area as timeless as ever, but the themes of THE OMEGA MAN seem so dated that it’s hard to imagne anyone ever took them seriously.
The film’s title is a bit of a misnomer: Heston’s character turns out not to be the “Omega Man.” The mistake extends to the advertising copy in the coming attractions trailer, which states, “The Last Man on Earth is Not Alone.” In fact, not counting the mutated “Family” (which contains many infected men), there is one other completely normal, uninfected male adult in the film, along with several women and children, suggesting there may be others as well. The early discovery of these other normal humans undermines one of the most interesting aspects of the film, which is watching Robert Neville trying to maintain his sanity in a world where he has no companionship of any kind.
The 2007 Warner Brothers DVD offers a very nice widescreen transfer of the film. One quirk of the film is that there seem to have been several instances where the editor tried to speed up action by cutting out frames in the middle of shots; although these deletions were no doubt intended to be invisible, they leave noticeable jump cuts at several points, which could lead you to think your DVD is malfunctioning.
There are audio options for English and French, along with optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles. The film is broken into 30 chapters, illustrated with still images, so you will have an easy time navigating to your favorite scenes.
The bonus features include a new Introduction, a featurette called “The Last Man Alive,” a brief text article looking at Heston’s science-fiction films, a theatrical trailer, and a cast-and-crew list. There is no input from Heston.
The Introductionis actually more of a short retrospective, featuring interviews with screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington and actors Paul Koslo and Eric Laneuville. Corrington explains that it “just didn’t feel right to do vampires. I have a Ph.D in chemistry, so germ warfare […] was on my mind as a way you could wipe out civilization.” She also takes credit for making the leading lady black. Laneuville recalls his excitement, as a young actor in his first movie, to be working with star Heston. Koslo expresses admiration for Heston’s performance in his solo scenes, particularly when he is mouthing lines while watching WOODSTOCK.
“The Last Man Alive” is a promotional feature that was shot during the production of OMEGA MAN. Much of it is devoted to Heston conferring with anthropologist Ashley Montague on the set, discussing the characterization of Neville and how he would keep his sanity when his society and culture are gone. There is also some nice behind-the-scenes footage of director Boris Sagal setting up the action scenes. Interestingly, this making-of featurette makes clear a plot point left vague in the actual film: the obstacles he runs into while driving his car during the day are supposed to be booby traps set up by the family at night.
The “Science Fiction Legend” article gives a brief rundown of Heston’s genre credits, which include PLANET OF THE APES, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, SOYLENT GREEN, and THE AWAKENING.
The three-minute trailer captures the schizophrenic nature of the film: the first third emphasizes Heston’s in the empty city; the second two-thirds squeeze in as many gunshots, stunts, and explosions as possible.
The DVD does not offer the most exhaustive examination of THE OMEGA MAN imaginable, but it does give a good glimpse into the making of a film. Fans may be disappointed, but those checking it out just from curiosity (especially those inspired by I AM LEGEND) will find it more than satisfying.
With Warner Bros. impending release of I Am Legend, I recently checked out The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, the second abortive attempt at bringing Richard Matheson’s classic end of the world novel to the screen. That brought to mind a piece by columnist Marilyn Beck, claiming that Charlton Heston wanted to make the movie after he had read Matheson’s novel at the suggestion of none other than Orson Welles while they were working together on Touch of Evil at Universal in 1957.
Here’s an excerpt of Marilyn Beck’s 1971 column:
HOLLYWOOD – Feb 10, 1971. Charlton Heston is terribly excited about “I Am Legend.” Actually, he has been for the last 14 years. The story first grabbed him back is 1957, after be read the novel at Orson Welles’ suggestion. Chuck, who’s a whiz on the big things, but who frequently has trouble remembering mundane matters like his phone number and book titles, asked producer Walter Seltzer in 1957 to hunt down “My Name Is Legend” for a possible film project. Seltzer eventually found a work bearing that name. It was a 1,400-page anthropological text. And when they finally located the science fiction novel Heston was actually interested in, a European film company was already adapting it under a different title, (“The Last Man on Earth”).
By a strange coincidence, I have just re-joined the staff of CFQonline, only a few days after receiving the first copies of the new book I edited, Visions of Death, which contains two of Richard Matheson’s original shooting scripts for House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.
For years I’ve wanted to publish Mr. Matheson’s Poe scripts, and I’m happy to say I think the long wait has been well worth it, as over the years I’ve been able to extensively interview not only Richard Matheson, but Roger Corman, Vincent Price, Sam Arkoff and Danny Haller. The results of these interviews are contained in two “Making of” essays that preface the Matheson scripts. So without further ado, here is an exclusive look at my “editor’s introduction” from the book for CFQ readers, as well a link to the Gauntlet Press website where you can get more information about the book.
INTRODUCTION TO RICHARD MATHESON’S VISIONS OF DEATH
By Lawrence French
The publication of Richard Matheson’s screenplays for The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum marks a long overdue tribute to the man who is, without a doubt, one of the all time great screenwriters of terror films. But back in 1959 when Matheson was just beginning his career in Hollywood, film critics were in general, very dismissive of fantasy, horror and science-fiction movies. Luckily, filmgoers were not. As a result, both The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum became solid box-office smashes for American–International Pictures, and Matheson’s career as successful screenwriter was launched.
Friday Cat Blogging is an Internet tradition not much associated with cinefantastique, but we are doing our best to change that. Not so long ago, we did an installment dedicated to Stuart Gordon’s MASTERS OF HORROR adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” This week, we’re taking a look at producer-director Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR, a 1962 anthology film that includes an episode inspired by the very same story.
In Corman’s triptych of tales inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat” shows up in the middle episode (which includes elements of “The Cask of Amontillado”). Rotund Peter Lorre plays Montresor Herringbone, a jovial alcoholic who introduces his wife to a handsome wine-taster (Vincent Price). When he discovers they are having an affair, he kills them and walls the ir bodies in the cellar but inadvertently entombs the cat as well, its mournful wail alerting the police to the corpses.
To provide a change of pace from the first and third episodes in this anthology film, screenwriter Richard Matheson turned “The Black Cat” into a black comedy and left out the more gruesome elements (in the story, the demented narrator plucks out the cat’s eye and later hangs it to death, only to be horrified when an exact duplicate – down to the rope mark on its neck – arrives to haunt him). The actors do a fine job of playing the horror for laughs, and Lorre is particularly adept at being both funny and menacing, but the title character (first scene atop a sign as Herringbone walks home) is not one of the most memorable screen felines – more innocuous than ominous, it is an object of Herringbone’s hatred more than a symbol of his guilty conscience. Fortunately, the nameless pet (known as Pluto in Poe’s story) does provide a memorable final close-up when discovered on the head of its dead mistress, wailing with rage.
Despite the comedic liberties, the adaptation is closer to Poe than either of the two films that Universal Pictures named after the story (in 1934 and 1941 respectively). One might gripe that Lorre’s Herringbone is a drunken lout from the moment we meet him, so we never see his descent from normalcy, but Corman does capture the essential element: driven by drink, a man brings about his own self-destruction, aided by a cat that – deliberately or accidentally – exacts vengeance for being mistreated. Also noteworthy: scenes of Lorre carousing in bars – and being tossed out for not paying – seem to have inspired similar footage in Stuart Gordon’s more faithful 2006 version.
Producer-director Roger Corman’s fourth Poe film (the third starring Vincent Price) benefits greatly from the anthology format, which allows Edgar Allan’s Poe’s stories to reach the screen with relatively less embellishment; consequently, the strengths of the previous films (atmospheric camerawork and production design) are retained, while the weaknesses (limited settings and padded stories) are overshadowed. Price is given three distinct characterizations to show off his range, including one that showcases his comedic talents; the script by Richard Matheson (who previously dramatized HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) introduces a touch of comic relief, an element that would emerge more fully in the follow-up THE RAVEN. Also, the success of the previous Poe films led to a budget increase that allowed for a stronger supporting cast, which included horror veterans Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Overall, the film is a lavish-looking, stylish piece of work that can still hold an audience’s attention. The fear factor, however, is decidedly mild, mostly taking the form of a general sense of dread and decay; the two major shock sequences (Morella’s attack on Locke and Valdemar’s attack on the hypnotist) are not bad, but neither one is a match for the pendulum sequence in PIT AND THE PENDULUM.
Three half-hour episodes are linked together with brief snippets of narration from Price: “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Case of M. Valdemar.” The first segment plays out like a condensed version of the previous version of Matheson’s first two Poe scripts, with Price as Locke (his name in the credits, which is not heard on screen), yet another obsessive agoraphobic (a la Roderick Usher), locked in an old house visited by an unwelcome guest, in this case an adult daughter whose birth caused his wife’s death decades ago. Locke’s late wife returns to possess her daughter and take revenge on her husband—a variation on a plot element from Poe’s “Ligeia”—before the ancient manor inevitably burns down (using stock shots from HOUSE OF USHER).
The episode exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of Corman’s previous Poe adaptations: nifty tracking shots, good sets (by Daniel Haller), atmospheric photography (by Floyd Crosby), and Price’s performance; counterbalanced by the weakness of the supporting players. Maggie Pierce, who plays Locke’s daughter, is adequate, and Leona Gage is stunningly beautiful as Morella, but she is unable to register a convincing level of menace on screen (where, oh where, is Barbara Steele when you need her?).
“The Black Cat,” which incorporates elements from “The Cask of Amontiallado,” was an intentional effort by Matheson to inject humor as a change of pace in the middle of the three-part film. Peter Lorre (the title character in Fritz Lang’s M) plays an inebriate whose search for wine leads him into a tasting contest with Fortunato Lucresi (Price). Forced to bring the drunken Montresor Herringbone home, Fortunato begins an affair with his wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson). Realizing what has happened, Montressore kills Annabel and walls her up, along with Fortunato who is still alive. Unfortunately for him, he also walls up the titular feline, whose screeches reveal the hidden bodies to the police. Price and Lorre, along with co-star Joyce Jameson, do a good job of playing the script for laughs. The tasting contest, in particular is a highlight, thanks to Price’s outrageous facial contortions as he savors each mouthful of wine, which contrast with Lorre’s off-handed throwaway lines (e.g., “from the better slopes of the vineyards”).
Of working with Lorre, Roger Corman recalled, “It was great! I must say Peter Lorre was one of the funniest people you would ever meet. And highly intelligent and very well educated. So you’re talking with a man who could come up with great ideas for full-out farce, and at the same time justify it intellectually and thematically in terms of Poe. It was immensely stimulating. Peter Lorre’s background was different from Vincent’s. Vincent had gone to the Yale School of Drama; he was very much trained as a classical actor. Peter came out of Germany, had worked with Bertol Brecht, and was very much into the German version of the Stanislavsky method, which was very close to the American. Their styles were distinctly different, but they were both intelligent and very sensitive actors, and they were able to work together very well, particularly in the wine-tasting sequence. In that scene, I said, ‘Peter, it is totally improvisational; you’re off the wall. Vincent, you’re totally classical.’ When the film first came out, that scene got a great reaction from the audience. I said to the semi-expert [wine taster], whoever he may have been—I don’t even remember—‘Talk to Vincent; stay away from Peter.’”
Price, on the other hand, recalled his co-star as “a sad little man,” adding. “He wasn’t very happy: he’d put on too much weight; he was not well. He never really learned the script; he felt he could improvise and make it better, and in many cases he did. He had been an actor once, but by this point he had become a caricature: he’d do his own imitation by holding his nose. He’d become this character, ‘Peter Lorre,” and he figured that’s what the audience wanted to see, so that’s what he would give them.”
The final episode, “The Case of Mr. Valdemar,” features Basil Rathbone (famous as Sherlock Holmes in films and on radio) as a mesmerist who hypnotizes Price’s character on his deathbed, thus prolonging the actual moment of death. The script adds a twist, with the mesmerist using his influence over his patient to try to gain control of Valdemar’s wife (the beautiful and desirable Debra Paget). Fortunately, Valdemar comes out of his trance and manages to throttle the evil mesmerist before melting into a “liquid mass of loathsome…detastable putrescence.” Despite decades as a horror star, this appearance as a living corpse represents Price’s first supernatural monster character. The eerie sense of death delayed but not averted is effectively conveyed, and the resurrection scene is reasonably well done, with some blurry lap-dissolves preventing the camera from viewing the makeup too closely; the scene feels slightly truncated, however, and therefore anti-climactic (the camera cuts away before Valdemar actually gets his hands on the hypnotist). The script shows some evident Matheson touches (Valdemar thanks his wife for sharing “the sweat measure of her soul” with him—a line Matheson would paraphrase in his novel WHAT DREAMS MAY COME), and David Frankham and Paget provide solid support in the acting department, making this a reasonably powerful climax to the three-part film.
Price recalled that his co-star Rathbone had changed over the decades (Price and co-starred with Rathbone and Boris Karloff in 1939’s THE TOWER OF LONDON). Rathbone, like many aging actors from Hollywood’s Golden Era, found it difficult to keep working in an industry now looking to appeal to the drive-in youth market.
“I think he was very disillusioned, very bitter, because he really had been a great star. People forget that, because they think of him as Sherlock Holmes, or they think of him as a villain. But he had been a great Shakespearian actor, a great star in the theatre and in movies. And he suddenly found himself—as we all did when Jimmy Dean and Marlon Brando and those people came out, and there was a kind of speaking in the vernacular, and all of us spoke with trained accents and trained English—if you wanted to stay in the business, you bloody well went into costume pictures. And Basil rather resented that.”
Roger Corman had this to say about working with Rathbone: “Basil would be immensely well prepared, with a fully developed performance and would play the script to the letter, so that just a small amount of discussion [was needed]. A very meticulous and a very consistent actor—from take to take it did not vary.”
Also shot, but never shown, was a brief sequence of Valdemar’s soul trapped in Limbo. “It didn’t work,” Corman has said. “I shot it, put it together, and for whatever reason I made the decision to take it out. It was a short sequence, and I was dissatisfied with it, and I don’t even remember why. It may have been for this reason: these pictures really were rather low-budget films. We tried to make them look more expensive than they were, but they really were quite low-budget. I think when I looked at the Hades sequence, for five minutes, it really didn’t look right.”
Corman added, “We used certain colored gels and filters. The work we did, we thought was good for the 1960s; it pales by comparison to what can be done with the press of a button with computer graphics today. There were two reasons for the Hades sequence: one was to illustrate what Valdemar was going through. Also—and this was a problem with all of the Poe pictures—they were very much interior; they were shot in one or two rooms, and I was always worried about a claustrophobic feeling, that you were almost having a stage play photographed. I would take any possible way I could to break out of the confines of those rooms. That is the reason for some of the [dream/hallucination] sequences and one of the reasons for the ‘Hades’ sequence.”
Although successful, the profits did not match those of previous films. “TALES OF TERROR did well, but not as well as the others, and we felt it was because we had gone to the trilogy format,” Corman recalled. “We did a little research and found that in general the multi-part films had not been a successful genre. In the age of television, the audience maybe—I don’t know—thought they were seeing three half-hour television shows.”
Price, Lorre, Rathbone, and Jameson would reteam, along with Boris Karloff, in the 1963 film COMEDY OF TERRORS, also written by Matheson.
The two-part Poe anthology TWO EVIL EYES, from Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA) and George Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) is virtually a two-thirds remake of TALES OF TERROR, featuring episodes based on “The Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Black Cat” (although done in contemporary, not period, settings).
DVD & HOME VIDEO DETAILS
TALES OF TERROR has never been released on Blu-ray. Fortunately, the film is available as a stand-alone DVD and also as one of MGM’s Midnight Movie Double Bill DVDs, paired with TWICE TOLD TALES (an obvious imitation, with Price starring in three episodes based on stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne). The disc offers TALES OF TERROR in a good widescreen (2.35 aspect ratio) transfer. The soundtrack is monophonic with English dialogue, with options for Spanish, French, and German subtitles. The only bonus features are coming attractions trailers for both films. TALES OF TERROR is also available on Netflix Instant View.
TALES OF TERROR (AIP, 1962). Produced and directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Joyce Jameson, Debra Paget, David Frankham, Leona Gage, Maggie Pierce, Wally Campo. Allen DeWitt.
NOTE: This article copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski. Some of the material herein is derived and adapted from the cover story on Vincent Price that Steve Biodrowski co-authored with David Del Valle and Lawrence French for the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique magazine.