Sunday, May 2, 2021

Clash of the Schlockmeisters 3: Revenge of the Stiffs!

Once upon a time there was an absolutely brilliant science fiction and horror writer named Richard Matheson. You know his work, even if you don’t immediately recognize his name: a quick glance at his list of film credits on IMDB should elicit at least a few gasps of surprise, as a tremendous number of his novels and short stories were adapted for movies or television scripts and he did a lot of work adapting other writers’ stories to screenplays as well. 

When looking at his bio on IMDB, bear in mind also that this is just a list of his work in visual media. In the 1950s he was a regular contributor to Galaxy, F&SF, and the rest of the pulp magazines, producing quite a few stories that continue to show up in “Hall of Fame”-type short story anthologies, and he wrote a bunch of novels that continue to live on in screenplay adaptations. Rather than recapitulate his entire career here, though, I’ll just point you to his Wikipedia page if you want to learn more, and finish with my assertion that if you’re an aspiring science fiction or horror writer and you don’t know Richard Matheson’s work, you should, if only to keep yourself from trying to rewrite stories he was writing and selling to magazines and as TV series scripts 60 to 70 years ago.

Which brings us to today’s topic. In 1954 Matheson wrote a clever little vampire/zombie horror novel entitled I Am Legend. This novel has been adapted to film three times: first as the 1964 Vincent Price film, The Last Man on Earth, again in 1971 as the Charlton Heston film, The Omega Man, and at last under its original title as the 2007 Will Smith film, I Am Legend.

The Vincent Price version is both the most faithful to the original novel and surprisingly good, for being a Vincent Price film. Apparently Matheson liked working with Vincent Price, as he wrote the screenplays for Roger Corman’s 1960s series of Edgar Allan Poe movies, all of which starred Price.

After The Last Man on Earth, though, true to Hollywood, the subsequent remakes continued to drift further and further from the original source material, until the use of the original title for the 2007 Will Smith version begins to seem like an ironic joke. So to kick off today’s discussion:

1. Which of these three films is the version most worth watching now? 

2. Which is the version best avoided? 

3. Did you know that The Last Man on Earth is in the public domain now, and that you can download or stream a fully legit copy from The Internet Archive?

4. For that matter, did you know that The Internet Archive exists, and that you can find an amazing amount of public domain material there? If not, why not?

5. Finally, given that Will Smith’s character didn’t just die but blew himself to little bits at the end of I Am Legend, what is your reaction to the news (I am not making this up) that Will Smith has signed on to star in the “Untitled I Am Legend Reboot,” which is currently in development?

The challenge has been presented. Have at them, hammer and tongs. And always remember:

Have fun!

See you tomorrow,


Pete Wood said...

I love Richard Matheson. I am Legend is the rare apocalyptic zombie story where the main character thinks rationally and tries to figure out what to do using the scientific method. And he's not a scientist. Just a sensible guy.
All three of the movies are bad. The only one I would want to watch again is the Omega Man, because Charlton Heston and Anthony Zerbe are so much damned fun to watch as last man on Earth and head zombie. No shortage of scenery chewing.
All three versions dispense with Matheson's logical plot. Price's version is the most faithful, but it still takes huge liberties.
Smith's version embraces full idiot plot with nobody--NOBODY-- acted rationally. Not the zombies, not Smith, not the government in flashbacks. The army's "plan" to tackle the virus is almost as bad as the plan in 28 Weeks Later. Almost.
Read the novella.

Slothrop said...

And let’s not forget the Simpson’s version!

Pete Wood said...

The Homega Man!!! Yes. Undoubtedly the best adaption.

~brb said...

In an amazing coincidence I was flipping through the channels last night looking for something worth watching, and MeTV was running Matheson's Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Which of course inspired the Simpsons version, “Terror at 5 1/2 Feet.”

I think we've stumbled onto an important principle here. Just as musicians used to consider it proof that you'd really made it when Weird Al Yankovic parodied one of your songs, maybe for writers, that's the badge of ultimate success: when The Simpsons turns one of your stories into a Treehouse of Horror episode. said...

So, we're waiting for Pacifier Crash...HomeCrash?

Mr. Naron said...

Pete, does our governments handling of the COVID virus redeem the Smith version just a little?

One of my earliest memories is of Omega Man. (Slightly less disturbing than the Billy Jack movies.) I’ll have to do a Matheson marathon next week after school fizzles out.