Richard Matheson At The Movies
Fifty Years of Richard Matheson Films: A Critical Overview
By Michael McCarty
Richard Matheson’s name is synonymous with classic creepy cinema and television, including masterpieces for The Twilight Zone and for TV movies produced by Dan Curtis, such as The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, and the early Steven Spielberg vehicle, Duel. Also, Matheson has written a number of screenplays based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Here are some of the best Matheson movies based on his own books for the last fifty years:
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Just a year after the publication of The Shrinking Man, Matheson wrote the screenplay from his own book. The script turned giant-monster movies of the 1950s (The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and numerous behemoth bug flicks) on their heads. Scott Carey (played by Grant Williams) is a victim of the effects of silvery flakes of atomic radiation. As he begins to shrink smaller and smaller, his new size causes everyday objects to take on sinister meaning, and he must fight for his life in an increasingly hostile world.
The movie was directed by Jack Arnold, who did such great genre films as It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, with special effects by Clifford Stine. This is a philosophical thriller and a timeless science-fiction classic.
The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), I am Legend (2007)
The Last Man on Earth is the first adaptation of I am Legend – without the use of Matheson’s own screenplay. Hammer Films originally purchased the rights to the novel and hired the author to work on the screenplay. However, the British censor’s office let it be known the movie would be banned in England. Hammer stopped the project.
Besides Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, Matheson’s novella I am Legend is one of the most intriguing, imaginative, and influential vampire stories ever written (George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was inspired by the work).
Vincent Price is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that has turned the rest of the planet’s population into vampires. After sunset, he barricades himself against the bloodsuckers that surround his home. During the day he gathers garlic, makes stakes, and destroys vampires.
Price was perfect for the role. I especially enjoy the scenes with him playing loud jazz music and drinking plenty of alcohol to drown out the noise of the vampires trying to break in. His past, however, still plagues him. It’s a creepy, atmospheric thriller that works despite its low budget. The best moments occur when Price is just driving along dismal streets cluttered with the dead.
The Last Man on Earth is recommended, but more recommended is Matheson’s novella. In 1971, the film was remade with a bigger budget and in color as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, but the movie was even further away from Matheson’s material.
The third adaptation of I am Legend has more of a budget than The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man combined. Will Smith plays humanity’s sole survivor in an isolated New York City battling the infected, who are more like the zombies in 30 Days Later or 30 Months Later than the vampires in the other two films.
The beginning is sort of a rip-off of 12 Monkeys. In a post-apocalyptic America, lions are roaming freely in New York City. The movie does get better from that point. Will Smith does an incredible job, the special effects are outstanding and at the heart of the film, this version’s background is probably the closest to the actual story. But even so, I am Legend, the Richard Matheson novella, is still the best of the bunch.
The Legend of Hell House (1975)
A multi-millionaire hires a team of scientists and mediums to investigate his newly acquired haunted mansion. The creepy homestead has been the site of several grisly deaths and may hold clues to the secrets of the afterlife. Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, and Gayle Hunnicutt play the investigators who roam the dire dwelling and battle various manifestations (some great special effects by Roy Whybrow) emanating from–
Oops! Almost gave away the surprise ending!
Matheson wrote the screenplay from his novel Hell House, a suspenseful supernatural screamfest. Make plenty of popcorn if you rent this video.
Somewhere in Time (1980)
Christopher Reeves (in his first post-Clark Kent role) plays a playwright who falls in love with a beautiful woman – the lovely Jane Seymour – depicted in an old portrait. Through self-hypnosis, he goes back in time to 1912 to discover what their relationship might have been.
A romantic science-fiction tale, Somewhere in Time actually made a star of a building – the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Lake Michigan, where the movie was shot. This highly atmospheric tearjerker is based on Richard Matheson’s novel, Bid Time Return.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Oscar-winner Robin Williams does a brilliant job in this dazzling special effects-laden fantasy about how love can survive death, and how Heaven and Hell can’t stop true romance. Cuba Gooding, Jr. also does a remarkable job in his supporting role. The special effects are mind-blowing, sometimes overshadowing this classic story. The title is a William Shakespeare reference (Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1). Overall, a class act worth checking out.
Stir of Echoes (1999)
Kevin Bacon plays a blue-collar man in Chicago. After being hypnotized at a neighborhood party, he sees things he can’t explain and hears voices he can’t ignore. Echoes of past crimes haunt his mind. He plunges into a shattering encounter with a dead girl, and his world is never the same again.
The film was eclipsed by the success of The Sixth Sense, which was released about the same time. Stir of Echoes is the creepier of the two. It is a chilling classic based on Matheson’s novel, A Stir of Echoes.
Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Dan Curtis, Elvira, Forry Ackerman and many more are interviewed in MODERN MYTHMAKERS: 35 Interviews With Horror Writers & Filmmakers
Barnes & Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/modern-mythmakers-michael-mccarty/1008846244?ean=2940153349589&quickview=true