Halloween season is in full swing, and after last year’s Covid-based, no trick-or-treating mandate, 2021 is looking up to be an, albeit cautious, return to normal. At least no one will whine about masks. It’s Halloween! We’re all wearing masks, so shut the f#&% up. Anyway, let’s talk about some Halloweeny stuff, and then, after Halloween, we’ll continue talking about Halloweeny stuff, ‘cause I’m all about the Halloweeny stuff.
Let’s start with the novel, Dracula, written by Bram Stoker in 1897. When it comes to horror novels, Dracula is the big magilla, the King Kong of vampire novels. Accepting that premise, it is therefore safe to say that Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is the Planet Of The Apes of vampire novels. Dracula tells the tale of a single, almighty vampire, and Legend has a whole bunch of them taking over the planet. I Am Legend, like Apes, was also made into a groovy, far out, sci-fi epic starring Charlton Heston. We’re talking about 1971’s The Omega Man. Coming hot on the heels of Beneath The Planet Of The Apes in the heavily sideburned and widely bell-bottomed late 60’s/early 70’s, The Omega Man marked Heston’s third foray into science fiction, and his first attempt at a Blaxploitation movie.
Huh the wha?!?!
FADE IN: Southern California, 1954. Richard Matheson has just published his vampire novel I Am Legend. Matheson is famously a member of a small group of writers known as The Southern California Sorcerers. Formed in the early 50’s, the Sorcerers interests ran towards intelligent, well-crafted, sci-fi, horror and fantasy. Their membership includes, among others, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson and William F Nolan. Bradbury and Serling are household names, and if the other names seem familiar, you’ve probably seen them in the credits of The Twilight Zone or Star Trek or any one of the legion of movies or television shows they wrote.
Matheson’s resume alone is jaw-dropping, having penned scripts for The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, The Night Gallery, The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, Duel, Trilogy Of Terror, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The House Of Usher, The Pit And The Pendulum, Somewhere In Time, and on and on. But it was I Am Legend that announced his presence with a roar.
Legend tells the tale of a bedraggled suburban everyman named Robert Neville, who happens to be the last human being alive on Earth. Everyone else has fallen victim to a global pandemic, which, in a timely twist, also originated from a bat. But in I Am Legend, the resulting disease is called Vampirism. In the novel, the world’s population has been reduced to vampires, corpses and Robert Neville. Matheson’s genius is in taking this fantastical idea and breaking down how it would actually work. The mundane details of how Neville survives from day to day are painstakingly laid out. He has to burn all the corpses that litter the streets, his home must be a fortress, his generator, food and water supplies must be serviced, replenished and always secure. His health, physical, dental, and most importantly mental, must be monitored and maintained. And he has to do all of this by sundown, because once it gets dark, they come out.
One aspiring writer who read I Am Legend was a very young Stephen King, who later wrote of its author, “He fired my imagination by placing his horrors not in European castles and Lovecraftian universes, but in American scenes I knew and could relate to. “I want to do that,” I thought. “I must do that.” Matheson showed the way.”
Another person who read the book was a very famous actor named Charlton Heston. According to writer Jeff Bond, writing in Cinefantastique, the novel was given to Heston by no less than Orson Welles, who suggested it as a potential project for Heston following their collaboration on Touch Of Evil. The star was taken by the story and gave it to his friend and collaborator, producer Walter Seltzer.
And then the years ticked by, as they do, and before you can say, “Damn you all to hell!” it’s 1967 and The Summer Of Love. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band is dominating the airwaves, The Doors are the house band at L.A.’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go and across town at Fox, Charlton Heston is filming a daring science fiction epic (whose first draft script was written by Matheson’s old boss, Rod Serling), called Planet Of The Apes.
Apes was released in the spring of ’68 and became a smash hit. Heston had previously stayed away from science fiction, feeling the roles for actors in the genre consisted mainly of running away from something or pointing up at something else. But Apes’ astronaut George Taylor was a fascinating character with a real dramatic arc, and so too, he felt, was Matheson’s solitary survivalist, Robert Neville. With his simian success behind him, the time was right to put Matheson’s tale on screen.
Seltzer and Heston pitched the story to Warner Bros who sparked to the idea. Unfortunately, and ironically given the subject matter, Heston discovered… he was not alone. I Am Legend was already a movie! It was already two movies, actually, if you count George Romero’s Legend-influenced Night Of The Living Dead. But years before the first zombie foot staggered onto Pittsburgh soil, Vincent Price had played Robert Neville in a quickie Italian spookfest entitled The Last Man On Earth. Matheson even wrote the script, but was unhappy with the resulting film and changed his name in the credits to Logan Swanson. In a 2004 interview with writer William Simmons, Matheson claimed, “I think Vincent Price, who I love in every one of his pictures that I wrote, was miscast. I also felt the direction was kind of poor. I just didn’t care for it. “
He wasn’t alone, writing in his journals at the time, published in 1978 as, The Actor’s Life, Heston said, “I can’t see how such a soporific film could’ve come from such a promising piece. It’s incredibly botched; totally unfrightening, ill-acted, sloppily written and photographed. Let’s see if we can do better.”
Time has been kinder to the Last Man On Earth than Mr. Heston. The poster hangs in my garage if you’re curious as to my feelings about it, but flaws and all, it motivated Heston and Seltzer to make a bigger, better film, and to that end, it was an important influence on what would become The Omega Man.
There were two other films, released that same year, which would also bear influence on Heston’s earnest attempt to out-lonely Vincent Price. Two films you would not think would come up in relation to an end-of-the-world vampire movie: Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and the Richard Roundtree-starring, genre-defining blaxploitaion hit, Shaft.
Can you dig it?
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