19 December 2007

YOU'D THINK WE HAD THE PLAGUE

This was to have been Sunday's post, until I ran afoul of the nefarious "short wait" at Netflix. I apologise for the brutality hereby done to the ordinarily clocklike operation of this blog's schedule.

(Do note that the "keep reading" link is below the "labels" links. I don't know why that is, and in future I hope to fix it).

In 1954, one of the most influential horror authors of the 20th century, Richard Matheson, published what is probably his most important and certainly best-known work: the science fiction/horror novella I Am Legend. It is the story of Robert Neville, a white collar man of no particular distinction who finds himself the last living human being after a terrible pandemic, aided by the devastation caused by a hinted-at nuclear conflict, has turned the rest of humanity into nocturnal hunters feeding on mammal blood and capable of surviving death and indeed returning from the dead. In short, they are vampires, and every night they surround Neville's barricaded home and try to kill the last man on earth.

In I Am Legend, Matheson upended the rules for vampire fiction, largely by giving his creatures a rigorously scientific basis: vampirism is caused by a bacteria that increases UV sensitivity, engenders an allergy to garlic, and all sorts of plausibly odd physical reactions that, in an age before modern medical knowledge, would have seemed like the paranormal. This was all communicated to the reader through the figure of Neville, who we first meet about eight months after the pandemic wiped out the population of Los Angeles, including Neville's wife and daughter. He is just an average man, but an average man with far too much time on his hands, and this drives him to spend most of his days working on the only question that still matters to him: what is vampirism and can it be cured? So we follow him as he forms hypotheses, makes wild and ill-informed guesses that he slowly whittles into a working theory, and figures out too late what the symptomology of the disease is, beyond his extremely limited experience on the receiving end of vampiric bloodlust.

I Am Legend is not a flawless book, but it one of the more intelligent examples of its genre. There are three primary ways in which the story is exceptional: first is its rigorous but entirely readable approach to the science of horror, a sea-change in the genre that could only have come in the back half of the 20th century; second is its unwavering focus on Neville's psychology, primarily as it relates to sexual matters (at the book's start, he is obsessed with the vampire women who try to entice him out of his home by, apparently, stripping; by its end, he is essentially a monk, although almost all of his experiments are conducted on female vampires); third and I think most interestingly, and here I am going to spoil the end of the book, so skip to the next paragraph if you'd like, the story suggests that Neville, the last human, has become the legendary monster that vampires have been for so many centuries (thus the title, which only begins to make sense in the second-to-last paragraph. It's brilliant). He is the outsider who stalks and kills the innocents in their sleep, the evil creature of myth - there is a half-vampire society that has been working for a cure and growing increasingly frightened of the invisible killer of the daylight. Without even seeming to try very hard, Matheson tosses the whole book on its head and knocks out the foundations of the notion that some things are monsters and some things are not.

The book has now been filmed in three major incarnations, and knowing the commercial film industry as we do, it shouldn't come as as surprise that these three primary threads are essentially ignored in every one of those adaptations. Which is not to say that the films are all wastes: there is something compelling about every one of them. But those things are decidedly not the things that are compelling in the book.

Tonight I look at the first two adaptations; the third shall be my subject tomorrow.

The first thing to note about The Last Man on Earth, the first successful attempt to film I Am Legend (Hammer Films attempted to adapt the film only a couple of years after the novel was published, but their treatment proved too controversial even for that studio; thus was it passed on to the Italians, those grand producers of quick, inexpensive, smutty horror), is that co-writer Logan Swanson does not in fact exist. "Logan Swanson" was the one-time pseudonym of none other than Richard Matheson himself, hired to adapt his novel before he was gently replaced. So angry was Matheson at the deviations from his original book that he demanded his name be removed from the credits.

There's more than a little irony in Matheson's pique, given that The Last Man on Earth is unquestionably closer to the source than any of the subsequent films. Like the novel, it begins (in 1968, setting the plague the year after the movie's release; the book sets it 20 years down the road) with a man cleaning up the aftermath of what seems to be a violent attack right on his front lawn, loading dead bodies into his truck and driving them out to a giant pit of fire, passing several other bodies along the way. What are they doing there? What has happened to leave Robert Morgan (Vincent Price)-

-yes, they changed his name. No, there was no earthly reason to. I assume that one of the producers had an ex-wife named Neville, or something.

So there's a good long passage where we see Robert Morgan going about his daily business, and it's so close to perfection that I want to cry. Imagine this as a silent film: we see a man walking around, burning corpses, nailing fresh garlic to his front door, securing the barricades on his windows, and so forth, and for a very long time we have no real knowledge of what is going on. Then the first night comes, and Morgan is tormented by zombie vampires, led by his former colleague Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), and that is the first time we hear sound. Isn't that a hell of a bold way to start up a movie? Sort of like Tarkovsky making a cheapie genre flick? Because that's not The Last Man on Earth. This movie instead has a very insistent string-heavy score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter, and virtually constant voiceover in the first twenty minutes. And it's not even good voiceover; it's the most banal possible stuff for a post-apocalypse film, Vincent Price musing things like "I'll get those bodies later," "Good, it's still fresh," and the like. It's still not spelled out for us, but it's incredibly annoying now. I played a little game: watch the first act with the sound turned off. It made the film significantly better.

So far, so much like the novel, too much like the novel in the case of the voiceover. But there are differences, small ones mostly, and they consistently weaken the film: like making Morgan a medical doctor who was previously part of the team trying to develop an antibody to the vampire bacteria. It strips away the lengthy sequence in the book of Neville building his theory about the disease bit by bit, a sequence that was probably unfilmable; but given that the finished film just gives us all the book's scientific conclusions in one thick block of narration, "filmable" wasn't a major consideration in the film's scripting.

The biggest differences come at the end, when the last man on Earth meets the last woman, a nervous young lady named Ruth (Franca Bettoia). The way this plays out, and the way that Morgan learns that he's been killing the wrong sorts of vampires, are much more visual than the way the book had it, and at the same moment much less suspenseful. The end comes rather fast, with most of the film's plot occurring in the last 30 minutes. It's rather structurally warped, actually: the second act is largely taken up with a long flashback that mercifully saves us from the voiceover, although it also presents as bland facts things that the book treated as mysteries. Then the third act falls over itself in an attempt to wrap things up quickly.

Where the film fails as a narrative - and it fails rather mightily in places - it succeeds as a mood piece. Director Sidney Salkow's career was relentlessly unnoteworthy - a lot of TV westerns in the decade running up to this film - and nothing about The Last Man on Earth suggests that he was some kind of lost master of the horror genre, but within its extremely modest scope it does quite a few things very nicely. In particular, the interiors are all both bland and claustrophobic, not "threatening" so much as "suffocating," and it's in this way that the true agony of being the last man on Earth is made clear to us. The mores of the times meant that the meat of Matheson's novel - the sickness Morgan/Neville feels at killing people that turns into a sort of banal workaday mindset, and the psychosexual anguish he feels every time he sees a woman - had to be cut out, and Salkow does a good enough job at latching onto what remains: the frustration at feeling trapped inside the same four walls for all time, hearing the muffled taunts of Death just outside.

The few scenes that are played for scares work, particularly the film and novel's emotional centerpiece, in which Robert's wife, dead in the plague, comes back for him. The film has to be less explicit, but it makes up for this in a truly excellent use of sound, the woman's cries of "let me in" just barely audible over the wind. Throughout, the use of lighting calls to mind the Universal films of the '30s and from thence the German films of the '20s, and while nothing is all that frightening about them, they're surely very brooding and Gothic.

All in all, though, it's Price's film. He's not an actor who hardly ever comes across as subtle, and I almost can't bring myself to say it about him; but it's true. Even with all the purple lines of narration, he never drifts into his customary broadness, and the simple way he carries his body, constantly slumped over, with massive, craggy bags under his eyes, brings out the constant weariness of Morgan's life far more than all the overly-expository dialogue in the world could ever hope. The few times that he does lash out, it's the rich and plummy tones that we know and love from the actor, but something much nastier and animalistic - fitting the film's idea that Morgan, in trying to retain his human-ness, has been forced to renounce his humanity. It's Prices' great performance, close to the best in his career, that pushes the movie from decent horror for the day to being a straight-up classic.

A quintessential product of the early 1970s and the characteristic sci-fi of the era, the one thing that you can't say about 1971's The Omega Man is that it tries too hard to hew to the book. Except for the central concept - and that only vaguely - this film has essentially nothing in common with Matheson's novel: as scripted by John & Joyce Carrington (later to write Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Martin Scorsese's studio debut, the kind of awful Boxcar Bertha) this is the story of Robert Neville, given his name back and played now by Charlton Heston, who lives in a nice LA loft packed to the gills with decorations and luxuries. By day he hunts for clothes and cars, and treats himself to private screenings of Woodstock, apparently the only film playing in Los Angeles at the time of the plague in 1975 (the year being another reversion to the source material not found in the Price movie). By night he stares out his window at the rest of "mankind": robed technophobic cultists with rotting flesh led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), anxious to kill the last of the "people of the wheel" as they call the humans still using the technology that permitted the bio-warfare which caused their half-dead state. They have a particularly strong hatred for Neville, as he was a military chemist back in the times when there was an American military, and he received the only dose of a highly experimental treatment for the disease, leaving him immune to its effects.

The fact that The Omega Man goes so very far afield from the novel is at least part of what makes it a reasonably successful entry in the typically dubious post-apocalypse genre that was so prevalent in the '70s. The other part is Heston, who on paper seems like he'd be woefully wrong for the part, excepting that all of his usual weaknesses, primarily his square-jawed inability to emote, are benefits to this film's vision of Neville. He's not tormented and alone, so much as he is a wiseass, befitting a tone that is significantly less dark than Matheson's source novel. It is a breezy film about the death of mankind in a way that only the '70s could have provided us, and it requires a breezy sort of last man. In other words, if Price had spent his days watching Woodstock over and over, it would have wrecked the mood of the film past repair, but when Heston does it, my only question is why he'd bother with a damn hippie movie like that.

I don't mean to suggest that The Omega Man is some kind of end-times laff riot; indeed, it's much more serious than I Am Legend/The Last Man on Earth, in that where those are experimentations in narrative points of view and genre expectations, this film is a Christ allegory. The source material already had the vague idea that Neville's blood held the key to saving humanity; but that idea is much expanded on here, Neville is asked point-blank by a little girl if he is God, and the final shot is, let us say, crucifabulous. The '70s were just awesome like that: you could blend Big Themes with funkiness, and nobody minded much. Although I can't imagine that even when it was new, people didn't have a big problem with the garish, pop-inflected score that pretty much undermines everything whenever it is playing.

At heart, I think that Heston's presence has more to do with it than anything. Price, no question, is a hambone, but Heston is kitschy. (Was that the case in 1971? I have no idea. I can only call them as I see them from 35+ years on). He makes any film a little creakier and more old-timey, adding just that tiny soupçon of over-the-top manliness to make things seem much more heightened and silly.

And yet (you had to know that I was going to trot out an "and yet"), The Omega Man is hardly a silly movie. It's quite nihilistic, more so than the Logan's Runs and Soylent Greens that were to come, and for this I credit the amazing production design of the film - although it's probably not right to call it "production design," given that it's just the city of Los Angeles playing itself. Director Boris Sagal (a man with an even less distinguished career than Sidney Salkow's) hit upon an idea of almost unimaginable simplicity, one so brilliant that Danny Boyle stole it outright when directing his spiritual remake 28 Days Later some three decades in the future: shooting the big city early on weekend mornings gives you a great many chances to film streets and plazas and stores that are literally empty of human life. LA is a scary and lonely place when it's vacant, and the film makes great use of that. Abandoned cars and lifeless bodies are everywhere, and where The Last Man on Earth mostly contented itself to show a man trapped in an oppressive suburban home, The Omega Man gets most of its effect from showing the city - the pinnacle of human beings milling about and getting in each other's way - without a trace of life.

That's enough to make the film close on to a masterpiece, but the mise en scène can't overcome the rather awkward kinks in the plot. The hooded crazies aren't terrible in concept, and Anthony Zerbe brings a frightening intensity that contrsts nicely to Heston, but sacrificing the cannibalism angle takes a lot of the threat out of their villainy, and the albino makeup effects are not all that convincing. That's nothing on the development where the film wholly abandons Matheson, introducing Neville to a group of survivalists led by the vaguely defined Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and pre-med student Dutch (Paul Koslo). The inevitable love subplot that crops up between Lisa and Neville is too self-conscious in its nifty early-'70s race politicking, and even if it weren't, the very concept of a love story tends to imbalance the idea that Neville is besieged. It's the clearest example of the film's great problem: there just isn't enough danger here, and Neville seems perfectly content with his life just the way it is, the ultimate bachelor's existence in a city that is his for the taking.

There's just no urgency here, which is honestly not a fatal flaw. But it is a flaw, and it keeps the film from hitting the nightmarish heights of the book or the much smaller bad dream hills of The Last Man on Earth. Basically, instead of exploring man's role in a post-apocalyptic world, it is a fun movie with some serious ideas. That's not bad, but it keeps the film from transcending itself. It adds a sense of play to Matheson's framework, and thereby crowds out the most unsettling elements of his writing, the elements that made it a masterpiece in the first place.

4 comments:

Ellen said...

LA is a scary and lonely place when it's vacant

I think that's the case of pretty much any city, though. The one image that stuck with me from Vanilla Sky (and that Heroes was blatantly ripping off this year in the virus-future) is that of a completely empty Times Square. Anyplace normally teeming with humanity that's suddenly devoid of it is rather creepy.

Also, I'd argue that L.A. specifically can be even scarier when it's filled with its delightful denizens. And that's coming from a sicko who actually enjoys living here.

Rebecca said...

I'm amused that you mention Logan's Run, which is yet another example of a 70's sci-fi film that takes a loose concept from a book and runs away screaming from the themes (and plot) in the opposite direction. Though I would have to say it's still nihilistic, especially the end of the film, which is most likely the polar opposite of the end of the book. And now I'm going to go mumble some more about *that* remake...

Tim said...

"And now I'm going to go mumble some more about *that* remake..."

OH MY GOD, SAY YOU'RE LYING.

Rebecca said...

Heh.