Saturday, December 29, 2007

"These are my Friends..."

'Tis the Season to Be Bloody...

What a bountiful harvest of horrors we've had this season! Though I've had little time to write about 'em, I must say I've enjoyed my time in the cinemas of late with the horror movies we've been blessed with. Sure, they're all major studio productions and adaptations and/or sequels at that, but still, it's been fun.

I've savored many, from Frank Darabont's fine adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist (along with its other virtues, it's the best 'big bug' movie since Paul Verhoeven's brilliant adapt of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers) to Tim Burton's compact, absolutely sterling version of Steven Sondheim's exquisite Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which even my squeamish wife Marjory enjoyed -- for the music, atmosphere and performances, not the blood, of which there's plenty. This is instantly among my fave Tim Burton films, right up there with Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!, Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, though if you've an aversion to musicals, be warned. Your loss!

More on Sweeney -- as in Todd as well as Tod (Slaughter, that is) -- and the Sweeney-that-almost-was in Taboo in a future post!

I'm catching the new AVP (Alien Vs. Predator) opus sometime this weekend -- I have absolutely no expectations, unlike my CCS students! -- but I stole time to catch a matinee of I Am Legend yesterday, which I enjoyed for most of its running time despite growing reservations. 30 Days of Night still tops it, I have to say, for a multitude of reasons. Most of all, it's too bad that Richard Matheson's source novel remains in need of a proper adaptation -- but still, a game try, and I enjoyed my time with the movie.

In a nutshell, I Am Legend casts Will Smith -- as scientist Robert Neville -- adrift in Manhattan, on his lonesome save for his trusty companion Sam (short for Samantha, a personable German Shephard played by two dogs, one named Kona, which I find amusing as an old Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle comics fan) and a horde of daylight-shunning vampires. As with all end-of-the-world urban epics, large or small, since Arch Oboler's Five (1951) and the first half-hour of The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959) -- in which Harry Belafonte was the lone African-American wandering an eerily vacant Manhattan -- it's this first third of I Am Legend that truly works.

Given the new state-of-the-art CGI enhancements, these vistas of a partially-overgrown, quarantined and utterly desolate NYC are the equal of any in cinema. The inclusion of wildlife -- an inventive grace note in Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys fleshed out here quite nicely -- adds immeasurably to the proceedings, and propels portions of the film's first third into evocative extrapolations of the best post-apocalyptic pulp, including the venerable Gold Key/Frank Thorne comics series The Mighty Samson of the '60s and Jack Kirby's Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth of the '70s. So far, so good: director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) and credited screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman are firing on all cylinders here, keeping the pace measured and storytelling (punctuated by Neville's flashbacks to his final moments with his wife and daughter during the evacuation of Manhattan) precise. In all this, the synthesis of their creative team -- Andrew Lesnie's crisp, expansive cinematography, Wayne Wahrman's editing, and James Newton Howard's score primary among those -- is perfectly orchestrated and attuned to the narrative.

Robert Neville (Will Smith) and Sam, facing off a pissed-off vampire and his canine companions

Then, the monsters intrude. At this point, the film should soar to a new level, but -- it doesn't. It's as if the writers suddenly misplaced their copy of the novel, or were so intent upon eschewing the misfires of the John and Joyce Corrington script for the previous botched Warner Bros. adaptation (The Omega Man, 1971) that they simply lost their way. In fact, much of the groundwork is effectively laid: Neville's assumption that the vampires aren't intelligent, his (neatly staged) abduction of a female vampire elevating her infuriated mate to potential villain status, etc. But Protosevich and Goldsman and whoever else was involved in the multiple stages of development hell this script spun through drop the threads they're weaving, and director Lawrence allows the vacuum to grow, as if the black-ice staging would keep the audience sufficiently offkilter to forgive or forget the unraveling narrative. More on this in a moment, below.

So, I can see why this is pulling in the audiences, but leaving many cold. The setup is a knockout: the blowing of the bridges to quarantine Manhattan is a resonant nightmare scenario, Smith is a likable hero and gives his all, the premise is as engaging now as it was when Matheson put pen to paper over half-a-century ago. But the end result falls short; still, you'd think the critics were writing about some other movie. The plague-apocalypse scenario, along with I Am Legend's kinetics, fast-moving undead and insistent oral imagery (the vampire's jaws stretch like yowling banshees) prompted many myopic critics to write this off as an imitation of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later -- forgetting , of course, that it was Matheson's novel that inspired and predated all the zombie apocalypse films of the past four decades, including the grandpappy of 'em all, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).

There's absolutely no truth to the rumor that Warner Bros. was considering releasing this in some southern markets as A Boy and His Dog. OK, ouch, sorry -- skip this caption. Read the rest, below, they're much more informative.

My problem is the vampires: they aren't characters. They're yawning, skittering ciphers, more insect-like than human, but not in an effectively disturbing manner, and certainly not in a way that registered with my perceptions or consciousness. They don't register as beings, much less characters, and the fashion of this CGI era we're in of creatures sans any semblance of flesh or blood physics leaves me colder than that shivering hyperventilating female bloodsucker on ice in Neville's basement lab.

[Spoiler Alert: Skip the blue paragraphs if you haven't seen the movie yet!]

As if entranced by the effects -- and hoping we will be, too -- the script and director go along with this complete lack of characterization of its primary menace, despite the fact that the necessary elements are in all place. Consider:

* The trap sprung on Neville demonstrating how wrong he is in his assumption the infected have lost cognitive ability;
* The assertion of lead 'villain' status upon the male mate to the female Neville is experimenting upon, who (one reasonably assumes, though the film never confronts the plot point) is simply intent upon rescuing his partner from Neville's "House of Pain" (to apply that venerable H.G. Wells moniker here), and leads a literal army of his infected kind to do so;
* The final act's buildup, in which Neville has what the lead vampire might consider a 'surrogate mate' now in tow, and which still has all the essential narrative components in place sufficient to:
* -- culminate in a climactic confrontation with Neville in the basement lab, involving both captive female partners -- and where, I kept hoping, some articulation of the unspoken role Neville has assumed (he is a monster to the vampires, conducting Nazi-like experiments on the infected) would unfold;
* In which the impressive rescue mission Neville's vampire nemesis has mounted would be acknowledged as a rescue mission;
* In which some meaningful play, or action, or dialogue between Neville and the vampire leader would ensue;
* In which the context for Neville, for the vampire society, for Matheson's final line of the novel and for the film's title would at last be asserted, restored, or simply used with some emotional impact.

-- but, no. The nameless vampire master just keeps slamming his fucking self against the glass wall, howling, and we're thrust into a dim echo of The Omega Man's ending. Neville's status as the feared Josef Mengele of the vampire society is only obliquely acknowledged (via a fleeting dialogue exchange when photos of all the failed experiments are revealed), and nothing but nothing comes of all these narrative points which have become glaring chasms in the fiery finale.

[An aside: the coda, set in Bethel, VT -- a real Vermont town, nestled in hilly country at the edge of the Green Mountains, just off I-89 about a half hour or so north of my current home base, is also laughable to we locals. The aerial shot introducing the coda reveals a perfectly flat autumn-colored woodland, leading to the final shot of a military-fortified Bethel; this was footage was actually shot in and around West Amwell, New Jersey, and it looks it. West Amwell Town Clerk Lora Olsen confirmed this in an email to me earlier today: "...the I Am Legend film crews were in Mt. Airy for a couple days in early November." Yow! Early November shoot for a film released in December; this production was clearly a pressure cooker, or the coda was a last-minute decision. Lora concludes, "The road from the village to the high school (Mt. Airy-Harbourton Road) was closed--a distance of about 1 1/2 miles--during the day." Thanks, Lora!]

[End of Spoiler Alert.]

Mind you, this isn't me aching for a narrative that isn't there -- this is me yearning for the film to tell its own story, the story the film itself is presenting without successfully articulating even its explicit components. This is sadly typical of major studio genre films today.

The Warner Bros. adaptation that wasn't: during its turbulent development history, the project was linked with Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven and the Gov.

Seasoned vet monster designer Patrick Tatopoulis and his firm, Tatopoulos Design Studios (working within tight deadlines with Sony Pictures Imageworks and Gentle Giant Studios), concocted the all-CGI vampires. Reportedly built upon the key design for the lead vampire (the 'alpha male'), the infected -- with their veined marbled skin, extended limbs and somewhat silly stretchy jaws -- may satisfy video gamers, but left this 52-year-old monster movie fan duly unimpressed. Initially, the infected were to be embodied by live-action performers sporting prosthetic makeup effects, enhanced by selected computer-generated effects; this worked beautifully in 30 Days of Night, where actor Danny Huston's lead vampire grounds that entire film with remarkable presence. But of course, that feature also benefited from a stronger script and focus on characterization, which is what in the end foils I Am Legend.

The single scariest shot of the movie remains a flashlight-lit glimpse of a pack of these grub-skinned revenants with their backs to Smith (and us) in an otherwise pitch-black interior, preoccupied with feeding on a deer carcass they've snatched; this, the first look we're given of the Manhattan minions of the undead, works like a charm, though it's immediately defused by -- well, never mind. That shot is a goose-pimple inducing honey. I also dug the infected canines that figure in the first turning-of-the-tables between Neville and the nominal, unnamed undead nemesis, who really should register as a character instead of a gargoyle.

After that, alas, the computer-game vampire imagery takes over, and seems to infect the whole production with a progressive dumbing-down of what was best about, and possible for, the film up to that point. Let's put it this way: though the 'alpha female' Neville experiments upon has far more screen time than either the writhing female half-zombie of Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead or the emaciated vampire-astronaut-on-a-slab in Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1986) -- both animatronic puppets -- the I Am Legend vampire isn't allowed any bond with the audience: she's just a hyperventilating, screeching 'thing' -- we see her as Neville sees her, and the movie never transcends that objectifying lack of empathy. This is emblematic of the paucity of imagination that undoes the film: by failing to empathize in any way with its monsters (again, in every way 30 Days of Night is its superior in this department), the film paradoxically cuts itself off from Neville at the very point we should be arriving at revelations about his character. By the end, any relevance or resonance remaining from Matheson's source material has evaporated, the Bob Marley music and new context for the titular last line as adrift as Neville was in the mesmerizing opening.

The back cover of this lovely Bantam paperback edition features the same blac-and-white image with colored block type screaming: I AM THE LAST MAN ON EARTH! I AM NOT INSANE! I DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH LONGER I CAN LAST OUT! This lad couldn't resist it, opening the door to my reading many, many more Matheson classics.

Matheson's I Am Legend (1954) is the Robinson Crusoe of 1950s post-apocalyptic sf novels, and just as essential a read. While almost all Cold War apocalyptic fiction involved (at least in their final chapters) the cooperative efforts of fellow survivors and/or the coalescing of new communities, Matheson's I Am Legend sustained the plight and blight of its lone survivor for the duration, mounting a pragmatic, relentless portrait of that isolation.

Furthermore, the 'plague victims' were indeed vampires, and nothing but. Matheson's ingenious rationalizations of vampire legend and lore laid out the first believable biological premise for the archetype. No one has done it better since, few have tried.

[An aside: In fact, it was the invented physiology of I Am Legend Alan Moore adopted wholly for our Saga of the Swamp Thing 'water vampires' two-parter (of which I only penciled part two); I have very fond memories of walking on a sunny day with Alan, John Totleben and my two-year-old daughter Maia on the road and in the woods around our old Wilmington, VT, Chimney Hill development home during Alan's one and only visit to Vermont, brainstorming that sequel to the Marty Pasko/Tom Yeates vampire village issue earlier in the Swamp Thing run. It was Matheson's notion of vampire physiology Alan and I recalled during that walk (as a delighted little Maia Rose took Alan's hand and my own and swung happily between us as we walked and chatted about why staking vampires killed them in I Am Legend), and which Alan ultimately used. So, a personal creative debt to Matheson, duly noted.]

Matheson's hero is Robert Neville, the apparent lone survivor of a pandemic who spends his nights barricaded in his house-as-fortress (as concise a metaphor for America's xenophobic Cold War bunker existence you'll find in 1954), protected by an abundance of crosses and garlic. Yes, the menace outside is real -- the vampires are genuine, not imagined -- but the greatest threat to Neville is the relentless loneliness and despair that eats at him. By day, Neville juggles his time between repairing and reinforcing his fortress/home, scientific research into the possible cause (and a potential cure) for the vampirism plague, and methodically scouring the neighborhood for comatose sleeping vampires; once found, he stakes them through the heart. Ya, it's a bummer existence, to say the least.

Understandably depressed and filled with remorse, the haunted Neville gets through the nights of fruitless vampire attacks on his fortress by getting plastered on scotch and cranking up the classical music on his stereo to drown out the sounds of the undead screaming and pounding. Eventually, somewhere amid this, he sleeps -- haunted by memories and dreams of his family's demise and the loss of all he once knew and held dear.

There are, of course, complications -- which I'll leave it to you to discover by reading the novel yourself (Matheson does characterize his 'monsters,' with deft skill that lends the novel the truly mythic scope that eludes every single film adaptation). Suffice to say that it’s Neville’s tenacity in spite of his dire situation and growing despair that make this a terrific novel. Matheson excelled at this kind of intensive, introspective characterization; in this, Neville is a companion to Matheson's The Shrinking Man, another Crusoe-like hero exiled via his condition to mounting alienation, loneliness, dread and despair as he shrinks. In I Am Legend, Neville deals with the utter solitude of his fortress because only certain death waits outside, at times almost succumbing to the inevitable death-wise he can satisfy by simply staying outside after sundown.

The covers for the first British Corgi Books paperback edition of I Am Legend

Matheson's novels and short stories are vividly cinematic. Though it took decades for his excellent A Stir of Echoes to reach the screen, Universal-International's success adapting The Shrinking Man (as Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957) prompted interest in I Am Legend amid the horror revival of the late '50s, launched largely by the one-two punch of the revolutionary color, eroticized Hammer Films resurrections of Frankenstein (Curse of Frankenstein, 1957) and Dracula (The Horror of Dracula, 1958). In fact, it was Hammer that first optioned and planned an adaptation of Matheson's sf vampire novel, at some point registering the title Night Creatures for that production (a title later affixed to the US release of Hammer's lively adaptation of Russell Thorndike's 1915 novel Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, which Hammer entitled Captain Clegg, 1963). Alas, reportedly due to objections from the censors (though accounts differ as to why and when this occurred), Hammer abandoned their efforts and the first official adaptation remains Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow's black-and-white L'ultimo uomo della Terra/The Last Man on Earth (1964).

"Morgan!": The reaching hand was a horror movie staple since the silent era (e.g., serials like The Clutching Hand, 'old dark house' horror movies like The Cat and the Canary, etc.), but siege-horror was essentially introduced in the 1958 gems The Killer Shrews and Fiend Without a Face -- both informing Romero's Night of the Living Dead imagery and staging in ways similar to the night sieges of the more obvious precursor, L'ultimo uomo della Terra/The Last Man on Earth.

The Last Man on Earth has had a sour reputation for generations, undeservedly so. Granted, it falls far, far short of the imagined movie Matheson's novel so powerfully evokes in the reader's mind -- as has every film adaptation, including the new one -- and it was that crashing disappointment that resulted in the immediate genre fan dismissal of the film when it opened. Matheson was understandably unhappy with it himself, and has said many unkind things over the years. Yes, it's a low budget Italian film; yes, the chalky-face makeup and special effects (including a risibly floppy spear in the climactic impalement that really undercuts the staging of the climax) are crude. However, the uncaring pan-and-scan transfer and often murky 16mm, TV and duped prints further degraded the imagery, robbing the film of the clarity and scope of its original widescreen theatrical visuals, making it look more impoverished a production than it ever was. Star Vincent Price delivers a measured, convincing 'everyman' performance that grounds the film, and the screenplay adheres to much of what made Matheson's novel resonate -- including, alone of all the film adaptations, the true context and impact of the book's final line and its title: "I Am Legend."

[Note: There's a studio failure of will that diminishes so many classic science fiction adaptations: a timidity about the irrevocable change most key sf novels embrace. This is the failure of two of the three theatrical adaptations of I Am Legend -- they don't want to depict the irreversible cultural shift Matheson charts. Neville becomes legend because he is literally the last of his breed: man is no more. That is clearly not the tale Warner Bros. wishes to tell in either studio adaptation -- "so why adapt the book?," one wonders.

Another case in point: despite all the variations in many media on Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, originally published three years before Matheson's I Am Legend, none deal with the real subject of Heinlein's novel. This is most glaringly apparent in the recent 'official' feature film adaptation, The Puppet Masters (1994); the most obvious solution to detecting the presence of the parasitic aliens on a human host -- martial law enforcing full nudity -- has to be avoided at all costs in an 'R'-rated major studio feature, though it creates an irreconcilable collapse of narrative logic. In Heinlein's original novel -- which was restored for its 1990 reprint (replacing chapters Heinlein himself had cut) -- this is the inevitable result of the invasion, and nudity becomes the new social norm!]

Still, there were changes made, only a few due to budgetary constraints. Robert Neville became Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), and to this day the cry of "Morgan! Morgan!" resonates in my head from my teenage viewing of this film on late-night TV. It's Morgan's resurrected vampiric former-best friend and fellow scientist Ben Cortner (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) who shouts this interminably throughout the movie, a line reading rendered monotonously bemusing via dubbing, spicing the otherwise dour atmosphere with inadvertent hilarity (during my Kubert School years and beyond, my late friend Bill Kelley would often begin his often extensive late-night phone calls to me with the hollow-voiced greeting, "Morgan! Morgan!").

The AIP one-sheet poster for the American release of L'ultimo uomo della Terra/The Last Man on Earth (1964), which was a fixture of late-night TV broadcast throughout the '60s and '70s before becoming a public domain vhs and DVD staple.

Whatever the leap in technologies, I'll take Giacomo Rossi-Stuart's poorly-dubbed Cortner as nightmare material over the agile Tatopoulis Studio CGI ciphers any day of the week. Rossi-Stuart's role has only gained resonance over the years: since I first heard the cry of "Morgan!" on The Late Show as a lad, Rossi-Stuart's roles in Mario Bava's Operazione Paura/Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966), Antonio Margheriti sf films and the like made him an iconic figure in the Italian genre films of that era.

I likewise have to acknowledge the potent minimalist chill similarly chalky makeup for the waltzing dead of Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls and Romero's black-and-white flesheaters in Night of the Living Dead have retroactively lent the wane vampires of The Last Man on Earth. Despite the often slack staging of key sequences, there's also genuinely disturbing gravitas to the scenes involving Morgan's angst over the resurrection of his dead wife Virginia (Emma Danieli), which coupled with Cortner's antagonistic role throughout the film also lends weight to the whole -- and anticipates the familial autocannibalism so central to the power of Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead. However threadbare the production, the script's adherence to the strengths in Matheson's source novel means this film still outstrips the bigger-budget Warner Bros. adaptations. These associative elements, along with the recent laserdisc and DVD letterboxed restorations the film has enjoyed, makes revisiting Last Man on Earth a pleasure every time.

Anthony Zerbe as Matthias, The Omega Man (1971)

For that matter, Anthony Zerbe's performance as the cowled, albino leader of the plague-mutated nightstalkers of The Omega Man (1971) remains one of the lasting delights of that misbegotten but beloved-by-many Charlton Heston star vehicle -- and again, Zerbe brings far more to the role than anything the new I Am Legend lends its lead menace. Along with Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, Zerbe was one of my favorite character actors of that era, and he lent The Omega Man its dramatic core with the understated ferocity of his talents: he alone seems to inhabit the film as if its mock urgency had some validity.

Which brings me, at last, to the version of Matheson's novel most of you are most familiar with, and likely have the greatest affection for. Alas, I don't share the affection, though generationally I should: after all, I saw the film when it first opened (at the Capital Theater in Montpelier, VT, where I later purchased the lobby cards and one-sheet that for a time adorned my Johnson State College dorm room wall and door), and again at least twice at area drive-ins. It was a staple of the era, unavoidable and inescapable, bookended by Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes on one end and Soylent Green on the other in the weirdly consistent dystopian Charlton Heston sf martyr epics -- all three of which I prefer to The Omega Man, which despite repeat visits I have never warmed to.

Los Angeles 1971: Charlton Heston is The Omega Man, and Woodstock (another Warner Bros. film) is his tonic, just as Bob Marley music fuels Will Smith's Robert Neville.

There's things I enjoy about the film -- like the Will Smith version, the movie is at its best in its first third, when Heston's all-consuming isolation is the primary focus -- and there's a perverse entertainment factor in the movie's blaxploitation-era elements and inversions (no mistake that the infected coven are albinos) and the unabashed spectacle of Heston's iron-jawed messiah complex once again playing itself out onscreen.

In the end, both The Omega Man and the 2007 I Am Legend arrive at faux-iconic vials of blood -- savior's blood, mind you -- and their revisionist corporate studio hope that the implicit "The blood is the life" imagery will supplant the weight of Richard Matheson's original final line and novel title.

Sorry, neither is legend.

That remains Matheson's accomplishment alone.

One more aside: In the spirit of full disclosure, allow me to note that around 1990-91, Steve Niles of Arcane approached me about possibly signing on as artist for a graphic novel adaptation of I Am Legend. NJ genre book dealer and gentleman extraordinaire Craig Goden personally corresponded with Matheson, urging the author to work with me on this project, but reported that Matheson didn't care for my work. In any case, there were complicating factors, not least among them the unhappy culmination of the planned Taboo/Arcane Clive Barker Rawhead Rex adaptation. In the end, after Niles's Arcane imprint was absorbed by Eclipse Comics, Eclipse published a four-volume adaptation in comics form of I Am Legend scripted by Steve, art by Elman Brown. Steve, bless him, has gone on to great success, including 30 Days of Night.

  • For an excellent academic reassessment of Last Man on Earth, dig into James Iaccino's Kino Eye essay "The Shadow Destroyer" -- recommended reading!
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