I Am Legend: The Greatest Vampire Movie NEVER Made
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Mark Iveson takes a detailed look at perhaps the best vampire story of them all, and the numerous attempts to bring it (back to) to life on the big screen...
The death of Richard Matheson on 22 June 2013 marked the end of an amazing career as a novelist and screenwriter. His most enduring legacy will always be as the author of I Am Legend, arguably one of the finest vampire novels ever written. Considered ‘the very peak of paranoid science fiction,’ Matheson’s groundbreaking debut novel is one of the few contemporary vampire stories that came close to the literary excellence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
With plans of a sequel to the Will Smith misfire I Am Legend (2007) being seriously considered by filmmakers, there is only one thing that fans of Matheson’s outstanding post apocalyptic work are asking “when is there going to be a PROPER film version of the book?”
Published in 1954, I Am Legend tells the terrifying tale of Robert Neville, the sole survivor of a mysterious airborne virus that has turned everyone, including his wife Virginia and best friend Ben Cortman, into vampires. The novel’s main theme is prominent in many of Matheson’s grim fables, the ordinary blue collar guy thrown into an extraordinary situation and dealing with these events entirely alone. During the day Neville, armed with hammers with stakes, hunts down as many vampires as he can before nightfall. The bodies are then thrown into a burning sulphur pit previously used by the authorities to dispose of all the infected dead, among them Neville’s young daughter Kathy. At night he locks himself up in his home blasting classical music as the vampires, led by Cortman roam outside calling out his name
The book centres on Neville’s awful isolation and near descent into alcoholism and paranoia as he tries to cope with the dreaded loneliness of those dark hours (the female vampires try to entice him out the house with offers of sex). As the story unfolds he learns more about the effects the virus has on humans. After befriending a dog, which later dies from the virus, Neville begins to accept his fate with quiet dignity.
When Neville meets fellow survivor Ruth, he learns that the infected survivors have found a way to combat the virus so they can rebuild a new society from the remnants of the old. But because he has unknowingly killed some of their kind (including Ruth’s husband), Neville has become something of a monster to this new society and must be destroyed. The significance of the title I Am Legend is Neville being part of an older and now obsolete order of Mankind that must make way for the new. He will be forever the stuff of campfire tales long after he is gone.
I Am Legend was the perfect type of futuristic literary fiction that flooded the fifties, at a time when America was at the centre of those cynical anti-Communists years. Combining traditional horror elements with America’s new love for science fiction, the plot is basic but effective and above all, very frightening.
I Am Legend was also a novel that cries out for the cinematic treatment; and who better than Richard Matheson to write the script? Born in New Jersey in 1926, Matheson has been a professional writer since 1950. He broke into films with a screen adaptation of his excellent short story The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Directed by Jack Arnold, this science fiction classic follows the concept of I Am Legend – the lone individual coping with his new environment following exposure to radiation that causes him to shrink. Once he is no longer visible to the naked eye, he learns to accept his fate as he marches into a new, unseen microscopic world.
In 1960 Matheson began working for Sam Arkoff at American International Pictures, where he adapted the Edgar Alan Poe story The Fall of the House of Usher to the big screen. This was the first of a successful series of AIP produced Poe films directed by Roger Corman and starring Matheson’s favourite actor Vincent Price. Never a fan of Poe’s work, Matheson quickly got bored with the format and began spoofing the series with Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). His non-Poe scripted The Comedy of Terrors (1963) demonstrated his off beat sense of macabre humour.
Matheson also wrote the scripts for the Hammer films Fanatic (1965) and The Devil Rides Out (1968) before embarking on several interesting TV chillers often in collaboration with director Dan Curtis. One of his most memorable efforts, Duel (1971), was directed by a young Steven Spielberg. Other TV credits include The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. His best cinematic work was an excellent adaptation of his novel The Legend of Hell House (1973). With these impressive movie credits behind him, Matheson was the perfect choice to adapt I Am Legend to the big screen.
The novel was also perfect for Hammer Films. As well as reviving the long dormant gothic horror genre, the studio successfully ventured into science fiction with The Quatermass Experiment (1955) Quatermass II (1956), X – The Unknown (1956) and The Abominable Snowman (1957). Other equally intelligent British science fiction films made around that time were the outstanding Village of the Damned (1960) and Val Guest’s truly frightening The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). The cinematic climate was certainly right for another British science fiction production, and the vampire element of I Am Legend kept in tune to the horror films Hammer were producing.
Fresh from his Shrinking Man success, Matheson was invited over to England by Hammer’s managing director James Carreras to adapt his novel into a screenplay. Arriving in London, the writer was greeted, amidst a wave of publicity, by Carreras and Hammer producer Anthony Nelson Keys. Within two months Matheson completed the script under the title Night Creatures. Hammer then called on the services of director Val Guest, whose work on the Quatermass films, The Abominable Snowman and The Day the Earth Caught Fire made him ideal for the job. Guest’s stark no-nonsense documentary style perfectly suited the book’s paranoid atmosphere. Peter Cushing, Stanley Baker, Kieran Moore, Paul Massie, Ian Hendry and Laurence Harvey were among the actors considered to play the role of Neville.
It was going to be the greatest vampire film ever made, but it never saw the light of day. So what went wrong?
John Nicholls, Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, objected to the bad language and profanity in Matheson’s script, a feeling shared by Geoffrey Shurlock of the Motion Picture Association of America. Shurlock wrote to Hammer’s second-in-command Anthony Hinds the film a Code Seal of Approval in America. Faced with all these censorship restrictions, Carreras cancelled the project although Night Creatures was used as the US title for the Peter Cushing swashbuckler Captain Clegg (1962).
Carreras seemed to have acquired a habit of cancelling interesting film projects. His son Michael was working on an ambitious Hammer production called The Rape of Sabena. The Spanish sets were constructed and Kieran Moore was set to star. Because the film was about the Spanish Inquisition, The Catholic League of Decency reacted with contempt, and not wanting to cause any further upset, Carreras halted production, leading to a permanent rift with his son. The sets were used to great effect in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).
Looking back on Hammer’s decision and the actions of the BBFC and MPAA, the whole episode looks rather hilarious to the modern day movie fan. True, the novel contains bad language but it’s extremely mild in comparison to the foul-mouthed gangster extravaganzas Scarface (1983) and Goodfellas (1988). But this was 1957 and back then things were done a little differently.
I Am Legend was filmed three times, but Matheson had no involvement in any of the productions. Hammer sold their now dormant script (at a reduced price) to their former American associate Robert Lippert; an independent producer linked to 20th Century Fox’s subsidiary company Associate Producers. Lippert arranged a co-production deal with Italy’s Produzioni Le Regona and had the script completely re-written by Bill Leicester, although Matheson received a writing credit under the name Logan Swanson.
Production took place in Italy with Ugaldo Ragona in the director’s chair and Sidney Salkow overseeing the American version. To avoid extensive and costly dubbing, much of the film is narrated by the film’s leading man Vincent Price. It finally came to the cinema screen as L’ultimo Uomo della Terra or The Last Man of Earth (1964).
Matheson may have taken some comfort when he heard Frtiz Lang was slated to direct. Unfortunately the end result is poor. The bleak landscapes shot around Rome retain some of the novel’s downbeat atmosphere, but otherwise the production looks cheap and shoddy. Not surprisingly Matheson was unhappy with both the film and Price’s performance. “Vincent, who I like as an actor, is completely wrong for the part.” He was reported to say.
Looking nothing like the description of Neville (renamed Morgan for the film, the character also changed from blue-collar guy to scientist), the miscast Price is too low-key to be effective. The American King of Horror’s appearance and manner was always suited to melodramatic ham in period costume, but in a modern setting he looks very out of place. Nor does he put much enthusiasm or emotion into his performance. Seeing the film as more of a paid holiday to buy up art in and around Rome, Price the actor has clearly taken a back seat to Price the art expert. And if his lacklustre narration lacks any real impact, the English dubbing is so amateurish, one gets the impression the performers were ordinary people dragged in from the streets.
For what its worth, The Last Man of Earth at least follows the story, which is more than can be said for the two remakes. The first of these was The Omega Man (1971), for many years a popular late night TV favourite. The film, starring Charlton Heston and directed by Boris Sagal, bore little resemblance to the novel (much to Matheson’s surprise, he was paid a fee for his participation despite having no involvement in the project). Neville remains a scientist but has no family. This is reflected in the cool bachelor pad he lives in, which may look good but the lack of family ties removes a great deal of Neville’s enforced loneliness.
The biggest fault is replacing the vampires with deranged but intelligent albino monks dressed in black. Machine guns have also assumed the duties of the traditional hammer and stake. The character of Neville’s former friend Ben Cortman is now Jonathan Matthias a former newsman turned cult leader. To add a bit of seventies Blacksploitation, actress Rosalind Cash assumes the Ruth/Virginia love interest. Another variation on the book is children having a sort of immunity to the virus, which was caused by germ warfare between Russia and China.
The Omega Man may have a few lively moments and a more pronounced sense of realism but on the whole it’s as boring as Heston’s performance. After his career defining turn as Taylor in Planet of the Apes (1967), Heston became one of the few Hollywood stars to be associated with the science fiction genre. Although it kept him in leading roles for a few more years, his performances became increasingly dull, his Neville being little more than a square jawed extension of his Taylor character.
At least The Omega Man was popular enough to inspire a terror tale for one of The Simpsons’ Halloween Specials entitled The Homega Man! D’oh!
Released between The Omega Man and the Will Smith effort was a horror classic that came closest to the novel’s atmosphere. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was as much a dark side to sixties America as the novel was to the fifties. Flesh-eating zombies have assumed the duties of the vampires, but the stark paranoia remains intact, and made all the more vivid because Romero brings it out with savage intensity. Uncomfortably filmed in monochrome, Romero uses Matheson’s concept to create a new horror genre, resulting in five sequels, two remakes, remakes of the first two sequels (one of which having a sequel) and countless spoofs and imitations. In an ideal world, Romero in his heyday would be perfect to direct I Am Legend, from a script written by Matheson in the first place.
Thirty years has passed since The Omega Man and very little has been said about a new adaptation. Sam Arkoff retained the film rights but after selling AIP to Filmways (who were taken over by Orion) everything got lost in the shuffle. In 1999 a $100 million Ridley Scott version was announced with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tom Cruise slated to play Neville (the character’s ordinary Joe qualities are better suited to a working actor like Bill Pullman or Keifer Sutherland). When the costs quickly escalated the plug was pulled and another opportunity lost. Matheson himself had long given up the rigours of film work to spend his time writing philosophy.
So it came as no surprise that the latest film wasn’t written by Matheson. Fans of the book were pretty much sceptical as to whether it would work, especially when Ridley Scott was replaced by journeyman director Francis Lawrence, whose uninspired horror flick Constantine (2005) fell way off the mark. The casting of Will Smith as Neville cast further doubts although his performances in Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) showed how good a dramatic actor he could be when given the right role. The part of Neville, as written in the book, could have given Smith the acting challenge of his career.
Unfortunately not only is I Am Legend is even worse than The Omega Man, it has even less to do with the novel. What makes the film a botched job is the fault of the scriptwriters, who abandon Matheson’s original concept completely. They should have done one of three things (1) read the novel, (2) ask Matheson for a copy of his original script or (3) resign and let Matheson write the dam thing.
For starters there are no vampires, only CGI zombie like killers straight out of 28 Days Later (2006). Ruth, Virginia and Kathy have had their names changed to Anna, Zoë and Marley but unlike the characters in the book, these revised versions serve no real purpose to the story. Although Neville is a family man again, the way he looses Virginia/Zoë and Kathy/Marley lacks the impact, drama and intensity of the novel. To be honest their presence is utterly pointless to the proceedings. Even the interplay between Neville and Ruth/Anna has no chemistry, as if it was added as an afterthought.
Worse still is the omission of Ben Cortman. There is a replacement CGI type lead zombie who displays some kind of intelligence but the relationship between Neville and this top zombie is non-existent. The loneliness angle is also overlooked as Neville has a dog for companionship right from the start (the novel’s dog turns up much later). Even the significance of the title I Am Legend (the end of the old order that Neville represents) has been ignored by the writers in favour of a typical Hollywood happy ending (Neville saves the world).
No one can expect an accurate screen representation of I Am Legend; the world has moved on since 1954. But even with today’s Internet and computer technology, it hasn’t dated that much so in the right hands a film version can follow the book and be true to it. Unfortunately the filmmakers had no understanding about what I Am Legend is about so the end result is a complete waste of time.
If it was renamed I Am Will Smith: Sci-Fi Action Hero and all credits and references to the novel removed (not that there’s many), there may be more to enjoy. But as a piece of film entertainment, I Am Legend falls way off the mark with uninspired CGI effects, a very silly opening featuring an uncredited Emma Thompson (as the aptly named Dr Krippen) and an unwatchable second half.
Remaining professional throughout, Will Smith does his best; he generates more enthusiasm than Price and Heston put together, but like Neville he is alone, only this time he’s fighting a losing battle against the banality of the scriptwriters and Francis Lawrence’s pedestrian direction. Even the dog should have complained to her agent!
The unfortunate tragedy of Matheson’s death is the realisation that if there is ever going to be a definitive film version, he won’t be around to see it. However with remakes of more recent films on the increase, perhaps a proper movie adaptation may yet show its face. At least it will be valuable as a lasting tribute to the genius of this great writer.
I’m not holding my breath!
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