Wednesday, May 28, 2014
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), THE OMEGA MAN (1971)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical. sociological*
Though I like many works by the late Richard Matheson, I have little regard for his popular 1954 ironic novel I AM LEGEND. I define LEGEND as an "irony"-- unlike its first two cinematic adaptations, which are in my opinion both "dramas." The Fryean form known as the irony stresses the protagonist's lack of power, or lack of significance, or both. In my view LEGEND is too preoccupied with an ironic, and rather sterile, inversion of the tropes of supernatural vampire mythology. Matheson was apparently very proud of his central conceit, in which his bloodsuckers are victims of a bio-engineered plague. Protagonist Robert Neville, the last uninfected man on earth, makes it his mission to kill all of these pseudo-vampires with the traditional vampire-hunter's weapons: stakes. Matheson's rationale for his use of this vampiric trope involved anaerobic bacteria, and I for one found it less resonant than folklore's more affecting concept of literally pinning the undead to the earth to keep them from roaming around. In addition, Neville is a tedious everyman type. His colorlessness is designed to set up another of Matheson's ironic turnabouts: he's the last normal man in a world where everyone has, to some extent, been infected by the plague-- and as a result, his "normality" becomes "monstrosity." But promising as this notion is, Matheson doesn't do much with it. There are some inspired moments, as when Neville's former friend Ben Cortman-- an intelligent vampire who continually stalks Neville-- is killed by a new breed of vampire. Because Matheson's character remarks that Cortman looks like Oliver Hardy, his death signals "the death of comedy." But this idea seems little more than a toss-off, and Neville's own sacrificial death-- in which he takes poison, more after the fashion of Socrates than Christ-- is unaffecting.
Though Matheson himself worked on the script for the Italian-American production THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, the author used a pen name because he was dissatisfied with the final product. LAST MAN isn't much more enjoyable than the novel, though it makes substantial use of the novel's narrative. The most haunting scene in the film hews close to a similar one in the book: protagonist Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) barricades himself in his house while the shambling vampires, led by Morgan's former friend Cortman, pound on the house's outer walls and yell at Morgan to come out and face his fate. But many scenes that have similar potential are either slow or poorly realized, since co-directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona frequently chose to use long-shots that usually diffuse the audience's identification with Morgan.
There are some interesting changes. Cortman is not only a former co-worker of Morgan, but also a family friend: in addition, he's much more handsome than the book's character. As in the book the narrative seems to lead up to a final confrontation between Cortman and the protagonist, an expectation short-changed when Cortman is killed by the "new breed of vampire." However, in the film Cortman's death passes by so quickly that it has no emotional impact. Some fans of Vincent Price have claimed that LAST MAN contains one of his best performances. In playing Morgan Price does avoid his signature boogieman tics, but the actor can't enliven the dull dialogue or the static performances of the largely Italian support-cast-- many of whom I presume were speaking their native Italian and had English speech dubbed in later, thus further hampering their performances.
I term the movie a "drama" because although it still ends in the protagonist's tragic downfall, the emphasis is more on pathos than on the upending of familiar values. This protagonist, unlike the one in the novel, defies the new species of plague-victims as they come for him, castigating them as "freaks" before they kill him. The conclusion is easily the greatest improvement on the novel. Whereas Matheson explicitly seeks to obviate the new society's killing of "the monster," LAST MAN indulges freely in the more violent form of sacrifice: though his female ally pleads for his life, Morgan violently fights the new vampires with bullets and tear-gas bombs, until they corner him in a church and impale him with a spear. The church-scene is poorly staged by Salkow and Ragona, but it proved a significant inspiration for the superior scenarios of 1971's THE OMEGA MAN.
OMEGA has one immediate advantage over LAST MAN. Whereas Price was not at his best playing world-weary characters, OMEGA redesigned the Matheson storyline as a vehicle for Charlton Heston, a vehicle considerably indebted to Heston's classic performance in 1968's PLANET OF THE APES. The similarity is pronounced: Heston's APES character Taylor was the only normal man on a planet dominated by intelligent apes, while his OMEGA character-- taking the name "Robert Neville" once more-- is the last true man in a world dominated by the victims of a bio-engineered plague. Whereas I AM LEGEND simply referenced the artificial creation of the bacterial agent, OMEGA plays the "what fools these mortals be" card for all that it's worth.
Heston's Neville is a far more proactive character than the one seen in LEGEND or LAST MAN. Like them he's what I term a "demihero"-- a protagonist more concerned with survival than the defense of idealized justice-- but he's also much more kickass, which causes me to categorize OMEGA as a "combative drama." Ironically, at the time OMEGA was made, Charlton Heston had not yet become a public defender of "gun rights;" if anything he was known for campaigning for gun control. Today, the opening of OMEGA MAN-- in which the protagonist is first seen driving along the trash-strewn, deserted streets of Los Angeles, and shooting at a skulker in a window-- is almost comic as it captures the actor's latter-day persona.
Neville's foes are also skillfully re-imagined, for all that they may owe something to the bald mutants of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. The biological plague has devastated most of the populace of the United States, but in L.A. most of the survivors are albino mutants who are averse to light-- nearly the only trope they borrow from Matheson's novel. Whereas the Cortman of novel and film is a nemesis who comes to nothing, "Matthias" (Anthony Zerbe) is a formidable religious fanatic who tells his fellow mutants to adjure the technology that infected them. Curiously, prior to the plague, Matthias was a television newscaster-- which would have made him a perfect foe for the conservative icon Heston later became. Matthias and his fellows also wear monks' robes, giving them a medieval image, an image intensified in a scene where the robed men torment a captive Neville on a cart before threatening to burn him alive. Their name for themselves-- "the Family"-- invokes the Manson Family murders of 1969. However, where Manson predicted widespread war between blacks and whites, an early scene shows Matthias counseling his aide Zachary-- an albinized black man, complete with snow-white hair-- to "forget the old ways" of racial divisiveness, for "the Family is one."
That said, racial divisions are very much on the mind of scripters John and Joyce Corrington. The 1954 Matheson novel has little to do with racial conflict, though once in a flashback does LEGEND's Neville mentions having spoken with a "Negro" mortician who gave him some insight on the functions of the living dead. In the view of the Corringtons Neville's retreat to his fortified house, where he drowns out the rabble with classical music, is a species of "white flight," signified when Zachary calls Neville's digs a "honky paradise." Neville refers to the mutants as "vermin" and "barbarians," and it's clear that even though he is a military scientist who desires to cure the plague, he's defined himself in part in terms of hating "the other."
Yet, when he finally encounters Lisa-- the first normal-looking female he's seen in two years of mutant-fighting-- she's played by a black actress, Rosalind Cash. Lisa, unlike the comparable characters from the earlier versions of the story, is a resourceful, kickass female of the type that would be popularized two years later in films like COFFY and CLEOPATRA JONES. Lisa turns out to be a member of a group of survivors hidden in the hills, who have developed some resistance to the plague. But they still need Neville's help to fight off the encroaching disease. I suspect the Corringtons were aware of some of Heston's "great white father" roles in films like 1963's DIAMOND HEAD; when he gives blood to cure one of the survivors, he asserts jokingly that his blood is "160 proof Anglo-Saxon." Heston's TEN COMMANDMENTS reputation is probably also referenced when a little survivor-girl asks Neville, "Are you God?"
On the other hand, not all religious metaphors are jokes. When one of the hippie-like survivors finds out that Neville's blood can be used for a cure, he cries out to Neville, "Christ, you could save the world." His use of "Christ" is primarily meant as an epithet. But amusingly, it could also be read as imputing Christ-characteristics to Neville. And in the end, Neville does sacrifice his blood for the redemption of mankind. When Neville makes his final war of revenge on the mutants, his persistent enemy Matthias gets in the final blow. Whereas Robert Morgan's death is given only a vague religious context, OMEGA MAN goes the whole nine yards: Lisa plays Judas, betraying Neville to Matthias, who in turn plays Longinus as he spears Christ-Neville to death in a fountain. Neville dies in an attitude of crucifixion-- oddly, Lisa references crucifixion in her first meeting with Neville-- but the great white father lasts long enough to give his redemptive blood to Lisa's hippie-friends, who will implicitly inherit the Earth.
I suppose from one point of view, THE OMEGA MAN might be criticized for displaying its theme a little too broadly. But as I prefer "too much" to "too little," the Corringtons' take on the earlier narratives strikes me as the best of the three.