Saturday, June 11, 2011

I Am Legend

Okay, I know this is a few years too late, but it’s taken me since 2007 to come to grips with the absolutely terrible Will Smith version of Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 novel, I Am Legend, but the original is a classic and the earlier filmed versions are among my all time favorite movies, so Will Smith be dammed, let's take a look at the original book.

                    1st Edition (1954)

Matheson’s classic dystopian story about a man alone, fighting against a world of shambling vampires was a natural for the screen having been directly adapted three times, straight out ripped off more than once, and as George Romero has pointed out, also serving as the grandpa of the zombie rage. As far as the importance to the history of horror films goes, I Am Legend surpasses Frankenstein and maybe even matches Dracula as a long term influence.

       Frankenstein is a well known poor loser

Richard Matheson, celebrated as one of the 20th centuries great horror, fantasy and suspense writers, spent much of his career writing about loneliness.

Scott Carey, Matheson’s Shrinking Man, from his1956 novel, is a happy well adjusted guy, until after exposure to that old monster, radiation, slowly grows ever smaller, losing everything, from his safe suburban 1950’s job and life, to his dignity, his masculinity, until finally alone, as isolated as any castaway, Cary ponders existence outside of existence, all while fighting a drawn out war against a household spider, turned gargantuan nightmare.

                         In need of a very large shoe

Chris, Matheson’s gentle, quiet lead from, In What Dreams May Come, finds himself isolated in the one place in the Universe where everyone IS one. In Hell House, psychic Benjamin Fischer is closed off and fearful, locked into his isolation but safe, where his rival psychic Florence Tanner’s openness destroys her, meanwhile spooky old Emeric Belasco, absolutely thrives in his isolation, and he’s long dead.

     50 years dead, and still getting more action than you (or me)

Even the terrified driver, fighting for his life against a monstrous semi, that’s more beast then vehicle, in the story and film Duel, is a man, alone without any hope of help from the outside, isolated in his own car as completely as if he were on the Moon.

         I knew I should have made that left turn in Albuquerque

1954’s I Am Legend, was Matheson’s first novel, and right from the start he lays it all out. Our “hero” a happily married, middle class scientist named Robert Neville, finds himself alone and surrounded in a Los Angeles decimated, along with the rest of the world, by what at first everyone thought was a normal disease, but that turns out to be an international plague of vampirism. On his own Neville must protect himself from a constant onslaught from creatures of the night, while at the same time trying to take care of the basic needs of food, water and shelter. Alone and possibly a little bit insane, Neville’s steady, but clear survival habits are thrown away when he discovers that he is not as alone as he thought, but that also he might be wrong about just who the monster is.

While the horror trappings are almost secondary to Matheson’s portrait of hopeless survival, it’s the pulp trappings that have continually hit a chord with each new generations of readers and filmgoers, some of who soak up the slow, sorrow of it all, some who like the idea of starting all over again, and more than a few just excited about the idea of all the free cars laying around.

Next Time: Vincent Price is on his own

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