"Come out, Neville" - I Am Legend

PrintE-mail Written by Robin Pierce Friday, 14 October 2011

Future Imperfect - by Robin Pierce

The nights are drawing in, the sunset shadows are long and deep. It’s the Halloween season. The time of witches, goblins, demons, things that go bump in the night and the dead walking the Earth. What better time to take a look at some vampires?

But not just ANY vampires, we’re not talking about supernatural aristocrats majestically striding the corridors of a Transylvanian castle, dressed in formal attire as though waiting to go to an opera - despite living in the middle of nowhere. Neither are we talking about angst ridden teens who glow and sparkle as they scamper among the treetops in broad daylight.

We’re talking scientifically created vampires, borne not by fangs, but bacteria. A world-wide plague created by the vampiris bacillus strain, unleashed by man in Richard Matheson’s classic "I Am Legend", though some might say the the bigger monsters and soul sucking creatures of the night are the Hollywood movie moguls responsible for some of the adaptations of Matheson’s iconic book.

Set between January 1976 and January 1979, the book is a study in mood and menace as Robert Neville is literally the last man on Earth as far as he’s aware. A virus has transformed everybody else into vampire-like creatures. They only come out at night, trying to lure Neville to join them. Among the tormentors is Ben Cortman, Neville’s portly one-time neighbour, now a creature bent on his destruction. Even the women try to entice him out of his fortified home/base of operations by preying on his loneliness as they raise their dresses and dance seductively to lure him to his certain death. By any standards, this was strong, racy material for a book published in 1954.

Even his first glimmer of hope for companionship is doomed to failure, as the luckless dog he finds and coaxes to his home with food, is infected and therefore must be dealt with.

Far from being an action packed adventure, the narrative concentrates more on Neville’s struggle to stay alive and it presents an alternative view of the traditions of vampirism in popular culture that strips away much of the supernatural aspect of the mythos. No, they don’t turns into bats, but garlic repels them due to the chemical nature of its scent. Crosses might work as a defence, but holds no actual repelling power over the vampire, other than suggestion. As the author points out, why should a holy cross work on a Hindu, for example?

They only come out at night, but that’s due to a heightened sensitivity to sunlight as a side effect of the disease. Neville himself is immune to the disease, as he was bitten by a vampire bat prior to the events of the book and a mild version of the bacteria was passed to him, thus acting as an inoculation. All in all, the book presents a reasonable explanation for many of the conventions of the ancient legends and superstitions.

Matheson manages a tour de force of role reversal, as by the end of the book, Neville himself becomes "the monster" and we readers who’ve been identifying with him as the last remaining vestige of humanity in a world of predatory nightwalkers have failed to realise until he sees a woman walking through the field. Screaming wildly to get her attention, she flees, but he quickly catches her and hits her to the ground, pinning her down while insisting he won’t harm her. This is our first inclination how he must outwardly seem to others.

The girl, Ruth is herself a vampire, but able to walk by day and has been sent as a scout by a squad of vampires who don’t want to kill him ferally as Ben Cortman and his cronies. This new breed are building a new society and they want to capture Neville to answer for his crimes. He has been hunting, killing and burning the remains of their kind by daylight as they sleep helplessly and over the years has amassed an incredible body count having been sweeping the local area on a daily basis. The last man on Earth is now the reviled, murdering outsider as "normal" society is now entirely composed of vampires. The definition of "monster" being a matter of perspective is the lesson here.

The book would need to be changed a little bit to be brought to life on the screen, and over three versions, I can safely say those changes have had a varying degree of success. As to which is best, well, I guess you pay your money and you make your choice.

It took ten years for the book to find its way to the screen, but it wasn’t a Hollywood production, The Last Man on Earth, or to give it its proper title L’ultimo uomo della Terra was filmed in Rome. This change works marvellously well in the film, as the film is set in the United States, but the Italian location adds to the slightly off kilter other worldliness of the film. Another big bonus is its star, Vincent Price. His performance here is muted, restrained and chillingly effective as Robert Morgan (slight name change). Price’s trademark scenery chewing histrionics would certainly have reduced this film to a campy tongue in cheek comedy that would never have stood the test of time, but as it stands, this, along with Witchfinder General gives us a glimpse of how talented and effective an actor Vincent Price was, given the right material.

Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay, and it shows. This is certainly the most faithful adaptation of the book to reach the screen to date. It’s all here, the unpleasant daily routine of recovering the bodies strewn on the street for burning in the pit, the relentless maintenance on his house, repairing the damage caused by the vampires while also seeking them out and putting them out of his misery with a stake.

But there were minor changes such as the vampires themselves have a tendency to move ponderously slowly and deliberately, very much like zombies. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but notice the stark similarity between the nighttime exteriors here and those filmed by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead (1968). To be fair, Romero has, over the years, been completely candid when talking about the influence and inspiration this provided on his cult zombie opus.

Rather than end with the protagonist awaiting execution as the vampires gather outside, a more dramatic ending was added. Morgan escapes and is chased to his eventual death on the altar of a church as Ruth comforts a crying baby, assuring the child that the monster is dead. For 1964, that was a curiously downbeat, yet effective ending. Matheson though wasn’t happy and insisted on being billed under the pseudonym of Logan Swanson. Even the use of eerie black and white photography by co-directors (Umbaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow didn’t please Matheson, who complained that he felt that Price was miscast and that the direction was poor. There’s no record of what he thought of what came next.....

Proving that remakes are nothing new, the Matheson’s tale was revisited in 1971 in The Omega Man or maybe the descriptive here should be re-imagined, as John William Corrigton and Joyce Corrington’s screenplay pays scant regard to the book or the previous film version.

The screen’s number one action star of the day, and current science fiction hero was Charlton Heston, fresh from his successes in Planet of the Apes and its sequel. It’s fair to say that Heston channels his role as the Taylor character from the Apes films throughout this movie, though (mercifully) he keeps more of his clothes on this time. His Robert Neville isn’t the ordinary every man caught in extraordinary circumstances that Matheson has envisaged. Charlton Heston is virtually an all-American super hero, a gifted Army scientist with a high tech base of operations, a fleet of vehicles and a personal armoury that packed more firepower than several third world countries. Somehow, somewhere, Robert Neville became Doc Savage, and the impact of the film would suffer as a result. That’s not to say The Omega Man is a bad film, actually it’s a great crowd pleasing Heston vehicle and is deservedly regarded as a cult film, but as an adaptation of I Am Legend, it’s pretty poor.

One of the problems here is that the film has aged badly. Rather that have the film set in an undetermined future, it was set only six years ahead of its year production. It’s 1977, two years after the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union have declared a biological war on each other and have wiped out the world’s population with their weapons. In this version of the less than rosy immediate future, high tech home and in-car entertainment is represented by an eight track stereo system. (I told you the future looked less than rosy).

The opening scenes of Neville driving around the empty streets of Los Angeles in a cool red convertible are effective, until he stops to fire his machine gun at a shadowy figure he sees in a window of a nearby building. Heston’s lunge to action is hilariously speeded up and despite the action music cue still looks like something out of the Benny Hill show.

On his way back to his home, he stops off at a cinema advertising the movie Woodstock, starts up the projector and watches the movie. On a personal note, I’ve never liked this scene - there’s something about Moses or Ben Hur watching Woodstock and reciting some dialogue along with the hippie on the screen that has never sat right.

Leaving the movie theatre, he realises that it’s later than he thought, the sun’s going down "they’ll be waking up soon" and races to the safety of his home - but "they" are waiting in ambush.

It’s hard to describe exactly what "they" are. The word "vampire" is never used, they’re not feral bloodsuckers who want to feed. There are no stakes, crosses, garlic or mirrors. They’re as susceptible to a hail of bullets from Heston’s Smith & Wesson sub machine gun as you or I. They dress uniformly in hooded black robes and sunglasses and are strikingly pale in appearance. In fact, given their obsession "cleansing the world" and their accusations of heresy toward Neville for his use of machines and the "ways of the wheel" which they deem evil - they come across as a bunch of Albino Inquisitors. Led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) they call themselves The Family.

The Family manage to trap Neville and prepare him for execution, which leads to more absurdly unintentional fun. Preparing him for execution in this instance means they tie him up, put what appears to be a conical dunce cap on his head and parade him through the streets in a cart before they attempt to burn him at the stake in the middle of Dodger Stadium.

To paraphrase a football pundit who once said it was a game of two halves - the same is true of The Omega Man. There are points in the first half which are clearly inspired by the book, the second half is where all bets are off as the story takes a sharp tangent away from the written word. Neville is rescued by some other survivors who want him to save one of their number by creating a vaccine. The Family eventually catch up to him and he dies in a fountain outside his building, symbolically in a crucifixion pose while the remaining survivors take off with his serum presumably to live happily ever after if the weirdly upbeat music as they leave his corpse and the credits roll is anything to go by.

During the nineties, it was rumoured that a further remake of the story was planned as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it was not to be. Eventual delays pushed the production further and further back and while the Terminator became the Governator instead, another bankable star would be cast in the only version of the story to retain the book’s title.

Sadly, the title and the lead character’s name would be the only elements of Matheson’s story that would be kept in the 2007 version. Though the titles carried a credit "based upon a story by Richard Matheson" a more accurate disclaimer would have been "any resemblance to Richard Matheson’s story is purely coincidental" as screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman adapted the Corringtons screenplay, making the film a remake of The Omega Man, but taking the story even further from its original source. Again, this isn’t to say that I Am Legend isn’t a visually impressive film with many points in its favour - it just isn’t I Am Legend - the novel.

Will Smith has cinematically saved the world on many occasions. This time, he’s the last man on Earth, but he’s not alone. Robert Neville is a virologist who is immune to the KV virus. No vampiris baccilus here, KV is a viral cure for cancer with a 100% success rate, except it has a downside - it mutated in to a world-wide plague in December 2009 which wiped out humanity. KV, incidentally is short for Krippen virus named after its creator, Dr Krippen (I couldn’t help but laugh at the unintentional irony. Surely the screenwriters would have heard of the real Dr Crippen, the infamous murderer who poisoned and dismembered his wife?)

As the disease spread, Manhattan was declared ground zero and quarantined, all bridges were blasted and tunnels flooded. Neville lost his family in a helicopter crash during the evacuation and now, three years later, in 2012, lives alone on the island with the family dog as his only companion. He spends his days careening around the empty streets in a Ford Mustang, hunting deer and trying to develop a cure for KV in his state of the art basement lab when he isn’t waiting for a response to his repeated radio messages at the South Street Seaport.

At night, he barricades himself and the dog in his house, drawing down his steel shutters on the windows and barricading the door as a riotous cacophony of screams and noise can be heard outside.

The survivors of the plague have become "darkseekers" so called because of their aversion to UV light and their pasty, pale complexion and lack of any hair. They’ve reverted to feral, bestial behaviour and have cannibalistic traits. By day, they hide in darkened buildings, but by night they come out to play. In a complete change to the story, they don’t know where Neville is, so there’s none of the taunting and tormenting to "come out" which has added to Neville’s mental breakdown and has played such a big part in every other telling of the tale. He is literally hiding in fear in his house every night.

Sadly, the darkseekers who should be one of the high points of the film are the main instrument of its demise. They are horribly unconvincing CGI creations and their sheer awfulness takes the viewer right out of the story. With a budget of $150 million, we should have had far better.

Neville finds a nest of darkseekers and manages to snare and capture a female whom he uses to test several of his experimental serums but none seem to work.

The darkseekers similarly snare Neville with the same kind of trap he used which shows that they have retained some of their intelligence, but he manages to free himself before they can get to him. However his dog is attacked by their plague ridden hounds and becomes infected. (Dogs are immune to the airborne virus but not when it’s transmitted via bite).

In a suicidal rage he drives out at night to kill as many darkseekers as he can. Using his vehicle as a weapon, he loses control and is trapped surrounded by the marauding cannibals, but is rescued by two survivors of the plague - Anna (Alice Braga) and a child, Ethan (Charlie Tahan) who have followed his radio broadcasts. Taking him to the safety of his barricaded home, they tell of a survivors’encampment in Vermont that they’re going to, but Neville refuses to believe it exists and wants to be left alone. But there’s little chance of that - the darkseekers now know where he lives, having followed him and his rescuers and stage a mass attack as soon as night falls.

The ending is weak and rushed. The darkseekers infiltrate the house, crawling on the walls and ceilings. Seeking refuge in the lab he sees that the latest virus HAS worked on the female test subject. Handing the serum to Anna, he guides her and Nathan to safety before sacrificing himself by detonating a grenade and taking several of the mutants with him.

The last scene shows Anna and Nathan’s arrival at the Vermont camp with a voice-over telling how Neville’s cure made him a legend. There was an alternate ending where Neville survives after giving the Alpha Male his mate back and then makes his way to Vermont for a happy ever after ending. To be honest, neither one is satisfactory - neither one shows or explains how they managed to leave Manhattan Island.

There has been talk of a prequel, which would have Will Smith return to the role of Neville, but this is now unlikely to happen according to director Francis Lawrence.

Personally, for an eerie late October viewing I’d recommend popping The Last Man On Earth into your DVD player - or better yet, read the book.

Happy Halloween.

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