A true legend

I am Legend. Duel. The Twilight Zone. Star Trek. Dracula. X-Files. One genius helped create or inspire all of them. Do you know his name?

Richard Matheson

Imagine a writer whom horror novelist Stephen King honours as his chief inspiration. Next, assume that this writer also provided the script for the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg. Also, let us assume that this very same writer was present when Captain Kirk first took flight on the Starship Enterprise, and that he additionally laid the foundations for the paranormal escapades of FBI agents Mulder and Scully. While we are at it, throw in 14 episodes of that celebrated 1959-1964 exercise in the fantastic, The Twilight Zone, plus some of the most important vampire stories and movies ever made. That writer would be a giant of popular culture.

Happily, one does not have to imagine him at all: Now in his eighties, Richard Matheson really does exist, and his mark on our collective imagination is profound.

Although never as well known as he should be, Matheson is about to get a big boost through this weekend's release of the Will Smith horror movie I Am Legend. This film marks the third, cinematic treatment of Matheson's 1954 novel of the same title, the previous incarnations being The Last Man on Earth (a largely Italian effort starring Vincent Price, from 1964) and The Omega Man (1971, with Charlton Heston).

Even if it is not Matheson's best work -- he had only four years of experience as a writer at the time -- I Am Legend has always struck a chord. It recounts the plight of Robert Neville, the last person left uninfected by a global plague that has converted the rest of humanity into vampire-like beings. By night, he shelters in his fortified home, fending off mobs of creatures baying for his blood. By day, he goes forth to kill them.

Like much of the genre fiction of the 1950s, I Am Legend is slick and efficient without being particularly literary. What takes the story beyond the level of a merely clever premise, however, is its unflagging intelligence. With varying success, Matheson tries to give his vampires a scientific basis: These are not supernatural entities but, rather, the product of a biological process. More intriguing, they are the future. Neville, in his obsession with their destruction, completely misses the new civilization that some of them are building. Only when he is captured and awaiting execution does he realize that he is the one who will go down in history as the monster.

Despite its powerful premise, I Am Legend has so far eluded a smooth transition to film. Matheson was responsible for the initial script of the 1964 Italian version but disapproved of a subsequent rewrite, which apparently is why he appears in the credits as "Logan Swanson." In fact, the movie is pretty faithful to the book, but its budget was small, and its Italian creators may have snuck in a jarring, visual reference to fascism at the end.

The 1971 version, meanwhile, did not involve Matheson at all and strayed considerably from the novel, allowing Charlton Heston to play a glorious martyr without reference to the true complexity of the role. Perhaps the new version with Will Smith will do a better job.

Whatever the result, Matheson has enjoyed a writing career so accomplished that it cannot help but humble anyone connected to the fields of science fiction, horror or fantasy. Born in New Jersey in 1926, he got his first short story (a science-fiction piece) published in 1950. His early material shows that the 1954 emergence of I Am Legend was no fluke. For instance, the 1952 short story Brother to the Machine is about an android destroyed by its callous, human creators for developing the empathy they now lack. One can see in this the same role reversals and dichotomies that mark I Am Legend. Similarly, the 1956 short story Steel involves a man who pretends to be a robot so as to enter a mechanized boxing match. (In 1963, Matheson would convert the latter yarn into one of his Twilight Zone scripts, providing a memorable role for a young Lee Marvin.)

Hollywood was not long in noticing the talented newcomer, and it quickly bought up the rights to Matheson's famous 1956 novel, The Shrinking Man, in which a fellow exposed to a mysterious cloud is literally reduced to battling spiders in his basement. Matheson did the script, which became the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man. The screenplay even improved on the book in places -- the ending became more poetic -- and Matheson gained a reputation among filmmakers.

Matheson's time in Hollywood was productive, to the point where some of his fans may know of him only through his film and television work. Actors certainly have had reason to adore him. His teleplay for the 1963 Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet was a veritable gift to an up-and-coming Canadian performer by the name of William Shatner, who played the only passenger on a plane aware of an airborne creature out to sabotage the flight.

Later, Matheson's contribution to the original Star Trek series would be the script for the 1966 episode The Enemy Within, which involved a transporter malfunction that left Captain Kirk split into two distinct people. Shatner had a ball with it.

In the early 1970s, Matheson teamed up with producer-director Dan Curtis to create supernatural landmarks. One of them was the 1973 television movie Dracula, which may have been the first production to incorporate the dawning awareness that a Balkan warlord of the 1400s, Vlad the Impaler, seemed to be the kernel of truth in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. Aside from providing Jack Palance with an excellent role as the count, this movie blazed new ground by portraying Dracula as a tragic figure perched between the heroic and the demonic.

Also of significance in the Matheson-Curtis team-up were two television films about an irritable reporter named Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin) who specializes in occult mysteries. Based on a book by one Jeff Rice, the Kolchak movies were so successful that they led to a short-lived television series in 1974-1975. In the 1990s, producer Chris Carter would cite the adventures of Kolchak as one of the main sources for his own far more successful television success, The X-Files.

Nor was that all. In 1971, Steven Spielberg brought out his first feature-length effort, the television movie Duel. This nail-biter about a motorist terrorized by a mad trucker was scripted by Matheson in such a way that it is never clear whether the story is a conventional thriller or something with otherworldly overtones. It is because of works like this, which manage to locate fear in the commonplace, that Stephen King has proclaimed, "Without Richard Matheson, I wouldn't be around."

Amid his frenzied Hollywood labours, Matheson still found time to write novels, and one of them, Bid Time Return (1975), would win a World Fantasy Award. It tells of a terminally ill man so fixated on a woman who lived in a previous century that he magically travels back in time to court her before death takes him. The 1980 film version, which Matheson also wrote, was entitled Somewhere in Time, and it happened to star the doomed actor Christopher Reeve. For some, the movie may now be too wrenching to watch, but it does represent one more side of an already multifarious -- some might say, legendary -- author.

Source: written by Scott Van Wynsberghe.


Fanged Films

USA, 1986
Little Shop of Horrors
Argentina, 1943

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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