Thursday, December 6, 2007

Last Man on Earth (1964)

With the impending I Am Legend film starring Will Smith looming close on the cinematic horizon, I felt it necessary to go back and watch other films that were based on Richard Matheson’s legendary book. My first pick was Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price.

Last Man on Earth is a bleak and desolate picture shot in black and white that George Romero himself has claimed to having inspired Night of the Living Dead. Its hopeless atmosphere coupled with Price’s strong performance has made it a cult favorite even though it was quickly dismissed at the time of its release in 1964.

Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) wakes up day after day to the same monotonous and lonely routine. Each day he wakes up is just “another day to live through,” according to him. He is all alone in a post-apocalyptic world. Everyday he drives through debris-filled, utterly lifeless streets, looking for supplies to sustain him and dumping corpses into The Pit. You see, three years ago a plague infected the entire human population, turning them all into vampires. Everyone, that is, except for Morgan (he is immune because of a run-in with a vampire bat). Now he spends his days fortifying his home, driving the empty streets for useful supplies and dumping dead bodies of vampires into a fire pit. The days may be Morgan’s, but the nights belong to the creatures of the night. When night descends, Morgan must be safe inside his house or risk being torn to bits by the shuffling and zombie-like vampires!

The film stays fairly true to the book, but it lacks the sense of dread that pervades Matheson’s story. Matheson initially adapted the script from his own book, but the producer handed it off to William Leicester to beef up. Matheson was furious at this development and very unhappy with the way Leicester adapted it. He insisted his name be pulled off the credits, replacing it with pseudonym Logan Swanson. If you’ve read Matheson’s book, it does feel like something is off and not quite right about the script. Though the script stays fairly true to the events in the book, there is a certain sense of isolation and horror that appears to be missing.

One thing that isn’t missing or lacking is Vincent Price’s performance. Price captures the heartbreak, hopelessness, longing and loneliness of the last man on earth in a very subdued, but no less affecting, manner. He tones down his usually hammy performance to give us one of his best performances ever.

From watching Last Man on Earth, it becomes pretty obvious that it was, in fact, one of Romero’s influences for Night of the Living Dead (as was Matheson’s book). Both were filmed in black and white (though color stock was widely available at the time) and feature an austere and grim look, both visually and philosophically. They share a very similar tone, but Last Man on Earth just lacked a certain something.

Also, the infected undead in Last Man on Earth, with their slow, shambling walk and hunger for the kill, act more like zombies than bloodsuckers. Still, they can’t stand garlic, sunlight or mirrors and only a stake through the heart will kill them. Every night they attack the house where Morgan lives, yelling at him to “Come out!” but they don’t have the brains to break in. While these nightly ghouls aren’t very scary in our day and age, they purposely aren’t the most horrifying thing in the film. The most terrifying thing is being the “last man on earth,” an outsider, a minority and all alone. There are so many different levels to that particular fear and so much social commentary that could be found in this film…

Yet, I just couldn’t bring myself to really like this film. My main complaint was with the pacing. Though you cared a great deal about what happened to Dr. Morgan, there was far too much time spent on flashbacks of his (and the world’s) past. The focus should have been on the terror at hand as opposed to what happened in the past or explaining how the plague occurred. These flashbacks bog down the film and make its already slow/subtle pace even more meandering. The ending, where we discover the fate of the last man on earth, almost makes up for pace. Almost, but not quite. I’ll be very interested to see how they end the new I Am Legend film…

Last Man on Earth is a close adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, but it fails to capture the complete spectrum of desperation, loneliness and hopelessness that the novel horrifies the viewer with. Still, it’s definitely worth a look for Vincent Price’s excellent performance, the desolate world it portrays and its deeper outlook on humanity.

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