Sunday 20 February 2011

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

I'll come right out with it: I love post-apocalypse / end of the world movies.  I can't get enough of them, so I'm fortunate that there are plenty around at the moment.  I also like the same themes in literature and, again, there are more examples than I have time to read.  One undisputed masterpiece of the genre is Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" which was first published in 1954.  It's so good that it has served as the basis for at least four films and has inspired many others.  The film in question here is the first of those adaptations and was directed by someone called Sidney Salkow about whom I know very little.

I've seen three and a bit of those adaptations and this one is the closest to the novel.  Apart from a slightly altered ending it's remarkably faithful, even including the episode with the dog and the origin of the novel's strange but powerful title.  The reason for this is that Matheson wrote the screenplay, a fact I only discovered this from watching a short interview with him on the disc, because the screenplay is actually credited to 'Logan Swanson'.  Apparently this was because Matheson wasn't happy with the way the film was going and wanted to remove his name from the credits entirely; on being told that that would mean he wouldn't get any residuals from the film he decided to go for a pseudonym instead.  The name derives from the maiden names of his mother and his wife's mother.

I'm not sure what Matheson's problem was because, as I said, it's faithful to the source material.  One drawback is that despite being set in the US it was filmed in Italy (presumably because it was easier to film the deserted city scenes) so it doesn't quite convince.  Similarly, apart from Vincent Price as Robert Morgan (annoyingly and pointlessly renamed from Robert Neville in the book), the rest of the cast are Italian, including delirious movie stalwart Giacomo Rossi-Stuart as Morgan's nemesis.  Now there's nothing wrong with Italian actors but they've all been dubbed with American voices so it just doesn't seem quite right.  Maybe those things annoyed Matheson, I don't know.

Those points aside, it's rather good.  I liked that Morgan's house was a hovel, unlike the palatial accomodation enjoyed by Charlton Heston and Will Smith in THE OMEGA MAN and I AM LEGEND respectively.  Let's face it, if you were the last man on Earth with little prospect of anyone coming round for tea you wouldn't bother too much about hoovering or dusting would you?

I thought the burning pit of hell where the infected corpses were destroyed was a strong image.

The vampires were good too: weak, as they would be, and almost zombie-like.  The scenes of them attacking Morgan's house could well have influenced George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which resembles this closely.

Vincent Price was a great actor - a bit hammy at times maybe but he had a fabulous voice and a wonderfully expressive face.  He's almost the quintessential delirious actor and had a long and distinguished career in genre movies; his best performances are too numerous to mention.  In some ways he is the American Peter Cushing: a refined and cultured man who happened to be very good at playing horrific roles.  Like Cushing, he never appeared to think he was above the material, giving his all whatever the film's quality.  It's good to see him in a rare heroic role in this film, although he plays it with his customary haunted intensity.

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