Tuesday 25 June 2013

Richard Matheson [1926 - 2013]

Only a matter of weeks after the death of Ray Harryhausen comes the news that author Richard Matheson has passed away, aged 87.  I mention those two together because as a kid growing up in the 1970 there were several figures in the world of genre cinema whose names you just knew, automatically.  You knew Harryhausen for his stop motion animation wizardry, Ray Bradbury for his elegant stories, Robert Bloch for his ghoulish scripts and Richard Matheson for having a hand in seemingly any half-decent sci-fi or horror movie out there. With Matheson's death all four are now gone and with them goes a small but significant part of my childhood.

It's no exaggeration to say that Matheson's contribution to delirious cinema is simply too vast to deal with in depth - no doubt there will be biographies out soon enough, if there aren't already, that will attempt to do so - so I shall confine myself to mentioning what are for me the highlights of his career.

I have written before about this brilliant novel (here) which has been filmed at least four times and inspired many others.  Before I read it I had always wondered what the title meant.  It wasn't until I finally got around to reading it a few years ago that I found out, and marvelled at the perfect logic that lies behind it.  I would urge you to pick up a copy and give it a go.

"The Shrinking Man" / THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN [1957]
Unlike a lot of authors who sell the rights to their work to film producers, Matheson more often that not managed to ensure that he was responsible for adapting his own stories for the screen.  Such was the case with "I Am Legend" / THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (although he was dissatisfied with the outcome) and with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.  The "incredible" was presumably added by producers to sensationalize their film but it remains a wonderful movie that, while containing its fair share of giant scissors, fights with spiders and so on, comes closer than perhaps any other sci-fi film to being a metaphysical examination of what it means to be human.

One of my favourite films of all time, regardless of genre, and also one of the great achievements in British cinema, one day this movie will get the praise it deserves.  There have been one or two critics over the years who have recognised its quality and I can do no more than quote one of them, David Pirie, who wrote of it:

"Richard Matheson, who scripted it, was able to improve immeasurably on Dennis Wheatley's ponderous novel, and it is consequently the best film that [Terence] Fisher and Hammer ever made, an almost perfect example of the kind of thing that can happen when melodrama is achieved so completely and so imaginatively that it ceases to be melodrama at all and become a full-scale allegorical vision."

Thinking about it now, that line about the confines of melodrama being transcended to produce allegory is applicable to a lot of Matheson's work, in particular those I have highlighted here.

THE POE / CORMAN CYCLE [1960 - 65]
Matheson didn't write scripts for all of these famed movies but he did four, including two of the best in HOUSE OF USHER [1960] and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM [1961].  This series of films made by American International Pictures has, unlike The Devil Rides Out, received fulsome praise over the years for its baroque splendour and faithful recreation of Poe's doom-laden atmosphere.  Proof, if it were ever needed, that Roger Corman isn't / wasn't a cynical exploitation merchant and that Vincent Price, who stars in most of them, was a bloody good actor.  You can read my review of The Pit and the Pendulum here, although to my shame I've noticed that I don't mention Richard Matheson at all; that's how much I take his work for granted.  I think I ought to go and remedy that so I shall leave this article here.

PS - Can't believe I haven't mentioned THE TWILIGHT ZONE.  Or Matheson's work with Dan Curtis. Or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE.  Or DUEL.  And on and on...

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