(This article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in October of 2013 on the site Cheese-Magnet.com. Cheese-Magnet is people!)
I suspect most horror and science fiction enthusiasts are fans of the late writer Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013), although many may not realize it. As author and/or screenwriter, Matheson was responsible for many genre favourites including The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), five of Roger Corman’s best received Gothic horror pictures from the early 1960s, The Devil Rides Out (1968), Steven Spielberg’s first film Duel (1971), The Legend of Hell House (1973), Trilogy of Terror (1975), sixteen episodes of The Twilight Zone including the legendary “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, and… Jaws 3D (1983) – they can’t all be winners.
Matheson’s greatest contribution to the arts was, in my opinion, his novel I Am Legend (1954). Not surprisingly, it too has been adapted to film. There have actually been four movie adaptations: The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston, the 2007 Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, and a 2007 direct-to-video release titled I am Omega apparently intended to capitalize on the Will Smith feature. I saw I Am Legend when it originally came out in theatres and didn’t absolutely hate it despite some poor CGI, a weak happily-ever-after ending, and Will Smith (I am not a fan). On the other hand, I still have yet to see The Omega Man as its significant divergence from the source material keeps putting me off. Though not perfect, the best adaptation is and always will be the first one. How can you improve on Vincent Price? Let me tell you about The Last Man on Earth.
WARNING: Spoilers abound
Some may consider Vincent Price as miscast in this film. I know what I like most in a Vincent Price performance is his ability to remain dignified and almost regal while exuding a sinister and/or deranged hostility with little more than a raised eyebrow or significant pause. Even when he is not strictly speaking ‘the villain’, there is often the impression that he is gleefully plotting against his cast mates and the audience. In The Last Man on Earth, not only is he the tragic hero, but he spends a large amount of the film alone. Thus there is no one whom Price can play against with his oily charm. That being said, Price is a far more rounded actor than a cursory glance at his credits may immediately reveal. He carries the film admirably. You feel the character’s loneliness and hopelessness. Price’s carefully controlled movements give the impression of a man struggling to maintain his composure; fighting to keep the inner demons from breaking out just as he fights to keep the outer monsters from getting in.
The opening scenes of The Last Man on Earth are simple but effective in their portrayal of a desolate world. Eerily still buildings (although the observant viewer will spot smoke rising from one chimney) and deserted streets strewn with forsaken cars immediately convey the impression of abandonment. When the images begin to include bodies lying in the streets, a sinister aspect is added to the loneliness.
Our first glimpse of Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan is of him lying, apparently within arms’ reach, of a fairly large opening in a boarded-up window. Given what we will shortly learn of his situation, this seems both unwise and unlikely. Price is living in a world overrun by vampires and, while he is fairly safe during the day, must barricade himself in his home every night to protect himself from the hordes. In Matheson’s novel, you get a real sense of claustrophobia and the feeling that the slightest crack in our hero’s defenses will be his downfall. The movie downplays the immediate danger aspect, possibly for budgetary reasons. This is done by making the vampires more like shambling, weak zombies that are confounded by things as simple as doors. That said many of the vampire aspects are still retained including aversion to sunlight, mirrors, and garlic.
To drive home Dr. Morgan’s circumstances, the film’s title is displayed immediately after his introduction. The Last Man on Earth is actually not a bad retitling. It gets the idea across quickly and simply to the viewing audience in a way that I Am Legend cannot. It is also rather unsettling after the bleak opening shots.
In voice-over (Price relies on voice-over and pantomime to convey his character’s emotions and much of the plot), Dr. Morgan informs us that he has been alone for three years. Every day consists of a repetitive roster of chores designed to keep him alive through the night to come. This includes replacing broken mirrors and crosses hung around the house, ensuring his generator is still operational, and generally keeping his fortress/home in shape. You get the feeling this has all become fairly meaningless to Morgan and that he continues more out of a spurious sense of routine than any real desire to remain alive. The closest he comes to a purpose in his life is his daily hunt to destroy sleeping vampires. Towards this goal, Morgan has a lathe on which he creates a stockpile of wooden stakes.
After checking on the state of his home, Morgan goes out for some grocery shopping and vampire hunting. On the way he stops to load the bodies of two vampires left on his lawn into the back of his Chevy sedan. Dr. Morgan, still in voice-over, explains that the vampires turn on each other when they cannot get to him. For whatever reason, he doesn’t close the hatch on the back of his car and drives around with the corpses’ feet hanging out the back. Perhaps this explains why they have swapped positions by the time he arrives at ‘the pit’.
The pit is a cavernous hole in the ground in which we learn he, and the military before him, dispose of infected vampire corpses. The pit is constantly smouldering although what, short of a tire fire, could constantly be burning down there, I can’t imagine. Morgan pours some gasoline down the edge in what you would think is a completely ineffective gesture but, when he tosses a burning torch down after the gasoline, there is a satisfactory explosion and gout of flame.
The next stop is the abandoned grocery store for some supplies. Despite the implication that he must have been coming here for the last three years, it is necessary for Morgan to push his way through a large knot of shopping carts. Inside, he has been apparently keeping a huge refrigeration unit going all this time to store sides of beef and cloves of garlic. Morgan stocks up on garlic, commenting on how they are still fresh. Unless he is growing his own garlic somewhere, I don’t see how three year old garlic can possibly be fresh. Then he moves on to the mirror store to stock up on mirrors. Vampires apparently do have reflections but cannot stand to gaze upon themselves so the mirrors help keep them at bay.
Finally Morgan moves on to his vampire hunt. This involves scouring abandoned buildings and disturbing vampires while they ‘sleep’ (and this is exactly what they appear to be doing). In a montage, we see Morgan hammering stakes into what seem more like vagrants than vampires before delivering their bodies to the pit.
Later that night, we get our first glimpse of the vampires in action as they lay siege on Morgan’s home. As I already alluded to, the vampires are lacking in fine motor skills and don’t do much more than beat ineffectively on the house with sticks and rocks. All with the exception of one vampire who also torments Morgan by calling to him by name.
In flashbacks and home movies watched by Morgan, we soon come to learn that his tormentor vampire is Ben Cortman, a former neighbour, co-worker, and friend. Ben and Morgan had been working at the Mercer Institute of Medical Research to find a cure for the strange plague sweeping the world and believed to be carried on the wind.
As Morgan and Ben struggled to stop the spread of the disease, rumours began about people coming back from the dead and the government instituted a policy of burning all victims of the plague in large pits. When Morgan’s own daughter succumbed to the illness, he unsuccessfully attempted to prevent her body from being tossed in the local pit. When his wife died the very next day, Morgan swore he would not allow her to end up in the pit. He instead buried her in secret only to have her show back up at his door that evening.
Back in the present, Ben has directed the other vampires to wreck the Chevy while Morgan has been reminiscing. This doesn’t faze Morgan, who simply goes to a dealership the next day and picks out a new car. Although he feels a little tempted to pick something sporty, he remains practical and chooses another sedan.
Arriving at home with his new acquisition, Morgan spots a stray dog. Desperate for any companionship, he chases after the dog but soon loses it. As he scours the city in search of it, he comes across several vampires that have been staked with iron spears instead of the wooden stakes he uses. The implications are obvious; somebody else is slaying vampires and therefore Morgan is not alone.
The dog later returns to the house and Morgan brings it in to clean it up. While talking to it and petting it, he notices…something; I couldn’t tell what it was. But it makes Morgan suspicious so he performs a blood test on the dog only to discover that it is infected with the ‘vampire germ’. The next scene shows Morgan burying the dog with a wooden stake driven into it.
As Morgan finishes burying the dog, he spots a woman casually strolling towards him. She supposedly doesn’t see him and bolts once she finally notices him staring incredulously at her. Morgan gives chase and convinces her to come back to his house with him. At the house, we learn that the woman’s name is Ruth Collins. She acts very suspicious whenever Morgan isn’t looking; checking herself in a mirror, snooping around, and keeping a small packet concealed in her skirt. She also takes it upon herself to put on what must be his wife’s sweater that she finds in a drawer.
For someone craving human contact, Morgan is not a particularly good host. He shoves garlic in Ruth’s face and accuses her of being a vampire. In the novel, the hero himself partially explains this behaviour as being due to his failing social graces after three years of isolation. When Ruth makes as if to leave, Morgan somewhat oddly says, “You can’t go out there. At least let me give you a blood test.” Ruth refuses the blood test but agrees to stay.
At this point, things start to happen pretty fast and get a little confusing. Morgan shares with Ruth his theory on his own immunity to the vampire germ. He was once bitten by a bat while working in Panama and he believes the bat had the vampire germ and passed a weakened version on to Morgan which immunized him. Shortly after this discussion, Morgan catches Ruth trying to give herself an injection from her small packet. She confesses to him that she was ‘one of them’ and “without that injection I’ll be one again.” This would imply she was a vampire once which means she must have died but that is obviously not what is meant since Ruth later says that she and her group are alive. Unbeknownst to Morgan, a group of humans has found a way to keep at bay the sickness that results in death followed by vampirism. According to Ruth the injection is “defibrinated blood plus vaccine”. The blood is to feed the germ while the vaccine prevents it from multiplying. How Morgan, who was one of the last scientists working on a cure, didn’t know about this is a bit puzzling. It also negates the title of the movie since Morgan is not, and has never been, the last man on earth. (In the book, Ruth’s group are a new breed of ‘intelligent’ vampires.)
Ruth’s infant society sees Morgan as a monster, a creature out of legend (hence the title of the novel) that hunts and destroys them. Ruth tells Morgan that some of his vampire hunts have resulted in him killing some of her group, living people that Morgan mistook for vampires. This comes as a horrible shock to Morgan and makes their fear of him a little more understandable. Either way, Ruth’s group plans to destroy Morgan.
Ruth is supposed to hold Morgan at the house until members of her group can come to kill him (a plan that doesn’t make a lot of sense). Having spent time with him, however, she has a change of heart and besides, without her injection, she quickly grows weak and blacks out. Not sure what to do with her, Morgan gets the idea to give her a blood transfusion of his blood (using a neat hand-pumped device). As Morgan explains, the antibodies in his blood cures her of the vampire germ. It strikes me as odd that, as a scientist looking for a cure and having a theory for his own immunity, Morgan didn’t try this at some point in the past. I also question the validity of such a treatment. Perhaps his blood could act as a vaccination, but a cure?
Morgan is practically giddy with the thought that they can cure the others as well and “never be alone again”. However, when the angry mob from Ruth’s group arrives, they are not in a mood to listen. They kill all the vampires hanging around Morgan’s house (including Ben who’s death is not as poignant as in the book but still rather ironically sad) and chase Morgan through town despite Ruth pleading with them to stop.
The Last Man on Earth stays reasonably close to the original story and certainly is more true to it than any of the other adaptations. This isn’t surprising as Matheson himself worked on the screenplay (although he apparently did not want his name associated with the final film). What this means is that the movie, like the novel, paints a bleak picture and maintains that bleakness right to the last scene. It is a bit of a hard film to watch. When I discuss films, even (or especially) those I love, I enjoy mocking them a bit and pointing out some of their flaws. Although I still did some of that with The Last Man on Earth, it is more difficult to get into it. This isn’t a movie to ridicule over a couple of beers with the guys. It is, however, despite whatever misgivings Matheson had, a decent adaptation that honours its source material.
The Last Man on Earth (1964) Directed by Ubaldo B. Ragona & Sidney Salkow; Written by Richard Matheson; Screenplay by Richard Matheson & William F. Leicester; Starring Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Emma Danieli, & Christi Courtland; Available on Blu-Ray from Shout Factory as part of The Vincent Price Collection Volume II and on DVD from Legend Films.