I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

Last Man

Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.

The-Omega-Man-Poster

In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.

Omega Alpha

The-Omega-Man-Poster Perhaps out of a warped—perverse even—sense of self-punishment, I watched The Omega Man. Being unemployed will make you react that way. I have a pretty high tolerance for theatrical assault, as my regular readers will know. For those of you with less self-destructive penchants, The Omega Man was the second cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend. The first movie version, The Last Man on Earth, was released in 1964, starring Vincent Price. The most recent version, borrowing the novel’s name and starring Will Smith, is the third and best attempt so far. In any case, The Omega Man opens with Charlton Heston thinking he’s the last man alive, and even that doesn’t stop him from taking his shirt off at every opportunity. That I could tolerate, however, had the movie not strayed from what I thought was its central premise—that Robert Neville was alone with a city full of vampires. Although Vincent Price did not, uncharacteristically, make a convincing last man alive, the earliest version at least retained the vampires. The Omega Man, perhaps in the spirit of 1971, substituted them for religious fanatics.

The substitution didn’t bother me so much, but the religious fanatics were pathetically acted. Leibowitzian, anti-progress monks, hating the science that led to the nuclear holocaust that made them photophobic night dwellers, they snack on sardines and graham crackers, but only come out at night to kill scientists. Well, only one, since Neville seems to be, uh, the last man on earth. They accuse him of making the wheel and using technology as they run around in off-the-rack children’s Halloween costumes acting otherwise infantile while Heston strikes dramatic poses, grimacing with a variety of machine guns in hand, as he simply shoots them. That’s not the way the world’s supposed to end. The vampires have become a religious society doing everything short of handing out tracts on the corner. Well, maybe it is the end of the world after all.

It is difficult to portray loneliness effectively. Those of us who’ve been there know it intimately, and somehow Charlton Heston has too much fun with it. Even Vincent Price had trouble making it look convincing (I mean, who still uses a saucer when having their coffee and wears a tie after the apocalypse?). Will Smith at least showed a man occasionally breaking down in tears. Charlton Heston doesn’t cry. And he doesn’t shy away from god-like delusions. When he finds the other survivors (or they find him), we learn that Neville has been attempting to cure the religion virus. Dutch says, “Christ, you could save the world.” Neville doesn’t deny the obvious messianization of his mission. In fact, pseudo-crucified on a piece of modern art, Neville receives a spear-thrust to the chest, and dies in cruciform posture in a pool of his own blood. His blood that has the antibodies to save the world. Sound familiar? For all the blood, the vampires are gone. And when I feel that the world is against me, I want to see vampires.

Last Call

A believer in equality across media, I decided to balance out my recent viewing of The Last Woman on Earth with its chronological sequel, The Last Man on Earth. I have seen I Am Legend a time or two, but I have not yet read the Richard Matheson novel. Knowing that the first cinematic attempt at the story was the Vincent Price version, I was curious to see what the last man and the last woman had in common. Not surprisingly, it was a church. The story has been around long enough that spoiler alerts are superfluous, so here goes: basically, vampires have taken over the world. Somehow Robert Morgan has survived and spends his days hunting vampires and whiling the nights away with jazz and booze. As the opening sequence rolls, the camera lingers on a church where the marquee reads “The End of the World.” Of course, in a quasi-literalist sense this is true. Robert is the only non-infected person left. He is eventually located by the infected-but-inoculated crowd and chased down to be staked to death at the altar of a church. The culmination is strikingly similar to The Last Woman on Earth where the final scene also involves a death at the altar in a church.

The noticeable difference, however, revolves around gender. There is very little in the way of sexual suggestibility in The Last Man. Even the scenes of Robert with his wife are chaste and emotional distant. The appearance of Ruth does not even tempt him after three years alone. The Last Woman, however, revolved precisely around this axis—one woman, two men. The sexual tension is the fuel that moves this entire movie along. Of course, the 1960s became the decade of the sexual revolution, but even so the female is decidedly an object in Last Woman. Even in The Last Man, the woman leads to Robert’s death. She was sent to betray him, and although she changes her mind and attempts to save him, it is in vain. Robert dies in her arms. This fear of female power has never dissipated. How many women have been elected president since the 1960s?

While maybe not the heart of the matter, religious constructs may be the lungs or stomach of the situation. Although current religious thinking often insists on equality of the sexes, a tremendous cultural freight placing women in an inferior status continues to weigh heavily on our cultural mores. The largest Christian body in the world still denies women access to the priesthood. Even the idea of denying access underscores just how deeply this sentiment runs. The movies of the early 1960s had neither the budget nor the cultural support to suggest that things should change. Indeed, in both Last pictures the message was that the world had ended already—why bother trying to change anything at this late stage? The final shot, the stolid interior of a church, underscored the message: the status quo has the sanction of the divine.