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.

Last Genesis

Roger Corman was famous for saving a buck on his movies. When it came to low-budget sci-fi and horror, he could be counted on to stretch pennies into dollars. The B quality with which this impresses most of his films makes them all the more addictive. I watched my share growing up, but I’m still discovering ever more as an adult. The Last Woman on Earth is one I recently found and the religious implications of the film were so obvious that they seemed worthy of a little exegesis. The plot is simple enough, three skin-divers, a man, his wife, and his lawyer friend, are the only survivors of an anoxic episode. When Harold Gern (the man) wonders what happened his friend Martin says, “A new and better bomb, act of God, it doesn’t really matter.” The destruction of humanity is a time-honored divine pass-time, so no one considers the statement blasphemous.

Naturally enough, within a short time Martin starts to feel that Harold’s claim on his wife Evelyn (clearly, by choice of name, an Eve figure) is a bit unreasonable under the circumstances. Biology is, in this instance, the misogynic element as the men increasingly step up their hostilities. Evelyn eventually decides to run away with Martin, but Harold is in hot pursuit. The entire episode takes place on Puerto Rico, and so there are a limited number of places to hide. Martin tells Evelyn to await him in the church, which she dutifully does. Harold catches up with Martin and blinds him. Martin finds his way to the church and when Harold comes in Martin provides a final homily (including some lines from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”) declaring that there is no more God. He then dies on the church floor.

The movie ends with Harold and Evelyn leaving the church to try to learn what life is all about. Reading up on the movie, I learned that Corman wanted to keep the costs down so that the writer of the script was cast as Martin for the film. The script wasn’t finished before they started shooting. Nevertheless Robert Towne’s story brings the overall trajectory back to an updated Garden of Eden story. Puerto Rico, a tropical paradise, where the one woman is Eve, is the scene of the first sin—the murder of Martin by Harold. Throughout the movie, Martin is clearly the Abel character while Harold is selfish, unsympathetic, and emotionally absent. Cain wins the epic struggle and God, we are told, is no more. Not the most profound of story-telling, but the themes and concepts are very much biblical. And when the final couple leave the church the remainder of world history is set to begin. I’d gladly give this one a B.