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  • Pete Mesling

The Films of Richard Matheson, Part 3 of 4

Updated: Sep 9, 2019


It's discouraging that one of Richard Matheson's greatest novels, I Am Legend, has yet to be turned into a wholly satisfying film (unless one counts Night of the Living Dead, which doesn't officially credit Matheson's book as a source, but ...). Two attempts have been made, however. The first came in 1964 and starred Vincent Price as Robert Neville, the reluctant vampire-hunter of the story. Matheson wrote the script—which was re-written by William P. Leicester—but is credited under the pen name Logan Swanson. This version, filmed in Italy, comes much closer than the 1971 Charlton Heston vehicle, Omega Man, to capturing the oppressive atmosphere of the novel, but Price proves an unfortunate choice for Matheson's masculine hero, and The Last Man on Earth ends up being ill served by the stagnancy of its direction. As for Omega Man, its primary appeal is for those with an interest in Heston's science fiction period, which also included Soylent Green and The Planet of the Apes. In the end, neither adaptation of I Am Legend is able to convey the sense from the novel that hope itself is outmoded in Neville's apocalyptic world, that a beaten man's only recourse is to fill his hours as productively as possible. But again, The Last Man on Earth comes much closer than Omega Man. [I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, wasn't out yet when this article appeared originally, but sadly it only makes a trilogy of the unsatisfying attempts to adapt the novel.—ed.]

In 1965, Matheson scripted the first of two films for the legendary British film studio, Hammer Films. Based on an Anne Blaisdell novel and directed by Silvio Narizzano, Die! Die! My Darling! is the claustrophobic tale of a young woman held prisoner in the house of her one-time fiance's mother. Stephen died before the two were married, and the ancient Mrs. Trefoille (Tallulah Bankhead) blames Patricia for his death. The ending of the film is a bit soft for a Matheson-scripted effort, but you'd have to try pretty hard to care, because overall it's one of Hammer's most successful films in terms of drawing out suspense. And besides, we can't expect every suspense thriller to deliver the kind of satisfying payoff that we get in, say, the film version of Misery—though I must admit that Die! Die! My Darling! could have used a little good old-fashioned revenge in the wrap-up.

Patricia, played by a young Stephanie Powers, has returned to London after a prolonged absence to be with her new fiance, Alan. She decides, despite his protests, that her being in England again provides a good opportunity to visit Mrs. Trefoille, who lives in an old country mansion. Think Carrie, The Collector, and Psycho, and you begin to understand the kind of situation into which poor Patricia is about to insert herself, except that Mrs. Trefoille makes Carrie White's mother look rather loose by comparison.

What is Mrs. Trefoille's problem, exactly, apart from the loss of her son? Well, she doesn't appear to have gotten over her husband's passing some years ago, for one thing. He died the year Stephen was born, incidentally. There's mention of an acting career in the stern woman's past, too. But mostly Mrs. Trefoille has found religion, and one aspect of her interpretation of that religion is that she views marital engagement to be as strong a bond as marriage itself. Poor, poor Patricia. She's forced to give up lipstick, and the color red is strictly verboten. Only the plainest fare is served in the Trefoille household, and breakfast every morning is laid out only after an interminable Biblical sermon has been read by the lady of the house.

In the beginning, Patricia isn't aware that she won't be allowed to leave, and the dynamic between her and Mrs. Trefoille is almost playful. But we're usually kept a step ahead of Patricia, so dread is never out of reach as we watch the story unfold. Once Patricia starts to appreciate the gravity of her situation, however, a new element of fun is introduced. Seeing that she has nothing to lose, the heroine acts with increasing boldness toward Mrs. Trefoille, whose reactions range from incredulous shock to outbursts of wickedness.

What the film does best is to make the audience believe repeatedly that maybe this time Patricia is going to escape from the clutches of Mrs. Trefoille, only to dash our hopes again and again. There's a particularly effective moment after Mrs. Trefoille leaves Patricia alone in her room and takes the captive's untouched meal with her out of anger. Patricia finds a scrap of food on the floor and lunges for it like a hungry dog. She brings it to her lips before realizing what she's been reduced to. Disgusted, she tosses the scrap aside and gathers the resolve to make her first escape attempt.

By the time Alan finally gets around to searching for his intended, we've begun to wonder if he'll ever get the job done. In a scene that foreshadows that painful close-up in Halloween when Dr. Loomis looks first one way and then the other while Michael Myers glides behind him in his dirty green station wagon, Alan walks right past Mrs. Trefoille's servant, Anna, on his way into a grocery store not far from the Trefoille estate. He tries to insist on interrupting a business transaction at the counter in order to ask the cashier where exactly Mrs. Trefoille's house is located. But the cashier takes the upper hand and forces him to wait his turn. Anna overhears Alan try to interrogate the cashier and manages to rush back to the house ahead of him. Again Patricia is denied reprieve, for Mrs. Trefoille is given just enough warning of Alan's imminent arrival to gag her prisoner, compose herself and, when he does show up, convince Alan that Patricia has left several days ago. Alan's apple-red roadster almost cracks the old lady's veneer of sanity, but she manages to hold it together long enough to watch him drive off into the sunset. As already mentioned, the ending beyond this point might have been stronger, but there's no good reason to reveal every last detail to the curious reader.

The other Hammer film that Matheson worked on is The Devil Rides Out, a beloved Christopher Lee vehicle from Dennis Wheatley's novel, directed by the inimitable Terence Fisher. When we think of Satanic horror films these days, "Rosemary's Baby" seems the obvious progenitor, but "The Devil Rides Out" was released the same year as Roman Polanski's literal translation of the Ira Levin classic (1968). It is, of course, required viewing (the novel is also highly engrossing).

I suppose we can call De Sade Matheson's art film, put out by AIP in 1969. In an interview on the DVD, Matheson clarifies a very important point about the film: his script did not indicate for it to be shot as a linear narrative, but rather as a series of mental flashbacks from the infamous Marquis de Sade's deathbed. The powers that be felt Matheson's approach would be too hard to follow and so they changed the structure of the story. The biggest problem with this is that virtually every scene was written to be a distortion of reality at the hands of de Sade's disjointed memory of events, which director Cy Endfield captures beautifully, but without cluing the audience in to the reasons behind the disjointedness until the very end of the film. It's a wonderful example of how the writer's role in the filmmaking process is easily overlooked, or misunderstood.

1971 saw the airing of Duel, which has made white-knuckle drivers out of countless late night television viewers ever since. Dennis Weaver plays a man—David Mann, actually—terrorized nearly to death by an 18-wheeler on a desolate stretch of California highway. I say he's pursued by the truck itself because we never see more than the hirsute arm of the driver.

The plot is really that simple, proving that just about any idea can be sculpted into a story, but a good film is more than the sum of its ideas. A universe needs to be crafted in which the story is allowed to unfold. That universe doesn't have to play by our rules, but hopefully it plays by its own. Otherwise there's bound to be a lack of consistency to the picture. The desert universe of Duel is documented with a pretty busy camera. When it's important that we see the speedometer, director Steven Spielberg shows it to us. When we need to see Mann slap at the steering wheel out of frustration and terror, Spielberg shows us that. And just when you think a moment's reprieve from the tension might be in sight, there's a new threat for Mann to overcome. But it's amazing how many shots in the film are precisely indicated in Matheson's original story. I imagine that the script served as a very clear blueprint indeed. [RM: It did.]

Interestingly, Spielberg has said that he views Jaws as a kind of sequel to Duel. Matheson is credited as one of the screenwriters for Jaws 3, but that's pretty much the end of that unnecessary sequel's appeal. [RM: It could have been a lot better if my script had been left alone.]

Critics have not been as kind to the work Spielberg and Matheson put into Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983 as they have to Duel. When the film is mentioned at all, it's often in terms of the tragedy that befell the shooting of one of its segments. But the very fact that it's a collage film is of interest to Matheson fans who have long associated him with the form. The segment with the strongest attachment to Matheson is the remake of the famous episode from the original series, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which in both cases was scripted by Matheson and based on his story. So similar is the remake to the original that it amounts to little more than a case of bringing certain things up to date, especially the look of the creature on the wing, which has always been the Achilles heel of the otherwise superb original. John Lithgow is terrific as the horrified passenger and sole witness to the elusive monster in the 1983 version, but so was William Shatner in the classic Twilight Zone episode. [RM: Far more interesting in that Shatner's character, newly and only partially recovered from a mental breakdown, is resisting the experience as much as he can.] In an age when sequels and remakes have become the earmark of Hollywood's aversion to risk, I suppose it's pointless to fret over Spielberg and Matheson's mild retelling of what is often touted by Twilight Zone fans as their favorite episode. Both versions are great fun in their own way. [I'm cautiously optimistic about Jordan Peele's forthcoming adaptation of this same story for his Twilight Zone reboot.—ed.]

<<Previous: Part 2 | <<Back to the Beginning>> | Next: Part 4 >>


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© 2016 by Pete Mesling