The Films of Richard Matheson, Part 1 of 4
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
What follows is a retrospective I worked on with Mr. Matheson in 2003. It originally appeared on Filmfodder.com, and I see no good reason why it shouldn't now take up residence here. In fact, I consider this version to be definitive, as I have updated the style of punctuation to my own preferences, cleaned up the odd typographical error, and altered my wording slightly in one or two instances.
The idea behind this project was simply to detail the film and television career of legendary fiction writer Richard Matheson. Responsible for scripting such films as Somewhere in Time, Duel, and The Legend of Hell House—not to mention a veritable slew of original Twilight Zone episodes—Matheson himself kindly agreed to share some of his insights into the projects discussed. (I can't tell you how disorienting it was to arrive home from work one day to a voice mail from the author of The Shrinking Man, telling me how much he and his wife had enjoyed reading what I had sent him, and that he would be happy to contribute.) Look for his illuminating commentary in red lettering throughout the article.
It is my hope that "The Films of Richard Matheson" continues to have relevance as a resource for researchers, as well as fans of the writer whose work is known and appreciated far and wide. He is missed.
Without further adieu, then, here begins "The Films of Richard Matheson."
Richard Matheson © Used with permission from Bill Shepard and Richard Matheson.
Prevailing wisdom among film enthusiasts has it that the guiding vision of a film project belongs to its director. It's called auteur theory, and it's been around for a long time. But the word auteur is troublesome when applied to a director. It's French for author, which is a strange word to have associated with the dominant school of thought surrounding an art form that has struggled since its infancy to distinguish itself from the written word. But film is a storytelling medium, just a decidedly collaborative one. There are obvious and not-so-obvious differences between written fiction and film, but there are also many similarities. Concept films may pack an art house that holds fifteen bodies if you count the projectionist, but the movies that tell a good story have traditionally been the ones to lure the popcorn-gobbling masses to the multiplexes. And no one has had us reaching for the popcorn with more urgency over the years than Richard Matheson. He's not a director, just an auteur.
[RM: Many thanks.]
You know who he is, by the way, even if you don't recognize the name. Matheson has enjoyed a long and prolific career as a novelist, a master of the short story, and a writer for the big and small screens. He's among the most adored writers of fantastic fiction, but he's probably best known to the general public for his script work, which ranges from The Incredible Shrinking Man to The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to the Steven Spielberg-directed cult favorite, Duel. [RM: Only one Star Trek script ("The Enemy Within"—ed.)] He's worked with directors as distinctive as Roger Corman and Dan Curtis, but whatever the film, and whoever the director, Matheson's influence is usually obvious. In fact, it often supersedes the presence of the director involved. Even in the case of films based on his fiction, but scripted by someone else, Matheson's voice is hard to miss. The only other writer who comes to mind as having similarly exerted his own vision in many of the film adaptations of his work is the man who credits Richard Matheson with inspiring him to write in the first place. His name is Stephen King.
Since Matheson's career is easily divided into periods of collaboration, the approach here is to look primarily at those periods, as a means of resisting a comprehensive examination of his work in the movies and television. To avoid neglecting some of the important screen accomplishments that may not fit neatly into one of his periods, however, attention to them is interjected at appropriate times throughout. The progression of things is roughly chronological, with some necessary backtracking.
Matheson's career in films started off strong when he provided the screenplay for The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957, based on his novel, The Shrinking Man. Significant changes had to be made in adapting the book, which, for instance, places a good deal of importance on how the main character responds to changes in his sexuality, changes precipitated by his progressively diminutive stature. At that time, a Hollywood film couldn't approach such concepts in any depth. By adapting the novel himself, however, Matheson managed to keep the overall feel of the story intact, and elaborate sets allowed for the enactment of enough key segments to keep fans of the novel well satisfied.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is often talked about as a science fiction classic, and I suppose it is, in a way. But the science is intentionally thin—what Hitchcock would have called a McGuffin. All we need to know is that Scott Carey is exposed to some kind of dust that makes him grow steadily smaller as the film progresses. Of primary concern in the story is what this terrible predicament means for the protagonist. Daily shrinkage is no easy thing to contend with, and not very comfortable to witness. In this regard, The Incredible Shrinking Man is more of a horror film than a work of science fiction. [RM: Terror please.] But the line between the two was often blurred in those days, so the point may be a small one. Still, it's worth noting that even in scripting his first film, Matheson was already interested in taking a deeper look at human psychology than most science fiction movies were attempting.
In 1960, Matheson's screenwriting took a clear step away from the science-fiction label when he teamed up with Roger Corman to make the first of a series of films for American International Pictures (AIP) based on the fiction—and, in the case of The Raven, poetry—of Edgar Allan Poe. The Fall of the House of Usher started things off, followed a year later by The Pit and the Pendulum. In both of these films, Matheson demonstrated a flair for adding bold embellishments to Poe's stories, and they've stood up very well over the years. But it was for 1962's Tales of Terror that Matheson penned the crowning achievement of his Poe phase, particularly the middle story (the film is a collage of three segments: "Morella," "The Black Cat" and "The Case of M. Valdemar").
"The Black Cat" is one of Poe's best-loved stories, of course, but so is "The Cask of Amontillado." What Matheson did was combine the two in so plausible a fashion that it's hard to understand why Poe didn't think of it himself. It might not have worked if the filmmakers had tried to play it straight, but Matheson mined the material for the best comic opportunities and plugged them up with dynamite. [RM: I couldn't take it all seriously by then.]
Peter Lorre and Vincent Price star as Montresor Herringbone and Fortunato Lucresi, respectively. Price is a joy to watch as the dandified wine taster. And Lorre manages to be both menacing and comical as the vile Montresor. He's cruel, vicious, tight-fisted, and pathetic ... yet the laughs are never lacking.
After begging his wife, Annabel, for a night's worth of drinking money—and nearly killing her ubiquitous black cat out of malice—Montresor wastes little time in exhausting the funds. Broke and forcibly ejected from his favorite watering hole, he resorts to a fruitless spate of panhandling before coming across an establishment advertising a Wine Merchants Convention. Montresor immediately sees the potential for gratuitous imbibing, and he steps inside with a confidence only the terribly drunk are able to muster. One of the segment's comedic high points is set in motion when Montresor challenges the revered Fortunato to a wine tasting contest. It takes several verbal stabs at the latter's dignity before he acquiesces, but acquiesce he does. And to the amazement of everyone present, Montresor proves himself the equal of his competitor in naming the type of each wine and its place of origin, despite his lack of regard for the etiquette of proper wine tasting. Luckily for Fortunato, however, Montresor tends to taste his wine in rather large quantities, and eventually it has the better of him. It's a narrow victory for Fortunato, but a victory nonetheless. [RM: Is it? (See following paragraph.—ed.)]
Fortunato, ever the gentleman, walks Montresor home at the end of the night, since the man can barely stand on his own, and there he meets the lovely Annabel. The sparks between the two strangers couldn't be more apparent if they'd been added optically. As it turns out, Fortunato is even fond of Annabel's cat! Before long, Montresor no longer needs to ask his wife for money; she gives it up freely, since she now has certain extracurricular activities to occupy the time afforded her whenever Montresor is away. Of course, Montresor eventually discovers the ruse, just not on account of any great perspicacity on his part. In the end, he has his revenge on both his wife and Fortunato, which is really where the aptness of combining the two story lines is driven home. Why wall up one victim when you can wall up two for no added charge? But the cat of the story's title has its revenge as well, since the conclusion remains faithful to the spirit of "The Black Cat" of Poe.
There must have been some agreement that Tales of Terror kept its head above the waterline mostly due to the inclusion of "The Black Cat," because that segment can be seen almost as a springboard for The Raven, released the following year. The Raven sported another impressive cast of practitioners in the field of screen terror. Vincent Price and Peter Lorre returned, and added to the mix were Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson. As a platform for stretching Matheson and Corman's now field-tested blend of humor and dread across a feature length film, The Raven succeeds admirably, but it never quite replicates the appeal of "The Black Cat."
Appropriately enough, the Poe films illustrate a very literary point, that Richard Matheson's original work marks a brusque departure from the Gothic style of telling a terrifying story. In his early work with Roger Corman one senses that Matheson had donned a slightly ill-fitting suit, and as his muscles flexed, the seams unraveled. That he found it necessary to toy as much as he did with the source material for those films is commensurate with the important role his own fiction has played in transplanting the horrors that thrill us from castles and moors to backyards and open roads. A curious lading it has been, too.