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  • Pete Mesling

The Films of Richard Matheson, Part 4 of 4

Updated: Sep 9, 2019


In the 1970s, Richard Matheson became associated with director Dan Curtis for a number of television movies, much as he had become inseparable from Roger Corman's Poe films in the '60s. But there was another co-conspirator this time around, maybe the musical equivalent of Vincent Price during the Poe period. Robert Cobert, who also worked with Curtis on the Dark Shadows program, composed the music for six of the television films that Matheson and Curtis worked on together, and the music was terribly important in all of them. The theme from The Night Stalker (produced but not directed by Curtis) and The Night Strangler (produced and directed by Curtis) alternates between a driving, disco-rock beat (very of its time) and an eerie kind of spatial thrum: an aural representation of the horrors that lurk beneath the sarcasm of those films. This sensation of things being chaotic under the thin ice of false security is brought across even more effectively in Cobert's score for Scream of the Wolf, though the theme itself isn't as memorable as the one used for the Kolchak films. Cobert captures something in these scores that goes beyond mere aptness for the individual films. His music has an awareness to it that hints of the very methods by which Richard Matheson operates in his fiction as well as his scripts. Yes, this is Las Vegas, the music assures us in The Night Stalker. Yes, this is Seattle, it concurs in The Night Strangler. But something is very, very wrong.

Cobert's other three scores for Curtis and Matheson were Dracula, Trilogy of Terror, and Dead of Night. Of course, Dracula demanded a very different style of music, and Cobert came through with an elaborate orchestral score, punctuated here and there with great savagery. And the eerily quiet music that plays over the closing credits is a haunting coda to a highly effective adaptation of the famous vampire story. In Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night we hear the most traditional horror music of the bunch. Notes leap from various woodwind instruments at crazy intervals, creating a slow, creeping mood that goes along very nicely with the psychological terror of the films.

In a special feature for the DVD of Dracula, director Dan Curtis states emphatically that Jack Palance is the scariest screen count that ever was. [RM: Except (I feel) for his over-size fangs.] I'm not inclined to argue. Christopher Lee brought a certain sophistication to the role that will never be topped. And Frank Langella captured the romantic inclinations of the character. But Jack Palance is good and scary, for sure. Matheson's script for Dracula introduces a love story between Dracula and Mina, and it's amazing to see how much better it works here than in Francis Ford Coppola's overwrought rendition. [RM: We originated the idea. Coppola's film copied it.] There's great pain in Matheson's Dracula, but it only fuels his rage. When the count discovers that Mina has been staked in her coffin, his reaction runs the emotional gamut from grief to inhuman hatred. It's not only one of the most effective scenes of the film, but of any Dracula film I've seen. Part of this, again, is owing to Cobert's startling music, but it's really a clear case of all things coming together in harmony: writing, direction, acting and music. [RM: It should have been three-hours long—which the original cut was.]

Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night are both made up of short segments. Karen Black stars in all three of the stories in Trilogy of Terror, the last being a terrifying adaptation of Matheson's story, "Prey," in which the protagonist brings home a Zuni fetish doll with the intention of giving it to her boyfriend as a gift, only to discover that it has a life of its own. The pacing of "Prey," both as a story and a short film, is enough to thin the blood. "Amelia," as the segment is called for the film, is the only one of the three that was actually scripted by Matheson. The other two, "Julie" and "Millicent and Therese," were based on his stories but adapted by William F. Nolan.

The first story in Dead of Night is called "Second Chance." It stars Ed Begley, Jr., and though not necessarily cleverer than "No Such Thing as a Vampire" or "Bobby"—the stories that follow—it serves as a fascinating prelude to a Matheson film discussed in more detail below: 1980's Somewhere in Time. Both are concerned with a protagonist who must travel back in time in order to meet the love of his life. Matheson adapted his own novel for Somewhere in Time, while his script for "Second Chance" was actually based on a Jack Finney story. Somewhere in Time is a more complicated affair, but "Second Chance" draws its considerable charm from the same well.

The Legend of Hell House, released in 1973, is another one of the oddities in Matheson's career, set apart from his collaborative periods. It's based on one of his most cherished books, Hell House, and though it's not perhaps as faithful an adaptation as it could have been, it stands on its own marvelously. [RM: Too much censorship at the time—pre-Exorcist.] But even as a Richard Matheson novel, Hell House is somewhat odd. Famous for scaring the daylights out of readers without relying on Gothic trappings, here the author has written an honest-to-God haunted house story. And oh my, what a house. I think it's safe to say that Matheson's title is a nod to Shirley Jackson, [RM: Of course.] but the scientific realism of the story is all his own.

What the film version of Matheson's novel lacks is the orgiastic hedonism that was so strong a part of Belasco House's past in the book. Emeric Belasco was (is) the master of Hell House, and his carousal in life has left certain indelible traces in the woodwork. In that regard, the film could have used a touch of the eroticism found all over De Sade. [RM: I don't know why Hell House was tamed compared to De Sade, although I don't think De Sade was all that erotic anyway. But maybe it was because Hell House was made in England, and maybe because they were more fastidious. Maybe because it was James Nicholson's first production upon leaving American International and he didn't want to do anything offensive. I don't know, but as I said, I don't really think De Sade was all that erotic anyway.]

Yet The Legend of Hell House remains one of the great all-time haunted-house movies. John Hough's direction and Alan Hume's photography are meticulous in balancing the characterization of the house with the characterization of the people who arrive there to put an end to its legacy of terror. And the cast plays its collective role with dreadful certainty. Roddy McDowall is especially enjoyable as Benjamin Franklin Fischer, who has previously done battle with Hell House and carries with him the unseen scars of that experience.

A career as long and productive as Richard Matheson's is bound to include at least one film that becomes something of a phenomenon. In Matheson's case that film is the already alluded to Somewhere in Time. And there really is a kind of magic to the film. In fact, writing about it feels a little like yelling, "MacBeth!" in an empty theater. There are certain spells that just shouldn't be broken. But surely a few words ...

Perhaps no other film with Matheson's name attached to it illustrates as clearly the acrobatic ease with which he navigates the borderland between realism and romanticism. And seldom is a novel adapted for the screen so brilliantly. The novel, originally titled Bid Time Return but since renamed to match the movie, is a very accomplished piece of writing, [RM: My best, I think.] and by 1980, of course, Matheson was no stranger to the differences between writing prose fiction and writing for motion pictures, so the disparities that exist between the novel and the film version of Somewhere in Time are easily swallowed.

There's a simple kind of perfection to the casting of Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve as lovers who must reach across time in order to unite. And Jeannot Szwarc seems ideally suited to the subject matter as the director of the film. [RM: Absolutely!] Who, watching the Matheson-penned Night Gallery episode that Szwarc directed in 1970 ("The Big Surprise"), would have guessed that the two would collaborate a decade later on one of the greatest screen romances ever filmed?

Though Somewhere in Time is a fantasy that cleverly avoids the use of any kind of machinery to achieve the time travel necessary for the story to be told, science fiction buffs—particularly time-travel buffs—may treasure the central paradox of the film. Elise McKenna, as an old woman, approaches Robert Collier (Reeve) in the present time of the story, presses a pocket watch into his hand, and urgently whispers, "Come back to me," before leaving him forever. Later, when Collier has successfully traveled back in time to be with the young Elise (Seymour), with whose photograph he has by this time fallen in love, he gives her the very same pocket watch as a gift. The question of when and where that watch was crafted is a tantalizing one. [RM: I knew it was an impossibility as soon as I wrote it but my producer and director loved it.]

Believe it or not, there are a handful of Matheson's films and television movies that have not been discussed here. Some, like Dying Room Only, Cold Sweat, and Stir of Echoes, are excellent but resisted inclusion for logistical reasons. Others, like It's Alive (the Larry Buchanan-directed film, not the Larry Cohen one), simply do not bear the Matheson mark, to put it kindly. Still others couldn't be tracked down in a timely fashion, if at all. [RM: The two best of the non-fantasy films are The Morning After and The Dreamer of Oz.]

But what thread runs through the films that have been discussed? What is it exactly that gives Richard Matheson such a distinctive cinematic voice? Perhaps the strongest theme to emerge from a survey of his work in television and motion pictures is that some lessons can only be learned in captivity. [RM: Good point.] It's an idea he returns to again and again in his fiction as well. For some of his characters, imprisonment is an obvious physical reality. Scott Carey is trapped in his own cellar. Robert Neville becomes a prisoner in his own home. Patricia, in Die! Die! My Darling!, is incarcerated in Mrs. Trefoille's house. Master of the World's John Strock is held against his will aboard The Albatross. Others are caught up in prisons of conscience. Karl Kolchak in The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, for instance, is forced into the role of Cassandra, and though it means he's bound to be ridiculed and ignored, he will not relent in his pursuit of the truth.

But to dwell on thematic concerns is to miss the point of what Matheson has proven so many times. Art can, indeed must, entertain. And conversely, entertainment doesn't have to eschew artistic value. It doesn't matter if a piece of fiction is firmly rooted in reality or set entirely on a foreign planet; whether horrifying or sad, thought provoking or humorous, it's all fantasy. And good writing is the only thing that will give it life. Matheson simply knows where our buttons are and how to push them. When someone can do that, his power over us knows few boundaries. We are clay for his wheel. Luckily for us, Richard Matheson's intentions have been benevolent. He just wants to show us the pieces of ourselves that we are too often unwilling to unearth on our own. [RM: Again, thank you, thank you for the kind words.]

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