A Lee-centennial

 

© British Lion Films

 

The British actor Sir Christopher Lee, who was born on this day exactly 100 years ago, was a man who embodied evil to generations of film-goers.  He played Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself.  But up until his passing in 2015, I didn’t so much regard him as the embodiment of evil as one of the coolest people on the planet.

 

Lee did a lot during his 93 years and not just in terms of acting – though his movie resume was awesome, with some 275 titles to his name by the time he entered his tenth decade.

 

He was, incidentally, an incredibly literary actor too, because his massive film and television CV contained adaptations of stories by Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, Alexandre Dumas, Rider Haggard, Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Rohmer, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Jules Verne.  In real life, he was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch, author of Psycho (1959), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.  And he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in 2000 he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.

 

Before getting into acting in the late 1940s, Lee did military service during World War II, which included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol , the forerunner to the SAS.  He kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.

 

His first years as an actor did not see much success, due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement.  Incidentally, I love the fact that Lee could boast of being the only actor in history who’d conducted sword fights with Errol Flynn and Yoda.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer Films in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (Lee starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.

 

In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw actually got the job; so that the man we know as Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on in that universe to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.

 

Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together, in which for much of the time they did bad things to each other.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), Lee brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with terror, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him, as Dracula, through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently harmful to vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome (1977), left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force and had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs.  It was such an evil motherf***er that Lee and Cushing had to join forces, for once, to defeat it.

 

© Granada Films

 

Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula, an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him when he passed away, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Christopher, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot (1975) says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Barbara Ewing, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marcia Hunt, Caroline Munro and Valerie Van Ost.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller (Charles Tingwell) being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut.  The sight and sound of the blood splattering noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes traumatised me.

 

© Warner Pathé / Hammer Films

 

Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many memorable, often evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a snobbish senior-civil-servant type and tormented Donald Pleasance in Deathline (1972).

 

Lee was probably Britain’s most linguistic actor, speaking German, French, Italian and Spanish and also knowing a bit of Swedish, Russian and Greek.  Thus, he also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava in 1963’s The Whip and the Body and on several occasions with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time it wasn’t fashionable to do so.  Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has improved and art-house director Peter Strickland’s movie The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a tribute, in part, to him.

 

Franco directed the later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s supervillain in un-PC Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  As well as retaining some of the racism that was prominent in Rohmer’s books, the series generally wasn’t up to much in terms of quality.  However, the film’s endings have always haunted me.  Invariably, Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters would blow up and then Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke, “The world will hear of me again!”

 

© Eon Productions

 

In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing super-sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by the impeccable Patrick Macnee, whom decades earlier had been Lee’s schoolmate at Summer Fields School in Oxford.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  Actually, next year is the film’s fiftieth anniversary.  I trust the Scottish Tourist Board will celebrate this fact on May 1st, 2023, by lighting lots of wicker men, with lots of sanctimonious, virginal, Free Presbyterian policemen inside them, along the coasts of Scotland.

 

Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to rub shoulders with icons such as Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998).  Amusingly, Lee usually explained this by arguing that these weren’t really horror films.  The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t a horror film?  Aye, right.

 

© New Line Cinema / WingNut Films

 

Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up, become major players in the film industry and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit ones, plus five movies directed by Burton.

 

When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  The festive season will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.

 

So: singing heavy metal, speaking eight languages, being perhaps the 20th century’s greatest screen villain and, probably, bayoneting Nazis to death.  Was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he penned his autobiography in his mid-fifties, he reckoned he’d been killed onscreen more than any other actor in history – but kept coming back, it feels a bit odd to be writing about Christopher Lee in the past tense.

 

Actually, if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a blood-soaked ritual to resurrect the great man, I’m up for it.

 

From the Independent

King rat

 

From horrornews.net

 

Another slightly-updated reposting for Halloween…  I originally wrote this in 2013, just after James Herbert’s death.

 

It’s fair to say that, back in the 1970s, the English novelist James Herbert increased literacy levels substantially among young males who otherwise wouldn’t have opened a book in their entire lives.  Not that Herbert, who died in 2013, ever got any thanks from Britain’s educators.  His X-rated novels of apocalyptic horror in the shabbier parts of 1970s London were the sort of items you furtively traded with your mates in school playgrounds, away from the prying and prudish eyes of teachers.

 

I was 13 when I bought a copy of Herbert’s second novel The Fog (1975), drawn by an irresistible reviewer’s comment on its back cover: “For goodness sake don’t leave this on Aunt Edna’s chair!”  An accompanying quote from the book itself was good too:  “Out of the yellowish fog a man appeared.  His eyes were fixed straight ahead and his lips were frozen in a smile.  In his hands he carried the severed, still bleeding head of his wife.”  A few mornings later, sitting in my form class at school, I passed the book to the boy sitting next to me and instructed him to read a chapter that’d I’d read the previous evening.  This was a chapter in which a group of boys at a posh boarding school go murderously insane and start beating and torturing their teachers to death.

 

I’d actually felt sick after reading that chapter, though by the next morning I was fortified and ready for more.  Anyway, I spent the next five minutes smugly watching my classmate as the colour drained from his face.  A final exclamation of disgust – “Yeee-uuuck!” – indicated that he’d reached the chapter’s last sentence.  That would’ve been the bit where the snotty deputy headmaster gets castrated with a pair of hedge-clippers.

 

I should say at this point that it wasn’t just teenage boys who were into Herbert’s novels.  For I remember a girl in my class called Alex Stassino who once, admirably, grossed out her female friends by reading aloud the description of the mass suicide at the start of Herbert’s 1980s novel The Dark.

 

© New English Library

 

Herbert’s first book was The Rats in 1974.  Despite a hostile review in the Observer by a young Martin Amis, who considered the violence in its pages “enough to make a rodent retch… and enough to make any human pitch the book aside,” the Great British public bought it in droves.  (Before The Rats’ publication, Herbert had worked at the same advertising agency as Amis’s chum Salman Rushdie.)   Though rats certainly weren’t new in horror fiction and films, and even though, like all his work, it was essentially pulp fiction, Herbert’s novel had two major selling-points.

 

Firstly, as the son of a fruit seller in London’s East End and someone who’d grown up around the corner from Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Herbert clearly had first-hand experience of the character-types and the localities in his book.  The story reeked of gritty and seedy authenticity as the rats – a strain of giant, mutant flesh-eaters – swarmed around disused canals, derelict buildings and plots of waste ground, preying on winos, down-and-outs, grubby comprehensive school kids and Jamaican immigrants working in the London tube.  I should say that, later in the book, they graduated to eating middle-class people too.  Secondly, Herbert’s approach to horror was a different one from that used by earlier British horror writers, such as the gentlemanly and clubbable Algernon Blackwood or Dennis Wheatley.  Unlike them, he left nothing to the imagination.

 

The Rats was followed by The Fog, which recounts what happens when a vaporous and madness-inducing chemical weapon leaks out of a laboratory and floats around southern England.  By the way, I remember how in 1982, after I’d left school, I was backpacking and hitchhiking around central and northern Europe in the company of a similar-aged guy called Andy, who was from Stevenage.  At one point, Andy-from-Stevenage and I got into a furious argument about The Fog.  By then we’d spent whole days waiting around entry roads onto various Autobahns without getting lifts and we’d managed to argue furiously about everything under the sun.  Andy-from-Stevenage’s beef with The Fog was that it was silly.  Especially silly, he reckoned, was the bit in it where an airline pilot goes murderously insane and, to get revenge on his wife’s lover, flies his passenger-filled jet-plane off course and smack-bang into a London skyscraper where that lover works.

 

“Jet-planes flying into skyscrapers,” raged Andy-from-Stevenage, “that’s too far-fetched!  That’d never happen in real life!”

 

© New English Library

 

In 1976, Herbert penned his first novel of the paranormal, The Survivor.  This had supernatural forces unleashed in the Berkshire town of Windsor after a devastating plane-crash there.  One set-piece in the novel describes nearby Eton College, the real-life alma mater of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, succumbing to a demonically-orchestrated fire.  Along with the gory boarding-school episode in The Fog, this suggests that working-class Herbert had a low opinion of England’s private-education system.

 

Meanwhile, The Spear (1978) was an updating of those old Dennis Wheatley occult thrillers like The Haunting of Toby Jugg and They Used Dark Forces, where the Nazis dabbled in black magic to help their war effort.  For topicality, Herbert threw the Arab-Israeli conflict into the mix.  Between The Survivor and The Spear, he wrote Fluke, an atypical fantasy story narrated by a dog suffering from troubling flashbacks to a previous life in which he’d been a man.  Eventually, he meets a wise badger who explains to him that, basically, the Buddhists had got it right.  Even Fluke contains streaks of grotty Herbert realism, though, with his canine characters spending their time hanging around London junkyards, eating garbage and getting down-and-dirty with on-heat bitches.

 

Herbert was not initially popular among traditional British horror writers and fans, no doubt because he upset cosy and middle-class notions of what horror should be about.  For somebody steeped in classic British tales of the uncanny like Charles Dickens’ The Signalman (1866) or M.R. James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad (1904), being subjected to the gnawed-off faces and exploding heads of The Rats and The Fog was probably akin to how bearded, cerebral fans of progressive-rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes felt in 1977, when they first heard Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols played loud.

 

© New English Library

 

It didn’t help Herbert’s image that his books’ success spawned a wave of badly-written and even bloodier imitators.  In his wake, a whole paperback sub-genre became known in the book trade as ‘nasties’.  This was years before the term was used in relation to films, as in Britain’s ‘video-nasty’ hysteria of the early 1980s.  Among the writers cashing in were Shaun Hutson, whose breakthrough novel was Slugs (1982).  This began with the yummy line: “The slug’s eye stalks waved slowly as it moved towards the crimson lump on which several of its companions were already feeding.”  There was also Guy N Smith, who was both a tweedy pipe-smoking countryside game expert and a schlock-horror writer.  When he wasn’t writing novels about giant carnivorous crabs – Night of the Crabs (1976), Killer Crabs (1978), Crabs on the Rampage (1981) – he was penning non-fiction tomes like Ferreting and Trapping for Amateur Gamekeepers (1976) and Moles and their Control (1980). Actually, I love the idea of Guy N. Smith (who, alas, passed away from Covid-19 at the end of last year) even if I never cared much for his books.

 

It wasn’t until 1981, when Stephen King wrote Danse Macabre, his non-fiction study of the horror genre, that Herbert finally got some respect in the field.  In Danse Macabre, King said approvingly of Herbert that he “does not just write, he puts on his combat boots and goes out to assault the reader with horror.”

 

Around the early 1980s I lost interest in James Herbert, largely, I’m sure, because I was no longer a sensation-hungry teenager.  The Dark (1980) seemed merely a supernatural retread of The Fog, while Lair (1979) was a perfunctory sequel to The Rats.  I have to say, though, that his third Rats novel, Doman (1984), which was set in a near-future London after it’d been decimated by a nuclear attack, was about the bleakest and most gruelling thing I’d ever read.  Even in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the human survivors of the holocaust didn’t have to contend with giant carnivorous rodents.  And during the 1980s and 1990s, Herbert’s books became increasingly concerned with supernatural themes and lacked the lethal edge of his earlier eco-horror ones.  That said, people whose opinions I respect say that Creed (1990) and The Others (1999) are good.

 

Those 1970s novels could’ve become great films.  Indeed, they appeared during a time when directors like Gary Sherman, who made 1972’s Deathline, and Pete Walker, who made 1974’s Frightmare, were moving British horror movies away from the realm of gothic costume dramas and making them more contemporary, nihilistic and graphic, just as Herbert was doing in fiction.  But soon afterwards, the British film industry all-but-disappeared down the plughole.  John Hough, who’d directed the well-regarded Twins of Evil (1972) and Legend of Hell House (1973), hoped to make a film of The Dark, with a script by the famous horror-movie starlet Ingrid Pitt (who was a good friend of Herbert’s), but the project came to nothing.  The Rats and Fluke were eventually filmed in 1982 and 1995, but in North America, losing the working-class London ambience that’d made the books distinctive.  The Survivor was filmed in 1981 in Australia and thus it didn’t work either.

 

© New English Library

 

Ironically, the film with the strongest flavour of his books isn’t a James Herbert adaptation at all.  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) – at least during its first half, when Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris are stalked through a deserted London by victims of a ‘rage’-inducing virus – feels like The Fog without the fog.  And during the scene in the tunnel, where Murphy, Harris and Brendan Gleason encounter a tide of scuttling rats, it’s obvious which 1970s horror paperback Boyle and his scriptwriter Alex Garland are tapping into.

 

Incredibly, considering the unsavoury things that went on in his books, the establishment saw fit to honour Herbert shortly before his death by giving him the Order of the British Empire.  Perhaps somebody in the Royal Family had accidentally left a copy of The Fog on the Queen’s chair.  And perhaps the Queen had enjoyed the bit with the hedge-clippers.

 

A while back, I read a James Herbert novel for the first time in decades.  This was after I read a piece by the Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, in which Brooker suggested that Herbert’s novel ’48 (1996) was better than James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  He was joking, of course, but knowing Brooker I suspect he was only half-joking.  My curiosity piqued, I tracked down a copy of ’48, which is set in a parallel universe in the year 1948, after London has been devastated by a ‘blood plague’ unleashed by Hitler in the final days of World War II.  A tiny band of uninfected survivors are pursued around the empty, crumbling city by a larger band of infected and vampire-like survivors, who believe that by consuming the uninfected ones’ blood they can rid themselves of the plague before it kills them.  The bad guys are led by a former associate of Oswald Mosley and style themselves on Mosley’s blackshirts.

 

Reading like a cross between Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and an Alastair Maclean war novel, I was surprised at how enjoyable ’48 turned out to be.  Admittedly, Herbert’s meat-and-two-veg prose style would never win any literary awards.  But it was hectically paced, it had just enough character development to maintain one’s interest in the players, its descriptions of a devastated 1940s London were convincing and it made shameless use of the city’s landmarks – Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge – when staging its action set-pieces.

 

It would, incidentally, make a pretty good film.  Are you reading this, Danny Boyle?

 

© HarperPrism

Richard Matheson – he was legend

 

© Orion Publishing Co

 

Something has got me thinking about Richard Matheson, the science-fiction and horror author and screenwriter who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

 

What thing?  Well, the news that the anti-Covid-19-vaxxers in America, determined to plumb the depths of stupidity to find new reasons for not getting vaccinated, have found the stupidest reason yet.  Speculation is rife that the vaccine could turn you in a zombie.  You know, like one did in the 2007 sci-fi / horror movie I am Legend, with Will Smith, which was based on Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name.  This has prompted one of the movie’s scriptwriters, Akiva Goldsman, to step up and announce on social media: “Oh.  My.  God.  It’s a movie.  I made that up.  It’s not real.” In fact, the source of the contagion in the movie wasn’t a vaccine but a virus, genetically reprogrammed by Dr Emma Thompson to combat cancer, going spectacularly rogue.

 

In Matheson’s novel I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  Also, what turns people into those vampires isn’t the movie’s lab-reprogrammed virus, but a mysterious pandemic.  However, the book’s premise of the world being suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected humans finding themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into monsters, including their own loved ones, was one that a young George Romero appropriated for his seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.  In doing so, Romero made it the blueprint for at least 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.

 

In the novel, the number of uninfected humans is small indeed: just one, Richard Neville, who is alone in the world during the daytime and then under siege in his fortified house at night, by the vampires that everyone else has turned into.  Gradually, Neville, researching the plague, stumbles on scientific explanations for the vampire-like symptoms of its victims, why they drink blood, why they can only be killed by stakes through the heart, and why they have an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes.  I am Legend also ends with an unnerving psychological twist.  Neville, who’s spent his days roaming the surrounding city and staking the slumbering vampires, realises that the vampires are now the normal ones and he’s become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that though I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and though Matheson lived to a venerable age, he never got to see a satisfactory celluloid version of it.  The novel received its first film treatment in Italy, where Rome unconvincingly stood in for Los Angeles, with the cheaply and incompetently made L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth).  Neville was played by Vincent Price, whom Matheson admired as an actor but thought was miscast in the role.  L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra was at least fairly faithful to the book, unlike the subsequent film versions, 1970’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, and the 2007 one.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with an unsubtle reference to Charles Manson, the Family.  In the Will Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive, a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually have him encounter other, as yet uninfected survivors.  They also lack the courage to include Matheson’s game-changing ending.  Instead, they close with Heston and Smith depicted as Christ-like figures who nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of what’s left of humanity.  Neville was a more interesting character when he discovered he’d become a bogeyman.  Still, disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available.

 

© Gold Medal Books

 

The more I reminisce about Matheson, the more I realise what a wonderful and influential writer he was.  His other big – though ‘big’ perhaps isn’t the most appropriate adjective – novel of the 1950s was The Shrinking Man (1956).  Its hero, an archetypal middle-class American male called Scott Carey, is exposed to a radioactive cloud that causes his body to shrink at the rate of a seventh of an inch every day.  Thereafter, Carey’s world turns nightmarishly upside down too, though at a more gradual rate than Richard Neville’s.  First, he experiences psychological and sexual humiliation as he finds himself increasingly dwarfed by his normal-sized wife.  Following an assault by the family cat, no longer a loveable moggie but a carnivorous monster, the now-tiny Carey loses all contact with humanity and finds himself trapped in his house’s basement where the dangers facing him become formidable indeed.  A common spider, for instance, takes on elephantine proportions.  And Carey’s shrinking doesn’t stop, let alone get reversed.  At the book’s close, he muses, “If nature existed on endless planes, so also might intelligence.”  Thereafter, he dwindles away into infinity.

 

A year after its publication, the novel was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Jack Arnold and with Matheson providing the script.  Matheson was unhappy with how Arnold structured the film.  He told the story in linear fashion, whereas Matheson wanted it to begin with the shrunken Carey in the basement, reliving what had happened to him via a series of flashbacks.  However, it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  It crucially retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  I can remember seeing the film on TV as a kid and being genuinely upset when the ending defied my expectations that things would finish on an upbeat note.  The Incredible Shrinking Man was, incidentally, one of the great J.G. Ballard’s top ten favourite sci-fi movies.

 

© Sphere Books

 

As well as novels, Matheson was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were collected in four books called the Shock series.  Shock 1-4 were published in Britain in the 1970s by Sphere Books, who decorated the covers with lurid and gory images – the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.  The stories I remember best include Long Distance Call, about a woman plagued by mysterious phone calls that, she discovers, emanate from a local cemetery into which the telephone wire has blown down; The Children of Noah, about a motorist who finds himself in Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary; and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In this, William Shatner essayed his second-most-famous role, that of a just-released psychiatric patient who’s on board a plane and, looking out of the window, sees a gremlin dismantling one of the engines on the wing.  Whenever he tries to alert the crew and fellow passengers, the beastie inconveniently disappears from view.  Particularly memorable is the moment when the traumatised Shatner dares to peek through the window again and discovers the gremlin pressing its face, which resembles that of a hare-lipped teddy bear, against the outside of the glass and staring in at him.  The episode was remade as a segment of the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1983, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role, and ten years later it received the ultimate accolade – it was spoofed in a Treehouse of Horror edition of The Simpsons, with Bart Simpson the only passenger on the school bus able to see a gremlin sabotaging its engine.  This version was called Nightmare at 5½ Feet.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference is about a businessman who makes the mind-blowing discovery that he’s a fictional character and his life is actually a movie.  Furthermore, the movie has just had its production halted, meaning he’ll have to live in the ‘real’ world as the declining, drunken movie star who’s been playing him.  This clearly informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost tells the tale of a child who, one night, falls from her bed and into another dimension, a mysterious, misty void from which she can hear her parents’ concerned voices but can’t escape.  A young Steven Spielberg no doubt saw and remembered this one, because the same idea features in 1982’s Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, though this time the little girl is sucked into the other dimension through the household TV set.  And yes, The Simpsons spoofed it too in Treehouse of Horror.

 

Steven Spielberg has much to thank Matheson for.  Matheson’s short story Duel, based on an experience he had on November 22nd, 1963 – of driving home depressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination and being harassed by a large, tailgating truck – was filmed as a TV movie in 1971 by Spielberg and gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie has motorist Dennis Weaver and the psychopathic driver of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck get into a deadly game of cat and mouse around the roads and highways of rural California.   We never see the truck driver himself, just his immense, bellowing, dinosaur-like vehicle.  Duel is the archetypal man-versus-machine story and, again, has been influential.  Stephen King basically rewrote it (but upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which he later filmed as Maximum Overdrive (1986).

 

The made-for-television movies that filled American TV schedules in the 1970s kept Matheson busy.  As well as Duel he scripted The Night Stalker (1972) about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) who investigates a series of killings in modern-day Los Angeles and discovers that the perpetrator is a vampire.  The Night Stalker was successful enough to eventually spawn a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigated other strange cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose massively popular The X-Files (1993-2018) had a similar theme.  Carter acknowledged his debt to Kolchak by having Darren McGavin guest-star in two X-Files episodes.

 

Meanwhile, the TV anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, from 1975, was based on three of Matheson’s short stories.  The first two segments are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman who tries to shore up her relationship with her boyfriend, a lecturer in social anthropology, by buying him an antique ‘Zuma fetish doll’ as a birthday present.  The doll is a hideous-looking thing and sports a many-fanged grin resembling a Venus flytrap.  Before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering life and she spends the evening fighting it off in the confines of her apartment.  Black’s plight is the inverse of the shrinking man’s.  She’s normal-sized and the threat she faces is tiny, but terrifying.  This also creates the template for Joe Dante’s movie Gremlins in 1984.  In particular, the scene in Gremlins where Frances Lee McCain fights off a horde of the sneering, reptilian mini-monsters in her kitchen, employing a blender and a microwave oven as weapons, is very reminiscent of Trilogy of Terror.

 

When he wasn’t writing novels, short stories and television scripts, the ever-industrious Matheson was writing for the cinema.  In the early 1960s, he scripted several of the movies based on works by Edgar Allen Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963).  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving the original stories’ gloomy, clammy spirit, whilst meeting the commercial demands of a studio and a director who were already famous for their exploitation movies, and keeping engaged a star – Vincent Price – whose performances tended to slip into the knowingly hammy when his material bored him.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re surely the most fondly remembered ones.

 

© Academy Pictures Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Matheson also worked on British movies.  For AIP’s trans-Atlantic rival, Hammer Films, he scripted The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and managed to turn Dennis Wheatley’s bloated, reactionary novel about upstanding Anglo-Saxon aristocrats fighting a bunch of ghastly Satan-worshipping foreigners into something rather good.  And in 1973, he adapted his haunted-house novel Hell House for the screen.  The result was The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunicutt as psychic investigators trying to get to the bottom of terrifying supernatural manifestations in the titular mansion.  The movie’s ending, which has the surviving investigators finding a hidden sanctum where the psychic forces are emanating from an embalmed body, played by a very un-embalmed-looking Michael Gough, is pretty stupid, which Matheson himself admitted.  Still, John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.

 

Matheson was a modest soul and in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work.  He might have ended up a very rich man if, like his famously litigious contemporary Harlan Ellison, he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he’d probably have spent all his time in court, so I’m glad he just turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing his marvellous stories.

 

© Cayuga Productions / CBS Productions