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

Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

During the previous incarnation of this blog, before it had to be rebooted due to hacking issues, I published a series of posts under the title Cinematic heroes.  This was about actors whom I admired, ranging from craggy action men like Rutger Hauer and James Cosmo to beloved old-school character actors like Terry-Thomas and James Robertson-Justice.  Aware of a gender imbalance, I’d also intended to launch a parallel series of posts called Cinematic heroines, dedicated to my favourite actresses.  But I never got around to it.

 

Anyhow, a week ago saw the death of the actress Barbara Shelley following a Covid-19 diagnosis.  When I was a lad of 11 of 12 and a nascent film buff, Shelley was perhaps the first actress I developed a crush on.  Thus, sadly and belatedly, here’s Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley.

 

As well as being my first movie crush, Shelly starred in the first horror movie I saw that properly horrified me, 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  Before I watched it, and before I reached my second decade, I’d seen some quaint old black-and-white horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, including a couple that featured John Carradine as Count Dracula.  Carradine played Dracula as a gentlemanly, well-spoken figure who could change from bat-form into dandified human-form complete with a top hat.  This hardly prepared me for Dracula, Prince of Darkness, made two decades later in colour by Hammer Films.  It was a decidedly more visceral experience…  Almost traumatically so for my young sensibilities.

 

Cloaked in an atmosphere of dread from the word ‘go’, it has four English travellers getting lost whilst holidaying in Transylvania and spending the night at the seemingly empty Castle Dracula.  There, an acolyte of Dracula strings one of them up over a tomb containing the dead vampire’s ashes, slashes his throat and sends blood splashing noisily onto those ashes to bring the monster back to life.  And monster he certainly is.  Played by the great Christopher Lee, Dracula lurches around, hisses and spits, and glowers through red contact lenses like a literal bat out of hell.

 

Barbara Shelley is the second-billed actress in the movie, after Suzan Farmer, but she’s as memorable as Lee is.  She plays Helen Kent, a stereotypically repressed and prudish Victorian housewife who, the traveller least enamoured with the apparent comforts of Castle Dracula, comes out with the prophetic line: “There’ll be no morning for us!”  Later, bitten by the Count, she transforms from Victorian housewife into voluptuous sexpot, tries to seduce the surviving members of the group and bares her fangs animalistically at the sight of their naked throats.  However, Helen’s sexual awakening is shockingly punished near the film’s end when another memorable actor, Lanarkshire-born Andrew Keir, playing a very Scottish Transylvanian monk, re-asserts the puritanical and patriarchal status quo.  He and his fellow monks tie her down and bang a metal stake through her heart in a scene that evokes the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

After all that, my eleven-year-old self was shaken – but also stirred, into a lifelong fascination with horror movies.  And thanks to Barbara Shelley’s performance as a saucy vampire, I was probably stirred in more ways than one.

 

Born in London in 1932 as Barbara Kowin, Shelley took up modelling in the early 1950s and by 1953 had appeared in her first film, Mantrap, made by Hammer Films, the studio that’d later become her most important employer.  However, she subsequently spent several years in Italy, making films there.  It wasn’t until 1957 that she got a leading role in the genre that’d make her famous.  This was the British-American cheapie Cat Girl, an ‘unofficial remake’ of Val Lewton’s supernatural masterpiece Cat People (1942).  Cat Girl’s director was Alfred Shaughnessy, who’d later develop, write for and serve as script editor on the British television show Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), essential TV viewing during the 1970s and the Downtown Abbey (2010-15) of its day.

 

Slightly better remembered is 1958’s Blood of the Vampire, a cash-in by Tempean Films on the success that Hammer Films had recently enjoyed with gothic horror movies shot in colour.  Indeed, Hammer’s main scribe Jimmy Sangster moonlighted from the company to write the script for this one.  Shelley isn’t in Blood long enough to make much impact, although her character is allowed to be proactive.  Hired as a servant, she infiltrates the household of the mysterious Dr Callistratus (played by legendary if hammy Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit), who runs the prison in which her lover (Vincent Ball) has been incarcerated.  Callistratus, it transpires, is harvesting the prisoners’ blood to sustain and perhaps find a cure for his secret medical condition – for he’s actually a vampire.  An uncomfortable blend of mad-doctor movie and vampire movie, Blood at least gets a certain, pulpy energy from its lurid storyline and Wolfit’s OTT performance.

 

The same year, Shelley got her first substantial role in a Hammer movie, although this was a war rather than a horror one, The Camp on Blood Island (1958).  A half-dozen years later, she’d appear in its prequel, The Secret of Blood Island (1964), a film whose policy of casting British character actors like Patrick Wymark and Michael Ripper as Japanese prison-camp guards prompted the critic Kim Newman to write recently: “Even by the standards of yellowface casting – common at the time – these are offensive caricatures, but they’re also so absurd that they break up the prevailing grim tone of the whole thing.”

 

Before making her first Hammer horror film, Shelley appeared in 1960’s sci-fi horror classic Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos.  She plays Anthea Zellaby, while the impeccable George Sanders plays her husband George.  Like all the inhabitants of the village of Midwich, Anthea becomes unconscious when the district is stricken by some inexplicable cosmic phenomenon.  And like every woman of childbearing age there, she discovers that she’s pregnant after she wakes up again.  The result is a tribe of sinister little children with blonde hair, pale skins, plummy accents, super-high IQs, glowing eyes and telepathic powers who resemble a horde of mini-Boris Johnsons (well, without the IQ, eyes or powers).

 

These are cinema’s first truly creepy horror-movie kids.  Child-actor Martin Stephens is particularly creepy as David Zellaby, Anthea’s son and the children’s leader.  Still effective today, the original Village knocks spots off the remake that John Carpenter directed in 1995.  It was also amusingly sent up as The Bloodening (“You’re thinking about hurting us…  Now you’re thinking, how did they know what I was thinking…?  Now you’re thinking, I hope that’s shepherd’s pie in my knickers….”) in a 1999 episode of The Simpsons.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Columbia

 

After making a horror-thriller called Shadow of the Cat (1961) for Hammer, about the murder of a wealthy old lady (Catherine Lacey), a conspiracy by inheritance-hungry relatives and servants, and a supernaturally vengeful pet cat, Shelley got her meatiest role yet in the same studio’s 1963 horror film The Gorgon.  This was directed by the man who’d make Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Terence Fisher, and also featured that film’s star, Christopher Lee.  In addition, it featured Hammer’s other horror legend, Peter Cushing.  Atypically, Lee plays the good guy here rather than the bad one, and Cushing plays the bad guy rather than the good one.  The Gorgon is about a mid-European village terrorised by an unknown person who’s possessed by the spirit of Megaera, one of the three monstrous Gorgons from Greek mythology.  (In fact, in proper Greek mythology, Megaera was one of the Furies.)  Her victims are regularly found transformed into stone.

 

Since the Gorgon’s female, and since Shelley plays the only prominent female character, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that she turns out to be the possessed villager.  Oddly, Shelley doesn’t get to play the character in Gorgon form.  That honour goes to actress Prudence Hyman, sporting a headful of very unconvincing rubber snakes.  While the monster is a big disappointment, and isn’t a patch on cinema’s scariest representation of a Gorgon, the Ray Harryhausen-animated Medusa in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, The Gorgon makes partial amends by having some wonderfully atmospheric moments.

 

In 1966, besides appearing in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Shelley appeared in Rasputin, the Mad Monk, which was shot back-to-back with the Dracula film and used many of the same sets and cast, including Christopher Lee as the titular character.  Despite some good performances, I find this film a confused, half-baked affair.  Happily, two years later, Shelley’s final movie for Hammer was also her best one.  This was 1968’s sci-fi horror film Quatermass and the Pit, based on an original 1958 BBC TV serial of the same name.  Both the film and serial were written by the same man, Nigel Kneale.

 

Pit has an ingenious premise.  Workers on a London Underground extension project dig up some skeletons of prehistoric ape-men and what proves to be an alien spacecraft full of dead, horned insect-like creatures.  The insects are identified by the film’s scientist hero Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir again) as inhabitants of the now-lifeless planet Mars.  Five million years ago, they came to earth and staged an invasion by proxy.  Unable to survive themselves in the earth’s atmosphere, the insect-Martians programmed the apes they encountered to become mental Martians.  Since these apes were the ancestors of modern human beings, Quatermass memorably exclaims, “We are the Martians!”

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Seven Arts Productions

 

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Martians, in both insect and surrogate-ape form, conducted occasional culls whereby those with pure Martian genes / programming destroyed their fellows who’d developed mutations and lost their genetic / programmed purity.  When the spacecraft is reactivated by a power surge from the cables of some TV news crews, it triggers a new cull.  London becomes an apocalyptic hellscape where the human inhabitants who retain their Martian conditioning roam around, zombie-like, and use newly awoken telekinetic powers to kill those who no longer have that conditioning.

 

Shelley plays an anthropologist called Barbara Judd, a member of a team headed by Dr Roney (James Donald) studying the apes’ remains.  They join forces with Andrew Keir’s Quatermass – sartorially striking in a beard, bowtie, tweed suit and trilby – who’s a rocket scientist come to examine the spacecraft.  Shelley, Donald and Keir are endearing in their roles.  It’s refreshing to see a film where the scientists aren’t cold-blooded, delusional, self-serving or plain weird.  Instead, they’re decent human beings, working with an eager curiosity, a sense of duty and a very relatable sense of humour.  Indeed, the film has a poignant climax, when the member of the trio who’s least affected by the influence emanating from the spacecraft makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to stop it.

 

Thereafter, Barbara Shelley made only a few more film appearances, most notably with a supporting role in Stephen Weeks’ Ghost Story (1974), a film with an unsettling atmosphere – perhaps because although it’s supposed to be set in the English countryside, it was actually filmed in India.  It’s also interesting because it offered a rare screen credit for Vivian MacKerrell, the actor who was the real-life inspiration for the title character of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987).  However, she kept busy with appearances on stage, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and on television.  Fans of British TV science fiction of a certain vintage will know her for her appearances in the final season of Blake’s Seven (1981) and in Peter Davison-era Doctor Who (1983).

 

Barbara Shelley’s death on January 4th led to her being described in the media as a ‘scream queen’ and ‘Hammer horror starlet’, but both labels don’t do her justice.  For one thing, her characters rarely screamed – the impressive scream she produced in Dracula, Prince of Darkness was actually dubbed in by her co-star Suzan Farmer.  Also, the ‘Hammer starlet’ moniker implies she found fame due to her looks and physical attributes rather than her acting abilities.  The moniker is frequently applied to actresses like Ingrid Pitt, Yutte Stensgaard, Madeline Smith and Kate O’Mara who worked with the studio in the 1970s, when relaxed censorship rules allowed more bare flesh to be shown onscreen.  But working in a less permissive time, Shelley projected sexuality when she had to, as in the Dracula film, the same way she projected everything else – through sheer acting talent.  It was a talent that fans of the classic era of British gothic filmmaking, like myself, have much to be thankful for.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer