Total Recall

Total Recall: I Am Legend and the Work of Richard Matheson

We examine the film work of the cult novelist/screenwriter.

by | December 12, 2007 | Comments

This week, Will Smith plays a guy who discovers he’s the last man on earth in I Am Legend. So it’s a good time to take a look at the movie work of Richard Matheson, who penned the film’s source material.

Among sci-fi/thriller writers whose work has been adapted for the screen, Matheson’s name is less familiar than Stephen King‘s or Philip K. Dick‘s. But his novels and screenplays have cast a long shadow over the pulp medium. Like King, Matheson tells stories of regular people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Though his novelization of I Am Legend has been made into a movie several times (as 1964’s The Last Man on Earth [91 percent] and 1971’s The Omega Man [62 percent]) and is probably his best-known work, Matheson has shown an aptitude for twisty horror, thoughtful sci-fi, and sweeping romance.

Duel (81 percent) is a perfect example of one of Matheson’s greatest strengths: The image of one man gradually coming to grips with inexplicable horror. While Terror at 20,000 Feet is docked points since it’s only a short (part of The Twilight Zone movie, 63 percent) and the details of I am Legend are always drastically changed for film, Duel remains as taut and efficient as it originally was in 1971. Representing Steven Spielberg‘s feature-length directorial debut, the film follows a traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver) who’s relentlessly pursued by a big rig and its never-seen driver. “Even without benefit of hindsight,” writes Janet Maslin of The New York Times, “Duel looks like the work of an unusually talented young director.”

Duel was made for the ABC network on a 10-day shooting schedule, but its success as a Sunday Movie of the Week prompted its theatrical release overseas, along with a limited run in the U.S. Spielberg shot three new sequences: the scene where Weaver tries to assist a stuck school bus as the big rig slowly creeps up on him, an equally compelling scene that has Weaver’s car slowly being nudged into an oncoming train, and one that has Weaver calling his family before being terrorized. The last scene is interesting for a few reasons. For one, it shows a strong father figure before Spielberg’s cynicism toward them crept into his work. And the scene’s sentimentality actually helps the movie overall: it grounds Weaver’s character into reality, in a movie that is otherwise a frightening existential pursuit across the California outback.

Duel theatrical trailer

After the considerable success the dramatic Robin Williams experienced in Good Will Hunting, Williams seemed determined to re-invent himself as dramedian at the end of the century. 1999’s Jakob the Liar was a box office bomb, along with Bicentennial Man and 1998’s What Dreams May Come (56 percent), though the latter two couldn’t be faulted for lacking ambition. Bicentennial Man plots out a robot’s 200-year long journey to become human, while What Dreams May Come is a metaphysical drama about a man who leaves Heaven and plumbs the depths of Hell to retrieve his recently deceased wife. Based on the Matheson novel of the same name, Williams overacts a bit (that’s what happens when Williams does drama without a beard), but the movie’s worth watching for its Oscar-winning depiction of Heaven. “[It’s] like an abstract painting,” Karen Hershenson of the Contra Costa Times writes about the film. “Full of vivid brushstrokes that hint at deeper meaning.”

Matheson has a long-standing reputation as a thinking man’s Stephen King, but he did occasionally dip into romantic melodrama. Along with What Dreams May Come, 1981’s Somewhere in Time (60 percent) is an odd romance starring Christopher Reeve who travels back in time to get it on with Jane Seymour. Adapted by Matheson from his novel, he writes “Somewhere in Time is the story of a love which transcends time, What Dreams May Come is the story of a love which transcends death. I feel that they represent the best writing I have done in the novel form.”

Scene from What Dreams May Come

Matheson’s work has also blended everyday life with the supernatural to disquieting effect; an excellent example is the underrated Stir of Echoes (69 percent). This ghost story, based upon Matheson’s 1958 novel, had the misfortune of being released around the same time as, and sharing similar elements with, The Sixth Sense, but it stands on its own as a creepy, achingly poignant document of a solid, average guy’s descent into madness. Kevin Bacon plays Tom, a phone company employee and amateur musician, who’s not very happy with the routine his life has fallen into. On a lark at a neighborhood party, Tom convinces his sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas) to hypnotize him. Soon after, he experiences a series of troubling visions: the spectral presence of a teenage girl seems to be trying to communicate with him, and he finds he has strange powers that help him tap into the spirit world. Even more disturbing is the fact that his young son seems to be experiencing the same things with even greater clarity. As Tom pieces things together, he discovers the spirits may be giving him the clues to solving a murder.

Some of the Echoes‘ supernatural elements may not tie together seamlessly, and the ending doesn’t quite do justice to the deliciously sharp setup. But Stir of Echoes is still worlds richer than many horror flicks. It draws much of its power from its well-developed sense of place; one gets the sense that the characters have lived on the same block and breathed the same air for a long time, which adds heft to the horrifying things taking place around them. There are a number of seemingly mundane moments that throb with an undercurrent of terror. And Bacon is excellent as a decent family man who has become obsessed with the strange visions in his head. “Stir of Echoes gives a classic ghost story extra zip by insisting on the reality of the characters and their place,” wrote Susan Stark of the Detroit News.

Scene from Stir of Echoes

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