Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Last Man on Earth

TCM is gearing up for Halloween by screening a number of classic horror movies, and today I caught two of them: The Last Man on Earth and Cat People. I'll probably write about the latter sometime soon, but tonight I want to talk about the former.

1964's The Last Man on Earth is an adaptation of Richard Matheson's landmark horror novel, I Am Legend. I read the novel almost twenty years ago, in a vampire film & literature class at college (that's the kind of cool-ass class you get at UC Berkeley, baby!), and I've read the excellent comic book version, but I've never seen either of the movies spawned by the novel. I think I might make a point of rereading the novel and the comic book this October, as this blog's "Halloween thing," and watch the second film adaptation of the novel as well, Charlton Heston's The Omega Man. All this should prep me for the third film adaptation due for release this December, starring Will Smith. (Which looks pretty damn good, actually, if you ignore the fact that Guillermo del Toro passed on directing, and Francis Lawrence, helmer of Constantine, took the job instead.)

Anyway, as to the film in question: it's not good. It's an Italian production, possibly making it a precursor to the "giallo" wave of horror movies originating in the '70s. But it features pretty much none of the sexuality and gore, and very little of the psychological terror, that typify the giallo genre. Really, the primary impact of the country of origin on the film is horrible dubbing over terrible Italian actors.

It stars the awesome Vincent Price, looking much younger and haler than most of us probably picture him, even though his hunched back and halting movements during action scenes betray the fact that he was already in his early 50s when the film was made. He is Robert Morgan (renamed, for no apparent reason, from the novel's Robert Neville), who is apparently the last human being alive, the rest of the world's population having succumbed to what is basically a vampire virus. There are still countless vampires at large, and Price, as the only human, makes it his mission to destroy them -- and more importantly, simply to survive.

The opening sequence of the film is riveting. We see the devastated cityscape Price occupies; we see the harrowing conditions under which he lives -- attempting to contact another human being by radio, sharpening dozens of wooden stakes, reinforcing his home from vampire attacks; we see him setting out on his daylight mission -- gathering supplies, and hunting and killing vampires, then dumping their corpses in an eternally burning fiery pit. This has been his life for three whole years.

Then we get into the flashbacks, which is where the movie falls apart. Price used to be a scientist, who was working on developing a cure for the vampire virus. Before he could succeed, his wife and daughter fell to the disease. The problem with this section of the film, aside from boredom as it drags on and on and on, is the blatantly poor quality of the dubbing, rivaling a Godzilla picture (Price appears to have been the only native English speaker in the cast), and the terrible Italian actors mouthing their English lines. Price is a compelling presence, but his lackluster fellow actors detract both from the poignancy we should feel from his loss of family and friends (he's better off without those chumps!), and the threat the vampires pose to him, post-apocalypse.

There are a few moments which work throughout the film. When Price's wife returns from the dead, the gruesome horror Price feels on seeing her is palpable; her whispery appeals to him from the dark outside the house are chilling: "Let me in... let me in...." Price's joy at sighting a surviving dog is touching, and his chase to catch the dog is exhilarating; how the dog's story plays out is darkly disturbing. And the discovery of another surviving human, a beautiful young woman, is wonderfully punctuated by Price's paranoia and dread.

Sadly, the end of the film collapses into a random chase and shoot-out, wildly deviating from the novel's climax. Not that what came before it was all that great, but it's so sudden, poorly staged (Price's lame attempt at hiding in a bush, completely exposed to his inexplicably oblivious pursuers, is especially hilarious), and completely out of character with the rest of the film, that it ruins any chance for the film to leave a positive impression.

I'm glad I saw it, just to say, "I saw it," but in no way can I recommend others do so. I hope Heston's Omega Man isn't quite so bad... but I suspect it will be.

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