The ‘Legend’ continues

Half a century ago, a man named Richard Matheson published a singularly bizarre novel titled I Am Legend. Against all odds and logic, this approximately 150-page story has survived as a cult classic for more than 50 years.

Will Smith will star in its third silver screen incarnation Dec. 14. The first two movies based on I Am Legend barely resembled it and, judging from the trailers, the third movie will continue this tradition.

The novel is about a man named Robert Neville, the last (living) survivor of a plague that has wiped out humanity. Well, not wiped out entirely – the victims of the plague have been turned into vampires.

Matheson commits what is usually an unforgivable science fiction/horror faux pas – he mixes genres. His vampires are only half-vampire: they feed on human blood, they come out only at night, they’re terrified of garlic and you can kill them with a stake through the heart; but the other half of Matheson’s undead creations is suspiciously zombie-like. Their condition is caused by a plague, they’re slow-moving and only partially cognizant. Matheson employs this irreverent mixing of monsters to create a specific situation. The protagonist is alone in a mostly intact city, and he’s safe in his home as long as he gets inside and locks up by nightfall.

He’s fortified his house with garlic, crucifixes and mirrors. He has plenty of food (and booze) and a generator, so he has no trouble surviving.

But isolation and nightly harassment from a pack of vampires that gather on his lawn is starting to wear out his sanity. He drinks like a fish, talks to himself and after three years he’s – well, horny. The vampire women like to take off their dresses and strike lewd poses in hopes of enticing him to come outside.

It’s a really fun situation with limitless possibilities as an apocalyptic thriller. Matheson artfully describes matter-of-fact details about Neville’s day-to-day life, anchoring an otherwise off-the-wall fantasy.

Matheson explained this technique in a 2006 interview: “If you go too far in fantasy and break the string of logic, and become nonsensical, someone will surely remind you of your dereliction.”

Vincent Price starred in The Last Man on Earth (1964), the first movie based on the novel. The blunt, obvious title basically sums up the tone of the movie. There’s very little dialogue in the book, so the director used clumsy voice-over narration to illustrate Neville’s thoughts. Much of the focus is given over to flashback scenes of Neville’s wife and child succumbing to the plague. The child actor is comically awful and the whole production is painfully dated.

In the film’s defense, it sticks more closely to the plot of the book than the 1971 version, with the exception of a scene at the end. Vampires are chasing Vincent Price and he – inexplicably – starts throwing smoke bombs at them. Also, the grainy black-and-white picture adds character to the scenes of desolation, such as one particularly eerie shot of Neville in a gas mask, throwing vampire bodies onto a fiery mass grave.

Charlton Heston played Neville in the second big screen adaptation, dubbed The Omega Man (1971). It’s truly abnormal. Heston does a good job, but the whole movie has a weird, early ’70s thing going on, with an afro-sporting female lead who acts like Foxy Brown. To put it very, very lightly: the screenwriter took some … liberties.

The Omega Man vampires aren’t vampires – they’re a book-burning, albino zombie cult. They refuse to use technology even when Heston lights up their catapult with an assault rifle. They wear black robes and dark sunglasses, they refer to Neville as a “user of the wheel,” and they’re constantly trying to set him on fire (I’m serious, like six times).

In reference to The Omega Man, Matheson said: “I think the current state of movies and television is pathetic … the creative blunder of many of the major studios (is that) marketing considerations (have) blinded them to the sad fact that almost none of their films has any interest to the public.”

However, the movie is not without a certain ludicrous charm. Heston skillfully captures Neville’s attempts at optimism in the face of severe loneliness and sexual frustration.

Based on the trailers for I Am Legend, I have some concerns about a good book being turned into a Hollywood atrocity. Leading man Will Smith has a way of turning every character he plays into, well, Will Smith.

Neville has been turned into a brilliant scientist with a rock-hard physique instead of an ordinary guy who drinks too much and periodically loses his mind. If history has shown us anything, it’s that Hollywood can’t handle a story as unique and unconcerned with convention as I Am Legend. But I’m going to cross my fingers and see it anyway. Here’s hoping.