Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Last Man on Earth (Associated Producers International, Produzioni La Regina, © 1963, released 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Review copyrighted © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Last Man on Earth is something else again: the first of at least three film versions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a 1954 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel in which the entire human race is hit by an unstoppable plague which first kills its victims and then, if their bodies aren’t burned first, turns them into vampire-like creatures. The movie rights were bought by Hammer Studios in 1957 and they attempted to make a version with Fritz Lang as director (now that would have been an impressive coup!) and one of a number of fine British actors (Stanley Baker, Paul Massie, Laurence Harvey and Kieron Moore) in the leading role of Robert Neville — called Robert Morgan in this version — the sole survivor of the plague who’s carrying on a one-man war against the vampires. But Hammer placed the film in turnaround and their original U.S. distributor, Robert Lippert, picked it up and decided to make the movie as a U.S.-Italian co-production, filming it in Italy with two directors, Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona. He also hired Matheson to write the script, but then put so many other writers on it — including William Leicester, Furio Monetti and director Ragona — that Matheson had his name taken off the film and replaced by the pseudonym “Logan Swanson.” To play Robert Morgan, Lippert hired Vincent Price, and though Matheson thought he was miscast (and Price’s presence is a bit problematical if only because in 1963, when this film was made, he was far more identified with old-style Gothic horror than science fiction), Price responded to the rare challenge of a script that not only made sense but gave him a rich, multidimensional characterization in a serious story he didn’t have to camp up to make entertaining. 

During his long reign as King of Horror Price mostly got silly scripts and got through them basically by winking at the audience, as if to say, “I don’t take this crap seriously, and there’s no reason why you should, either” —but occasionally he got a good script that gave him some real cinematic meat and allowed him to show off what a fine, rangy actor he could be: this film, Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, Michael Reeves’ The Conqueror Worm a.k.a. Witchfinder General. I still regret that the finest performance Vincent Price ever gave is totally lost — his one-man show as Oscar Wilde, Diversions and Delights, which fortunately enough I was able to see on stage in San Francisco in 1977 but, to the best of my knowledge, was never recorded or filmed. (It was also one of the few times Price got to play an actual historical person; others included his role as Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith in the 1940 biopic Brigham Young and the real-life “witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins in The Conqueror Worm.) Despite the multiple writers and directors — usually a bad sign for any movie — The Last Man on Earth turned out to be an excellent movie, with Price burning off the screen and avoiding most of his horror-schtick trademarks (though there are a couple of sequences when we hear Price’s famous extended laugh, and they seem a bit out of place) in a movie that, though obviously made on the cheap, benefits from real locations (albeit in Italy, though the film is supposed to take place in the U.S.) and is effectively staged and edited by the directors. 

The plot features Price as a vampire hunter who uses the same armamentarium Van Helsing used against Dracula in the story that basically wrote the rules for the classic Gothic vampire genre — the vampires are repelled by mirrors (because they cast no reflection in them) and garlic, and they can be killed by driving wooden stakes through their hearts. He goes about doing this during daylight because the vampires are only active at night, and at night he has to barricade himself inside his home because a gang of vampires regularly attempt to break in and kill him each night. (The sequences of Price erecting the barricades inside his home to ward off the vampires are strongly reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead, made four years later, and Night of the Living Dead director George Romero conceded that this film had influenced him.) Then we get a flashback to Morgan’s life pre-plague, in which we meet his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) — whom he calls “Vergy” for some reason — and their daughter Kathy (Christi Courtland). Morgan works as a biomedical researcher at a lab owned by Dr. Mercer (Umberto Rau), and his principal assistant and best friend is Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). Kathy gets the plague and Vergy calls a doctor, who notifies the authorities; they take Kathy’s dead body away for burning in a giant pit. Meanwhile Morgan and his fellow researchers are stumped by the plague — they can’t even decide whether the organism causing it is a bacterium (which could be seen by an ordinary light microscope) or a virus — and Cortman reports to Morgan that he’s heard stories of plague victims who’ve been buried (as opposed to burned) coming back to life as vampires. “That’s all those are, stories!” says the rationalist Morgan — and in a nice bit of irony it turns out that Cortman himself died, became a vampire, and is the leader of the vampire clan trying to break into Morgan’s home and kill him before he kills them. Then Morgan spots a dog running across a field and chases it, glad that there’s something alive and normal-looking still around — only by the time he catches the dog and it comes home with him it, too, expires from the plague. Then he meets a young woman, Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), who tells him that there are others who have figured out a way to make a drug from natural plant sources that will not cure them of the plague but will allow them to control it, live relatively normally and avoid becoming vampires. 

Unfortunately, Morgan has become a “legend” among these people because, in his one-person war against the vampires, he’s killed some of them as well and they’re sending out a posse to exterminate him before he kills any more. Morgan discovers the source of his own immunity to the plague — exposure to the bite of a bat years before that inoculated him with a natural vaccine — and finds that by combining his blood with Ruth’s serum he can make a drug that will cure her. He does so, but in the meantime he’s tracked down by the fellow survivors and he’s killed by metal harpoons thrown by them while standing on the altar of an abandoned church and screaming at them that both the vampires and the survivors are freaks and he’s the only real human left. There have been at least two major remakes of The Last Man on Earth: a 1971 version with Charlton Heston called The Omega Man and a 2007 film with Will Smith that used Matheson’s original title, I Am Legend. Also listed on is a 1967 short called Soy Legenda and a 2007 Asylum Studios knockoff called I Am Omega released to compete with the Will Smith version. I can’t compare how The Last Man on Earth stacks up against these since I’ve never seen the Will Smith version, I haven’t seen The Omega Man since I caught it in a theatre when it was new (though I remember joking to my mom that she had said during the 1950’s and 1960’s that Charlton Heston seemed to be making the entire history of the world on film, since he was cast in so many historical spectaculars, and when he started doing science-fiction in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s — the first two Planet of the Apes movies, The Omega Man and Soylent Green — I joked that he was extending his history of the world into the future), and I’ve never read Matheson’s novel — but on its own merits The Last Man on Earth, despite its relatively crude production values and the problems with Vincent Price as a “type,” is an excellent film that gave Price an acting challenge to which he rose magnificently. And the story’s premise is so haunting and powerful it’s no wonder so many filmmakers have returned to it since!