Saturday, July 9, 2011

Three faces of I Am Legend

Certain classic novels and stories are always ripe for Hollywood adaptation. Richard Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend" is just such a book.

Three direct adaptaions have been made from this book: "The Last Man on Earth" in 1964, "The Omega Man" in 1971 and "I Am Legend" in 2007.

I'm watching the middle picture, "The Omega Man," on Netflix Instant Watch right now, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss the movies and their inspiration.

Depending on who you ask or what the current trends are, "I Am Legend" can be sci-fi or horror, it can be a vampire tale (most applicable to the novel), a zombie film (some say "Night of the Living Dead" took its inspiration from Matheson), or some odd mix of all of these (the 2007 film would be a hybrid example).

First and foremost, "I Am Legend" is the harrowing tale of the last man on earth, which is pretty freaking scary, if you ask me.

To appear unbiased, we'll tackle the three adaptations in chronological order. (OK, that's a bit of bull. In my opinion, each movie was a little worse than the one before.)

The Last Man on Earth

My love of Vincent Price is no secret. As Dr. Robert Morgan (Neville in the book and other adaptations), Price kicks vampire ass in a suit and station wagon. The movie is a fairly straightforward retelling of the book with few Hollywood embellishments (because it was made by Italians and not the Hollywood honchos of the era). There isn't much in the way of special effects, unless you count Price's voice over narration. Listening to Price is always special. Giving him a film in which there are almost no other characters to share the screen with makes "The Last Man on Earth" particularly special.

The movie is in the public domain, which means there are a million different cheap DVD versions available. Personally, I own it as a double feature with "The House on Haunted Hill."

The Omega Man

Faster cars, bigger guns and Charlton Heston are the big additions to the second film version of "I Am Legend," this time called "The Omega Man."

Instead of the voice over in "The Last Man on Earth," Heston's Robert Neville talks to himself, sometimes keeping an audiotape journal. He carries a submachine gun and, except for a scene in which he wears a green velvet frock coat and frilly shirt, is never dressed as well as Price.

In this version, Neville is hunting down members of The Family, people who were mutated after germ warfare gone wrong. They're not really vampires and definitely not zombies. They're just sort of freaks, setting out to eliminate anyone who isn't like them.

One thing all three movies have in common is that Morgan/Neville was a scientist trying to find a cure for the disease that ravages humanity and left him as the lone survivor. Price and Smith portray the scientist aspect of the character much better than Heston does. But Heston was almost 50 when he filmed "The Omega Man" and I'd put my money on him in a fight.

I Am Legend

At least they got the title right.
Here's what I love about Will Smith's "I Am Legend": I care about Neville's past. All the scenes of him parting with his family are the most genuine scenes in the movie. I'd love to know what happened to his family.

Here's what I hated about "I Am Legend": Everything else. The creatures were stupid-looking and stupid-acting. Neville's enemies in the other films had more motivation, they told you what they were after. In "I Am Legend," there is no method behind the madness. It's eat-kill-destroy. Neville, more than in the other films, is still trying to find a cure when he isn't out sending the new creatures to their doom. He even gets close. If there is motivation in the creatures of this film, it's that they seem OK without being cured.

There is an alternate ending in which the leader of the creatures shows he isn't entirely inhumane. I would have liked to have seen that in the theater. Instead, I saw the theatrical ending that made Neville's self-sacrifice feel pointless.

BONUS: The Homega Man

I can't give you a clip, but go find The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror VIII (season 9) to see Homer battle the mutants after a nuclear explosion.

There's also "I Am Omega," a 2007 release made by infamous piggybackers The Asylum.  I haven't seen it, so I won't say anything bad about it. Ever. Because I don't imagine myself ever watching it.


  1. Romero has been quoted numerous times that he ripped off Matheson for the basis for Night of the Living Dead which trickled down to the rest of horror as a result, the plot has been used in everything from Carpenter's 'Assault of Precinct 13' to the British werewolf film 'Dog Soldiers'.

  2. SJ, you are very correct. Goes to show just how influential this novel is.
    --Warning Signs