Skip to main content

The beginning of any new society is never charming or gentle.

The Last Man on Earth
(1964)

(SPOILERS) I get the impression that some – purists – regard The Last Man on Earth as the best of the three I Am Legend adaptations simply by default: because it’s the most faithful version, regardless of other diminishing factors. Which was pretty much Richard Matheson’s take (“I was disappointed in the film, even though they more or less followed my story”). The truth is, the movie is quite watchable, largely down to Price (whom Matheson felt was miscast), but it’s only ever a bare-bones, basic piece of work.

That basic quality makes it easy to see why George Romero was taken with it, and would credit the movie for inspiring the zombies of Night of the Living Dead. Which means The Last Man on Earth is quite the forebear. Or alternatively, has a whole lot to answer for. Because the shambling, erratic, laughably-inept zombie vampires attempting to break into Robert Morgan’s home every sundown really do suggest Romero’s zombies (I’ll wager, if you come to the movie cold, it’s the first thing you’ll think of). There isn’t a whole lot of tension to go along with that, but that’s of a piece with the iffy direction from Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo B Ragona and the mostly iffy acting from an Italian cast (zombie vampire Ben, played by Giacoo Rossi Stuart, is especially amusing).

The picture lacks the range or thematic depth to truly grapple with the theme of loneliness, extolled by the novel’s advocates as its greatest achievement. Part of that is spending too little time with Price alone; we’re always either insulated by a voiceover, his daytime activities – does garlic stay fresh for three years? And why isn’t he busy planting some rather going to the supermarket for past-their-sell-by-date supplies? – flashbacks, or his not-actually fellow survivor Ruth (Franca Bettoia).

The flashbacks offer probably the most affecting and engaging material, however. The progress of the plague is sketched out suggestively (“Is Europe’s disease carried on the wind?” asks a newspaper headline). Price’s Morgan is a scientist, in contrast to the novel, and forwards the view that “I just can’t accept the idea of universal disease” (if only there were more like him just now!) His colleague Ben, who will succumb to paranoia and then vampirism, wonders if this may bear all the hallmarks of your classic, go-to, hysteria-generating contagion: “Is it possible this germ or virus could be airborne?

The novel appears to suggest the pandemic derives from bacteria (in contrast to popular and proliferate viruses). Albeit, rather unevenly spread by mosquitoes (which could make sense) and dust storms (less so). Matheson piles on a whole load of pseudo-scientific vampire lore, which in this version, with its mirrors and strings of garlic, comes across as plain silly (although, it’s a neat reversal that a bat furnishes Morgan’s immunity from the plague – it bit him a long time ago in Panama – as a twist from their usual unwarranted vilification).

It’s unusual to see Price in a “straight” role, particularly tackling the loss of his daughter and wife with something approximating a restrained manner. The former goes blind with the disease and, when his wife (Emma Danieli) ignores his instruction not to call the doctor, is disposed of in a perma-burning pit of the diseased. Virginia also succumbs, but she returns from the grave after he buries her.

Unfortunately, it’s the element that wins The Last Man on Earth all the brownie points – the retention of Matheson’s twist – that disappoints. It lacks the all-important impact of Price being regarded as a legend, feared by Ruth and her fellow infected non-zombies (who have come up with a vaccine that holds off the worst effects: “We’re alive. Infected yes, but alive”). Morgan has been travelling around town, staking the “alive”, and they, not unreasonably, want shot of him. I’m not sure the development of Morgan developing a permanent cure via a transfusion bears up to close scrutiny – why would he only realise the reason for his immunity now? Unless it’s only the presence of Ruth that gives him cause and opportunity – but it adds an ironic poignancy to his being hunted down and killed. As for the black-clad army, the “freaks” who do for him, they’re possibly even less imposing than the undead.

Above and beyond The Last Man on Earth’s protagonist-antagonist reversal, it’s interesting to consider that Morgan, “a man. The last man”, unadulterated in his biology, can have no place in this “new society” anyway; the prospects for any resisting the incoming technocratic age’s vaunted gene-altering vaccine, those who do not wish to become the “new humans” in the new society of tomorrow, might be similarly construed.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey.

Spellbound (1945)
Spellbound is something of a stumbling follow-up to Rebecca, producer David O Selznick’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. Selznick was a devotee of psychoanalysis, and the idea of basing a film on the subject was already in the mind of the director. To that end, the producer’s own therapist, May Romm, was brought in as a technical advisor (resulting in Hitchcock’s famous response when she pointed out an inaccuracy, “My dear, it’s only a movie”).

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Hello Johnny, how are you today?

Twin Peaks 3.10: Laura is the one.
(SPOILERS) I’ve a theory that all it takes to tip a solid episode of Twin Peaks (in any season) into a great one are three or four slices of sublime strangeness. The rest can hum along amiably, in contrast to that electricity the Log Lady has something to say about, but it’s those scenes that define the overall shape and energy. Laura is the one has a good three or four, and maybe the funniest sustained Lynchian visual gag so far.

That comes in the form of the Mitchum brothers, or to be more precise Robert Knepper’s Rodney. He’s aided and abetted by Candie (Amy Shiels), part airhead, part fruit bat, attempting to swat a fly while Rodney examines casino surveillance logs. And like most of the director’s comic gold, this goes on and on and on, and you absolutely know it will end with Rodney getting clobbered. I wasn’t expecting it to be with the TV remote, though.

I’m not certain Candie’s mental state, sustained though it is, is going to be about anyth…