Monday, September 16, 2013

Movie Monday: The Richard Matheson Edition

I had planned on writing about movie trivia today. And I'll still get to some of that eventually.

However, when I started to do some research on one of the bits of trivia that I intended to write about, it came to my attention that writer Richard Matheson died earlier this year. One of the legends in the field of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, Matheson wrote novels, screenplays, and teleplays that have entered the larger cultural consciousness. Mention "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", and even people who are not fans of the genre probably know what you're talking about. Bring up "The Incredible Shrinking Man", and even more people will know exactly the film you are referring to. Even people who claim not to "do" fantasy have probably seen "Somewhere in Time."

Matheson had a hand in the creation of all these films and television episodes and many, many more. In several cases, he wrote both the novels and the screenplays for the films they were based on. Others of his novels have been filmed more than once.

"I Am Legend" is an example of how Hollywood has felt that Matheson's work bears repeating. He published "I Am Legend" in 1954. In 1964, it was filmed as "The Last Man on Earth" and starred Vincent Price as the only man left on Earth who hasn't been affected by a plague that has turned the rest of humanity into zombie/vampires. Hollywood revisited the story in 1971, this time calling it "The Omega Man" and with the Vincent Price role taken over by Charlton Heston. More recently, the story reclaimed its original title, "I Am Legend" (2007), with a new star, Will Smith.

Matheson also wrote "The Shrinking Man" (1956), which became "The Incredible Shrinking Man" on screen in 1957 and then transmuted into "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" in 1981. "The Incredible Shrinking Man" is a classic science fiction/horror film that follows the 1950s convention of blaming the horrible fate of some unfortunate human on radioactivity. Here is the trailer from when the 1957 film was released:

Other films that were made from Matheson's work, some with the screenplay also written by him and some not, include but are not limited to "What Dreams May Come (novel, 1978; film, 1998); "Stir of Echoes" (1999), from the novel "A Stir of Echoes"; and "Hell House" (1971), which was filmed as "The Legend of Hell House" in 1973). "Somewhere in Time" (1980), the great romantic time-travel fantasy starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer, was adapted by Matheson from his 1975 novel "Bid Time Return". The made-for-TV film "Duel" (1971), directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Dennis Weaver, was adapted by Matheson from one of his short stories. We'll be back to "Duel" in a little bit. Here is the trailer for "Somewhere in Time":

Matheson also adapted classic science fiction and horror stories by other writers for the screen. In 1961, he adapted two Jules Verne novels, "Robur the Conqueror" and "Master of the World", into a film, also called "Master of the World". This film, which starred Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, featured a flying ship, fascinated me when I saw it as a child. Here is the trailer:

Matheson also adapted several Edgar Allen Poe stories for the screen, including "The Fall of the House of Usher", which became "House of Usher" (1960) onscreen; "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961); "Tales of Terror" (1962) which included "Morella", an amalgam of "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado", and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"; and "The Raven" (1963), the cast for which included not only Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, but also a very young Jack Nicholson. All of these films were directed by Roger Corman."

In addition to his film work and his novels, Matheson also wrote for television, including several episodes for the original "Twilight Zone" and a classic episode of "Star Trek", "The Enemy Within" (1966). One of the episodes he wrote for "The Twilight Zone" was actually filmed twice, once for the original series in 1963 and again as the fourth segment of "Twilight Zone: The Movie", in 1983). Matheson also wrote what is, for my money, the most frightening episode of "The Twilight Zone" ever filmed, "Little Girl Lost" (1962). This story concerns a little girl who disappears from her bedroom one night. Her parents can't find her, but they can hear her. I won't say more, because if you haven't seen this episode, you really need to, and I don't want to spoil it for you. I first saw this episode when I was maybe six years old, and it scared me more than anything in any film or TV show ever has. Ever. And really, you need to see it. Go search for it on YouTube. The whole episode is available there.

Matheson had such a long and rich career, it would take days to review everything he wrote. And so I won't do that. However, I do want to return to the whole idea of movie trivia for a moment because one of my favorite pieces of trivia concerns the TV film "Duel" which I mentioned before. According to several sources I've come across, Matheson discussed at various times how he came to write the short story that the film was based on. It is an interesting story for anyone who has ever been tempted to ask a writer the question all writers dread: "Where do you get your ideas?"

Turns out, Matheson got the idea for the story that became "Duel" on November 22, 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Apparently, Matheson and a friend of his were in Simi Valley, California, playing golf, when they heard that Kennedy had been killed. They decided that they needed to get back to Los Angeles, so they packed up and drove back toward L.A. At that time, the only road between Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley and L.A. was the narrow, winding, two-lane road over Santa Susana Pass. The road was a dangerous one, with sheer drop-offs in several places. As the two men navigated the road, a truck came up behind them and tailgated them for a fair distance. It was apparently a fairly nerve-wracking experience, and a story, and then the screenplay, came out of it.

This story is interesting to me for a few reasons. First of all, I'm always fascinated by writers describing their process. Second of all, I know that road and traveled along it frequently all through my childhood because I grew up in Simi Valley and when I was young it was a small enough town that one had to travel to San Fernando Valley or Los Angeles to do most shopping. I can picture being tailgated by a truck on that road, where the truck couldn't pass because the road is too winding and there are no shoulders large enough for a car to pull over and let it by. It would be an extremely frightening experience. The other reason that this particular story intrigues me is that it is dated so accurately. I know, as most of us who were alive and old enough to remember do, exactly where I was on the day Kennedy was shot. And because I know where I was, I know that I was within a few miles of the area where the event that gave rise to the story happened to Matheson and his companion at the time it happened to them. Which tickles my senses of proximity and synchronicity.

Yeah, I know. I'm a geek.

Anyway, I thought I'd leave you with the trailer for "Duel", which was, by the way not filmed on the road where Matheson got the idea for the original story. It would have been a lot more frightening if it had been.

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