Friday, October 24, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Last Man on Earth

Last Man on Earth

"I can't live a heartbeat away from hell - and forget it."

I read Richard Matheson's I Am Legend pretty late in my sci-fi reading history. I'd already seen and read a dozen things that were inspired by (or blatantly ripped off) the book, but it still had power, and is well worth a read if you get a chance.

While you can see its influence in things like the original Night of the Living Dead, I don't think anyone's really done the original story justice - official adaptations included. Last Man on Earth comes the closest, however. Omega Man has its own cheesy glories, but as an adaptation of the novel it fails miserably. I Am Legend was a fun movie - and in some ways captured a bit of that epic loneliness of the main character - but it's an action movie at the end of the day, more concerned with the CGI monsters and action set pieces.

I wanted to make a joke about 'getting the point' - but I got nothin'.

No, Last Man on Earth - despite the slow pacing, bad acting (except for Price) and the whole low-budget feel to the whole affair - is the most faithful. Whether that's a good thing or not is a matter of opinion. I happen to think it's the best of the bunch - with the changes from the novel being necessary (especially the ending).

The Medium
For years all I've had was a DVD copy that was a part of one of those '50 Horror Classics' type collections. It's pretty crappy, cropped on the sides and with significant dust/scratches/damage. Luckily, Scream Factory has released a Blu-ray version as part of its Vincent Price Collection II. I don't own the set yet, but it's something I hope to pick up eventually.

The picture is a revelation compared to the low-quality versions I've seen on TV and DVD. The picture is sharp and detailed and the contrast is much improved, providing a depth sorely lacking in previous releases.

The Movie
It's the end of the world and we know it. The sun rises on an empty LA. Bodies and debris litter the streets. In a residential neighborhood, in a house festooned with garlic and mirrors, the Last Man on Earth is waking up.

No crowds, but the smell...

The bleakness of Morgan's existence is made obvious early on in Last Man on Earth. The shots of various parts of LA with corpses strewn about, empty streets, debris everywhere. Then there's Morgan's house - full of just the most essential things, piled up everywhere. His living room includes a record player, but it also has a shortwave radio setup and a lathe where he makes stakes. There are what look like blood splatters on the walls. This is a man who is just surviving - and really, if you're the last person on earth, who do you have to clean up for?

Normally I dislike narration, but I'll make an exception for Vincent Price. It's really a one-man show, this movie, and he does a fantastic job - alternately stoic and on the edge of breaking down.

It's an average day for Morgan, bleak as it is. Need garlic and gas. Pile the corpses he find outside of his house into the back of his station wagon and drive them to a smoking pit where he dumps the bodies. Then it's a trip to the grocery store, past piles of corpses.

And a quick trip to the mirror store. What's good in vampire repellent these days?

At this point the rational part of your brain has questions. Generators still working, gas still available after three years? Food still neatly stacked on shelves? Corpses EVERYWHERE? In a modern movie all this stuff would be smashed, the food taken during the collapse of society - but it was a different time.

A good portion of Morgan's day is going door to door, room to room, killing what can only be described as vampires. It's gotta be vampires, right? We've got  garlic, mirrors, and stakes. Yet they look and act more like zombies. Especially once he returns home just before sundown and the creatures come out of the dark to assault his house.

I like how there's a couple of sections off the main area, like he just got bored and needed a change of scenery.

 That look on his face as they assault the house. Imagine three years of that. Gah.

The next day Morgan goes to visit his wife's crypt. One eerie detail - the cemetery is jammed with the rows of cheap, makeshift crosses. He falls asleep and by the time he wakes up the sun has already set. He's forced to run a gauntlet of the creatures to get to his car and back to the house.

Dude. They're zombies. Slow-moving, fairly weak, trouble in groups. Zombies.

Zombies or vampires, this was a stupid place to be at sundown.

This must have been one of the first post-apocalyptic movies that had all these elements. A wrecked city, a lone survivor watching films of his family, checking on the radio for survivors, slowly going mad. Vincent Price is really good in this. I mean he's good normally, but just really understated and effective here.

We eventually get a flashback to life before, when the plague was just getting started, and geez, that's an effective flashback. Here's what life was like - before your daughter was taken away to be burned by the military. Before your wife came back from the grave to try and kill you. And your best friend is the monster trying to kill you every night. We get a very good sense of how things are falling apart. And they actually the word "vampires."

Unfortunately, nobody is a good actor in this film so far except Price. It's not horrible, as most of the film is just him, but it's noticeable when any other actors have lines.

There's a bit in the flashback where the military has come and taken his daughter, who has been infected. He rushes to the pit where they're burning bodies - the same pit he's dumping at in the earlier part of the film. The military won't let him in and he wails that it's his daughter in there. The soldier's reply:  "Mister, a lot of daughters are in there. Including my own."

"We had some levity in the script, but then we ended up burning it in this pit."

That is some dark shit right there.

You know, it's small bits that stick out to me. That he doesn't clean up the sawdust from making stakes. The joy on Morgan's face when he sees the stray dog. The horror at the return of his wife. It's awesome - awful, but awesome.

Eventually Morgan finds someone else IS alive. A woman named Ruth that runs when she first sees him, though he's able to catch up to her and convince her to come with him. What's interesting (at least to me) is that he's less overjoyed at finding her than he was at finding the dog. Maybe it's the suspicion that things will all go wrong. He's right about that, and Ruth is hiding a terrible secret. One that will eventually lead to Morgan's death.

Shouldn't this be pitchforks and torches?

The ending is substantially different from the book, but it is more exciting, with a chase, a gunfight and a final confrontation in a church. There's some dialogue with Ruth about him being just as much a monster to those he's killed as they are to him, but it gets a bit muddled in the rush. (And I wish he'd called them monsters instead of 'freaks' for some reason.) There's no real representation of a new order taking the place of the old - it's just a bunch of people in black rushing about with guns, suddenly.

The Bottom Line
It's definitely a low-budget movie, but Last Man on Earth is a lot better than I remember it being. There's some care and thought put into the piece and I appreciated those a lot more this time around. Vincent Price is great and if the rest of the cast doesn't measure up, well, who does? Like the other adaptations of I Am Legend this one is flawed, but even a flawed gem shines if you tilt it just right to the light.

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