Directed by: Sidney Salkow
Written by: William F. Leicester
Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“December, 1965. Is that all it has been since I inherited the world? Only three years? Seems like a hundred million.”
Vampire movies and stories have always been hit-or-miss with me, but when I sat down to read Richard Matheson's classic horror novel "I Am Legend", I had pretty high expectations. It's revered as one of the best post-apocalyptic type books as well as vampire stories. I must say, the book did not disappoint and since then, Matheson has become one of my favorite authors. It was a fast-paced, interesting, and tense read. It has been made into a movie a handful of times, most recently starring rapper-turned-actor, Will Smith in the lead. In the 70s, Charleton Heston gave the material a try with the popular cult fave, The Omega Man. However, the film that most resembles Matheson's original novel is not surprisingly its very first cinematic interpretation, 1964's The Last Man on Earth. Not only was the film the first adaptation of this particular book, but it may also be one of the earliest films of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. Films of the 1950s and early 60s had a generally squeaky clean view of the world, making a film about the end of all things quite out of the norm. Leave it to none other than Vincent Price and a group of Italian filmmakers to shake tradition to its very foundation.
Vincent Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan (Robert Neville in the book), a scientist and the sole survivor of a plague that wiped out humanity and brought back those it killed as undead creatures that feed on blood, fear sunlight, are allergic to garlic, and shy away from mirrors. By day, Dr. Morgan travels the streets in a hearse, armed with wooden stakes and desperately trying to find the area where the vampires sleep during daylight hours. After killing them, he burns their bodies in a large pit. By night, he tries to clasp on to as much asleep as he possibly can, as the vampires who know he's inside throw rocks and shatter his walls and windows with boards and tree branches. Why was he spared when all the others perished? Is Dr. Morgan truly "the last man on earth" or are there other survivors as well?
I really like this movie. It may not have the classic reputation that Price's Poe work does (or even his William Castle films) but it's a solid effort on all fronts. Director Sidney Salkow certainly has an eye for cinematography, as even in black and white, there were many beautiful set-ups. Learning that this was an Italian production, I wasn't all that surprised. Much of the film takes place inside Dr. Morgan's sheltered, boarded up home, giving the viewer a glimpse of the sense of isolation that Morgan must feel. As an adaptation of the book, it's been a few years since I read it, but I don't recall the movie being all that different than the book. Allegedly, Matheson worked on the original script himself but after later rewrites were made, asked that his name be stricken from the credits. I do remember that Price's character had the last name "Neville" in the book. Why this was changed, I'm not sure. Maybe "Neville" would've sounded a lot less menacing than "Morgan" when the vampires chant his name along with threats during the night. Who knows. The spirit of the book is completely captured, though. Will Smith's movie was little more than an action movie with a slight horror element. They even took out the vampire element (as did The Omega Man), treating the creatures as simply infected monsters. It also completely misses the point and subtext of the novel, featuring a heroic ending for Smith...Something this film and the original novel didn't quite do (and to great effect).
Vincent Price turns in a typically great performance as the lonely straggler trying to survive. For once, he's actually the good guy. Of course, having no one to communicate with, it pretty much does start to show through that he may be a little insane at times, but for the most part, it's a restrained performance for Price. For most of the running time, it's pretty much a one-man show. The first half hour gives us a good indication of what each and every single day of Morgan's life must be like, as we follow him from morning to night during his usual routine of fashioning wooden stakes and garlic wreathes and hunting down sleeping vampires. The middle half hour is made up of flashbacks to the events that lead up to him being the last man on earth. We see his loving wife and daughter, as well as the film's main antagonist, Ben Cortman (who in life was Morgan's best friend and a fellow scientist). In death, Cortman leads the vampire revolt against Morgan. The final half hour is comprised of the possibility that Morgan may not be alone in the world. The pace is perfect and the story flows with ease. At no point was I ever bored.
There is virtually no blood and gore, but that's fine. The film is more about story than it is about shock or exploitation. Nudity is also not present. I would hesitate to call the film atmospheric, but seeing streets and buildings filled with emptiness, we do get a good sense of loneliness and isolation. The film plays out like an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone" and it's no surprise that Richard Matheson was one of the main writers whose work was featured on that classic series. One thing I noticed while watching the film was that there are very few horror films today that utilize a narrator. Price's voice is so perfect for the job, that he gives a coating of dread to each and every scene he narrates, even if it is not intended to be horrific. The narration also helps the film feel more like a novel.
If there's one fault of the film, it is that the vampires really aren't much of a threat. They lumber around more like Romero's zombies in Night of the Living Dead (keep in mind though, Last Man was released a full four years before that film) than traditional vampires. Actually, they resemble what they probably are more accurately...weakened plague victims caught somewhere between life and death. They sport no fangs and have very limited monstrous makeup. When they chase Dr. Morgan outside of his house, they merely swing at him quite slowly with sticks. Had they been a little more animated or threatening, I think it would've made for much more intense sequences. This is the sole area that (I suppose) Will Smith's I Am Legend improved on the film. The reason I'm so wishy washy on vampire films is that so many vampire movies try to make them out to be romantic and wimpy as opposed to monstrous and animal-like. There's nothing wrong with romantic, suave vampires but I prefer the more "creature" type take. The vampires here are indeed monsters, but definitely weak. If they weren't afraid of garlic, crosses, and wooden stakes, you'd never really be able to tell that they were vampires to start with. There is a clever twist to the story, but not the kind of twist that changes everything (like The Sixth Sense). Instead, it's a more story-inspired, ironic twist keeping very much in line with the original material by Matheson.
While many films still struggle to get a single DVD release, The Last Man on Earth has seen no less than three legit releases by different companies in recent years (and countless inclusions in public domain collections). Two of the legit releases were by MGM (one as part of the Midnite Movies double feature line, paired with Panic in the Year Zero and the second as its own solo release). Most recently, the film has been restored to all its black and white glory and also colorized in the same release by Legend Films. I’ve not watched the MGM releases, but the Legend Films black and white release is definitely a much better transfer than all the horrible public domain treatments the film has been subjected to over the years. The audio suffices for a film from its time and is quite crisp. The color version also featured on the same disc, I was actually surprised at how good of a job that Legend did. My general bias against the very idea of colorization aside, this wasn’t a bad job at all (especially in the coloring of buildings, streets, and settings. Though, some scenes look better than others, I was surprised at the detail that went into this process. Some scenes look very natural, like a very good transfer of an older movie. Others didn’t work quite so well, making it look like Vincent and company’s faces were caked with makeup. I did like how you can tell the vampires from the humans, though (in the black and white version, everyone pretty much looks the same, but in the color version, the vamps are completely drained of color and look more “horror filmy”). Of course, this could also harm one of the main subtexts of the movie. I prefer the black and white version, but if you want to ever show the movie to friends and they don't dig older black and white films as you do, the color version is a good, watchable alternative. Also included on the Legend disc is a 25-minute featurette “It Happened In Hollywood”, narrated by Vincent Price and trailers for other Legend releases. All in all, The Last Man on Earth is an enjoyable minor vampire flick. It succeeds more as a moody, well-told story than as a thrilling adventure, but it's definitely of interest to horror fans. Like most Vincent Price's work, I would easily say Buy it!
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