The Omega Man

omega-manI’ve been looking back at Richard Matheson’s seminal I AM LEGEND and the various movie adaptations the book has spawned. This week, Charlton Heston in 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN.

My horror movie education began with double bills of Hammer classics and Universal monster movies which used to be shown late Saturday nights on the BBC. When my parents bought our first VCR, a whole world of possibilities was opened. For the first time I was able to record and watch films I’d otherwise miss because they were on too late on a school night or because my parents didn’t think they were appropriate (please remember – I was very young, and this was the height of the Video Nasties craziness which outlawed 99.9% of the films I wanted to watch).

I remember recording mainstream horror movies such as ALIEN and THE OMEN and watching them endlessly for as long as I was able (usually until Dad needed the tape to record something else – tapes were damn expensive back in the day, and we had the sum total of four of them).

THE OMEGA MAN was another film I watched again and again until I could pretty much recite the script, and until re-watching it for this feature, I hadn’t seen it in a long time. I expected it to have dated badly, but Charlton Heston’s post-apocalyptic antics really took me by surprise. I knew I’d watched the movie through the rose-tinted spectacles of innocence and youth, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is a clunky and horrendously dated film.

Chuck plays Robert Neville who, in this version of the story, lives an isolated life of relative comfort in a funky pad which, for some inexplicable reason, reminded me of Batman’s cave (and I’m talking Adam West Batman here, not Christian Bale or that Affleck person). More than any other I AM LEGEND adaptation, this film is a product of its time. Watch the trailer and you’ll see what I mean, then click the link for my thoughts.

Unlike the Robert Neville of Matheson’s original novel, or Vincent Price’s portrayal of Robert Morgan in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, Charlton Heston’s character is an idiot. He makes bad decisions, wears awful clothes, does stupid things… if he really is the last man on Earth, then the human race is fucked.

Of course, he’s not the last man on Earth. In keeping (just about) with the spirit of the novel, Neville is taunted by vampires and puts his life on the line for other survivors.

Chuck’s got his post-apocalyptic life all sorted out, thanks very much. He lives (inexplicably) in a prime location in the middle of a city, and has managed to install a generator, floodlights, a stupendous CCTV system and other groovy cutting edge 1970’s gimmicks. He drinks heavily, has an extensive wardrobe of crushed velvet outfits and jumpsuits, and plays chess with a marble bust of Julius Caesar (no, really – I’m not making this up).

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Let’s talk about the bad guys, shall we? Rather than the faceless, zombie-like creatures we know and love, THE OMEGA MAN features ‘The Family’: a cult led by Mathias, an ex-TV newsreader who spent his time telling people how bad things were before the plague. All members of the family have white hair, the same off-white skin tone, weird-looking contact lenses, and wear hugely impractical monk-like robes. Oh, and they all have impossibly bright red blood, too.

The survivors we come across are paper-thin characters we couldn’t give a damn about, and any credibility ass-kicking Lisa (Rosalind Cash) has is immediately lost when she falls for Chuck’s manly charms and instantly becomes a subservient seventies-era housewife.

You may have noticed by now that I’m not taking THE OMEGA MAN particularly seriously. That’s because the film doesn’t deserve it. As a 1970’s action flick it’s just about worth watching, but as an adaptation of one of the most influential horror novels ever written, it fails on just about every level imaginable. I say just about, because some of the opening scenes are well-mounted as Neville searches the empty, litter-strewn streets for members of The Family to exterminate. I first watched the film on grainy Betamax tape, but now own it on Blu-ray. The scale of decimated LA is impressive, though I did find myself cursing the sharpness of my HD copy because I stopped watching the action and started looking for vehicles and people moving just out of shot. And there are lots. I counted six cars in the first ten minutes.

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THE OMEGA MAN quickly loses direction and abandons all but the initial premise of I AM LEGEND. That’s a shame, because it clearly had the budget and the cast to do the story justice.

Next time (takes deep breath) Will Smith in 2007’s I AM LEGEND. This’ll be interesting. I wasn’t a fan first time around, but will time have been kind to the most recent adaptation of the book?

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  • Ross Killey

    love the music for this film

  • Chris Ankin

    The BBC did an amazing and very atmospheric audio adaptation a few years back well worth checking out

  • David Moody

    Thanks, Chris, I’d forgotten about that. I will try and track down a copy.

  • Chris Ankin

    David, PM me if you get stuck, cheers, Chris