A couple of weeks ago I kicked off a retrospective look at I AM LEGEND by looking at Richard Matheson’s landmark book and promising to re-watch the three film adaptations which have been produced to date.
To my mind, this first adaptation – the Vincent Price starring LAST MAN ON EARTH from 1964 – is the best by a long shot, and that’s surprising given the increasing budgets and advances in technology used to make movies in the fifty-or-so years since it was made.
Or maybe it’s not surprising at all?
Maybe it makes perfect sense that a small, low-budget movie like this should come closest to matching the claustrophobic tone of Matheson’s book. Without the distraction of summer blockbuster state-of-the-art special effects, all we’re left to focus on is Vincent Price’s intense portrayal of Robert Morgan (confusingly re-named from Neville in this version of the story). When the world outside has shrunk to one man’s area of reach, why would we want to look any wider?
At this point I’d usually include a trailer, but LAST MAN ON EARTH is in the public domain (according to some sources), so I’ve embedded the entire movie below care of the Internet Archive.
There’s no question that this is the most faithful adaptation of Matheson’s novel, and that’s little surprise given that he worked on the screenplay (though he was apparently less than happy with subsequent rewrites so had his name removed from the credits). There had been earlier attempts made to film the book, including an aborted Hammer movie which might have tapped into their QUATERMASS success and could have been something quite wonderful.
The movie was filmed in Italy, with Rome standing in for Los Angeles, as part of a three picture deal reached with Price. Robert Morgan is a very different character in LAST MAN ON EARTH to the Robert Neville Richard Matheson created, and that suits Price’s portrayal. He’s much older here, and is a scientist, not a factory worker, with far more awareness of events than in Matheson’s novel.
LAST MAN ON EARTH is surprisingly grim at times, and the isolation and repetitive nature of Morgan’s daily routine is very well captured at the outset. However, it also feels stymied and forced because Morgan’s internal monologue is spelled out by way of an increasingly intrusive voiceover. That said, it works… initially.
In common with the novel and all three film adaptations, we take a trip down memory lane midway through the movie, with a long flashback sequence showing how the plague took hold of society and the effect in particular on Morgan and his family. It’s a necessary part of the story, of course, but it derails the pacing of the film and LAST MAN ON EARTH subsequently struggles to regain the momentum.
The film also suffers from being a product of its time, when censors and cinema audiences wouldn’t have entertained the true horror of the post-apocalyptic world Richard Matheson created. There are some shocks (most notably the return home of Morgan’s dead wife and the fire pit where he disposes of the vampires on a daily basis), but it all feels equally forced and stunted. Like Matheson’s novel, it loses its way a little at the end and deviates even further from the source text by having Morgan cure the woman survivor he finds. The handling of the final act and subsequent revelations undermines the powerful point that Matheson made, namely that Morgan/ Neville was the last of a dying breed, whose position had been usurped by a new race.
I think I’m probably being too hard on LAST MAN ON EARTH. As I said at the outset, of the three movie adaptations of I AM LEGEND it’s by far my favourite. For all its faults, it captures the bleak tone of Matheson’s novel and avoids the traps that THE OMEGA MAN and I AM LEGEND fall into (ie handsome leading actor must come out on top). It’s the relatively small scale of LAST MAN ON EARTH which makes it work, and I definitely recommend it. There’s no question that, like the novel, the film remains influential. You only have to watch the night-time attacks on Morgan’s house and look at the similarity with the farmhouse from George Romero’s original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to appreciate just how deeply the DNA of LAST MAN ON EARTH and I AM LEGEND runs through the horror genre.
Next time, Charlton Heston in crushed velvet battling afro-sporting vampires in 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN. Wish me luck.