Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Last Man on Earth

1964
Dirs. Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow

Due to a mysterious immunity he acquired when bitten by a rabid bat, Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the sole survivor of a devastating global pandemic. By day he spends his time collecting supplies, strengthening his fortifications and destroying the bodies of the living-dead plague victims. By night he boards himself into his house, as hordes of the vampiric post-human creatures leave their hiding places and congregate outside his house, baying for his blood… How much isolation can one man take?

Based on Richard Matheson’s chilling novel, I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth is a creepy, deeply upsetting and thought-provoking exploration of one man’s increasingly fragile mental state as he struggles to accept his isolated existence in a dark new world. This particular adaptation is the most successful in evoking the desperation, mounting hopelessness and quiet dread of its central protagonist: the other two adaptations, The Ī©mega Man and I Am Legend, ditched eerie pathos and contemplative meditations on the strength of the human will, to offer us gun-ho action and wildly misjudged tones, as Will Smith and Charlton Heston spouted clunky dialogue and blasted away their foes with machine guns and stuff.

‘An empty, dead and silent world.’

Last Man sticks closest to the source material – opting for quiet menace and spine-tingling dread as opposed to silly action machismo. It opens with various shots depicting a city in quiet ruin. Intrigue is immediately established and held vice-like as we then see images of bodies strewn across streets. It all looks like the morning after the night before the apocalypse. The first glimpse we catch of the protagonist is through the decrepit shutters of his window – a veritable prisoner in his own home. By way of an, at times rather awkward, internal monologue we learn more about Morgan and the unenviable situation he finds himself in – as he admits to feeling sad that he even woke up again, and reveals it has been three years since he ‘inherited the earth.’ We follow him through his mundane duties – we can tell they’re mundane because, well, he tells us, but also because of Price’s world weary performance. We gradually become aware that he’s barricaded himself into his home and has at least made some effort to cling to a semblance of civilised society – his pad is strewn with books, tasteful furniture, records and food and drink. The exterior of his home is decked out with mirrors and garlic… Bon Temps this ain’t.

We’re gradually fed more information, both through flashbacks and through Morgan’s actions; moving through the house, occasionally lifting various objects contemplatively and through the city with a quiet sense of purpose. We follow him on his salvaging expeditions and bear witness to him disposing of the various plague-ridden bodies that line the streets. The various shots of bodies tumbling into a vast and flaming pit are amongst the film’s most striking moments. What becomes clear is that even though Morgan is fast reaching the end of his tether and running out of hope, he still sees the value of maintaining a semblance of order and structure in a chaotic world. Price carries the film – he is in every scene and through the flashbacks his character is fleshed-out fully – a broken man who has lost his wife and daughter to the plague. Price offers a restrained performance, effortlessly exuding the sadness and waning hopefulness of a desperate man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His doomful intoning contains all the elegant and macabre poise one would expect, and he ensures that the audiences’ sympathies lie firmly with Morgan.



The flashbacks are peppered with scientists desperately trying to find a cure for the disease, as society is depicted - as effectively as its low budget would allow – crumbling into chaos. There are a few issues with continuity and day for night photography, but this can be forgiven due to the unshakable air of bleakness and hopelessness the tale weaves, and of course the haunting performance from the ever-reliable Price. The film remains strangely relevant with its concerns about pandemics and global paranoia. In fact, were it not for the hokey and outdated scientific jargon – which simply makes it quite endearing – The Last Man on Earth would pack much more of a resonant punch. The film raises some provocative questions George Romero would also touch on in his Dead movies – it poses the question: how are people supposed to behave logically enough to ‘do away with’ loved ones? A wonderfully creepy scene depicts Morgan’s dire predicament when his dead wife returns to the house and begins clawing softly at the door, calling out to him.
It would seem this film, as well as Carnival of Souls had an overwhelming impact on Romero – the sight of the shuffling undead congregating around a house and baying for the flesh of its inhabitant are overwhelmingly similar and equally unsettling to those depicted in his work.

‘More of them for the pit.’
When a strange woman shows up, apparently showing no signs of infection, and talking of other survivors like her, events take a sinister turn. Morgan, initially cautious of the woman, begins to form an attachment to her – she’s the first ‘real’ person he’s met in years. The film does flail a little in its exploration of who the ‘real monster’ of the story is. Is it Morgan – who is viewed by the ‘survivors’ as a tyrannical devil? Or the survivors of the plague, who he viewed as murderous, vampiric vermin? Or maybe they’re both at fault? Snippets of conversation about evolution add a strange and worrying power to the figures of the survivors. The subversion of religious connotations at the film’s climax and the fact that Morgan’s death seems to cement the ‘survivors’ hopelessness, ensures the film ends on a devastatingly bleak note.

While far from perfect, The Last Man on Earth is perhaps the most successful adaptation of Matheson’s novel yet. Its timeless themes of isolation, hope, loneliness, the need for companionship and fraying humanity are as potent now as they’ve ever been. A thoughtful and effectively creepy film, that unfolds as the character study of a man who wakes up and finds himself alone in a dark new world.

10 comments:

C.L. Hadden said...

Great review, James! So makes me want to pull this out and watch it!
I agree it is the most faithful adaptation of the Matheson novel, and I do love the isolated, helpless feeling it projects. Better than both the remakes. One of my favorites.

James said...

Thanks Christine. I thought it high time I posted something involving Vincent Price on here again - it has been too long! This was the perfect way to do so. ;o)

Mykal Banta said...

In a nutshell, James: Great review - agree on all points. This is Price's best work, with the possible exception being Witchfinder General. I love the stark beauty of this film!

James said...

Couldn't agree more, Mykal. Though I'm also a sucker for the Corman/Price/Poe movies... :o)

The Film Connoisseur said...

Totally agree with you on George Romero being influenced by this film. Last Man on Earth has some shots that seem to come right out of Night of the Living Dead!

But aside from that, its the best adaptation of Matheson's novel, it really got the stories vibe way better than any othe adaptation. I actually hated Omega Man for turning the story into something else entirely. And I am LEgend ignored the vampire angle which I hated.

Matthew Coniam said...

Just came to leave my two penn'orth to find that Mykal has said almost exactly what I was going to say. (And not for the first time.)
Definitely one of the best performances Vinnie ever gave, and for all the reasons that people usually single out Witchfinder General (a performance I love in a film that annoys me). I've never understood why this supremely eerie and unusual film gets such a bad rap, or why Price's performance in it is not generally more highly rated.
I'm an easy sell for anything set in post-apocalyptic abandoned cities, so I enjoy Heston's film too (not seen the one with the Fresh Prince of Bel Air) but this is definitely in a class of its own.

Drew said...

Definitely my favorite incarnation of the Matheson work, it's the one that comes closest to capturing the bleakness and true gloom of the literature. Fantastic write-up!

Jessica Penot said...

Night of the Dead was very influenced by this. In the documentary "Zombie Mania" Romero laughs and says he stole his ideas from this movie. He says he didn't like the vampires so he made flesh eating monsters to replace them. At the time, he didn't think of them as zombies.

christine said...

You could write about bed bugs and it would read like a timeless sonnet. Fabulous read... again!

I LOVE this film. I manged to read the novel before I had seen any adaptation. When I finally did see this, I was shocked by how closely it matched what I created in my mind.
You are spot on when you call this timeless.
<3

James said...

Ms Makepeace, you're too kind. :o)
This is by far my favourite adaptation of Matheson's novel too - which is one of my favourite novels. Vincent Price, spooky vampire-zombies and doomful atmosphere of despair. I ask you - what's not to love!?