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Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Last Man on Earth (1964): A movie brought to us courtesy of the Movie & Music Network

When it came to making my second review choice from The Movie & Music Network  it was actually a perfectly easy decision, in fact I made it in a split second. That may sound something of a bold statement when you consider that their library is a veritable bloggers delight with 6000 titles (500+ horror and SciFi flicks) and 53 channels. It is also something of a bold statement in regard to my notoriously acute knack of being indecisive when it comes to making a decision regarding which movie to watch next. As a result, NOBODY ever accompanies me to the DVD store.

If that wasn't enough, there are definite rumbles, as it were, from across the pond that the Network's content is tripling in the next few months and is available on Roku, online, iOS, Android, etc. 

No, in actual fact the reason was simple for my unusual nifty decision making. Let me enlighten you.

I once met Vincent Price, albeit briefly, in London in the late 1980's, as he was eating alone in a Restaurant just a couple of tables away from where I was sat. He was old (well at least he seemed to be to this young man) and, as it transpired, not far away from departing from this mortal coil, as I seem to remember hearing of his death only a year or two later. However, it was clear from the short time I spent in the same room as him that he was still as charismatic as ever. He didn't really do anything untoward, there were few signs of his legendary speaking voice, but he had a glint in his eye that essentially made it quite clear that he seemed to know something that the rest of us didn't. Though if truth be told for some reason there didn't really seem to be anybody in that restaurant who knew who he was, well except for me. Either that or they were being very polite..... But I was probably any actor's idea of his worst nightmare - because I was a fan. A huge fan.

I was truly an admirer of his work, and if truth be told, I still am. I had probably first come into contact with him as an actor through his early appearances in some flickering black & white B-movie horror flick, but it was a certain Roger Corman adaptation that I had seen at a special showing at the cinema just a few years before that had cemented him into my consciousness. His captivating and mesmerising performance in the The Fall of the House of Usher had stayed with me for the first moment in the cinema, and again when seeing it on a recent video release (yes kids, I said video. I know, that’s so 20th century).

So there I was, attempting to enjoy my meal and the company of the gorgeous lady I was with at the time, but doing that ‘trying not to look but making it completely obvious that you are looking’ look. It is safe to say that the man certainly had an aura about him, that is for sure. There was also more than a flash of barely concealed humour if you looked closely into his eyes.  I know this because I did a potentially foolish thing, potentially a very, very foolish thing - because at one point I decided to go up to him and say hello.

Now before my reader decides to say “How rude, to walk up to someone and interrupt their meal”!! – easy tiger. I had the good grace to wait until I saw him call the waitress for his bill and then went (with all the naive optimism that I had at that age, and probably still have) up to the man himself, apologised for interrupting him and promptly proceeded to blather on about how much I loved The Fall of the House of Usher and my other absolute favourite of his, The Last Man on Earth (1964). And do you know what? He was graciousness personified. It would probably make for a far more entertaining anecdote if I was to say that he flew off into a tantrum, rose from his seat in a fit of rage for bothering him and then chased me out of the restaurant while swinging his chair violently at my head. But he didnt.

I’ll be honest, except for blurting out just how much I loved his performance in The Last Man on Earth much of what I said to him I simply can't remember, indeed, I was so nervous that I certainly didn’t take in what he said back to me. However, what I can remember is that he smiled and that he talked to me for a couple of minutes recounting how difficult he found filming with and Italian film crew in Rome.....and he shook my hand. I was in dreamland afterwards. 

So when I noticed that The Last Man on Earth (1964)  is included in The Movie & Music Network's library - I was immediately taken back to spending those few minutes with that wonderful man and realised that I had no choice but to write about the film too. If nothing else, It had been many years since last seeing the movie, I was fascinated to see whether my love affair with it had stood the test of time.

The Last Man on Earth is the first of the four movie adaptations of Richard Matheson's Classic 1954 Sci-Fi/horror novel, I am legend, concerning a post-apocalyptic world after disease has all but decimated the human race. As far as the two most famous of those other adaptations, Charlton Heston's The Omega Man (1971) and the appalling mess that was Will Smiths I am Legend (2007), neither have stood the test of time. I loved The Omega Man back in the day, but it hasn't worn well in its 40 years since conception. The Will Smith debacle hasn't worn too well either, but that's probably due to it being complete pants in the first place on its initial release. The fourth, and much less known adaptation, I am Omega, is a 2007 direct to DVD release and something that as yet I haven't seen, though what I do know is that it is the only one of the four not to credit Matheson as having anything to do with the project.

The story of The Last Man on Earth takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which the human race has all but been destroyed by a plague that has ravaged all before it, or at least, nearly all. For in the story we witness a single surviving man, Robert Morgan, battling against the now infected creatures that were once human but who now resemble a sort of drunken Zombie-like state. During the day Morgan spends his hours killing the creatures, acquiring supplies and then killing more creatures. At night he hides in his house, barricaded in, for that is when the hoards of infected come out.....and they are trying to get to him.

This, as previously mentioned, is the first of the adaptations of Matheson's book. Written in 1954 it is difficult to over-emphasise just how influential this one novel has been, and still continues to be, in creating a very contemporary view of vampires and Zombies which is a million miles away from the classic Gothic treatment of such creatures that had gone before. By providing a scientific medical reason for the conditions, specifically a virus, I am Legend has formed the core foundation of modern post-apocalyptic worlds ravaged and empty of normal human existence. From The Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead, the influence of Matheson's masterpiece is clear for all to see.
At first glance, one could be easily be mistaken in the belief that The Last Man on Earth is but a chea and quickly put together adaptation of a great story. To be honest, the film's production was troubled and prolonged, for a number of reasons. The budget was minuscule, filming took place in Rome with an all-Italian film crew, and Matheson himself who was co-writer of the screenplay became so disillusioned with the director's style, subsequent re-writes and of the most important decision for his story, the one to have Vincent Price cast as the lead character.

In fact, Matheson disagreed so much with those final two issues that he made moves to have his name removed from the film's credits and replaced with a Pseudonym. Writers, eh?

One could certainly empathise with his view towards the directing of the film, as it is no doubt one of the noticeably weaker elements, particularly in some of the set-pieces where the action and pacing could have been far more energetic. To some extent also, one could understand his reticence towards Vincent Price, who had the reputation of over acting to the point of cliche in a good deal of his B-movie roles that often required nothing more than a few maniacal laughs and grandoise physical gestures. Even after the film was completed, Matheson still refused to accept Price's performance as anything but a negative. However, in this specific matter, he was very very wrong.

Vincent Price would have probably told you that his career was full and rewarding, after all, it brought him fame, riches and a place in cinematic immortality as of one of the stalwarts of classic horror. 

Yet I've always felt that he was a prisoner in terms of his career, a victim of the success that certain of his qualities, such as that wonderful manic laugh, brought to the fore. He was a much better actor than that narrow legacy suggests. In truth, the role of Robert Morgan in The Last Man on Earth is perhaps his greatest ever performance, and one that really must be seen to be believed. He could have chewed up the screen with his trademark tricks, but instead what he provides is a genuinely emotional and intense portrayal of a man tortured by the loss of his family and alone in a crazy post-apocalyptic world. His sad and tortured voice-over throughout the film conveys perfectly his desolate, repetitious and almost hopeless existence. You really have to see the performance of a man who knew he was far better than ever given credit for, as he gives a  beautifully restrained and richly textured turn as the man that does indeed become the legend.

Yes, as I've alluded to, there are some faults with this film. The direction is indeed something of a weak affair and due to the lack of production funds, the attention to detail is somewhat lacking in a few key areas. While Rome substitutes quite authentically for Los Angeles, the look of a place that is supposedly three years into the effects of the post-apocalypse is less than convincing. There is for example a distinct lack of overgrown grass and vegetation in a city that simply looks far too clean and looked after.
The major deviation from the book is also a problem. For example, in Matheson's original narration, the vampire/Zombies are fast moving monsters of mayhem, far more resembling the creations seen in the excellent 28 days later. However, in this film we see the creatures as far more languid and shuffling in their movements which in turn formed the basis for the shuffling, mumbling, drunk-like monsters created by the likes of Romero et al. Consequently, the infected here in The Last Man on Earth lose something of their chilling gravitas as they stumble languidly about in their suits and ties.

However these are but minor negative considerations in my opinion. The film is easily the best of the four versions of the story, staying much truer to the original narrative (Morgan even refers to himself as now becoming the legend) and paradoxically has aged far better than The Omega man which was made a good ten years later.

What we have here is a movie that certainly belies what I could imagine what original intention of the producers was, to put together a cheap quick film for the teen Sci-Fi & horror masses. Instead, either by luck or design, the makers produced a beautiful emotionally layered film that is full of genuine emotional impact. Despite its low budget, it looks both stunning and suitably desolate.

However, if nothing else, you must watch this to see an actor surpass expectations, not only from possibly himself, but in the eyes much of the general public. Vincent Price was quite simply never better than as The Last Man on Earth.

I said earlier on in this piece that I was interested to see if the film had stood the test of time on a personal level. Well, let's just say that the film resonates as well for me today as it did the first time I say it many, many years ago.

But hey - don't just take my word for it!. Because thanks to the most wonderful people at the Movie & Music Network, you can watch The Last Man on Earth for FREE!

You don't need to subscribe to view it - but you never know, after having yourself a sneaky little peak the rest go the Library then it may well be a good idea to do so!

Click RIGHT HERE to watch the movie and let me know what you think!


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