Sunday, February 20, 2011

Richard Matheson On Screen: 10 Essential Works

Throughout 20th century horror’s Pre-K era (i.e.: pre-King), Richard Matheson dominated. Matheson is a tough, clean writer who has composed some of our most unforgettable works of terror and imagination. Without the ornateness of plot and/or language that distinguished his major horror peers—Poe and Lovecraft, Bradbury and King—Matheson writes tales with the punchy immediacy of campfire ghost stories. A scant phrase can instantly conjure one of the many indelible images he created: a man shrinks toward oblivion, a gremlin terrorizes a man from the wing of a plane, a murderous fetish doll stalks a woman through her apartment, a monstrous big-rig hunts a motorist, the last man on Earth fights to survive a plague of vampires.

Matheson’s lean, pointed stories were absolutely ripe for adaptation. His short stories resulted in several of the most beloved episodes of “Twilight Zone”, although oddly enough, there has never been a truly great version of what may be his definitive work, the apocalyptic vampire novel I Am Legend. Be that as it may, there are still plenty of wonderful examples of Matheson on-screen. Here are ten essentials.

(For the purposes of this article, I steered away from Matheson's adaptations of other writers' work, but his scripts for Poe's Fall of the House of Usher and Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out are pretty essential viewing, too)

1. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

In an era ruled by largely disposable B-grade sci-fi, Richard Matheson crafted something genuinely profound. Meditative and moving, yet still delivering all the dazzling special effects and action the matinee crowd craved, The Incredible Shrinking Man holds up magnificently. The great sci-fi filmmaker Jack Arnold fashioned an environment more harrowing than the Amazonian jungle in his own Creature from the Black Lagoon: a domestic world full of brontosaurus-sized housecats and spiders and typhoon-strength plumbing leaks. Such set pieces are what most people remember about The Incredible Shrinking Man, but it is Matheson’s closing monologue on the position of humankind in the universe that is the film’s most transcendent moment and the one that elevates this film to masterpiece.


2. “Nick of Time” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1960)

With his ability to tell a forceful tale within an economic timeframe and his penchant for a ninth-inning twist, Richard Matheson was an ideal writer for “Twilight Zone”. He may prove to be the show’s greatest scribe, perhaps even besting creator Rod Serling, whose tendency to get too purple in the pen bloats some of his scripts. Matheson’s shows never feel overly talky, even in an episode such as “Nick of Time”, which is essentially thirty minutes of a couple talking in a diner. Matheson’s naturalistic dialogue particularly compliments this episode, a rare “Zone” that doesn’t traffic in the supernatural. Still, the looming presence of a demon-headed box that disposes paper napkins and vague fortunes is as chilling an image as you’re likely to encounter in the Twilight Zone.


3. “The Invaders” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1961)

Matheson takes his disdain for floridity to extreme levels in “The Invaders”. Silent aside from Serling’s narration and a few concluding lines that deliver the startling climax, “The Invaders” is a powerful one-woman show for Agnes Moorehead. It’s easy to dismiss a script lacking dialogue, but think of how difficult it is to drive a 30-minute story with nothing but physical action occurring in a single space and a minimum of characters. In spite of the episode’s rightful reputation for being truly innovative television, the writer was never a fan, hating the “roly-poly” invaders, which he likened to Peter Rabbit, and finding the pace too slow. According to Matheson, his original “script had twice as much incident as they used in the final version” [The Twilight Zone Companion].


4. “Little Girl Lost” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1962)

Matheson uses complex physics as the basis for a primal terror tale aimed directly at the hearts of all parents. A young girl slips through a “Riemannian cut”, a sort of wormhole, into another dimension. Her ghostly voice shutters throughout her home as her parents search frantically. Matheson’s short story “Little Girl Lost” was based on an actual experience in which the writer’s daughter tumbled from her bed and was trapped out of sight against a wall. As he did with so many of his “Twilight Zone” adaptations, Matheson wrote the script himself, and it is another effectively simple piece, never allowing scientific specifics to overwhelm the story’s essential humanity. Note the deep influence it had on Poltergeist two decades later.


5. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1963)

Without question “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is Matheson’s finest 30 minutes in the Twilight Zone and one of the series’ very best episodes. William Shatner’s terrifying encounter with a gremlin still packs all the power it housed when it first aired nearly 50 years ago. Certainly Matheson’s ingenious story deserves much of the credit, although Shatner’s sweaty performance is equally pungent. The writer agreed, declaring the actor’s work “marvelous,” although he was less enamored with the creature, which he thought looked a bit too much like “a panda bear.” When this story was remade by George Miller for the 1982 film Twilight Zone: The Movie, the gremlin was given a leaner, more demonic look. This is another excellent adaptation, with John Lithgow ratcheting up the tension with an even crazier performance than Shatner’s. The sequence is certainly the highlight of that very hit-and-miss film.


6. “Night Call” episode of “Twilight Zone” (1964)

Matheson’s second to last “Twilight Zone” is also arguably the second to last great installment of the series (in my opinion, the final one is “The Masks”, since “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” technically isn’t a true “Twilight Zone”). It’s amazing to think he wrote the short story “Long Distance Call” in 1953 since it is so elemental it seems like the kind of tale that has existed since campfires first burned. Well, at least since campfires first burned after the invention of the telephone. Gladys Cooper plays an elderly woman receiving mysterious calls from a familiar yet desiccated voice. Matheson’s original story, which concludes with the being behind the voice telling the woman that he’ll “be right over,” has the horrific flavor of an E.C. comic. The ending of his “Twilight Zone” script (renamed “Night Call”, because there had already been a “Zone” titled “Long Distance Call”) is more melancholic, imbuing the show with that wrenching flavor of cruel fate that had been a “Twilight Zone” staple since “Time Enough at Last” aired in season one. Matheson’s script isn’t his only contribution to this episode’s greatness; he also recommended that it be directed by Jacques Tourneur, the master of chiaroscuro suspense who directed such horror masterpieces as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie.


7. Duel (1971)

Duel might be worthy of mention here if its sole distinction was its status as Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length film. This isn’t the case. Duel might be the most memorable made-for-TV horror movie of the ‘70s because of its unwavering tension. Spielberg’s direction is already sure-handed (he’d only been in the trenches working for TV series such as “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Night Gallery” for a couple of years at this point). Matheson’s script, based on his short story, is a masterpiece of minimalism: a behemoth gasoline tanker stalks a salesman during a business trip through the California desert. As the film progresses, the murderous intentions of the unseen truck driver grow alarming clear, and the salesman must draw on long dormant survival skills. Duel is a primordial horror story, a prehistoric predatory hunt set in the modern world: the truck as mammoth, the modern man as his own cave-dwelling ancestor. The salesman is a hero in the true Matheson traditional: a normal person thrust into highly abnormal circumstances, forced to fight for his life in the throes of sweaty-palm panic. Dennis Weaver, whom Spielberg hired because of his work in Orson Welles’s noir classic Touch of Evil, is superbly delirious in the role.


8. The Legend of Hell House (1973)

In 1953, a squad of mentalists was slaughtered while investigating the haunted mansion known as Hell House, the former home of a fellow who allegedly dabbled in “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” Twenty years later, a deathbed-bound millionaire commissions another group to convene at Hell House to prove the existence of an afterlife. Adapted from his own novel, Matheson wrote a script a lot less schlocky than its title might suggest. The film owes much to that greatest of haunted house pictures, The Haunting, both in its premise and the way director John Hough’s active, disorienting camerawork makes Hell House into a character with as much personality as any of the mentalists. The house is a meaner entity than the one in The Haunting, at times physically attacking its inhabitants. There are a few dopey moments—a goofy cat attack will probably make modern audiences giggle and the ending is disappointingly trivial—but The Legend of Hell House neutralizes most criticisms by brandishing an ace ensemble cast, Hough’s clever camerawork, and Matheson’s trademark wit.


9. “Amelia” episode of Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Originally airing as an “ABC Movie of the Week”, Dan Curtis’s Trilogy of Terror has survived as a pop-culture touchstone for some 35 years for one reason: “Amelia”. Following two forgettable tales, “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese” (both based on Matheson stories but not scripted by him), this portmanteau gets down to business with the writer’s adaptation of his superb story, “Prey”. Karen Black contending with an unstoppable, knife-wielding Zuni fetish doll is intense enough, but the piece’s concluding image is what makes it traumatizing. “Amelia” is an amazing, white-knuckled confluence of frill-free writing, relentless pacing, magnetic acting, and in the case of the doll, some pretty spectacular prop design. If Matheson had issues with the execution of “The Invaders”, another story that finds a woman fighting for her life against tiny terrors in a confined environment, he surely had no complaints about “Amelia”.


10. “The Doll” episode of “Amazing Stories” (1986)

“The Doll” draws together numerous threads of Matheson’s career in surprising, and ultimately wonderful, ways. A story about a man who becomes smitten with a doll, the script was originally set for production during the final season of the original “Twilight Zone”. During a period in which the imagination and creativity of television’s most imaginative and creative program was drying up, “The Doll” would have been a great boon. However, producer William Froug decided to pass on the script even though it had been purchased and filming dates had been scheduled already. The details regarding the non-production of “The Doll” on “Twilight Zone” are sketchy. One possible reason is its slight similarity to the fourth season episode “Miniature”, which had been the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit. Matheson, however, places the blame on Froug, whom he says, “never cared for my writing” [June 1982 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine]. Twenty-two years later, the writer’s old Duel collaborator, Steven Spielberg, was reviving the Zone’s anthology format for a new sci-fi series titled “Amazing Stories”. Invited to contribute, Matheson suggested “The Doll”. Fortunately, the producers were able to buy back the script and produce one of the most memorable episodes of “Amazing Stories”. The show was a real feather in the series’ cap, earning three Emmys, including an actor award for “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” star John Lithgow, who dials down his trademark mania to embody doll-owner John Walters with stark tenderness. A most fortuitous revival of one of Richard Matheson’s finest scripts.


Richard Matheson turns 85 today.
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