Saturday, September 16, 2006

Friday Night Horror Theater - The Last Man on Earth (1964)

So I finally cracked open my box set of 50 Horror Movie Classics and decided that I needed to do some reviews of the movies within. I consider it my responsibility as an evil, undead scientist to expose the world to many of the classic horror films that spawned me and my twisted world view. In that vein (jugular or otherwise!), I’ve decided to watch and post a Friday night review of every movie in the box set.

Why? Mainly because I love these movies and, like I said before, they’re responsible for who I am today. And why Friday? That’s an easy one, Friday is the day that - when I was a child and teenager - I used to get to stay up late, huddle in fear beneath a blanket in the darkened living room, and watch Cleveland’s own late night horror hosts…Ghoulardi, Houlihan, Big Chuck, Little John and The Ghoul. I created Doctor Zombie as an homage to those denizens of my youth. And this is a tribute to them.

So, watch the blog every Friday for a new movie!

Tonight, I’m reviewing The Last Man on Earth from 1964. Starring the great Vincent Price as the main character in the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal story, I Am Legend, this is a far superior adaptation than the later Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. What works so well about this movie, and carries it even through its cheesier moments, is the breathtaking performance of Vincent Price. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Vincent Price is one of the greatest actors to have ever lived.

The Plot: Vincent Price plays Dr. Robert Morgan, the only man left in a world decimated by a mysterious plague that first kills its victims and then brings them back from the grave as vampires. He has been alone for three years, hunting vampires and scrounging for supplies by day and locking himself up at night. Behind doors covered in garlic, mirrors, and crosses; he tries to maintain his sanity through the constant din and pounding of vampires trying to get him. The film is divided into three distinct acts, and it is the first act that is the most powerful. Morgan’s thoughts are narrated aloud by Price as he goes through his daily rituals. The second act flashes back to the introduction of the plague, and the poignant death of his daughter and the resurrection of his wife. The final act wraps the story up by introducing a group of half infected vampires who have come to stop Morgan and his hunt to destroy every vampire in town. Aided by the lovely Ruth, the vampires end up hunting Morgan, making the entire story end tragically for all.

What works: As I said, it’s all about Vincent Price. This is one of the most powerful performances of his I’ve ever seen. He shows an incredible range as he acts out the emotional gamut of Morgan’s character. He effectively conveys stoic resolve as he goes about his daily tasks, rages at the loss of his life and family, expresses despair at his loneliness, grieves for his situation, and slowly goes mad in his isolation. Additionally, the story is a much better adaptation of Matheson’s work than The Omega Man. Vincent Price brings a pathos to the role that is elevated beyond the tawdrines sof Heston's macho swagger. Adding to this standout performance, there is something about the quiet desolation of the Italian city it was filmed in that gave the film an otherworldly quality. For those who, like me, are drawn to ideas of a post-apocalyptic world; this movie brilliantly and truly captures the idea of the last man left on earth. Another excellent choice by the director and DP was the use of wind and leaves to express the change of scenes. It gave the film a creepy feeling that worked so well in an empty world.

What didn’t work: My only real complaint was the vampires themselves. They were really just actors dressed up in dirty clothes. With the exception of Morgan's now infected friend, Ben, none of the extras spoke because, most likely, they couldn’t speak English. Despite being vampires, they had no pointy teeth and, quite frankly, acted more like slow, plodding zombies. Which I’m cool with, but zombies don’t generally talk (Except in ROTLD – but that doesn’t count!). And they were easily defeated by a strong push whenever they attacked Morgan. It wasn’t as bad as the space vampires in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, but it was - again – at least reasonably faithful to Matheson’s work.

Overall: A wonderful, creepy, excellent adaptation that surpassed expectations on my part, this is a definite keeper. It is quick moving and is a fascinating take on a concept that is now de rigueur in many horror films(lone man makes a stand in a post-apocalyptic infected world!). Vincent Price’s performance, coupled with some beautiful camera work and a well told, well paced story make this a must see for all of my faithful, undead minions.

Doctor Zombie’s Rating: 5 out of 5 Chomped Brains

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