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Solitary and Abhorred: Vincent Price as The Last Man on Earth

Last Man on Earth, British Quad Poster
Last Man on Earth, British Quad Poster

Richard Matheson’s seminal post-apocalyptic vampire novel I AM LEGEND (1954) has been adapted into film three times * — most closely as “Last Man on Earth,” an English-language Italian production starring Vincent Price from 1964. Based on the book — with Matheson writing a first draft that was later abandoned — “Last Man on Earth” is often overshadowed by 1971’s “The Omega Man,” starring Charlton Heston, or 2007’s CGI-heavy “I am Legend,” starring Will Smith. Yet the 1964 film, despite its immediately apparent (incredibly) low-budget, is certainly the most faithful to the spirit of the novel. And it has as its star the always brilliant Vincent Price. Here, he is at his most melancholic. But he is no Robinson Crusoe, stranded on an island. Instead, he IS the island, stuck in a sea of desolation.

GRIEF AND DEPRESSION

While the book, and each adaptation, explore the isolation of the main character, only Matheson’s novel and “Last Man on Earth” spend considerable time on grief and depression.

“Another day to get through,” is the voiceover that opens the film. “Better get started,” Price adds, as if another intolerable day holds no meaning beyond survival.

It’s a tone that is repeated over and over again throughout the film. This is not the confident swagger of Charlton Heston in “Omega Man,” or the dedicated scientific curiosity and concern that is Will Smith’s turn. Clearly, Price is neither the last bastion of mankind’s art and culture (Heston) or its self-appointed savior (Smith). He has lost family, friends, and a purpose. He is a man with little hope for the future, spending his waking hours looking for survivors, and killing vampires.

MONOTONY AND MEMORIES

That these others are vampires is almost immaterial. Sure, they are repulsed by garlic, can’t stand mirrors, and are easily dispensed with a stake to the heart, but Price’s character never seems to think of them as monsters. He is more sympathetic to their situation. And the horror clearly comes from his memories of what was. Of what these people once were. His family, and friends. The horror of isolation. The horror of of remembering how things used to be.

While not part of the voiceover, one line from the novel could well be the theme of the entire movie.

“In a world of monotonous horror
there could be no salvation in wild dreaming.”

Memories and daydreams bring no peace. Even the temporary elation of finding a dog for a companion eventually leads to despair. Even the dog is infected. It must be put down.

THE TRUE MONSTER

SPOILER: in the novel, it is made clear by the final chapter that in a world populated by vampires, the vampire-killer becomes the monster. Neville / Morgan is feared as the man who brings death while the rest of the world sleeps. It’s only with the main character’s execution that the world rid itself of the true monster and move on.

“Last Man” and “Omega Man” both find their Morgan / Neville characters killed before the movies’ closing credts (both ultimately dispatched by spears in scenes of obvious Christ symbolism]). The plot of “Omega Man,” however, makes clear in its world of survivors, that “civilized” man’s art, culture, and, particularly, its science, are to blame for the plague. The survivors rally around a charismatic leader who refers to his “Family” — a none too subtle reference to Charles Manson (who, himself, had prophesized a (race) war).

In “Omega Man,” the fall of mankind is tied to biochemical warfare. And it raises the question of man’s hubris with waging wars that no one can win. But there is no doubt about it; Heston is the hero. Not the monster.

Similarly, Will Smith’s Neville is heroic, although a little misguided. The monsters exist because of a cure for cancer gone wrong. He experiments on them in an effort to return their humanity. It raises the question of man’s hubris with altering nature. Its subtext — and theatrical ending — become matters of bio-ethics. Smith lives, and there’s hope by the film’s end.

Price’s death, however, is the closest to the spirit of the novel where Neville is outright executed. Morgan is killed simply because he exists. It doesn’t matter what caused the plague. There are no politics. He’s just in the way of the future.

SOLITARY AND ABHORRED

“Last Man on Earth” has absolutely no pretensions to condemn mankind (or a single man) for hubris. Instead, it focuses on the psychology of the individual who craves human contact.

In that respect, Neville / Morgan is much like another misunderstood creature: The Frankenstein monster. Its an inversion of sorts, where one creature finds itself shunned by mankind, and one by its replacement.

Price could very well have added voiceover taken directly from Shelley’s novel, and it would not sound out of place:

“Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

LEGACY

“Last Man on Earth” did not get particularly good reviews upon its release, but has since enjoyed relatively good reception as more and more people discover it. It currently holds an 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its detractors, however, point out the slow pace and the low budget. Decide for yourself. You can watch it in its entirety on YouTube.

Four years after its release, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” changed the horror movie landscape. And in a 2008 DVD release of the film, Romero made it clear that “I had written a short story, which I basically had ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend.” It is not too much of a stretch to think that the Vincent Price film may have influenced him, too, especially with its relentless horde of zombie-like creatures pounding on the walls and doors of a house — in deliciously stark black and white!

Whatever its legacy, “Last Man on Earth” is memorable if only for Price’s performance. As with most films in which he starred, he steals the show, and it is haunting just to hear him lament his circumstances: the monotony, and the horror of it all.

Note: I realize that the novel has technically been adapted four times, with the fourth being 2007’s “I am Omega,” released at the same time of the Will Smith movie. Such films are often referred to as “mock-busters” — b-movies meant to capitalize on larger mainstream releases. I haven’t seen it, and, frankly, don’t intend to!

Consumption, Cholera, and Creativity: How a Pandemic Can Inspire Art

As much of the world is behind closed doors, and practicing social distancing, one wonders how COVID-19 will affect 21st century culture. Beyond, perhaps, the permanent cessation of the needless handshake, how will artists come to describe and illustrate the fear, isolation, the heroism — and, yes, even the boredom — of this terrible time? Over two hundred years ago, cholera and consumption were similarly on the minds of many. Outbreaks in the nineteenth century were constant reminders of the frailty of life, and the ever-present threat of death. While a consideration of how writers of that period dealt with disease may not necessarily shed light on what’s to come from us (in this quite different, digital age), it’s undeniable that creativity can come from all kinds of calamity. Even a pandemic.

By the dawn of the 19th century, tuberculosis, or consumption, had killed one in seven people. And severe outbreaks of cholera occured seven times over that span of one-hundred years. John Keats died from tuberculosis in 1820. Tchaikovsky, of cholera, in 1893 (though some say suicide). Poets, musicians, painters, sculptors. The lists of famous people who have died from tuberculosis, and those who succumbed to cholera, are lengthy. The Brontë sisters. Anton Chekhov, and many others. Pandemics kill artists, but a pandemic can inspire art.

Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) was written as the poet became increasingly aware that he was afflicted with consumption. Key symptoms of it, like “the weariness, the fever and the fret” has only one outcome:

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies

Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber
Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber

Even more direct, a lesser known poet of the Romantic period, Henry Kirke White (1785 –1806), who suffered the same fate as Keats years earlier, went so far as to come out and directly dedicate a poem “To Consumption.” There, he addresses the disease, accepting its embrace as he realizes he soon will succumb to the affliction.

Gently, most gently, on thy victim’s head
Consumption, lay thine hand! Let me decay
Like the expiring lamp, unseen away,
And softly go to slumber with the dead.

Which he did. On October 19, 1806.

Edward Munch's "The Sick Child"
Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Child”

One scholar, Clark Lawlor, has written a whole treatise on the subject of “Consumption and Literature.” Then there’s Roger Platizky’s journal article on “Tennyson and Cholera.” It would seem there’s no shortage of critical essays on ways both consumption and cholera affected artists of the nineteenth century.

And beyond poetry, one need only look at Edvard Munch’s series of works begun in 1885 marking the death of his sister from tuberculosis to understand that the only way some people can deal with grief following great affliction is to capture those feelings in art.

Need all feelings in times of disease, however, be those of sadness and grief? Those who lost their lives, or lost family and friends to consumption and cholera, certainly felt terrible sorrow. Yet even among those who lost, like Edgar Allan Poe, death (of his wife Virginia to consuption in 1847) inspired beauty; with Poe, it’s in the form of his Annabel Lee (written in 1849). An idealized woman. Beauty personified. Verdi, in his La traviata (1853), sees beauty in the death of its heroine, Violetta, who — in the final stages of TB — sacrifices all for love. And the aforementioned Keats, with his brother Tom dying of the disease in 1817, writes  “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” There, the poet celebrates the permanence of beauty and art in the face of frail humanity.  Upon seeing the classical Greek marble sculptures, Keats is inspired that their wonder…

…mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Something great, like art, can be celebrate beauty, even in the “wasting” of life.

What will artists of this third decade of the twenty-first century produce during — and after — this coronoavirus pandemic? Will we see great art, music, and literature addressing our planet’s collective hopes and fears? Are there those stuck at home, in self-quarantine or practicing social distancing right now that will turn their experience — our experience — into something special? Will it be sad, or hopeful?

Some artists, like former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, have already begun to address our pandemic. In “No Time for Love Like Now,” Stipe sings:

Where did this all begin to change?
the lockdown memories can’t sustain

lyrics that make us consider our situation and question if our memories of what was normal can survive the lockdown of our own self-isolation.

To our artists, we ask for help in figuring out what will be the new normal. Within their work, perhaps we can find release from — even make our peace with — anxiety about what is, and grieving for what used to be. Even during a pandemic, creativity can thrive. It is undeniable that human beings can find hope and beauty everywhere, even in the face of depression and death.

Let us hope that our trying times find us with more of the former, and less of the latter.

And not just thousands of TikToks.