A Road Map to Richard Matheson

I’m not a sci-fi guy per se, nor even a steam-punk guy, but more like a straight-up, uncut Victoriana guy, which is why you may find posts on H.G. Wells and Jules Verne here on Travalanche, but I’ll probably never do one on Isaac Asimov, or say, Arthur C. Clarke. But other factors do creep in. Kurt Vonnegut was also a satirist (and a favorite) over and above his science fiction beginnings, so I’ve written about him. And I’ve written about lots of film and television people of the Rod Serling ilk, and am planning posts on Ray Bradbury and Michael Crichton and some others because those guys burst the bonds of their genre straightjackets to become pop culture phenomena. In that spirit, I submit the contribution concerning Richard Matheson (1926-2013).

Matheson wrote scores of novels and short stories, but, almost from the beginning, he also penned screenplays and teleplays, and so one tends to think of him as not so much of “arm chair in the library” kind of guy as some literary figures tend to be. He was in The Business. Raised in Brooklyn, he saw combat in World War Two (much like colleague Serling), graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism, and then immediately began writing and getting published. The year he went professional was 1950. I really have nothing to add to the oceans of commentary about Matheson’s work here, other than much of it has meant a lot to me, a fact I’m not sure I realized until I did an inventory and looked at the totality. I’ve written about many of his projects on Travalanche. So I thought there would some benefit, some perspective, in bundling his best known brainchildren together, stepping back and taking a look.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) based on Matheson’s 1956 novel, this was his first screenplay. The premise is sort of the opposite of all those giganticism sci-fi plots of the ’50s we wrote about here. This one is closer in spirit to The Fly, which actually came out the following year, with the world itself becoming monstrous and the affected man as the victim. Both the book and the film were before my time of course. Unusually, I actually read the book (in Junior High School English class) before seeing the film on TV. It was directed by Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon) and produced by Albert Zugsmith for Universal-International. An auspicious beginning for what would come later.

Spooky Episodic TV (1959-66): Matheson wrote 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone including such classics as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (the duel of nerves between a gremlin and William Shatner on an airplane) and “Third from the Sun” (in which people escape a dying planet only to head towards one that’s no wiser — earth). He also wrote an episode of Thriller (Boris Karloff’s show) and two for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour during this period. In 1966 came his classic Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within”, the Jekyll and Hyde inspired episode where a transporter malfunction causes some of the crew to switch places with their evil counterparts in an alternative universe. “Good Kirk and Evil Kirk” — that’s classic stuff, right?

Low-Budget Film (Mostly Horror): (1959-73): At the same time he was working hard in television, he also broke into film albeit for the most part, though it was very solid writing, it was not in an area calculated to bring him loads of prestige. Working again with Albert Zugsmith, he cowrote the exploitation picture The Beat Generation (1959) featuring Steve Cochran, Mamie Van Doren, (a pre-Addams Family Jackie Coogan, Vampira, Louis Armstrong, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, and Charles Chaplin Jr. Then came an association with American International Pictures lasting several years. He wrote or co-wrote five pictures in Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle (1960-63) for the studio, as well as the Jules Verne adaptation Master of the World (1961), The Comedy of Terrors (1963) and De Sade (1969). Most of these films starred the great Vincent Price, who was also the title character in the first screen version of Matheson’s story “I Am Legend” entitled The Last Man on Earth (1964). There were also several British productions and co-productions during this period which featured Matheson’s credits, including Burn Witch Burn a.k.a. Night of the Eagle (1962), Fanatic a.k.a. Die! Die! My Darling (1965, with Talullah Bankhead), and The Devil’s Bride a.k.a. The Devil Rides Out (1968, with Christopher Lee). The Legend of Hell House (1973) with Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowell can be thought of as the last film of this period. With one notable exception:

The Omega Man (1971): We are no longer “before my time” at this stage. The Omega Man was the second adaptation of Matheson’s “I Am Legend” to make it to the big screen, although he didn’t do the screenplay himself, and the story is somewhat altered. A Warner Brothers production, it starred Charlton Heston during his science fiction phase, which also featured the Planet of the Apes movies and Soylent Green. I grew up thinking of it as a major modern classic, although it certainly doesn’t strike everyone that way. Heston is in almost every shot in the film, and that is a LOT of time to spend with Charlton Heston.

Prestige TV (1968-80): I find the next phase of Matheson’s work so pleasurable, I could watch it all in one sitting — in fact, I want to. As he had at the beginning of the decade, in the late ’60s he started writing once again for anthology series, including Late Night Horror, Journey to the Unknown, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and a short lived series produced by William Castle called Ghost Story or Circle of Fear, hosted by Sebastian Cabot. In 1969 Matheson’s story “Being” was adapted into a TV movie called It’s Alive by schlockmeister Larry Buchanan (not be confused with the other It’s Alive, directed by schlockmeister Larry Cohen). This was followed by the script for Steven Spielberg’s feature debut, Duel (1971) starring Dennis Weaver, widely regarded as one of the best made-for-tv movies of all time. Then came the scripts for The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973), the basis for one of my favorite childhood TV shows. He then re-teamed with Dan Curtis for several classics of their kind including a tasteful version of Dracula (1974) with Jack Palance, the ABC Movies of the Week Scream of the Wolf (1974) and Trilogy of Terror (1975), as well as Dead of Night (1977) and The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977) both for NBC. This period climaxes with his three part adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1980), a massive television event, directed by the great Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days). This was a kind of high water mark, I think (and not just because of the canals!).

Somewhere in Time (1980): This time travel movie starring Christopher Reeve (in his first post- Superman role) was an adaptation of Matheson’s 1975 novel Bid Time Return (and not Jack Finney’s Time and Again, which has a similar concept — time travel by way of hypnosis). I attended a wedding at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, where this movie was shot! Somewhere in Time was a moderate hit at the time. I think audiences were mostly curious if Reeve could play a character other than Superman.

Back to Basics (1983-1996): This period launches with Matheson co-writing the screenplay for Jaws 3-D, Haha, is this where we “jump the shark”? At any rate, we observe that this is possibly the cheesiest credit of Matheson’s career, despite the high profile. And yet this was his Spielbergiest year since Duel, as well. Naturally, 3-D was a sequel to the film that put Spielberg on the map. The same year, Spielberg co-created Twilight Zone: The Movie, which recycled Matheson’s script from “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. Ironically, this era seems to portend a shift though. We are now in the Stephen King era; Matheson was no longer the last word in horror. This period is characterized by lots of television work that fed off of past glories, like The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reboots, Spielberg’s similar Amazing Stories series, as well as movies like Rod Serling’s Lost Classics (1994), and Trilogy of Terror II (1996).

Late Movies Based on His Works (1998-2011): We should point out that until the end of his life, Matheson continued to turn out countless novels and short stories. He never stopped being productive, but he did drift away from writing his own scripts. In any event, there were several movies adapted from his works. These include What Dreams May Come (1998, adapted from Matheson’s 1978 novel) with Robin Williams; Stir of Echoes (1999, based on the 1958 novel) with Kevin Bacon; the MONSTER hit 2007 version of I Am Legend with Will Smith (third time’s a charm!); The Box (2009, based on a 1970 story) with Cameron Diaz; and Real Steel (2011, based on a 1956 story) with Hugh Jackman. This last film and I Am Legend earned hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, more than enough to wipe out the red ink of things like What Dreams May Come.

It wasn’t all science fiction, fantasy and horror. The genre Matheson worked in most frequently other than those believe it or not was THE WESTERN! Early in his career in the ’50s and early ’60s he wrote numerous episodes of the TV shows Lawman, Cheyenne, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Have Gun — Will Travel. Starting in the ’90s he wrote several western novels, including  Journal of the Gun Years (1992), The Gunfight (1993),  Shadow on the Sun (1994), and The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok (1995).

His World War Two experience served him well for his novel The Beardless Warriors (1960) which he later adapted into the movie The Young Warriors (1967). He also wrote an episode of Combat that was directed by Robert Altman, whose birthday is also today.

One of Matheson’s best known non-horror scripts may be The Morning After (1974), the made for TV movie drama in which Dick Van Dyke played an alcoholic, causing the actor to open up about his own alcoholism.

But…this above all….and I have to see this movie. Loose Cannons (1990) has been called one of the worst movies of the 1990s, and yet is was created by lots of people I really like and who are usually very good. It was co-written by Matheson with his son Richard Christian Matheson (also a highly prolific genre writer) and Bob Clark, who also directed. It’s one of those buddy cop comedies, starring Gene Hackman as the crusty one and Dan Aykroyd as his partner who has…wait for it…multiple personality disorder! H’m…not dissimilar from Dragnet (1987)! But this was the year before Nothing But Trouble (1991) — a bit of a trough here for Danny, I’m afraid. I’m very much looking to watching it and making up my own mind. It’s okay if it’s a clunker. I mean, Ye Gods, look at that track record above!

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