Saturday, 7 February 2009

The Last Man on Earth

The Last Man on Earth (1964) (86mins)

Director: Sidney Salkow (aka Ubaldo Ragona)
Cast: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi Stuart

Year’s ago, when I was still a kid, I saw The Omega Man (1971), the second attempt to bring Richard Matheson’s classic novel ‘I am Legend’ to the big screen and really loved it; but time hasn’t been kind to that 70’s horror/thriller starring Charlton Heston. Whether it’s the 70’s fashions or Chuck’s ultra macho posturing, nowadays it’s lost much of its goofy charm. However, this, the first adaptation of the Matheson classic, still stands up pretty well today, even though some of the dialogue and attitudes have dated badly.

It’s the year 1968(!) and Dr Robert Morgan (played by Vincent Price) inhabits a world where everybody else has been infected by a disease, which turns them into a cross between a vampire and a zombie. By day he gathers supplies and goes out monster hunting and by night he locks himself into his house, surrounded by garlic and mirrors for added protection. It’s a lonely and stressful existence and Price portrays the part of a man on the edge of sanity pretty well, generally avoiding the additional ham, for which many of his performances are well known. In fact this, along with his role as Mathew Hopkins in the same year’s ‘The Witchfinder General’, are probably his best film performances.

The film’s strengths are its good use of locations (it was actually shot in Rome), its moody black and white photography, and its respectful treatment of the source material, which subsequent versions lacked, including the most recent: ‘I am Legend’, and the low rent ‘I am Omega’ with Will Smith and Marc Dacascos playing the central role, respectively.

Its weaknesses include some really poor continuity (check out a sequence of Price driving, apparently at night, which alternates between daytime and night time shots), some mediocre performances (Emma Danieli’s performance as his wife is pretty poor) and an ending, which patronises its audience, assuming we haven’t yet understood the meaning of what the term ‘I am Legend’, in this case, really means.

Some would say that Vincent Price is badly miscast here but I disagree, particularly if you haven’t seen many of his films, which let’s face it, is probably the case for a lot of younger people today. There are several more emotional moments, such as when he watches an old 8mm film of his young family while holding back his tears, which he carries off pretty well.

The story really notches up a gear when Morgan encounters what could be the last woman on Earth (played here by a solid Franca Bettoia) and the film moves away from being a pure horror film to a more action-orientated one with chase sequences and a number of brief shoot-outs.

What really struck me, whilst watching this movie for the first time, is how influential it has been, but how relatively obscure it has remained. The shots of the monsters surrounding Morgan’s boarded up house have been reworked in George Romero’s classic, but over-rated, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and all its many followers and the siege storyline has been reused in numerous films, including Romero’s and others, including John Carpenter’s ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ and Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’. Why this film has been so maligned and generally overlooked by film critics and historians alike I can’t begin to guess; probably because they don’t rattle on about it at film school!

In conclusion, ‘The Last Man on Earth’ is no classic but it does have enough positive points to give it a watch; you won’t regret it. It’s currently available on DVD from Blackhorse Entertainment for around a fiver, so pick it up!