Apr 1, 2013

It's About Damn Time: I finally saw THE OMEGA MAN.

    In general, I'm not huge on horror. Be it film or literature, it's a genre that has never really appealed to me. Maybe it's because so many horror films are schlocky low budget affairs with unlikable teens being chased by some slasher, or maybe it's just an extension of being easily frightened as a child.
    There are exceptions, of course. I love Kubrick's version of THE SHINING, Darabont's take on THE MIST, Landis' AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and Branagh's much maligned MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN. I've also enjoyed the occasional zombie flick, especially 28 DAYS LATER. In the book world I have enjoyed the small amount of Stephen King novels I've read, and I did go through a ghost story phase in middle school - mostly Bruce Coville and the horror stories of Roald Dahl.                            
     One book that blew me away and took a spot near the top of my favorite books list was Richard Matheson's brilliant mash-up of postapocalytia and vampires, I AM LEGEND. To me, the book was an almost perfect blend of horror and science fiction. It told a bleak tale of being the last man on Earth in a world overrun with bloodthirsty vampires. It explained the science of vampirism in a believable way, which I loved.
     The book has been adapted to film three times so far, all to varying degrees of success.
     THE LAST MAN ON EARTH featured Vincent Price in the lead role and had Matheson himself writing the screenplay (under a pseudonym). The movie followed the book pretty closely, but is ultimately hampered somewhat by the budget and the era it was filmed in. Of course, I've only ever seen it on a cheap public domain print, so that may have something to do with that sentiment. Note: there is a way better print available these days, so I'm sure I'll give it another go soon.
     2007's I AM LEGEND saw Will Smith step into the Robert Neville role. While parts of it were quite good, and it got the title right, I was ultimately disappointed. The CGI "monsters" looked like video game characters and the ending was all kinds of botched. Gone, too, were any allusions to the infected being vampires.
      Which brings me to the middle film in this trilogy of adaptations, 1971's THE OMEGA MAN. This time, Charlton Heston is the last man, and the infected are more mutant than vampire. I don't know why it took me so long to see this particular version of a story I hold so high in regard. Maybe it was because I was miffed that the vampire angle was thrown out, or maybe I was put off by too many humans on the cover - indicating that the 'last man' angle was thrown out, too. I know I wasn't put off by Heston, being a huge fan of PLANET OF THE APES and enjoying SOYLENT GREEN, not to mention several of his less sci fi fare. Whatever the reason, it took me way too long to view this flick, until I finally gave in one day and purchased a copy on DVD from Big Lots for three bucks.
     The movie starts off a lot like the other two versions, with Robert Neville driving through a deserted city - this time Los Angeles. The effect is pretty well pulled off, with only a few things in the background betraying the sense of solitude. At one point, he sees movement in the windows of an apartment building and fires his machine gun up at the shadowy figure. Everything about his demeanor is pretty badass.
     This is what he does with his days - scavenging for supplies and killing the infected mutants whenever he comes across them. He also likes to go to a local theater and watch WOODSTOCK.  At night he holes up in his old apartment, which he has converted to a fortress of sorts, to read books and play chess with a mannequin - anything to drown out the noise of the mutants outside.  Through flashbacks, we learn that the cause of all this trouble was biological warfare between China and the Soviet Union. This differs from the book, where a bacterial plague just inevitably breaks out. Neville is immune to the infection because he injected himself with a vaccine right before everything went to hell.
     The mutants are never all that menacing, but are made interesting nonetheless. They call themselves "The Family" and behave like a cult. Anthony Zerbe plays their leader, a former news anchor named Matthias. The Family has thrown off the old ways of technology and like to use fire to erase the past. Needless to say, Heston is a thorn in their collective side. Every time he kills their members, they grow stronger in their resolve to eradicate him.
     One day, while scavenging in a department store, Neville sees a living human woman pretending to be a mannequin. This is Lisa, played by Rosalind Cash and looking like a castaway from the blaxploitation films of the era. She runs from Neville, and he gives chase, losing her in the park and writing the whole thing off as him going crazy.
     Eventually, The Family catches Neville, putting him on trial and sentencing him to death. Before he can be executed, however, he is rescued by Lisa and her colleague Dutch. Turns out, there is a conclave of young survivors that are infected but they haven't turned yet. Fortunately, Neville can use his blood to try and cure it before they lose any more of their members.
    At this point, the movie has already swung way off the course set by the novel. In the book, Neville is truly the last man on Earth, but in this (and Will Smith's outing) he is the last hope for a whole bunch of other people. This never sits right with me, but even though I have problems with it, it does lead to some interesting things- including Neville and Lisa bedding down together after some awkward seduction.
    The kiss they share is one of the first instances of an interracial kiss in movies. Back when it came out, this was very controversial. After you get past the weirdness of old man Heston putting the moves on Lisa, they actually have pretty decent chemistry.
    All this happiness is short lived however, as The Family pushes everything to a head when the kill Lisa's formerly infected little brother. This leads to a final showdown that keeps some of the novel's bleakness, but still gives in to a hopeful ending.
     Overall, I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would. I never thought it dragged, and none of the cheesiness was ever unbearable. My favorite bits were when Heston was in solitude, talking to himself and making little quips to invisible people. I do wish the mutants were more menacing, instead of mostly ineffective baddies. I also would have liked to see more nods to Neville's past life. The other two films manage to show his life before the plague in a way that makes you sadder for how everything turned out. In here, you don't get a lot of insight into Neville's past outside of what his occupation was.
     Still, the movie is very enjoyable and deserves its spot in the sci fi hall of fame.


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