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We've been a while getting to this week's featured review due to previous obligations but it's well worth the wait. That's because Visions Deferred collects three unfilmed screenplays by our favorite novelist (and second favorite writer in general only behind colleague, Rod Serling), Richard Matheson. One man whose writing is so tight and calculated that no matter how many times Hollywood tries to make improvements on his stories, the source material is the version that stands the test of time. Thanks to Gauntlet Press, we can now finally read and imagine what Matheson intended for the film adaptation of I Am Legend as well as screenplays for 'The Distributor' and 'Sweethearts and Horrors'.
Our focus will be on the most interesting history and more entertaining story of I Am Legend. It's almost certain that you've seen at least one of the three variations that have been produced over the years. It began with Vincent Price's 'The Last Man on Earth' in 1964, then Charlton Heston's 'The Omega Man' in 1971, and most recently Will Smith's 'I Am Legend' in 2007. After seeing all three, you easily notice the differences between them. Major studios have kept the basic premise and at least they finally got the title right, but none of these quite capture Robert Neville's (Morgan's) situation as originally written here. At it's core, it's a script about the last survivor of a disease that's turned the world population into nocturnal vampires. Holed up in his home, his last link to normalcy, Neville struggles to find a reason to keep fighting for his life.
The Last Man on Earth is my personal favorite but, though I never saw anything wrong with it, it isn't the classic it could have been. Matheson, who's stories have used Price in the past (Price was also planned to star in the included Sweethearts and Horrors script), feels that he was miscast. Reading the screenplay in Visions Deferred, the vampires that Matheson has created seem to match the Price versions in that they're closer to modern day zombies than traditional vampires. They're slow and clumsy and give the feeling of someone that's been weakened by the disease with only one goal in mind. "Neville!" they cry out in a chilling tone in every other adaptation but in my mind that will always be Vincent Price's "Morgan" they're calling for.
As was common during the release of The Omega Man, the plot took liberties in drawing inspiration from current events such as the Manson Family Murders and popular culture. This made the vampires seem more like a hippie cult than animalistic bloodsuckers. Worse is the fact that they're so similar to humans that they come across as merely bitter victims of a disease that are jealous of Neville's immunity. Outside of becoming albino upon infection and turning violent, they don't resemble Matheson's vampires at all. Strike two.
Of course when it came time to bring I Am Legend to the screen in the age of CGI, the whole scenario became more epic in every sense of the word. More explosions, more action, and larger sets (even Times Square was shut down for filming) make up the latest adaptation. What Hollywood doesn't realize is that doesn't necessarily mean "better". It's the story, not the action, that brings audiences back with every incarnation. These "vampires" aren't trying to coerce Neville from his home more than they are simply mutations that have found their last prey. They are very fast and unrecognizable as the antagonists found in Visions Deferred. As of this writing, a sequel to the Will Smith I Am Legend has just been announced. It will be the first sequel of any kind for the original thriller and will once again ignore Matheson's master vision. Strikes three and four.
In the introduction, we get a candid look into how Matheson himself feels about the first two adaptations and he doesn't hold back. Even Charlton Heston voices his own concerns and understanding of Matheson's issues with The Omega Man. It's a shame that this screenplay will probably never bear an accurate film. What's most heartbreaking is that Matheson explains how Hammer Films was to originally produce the movie that's within these pages under the title The Night Creatures. Included is the MPA's letter detailing the profanities and gore (very subtle by today's standards) that needed to be removed before it could be cleared for release. Val Guest was to direct and it would have undoubtedly been the version Matheson has wanted all along. Unfortunately, a deal could not be made and this is that original uncensored and unfilmed screenplay.
Growing up, I was a huge fan of certain episodes of 'The Twilight Zone', Steven Spielberg's 'Duel', and 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' but it wasn't until I got older that I realized these were all creations by the same man. Richard Matheson has inspired so many writers, actors, and filmmakers through his novels, television episodes, and movies and Visions Deferred is great insight into his initial material. It's a rare look at an amazing story that could have easily been lost to time had it not been for Gauntlet Press, themselves fans of the material. Not only do I recommend this book for science fiction and horror (or "thriller" as Matheson prefers) writers but also other titles at the Gauntlet Press site where you can find more Matheson as well as Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Ray Bradbury.
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