The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Last Man on Earth (1964)

3 06 2011

For me, there are only three people who can properly read ‘The Raven.’

First, there’s my dad, who used to read it to me and my sisters when I was little. He is AWESOME at ‘The Raven.’ The thing is, he used the same voice for everything he ever read to us. This is why I thought ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ was supposed to be a ghost story the first time I heard it, and why I was disappointed when it turned out to just be Santa on the roof.

Then there’s Christopher Walken.  I listen to this one pretty much every Halloween.

The third is Vincent Price. I loved Vincent Price SO MUCH when I was little. I knew he was supposed to be this scary macabre dude with an evil laugh and all that (for a while I thought he was the guy who played Dracula) but I only knew that because when he was on the Muppets they put him in ‘scary’ stuff. He just seemed so gentle and urbane and fun.

So the first time I saw him be scary, I hated it. One afternoon the local UHF station’s MonsterChillerHorrorTheater was playing The Conqueror Worm. “Hmm,” I thought. “Conqueror plus Worm. That sounds promising.” Two hours later I was traumatized. There are several reasons for this, the most prominent being that (even with television edits) this movie was in no way appropriate for an 8 or 9 year old, which I was at the time. It’s super bleak and messed up and my beloved Vincent Price was horrible. I don’t mean horrible as in a bad actor. I mean he played a horrible person–Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General–so well it hurt me in my feelings. It was very upsetting. Then I went outside to play and pretty much got over it.

It’s always easier for me to get over a story about an actual, unrepentant monster (which Matthew Hopkins certainly is/was) than a misunderstood one. I was so pissed off the first time I saw Frankenstein that I remember ranting to my parents about how NOBODY GOT IT but me and the TRUE EVIL was the Doctor not his creation and what the hell was wrong with people back in the ’40s that they could think this was a horror movie and not a TRAGEDY anyway?

And don’t even get me started on Edward Scissorhands. Pretty much from the part where that one lady accuses Edward of molesting her all the way through to the end, I am a sobbing, drooling, blubbering mess–never mind the beginning, when Vincent Price dies and leaves Edward alone with his fucked-up hands? I am gutted right now just thinking about it. Seriously. It’s not normal. I probably need help.

Last Man on Earth (1964; trailer here) is another unutterably sad misunderstood monster movie. Of the three film adaptations (and one direct to video mockbuster that I haven’t seen) based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, it’s the one that hews most closely to Matheson’s original plot. It’s also the best one, in my opinion: The Omega Man is a big delicious slice of ’70s cheese toast (complete with Charlton Heston’s Christ Pose at the end) and the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend has lovely production values but both versions COMPLETELY MISS THE POINT of the story.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Robert Morgan, a Man Of Science. The film opens with a half hour sequence that lays out Morgan’s daily routine for the last three years, since everyone but him succumbed to a virulent plague that turns people into bloodthirsty monsters: wake up, go outside, gather up the bodies in the driveway and take them to a big pit to dump and burn them, drive around staking vampires in their hiding places till the sun goes down, come home and refresh the garlic and mirrors he’s got hanging outside, put on some music and drink himself to sleep while the vampires (they’re not really vampires. They’re like zombie vampires. They’re zombpires) bang on the doors and windows of his fortified house, calling for him to come out. One of those zombpires calling to him is his brother in law, who used to be a Man Of Science working with Morgan on a cure to the plague. Now he’s a mindless monster.

Just another boring night in.

I have to admit that when I was a kid, it seemed like it would be cool to be the last person left on earth. You could pretty much wear whatever you wanted, drive whatever you wanted, nobody would hassle you or make you go to school or clean your room. I mean, vampires and crushing loneliness and whatever, but still.

There’s no real dialogue in this sequence, only narration. I know, I know. Narration is nearly always the worst way to tell a story in film. It sucks 99% of the time. But it works here, and that’s because of Price’s performance. He delivers the (sometimes hokey) narration so well and naturally that it seems like his internal monologue rather than a money saving hack movie device–and when he says, “Reason’s the only advantage I have over them,” we realize that this man talks about reason like a crazy person. We can see how emotionally exhausted he is, in the slump of his shoulders and the bags under his eyes. We can see how he still clings to his past identity as a respectable doctor in the way that he buttons and tucks in his shirt before going outside in the morning–even though there will be nobody to see him. Dr. Robert Morgan is a man driven mad by loneliness and isolation.

Watching home movies. Nothing else on TV.

Then the movie flashes back to before, when his wife and daughter were alive and there were rumors that the new plague sweeping Europe had some pretty freaky symptoms. Morgan dismisses the stories as nonsense even as he works on finding a cure, but his brother-in-law and fellow Man Of Science eventually becomes so afraid that he refuses to leave his house. Bad call, brother-in-law.

Morgan’s daughter dies of the disease and is taken to a public pit where her body is burned. Despite the world falling apart around him, he’s still in denial about the whole ‘reanimated dead people’ thing, so when his wife dies he secretly buries her instead of letting the authorities burn her. That night, she comes back, and he has to stake her–which forces him to finally accept the reality of the situation.

Hi, honey!

This whole flashback interlude is the weakest part of the movie. The cast is stiff and lame, the actors dubbing them are worse, and the guy who plays the brother-in-law looks like a cross between Young Elvis and the dude who played Cool Rider (which is very distracting.) In the hands of a lesser actor, Morgan’s continued denial of the truth about the plague would be tedious and stupid, but Price makes it tragic and understandable. Too bad he’s pretty much surrounded by shit, acting-wise.

Back to the present. He sees a dog. The dog runs away, and he chases it, all awkward and shambling and breathless. It is ridiculous and heartbreaking (and again, it would be ridiculous with a lesser actor) because he’s so desperate for companionship that he’s acting, quite frankly, like a lunatic. Which he is, and he doesn’t know it. He fails to find the dog but resolves to search everygoddamwhere until he finds it. Later, the dog returns to his doorstep, wounded. He takes it in and bandages it up and holds it and loves it and tells it everything is going to be okay. He’s so happy and relieved to have some company again. But the dog has the disease, too. The next morning he takes its staked body and buries it.

Heart. Breaking.

Out on his rounds, he sees a woman walking around in the daytime. He chases her, pretty much exactly like he chased the dog. It’s still sad, but this time it’s also scary. It naturally terrifies her. He eventually convinces her that he doesn’t want to hurt her. She goes home with him. Thankfully, the actresses who play and dub Ruth (which is the lady’s name) are much better than anyone in the flashback.

Burned by his experience with the dog, Morgan is suspicious of her and doesn’t necessarily treat her that kindly–he shoves a bunch of garlic in her face, forces her to look into a mirror and generally acts unbalanced and rude and paranoid. With some justification, as it turns out, because Ruth is infected. However, she is able to control the disease with a drug her people have.

That’s right, there are other people. They are infected, but not zombpires thanks to this drug they have, and they plan to start a new society. Ruth has been sent by her people to spy on Morgan, because he’s been killing them along with regular zombpires. Morgan is pretty scornful of this ‘new society’ crap because to him the infected are all pretty much the same, but the vaccine thing makes his Man Of Science senses tingle, and he gives Ruth a transfusion of his own blood. It cures her, and they both get pretty excited about being able to use their own blood to cure the others.

Then Ruth’s people show up, and at her urging he runs. They kill the zombpires in front of his house–I guess they’re not the kind that can be saved with the vaccine–and track him to a church. He shoots at them and deploys some tear gas canisters he picks up at the police armory, but they manage to wound him. He is cornered at the altar and they advance. He lashes out, calling them freaks. He tells them he’s the only true man left.

Despite Ruth’s pleas, they impale Morgan with a spear. Bewildered, he says over and over, “They were afraid of me.” Then he dies in Ruth’s arms. They come to take his body away, and a child starts to cry. Ruth comforts the child, saying sadly that they are all safe now, and Morgan can’t hurt them any more.

Heart. Broken.

I can’t even imagine how disappointing it would have been to go to the drive-in looking to see a good scary flick about a plague of vampires and end up with this thing. Presumably people were just making out and not watching the movie anyway. But as a piece of existential horror, Last Man On Earth is pretty fucking chilling. You think you’re fighting monsters, but it turns out the monster is you.

That idea really freaked my shit out when I was a kid. Like most kids, fairness was a thing I cared A LOT about, and it seemed wicked unfair that Morgan had to die once he understood the deal about Ruth’s people. But what I really zeroed in on was the giant, monstrous guilt and horror that I, personally, would feel if I were in Morgan’s position–if I found out that I was the monster. Of course, my kid self was already prone to a lot of dark and existentially terrifying ponderings–like, when I learned the word ‘propaganda’, I immediately became suspicious that propaganda was exactly what I was being fed by all the adults in my world, and I was the only one who realized it! But the idea of not being able to trust anyone else because they might be a liar (or monster) is a lot less awful than the idea that you can’t even trust yourself not to be the monster.

Like the other ’60s films I’ve looked at thus far, Last Man on Earth is saturated with Cold War paranoia as subtext. Unlike them, while the threat still comes from outside, the evil does not–it comes from within. And it’s not even an intentional, conscious evil. It comes from doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons. It comes from people making mistakes in perception and judgement.

It comes from being human.

Last Man on Earth is not well made. Nor is it good low-budget campy fun–well, actually that whole flashback sequence has its moments if you enjoy transparently horrible acting. But it is The Granddaddy Of All Modern Zombie Movies (George Romero acknowledged its influence on Night of the Living Dead) and it gets a solid four unbroken mirrors hung ’round with garlic for Vincent Price’s virtuoso performance. If you like to watch someone doing the thing he is good at and doing it REALLY WELL–or if you feel like having a bit of a cry–I recommend checking it out. It’s streaming on Netflix, and available on YouTube.

Next up, another exploration of Cold War paranoia and the evil that men do: These Are the Damned (1963)

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