Book Review: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

Legend

Please note that this review contains SPOILERS.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is a groundbreaking novel for its time (1954). It is the granddaddy of at least three different popular fiction (sub-) genres, zombie, post-apocalyptic and medical/science thriller. Mr. Matheson’s description of the ‘vampire bacillus’ echoes modern thinking on the complex behavior of parasites, as illustrated in books such as Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex (2000). The scientific explanation of vampirism means that I Am Legend can be read as science fiction, and such a reading would be perfectly legitimate. What makes this book horror is the protagonist’s utter helplessness, self-loathing and psychic ennui.

Mr. Matheson does many things well in I Am Legend, which is a fast read. I have mixed feelings about his writing style. He uses a lot of action verbs but is a bit sparse on description for my personal tastes. This book had more than enough material to engage me, but I recall reading his novel Stir of Echoes (1958) in about a half-hour and thinking it was written for a sixth grader.

I am assuming leaving brand names off everything was a conscious choice on the author’s part, since the action takes place in the far-flung year of 1978. This was a good choice, since one of the things that makes old science fiction so dated is its use of awful futuristic jargon (the vidscreen!). Mr. Matheson does make a reference to Oliver Hardy, a comedian many people today have probably never heard of.

The other thing Matheson does well as a writer is anticipate questions that might arise in his reader’s mind and ask them. Such as: why doesn’t Robert kill himself? Why are Robert’s ‘experiments’ always on women? Why don’t the vampires burn his house down? Note that Matheson never answers these questions, but in a way raising them is enough to satisfy the reader. It’s a great writers’ trick.

The other trick Matheson pulls off involves his protagonist. Robert Neville is not a likable man. Robert Neville is an unpleasant man. It’s a good thing I Am Legend is a short novel, because it would be tough spending a long novel in Mr. Neville’s company. Yes, he’s been through hell. Yes, the trauma of his wife rising from the dead might have unhinged him.

Still: I was struck by the fact that everything Robert touches dies, his wife (twice), his daughter, the dog. He has violent, misogynistic thoughts and impulses towards women which he acts out, at one point dragging a woman around by her hair. Many of his actions make no sense. He kills an infected woman by leaving her in the sun, and then decides to get his car and go back for her to see if she reanimates, seemingly unaware that he can replicate his experiment at any time without risking the sun setting.

Most tellingly, Mr. Neville is a murderer. Many of the vampires he kills are still alive. They are infected, but they are still living beings. Mr. Neville knows but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t wonder how they can still be alive, because he goes through life in a state of ignorance. Yes, he discovers the source of the vampire plague – which anyone with access to a microscope could do – but he doesn’t come close to discovering a cure. The society that arises post-humanity is brutal, but it is a society that he helped create. Mr. Neville did it unknowingly, but since he spends the entire book unaware of the consequences of his own actions that comes as no surprise. The fact that I read and enjoyed a book with such an unlikable protagonist is testimony to Mr. Matheson’s skills as a writer.

You may ask, could I do any better in Robert Neville’s situation? I would have killed myself, and to me the question as to why the protagonist doesn’t end his own life is one of the biggest mysteries of I Am Legend. Mr. Neville has nothing left to live for, clinging to alcohol, ancient records and his enmity with Ben Cortman, whom he seems to view as an old friend by the book’s end.

Did I enjoy Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend? Yes, I admired this book, but must confess to enjoying the author’s short stories more than his novels. To me, Mr. Matheson’s style seems better suited to short fiction. Still, while reading I Am Legend I saw echoes of Richard Matheson in genre greats Stephen King, Michael Crichton and George Romero. He is legend, indeed!

 

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The Living Dead Girl

Living Dead Girl

Living Dead Girl is a return to form for director Jean Rollin. After viewing the disappointing Iron Rose months ago, I worried that the master was losing his touch. I needn’t have fretted; Living Dead Girl is vintage Eurotrash, chockful of sex, violence, gore and nudity.

Three movers haul barrels of toxic waste into a chateau’s crypt. They are in the process of robbing the dead people in said crypt when an earthquake smashes the barrels, releasing toxic fumes into the air. Catherine, who has been dead for two years but still looks great, revives and manages to kill the movers in the bloodiest way possible (poking out eyes, fingers through the throat) without staining her white dress.

Cut to a pair of American tourists. We know they’re Americans because they’re loud assholes who speak English. What else could they be? They’re in a field arguing when the wife snaps a picture of Catherine, who is staggering around in a daze. At this point I was wondering what the hell the plot was going to be, but I needn’t have worried. Many of Mr. Rollin’s movies begin with the characters running/staggering about.

Catherine ends up back in her chateau. She’s wearing white and the walls are deep red, so the symbolism isn’t exactly subtle. The next victims are the chateau’s realtor and her boyfriend, who decide to spend a dirty weekend at the chateau. They get naked in record time, but their lovely moment is interrupted by a ravenous Catherine, who kills and eats them.

A side note: I’m not sure if Catherine is a vampire, a zombie or the Toxic Avenger’s little sister. I’d say a zombie except we see a bat during one of her kill sequences, which makes me think vampire. Anyway, Catherine snaps out of her funk when she hears the voice of Helene – her friend/lover – on the phone. Mr. Rollin is uncharacteristically coy about the particulars of their relationship, but it must have been intense, because Helene is the engine that drives the plot.

Helene rushes to the chateau. Instead of taking Catherine to a hospital or calling the police, she lovingly washes the blood off her friend’s naked body and then hides the bodies of her victims in the crypt. When Catherine gets hungry Helene goes in search of food. Unfortunately, Catherine eats people.

Living Dead Girl is one of the better Jean Rollin movies I’ve seen this year; it ranks up there with Fascination and The Grapes of Death. The sets and scenery are lovely, interspersed with short bursts of over-the-top gore that would make a giallo director proud. Yes, Living Dead Girl is skimpy on plot, but that’s okay. If you like Eurotrash, it doesn’t get much better than this.

 

Let the Right One In

A traditional vampire tale with a twist, Let the Right One In is one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. I missed this flick when it came out in 2008. Long story short, I’m a decade behind. Let the Right One In is a Swedish movie with English subtitles. It’s available on Shudder.

The plot: twelve-year old Oskar has problems. His mom works a lot and his dad is absent, both physically and emotionally. A trio of bullies make Oskar’s life a living Hell. At the movie’s start he has serious anger issues, jabbing his knife into trees and keeping a murder notebook. Oskar’s life changes when the girl and her father move into his apartment complex. The girl’s name is Eli, which means ‘my god,’ and she and Oskar become fast friends. Oskar develops a crush on Eli, but his desire to go steady is hampered by the fact that Eli isn’t a real twelve-year old girl. She also isn’t human.

Eli is a vampire who needs human blood to survive and doesn’t waste time with any ‘I only kill bad people’ nonsense. She sends out her familiar, an older man named Hakan, to supply the hemoglobin. When Hakan turns out to be an incompetent murderer Eli has to do the job herself. Eli is a capable killer – at one point snapping an adult man’s neck – but doesn’t like killing.

At Eli’s urging, Oskar stands up to the bullies. He also finds out what Eli is, because that’s not the sort of thing you can hide. Oskar accepts Eli, because Eli is Oskar’s only friend, and Eli is always gentle and kind with him. Still, the trail of bodies grows longer, and they all lead to Eli.

Oskar and Eli are the most sympathetic characters in Let the Right One In. However, Eli does kill seven people, a body count that surprised me. There is a lot of subtext – obvious and hidden – in this movie. Does Eli want a friend or a new keeper? I don’t know, but the stick Oskar uses to defend himself from the bullies is the same stick Hakan uses to hide the body of one of Eli’s kills.

Highly recommended!

Vampires

Be warned that this review contains spoilers.

A mockumentary about creatures of the night, Vampires is as good an example of this axiom as I’ve ever seen. Do not confuse this movie with What We Do In the Shadows, another pseudo-documentary about bloodsuckers. Set in Belgium and Quebec, Vampires is in French with English subtitles and is more satire than horror movie. I didn’t laugh at  the jokes, but I might not have understood some of the cultural references. If you think vampires slaughtering minorities, children and handicapped people is funny, then this is the movie for you.

The plot: a film crew documents the exploits of a vampire clan – family head George, his wife Bertha and their two children, Samson and Grace. The kids aren’t George and Bertha’s biological children. I think ‘children’ means that they’re of the same bloodline, although this is never explained and I never saw the movies or TV shows the filmmakers are referencing. Sloppy writing is a problem throughout Vampires – dumb characters, dangling plotlines, unexplained incidents and utter impossibilities.

Bad writing aside, the main problem I had with Vampires is that George and Bertha are boring. They behave like middle-aged swingers who think they’re cool and end up embarrassing their kids in front of their friends. George is a self-satisfied prick and Bertha acts like she’s high on prescription meds. I will say that the nosferatu couple that lives in their basement is even worse.

Grace and Samson are more sympathetic than their ‘parents.’ Samson goes to vampire school to watch torture porn movies and practice his bite on a CPR dummy. His best friend is an ex-member of The Doors, who died and was reborn speaking fluent French. Grace likes pink and has a pink coffin because her dad spoils her. She keeps trying to kill herself because she can’t die, although she can die: just step into the daylight. So it’s not clear if Grace  wants to die or if she wants to be human. She has a human lover, who appears in the middle of the movie and just as suddenly disappears.

Samson has sex with the head vampire’s wife, which gets the whole family banished to Quebec. George has to get a real job. Samson falls in love with a human woman and becomes a subway busker. Grace starts transforming back into a human, for reasons way too muddled to go into. That’s one of the utter impossibilities I was talking about, and I’m not going to waste another hundred words describing why. Trust me on this one.

Not recommended.

Day Twenty-Three: The Hunger

I was in high school when The Hunger (1983) came out. I never saw it. Maybe I was too young to see an R-rated movie? The first R-rated movie I saw in the theater was Excalibur, but that’s another story. Anyway, years later I took The Hunger out from my local library.

The plot: Miriam and her husband John spend their time going to discos, seducing young couples and bringing them back to their freakish mansion located in the heart of New York City. They kill them with little dagger Ankhs, drink their blood and then dispose of their remains in the crematorium in the basement. In their spare time the happy couple play classical music with a teenage girl.

It’s an idyllic existence until John starts showing his age. He visits Dr. Sarah Roberts, who is researching the aging process. The visit doesn’t much help John, but it does bring Sarah to Miriam’s attention. Miriam, who is immortal, keeps her ex-lovers in boxes in her attic. She seduces Sarah and gives her a love-nibble during their lovemaking. Pretty soon Sarah can’t eat or sleep. She starts experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms, and only Miriam can give her what she needs.

An art house horror movie thirty years before the term was coined, The Hunger has three obsessions: narcissism, power and addiction. Miriam is the ultimate narcissist. Unlike her husband John, she has no conscience. She keeps her old lovers in boxes because that is the ultimate expression of her power over them, and any tears she cries are for herself. The sex between Miriam and Sarah is consensual; Miriam infecting Sarah is not consensual. The vampiric ‘disease’ is blood borne, and this movie came out when awareness about the AIDS virus was just starting to spread.

The Hunger has problems. It’s about ten minutes too long and the ending makes no sense. The pacing is slow, and the movie shifts main characters halfway through. Tony Scott’s directorial style might have been innovative at the time, but now it looks like a MTV video run amok. Everyone is stylish and smokes, just like the 80’s I remember! Despite these flaws, The Hunger is a striking film and well-worth watching. Recommended.

 

Helloween Day Twenty Two: Cronos

Released in 1993, Cronos is Guillermo del Toro’s debut film. The way I chose this flick is sort of funny. Instead of watching one of the big stack of horror DVDs on my coffee table I found Cronos browsing Hulu Plus. Besides the movie itself, there are also interviews with the director and actors. Informative!

The plot: kindly antiques dealer Jesus Gris finds what looks like a golden bug hidden inside a Madonna icon. He gives the statue to dying industrialist de la Guardia, whose room is full of bagged Madonnas, but keeps the bug for himself. De la Guardia sends his nephew Angel, a leg breaker who has plastic surgery every time his nose gets broken, to collect the Madonna. When Jesus winds up the golden amulet it sprouts legs. It also has a stinger – which Jesus learns the hard way.

To the amazement of his wife and granddaughter, Jesus seems to grow twenty years younger overnight. It turns out the beetle, made by an alchemist, has a literal bug inside it that can grant immortality. Of course there’s always a cost, as Jesus learns when the hunger pangs kick in. After awhile using the amulet’s not good enough and Jesus craves more. Of course, anyone who’s seen more than one horror movie knows what that is.

Despite my initial misgivings, Cronos is a horror movie. The word ‘vampire’ is never mentioned, but there are lots of bugs and bug imagery. When Jesus’ face starts to rot off it’s not the end of the world; insects shed their carapaces all the time. In an interview, del Toro called Cronos his ‘lapsed Catholic’ movie, and the movie is crammed full of religious imagery. He also said that Jesus is the saddest vampire ever, also true. When Jesus is alive he’s an old, out-of-shape antique dealer; after his death and resurrection…he’s still an old, out-of-shape antique dealer.

Cronos wasn’t made on a big budget, but it features striking visuals, sympathetic characters and a well-written screenplay featuring a slightly off-kilter take on the vampire legend. Addiction and family values are big themes, here. Ron Perlman is great as leg buster Angel, the gum-chewing thug. He’s a bastard, yeah, but he’s charming and we can’t help but like him. Cronos is a great movie. Highly recommended.

 

Helloween Day Sixteen: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Billed as the first Iranian vampire Western, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a 2014 Persian-language flick shot in the USA. My first attempt at watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was at the IFC Theatre in New York City, where I left trembling with fear after ten minutes. This will be amusing to people who have seen the movie, because it’s not scary at all. I guess I have an overactive imagination. Anyway, I watched A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night on Netflix Streaming and managed to not bolt this time.

The plot: Arash lives in Bad City. His father’s a drug addict, and dear old dad’s dealer Saeed the Pimp (that’s as he billed) takes the car Arash worked years to buy as partial payment for services rendered. It’s enough to make a young man turn to crime, which Arash does, although he’s a crappy criminal.

Billed as The Girl, the mysterious newcomer to Bad City likes pop music and jewelry but has never had her ears pierced. The Girl follows Saeed the Pimp back to his den, complete with animal heads on the walls, and rolls her eyes as he does lines of coke. It’s almost a relief when she kills him. Afterwards she steals a kid’s skateboard and spends her nights skateboarding and watching her fellow nightcrawlers, the prostitutes and thieves and junkies, mimicking and unnerving and occasionally feeding on them. Yes, you guessed it. The Girl is bored out of her mind. She runs into Arash, dressed as Count Dracula and stoned out of his gourd, and it becomes a case of kiss or kill.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t your standard horror movie. Filmed in black and white, it’s moody and bleak and even funny in parts. The performances are excellent. The Girl doesn’t talk much, but her body language speaks volumes. If you’re expecting lots of blood or violence, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night will bore you silly. The phrase ‘art house horror’ – which applies to this movie – has sparked a bit of controversy in the horror field. Be that as I may, I really enjoyed this. Recommended.