Richard Matheson (February 20, 1926 – June 23, 2013) is perhaps best known for his short novella “I am Legend,” which still hasn’t been adapted to a film that has captured the fluidity of mythic monsterdom so profound and haunting in his original story. But he’s still written some of TV’s best sci fi moments, stretching back to the early 60s with Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and through the 70s-80s, with TV movies and mini-series’ like Duel (1971), The Martian Chronicles (1980), the now legendary Trilogy of Terror (1974) and the cult favorites The Night Strangler (1972) and The Night Stalker (1973), both starring Darren McGavin (the ensuing series, Night Stalker was my favorite show as a kid in the 70s).
Different sci fi writers found different niches in TV and movies. They all wrote Star Trek episodes, it seems. But Richard Matheson also penned some of the best Poe adaptions ever. He had a piercing, wise, mind and gift with dialogue that was intellectual without being pretentious or opaque, even as he brought us deep into split-self dissolution. He was the perfect choice for adapting Poe, leading to a now legendary and still profoundly entertaining stretch of color Roger Corman films. With Vincent Price in the starring roles, and the wild music of Les Baxter, it was a perfect combination: House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, and The Raven all hold up very well today, a sign of their solid scripting in addition to everything else. Though set in far away times and places, Matheson managed to make the dialogue hip, psychoanalytically concise, and fun without being anachronistic. Similarly, the dialogue in his modern era British horror film Burn Witch Burn (1960) fairly brims over with piercing attacks on the closed allegedly ‘scientific’ mind. His scripts were scary and funny at the same time; he had wit to burn and a flair of existential optimism even in the most harrowing of situations, such as a man alone against a monster truck in Duel, or against himself in Star Trek.
The early 60s TV and movie landscape was rife with a jumble of anti-commie, anti-conformity messaging, all under the continual threat of mass atomic extinction, presidential assassination, and science fiction allowed for the expression of ideas that ‘straight’ drama would have been unable to express. This could lead to all sorts of sermonizing in lesser hands but Matheson was able to get right to the heart of the matter, to expose the raw nerve at the base of our collective paranoia and atomic anxiety, and without pedantic sermonizing. Matheson saw threats to ourselves as always originating first from ourselves; inner demons were projections outward, and vice versa. The concept of total annihilation of human life as a whole was in the air, but for Matheson the enemy was always close enough to touch, and to conquer it we’d have to accept the fact that total annihilation of ourselves was likely impossible. Some aspect of us, something we barely understood and saw more as an external enemy than an internal ‘complex’ – would never die. The challenge was to accept this, and move forward into the unknown with earned confidence.
As Scott Carey says at the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man:
“The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet – like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”
I believe it. And I believe Richard Matheson still exists, in whatever altered form. Everytime an actor says his lines on an old sci fi or horror film on an old DVD, Matheson’s full bore brilliance is there, forever, like a gift from a mysterious stranger. Lines maybe spoken by Vincent Price are still handsome, alive, mellifluent, the music still pulsing from Les Baxter’s woozy bassoon, a horseman riding up to a desolate mansion through a burned out landscape…. (a pause). He knocks. He speaks. We’re locked in.