Who wudda thunk it? With five adaptations, Richard Matheson's slim vampire novel (weighing in at a slender 160 pages) I Am Legend may well be the most filmed horror novel of the 20th century. Though still well behind the twin titans of Victorian terror – Dracula and Frankenstein – Matheson's vampire apocalypse story beats out King's most filmed work (The Shining, which has two adaptations), is ahead of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hull House (again, two adaptations), tops Lawrence Block's Psycho, and leads the "non-fiction" horror classic The Amityville Horror by three flicks.
Filtering out a relatively unknown Spanish adaptation and a completely forgettable straight-to-video cheapie, you get three remarkably diverse interpretations of the original.
The first film, The Last Man on Earth, stuck the closest to the source material. The baddies are vampires of sorts. At night they come and harass a melancholy Vincent Price who is holed up in his suburban home, now festooned with garlic and crosses the way pre-vampire era folks strung up Christmas decorations. During the day, Vince meticulously searches the town for sleeping vampires and drives stakes through their hearts. The film is a grim, sad affair. Price plays Robert Morgan, the titular last man, as a character who rigorously grinds his way through meticulously organized raids and nightly sieges in order to avoid the clear fact that his situation is useless. It's a film about loss and hopelessness. At one point, Price's Morgan wearily narrates, "Another day to live through. Better get started." Ironically, the vampire hunter is already dead, he just hasn't stopped moving about. And Price makes it clear this is more a product of fear and habit than a reflection of the enduring strength of the human spirit. This film was also the only film that kept something of the novel's O'Henry-esque ending.
The second flick, Omega Man, tossed out the existential angst of the first flick in favor of a more over-the-top approach. Featuring the subtle acting of Charlton Heston as last amn Robert Neville, Omega Man is a sort of clearing house for 70's genre cinema. You get post-apocalyptic sci-fi, blaxploitation, cults, and so on. The vampires of the first flick become mutant cultists, the end is reworked to give humanity a fighting chance, and you get to see Chuck H act all over the damn place as his character goes a little wacky from the loneliness.
The latest incarnation is, despite being the first flick to actually carry the name of the original novel, more a remake of The Omega Man than a return to source material. The cultists get reworked as zombie-like hordes, Heston's wacky hero gets rewored into a more smoldering and wounded protagonist, and the set is a 28 Weeks Later-ish abandoned Manhattan.
Legend isn't a bad flick. There's something remarkably liberating about watching the Fresh Prince, the latest Neville, move about the collapsed city like some urban Robinson Crusoe. Unlike the Price film, this flick is canny enough to admit that some part of us secretly thinks the collapse of civilization would be kind of cool. I watched the flick at the Union Square Cinema in Manhattan and the hoots and cheers that greeted a short shot of a decaying Union Square reveals how cathartic it is to see things break loose and just fall over. Certainly, the Price flick is probably truer to what some lone specimen of humanity would feel. But this is the movies, baby. We want to see the Fresh Prince hauling butt around the city in a boss sports car and hunting deer in Times Square. (Although, do deer swim well enough that they'd get to Manhattan? That's a real question. Does anybody know?) The film is also smart enough to keep some of its funniest survivalist moments hidden in the background for astute viewers. For example, no character ever points out that the Fresh Prince's apartment is clearly decorated with masterpieces plundered from the major art museums of island. It's just a detail in the background, but it's nice that the filmmakers were thoughtful enough about the minor details.
Ultimately, the flick suffers somewhat from being the high-gloss Hollywood version of stuff we've already seen. There's not much here that isn't Omega Man, just better; not much that isn't 28 Franchise Later, just bigger. Legend is a summer blockbuster that, somehow, showed up around Christmas. It's a good summer blockbuster. If you know what you're walking into, you won't feel like your intelligence has been insulted or your time wasted. Still, I couldn't help but feel a bit like Price's Morgan: "Another blockbuster to live through. Better get started."