In honor of the passing of Richard Matheson, a Great, Great Man…our examination of the filmic adaptations of one of his greatest works:
The Guys Outta Brooklyn spend some time waiting for the end of the world by examining the classic Richard Matheson novella I Am Legend and its three adaptations. Each of these trio of films are very different in tone and approach, and Tom and Derrick will compare and contrast them all. From the black-as-pitch black and white melodrama of The Last Man on Earth to Charlton Heston kicking ass in The Omega Man to Will Smith and his dog trying to survive in I Am Legend, we cover them all! Plus some talk about mixing animation and live action, and Tom is vindicated when Derrick finally watches the Kristen Bell tragedy Pulse. Bare those teeth like you mean it–get to clicking!
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by George Eckstein
Written by Richard Matheson
Before we get into the actual review a brief history lesson: The Made-For-TV Movie is a phrase you don’t hear much these days but it was used all the time back in the 1960’s and especially during the 1970’s when ABC, CBS and NBC who at that time were The Big Three of programming got into the business of producing their own movies specifically made for a television audience and tailored for 90 minute prime time broadcast television viewing slots. Which meant that no longer did they have to rely on movies they purchased from Hollywood movie studios. Now all three networks had their own special movie night but the one that most people remember is the “ABC Movie Of The Week” which aired from 1969 to 1976 on Tuesday nights. ABC had other movies nights such as their Sunday Night Movie but those were generally theatrical features. And of course there was the long-running and classic “The 4:30 Movie” which had an opening credit that was so popular it eventually was adopted as the opening for all of ABC’s late night movies:
And then of course there’s the opening for The Tuesday Night Movies itself:
Now, yes, most of ABC’s Tuesday Movie Of The Week’s movies were forgettable, disposal entertainment. Many TV series such as “The Six Million Dollar Man” “Alias Smith and Jones” “The Immortal” and “Starsky and Hutch” made their debut as 90 minute pilot films here. And then you had a whole truckload of movies that are still remembered and indeed have become legendary in pop entertainment culture. “The Love War” “Brian’s Song” which is still hailed today as one of the best football movies ever made and a movie that guys unashamedly admit they cry when they watch it. “A Cold Night’s Death” which is a movie that screams to be remade. “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” starring Elizabeth Montgomery. “Get Christie Love!” “Bad Ronald” “Haunts Of The Very Rich” And then there’s the movie we’re going to talk about now: DUEL, which along with “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” comprises The Holy Trinity of Made-For-TV horror movies.
DUEL is a Made-For-TV Movie with the most interesting history of any Made-For-TV Movie. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story originally published in Playboy. The movie was only Steven Spielberg’s second feature-length directing job and the movie proved to be such a critical success and ratings hit that Universal asked Spielberg to spend a couple of days filming additional scenes and it was then released to theaters overseas where it played to sold-out audiences. Then, amazingly, Universal released DUEL theatrically in some venues here in the United States. This was an unheard of event back in those days and Universal was rewarded with DUEL going on to make a very respectable profit in its limited U.S. theatrical run.
But it’s no surprise to me why the movie has gone on to earn the reputation it has. Next to “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” DUEL is probably the best known Made-For-TV Movie of all time and rightly so. It’s a white-knuckle thriller that taps into the deepest fear of any motorist on the highway. I know that for me, DUEL is a movie that represents one of my worst nightmares. A movie like “Saw” doesn’t scare me at all because there is zero chance of me being forced to play some bizarre game by a hyper-intelligent serial killer. But there’s every chance I can innocently piss off some maniac behind the wheel of a truck and without meaning to find myself engaged in a life or death battle on a highway.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) starts out his day peacefully enough. He’s a salesman, driving on his way to an important business meeting. In a wonderful bit of characterization, during a phone conversation with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) we learn that David actively works at avoiding confrontation, a personality trait that greatly factors into what happens to him during the course of his horrifying day.
During his drive he encounters a tanker truck driving slower than the posted speed limit. David passes the truck and thinks no more of it. But after a stop at a gas station he is passed by the same truck which gets in front of him and again slows down. David again passes the truck and the truck’s driver (who we never see) appears to take umbrage with this as he first tries to trick David into a collision with another vehicle. The truck’s driver continually ups the ante of this deadly game, chasing David down the highway, trying to push his vehicle into the path of a passing freight train. As this long day goes on, David cannot escape the fact that the driver of the truck is trying to kill him and if David wants to survive he is going to have to stop running and confront his unseen enemy.
And eventually it does come down to just David and the truck driver. David cannot convince anybody he meets along the road that this man is trying to kill him. Taken from a psychological point of view, the truck represents David’s fear of confrontation that is relentlessly pursuing him, forcing him to make a stand and fight for what his important to him. In this case: his life.
But you can throw that psychological stuff out the window. Taken purely as a horror movie, DUEL delivers on every level. Dennis Weaver gives an Academy Award level performance. He’s on screen for the entire running time of the movie and he is just flat out terrific. He is never less than totally convincing as this perfectly regular guy caught up in a situation way over his head, caught up in a deadly road game with a serial killer and no idea of how he’s going to survive.
So should you see DUEL? Absolutely YES. DUEL is an absolute masterpiece of suspense on all levels. You can see echoes of Spielberg’s later work on “Jaws” in this movie and the story by Richard Matheson is so tight it hurts. You used to be able to watch the entire movie on YouTube but it’s been taken down. No matter, it’s available on DVD from Amazon and I’m sure that if you ask nicely, The Internet Fairy can help you out.
Academy Pictures Corproration/20th Century Fox
Directed by John Hough
Produced by Albert Fennell
Written by Richard Matheson based on his novel “Hell House”
Plain and simple, there are the two things upon which the success and effectiveness of a haunted house story depends on. One: there has to be a compelling and believable reason for why the protagonists go to a house they know is haunted. Two: there has to be a compelling and believable reason for why the protagonists continue to stay in a house they know is haunted. If there isn’t a powerful enough motivation for those two points then you just don’t have a good haunted house movie.
And I love a good haunted house story. Some of my favorite horror movies are haunted house stories: “The Haunting” “The Shining” “Burnt Offerings” “The House on Haunted Hill” “Poltergeist” because all of them are excellent examples of how well a haunted house movie can be done when there’s a solid reason why the characters don’t just run like hell when the dishes in the cupboard start flying through the air by themselves. And it’s why I enjoy THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE so much as each of our four main characters have excellent reasons for why they are in ‘The Mount Everest of haunted houses.’ The infamous and cursed Belasco House.
Dying millionaire Rudolf Deutsch (Roland Culver)puts together a special group, contracting to pay them £100,000 each to prove conclusively that there is life after death. There’s a catch, though (isn’t there always?) They have a week to accomplish their task. The team members are: physicist and parapsychologist researcher Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) his wife Anne (Gayle Hunnicutt) spiritual medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and physical medium Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell.) Fischer is the only survivor of a previous attempt to investigate the supernatural forces infesting the house that killed the seven other members of that team. Fischer intends to sit around the house, do nothing and collect his check at the end of the week. Dr.Barrett wants to test a machine he’s invented that he believes will dissipate the unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house that he thinks is the actual cause of the haunting. Florence Tanner has a deep Christian faith that perhaps opens her up far too quickly to the influence of the house. The four of them move into the house, which has been sealed up for years and they’ve just barely unpacked their bags before they realize that they may have made a really big mistake in coming to Hell House.
Built and owned by the depraved and perverted millionair Emeric Belasco aka “The Roaring Giant” the house gained its fearsome reputation after a hideous orgy of madness that included drug and alcohol abuse, vampirism, cannibalism, necrophilia, torture, murder and let’s not even get into the range of sexual deviancy that went from A to way beyond Z. Over forty people died during that event but Belasco himself was never found, alive or dead. One of the things that sets THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE apart from other haunted house movies is that it’s just as much a mystery as a horror movie as the team has to put together the clues as to exactly why the house is being haunted as much as who is doing the haunting. Florence Tanner is immediately convinced that it’s Belasco’s son Daniel who is haunting the house. And the house itself appears to to be working on her overbearing ego as she is convinced right from the moment she sets foot in the house that she’s the only one who knows what’s going on.
The house works on the others in various ways as well, especially on the sexual frustrations of Ann Barrett. She is tormented by erotic thoughts and visions of shadows on her bedroom wall engaging in lusty sexual acts. Barrett himself is so convinced his machine will work he refuses to give any credence to the opinions of Florence or Fischer.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE will seem dull and plodding to those of you who are used to CGI extravaganzas in your horror movies but it’s one of my favorites and a movie I’ve seen and enjoyed many times. The performances of the four main characters are all wonderful and carry us through the movie right along with them. Clive Revill gets criticized for playing Barrett as such an uptight, repressed, stick-up-the-ass prig but that’s what the character is. And because Barrett is that way, it’s pretty understandable why his wife is seduced so easily by the house offering to fulfill her sexual fantasies.
Pamela Franklin has long been a favorite of mine and if you like her performance in this one, then by all means check out “And Soon The Darkness” a nifty horror film from 1970. She and Revill have some great scenes where they go at each other tooth and claw. Despite their seeming differences, their characters are actually quite similar in their stubborn insistence that each of them are right and their refusal to entertain other ideas, beliefs or thoughts is what leads them to their eventual fates.
But it’s Roddy McDowall who walks off with the acting honors in this one. I really like how he stays in the background for most of the movie, along with Gayle Hunnicutt and lets Pamela Franklin and Clive Revill have most of the screen time in the beginning of the movie as it’s their characters that are driving the plot along. But the longer the movie runs, the more his character comes to the forefront and it’s terrific to watch Fischer put together the clues at last and take on the spirit of Emeric Belasco at the end. It’s McDowell at his best, going full tilt boogie and selling the scene not with special effects but his sheer acting power. It’s a great conclusion to watch him solve the mystery of Belasco House and put not only his personal demons but the demons of the house to rest at last.
Plain and simple: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is a movie to put on your Must See list of horror movies to watch if you haven’t seen it already. And it makes a fine Halloween double or triple feature with any of the other haunted house movies I mentioned earlier. Enjoy.