Monday, February 16, 2015

Cult Classics from Dimension X: The Omega Man (1971)

I can remember watching this as a small child.  I know, I know, that explains a lot, right?  I can also remember being fascinated by it even though my father insisted that it was lousy.  As an adult, this is still one of the few movies that Pop and I disagree on.  The Omega Man is a fantastic piece that is equal parts science fiction, horror, action, and thoughtful drama.  Most importantly, it's one of the finest showcases Charlton Heston ever had the opportunity to embrace, and he delivers a marvelous performance that surely ranks among his best work.  Now, I'm not going to discredit anyone who sees another of this cinema titan's films as his most memorable offering, for I'm in agreement that he starred in better movies.  Yet it's surely the part of Robert Neville that I consider his best role, despite any shortcomings with the film itself.

Additionally, it must be noted that this is one of three attempts Hollywood has made to bring Richard Matheson's timeless novel I Am Legend to the screen.  Each attempt has fallen well short of living up to the book's lofty standards.  Furthermore, only the 1964 version (The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price) was interested in being faithful to the material, but it didn't have the budget it needed to match Matheson's visionary masterpiece.  I am a huge fan of the novel, and you can read more about it here in a "Top Vampire Movies and Books" piece I did for RVA Magazine.  Am I disappointed that the other film versions have strayed from the material?  Yes, but there's something about The Omega Man that makes me forgive the filmmakers for cutting their own path.  I also enjoy the 2007 version of I Am Legend with Will Smith, but it's no more like the book despite sharing its title--and it's certainly no match for this wonky gem from 1971.

The opening reel is one of the best things about the picture, as the film begins with Heston cruising the deserted streets of Los Angeles in a cherry red Ford.  There's something so eerie about a solitary figure driving through an empty city, and a bit of intrigue is added to the mix when he pauses just long enough to grab a machine gun and spray a nearby window where there may have been movement with a hail of lead. What follows is a unique series of bizarre sequences as Heston's lone survivor (or so he thinks) squares off against a clan of bloodthirsty mutant albinos known as "The Family."  These strange enemies hide during the day while Neville rummages for supplies and works to achieve a cure for that which ails his adversaries.  At night, Neville must barricade himself within his swank L.A. home and try to survive as The Family lays siege to his residence over and over again.

Throughout, Heston operates with an impressive passion for his craft, excelling in a complex role.  Neville is desperate, fearsome, vulnerable, and also a bit mad.  As such, the picture requires him to portray a man who is a hopeless lunatic at times, but who is also a rugged survivor, and finally, a man who emerges from the desperation and carnage around him as a selfless hero.  He goes crazy, he guns down mutants, he makes love to Rosalind Cash, and he perishes in an attempt to save what remains of mankind.  It's a huge role that would have capsized many a fine performer, but not Charlton Heston.  He kills it.

His adversaries, the fiendish (and vaguely hippy-esque) members of The Family (who had to be at least partly inspired by the so-called "Manson Family" and their brutal exploits two years prior in 1969), are a fearsome crew.  Led by Anthony Zerbe as Matthias, who is also seen as a news anchor in Neville's flashbacks of a world that had yet to be spoiled, they hide during the day and lust for blood--Robert Neville's blood in particular--during the night.  Zerbe, as always, delivers the goods, setting an admirable standard for  his co-stars who join him in bringing these spooky creatures to life.

The effects are serviceable enough.  As a kid, The Family scared the hell out of me, and while the make-up is a bit dated by modern standards, it's still eerie enough to get the job done.  The action is well-choreographed and there are some fine moments of suspense.  While Matheson's novel was far more brisk, the plot for The Omega Man seldom falters and there are only a few lulls sprinkled throughout the 98 minute running time.  The picture can be a bit overwrought, and Cash and the rest of the actors portraying the other human survivors who arrive late in the game have a hard time keeping up with Heston and Zerbe.

Boris Sagal did a nice job directing the picture and Ron Granier's work with the score is solid.  The editing and cinematography are top-notch, and The Omega Man is definitely a fine example of the high-quality fare the elite studios used to churn out.  I want to single out a sequence early in the film where Neville goes to a theater and watches Woodstock as a brilliant touch.  Heston shines in this scene where a lonely man sees multitudes of people come together in celebration on the screen.  Neville recites the lines verbatim as one subject of the documentary tries (and mostly fails) to explain the Woodstock experience.  It's as close as Neville can get to joining in on the fun himself and thereby escaping his lonely and treacherous existence.  It's simple yet powerful stuff, and seeing as how it arrives lumped in amid some fairly ludicrous sci-fi mayhem, it may surprise you.  

In the end, my childhood fascination with the picture aside, I think it's fair to say that The Omega Man remains the best attempt to adapt I Am Legend.  It's wildly dissimilar, far more absurd, and it exchanges the book's masterful (and incredibly cynical) ending for a far more optimistic (and yes, contrived) conclusion.  Yet it is owned by Charlton Heston, who attacks the role, guns blazing, and elevates a far-fetched vision of an apocalyptic future into one of the more outlandish and captivating sci-fi yarns that you're apt to see.


In his autobiography, In the Arena, Heston writes that Rosalind Cash was bit apprehensive before shooting her love scene with him.  "It's a spooky feeling," he recalls her saying, "to screw Moses."

Allegedly, Richard Matheson felt that the picture was so unlike his book that he wasn't at all bothered by the various changes.  He saw it as a completely different tale.

Tim Burton has voiced his affection for The Omega Man more than once.  He even went so far as to say that if he was stranded on a desert island, it's the kind of the movie he want with him to help pass the time in an interview held to promote his 2009 Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibit.

Believe it or not, some scenes of the empty Los Angeles landscape that Neville inhabits were accomplished simply by shooting in the business district early on Sunday mornings, when the streets were mostly empty.  This explains why it's possible to pick out a few random souls walking around in the background during some of the wide shots used to emphasize the main character's isolation.

The decision to exchange Matheson's vampires for mutant albinos is credited to screenwriter Joyce Corrington, who held a doctorate in chemistry and felt that mutants spawned by biological warfare were a more realistic choice.  

Other Cult Classics from Dimension X c/o Land of Way:

Sssssss (1973)

Sorcerer (1977) 

Vice Squad (1982) 

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