And…………..we’re back. That was a scary couple of years.
Speaking of scary things, we’ve marked our favorite month-long celebration of all things spooky for our triumphant return. What better way? For my part, as some of you may recall (because I assume I couldn’t possibly have new readers), many of my past Octoberween articles focused on one man: “the master of the macabre, highness of the horrific, sultan of the scary, Kaiser of the creepy, tycoon of the terrible, rajah of the repulsive, pharaoh of the frightening, and so on,” as I once described him. You know of whom I speak: Vincent Price. Gonna add “czar of the zany” and “potentate of the petrifying” to that list this go around.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
The Plot: A mysterious, deadly, universal plague sweeps the Earth, claiming humans and animals alike. Worse still? Those who succumb to the pestilence, if not properly dealt with (re: burned) return from beyond the grave as blood-sucking vampires! Oh, shoot! Blessed (or perhaps cursed) with immunity, Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) alone remains the last man on Earth, dedicated to wiping out the vampire blight and, hopefully, finding some other living souls.
So, when I was in high school, the third film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s popular 1954 sci-fi apocalypse novel came out. Sharing a title with the story, I Am Legend wowed this impressionable young teen. I hadn’t seen many zombie movies at that point, and also went in with low expectations only to emerge pleasantly surprised. While I Am Legend doesn’t quite hold up, The Last Man on Earth more than does.
From its opening frame, the Vinny P. classic tells you that it is a B movie with a low budget (just a few hundred thousand dollars), but it makes up for that by virtue of its insightful, philosophically rich script, its haunting direction, and possibly a career-best performance by Vincent Price. Now, again, those of you who’ve read earlier editions of Second Breakfast will likely know that I am a HUGE fan of Mr. Price. He may well be my favorite actor. So, please do not take it lightly when I say that The Last Man on Earth could feature his best performance.
From amongst an oeuvre of unforgettable masterpieces of camp and terror that includes the likes of Much Ado About Murder, The Conqueror Worm, House on Haunted Hill, House of Wax, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, just to name but a smidge, The Last Man on Earth has rightly garnered a reputation as a cult classic and a testament to Price’s lasting impact on the horror genre. Despite that, and despite my avowed love for the man, I had somehow never seen it until just this week. Crazy, right? I kicked myself something awful once I realized what a mistake I’d made in waiting so long, but also took some comfort in knowing that after all these years, Vincent Price can still amaze me.
Of course, credit where it’s due, Price’s performance is only one part of what makes The Last Man on Earth A) a great film and B) the perfect way to kick off Octoberween. Following the themes laid out in his own original text, the film (based on a script co-written by Matheson) transcends its somewhat goofy premise to hammer home a powerful commentary on humanity, violence, horror, and the nature of legends.
SPOILER ALERT for those of you who don’t happen to know how this story ends. In a twist that upends just about every single trope of the genre, Dr. Morgan learns in the finale of the film that the vampires have their own society and live in constant fear of his attacks. Like a Bogeyman or, indeed, a reverse vampire, the monsters lay their heads to rest by day knowing that Morgan could strike at any moment, that he could steal silently into their chambers and hammer a stake through their hearts. As the title of the book implies (and the title of the Will Smith version, which for some reason did away with this ending), he has become a legend to the vampires, and not a good one, either. Yes, now that vampirism is the norm, he’s the freak. He’s the monster.
Following this revelation, in a climax that mirrors that of James Whale’s Frankenstein, an angry mob of vampires chases down Price as if he were a wounded animal or popular movie monster. This isn’t some cheap, half-assed “We are the Walking Dead” kind of crap. Here, Matheson forces the audience to question its accepted definitions of humanity and monstrosity, positing that all of these concepts, even as they pertain to our individual identities, are relative.
So, before you dive into a month filled with slasher murderers, zombies, witches, and triffids, watch The Last Man on Earth, and have a good long think about what makes a man a man, and what makes a monster a monster.