Total Recall: I Am Legend and the Work of Richard Matheson

We examine the film work of the cult novelist/screenwriter.

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This week, Will Smith plays a guy who discovers he's the last man on earth in I Am Legend. So it's a good time to take a look at the movie work of Richard Matheson, who penned the film's source material.

Among sci-fi/thriller writers whose work has been adapted for the screen, Matheson's name is less familiar than Stephen King's or Philip K. Dick's. But his novels and screenplays have cast a long shadow over the pulp medium. Like King, Matheson tells stories of regular people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Though his novelization of I Am Legend has been made into a movie several times (as 1964's The Last Man on Earth [91 percent] and 1971's The Omega Man [62 percent]) and is probably his best-known work, Matheson has shown an aptitude for twisty horror, thoughtful sci-fi, and sweeping romance.

Duel (81 percent) is a perfect example of one of Matheson's greatest strengths: The image of one man gradually coming to grips with inexplicable horror. While Terror at 20,000 Feet is docked points since it's only a short (part of The Twilight Zone movie, 63 percent) and the details of I am Legend are always drastically changed for film, Duel remains as taut and efficient as it originally was in 1971. Representing Steven Spielberg's feature-length directorial debut, the film follows a traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver) who's relentlessly pursued by a big rig and its never-seen driver. "Even without benefit of hindsight," writes Janet Maslin of The New York Times, "Duel looks like the work of an unusually talented young director."

Duel was made for the ABC network on a 10-day shooting schedule, but its success as a Sunday Movie of the Week prompted its theatrical release overseas, along with a limited run in the U.S. Spielberg shot three new sequences: the scene where Weaver tries to assist a stuck school bus as the big rig slowly creeps up on him, an equally compelling scene that has Weaver's car slowly being nudged into an oncoming train, and one that has Weaver calling his family before being terrorized. The last scene is interesting for a few reasons. For one, it shows a strong father figure before Spielberg's cynicism toward them crept into his work. And the scene's sentimentality actually helps the movie overall: it grounds Weaver's character into reality, in a movie that is otherwise a frightening existential pursuit across the California outback.


Duel theatrical trailer

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