Review: Three unfilmed scripts from I Am Legend's creator

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

All hail Richard Matheson! In Visions Deferred (Edge Books, $16.95, 570 pages), the venerable fantasist whose works provided the inspiration for such classic fantasy films as The Incredible Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come, a number of classic Twilight Zone episodes, and the multiple missed attempts at a faithful adaptation of his seminal vampire novel I Am Legend provides an eager world with three of the screenplays to movies that somehow never gelled. These are the missed Mathesons, and it's a measure of his storytelling acumen that they all emerge as spectacular missed opportunities.

The first is 1957's "The Night Creatures," a self-adaptation of I Am Legend once intended for Hammer Films. Much more faithful to Matheson's original story than the various versions later made with Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Wil Smith, it captures the growing madness of Robert Neville, as he fends for himself in a world overrun by a vampiric plague. The violence and profanity are both mild by today's standards, but that didn't stop a Motion Pictures Association of America censor from producing two pages of objections, reproduced here, that included complaints about language like "Oh God," and "Damn." The movie fell through in part because the material was considered way too violent for the time, a decade before George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

"The Distributor," written in the mid-'60s but bearing evidence that it's been tinkered with since, is Matheson's adaptation of his own short story, a much-lionized dark classic and small miracle of concision about one Theo Gordon, an ordinary man of substantial financial resources whose pastime is moving into peaceful suburban neighborhoods and setting the residents against one another via expert use of rumor, innuendo, and malicious mischief. By the time Theo moves out, several residents are dead, others are ruined in various ways, and still others are deadly enemies. It's as cold and as compact a portrait of absolute evil—the specific product Theo's "distributing"—as anybody's ever attempted, even if Stephen King's Needful Things, book and movie, copped the same beats with the addition of a supernatural element and many hundreds of additional pages Matheson didn't need when he told his own much-superior story in about twenty. Matheson's screenplay is relentless, horrific, heartbreaking, and sometimes cruelly funny: a nightmare on the page, as it would have been on the screen. It would have been a great, if unnerving, film.

Even so, the biggest missed opportunity may be "Sweethearts and Horrors," a manic farce about the bickering, crazy Sweetheart siblings, who spend a night in a mansion gimmicked with all sorts of elaborate booby traps following the murder of the demented family patriarch, whose will specifies that his fortune will go to the one who manages to off the others by morning. Driven by gothic slapstick, and populated by characters so horrid that they deserve every misfortune that happens to them, the movie was to have starred Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Vincent Price, and Tallulah Bankhead as the bickering, besieged Sweethearts; and the knowledge that we never got to see that splendid combination of over-the-top bitchiness is almost as saddening as Matheson's terse explanation why: "But then, sadly, one by one, they went."

What we have, instead, is a trio of movies that could have been, that emerge as treats for the screen in our mind. So once again: all hail Richard Matheson!