They Come at Night
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
There are a few iconic actors of the 1950s and 1960s, but likely one of the most famous is Vincent Price. An actor who looked like he stepped out of a Gothic production, there was a style and tone to Price that few other actors could match. And he had a voice that was so specific, a deep tone to it with her old, rolling pronunciation, that no one else could sound like him. There's a reason, for instance, Michael Jackson had Price read the final bit of poetry for "Thriller". That was the horror movie voice of a generation.
It's interesting, considering how many adaptations we've had of the original novel I Am Legend, that Price's performance in its first adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, isn't as well known as other versions. Most people that know 1970s cinema are aware of all the goofy (and sometimes not goofy) movies from Charlton Heston, especially his lead performance in another I Am Legend, The Omega Man. And Will Smith's version, simply called I Am Legend, was both not well liked by many but enough of a success that a sequel is in the works. But Price's version was allowed to fall into the public domain and barely gets a mention most of the time.
That's a tragedy because the film is actually pretty good. While it has some of the flaws of horror of its era -- it's a little stagey, a little safe, a little simple -- it has Price at the center of it. His performance, his soulful take on the character, drives the film forward and gives it the heft it needs. It's one of Price's better performances, in a career absolutely littered with solid horror turns, and it's one that anyone that likes horror, post-apocalyptic fiction, or vampires, absolutely should check out.
Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan, a medical professional with a specialty in infections diseases. Morgan was working at a lab when a virus struck the world, slowly killing off so many of the populace. But not just killing them, turning them into something dead... but also a bit alive. Vampires, craving for blood, who had to hide away during the day so they could stalk for prey at night. As more and more of the population came down with the virus, including Morgan's wife and daughter, the doctor tried to do everything he could to save the world.
But once everyone else was dead or a vampire, and Morgan discovered he was the last man on Earth, he set about trying to eradicate the vampires that now owned the world. He suspected they had to have a home base they were living in, if he could just find it. So day by day, year by year, he went out to find and kill all the vampires he could, slowly clearing the city. But when a female survivor Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), turns up, Morgan learns he might not truly be the last man on Earth, but also that he also may not be the real hero of his own story.
Going back and watching the Last Man on Earth, the first thing I was struck by was how much the idea of it felt like an early draft of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. That's not just because both films were shot in black-and-white, but because of the way the vampires moved. They're half-dead things, barely able to walk, talk, or use tools. They shamble like zombies, making them feel very much like an "other", a dark reflection of ourselves. Morgan is fighting against them to save himself, but he's also fighting against becoming one of them as well. One slip and he could be just another monster among the herd.
That's interesting, and reflected even more so when it's slowly revealed that Morgan may not have just been killing the half-dead things, but also a different breed of vampire that had souls, and feelings, and were their own kind of alive. He'd gotten so caught up in the "work" he was doing he'd become a monster feared by others, the villain of his story, the thing stalking the daylight killing savagely. It's that idea that in the post-apocalypse it's the humans you have to worry about, not the other monsters. That, of course, was also a running theme of Romero's works.
The sections of the film set in the current time, with Morgan going around, trying to find and kill the vampires, are the most effective part of the film, for sure. Where the film stumbles, and while this might not be the version most people like of this story, is in the middle act. For an extended flashback the film takes us to the start of the pandemic, showing the slow slide of humanity as the diseases takes over the world. It's nice idea, in theory, but there's a couple of reasons why it doesn't work. The first is that it comes in the middle of the movie, when we already have a certain pace and vibe settled. Doing an extended flashback here causes the momentum of the main story to grind to a halt completely. It would have been better to do this section at the start of the film so we could ease into it, not in the middle where, arguably, it isn't necessary.
But the other issue is that the film doesn't do a great job of making the apocalypse feel very apocalyptic in this section. We have to be sold on the idea that the world is falling apart, and while we can do that when we see Morgan in his boarded up house, wandering empty streets, the scope doesn't work at the start of the whole viral downfall. The film can't pull out far enough to show up how bad everything gets, trapped on a few simple sets as it struggles to show the weight of everything. This leads me to think we would have been better off without this flashback at all, instead spending more time with Morgan as he fights vampires, clears sections of the city, and finds survivors.
All the story we need is in the great first and last acts, conveyed through Price's performance. He says there are vampires, and we see them. He says the world fell, and we buy it. I mean, hell, Price can sell just about anything in this film, and that's why it works so well. He was a great actor and he brought his soulful darkness to Morgan in a way that, I would argue, the other actors that have stepped into the role have failed to achieve. Price set the bar for the "hero" of this story, and it'll be hard to watch the other works without making comparisons.
The Last Man on Earth is a film that lives through Vincent Price. When it work it absolutely works because Price sells the hell out of the script. Yes, it has some stumbled, a little awkwardness that you feel is due to the era it was shot. But on the whole this is still the most effective adaptation of I Am Legend that we've had on the screen.