Friday, July 18, 2008

Last Man on Earth

There are movies and there are films, each separated by rifts in elitist attitudes and adolescent obsessions. Then there is the cinema of the damned, a vast skid-row of Jungian shadows and Freudian dreams. Like a flee market held at an abandoned drive-in, this is a place stocked with life's most tawdry and potent fragments from the collective sub-conscious. Here, and here alone, we find the poetry of the lost and doomed.

If there is a barker stationed at this particular gate of Hell, he will look like Vincent Price. In a career that see-sawed from second string respectability to senior citizen camp parody, Price rose and fell and rose again. He went from being a simple servant within the back lots of RKO and Universal Studios to his late career as master of the Edgar Allan Poe genre in the dingy back alleys of American International Pictures. Though his career turned into a lemon, Price successfully took over the entire lemonade stand. He became the unchallenged King of Horror.

When reporters would ask him how he would rate his films, Price simply quipped “It's all art.” He was actually a well-heeled connoisseur who collected a wide range of Pre-Columbian and Asian artifacts and, as I discovered from first-hand experience, had his own limits where his films were concerned. When programming a retrospective of his career, I had wanted to do a double-feature of The Last Man on Earth (1964) and Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962). Price had his agent tell me that if I did, don't expect Mr. Price to come anywhere near the theater. I got the hint.

Largely ignored and critically cursed, these two cheap-jack, grainy, slipshod movies were about as low as Price's career could go. The Last Man on Earth even has the peculiar distinction of being disowned by the author of the original novel despite the fact that he was one of the main writers of the screenplay.

In Hell, even reels of safety stock burns.

But deep in the sub-basement of history, both films have a quirky and well deserved reputation as they each closely approximate what might have happened if Carl Jung had suffered a nervous breakdown, turned to drink, and then decided to become a screenwriter (the reverse of the usual career path).

The Last Man on Earth was the first film version of the seminal horror novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson in which Price finds himself to be the only source of blood available to a city full of vampires. Shot quick and dirty in Italy (standing in for Los Angeles) with an obscure director (Ubaldo Ragona, though the U.S. version credits the B-movie director Sidney Salkow whose actual involvement was minor) and lots of people speaking anything but English, the film is a weird hodge-podge of conflicting techniques. Even the English dubbing appears to have been supervised by non-English speakers. For Price, the true nightmare would have been in the making, not the viewing.

But The Last Man on Earth works on its own terms as a surprisingly gritty, extremely irrational nightmare in which both logic and sentiment are confined to the ash heap (along with a sizable chunk of the local population). Far superior to the two later versions (The Omega Man and the recent I Am Legend), it is no wonder that the film is offered as a “classic” on the Surfing the Apocalypse web site (go to

As for Confessions of an Opium Eater, it manages the seemingly impossible by looking even cheaper than a cut-rate Italian knock-off while simultaneously converting a literary classic into a murky pulp adventure on sex slave trafficking, drug smuggling and deliriously incoherent narrative structure. The movie converts the 19th Century English journalist (and opium drug addict) Thomas de Quincey into a hop-headed solider of fortune working his way through a byzantine Tong war in old San Francisco.

The fact that the film makes no flaming sense is a testament to the accidental power of the movie. Like a bad dream, Confessions of an Opium Eater jerks its way from one implausible moment to the next with the self-serious, glassy-eyed look of a full blown stoner. If Luis Buñuel had ever directed a B-movie, this would be it.

Even the movie's trailer (go to brings up the age old question: Does this world really exist? The rest of the movie delivers a resounding: Nayh. Duplicity, hallucinations, and some messy deaths rounds out the drive-in metaphysics of this lost masterpiece.

And as Price's own agent might remind us: Success has a thousand fathers, but these movies don't even have a star who would go near them.