Beyond the Slimy Wall: The Omega Man
By Stephanie Star Smith
September 2, 2004
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
The Omega Man
This week I'll be reaching far back into the archives to recommend a film that, for whatever reason, doesn't get played on the 467 cable and satellite channels devoted to movies, but is more than worth your viewing time.
This Charleston Heston vehicle - yes, Virginia; before he became a right-wing nut-job and sock puppet for the NRA, Charleston Heston was an actor - is the second film to be based on Richard Matheson's short novel, I Am Legend, the first being a strange Italian film starring Vincent Price. Matheson's tale of a plague that turns people into vampires is altered slightly for this 1971 film. Instead of the disease being a mysterious bacterium that seems to arise out of nowhere causing an epidemic of vampirism, the disease now turns survivors into albino homicidal maniacs who can no longer tolerate daylight, and although it is never overtly stated in the film, the definite impression is left that the epidemic was caused by biological warfare.
But this is the main way in which the film departs from the novel; the remainder of the story is about the struggle of the sole remaining non-mutant human, Dr Robert Neville, to survive. For The Family, as the albino loonies call themselves, have become neo-Luddites of sorts; convinced that their suffering is the result of technology, they shun the conveniences of the modern world and vow to eradicate all vestiges of mechanized civilization from the face of the Earth.
The twist here, of course, is that it is the normal human who is seen as a monster that must be destroyed. The Family are as fanatically devoted to ending Neville's existence as they are to returning the Earth to a pre-Industrial Age state. Neville, on the other hand, has no wish to destroy the mutants, but neither is he in any particular hurry to die; each day before dusk, he returns to his apartment-cum-fortress, keeping the mutants at bay with floodlights and weapons fire as he slowly drinks himself into a stupor while his stereo play.
One of the interesting things about Omega Man is that it is not only a damn fine horror film, but is also a study of human nature. Neville's quests into daylight are as much about his hope that he will discover that somewhere, somehow, someone else survived as they are about getting supplies. Neville does eventually find a small band of non-mutated humans, which sets in motion the events that lead to the climax of the film. In between, however, we get a lot of great action sequences, and a rather-daring-for-its-time interracial romance between Heston and Rosalind Cash, who plays one of the survivors. And though the ending is a bit heavy-handed on the symbolism, overall the film does an excellent job of balancing some of its more philosophical themes against the need to blow up and kill things real good.
The performances are uniformly excellent, which as many of you know, isn't always the case in the horror genre, with Heston doing a masterful job of carrying the film on his broad shoulders. The production values are top-notch as well, and this being a more low-tech story, there isn't the disconnect modern audiences sometimes encounter when viewing pre-CGI special effects. The film does an admirable job of keeping the viewer's attention through its 98 minutes, and like many a post-apocalyptic film, manages to end on a bittersweet note of hope.
There is one thing that's always bothered me, however; why did neither this film or its 1964 predecessor use the novel's title? Cause if you want to talk an instant grab of a moviegoer's attention, it's hard to beat I Am Legend. Which, incidentally, I also highly recommend; it's a short read, thoroughly engrossing, and I daresay the last two lines will stay with you for a very, very long time.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.