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Posts Tagged ‘Gauntlet’

Many factors led me to start writing Richard Matheson on Screen in 1997, only the most obvious one of which was my growing obsession with Matheson’s work.  I did not record for posterity the date when I conceived or started working on it, but if I’d known it would take thirteen years, I would have erected a plaque in what was then my office at the now-defunct GoodTimes Entertainment, where the book was born.  My job as copy manager entailed a lot of down time, or I never would have attempted it, and I was going through some personal stuff that made it desirable to channel my energies in a productive direction.  In addition, I had already interviewed Matheson and some of his friends and fellow writers, and written introductions to limited editions of several of his novels.

The most specific impetus was the slow-motion train wreck of a proposed Matheson biography that he initially cooperated with but ultimately, and wisely, disowned.  The author (who shall remain nameless) was someone I’d known from my years as a book publicist and—due to my excitement over an actual book about Matheson, unprecedented at that time—foolishly tried to help.  Luckily, his editor was a friend of mine, and when he showed me an early draft of the manuscript I saw that the author had plagiarized my introductions, among other things, which is one reason why it was cancelled and later self-published.  It was during this fiasco that I hit on the idea of writing my own Matheson book, albeit with a focus more suited to my longstanding interest in the relationship between literature and film.

In 2003, I met Simon Drax as a fellow commuter from Bethel to Manhattan, and had been working on the book for about six years.  Around that time I also embarked upon the first of several related projects that repeatedly sidetracked my own when I agreed to edit Matheson’s Duel & The Distributor for Gauntlet.  Imagine my surprise after I learned that Drax was not only a fellow writer and publishing professional, but also an honest-to-God Matheson fan who took a genuine interest in my work.  When The Danbury News-Times wanted to do a story on Duel & The Distributor, it was Drax who brought his camera over to GoodTimes to snap the shot of me that accompanied the article…and now graces this blog.

Drax was then working on his own long-gestating book, the magnificent prose-manga epic Doomtroopers (more on that in a moment), and while riding the rails together we struck up the most congenial creative interplay imaginable.  I did not and do not own a laptop, so I would sit relentlessly poring over printouts of the day’s work, while across the aisle Drax was furiously typing away on his Mac.  We would critique each other’s efforts, and I had the honor of reading Doomtroopers almost literally as it flowed forth from his fingertips.  It was a heady, fruitful time.

Drax’s love for Matheson in general and I Am Legend in particular, his fascination with the seemingly endless saga of my writing the book (interrupted again when I was pressed into service as the co-editor of The Richard Matheson Companion and its revised version, The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson), and his equally endless creativity inspired him to write a unique pastiche.  Its title a play on the first film version of I Am Legend, “The Last Manuscript on Earth” had me mysteriously appearing in the depopulated L.A. hitherto occupied only by Robert Neville and a horde of vampires, clutching my now-completed magnum opus and, as usual, proselytizing about Matheson.

While artistic license led Drax to mischaracterize my work in progress a bit, overall it was a touchingly personal tribute and a hilariously dead-on evocation of Matheson’s style, although Drax was more than a little chagrined when I sent it to the man himself and received a comment along the lines of, “Cute.”  Corporate layoffs ended our time together on the train, but I eventually finished my book, and am thrilled to announce that the Kindle edition of Drax’s Doomtroopers is now available here.  Other projects will undoubtedly ensue for both of us, and we will continue to reach across the aisle, in spirit if not in fact.  I couldn’t ask for a better travelling companion—it’s been a hell of a ride.

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Sorry I’m a little slow off the mark with this one, but my online time has been extremely limited lately for a variety of reasons (not least of them a massive motivational meltdown), and I’ve only just become aware of it.  It seems that the good folks at Tor.com, fresh from a massive revamp of their already impressive website, were able on Wednesday to squeeze in my review of the latest Gauntlet special edition of Matheson’s work, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  The book is a must for any serious Matheson collector, examining this seminal creation in its multimedia incarnations, and I hope the review will whet your appetite for my forthcoming Tor.com Matheson interview.

Meanwhile, we bid a sad but affectionate goodbye to longtime genre fixture Michael Gough, a native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who—at the ripe old age of 93, and with 178 IMDb credits over the course of his 64-year film and television career—can, in all fairness, be said to have had a good run.  Sixty years ago, he appeared in The Man in the White Suit opposite Alec Guinness, with whom Gough was reunited in The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and the BOF fave Smiley’s People (1982).  He also had a small role in Laurence Olivier’s version of Richard III (1955); their other collaborations ran the gamut from The Boys from Brazil (1978) to Brideshead Revisited (1981).

Gough was in at the beginning of the Hammer renaissance with a substantial and, in retrospect, surprisingly heroic part as Arthur in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958), which marked Christopher Lee’s debut as the Count.  The following year, he had what might be considered his defining role as a crime writer who commits murder to generate his own material in Horrors of the Black Museum.  This was to be his first of five collaborations with erstwhile AIP producer Herman Cohen, followed by several similar characters in Cohen’s Konga (1961), Black Zoo (1963), Berserk (1967), and Trog (1970), the latter two starring Joan Crawford, of all people.

With his talent for portraying slimy villains, Gough was a considerable asset to Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera (1962), although its disappointing box-office results gave Fisher’s career a serious hit.  His path crossed that of Lee’s almost a dozen times over the decades, and the next was in “Disembodied Hand,” a segment from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), the first of rival Amicus Productions’ many anthology films.  Further, if minor, roles for Amicus followed in The Skull (1965, again with Lee) and They Came from Beyond Space (1967), all three of them directed (as was Trog) by Hammer veteran and Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis.

Gough also found decent roles outside the genre in the likes of a television production of Pride and Prejudice (1967), and even his pairings with Lee straddled both worlds.  After they picked up a paycheck in the AIP/Tigon co-production Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), they joined an all-star cast headed by Charlton Heston for Julius Caesar (1970).  Other high-profile mainstream films from this period include Ken Russell’s D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love (1969) and Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1970), scripted by Harold Pinter, and Gough appeared in such TV series as The Saint, The Avengers, and Hammer’s short-lived Journey to the Unknown.

Lest we forget the inevitable Matheson connection, Gough had an unbilled but significant role in The Legend of Hell House (1973), and then worked largely in television (including Dr. Who) for the next few decades.  Among his intermittent and noteworthy feature films were Peter Yates’s The Dresser (1983), Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), John Mackenzie’s cracking thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).  Gough’s fame with the Hot Topic generation of viewers was assured when he took the role of the Wayne family butler, Alfred Pennyworth, in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).

While still finding time for highbrow fare like Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), Gough soldiered on through the decreasing quality of the Burton-less Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).  More important, he kept working with Burton—and renewed his association with Lee—in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Corpse Bride (2005), and last year’s Alice in Wonderland, which while a bit of a disappointment to this Burton fan was a perfect capstone to his long and impressive career.  So let us salute and celebrate this consummate performer, whose many decades in front of the camera displayed such enviable breadth and depth:  R.I.P., Michael.

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We finally have in hand Fangoria #301, emblazoned with a caricature of Matheson as the Mystic Seer fortune-telling machine from his Twilight Zone episode “Nick of Time” and the headline, “The Master of Terror Speaks.”  In addition to discussing his new novel, Other Kingdoms (just out from Tor), Richard reveals in his six-page interview, “My son [Richard Christian] and I are starting a company called Matheson Entertainment, which will take a lot of [our] unused material for film and television…and adapt it.”  They review his new Gauntlet book Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, as I will be for Tor.com, and the third-season Twilight Zone Blu-ray, although they err by claiming that he contributed only two episodes to that season, overlooking “Once Upon a Time.”

Last but, ahem, far from least, Fangoria reviews “writer, Matheson expert and occasional Fango contributor Matthew R. Bradley’s excellent recent tome Richard Matheson on Screen….Each picture is given due diligence, with Matheson appraisals, quotes from other journalists and thorough critical analyses by Bradley, making [this] a fantastic point of entry in understanding the author’s fascinating oeuvre.”  (Amusingly, the literary and DVD reviews are respectively credited to “Ben Cortman” and “Janos Skorzeny,” two names that need no introduction for the serious Matheson scholar.)  And, as a bonus, the issue also includes a chat with Matheson pal, fellow BOF interviewee and birthday boy William F. Nolan, so really, what’s not to like, guys?

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What Dreams Didn’t Come

In 1978, producer Stephen Simon (then known as Stephen Deutsch) read Richard Matheson’s forthcoming novel What Dreams May Come just before they began preproduction on Somewhere in Time (1980), which Matheson had adapted from his book Bid Time Return, and as with the previous project, they made a handshake deal for Simon to produce it as a film.  In 1998, What Dreams May Come was eventually released, with New Zealander Vincent Ward directing Robin Williams—fresh from winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in Good Will Hunting (1997)—in a script by Ron Bass, himself an Oscar winner for Rain Man (1988).  During much of the twenty intervening years, however, Simon had fought valiantly to get Matheson’s own screenplay shot.

When I interviewed Matheson in preparation for writing the introduction to Gauntlet’s limited edition of the novel, he told me that Simon “was now into my work and read it and fell in love with it and again wanted to do it.  We actually tried to do it together.  I did a script on it [in 1985], and then he could never get the backing to make it.  My original script was, of all places, for the Lucille Ball company [Desilu]….[We] flew to Munich several times to consult with Wolfgang Petersen, who was interested in doing it, but it didn’t work out.”  Simon did not agree to radical revisions requested by Petersen, the director of Das Boot (1981), In the Line of Fire (1993), Air Force One (1997), and Troy (2004), but finally had to accept another writer to get the film made.

In Richard Matheson on Screen (which was sent to the printer at the end of August), I compared the novel and film, yet the publication of his unproduced screenplay in Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two allows us to examine the “missing link.”  Interestingly, my first reaction while reading it was surprise at how much of what was in his script, which naturally is more faithful to the book, wound up in the film, although Bass made many changes and additions in his adaptation.  Matheson said, “It’s been suggested to me a number of times that I should arbitrate for a credit on the screenplay and I can’t do it, because his screenplay is so different, and whatever similarities there are are in the source material.  He claims he has never read my script, and I have no reason to doubt his word.”

Matheson’s adaptation alters a few of the autobiographical details with which he peppered the novel as “a hook to hang the story on” (e.g., his protagonist, Chris Nielsen, is now an architect rather than a television writer; Chris and his wife, Ann, have three children instead of four), yet it incorporates one that I don’t remember from the book, the devotion to the Dodgers that he and Chris both shared with their younger sons.  He was such an experienced screenwriter by that point in his career that I can’t imagine his script would not have made a full-length film.  But man, Bass’s version—hardly elephantine at 114 minutes, which includes a seven-and-a-half-minute credit crawl—just seems so much more complicated, with all of its “who’s who in Heaven” revelations of souls in other forms.

Each depicts Chris dying in a car crash, remembering his courtship and sometimes stormy family life with Ann, attending his own funeral, and causing a disbelieving loved one (daughter in Matheson, wife in Bass) to write “This is Chris…I still exist” in her diary.  Matheson reveals the initially indistinct figure who guides Chris into and through the afterlife as his older brother, Bob—another autobiographical detail—whose recitation of the many synonyms for Heaven amusingly echoes the deranged Vincent Price enumerating the names of Hell in Matheson’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961).  In both versions, Chris is reunited with the family dog, Katie; walks underwater without harm; and learns that there is work in Heaven, that reincarnation actually exists, and that he is Ann’s soul mate.

One of the major differences between the scripts is that Bass provides more justification for Ann’s suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills, giving her a history of mental instability that included a previous attempt and a period of institutionalization following the deaths of their children in a prior crash.  Ann (Annabella Sciorra) blames herself for both accidents, so it is a combination of guilt and grief that drives her to take her own life.  According to Matheson, MGM, the studio involved when he wrote his script, felt that audiences would be unsympathetic to her character if she killed herself while her children—whittled down to two, Marie (Jessica Brooks Grant) and Ian (Josh Paddock), by Bass—were alive, which may have been one reason why his screenplay was ultimately not filmed.

In Matheson’s novel and script, her death is foretold in dreams that replay—with fatal outcomes—real-life events in which Ann nearly fell from a cliff or drowned.  Bass’s Chris is a doctor, and Bob becomes his medical mentor, Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), yet in a complex game of musical souls, we learn that “Albert” is actually Ian, who chose the form of the one man Chris respected, while the Tracker (Max Von Sydow), who leads Chris through Hell to find and save Ann’s soul, is in reality Albert.  In every iteration, Chris locates Ann (referred to as Annie in the film) in a grim, “negative version” of their home that she has created out of her despondent mind, tries to make her understand what has happened to her, and movingly offers her his thanks and apologies for their life together.

When Chris volunteers to remain there with Ann, his selfless gesture enables her to leave Hell and be reborn, although Ward’s original ending (truer to Matheson), reuniting their souls in Sri Lanka before Chris must endure forty years of separation, gave way to one in which the two “meet cute” beside a lake.  In another last-minute change before the film was released, Michael Kamen’s score replaced an unused one by Ennio Morricone, which to the best of my knowledge has never gotten a legitimate release, although it is available on a “gray market” CD along with his Red Sonja (1985) score.  Someday, I’ll have to do the Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz shtick and try to synch up the Maestro’s What Dreams May Come cues—which my daughter got me—with the proper scenes.

The other thing that struck me while reading Matheson’s script was how sorry I would have felt for the poor art director, production designer, and special-effects technicians who had to execute it.  He writes of sounds “which permeate the air with a sense of beneficence…[and] can only be described as heavenly,” of water that is “shimmering with delicate hues, unlike any water ever seen on Earth,” and of “the most incredible and lengthy zoom shot ever filmed”—good luck with that!  Then again, I’d probably have been just as sympathetic if I had read, “Chris interacts with the wet paint of his imagined Heaven,” as he does in the film’s Oscar-winning special effects…yet as inventive as they were, it bears noting that Matheson’s descriptions also include the significant phrase “paint stroke.”

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And now, a more detailed look at the contents of Gauntlet’s Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two; I’ve already listed where each item had its original publication, if any (see “Richard Matheson: Past Masters”).  Appearing barely a year after his professional debut, the lengthy “Mountains of the Mind” (1951) was Matheson’s first story set at fictional Fort College in Indiana, where a young professor is impelled by unseen forces to seek out a certain mountain range, and finds an astonishing discovery awaiting him.  The Paul Stuve Discovery™ “The Hunt” (1952) is a solid, gritty Western of the type Matheson later collected in By the Gun, in which two reluctant deputies help a taciturn sheriff track down his errant son, with inevitably tragic results.

As noted earlier, “Now Die in It” (1958) was expanded by Matheson into Ride the Nightmare the following year, and with slight variations parallels the first few chapters of the novel, filmed as a 1962 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and as the Charles Bronson vehicle Cold Sweat (1970).  It concerns a man concealing a criminal past from his wife, a past that comes back to haunt him in the all-too-physical form of a former crony who breaks into their house planning to kill the husband, and forces a lethal confrontation.  At that point, the protagonists come to a metaphoric fork in the road, and without giving too much away, I’ll just say that in story and novel they take dramatically different paths.

From 1958 we jump forward to 1972 with “Leo Rising,” a clever short-short with a sting in the tail, and to 1980 with the Matheson pére et fils opus “Where There’s a Will,” which is set largely within the confines of a coffin and, for claustrophobes like this writer, delineates the ultimate nightmare.  Drawing from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, wherein numerous Matheson stories, teleplays, and interviews were first published, the 1980s are also represented with works both humorous (“Getting Together,” 1986) and serious (“Person to Person,” 1989).  The former chronicles the increasingly outlandish efforts of an ill-starred couple to avoid being separated, and the latter depicts the plight of a man who receives unsettling “phone calls” from a voice inside his head.

Matheson used the Hollywood milieu he knew so well as the setting for “CU: Mannix” (1991), the story of an aging movie star who practices imposture to test his fourth wife’s fidelity, only to receive an unexpected comeuppance.  Moving into the 21st century, “Portrait” (2003) is a whimsical ultra-short combining word and image, while “Haircut” (2006) is a macabre vignette (unfortunately containing a large number of typos) in which, although there are clues that hint at the ending, Matheson still conjures up a growing sense of dread.  The first of the previously unpublished pieces,  “An Element Never Forgets,” is an unrelated Fort College story and—as its title suggests—a whimsical one, which resembles some of Poe’s comic outings and presumably falls very early in the Matheson canon.

We are given no information on when the two unfinished novels were begun or why they were abandoned, but at least the first of them, Red Is the Color of Desire, includes an outline that tells us where Matheson was headed.  This aborted narrative depicts a recently widowed man’s obsession with his attractive upstairs neighbor, despite mounting evidence to suggest that she is a vampire; the outline suggests a finished work that would have contained elements of “Trespass” (filmed as The Stranger Within) and I Am Legend.  The other, The House of the Dead, is about a writer who is assigned to profile a recently deceased artist, and encounters ominous undercurrents at the huge Connecticut estate where he meets the artist’s widow and personal physician.

Up next:  Matheson’s unfilmed screenplay for What Dreams May Come.

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Speaking of blogs, it looks like your humble correspondent may soon be dividing at least some of his time between BOF and Tor.com (see blogroll at right).  The latter is, of course, the online presence of Tor/Forge Books, Matheson’s primary trade publisher; Gauntlet Press releases his work in handsome limited editions and, through its Edge Books imprint, the occasional trade paperback such as Visions Deferred.  My friend Greg Cox, who has been Matheson’s editor ever since 7 Steps to Midnight was acquired in 1991 and became one of the first books they published under the Forge imprint, told me that they might want me to contribute some Matheson posts.

Seems that with so much Matheson activity afoot (e.g., Tor’s trade edition of the Gauntlet tribute anthology He Is Legend; his new novel Other Kingdoms, coming out in March; the forthcoming Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel, based on his story “Steel”), they want to do a series of posts on Matheson’s movie career.  Boing!  So, despairing of finding someone with genuine expertise on the subject—heh heh—they decided out of pure desperation to fall back on the author of Richard Matheson on Screen.  And they wanted me to start with that old standby, the screen versions of I Am Legend, effectively requiring me to condense 23 manuscript pages into a mere 1,241 words.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, when it comes to the subject of You-Know-Who on you-know-what, my brain is now analogous to a supersaturated sponge:  just poke it a little, and a huge amount of water comes gushing out.  So, writing mostly off the top of my head, I banged out a couple of pages of hyperdistilled prose that—miraculously—managed to cover what I consider the high points of three separate sections from my magnum opus, written in a conversational style more appropriate to a blog than to a quasi-academic tome.  Mind you, I don’t have the thumbs-up from the folks at Tor.com just yet, but if I get it, you can be the judge.

So by all means check out Tor.com, and of course keep watching this space (although that should go without saying) to find out when my posts will be appearing, which may begin as early as the week of September 13.  In the meantime, I’ll keep waiting for word from McFarland about when the book will actually be out and keeping you, uh, posted to the best of my ability.  Bradley out.

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Yes, I know I should be indexing Richard Matheson on Screen, but when Matheson news this big hits, well, that’s like asking the tide not to come in—Gauntlet has at last unveiled Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two, and as usual, it’s a humdinger.  You won’t want to crack open the book, for fear of taking your eyes off the stunningly evocative jacket art by Harry O. Morris, whose recollections of working with the master on more than a dozen books we were proud to include in The Richard Matheson Companion, but if you don’t open it, you’ll be doing yourself a major disservice.  For Matheson completists, this is the big one, and although the book cries out for an introduction—say, by my friend and fellow Matheson scholar Paul Stuve, who helped put it together—to set some of its contents in context, I will try to pinch-hit for him by providing a preview, if not a review (since I won’t get to read it from cover to cover until mine is finished).

The idea behind Matheson Uncollected is identical to that of the equally invaluable The Beatles: Past Masters, which assembled songs that for whatever reasons did not appear on their formal albums, so that if you owned those plus the two volumes of Past Masters, you would have everything the Beatles issued commercially.  As if that weren’t enough, Gauntlet has characteristically gone the extra mile by including four previously unpublished items:  the newly rediscovered short story “An Element Never Forgets”; the unfinished novels Red Is the Color of Desire and The House of the Dead (an alternate version of which appears in the lettered edition); and Matheson’s unfilmed first-draft adaptation of his novel What Dreams May Come.  This screenplay was written in 1985 for Stephen Deutsch—producer of Somewhere in Time and, as Stephen Simon, the final script by Ron Bass—and director Wolfgang Petersen (see “Das Boot Camp”), here misspelled “Peterson.”

Among the previously published stories in Volume Two, mostly—as its title suggests—collected for the first time, are two each that made their debuts in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (“Leo Rising,” “CU: Mannix”) and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine (“Getting Together,” “Person to Person”).  For the record, Tor did include “Person to Person” (adapted in a YouTube video) as one of the bonus short stories in its 1995 edition of I Am Legend, apparently with little if any fanfare, but since the other contents of that collection are all readily available elsewhere, it makes sense for collectors to have this one, no?  Here, too, are “Mountains of the Mind” (Marvel Science Fiction, November 1951), inexplicably listed in the table of contents as an unfinished novel; “Now Die in It” (Mystery Tales, December 1958); and “Where There’s a Will,” an early collaboration with his son Richard Christian for Kirby McCauley’s 1980 anthology Dark Forces.

The pick of the litter, at least for completists, is “The Hunt,” which Paul recently excavated from a copy of the March 1952 issue of West magazine, and which not only has never been reprinted, but also appears in none of the standard Matheson bibliographies…including, I am sorry to say, the otherwise exhaustive list we had already compiled for the Companion and its revised edition, The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson.  The micro-short story “Portrait” comes complete with its accompanying illustration by Tenille Enger, and was written for Framed: A Gallery of Dark Delicacies, the 2003 anthology compiled by L.A. booksellers and Matheson über-boosters “Gomez and Morticia” (i.e., Del and Sue) Howison.  “Haircut” appeared in the 2006 Gauntlet collection Masques V, whose co-editor, Gary Braunbeck, also contributed a “Button, Button” sequel to Christopher Conlon’s award-winning tribute anthology He Is Legend.

Paul was kind enough to share some of the contents of Volume Two with me while it was being assembled, and although I had hoped to be in print first, so that I could crow about including hitherto unpublished material, I was able to mention several relevant items in my own book, such as the little-known fact that “Now Die in It” was later expanded into Matheson’s twice-adapted novel Ride the Nightmare.  Both “Mountains of the Mind” and “An Element Never Forgets” are among the group of loosely connected stories set at fictional Fort College, as is “Trespass” (aka “Mother by Protest”), the basis for his 1974 TV-movie The Stranger Within.  Matheson cannibalized The House of the Dead in his Pit and the Pendulum screenplay, since Poe’s story is unusually lacking in narrative structure; based on the four chapters here, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between them, but unlike Red Is the Color of Desire, it does not include an outline of the rest.

Okay, time to grab some lunch (it being Sunday afternoon as I write this) and get back to work.

Bradley out.

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Several years ago this review was commissioned, and then cancelled, by A Magazine That Shall Remain Nameless.  I’d put a lot of work into it, and was very distressed that it wouldn’t see the light of day (not to mention getting stiffed for my fee).  For all I know, these books may be out of print by now, but in the era of eBay and its ilk, older books are easier to obtain than ever, so the idea of running this doesn’t seem so crazy as it once would have.  In any event, I’m glad someone will finally see it, even if I still won’t get paid.  Hope you enjoy it.

 

 AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE COMPLETE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF ROD SERLING, VOLUME ONE, edited by Tony Albarella.  Gauntlet Press, hardcover, 488 pp., $66 (numbered edition), $200 (lettered edition)

 

THE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF CHARLES BEAUMONT, VOLUME ONE, edited by Roger Anker.  Gauntlet Press, hardcover, 440 pp., $66 (numbered edition), $250 (lettered edition)

 

THE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF JERRY SOHL, edited by Christopher Conlon.  BearManor Media, trade paperback, 177 pp., $18.95

While accepting his second consecutive Emmy Award for The Twilight Zone for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama in 1961, Rod Serling famously thanked “three writing gremlins who did the bulk of the work:  Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Johnson.”  With the Twilight Zone scripts of Matheson and Johnson already published, an ambitious program by Gauntlet Press is now immeasurably enhancing the literary legacy of that seminal anthology show by issuing those of Serling and his remaining “gremlin,” Beaumont, in multiple volumes edited by Tony Albarella and Roger Anker, respectively.  The first book of Serling scripts includes a message from his widow, Carol; appreciations by Matheson (whose short story “Third from the Sun” was adapted into one of them) and Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon (whose screenwriting career began with the mid-1980s Zone revival); tributes by cast members and producer Buck Houghton, Albarella’s detailed commentaries, photos, and various “rarities.”

The book begins with both of the show’s pilots (“The Time Element,” an episode of Desilu Playhouse, and “Where Is Everybody?”), and explains its origins as an outgrowth of earlier Serling scripts for mainstream anthology shows such as Kraft Television Theater and Playhouse 90, which discomfited sponsors and networks with their controversial content.  With Emmys in hand for “Patterns,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” and “The Comedian,” Serling sought an SF/fantasy vehicle to “camouflage” his de facto morality plays, and “The Time Element” (an hour-long expansion of a live show written in his college days) delivers, whisking William Bendix back to December 6, 1941, when his frantic warning is unheeded.  “Where Is Everybody?” actually “cheats” by explaining its outré scenario, as an amnesiac desperately seeks signs of life in an abruptly depopulated town, although it is otherwise a textbook Twilight Zone case, and ironically, Serling altered the ending, which reveals the man as an astronaut whose ability to undergo isolation is being tested, in a prose adaptation.

The scripts constitute a cross-section of autobiographical details from Serling’s life, like the wartime Philippine Islands setting of “The Purple Testament”—where a soldier sees in their faces which of his comrades will die—and recurring themes in his work, such as the prize-fighting milieu of “The Big, Tall Wish,” in which a boy wishes a boxer to victory.  Albarella explores the creation of the classic “Eye of the Beholder” (although omitting its original title, “A Private World of Darkness,” also taken from Serling’s narration), famed for its shock ending wherein a bandaged outcast is revealed to be a beauty by our standards, in a world of porcine man-monsters created by the great William Tuttle’s striking makeup.  A tale of two families fleeing an apocalypse, “Third from the Sun” shows Serling’s skill at adaptation, while an instructive comparison between drafts reveals why a lesser episode like “A Most Unusual Camera,” whose titular gadget photographs the near future, might have been better with the simpler ending in an alternate version, written eighteen months earlier.

“The Mind and the Matter,” with comedian Shelley Berman as a chronic malcontent who repopulates the world with duplicates of himself, and “The Dummy,” highlighted by Cliff Robertson’s tour de force performance as a ventriloquist terrified by his wooden companion, round out this initial offering of nine scripts from the ninety-two Serling wrote.  Like Beaumont’s, they are faithfully reproduced by Gauntlet in their oversized original typescript format, with revisions and hand-written corrections included to shed additional light on the development of these enduring episodes, although purists might prefer that they had been published in their original order, rather than selected from the first three seasons.  Albarella displays an admirable awareness of the key support provided by Serling’s many collaborators on both sides of the camera, including composers Bernard Herrmann and the late Jerry Goldsmith, ace cinematographer George T. Clemens, directors Douglas Heyes and Richard L. Bare, and an impressive roster of actors, several of whom offer recollections.

Contractually obligated to provide 80% of the scripts himself, Serling wanted to use the best in the business to help out with the rest and, like Gene Roddenberry with Star Trek years later, turned to the members of the burgeoning “Southern California School of Writers,” more familiarly called The Group, with Beaumont and Matheson his first recruits.  Beaumont brought an entirely different sensibility to the new series:  “Whereas Serling’s tales often explored the human condition and were rooted in sentimentality and nostalgia, Beaumont’s…usually took on darker themes:  nightmares from which there was no escape, voodoo curses, encounters with Satan,” as Anker notes of his debut, “Perchance to Dream.”  That nail-biter, about a man who fears the fatal effects of a recurring nightmare, is one of several scripts in this volume to be based on Beaumont’s published stories, such as “The Howling Man,” “The Jungle,” and the unproduced “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” the last of which depicts a dystopian future where laughter is outlawed—but still practiced in secret.

Again, the scripts are presented in chronological but not sequential order, and in this case it is an especially curious editorial decision, in light of the mini-biography that Anker weaves through his commentaries, concluding with Beaumont’s premature aging and early death at thirty-eight, which leaves the reader wondering where he will go in Volume Two.  Anker expands upon the material from his introduction to Beaumont’s Selected Stories (Dark Harvest, 1988), and like that estimable edition, this offers a superb Group portrait, with reminiscences by Matheson (who also wrote the foreword; Zone scribe Earl Hamner contributes an afterword as well), Johnson, Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, and others.  Another and even more moving perspective is provided by the eldest of Beaumont’s four children, Christopher, a fellow television writer who speaks eloquently in his preface and elsewhere in the book of his father’s talents as both a parent and an artist, and of the special moments afforded them before Chris was left fatherless at the age of only sixteen.

“Person or Persons Unknown” is a quintessential Zone original about a man who is suddenly a stranger to all who knew him, while Beaumont used a lighter touch on “A Nice Place to Visit,” as a crook’s heavenly afterlife turns out to be in  “The Other Place” (the original title), and “The Prime Mover,” with Buddy Ebsen as an amiable telekinetic.  Among his best-known episodes are “The Howling Man” (under whose title Tor reissued the Selected Stories in 1992), in which an unwitting traveler releases a captive Satan, and “The Jungle,” a terrifying tale of voodoo vengeance whose opening scene bears a strong resemblance to a sequence in Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), the film he wrote with Matheson.  Credited with fully a third of the fourth season’s eighteen hour-long scripts, Beaumont is represented here by his first, “In His Image,” and last, “Passage on the Lady Anne”; based on “The Man Who Made Himself” and “Song for a Lady,” respectively, they concern an android who quite literally meets his maker and a bickering couple on an ill-fated voyage. 

No discussion of Beaumont’s Twilight Zone work is complete without mentioning the uncredited colleagues who jumped in when the charismatic writer—famed for his ability to dazzle network executives at pitch meetings—was unable to handle his heavy workload, especially during his rapid decline due to a degenerative disease, most likely Alzheimer’s.  Chief among these initially unsung heroes was the late Jerry Sohl, and BearManor Media has, appropriately, just released a volume of his three Twilight Zone scripts produced under Beaumont’s byline; their earlier collection Filet of Sohl, also edited by Group expert Chris Conlon, contained two Zone teleplays that were never filmed.  Unlike the others, Sohl’s have been typeset, and two are previously unpublished:  “The New Exhibit,” the only one of the half-dozen hour-long shows bearing Beaumont’s name that he did not write himself, and “Queen of the Nile,” the last episode of the original Zone to credit him, although “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “Shadow Play” were remade in its ‘80s incarnation.

Echoing House of Wax (1953) and Robert Bloch’s Thriller episode “Waxworks,” “Exhibit” casts Martin Balsam as the curator of a fading wax museum’s Murderers’ Row, dangerously obsessed with his charges and their crimes, while “Queen” concerns an ageless actress with a secret, a scarab beetle that proves fatal for anyone who gets too close to her.  Sohl’s standout episode is the fan favorite “Living Doll,” in which a girl’s Talky Tina toy announces and carries out its intent to kill her wicked stepfather, and it is interesting to note that the script calls for the doll to be larger and more menacing in appearance, à la Child’s Play (1988), though the concept is probably even more frightening as it was finally filmed.  Of necessity, this is a more modest affair than the Gauntlet titles, with a brief introduction from Conlon but no episode commentaries or photos, plus an invaluable afterword in which Johnson explains the origins of A Touch of Strange, an abortive anthology series that he, Sohl, Matheson, and Theodore Sturgeon discussed while all four were writing for Star Trek.

Reading these twenty-one taut teleplays, it’s easy to escape back into The Twilight Zone and experience once again the thrill of discovery one had when watching “Eye of the Beholder” or “The Howling Man” (both directed by Douglas Heyes, who speaks candidly about the challenges they offered and his disagreements with Beaumont) for the first time.  And one can see how actors like Earl Holliman in “Where Is Everybody?,” Richard Conte in “Perchance to Dream,” Richard Long in “Person or Persons Unknown” and Telly Savalas in “Living Doll” were given the extraordinary gifts of stories and characters that pitted them against forces beyond their control or understanding, allowing their acting talents full rein.  Given his literary background, it is not surprising that Beaumont’s scripts make for slightly better reading, with shot descriptions presumably more detailed than those in an average teleplay, but all three books are brimming with the imagination, ingenuity and diversity that have kept The Twilight Zone thriving in reruns since it made its debut, forty-five years ago.

As Rod Serling told TV Guide in 1959, “the half-hour film can probe effectively, dramatize and present a well-told and well-filmed story….We want to tell stories that are different.  We want to prove that television, even in its half-hour form [as The Twilight Zone was for four out of its five seasons], can be both commercial and worthwhile.”  No greater proof of that theory need be offered than these unforgettable excursions from a trio of master storytellers, whose work will outlive them all, and enrich us for years yet to come.

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I’m always happy to salute a fellow Matheson scholar, especially one as dedicated to his particular niche as John David Scoleri, who maintains The I Am Legend Archive (see link below right) and its associated blog. His aim is nothing less than to collect and catalog every edition published of this seminal 1954 vampire classic, along with offering pertinent interviews—e.g., Charlton Heston, Steve Niles—and other information devoted to the novel on page and screen. Although my friend and colleague Paul Stuve, who has been an enormous help on every project since Duel & The Distributor, is a Matheson collector par excellence, I can’t remember off the top of my head whether he has so single-mindedly sought out all manifestations of each work.

There is admittedly a partial element of self-interest here, since I have contributed to not one but two relevant volumes published by Gauntlet Press, including a Classics Revisited edition of I Am Legend with my introduction. Their trade paperback collection Visions Deferred contains the script Matheson adapted for the unproduced Hammer version The Night Creatures, as well as two other unfilmed scripts and some background material I originally wrote for Duel & The Distributor. But my main interest is simply to spread the word about Matheson’s extraordinary career, and I still think that I Am Legend (which I first read in 1979 in the Omega Man tie-in edition) is probably his best novel.

I’m sorry to see that The Last Man on Film, the book John and David Allen Brown had planned to write on the various screen adaptations of I Am Legend, is indefinitely on hold. Much as I’d like to believe that Richard Matheson on Screen will be the, uh, last word on his film and television oeuvre, I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that there’s always room for another good book on such a subject, especially since theirs would focus exclusively on one story. They had interviewed Matheson, Heston, and his Omega Man co-star Paul Koslo for the book, and I’m sure they have a ton of material that would put my necessarily limited sections on those films to shame.

John is obviously as obsessed with tracking down every edition of I Am Legend as I was with tracking down every Matheson-related film or television episode, and it’s interesting to note that we both hit a brick wall in one area where our specialties overlap. That would be Soy Leyenda (1967), a 15-minute black-and-white Spanish film that marked the first time the novel was adapted under its original title, albeit in translation. I’ve put what little I know about the film into my book, but it ain’t much, and neither of us has been able to track down a copy of this elusive beast, so if you know anything more about it, please let us know, even if it will be too late to include the information in Richard Matheson on Screen.

Speaking of which, I happened to catch the first few minutes of Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days on TCM the other night, and was immediately chagrined. Why, you may well ask, other than my well-known dislike for most of Anderson’s work? Because it opens with some scenes from Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and stock footage of a rocket taking off, but when I wrote my section on Master of the World, I hadn’t seen Anderson’s film for so long that I didn’t realize it apparently inspired Master’s opening “conquest of the air” montage.

C’est la vie. Bradley out.

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