Friday, November 30, 2007

I Rant... Therefore I AM LEGEND

Recently it was announced that director Francis Lawrence was back at work on the Will Smith version of I AM LEGEND, doing a reshoot on the ending. According to CHUD, the Suits weren’t happy with the ending. They wanted something more positive.

Having read the shooting script by über-hack Akiva Goldsman, I was perplexed: How in the hell could they make the ending more positive than what was in the shooting script?

Take the most grating ending you can imagine, slam your head against the wall and rethink that ending, and you might come close to imagining how poorly (considering the entire point of the source material) it was tied up. Well, if you're imagining a gathering of multi-cultural children holding hands and singing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ala that Coke® commercial from the Seventies, you hit your head too hard... but it's close.


After besting the lead mutant in a fistfight (as the other mutants obligingly just stand around) the next day Neville and his new family load up a truck to rendezvous with another human outpost.

And the dog is cured. Actually, everyone is cured because just in time, friggin' Neville finally figured out the secret recipe.

CUE: Sunshine and rainbows.


I mean, Jeebus... how are they going to top that for an upbeat ending? Hand everyone a puppy as they leave the theater?

But then, in my outrageously humble fucking opinion, the entire script was buggered from the start. An early sign things were going amiss was the relocation of the setting from the outskirts of Los Angeles (at the time of the novel’s writing, a middling sized city) to New York.

Yeah, New York. Because if everyone in the world suddenly turned into vampires (or zombies… or zompires), you'd want to keep refuge in what is one of the biggest metropolitan areas of the world.

The script starts off like biting on tinfoil...

... it's three pages of an extended com- mercial on the sheer macho exuberance of driving a '08 Shelby GT500. Although to be charitable, it also seems to be a nod towards the opening of THE OMEGA MAN.

But that begs the question: why not just call the film that and go from there?

Then it's thirty pages of Neville and his dog puttering about the empty city before we get around to some (brief) mutant action. And, well... generally the rest of the script plays like Goldsman has a pretty high level of disdain for the material, or that he's solidly aiming for the 13-year-olds in the audience. He blithely disregards maintaining any sort of adherence to his own internal logic, and pretty much defangs any sense of dread as to Neville's plight... the piece is more focused on the loneliness of the last man on Earth rather than any threat that exists at night.

In the script, it comes across that despite three years of being the only human left in New York, the millions of mutants that prowl the night have never been able to pinpoint his brownstone refuge. Or even seem to be looking for him. Actually, aside from about three set pieces, there's really no mutant action at all, just Neville talking to himself, his dog, and... well, a kid.

Actually, I didn't have too much of a problem with adding a kid to the mix, although traditionally you're supposed to wait until the sequel to pull that stunt. And that as applied here, it just seems like an excuse for Goldsman to just retype two pages from the screenplay for SHREK. Verbatim. Maybe he just was dying to field test the dual dialogue option in his Final Draft screenwriting software.

My issue was how they introduced the kid character and his escort, with a plot device so anathema to the internal logic of the world that Will Smith's character would have been perfectly justified in stepping back, looking up and saying, "Ah Hell no, tell me you didn't just do that!"

There’s so much deus ex machina hovering around the script that it probably needed its own airport.

Also, I can see where producer/writer Goldsman might have some problems selling the subtext of the source material in this day and age; Matheson was basically saying that there is no help from God and that evolution rules.

Whoops... That might alienate half your multiplex crowd right there. Which also brings about casting issues: on the page, Anna is implied to be British... but as the film gets cast, she ends up being played by a Brazilian. I suppose the Suits figured that Middle America couldn't bear the sight of Smith macking on a white chick.

Cripes, under the premise, can't the filmmakers take the opportunity to cross that color line? I mean, Chuck Heston got it on with Rosalind Cash…

... but thirty-five years after THE OMEGA MAN, we still can’t handle something as innocuous as some black dude kissing a white chick on a wide screen? Does pandering to the delicate sensibilities of the crackers hold more sway than just getting with the 21st century?


But then, there is also some intentionally bizarre subtext action going on... the weirdest one was having the introduction to the mutants as having taken refuge in the United Nations building. Um. It's not inadvertent, because Goldsman throws in an aside about the traditional ineffectiveness of the UN.

I find it hard to imagine why the film is still called I AM LEGEND... any subtext attached to that title has been removed to the point that it'd be like maintaining the title of THE SCARLET LETTER after doing an adaptation that removes any mention of adultery. Yeah, the Demi Moore vehicle came close, but still didn’t go that far.

There comes a point where you have to wonder why they even bother to option the original book, when it really has nothing to do with the source material... other than making sure no one else attempts to mount a faithful production.

Although to be fair, there comes a point where the source material becomes irrelevant. This is not an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”. It’s a Will Smith vehicle that shares the same name. It’s almost like being a huge fan of James Herbert’s “The Fog” and getting upset that John Carpenter’s THE FOG had nothing to do with the story.

Um… sort of. Although now that I think about it, Herbert’s novel would still make for one hell of an apocalyptic movie.

But then, the screenplay for I AM LEGEND just doesn’t even hold up in its own small way. Although, most of the things that aggravated me about the script were the same kind of things that have people rolling their eyes at me and saying, "Sheesh... it's just a movie."

This script was written for those people.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


What is it about Richard Matheson’s seemingly adaptation-friendly novella I Am Legend that makes producers want to make it into something that it isn’t? At what point did some Suit decide that it would make for a boffo Will Smith action movie?

Although while it does have its action moments, it is by no means an action driven narrative.

It’s a fairly meditative piece with a straight-forward story arc, with some flashbacks to fill in the backstory. But in the 50-odd years since its debut, why hasn't there ever been -- or will be -- a proper adaptation?

The novella picks up with the lonely plight of Robert Neville, a man of the Los Angeles suburbs who has watched his wife and child succumb to a deadly bacterium that has also swept his city and the world, leaving him literally the last living man on earth. But not the last man, as a side-effect of the plague causes the victims to return from the grave as bloodthirsty ghouls. Sort of like vampires, but without the table manners.

By day he tracks down the creatures and disposes of those he finds sheltered from the sun with a stake through the heart, and by night he barricades himself in his fortified ranch-style home, bulbs of garlic serving as a moat and mirrors propped to dissuade the approach of the foul-minded trespassers.

The work has been adapted twice already since its publication in 1954, by the Italians in 1964 as the Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and again as the Charlton Heston camp classic THE OMEGA MAN in 1971.

It was also the acknowledged inspiration for George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and by extension the catalyst for the entire zombie subgenre as we know it.

But in all three adaptations (including the upcoming Will Smith version), everything that made the story compelling, made it something more than just some proto-bunker horror story -- was jettisoned.

Although if nothing else, Smith's I AM LEGEND makes THE LAST MAN ON EARTH look lavishly faithful to the material.

In some cases, I can understand why they didn't want to take all the perceived baggage on board. There's a nifty streak of satire running through the story, and Christianity for one doesn't come out looking too good. Obviously, that's not exactly a demographic you want to alienate from filing in to see the latest Will Smith vehicle (as in movie, not the extended commercial for the 2008 Mustang Shelby GT500 that he maneuvers through the empty streets in the opening of the film).

But the most intriguing aspect of the novella is that it took the old fashioned vampire template and worked out a scientific rationalization for the mythos. But with THE OMEGA MAN and I AM LEGEND, the vampires have been reduced to garden variety mutants, rendering the source material's raison d' etre moot. And with that goes one of the more powerful moments of the novella, as Neville's wife... well, read the book.

Even worse... they change the ending. Long story short, not all those Neville staked during the day were vampires. Some victims of the plague didn't fully succumb but still were forced to sleep by day, seemingly just more of the vampire ilk. Among those folks -- the next step in the progression of human evolution -- he was viewed as a literal boogeyman.

Pardon my fucking French, but that's the whole fucking point of the fucking title.

Our wiggy hero has become to the next race as the vampires once were to man. The good guy turns out to be really the bad guy, if you're willing to step back from your bias. Neat stuff.

Too bad that no one who has adapted it seems to get the punchline.

Actually, there's always the book and nothing Hollywood can do will change that. But that still doesn't make the process any less confounding.

One of the odd things about the creative process in Hollywood is how much fidelity the movie makers abide by when adapting works of utter and complete dross that has been met with critical disdain but taken up adoringly by the public (as with THE DA VINCI CODE). But when approaching works that have critical and popular cred within the speculative fiction realm, these producers feel no qualms about alienating the core audience that made the work timeless in order to pander to what they figure the perceived cud-chewing masses demand.

The Will Smith vehicle I, ROBOT, as an example, showed how contrary to the source material The Suits are willing to go, ultimately delivering a debasement of the mythos that Asimov had created, filming an alternate universe where hordes of robots scheme to destroy mankind. Or some such nonsense.

One could venture that it's a cultural knee-jerk reaction in the century-old East versus West Coast pissing contest in pursuit of popular entertainment dominance.

Books versus films, y'know?

The damnable thing is that as the story plays out on the page, it would make for one nifty low budget film. The problem is, everyone wants to throw too much money at it... which in turn, forces the project to become something that it's not.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Another Night in THE ASYLUM

You gotta admire Grade Z.5 genre distributor The Asylum. In keeping up with that fine ol’ Roger Corman tradition, they've made a name throwing out the cinematic knockoffs to suck up some of the ballyhoo floating around whatever Hollywood big-budget success is set to rake it in.

Infamous for such D2DVD efforts as PIRATES OF TREASURE ISLAND and THE DA VINCI TREASURE, The Asylum actually might have made a better profit off of mockbusters SNAKES ON A TRAIN and INVASION OF THE POD PEOPLE than their big studio counterparts did with the real deal.

In the process, they've also more than likely confused some of those... ahem, slower folks that kept waiting in vain for Johnny Depp or Tom Hanks to show up in their bottom shelf rental. Gotcha, Sucka!

And coming hot on the heels of this summer's amazing colossal TRANSMORPHERS, now we get…

Instead of Will Smith, we get some guy by the name of Mark Dacascos. From what I hear, some people know the name. If so, most of the budget probably went into his pocket.

After some unexplained plague wipes out most of humanity, Dacascos idles about his remote cabin up in the hills over Los Angeles. It can’t be too long after the apocalypse, because a heavy haze still hangs above the deserted streets of the city. He passes his time popping pills, moping over his dead wife and kid and getting pissed off at alarm clocks.

Sometimes he goes out for a drive and places timebombs at the base of poles that say No Smoking or No Digging. It seems that the man has authority issues. Or he might just be cranky about being stuck in the post-apocalypse with the world’s most annoying laptop.

If Apple got coerced into paying for product placement here, it wasn’t a good investment… Dacascos’ laptop sounds like some mid-sixties mainframe as it chatters and beeps at him. I know it was bad foley work, but it still in some absurd way makes me hesitant about switching from my PC to a G5. It’s those little things, you know?

But the point of the flick is the mutants.

Unlike THE OMEGA MAN, the mutants here don’t wear black cowls. They do wear rubber suits, but you’re not supposed to notice that they're suits... but the whole suspension of disbelief thing ain't happening here. The suits are pretty bad.

Anyway, anytime the mutants come sniffing around his cabin, Dacascos takes a time out from trippin’ and steps outside to kick their asses. He’s good at kicking their asses. He’s got the moves down and knows how to swing a nasty nunchuck… that’s probably why some people have heard of him.

Of course, it’s a little easier for him to kick their asses because the damned things are slowed down by their silly rubber suits. What the hell is up with that? Most micro- budget filmmakers go with a zombie or vampire flick because it’s less FX intensive. Throw some gray make-up on your extras, douse them with fake blood and have them lurch around: zombies. Or throw a pair of fangs in their mouths and have them make catfaces at each other: vampires.

Can’t get more budget efficient than that, short of just having them get naked and fake having sex. For what it's worth, there’s no sex in I AM OMEGA, fake or otherwise.

Instead, here they sank what was left of the budget into rubber CHUD suits. So much so that the filmmaker had to resort to photocopying sheets of paper to scotch tape to any surface that demanded a No Smoking or No Digging legend.

It also doesn’t help matters any that the mutants don’t give a whit whether it’s day or night, so you get plenty of full daylight opportunities to see latex flaking from the suits.

Okay, I'm done with the damned rubber suits.

Meanwhile, back at the noisy computer…

It’s the end of the world, and the poor dude still has his dinner interrupted by a telemarketer. Well, not a tele- marketer… but somehow, some stranger that's a dead ringer for his dead wife manages to find a way to set up a live video feed to contact him. Mutants have eaten the rest of her traveling companions, and she needs his help to get out of the city. How she got his number isn't something to give much thought to, because scripter Geoff Meed sure as hell didn't. Oddly enough, she's tech savvy enough to link up with him, but not common sense savvy enough to just jump into a car and hightail it.

He blows her off. Why? It’s not clear. But over the course of the first half of the movie the guy has been getting loopier and loopier, so I suppose it fits within the character.

I suppose.

Maybe he just didn’t want to risk complicating the title of the film. Not that it matters, because not too long after that a couple of road warriors show up in a beater van from nearby Antioch. One of them is played by the screenwriter, which probably explains why some points of the narrative don't exactly, um... make sense. Spreading himself a little thin, y'know? They want Dacascos to join them to rescue the chick, who is immune from the plague.

“Help us, Obi Wan Dacascos… you’re our only hope.”

He still ain’t having it and -- the road warriors having left the Holy Hand Grenade back in Antioch -- one of them uses the Holy Bazooka to blow up Dacascos' house. It being pretty damned pointless to argue with that one, he agrees to join them. Civilization being dead and all, you’d figure folks would find less complicated ways of going about things…

… like just driving into the city instead of deciding to scuttle along through the dank sewer tunnels beneath the streets, where any ol’ CHUD could be lurking in the shadows.

Fortunately, the mutants have retained some sense of play nice and wait until Dacascos has rolled in to rescue the girl before they try to peel the flimsy sheets of plywood from her barricade. Or maybe they held off because KEEP OUT was spray-painted across the sheets… but once Dacascos winnows through a gap, they decide that they not gonna play that game anymore.

Even better, as the damsel in distressed jeans, Jennifer Lee Wiggins is cute and engaging, and so the movie immediately picks up. Even better-er, now that he has someone who knows how to act to play off of, Dacascos’ acting doesn’t seem half bad itself.


With Dacascos no longer having to carry the flick muttering to himself and generally acting wiggy, the last act is actually pretty entertaining. Mutants finally show up in more than groups of two and there’s ticking bombs in the background.

While it’s no THE OMEGA MAN (which itself was no THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, which was no I Am Legend, which the upcoming I AM LEGEND seriously won’t be) I AM OMEGA is still not without its pleasures. There's a sly sense of humor about itself at work and referential touches that are are surprisingly understated.

Technically, it’s a lot better than one would expect from D2DVD… although a little more attention to small details like internal logic and less obsession with rubber suits would have helped immensely.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Recently, Arbogast posted an image of the 100th issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. The cover elicited an unexpected wave of nostalgia, a recollection of the August day back in 1973 when the 11-year-ol’ me was able to scrap meager resources together (a whole buck-twenty- five!) and finally buy an issue of the mag.

Up until then, I’d seen it on the shelves of the quaint country store near where I was being brought up, but could only thumb through the magazine and inhale the pulpy newsprint as my mother went about her shopping, reluctantly putting it back on the rack as we prepared to exit.

But then the day came with the 100th issue, and I was finally allowed to take one home with me and devour it at my leisure. Heeding the advice that it was a Collector’s Issue, I tried to keep the magazine in optimum collector’s shape, but repeated returns to the pages inevitably took its toll. By the time the magazine (and the ensuing issues) and I parted ways, it was one sorry lot of pages struggling to stay hooked to the staples.

The nostalgia had a bittersweet taste, a recollection of the quaintly-sated desires of youth and of a month (or two or three) of anticipation finally fulfilled. The store would only stock a couple of issues, so if my timing was off, I was out of luck and had to wait through the cycle until the next issue came out. But if my timing was good, my stomach would lurch happily at the sight of the freshly printed magazine nestled between such incongruous companions as Field & Stream and Hot Rod Magazine.

Snatch, “Mine!”

In the days before the growing popularity of Stephen King made horror -- while not entirely respectable -- at least tolerated as something other than a mark of possible deviance, Famous Monsters of Filmland became a textbook.

And the ubiquitous Forrest J. Ackerman became the mentor.

Serving the function of all good childless uncles, Uncle Forry slipped us forbidden goods while the parents’ attention was elsewhere. Long before the advent of the internet existed to assure an off-center Ohio farm boy that there existed others with the same perplexing obsession, Famous Monsters provided a lifeline. In its pages were letters from other young boys (long before Anne Rice created her gateway for the girls to join the gang) swearing fidelity. Those names would over the years move on from the back of the horror magazine and gain a currency of their own; on the dust jackets of novels, at the bottom of film posters and in the credits of the movies themselves.

Never being a letter writer, my name never graced the pages. But the continued ministrations of Uncle Forry nurtured me through the dark times of pre-adolescence and darker obsessions. Of course, all tutelages come with a price and to this day I cannot shake my predilection for bad puns.

But in all familial dynamics inevitably comes the breach, the point where the son recoils from the shared ritual with father as he strikes out to indulge in his own personality. With the advent of STAR WARS, the covers and pages of Famous Monsters began to exhibit an unhealthy (at least to me) obsession with same. It was called Famous Monsters, for Cripe's sake. My dedication with the magazine waned and ultimately was seduced away by the slicker promises of Fangoria. And while Uncle Bob was fun for a brief period, ultimately he proved to be no Uncle Forry.

But once the contact is broken, the rift -- while not irreparable -- is never the same again.

It’s been near twenty-five years since I snatched that hundredth Collectors Issue from the magazine rack, and November 24th marks the 91st anniversary of the birth of Forrest J. Ackerman. 91 years since a boy was born, to become a toddler and to rise up to become the first fanboy.

The boy to be the man who walked amongst gods and monsters.

The Ackermonster’s influence on the horror and science fiction scene is incalculable. In the decades before the genres became actual commodities, he moved among the monsters and their makers and provided a link between the unholy celluloid sciences and the hungry fanboys.

Before Stephen King changed the face (and value) of horror, he interned with the rest of us by studying the black-n-white pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland through his adolescence before turning to his own blank pages, to fill them with shared nightmares and dreamscapes.

Joining him would be such names that graced the letter pages as Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, Rick Baker, George Lucas and… well, pretty much any other name of a certain generation (or two) who continue to make their own contributions to the rich, dark tapestry.

A little early, but Happy Birthday, Uncle Forry. And… thank you. I axed for it, and I got it.

4E 4-Ever.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In The Old Dark Doghouse

Say… it’s been a month already with no posts. Mea culpa, or in frat boy: my bad.

Time’s fun when you’re having flies and I was off on my periodic quest to spin words together to form another screenplay.

A tribute to the Old Dark House genre, naturally. Albeit with supernatural trappings, so the Scooby Doo purist will sneer. Twist the lip away, cartoon boy… it’s my damned screenplay and I’ll do what I want with it.

Oddly enough, as I typed FADE OUT and read back what I had written, an unexpected subtext slowly emerged… it was one quiet screenplay. People gasped instead of screaming, and the deaths were deliberately off screen. I was writing with the no-budget spec market in mind, but I also realized that my sudden coyness was deliberate…

… seems that in my middle age, I’m losing my taste for over-the-top carnage.

In a way it makes sense. The rise and decline of torture porn was part of it, serving up two hours of simulated torture with no nutritional value. But also, anyone who has watched a horror film made in the last few years might agree that the offerings are generally noisy, disjointed and stocked to the brim with tired clichés and hamfistedly applied tropes.

I was reminded of the old bumper sticker sentiment, "If It's Too Loud, You're Too Fucking Old." And admittedly, as a cranky middle-aged dude who has seen too many horror films in the last 40-odd years, I'm obviously not part of the target demographic.

But even back in the day as a young Headbanger, or Punk, or Goth, or whatever phase I was going through at the time, I also knew on some fundamental level that being too loud was (generally speaking) the musicians' attempt to drown out the fact that they just plain didn't know what the hell they were doing.

And it would seem that the same applies to your stock Hollywood horror film cranked out for the cud-chewing mall rats these days. Here I'm putting aside the whole remake debate, because personally I can see the point: As someone who suffered the ‘80s as they unfolded, why should the younger generation have to sit through a film made in that period? You can only take the Sins of the Fathers aspect so far.

Part One of the problem is that Hollywood operates on the assumption that fans of the genre are unsophisticated, if not just plain outright stupid. I'm talking the long-abiding (and long-suffering) faithful, not the cellphone-wielding rabble that -- not being old enough to gain legal entry to nightclubs -- use the cinema as a social gathering, the movie unreeling as background noise.

So here is where they fall back on the tropes. The rule of thumb seems to be that if you throw a cat through the window with an accompanying musical sting (provided by the ubiquitous Graeme Revell) your audience is happy, especially if you spend half the budget on a former cast member or two from Dawson's Creek or The O.C. and throw in plenty of gore effects (or shoot for the PG-13, ‘cause the teenyboppers will pay to see anything that's supposed to be scary).

Hey! Get off of my yard!

Problem Part Two is that the fans of the genre aren't as stupid and callow as Hollywood thinks they are. Um... to a large degree.

So, what to do? If a filmmaker acknowledges that and works with that in mind, the project is already on its way to being an acceptable addition to the genre. The fans know the tropes and clichés, so find ways to subvert expectations.

The horror template is stale (isolate the pretty kill bait and pick them off one by one), so invert or reinvent the template. The tropes are a good reference point, because just by the nature of being tropes, that means that they were effective at one point, and with a little tweaking, can be effective again.

Sit down and actually think about the psychology of the human animal, and figure out what would make an audience jump out of their seats (without resorting to Mr. Revell slamming his fists down on the keyboard at regular intervals).

Empathy is built by reaction of the characters to the situation, not by some clumsy backstory. Every character is a human, not a gear to move the story forward. Eliminate empathy from the equation and all you are left with is faux-snuff vignettes... although gauging by the continued popularity of the SAW franchise, maybe I'm just being too old again.