Saturday, October 10, 2009

October Horror-thon #10: "The Omega Man" (1971)

It takes a lot to get by as the last man on earth, but Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is up to the task. Years after biological warfare brought civilization to a standstill, Neville believes himself to be humanity's sole survivor. His only neighbors are the Family, a cult of plague-stricken technophobes led by former newscaster Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), who converge and lay siege to his compound each nightfall. The Family gains the upper hand after capturing Neville one evening, until he's rescued by a band of fellow survivors. Though infected, they're still a long ways from turning, giving Neville hope that his own immune blood can be used to cure them. But Matthias refuses to back down just yet, preparing his minions for one last attack on our lad just as he's discovered the key to saving mankind.

The Omega Man is the second of three cinematic takes on Richard Matheson's novel "I Am Legend," and before the Will Smith version made obscene amounts of moolah, it was the best known. I'd also go so far as to say that it carries the most widespread appeal of the trio. It's no secret that most mainstream audiences prefer action to dawdling around, which makes Heston's gung-ho Neville an ideal hero. Vincent Price already covered the tortured scientist role in The Last Man on Earth, so why not give an ornery bastard of Heston's caliber a more active role in the apocalypse? Heston's macho zeal gives The Omega Man much of its cult appeal, though at the cost of what made the source material an instant classic. The curb-stomping the book's ironic ending receives is one thing, but I was even more surprised at how the film wasn't the least bit frightening. Atmosphere is boiled down to a meager handful of scenes in which Neville roams around abandoned city streets; while creepy, the impression these bits leave doesn't last long. The villains are also given a higher degree of intelligence, which sort of ruins their effectiveness. With Zerbe's Matthias prone to weary monologues about the downfall of man, the only thing you'll find yourself fearing is being talked to death.

I can see why so many dig The Omega Man, which, in its dated but enjoyably chintzy way, is a perfectly serviceable flick. But as someone for whom less usually is more, I have to ally myself with The Last Man on Earth. It made a more memorable and spooky film out of relatively few parts, and while The Omega Man is never overloaded with pyrotechnics, its disposition is too easygoing to tell as scary a story as it should have.

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