We lost a giant of the industry a couple of days ago…one that I’ve admired for decades. New Jersey native Richard Matheson, author of some of the most enduring horror and science fiction stories of the 20th century, has left us at the age of 87. His list of film and television credits is so incredible, that I couldn’t possibly attempt to cover them all here. But you should all be aware of some of the highlights to realize just how far his influence reached. Let’s start with what is probably my favorite, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” film from 1957. In 1956, Matheson’s novel “The Shrinking Man” was first published, the story of a suburban man who slowly begins to physically shrink after being briefly engulfed in a radioactive mist. It was adapted into a film the next year, directed by Jack Arnold and starring Grant Williams…with a screenplay by Matheson himself. A marvelous story that’s dripping with thinly veiled social and political commentary—but I bet to some people it’s always been about an inch-tall man battling a ferocious spider. Give it another look to realize that there’s so much more. It won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation after its release to theaters, and in 2009 it joined the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for its cultural significance—therefore to be preserved for all time.
But, perhaps his best known work is his 1954 novel, “I Am Legend”. This frightening tale of people rising from the dead and roaming the earth as bloodsuckers has been adapted unto film on three separate occasions: as “The Last Man on Earth” in 1964 starring Vincent Price, then 1971’s “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston, and most recently in 2007 with the original title of “I Am Legend” featuring Will Smith in the lead role. Any idea how influential this nightmarish story is? George A. Romero himself, has acknowledged it as the inspirational source for 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead”. So, essentially Matheson is responsible for the current zombie craze. In other words, no Richard Matheson, no “The Walking Dead” or “World War Z”.
And how about “The Twilight Zone”? Its late-night reruns placed it among my favorite television shows as a young boy. Matheson penned some of the very finest episodes, including “The Invaders”, “Night Call” and the legendary “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring a pre-“Star Trek”, William Shatner. The story of a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who is taking a flight home—he seems to be the only one that can spot a bizarre creature standing on the wing of the plane while it’s in mid-air. When it appears the “gremlin” is tinkering with the engine—the man’s panic kicks in full throttle. In 1983, this story was given the major motion picture treatment via “Twilight Zone: The Movie” as the finale to the four-segment anthology film. That interpretation was directed by George Miller, of “Mad Max” fame, and it also spawned the 1984 smash movie, “Gremlins”.
Books, films, television—I could go on for pages. Renowned “Star Trek” episode, “The Enemy Within”? Matheson. The screenplay and story for Steven Spielberg’s 1971 launchpad “Duel”? Yup. Also, the novel and screenplay for the 1980 romance “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve. Ditto the book and screenplay for 1973’s ultra-creepy, “The Legend of Hell House”. Richard Matheson was a prolific and imaginative author whose impact will be felt for decades to come. Look up his credits…there’s a treasure trove. I’ll be queueing up my Netflix for another run with some of these…and I hope some of you will join me.