Celebrating the classic vampire novel I Am Legend, The Miskatonic Institute of London’s next course sees instructor and author Stacey Abbott delve deep into the classic of science fiction and horror by Richard Matheson which has been adapted many times in films over the years.
Through an analysis of a selection of official and unofficial adaptations of the novel, including Matheson’s own script, this lecture by Stacey Abbott considers how this text marks a key transformative moment within the evolution of the horror genre on film. It will consider how the novel reimagined the vampire film through the lens of science fiction and demonstrate not only how I Am Legend influenced Romero’s work, representing a key bridge between classic and new horror, but also continues to influence twenty-first century filmmakers, particularly in the development of the vampire and zombie genres.
Check out the Miskatonic London: The Legacy of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND trailer below:
Stacey Abbott is Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of Celluloid Vampires (2007), Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century (2016), and co-author, with Lorna Jowett, of TV Horror: The Dark Side of the Small Screen (2012).
Below Stacey tells us all about her favorite horror film which also happens to be a vampire movie:
“Trying to narrow my choice of favourite horror movie to one is near impossible. There are so many that have had an emotional impact on me over the years…so many that I go back to regularly to rewatch or introduce to my students. But if I must narrow the choice down to one, then I would say Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987). I saw this film when I was at university in the early 1990s. I had never heard of it and a friend, who knew I liked vampire stories, told me I had to see it. She showed me one scene to get me hooked and it worked. It was a scene in a road side bar where a group of modern day nomadic vampires enter and tear up the bar, killing the patrons (a motley crew of bikers, red necks and cowboys) before setting the bar on fire.
It was brutal, disturbing, seductive, and strangely funny with the vampires cracking jokes as they ripped into their victims’ throats – Severen’s ‘Finger lickin’ good!’ as he enthusiastically licked his blood-soaked fingers was a particular favourite. These vampires were not the sexually alluring aristocratic vampires of gothic cinema or the sympathetic vampires of Anne Rice, nor was it self-consciously intertextual like many of the films that came out around it in the 1980s, such as Fright Night or The Lost Boys. These vampires were violent and terrifying because they seemed to kill for killing’s sake, taking as much pleasure in the violence as they do in drinking blood. But at the same time, they maintained a family dynamic, working together as a team, helping and encouraging each other.
Three of them were played by favourite character actors who had appeared together as marines in James Cameron’s Aliens – Lance Henrikson (Jesse), Bill Paxton (Severen) and Jenette Goldstein (Diamondback). It beautifully captured the attraction vs repulsion of the vampire but in a way that felt fresh. I was intrigued. So I went back and watched the whole film and loved it.
Near Dark is a hybrid horror vampire film meets western road movie. It is set on the backroads of the mid-west, with all the action taking place either on the highway or in a series of bars, bus stations, and motels. Not the typical location for vampires. It tells a coming of age story of Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) a farm boy who is turned into a vampire by the beautiful stranger Mae (Jenny Wright) and he must choose between his new vampire family and his biological family; between night and day.
The solo directorial debut by Kathryn Bigelow, it is shot with a beautiful Noir aesthetic in which light and dark repeatedly clash creating a dynamic visual style that modernizes gothic conventions so long associated with the vampire. Light in this film is given almost a tangible presence, possessing a physical impact on the vampires as it burns their skin or pursues them across the desert as they race against the sunrise. Like the vampires in the story, light in this film is both violent and beautiful.
The word vampire is never used but they can’t die (except by fire) and they drink blood. These vampires live from moment to moment, racing to find their next resting place, demonstrating none of the meticulous planning of Dracula who bought property across London to ensure he always had a place to rest. They are brutal in their hunting techniques and strangely bonded as a family. The film includes dynamic action set pieces such as the bar room piece I mentioned earlier and a shoot-out with the police in a motel room where each bullet shot at the police is matched by a shaft of blazing sunlight bursting into the room that burns into the vampires’ skin. The motel becomes filled with these burning streams of light.
In the middle of all this mayhem there is Mae, the vampire who turns Caleb, a woman who is enthralled by her immortality and the pleasure of her enhanced senses. She kills out of necessity in order to allow her to revel in the wonders of the night. She keeps Caleb alive, feeding him from her own wrist, embodying mother and lover in a toxic mixture. Mae is an enigma…a cold-blooded killer but thoughtful and sensitive as well; monster and hero. The film is often dismissed for what can be read as a conservative conclusion, seemingly designed to reinforce ‘traditional family values’. But the conclusion seems far more ambiguous to me and I love that ambiguity.
The final shot is a frozen moment of, at best, uncertainty and, at worst, fear. Is this a happy ending or not? Perhaps if you look at it from Caleb’s point of view it is happy but if you look at it from Mae’s, I’m not so sure. The audience must decide.”
You can find out more about the The Miskatonic Institute of Londonand book yourself onto the the course by following this link – www.miskatonic-london.comhttp://www.miskatonic-london.com/events/the-legacy-of-richard-mathesons-i-am-legend/
Stacey Abbott’s most recent book is Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century (Edinburgh University Press), which just came out in paperback and is available here.