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Simon Goes to the Movies Episode III: The Last Man on Earth

Simon Goes to the Movies Episode III: The Last Man on Earth

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A weird thing about The Last Man on Earth, at least for someone like me who read I am Legend and saw I am Legend (with Will Smith) before seeing it is that Vincent Price is probably the last person I would have picked to be the last human on earth. Let's ignore for a minute the fact that he is Vincent Price, and judge him only by his appearance. He is not the most attractive man in the film, and he is not even the most capable looking person. He kind of lumbers about in the exact same way you would have expected him to lumber about preceding the end of the world.

That's a very minor quibble though.

The film was filmed in Italy. The fact that the protagonist's last name is Morgan lead me to believe he was supposed to be an American. However, the film is so obviously shot in Italy that even if you did not know that Italy existed you would have concluded that it was filmed in a theoretical place called Italy. There are also some hilarious shots where you can see cars driving on allegedly abandoned roads.

The film is truer to the plot of the novel I am Legend than the latest film adaptation, but I am remarkably uninterested in entering into a discussion about adaptation and reinterpretation so I'll just say that sticklers for exact adaptations might prefer this film.

Vincent Price was a good actor. There are genuinely moving sequences in the film (especially when he watches old footage of his family before the world ended) and he carries the rather okay script well.

There is also a lot of camp, but it's a movie with Vincent Price in it so what else would you expect?

I haven't said if The Last Man on Earth is a good film or not, and that's because I really don't know. I've been recently informed that any defamatory comments made about a film, regardless of their hyperbolic nature or the intention to be entertaining, will be received as personal insults by the admirers of the film and will be returned likewise with personal insult. So perhaps the true paradox of film criticism is extant in my feelings about The Last Man on Earth.

Those of you who have better things to do with your time might not know this about Italian cinema, but one of the factors that allowed the rapid advancement of their cinematography was a conscious decision to dub over everything. Until fairly recently, Italian films eschewed natural sounds for post-synchronization. Somewhat hilariously, directors would change scripts, and so facial movements were being dubbed with entirely different sentences (see: every Rossellini film ever).

The Last Man on Earth is an Italian film in some ways; there are heavy allusions to Catholicism (like the finale) and there are unattractive men married to beautiful women. Also, there is very poorly recorded post-synchronized sound. Even Vincent Price, who provided the voice and the acting (as most of the other actors were Italian, and presumably had their voices recorded by Americans), looks off for most of the dialogue he delivers.

There's also an interesting lack of urgency in Vincent Price's Robert Morgan. He doesn't run. His plan is to merely kill all the vampires, but we're never quite sure why he wants to do so. A lot of the power of the novel, which resides in the last part of it, is lost in this adaptation. But what takes its place is just an overwhelming feeling of mundanity.

The vampires in this film are unlike the ones in I am Legend. They are weak, slow, and only frightening because of their numbers. Morgan easily casts them aside like they were made of styrofoam. Really, the only threat to him is their numbers but even that is a non-issue as long as he keeps some garlic and mirrors handy.

So to properly describe the premise: Robert Morgan thinks he is the last man on earth. By day he hunts vampires and at night he suffers their mild assault.

This is all led to a rather affecting conclusion where he declares to a church full of half-vampires that he is the last real man on earth, and then he is impaled by spears. See what I meant by Catholic influence?

But I digress. This feeling of mundanity (as we're told he's been doing this for the last couple of years) was intoxicating for me. There's a particularly interesting moment when the vampires are attacking his home (which involves them hitting the side of his house with sticks) and he's listening to a jazz record. It's not a view of the apocalypse that we're used to. Robert Morgan is bored.

Far more frightening than the nightly battles against the undead is the day time slaughter. Morgan breaks into their homes, where they are literally sleeping in bed, and stakes them. He then puts them in the back of the hearse he drives and deposits them in a charnel pit. He wears a gas mask while he does so, which in a sense seems to dehumanize him.

So maybe the original point of the novel is maintained outside of the ending. The novel ends with Morgan realizing that he has become a monster of legend to the vampires, much like they were monsters to the pre-apocalyptic society. In the film, that moment of realization is lacking but is replaced by a slower realization on the part of the audience: Robert Morgan might the last man, but that's meaningless if he's the only one.

The trappings of society that he maintains (listening to music, wearing sweater vests, drinking out of cups) seem very odd even though they are by far the most normal things in the film. They may be countermeasures against insanity for him, but as a viewer I found them indicative of his madness. He seems resolute in his rejection of the new world, but even more resolute in his rejection of the futility of his existence.

After all, he is a man. There will be no more humanity as far as he knows for the majority of the film. Yet every day he struggles to stay alive, and more than that, he struggles to remove what little sentience there is left on the planet.

There are moments where the films displays a lack of sophistication. Price's voiceover is a little reminiscent of the voiceover for the original release of Blade Runner. There are the aforementioned issues with dubbing and the sound design in general, and the other actors seem to favor melodrama over any other type of emotional reaction.

But there is also an interesting flouting of horror tropes that had already been set in place by  Universal Studios' earlier monster films. There is no reveal of the monster inside the room. There is nothing coming up behind you. Morgan is never surprised by the vampires, only perturbed by them and their ineffective attacks.

And now we return to the paradox I was describing earlier. Is the fact that I enjoyed this film a sign that it is good? It is possible that this feeling of mundanity is just evidence of poor filmmaking. There are certainly other examples of poor filmmaking in the film, yet I'm hesitant to apply the word bad to it because I liked it.

In the criticism of my criticism on the Dark Knight Rises which was, admittedly, hastily written and intended more to be entertaining than a serious piece of film analysis (I realize the preceding statement is ambiguous as to whether it refers to my review or the review of the review so rest assured that it can be applied to both), one of the several legitimate charges was that I was unable to overcome the negative aspects of the film to recognize the numerous positive ones. This is fair.

Ultimately, good and bad are just shortcuts we use to save ourselves time. I still can't say whether or not The Last Man on Earth is a good film, much in the same way I cannot say that Days of Heaven or Killer of Sheep are good films. Movies are always more complex than monosyllabic labels and it is a very specific type of pretension that allows us to pigeonhole them thusly.

Would I recommend The Last Man on Earth? That depends on who I am recommending it to. If you are a person who loves Vincent Price, definitely. If you despise unexciting films, then probably not. But if you ever have an hour and a half to kill I would definitely suggest trying it. It doesn't grab interest immediately, or ever, really, but I was certainly satisfied by the film's end.

P.S.: If you are a diehard fan of The Last Man on Earth or even just a person who was rubbed the wrong way by this review, I'd prefer if you left my name out of your rebuttal. I know I'm not hip enough to come up with a pseudonym so I'd rather you didn't insult me directly, by name.

Baci per tutti, Simon K.

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