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What Screams May Come: A Look at the Legendary Richard Matheson

Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Box arrives in theaters this Friday, and while the focus is on Richard Kelly’s return to the genre that launched his career (with Donnie Darko), the real star is the man who wrote the original story. While the movie heads into new territories, Kelly’s film is adapted from Richard Matheson’s classic short story, “Button, Button.” To celebrate the film’s release, Bloody Disgusting’s Chris Eggertsen would like to reflect back on Matheson’s illustrious career in “What Screams May Come.”
“Button, Button”, Richard Matheson’s short story first published in Playboy in 1970, may seem an odd choice for a feature film adaptation. For starters, it’s only six pages long, written in the sort of sparse, minimalist style that has become one of Matheson’s trademarks. Sure, it made for a decent Twilight Zone episode (in a 1985 version scripted by Matheson himself), but as a two-hour movie it feels like something of a stretch.

On the other hand, in an age where movie studios are one step away from adapting the status updates of Facebook users into feature-length, focus-grouped nightmares, the screen version of a short story written by a celebrated and prolific author like Matheson feels something like a breath of fresh air, regardless of its brevity. The legendary writer, known mostly for his works of sci-fi/horror (although he himself might understandably bristle at that description), is inarguably one of the most adapted scribes of his generation, his works having made their way to the screen countless times over the last fifty years or so. From shrinking men to post-apocalyptic vampires, there’s no denying the indelible mark he has left on popular culture, not to mention on the worlds of film and television. When all is said and done, a six page short story by this virtuoso, with his peerless blend of imagination and intelligence, is worth a thousand full-length novels by a hack like, say, Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown.

Which is perhaps why The Box, Richard Kelly’s upcoming adaptation of “Button, Button” being released by Warner Bros. on November 6th, is so eagerly anticipated by members of the movie-going public who prefer thoughtful, intelligent thrillers to the mind-numbing, tween-targeted CGI cheese-fests the studios have been churning out on a regular basis as of late. Kelly, the wunderkind director whose first film, 2001′s Donnie Darko, was elevated to modern classic status after being embraced by a legion of fans on DVD (following a brief, less-than-illustrious theatrical run), is a kindred spirit of sorts to Matheson. More than their first name, the two artists share in common the fact that both have made their careers on works that defy categorization; Kelly with Darko, and Matheson with his first published work, the disturbing and provocative short story “Born of Man and Woman”, about a deformed child chained in a basement room by his horrified parents. In that sense, The Box represents in part the melding of two rebel spirits who have spun mainstream success out of playing by their own rules.

Matheson, as mentioned before, is no stranger to Hollywood, “Button, Button” being merely the latest of his works to make it to the screen. His novels and short stories have been adapted into dozens of movies and television shows, many of them based off of screenplays written by Matheson himself. Rare among novelists, the author has not only been successful at adapting his own work, but has penned scores of films and teleplays not based on one of his existing stories. Truthfully, one would be hard-pressed to name more than a dozen other writers who have enjoyed such a large degree of success in both the Hollywood and publishing worlds.

In the scheme of his television work, Matheson is perhaps best known for writing several classic episodes of the original Twilight Zone (14 in all) between 1960 and 1964 (some of which were based on his own short stories). His contributions are fondly remembered by fans of the series, with several of his episodes (perhaps most notably “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “The Invaders” and “Little Girl Lost”) routinely pegged as some of the best ever produced. The fact is, aside from Rod Serling and Charles Beaumont, no other writer penned as many episodes or was as responsible for the overall direction of the series as Matheson. Much like Serling, he possessed the uncanny ability to combine visceral scares with a complex and sophisticated view of human nature.

Aside from The Twilight Zone, Matheson contributed episodes to several notable programs, including The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the original Star Trek, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and Amazing Stories (executive-produced by Steven Spielberg). In addition, he scribed the teleplays for a raft of well-received TV movies during the 1970′s. Among the most prominent of these are the cult-classic Trilogy of Terror anthology (he scripted the third, and most famous, segment entitled “Prey”, based on his short story about a killer-Zuni doll), the Kolchak movies (The Night Stalker and its follow-up The Night Strangler, based on the novels by Jeff Rice) and Duel, the brilliant paranoid thriller about a man terrorized by a psychotic tanker truck driver (directed by a pre-Jaws Steven Spielberg and based on Matheson’s own short story). Noteworthy also was his made-for-television adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Jack Palance, which is often cited as the most faithful filmed version of the original novel ever produced.

His resume also boasts some impressive contributions to the big screen. As previously noted, he scripted or partially contributed to the adaptations of many of his own novels and short stories, including The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and Somewhere in Time (1980), based on his novel Bid Time Return). He also engaged in a fruitful collaboration with Roger Corman and his American International Pictures in the early 1960′s, writing the screenplays for several (mostly-campy but in a fun and knowing way) Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, including House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror, and The Raven (all of which starred Vincent Price).

Throughout every phase of his film and television career, Matheson remained strikingly consistent in his output of novels and short stories (with only a few notable gaps, likely due to his in-demand status as a Hollywood scriptwriter). However, few of his later creations would capture the public imagination with as much force as that of his earlier published works. His novel I Am Legend, first published in 1954, is perhaps the most well-known of all his inventions. It has famously been adapted three different times now as a feature, first as the aforementioned The Last Man on Earth, then as The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston in 1971, and most recently as I Am Legend starring Will Smith in 2007 (I won’t include the direct-to-DVD I Am Omega in the list of official adaptations, given that it was a film produced solely to capitalize on the big-studio Will Smith project released the same year). Two of the better-known recent adaptations of his published works (neither of which he wrote the final screenplays for) include the Robin Williams vehicle What Dreams May Come (1998) and the Kevin Bacon film Stir of Echoes (2000).

As with every author who has enjoyed some degree of success in Hollywood, Matheson is often asked about his opinions on the numerous adaptations of his published output, and historically he hasn’t been shy about voicing his true feelings. He has been extremely critical of What Dreams May Come in several interviews, feeling that the human elements of his novel were ignored in service of the special effects. Likewise with The Legend of Hell House (he was forced to water down much of the violence and sexual content during the adaptation process due to the strict British censorship system) and the two earlier filmed versions of I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth (he felt Vincent Price was miscast) and The Omega Man (which he feels was so far removed from his novel that it hardly even counts as an adaptation). He has been equally forthcoming with his thoughts on the adaptations he considers worthy of the source material, most notably with Stir of Echoes (which followed the plot of his original novel very closely), Duel and Somewhere in Time (which he has often cited as his favorite adaptation and the most faithful to his original work).

Understandably, one of the most common complaints voiced by Matheson is that the filmed adaptations of his books deviate too much from his original vision, so it will be interesting to hear what he has to say about The Box, given that Richard Kelly has necessarily extended the simple narrative offered up in the original short story and added in a complex conspiracy plot in the final two acts. In essence, Kelly utilized the hook of the original story – what if you were delivered a mysterious box and told that if you pushed its button you would receive a large sum of money but someone in the world who you don’t know would die? – merely as a jumping-off point for a much larger and more complicated story, elements of which he reportedly lifted from his own life growing up in Virginia in the 1970′s and `80s, during which time his father worked at NASA (a character blueprint he used for James Marsden’s character). He reportedly even went so far as to invite his parents out to the set during filming to give insight to Marsden and Cameron Diaz, who plays a character modeled off of Kelly’s mother, right down to a medical accident she suffered earlier in her life.

All of this is indicative of the fact that Richard Kelly is perhaps the first filmmaker to literally inject so much of his personal history into adapting one of the author’s books; of course, this is an approach that Matheson, a self-described committed family man with a wife and four children of his own, might be able to appreciate. It also helps that the writer/director shares the boundless imagination, and genuine metaphysical curiosity, of the elder artist. In that sense, Matheson should feel lucky that Kelly, a gifted storyteller in his own right, is the filmmaker who has chosen to expand on the long-form potential of his original story. Indeed, given the considerable number of artistic qualities the two men share in common, perhaps this adaptation is less a stretch than a case of divine intervention.

Watch the “Twilight Zone” episode below: