Richard Matheson—Storyteller: The Hammer Years |

Richard Matheson—Storyteller

Richard Matheson—Storyteller: The Hammer Years

The abortive attempt by England’s Hammer Films in 1957 to adapt Matheson’s I Am Legend as The Night Creatures did have one positive result, establishing a rapport between the fledgling American scenarist and Hammer honcho Anthony Hinds, himself a prolific screenwriter under the nom d’écran of John Elder. Hinds later hired Matheson to script his production of Fanatic (1965), directed by Canadian-born Silvio Narizzano—best known for Georgy Girl (1966)—and based on Anne Blaisdell’s novel Nightmare. The title change differentiated Fanatic from 1964’s Nightmare, one of the series of post-Psycho (1960) psycho-thrillers written by Hammer mainstay Jimmy Sangster, which also included his Paranoiac, Maniac (both 1963), and Hysteria (1965).

As with Matheson’s Night of the Eagle (1962), released Stateside as Burn, Witch, Burn, the film’s U.S. title, Die! Die! My Darling!, at least has the justification of being an actual line of its dialogue; it may also have been a deliberate echo of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Robert Aldrich’s follow-up to his seminal hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The latter established the “dotty old lady” subgenre, and indeed, Fanatic might fairly be said to have a foot in both, er, camps. Unbeknownst to Matheson when he wrote the screenplay, which is arguably one of his best, the title role of Mrs. Trefoile would be played by stage legend Tallulah Bankhead, who had turned down the Joan Crawford role in Baby Jane but, after that film’s box-office success, was now ready to go nuts.

Fanatic depicts the trials and tribulations undergone by Patricia Carroll, a young American woman played by Stefanie Powers, for whose series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. Matheson would write “The Atlantis Affair” the following year. While in England, Pat makes the mistake of paying a courtesy call on the mother of her late fiancé, Stephen, and after she reveals to Mrs. Trefoile not only that she had planned to break off the engagement, but also that his fatal car crash was self-inflicted, courtesy is the last thing she gets. Murder and mayhem ensue, involving the gun-toting religious fanatic and her shady staff (a married couple plus a retarded handyman played by a young Donald Sutherland), before Fiancé 2.0 rides to the rescue and Mrs. Servant kills La Trefoile to avenge her hubby’s death.

Before accepting his other Hammer assignment, Matheson embarked upon a project back home for Universal that was much more personal, yet with sadly less satisfying results: an adaptation of his 1960 novel The Beardless Warriors, which was based on his World War II experiences in Germany with the 87th Division of the U.S. Infantry. Cast with Universal contract players and directed by the equally unmemorable John Peyser, The Young Warriors (1968) followed the story but lost the spirit of the novel, and was further diluted when Matheson had to do a rewrite to incorporate footage from the Audie Murphy autobiopic To Hell and Back (1955). In the final analysis, he regretted refusing to wait for a proposed production by Richard (son of Darryl) Zanuck and director Fred Zinnemann.

It must have been some consolation that his reunion with Hammer marked a highlight for its studio, screenwriter, star (Christopher Lee), and director (Terence Fisher), each at the top of their respective games. The Devil Rides Out (1968) was based on the eponymous novel by bestselling British occult author Dennis Wheatley, featuring a cast of characters from his debut, The Forbidden Territory, and such sequels as Strange Conflict and Gateway to Hell. Yet again, the movie was retitled here, but in this case it was just one of several indignities perpetrated by its U.S. distributor, Twentieth-Century Fox, which called it The Devil’s Bride to make sure it wasn’t mistaken for a Western…an error that very few audience members seem likely to have made when confronted with a Hammer/Lee outing.

For once afforded a role that was both heroic and unusually large, after the likes of his dialogue-free appearance in Fisher’s otherwise outstanding Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966), Lee gave one of his best performances as Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau. He held out for the part after being offered that of the literally mesmerizing villain, Mocata, a character based on the notorious English Satanist Aleister Crowley and ultimately played by Charles Gray, whose credits range from the James Bond films You Only Live Twice (1967) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Amusingly, Lee and Gray later played Sherlock Holmes’s elder brother, Mycroft, in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), respectively.

Set in an unspecified period between the wars—the novel was published in 1934—and backed by one of house composer James Bernard’s strongest scores, the film follows the efforts of Nicholas and Rex Van Ryn (embodied by Australian Leon Greene and dubbed by Englishman Patrick Allen) to save their friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) from Mocata. The climax finds Simon, Nicholas, his niece, Marie (Allen’s spouse, Sarah Lawson), and her husband, Richard Eaton (Paul Eddington), besieged by Mocata’s forces while inside the protection of a pentacle. The most common complaint leveled against the film is its threadbare special effects, yet the remake urged by Lee, who notes that he is now closer in age to the Duc as written, would presumably descend into the standard CGI-fest.

In an interesting coda, Matheson’s “Girl of My Dreams” (found in Tor’s collection Button, Button) became an episode of Hammer’s short-lived series Journey to the Unknown, with American actor Michael Callan as an opportunist who extorts money from people in exchange for information from his wife’s precognitive dreams, which can forestall disaster. Matheson has wondered why he was not allowed to adapt the story, rather than his friend and colleague Robert Bloch, who shared credit with Michael J. Bird. But in his delightful “unauthorized autobiography,” Once Around the Bloch, the Psycho author related that having been recruited by producer Joan Harrison, with whom he had enjoyed a long and harmonious relationship on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he was already on salary.

Matheson’s experience with the same series, then The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, was decidedly mixed; dissatisfied with revisions made to his script for “The Thirty-First of February,” based on the novel by Julian Symons, he put his Logan Swanson pseudonym on the finished episode. However, “Ride the Nightmare” was a necessarily truncated yet otherwise faithful version of his own 1959 book, a rare paperback original later reissued with an introduction by Yours Truly in Noir: Three Novels of Suspense. It was later remade as the French-Italian co-production Cold Sweat (1970), which did not live up to its A-list cast of Charles Bronson (joined at the hip with spouse Jill Ireland), Liv Ullmann, and James Mason, but—bringing us full circle—became the first Matheson-based film of the 1970s.

Matthew R. Bradley is the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, now on sale from McFarland, and the co-editor—with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve—of The Richard Matheson Companion (Gauntlet, 2008), revised and updated as The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson (Citadel, 2009). Check out his blog, Bradley on Film.


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