Richard Matheson—Storyteller

Richard Matheson—Storyteller: The Curtis Years, Part I

After the success of Duel (1971), Richard Matheson entered his most important small-screen partnership outside of The Twilight Zone with producer Dan Curtis, best known for creating the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which had just finished its five-year run on the same network, ABC. Not familiar with Dark Shadows at the time, Matheson knew of Curtis only from the latter’s attempt to buy the rights to one of his novels for a bargain-basement price, and thus was extremely cold to him at their first meeting. Matheson warmed up when he realized that Curtis had some good ideas for their project, but later learned he was lucky not to have aroused Curtis’s violent temper.

Said project was ABC’s adaptation of The Kolchak Papers, a then-unpublished novel by former Las Vegas newsman Jeff Rice, in which reporter Carl Kolchak tracks a vampire, Janos Skorzeny, through the all-night hustle of Sin City. Although Curtis directed the theatrical spin-offs House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971), The Night Stalker was entrusted to John Llewellyn Moxey, who had helmed the solid British chiller City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960). Two months later, Moxey also directed “The New House,” the pilot that secured Matheson a “developed for television by” credit on the series Ghost Story (aka Circle of Fear).

As usual when adapting another writer’s work, Matheson stayed very faithful to the source, his main contributions being to make Kolchak initially less credulous regarding belief in vampires, and to accentuate the humor inherent in his love-hate relationship with his boss. Perfectly cast as Kolchak and Tony Vincenzo were Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland, who repeated the roles in the sequel and short-lived ABC series, while Barry Atwater made a memorable impression in the non-speaking role of the splendidly feral Skorzeny.  The highest-rated TV-movie of its time, the film deservedly earned Matheson the Writers Guild of America and Edgar Allan Poe Awards.

Airing almost a year to the day after the original, The Night Strangler (1973) found Kolchak in Seattle, pitted against a 144-year-old alchemist (Richard Anderson) who commits a series of six murders every twenty-one years to maintain his vitality, recalling Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Director Curtis clashed with McGavin, who was unhappy with the sequel’s air of déjà vu; both factors probably helped doom The Night Killers, a third Kolchak script, written by Matheson and his friend William F. Nolan. Neither Curtis nor Matheson was involved with the Night Stalker series, which helped to inspire both The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Matheson and Curtis (who directed all of their subsequent collaborations) weren’t finished with nosferatu yet, because they next adapted the ur-vampire novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for CBS. Donning the cape was Jack Palance, ironically envisioned by Matheson as Robert Neville in the film version of I Am Legend, and although his script was in some ways more faithful than others, the finished film also differed in key respects, such as eliminating several major characters. As in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958), Jonathan Harker got turned into a vampire, while Curtis had Dracula fall for the reincarnation of his lost love, as Barnabas Collins did on Dark Shadows.

Among the many things the Nixon administration has to answer for is Dracula’s low ratings, for it was scheduled to air on October 12, 1973, and then pre-empted by Nixon’s announcement of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s resignation. Matheson told Paul M. Sammon it was so heavily promoted at the time that when it finally aired the following February, “everyone thought they had already seen it! So no one tuned in…” In another contretemps, the makers of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) “borrowed” the reincarnation plot, and then tried to prevent Curtis from putting out a new home-video version as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which is in fact how its title appears.

In between assignments for Curtis, Matheson wrote not only his sole feature film of the 1970s, The Legend of Hell House (1973), but also several other TV movies, albeit with mixed success. He has often joked that Dying Room Only (1973), adapted from his 1953 story of the same name and directed by British veteran Philip Leacock, was his only script to get a better treatment than it deserved. Like Matheson’s “Being,” the story was actually inspired by a real-life incident that happened during a cross-country honeymoon drive with his wife, Ruth, while the film appears to have been an uncredited model for the decidedly similar Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown (1997).

Broadcast less than a month before Dracula’s original airdate, Dying Room Only was a “woman in jeopardy” tale starring Cloris Leachman as a wife whose husband (Dabney Coleman) abruptly disappears from the men’s room of a run-down Arizona desert cafe. Echoing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), the café’s surly chef (Ross Martin, who gave a strong performance in Matheson’s Twilight Zone episode “Death Ship”) and only other patron (Ned Beatty) swear that he was never there in the first place. Aptly, the story plays out like an extended Twilight Zone entry until it is revealed that Martin and Beatty are part of a gang preying on innocent passersby.

The Stranger Within (1974) was to have been produced by Allen Epstein, with whom Matheson tried to bring his second novel, Fury on Sunday (1953)—included in the Tor collection Noir—to the screen in the 1990s. When Epstein left Lorimar after an apparent misunderstanding, he was replaced by Neil T. Maffeo, who had been the associate producer of Dying Room Only, and the screenwriter was less than satisfied with the results. He had adapted the teleplay from his short story “Trespass” (originally published in 1953 as “Mother by Protest,” a title he disliked), which predated John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos in depicting a woman impregnated from space.

Best known for the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, Barbara Eden ably handles the dramatic role of Ann Collins, whose pregnancy comes as a rude surprise after husband David (George Grizzard) has undergone a vasectomy, especially since a previous pregnancy had near-fatal complications. Assuring David that she has not been unfaithful, Ann displays a plethora of prepartum symptoms and mood swings à la Rosemary’s Baby (1968) before absconding and delivering her interstellar offspring herself. In a confusing conclusion that even Matheson says he did not fully understand (and does not follow his story), Ann and a group of other “mothers by protest” are spirited away.

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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