Richard Matheson—Storyteller

Richard Matheson—Storyteller: The Curtis Years, Part II

Arguably the low point of Matheson’s collaboration with producer-director Dan Curtis, ABC’s Scream of the Wolf (1974) was based—perhaps too faithfully, considering the flaws carried from page to screen—on David Case’s “The Hunter” (from his 1969 collection The Cell). Equal parts “The Most Dangerous Game” and The Hound of the Baskervilles, it concerns a former big-game hunter asked to investigate a rash of apparently lycanthropic killings that turn out to be the work of a friend who enjoys the thrill of the chase a little too much. Co-starring with Peter Graves was Clint Walker, for whose Western Cheyenne Matheson had scripted “Home Is the Brave” in 1960.

Matheson continued to write TV-movies for other producers, and he is particularly proud of The Morning After (1974), a wrenching portrait of alcoholism based on the novel by Jack B. Weiner. Himself battling the bottle at the time, Dick Van Dyke made his television dramatic debut in this ABC entry, which has reportedly been used as an educational film in some medical schools, and earned himself an Emmy nomination in the process. Van Dyke’s downward spiral as the public-relations writer whose addiction gradually costs him his self-respect, his career, his family, and almost his life is an impressive performance that, sadly, has never been made available on video.

Partly by default, 1974 saw the appearance of more Matheson movies than any other year, with three of his telefilms (Scream of the Wolf, the delayed Dracula, and The Morning After) airing in January and February alone. Barely a month before The Stranger Within debuted that October, Gallic writer-director Georges Lautner released Les Seins de Glace (Icy Breasts). This French-Italian co-production was adapted from Matheson’s first published novel, Someone Is Bleeding (1953)—also found in the Noir collection—on which John Maclay wrought an unusual variation, “The Case of Peggy Ann Lister,” for Christopher Conlon’s Tor tribute anthology, He Is Legend.

The opening of the novel is actually a fictionalized version of how Matheson met his wife, then a young divorcée named Ruth Ann Woodson, on a beach in Santa Monica in 1952, but after almost sixty years of marriage, it seems safe to say their relationship has had a happier ending. François Rollin (Claude Brasseur) at first refuses to believe that Peggy (Mireille Darc) is a murderess with a pathological fear of men—hence the book and film’s French title—even after learning that her “divorce” was the deadly kind. Alain Delon, Darc’s longtime love interest, plays smooth lawyer Marc Rilson, who loves and tries to shield Peggy, with fatal results for more than one character.

The following year, Curtis and Matheson bounced back with one of their most memorable films, Trilogy of Terror (1975), with Karen Black as the namesake protagonists of three segments, each based on a Matheson story: “Julie,” “Millicent and Therese,” and “Amelia.” William F. Nolan adapted the first two from, respectively, “The Likeness of Julie” and “Therese” (aka “Needle in the Heart”). Frumpy teacher Julie, blackmailed into being a student’s sexual slave, is revealed to have been mentally manipulating the boy for her own amusement; spinsterish Millicent kills her libertine “sister” Therese with a voodoo doll, unaware that she has multiple-personality disorder.

Matheson himself scripted the last and best-known segment, in which Amelia is terrorized in her apartment by a bloodthirsty Zuni fetish doll, but when he had originally submitted the concept to The Twilight Zone under the title “Devil Doll,” it was rejected as being too grim. He reworked it as an SF story in the second season’s “The Invaders,” then later wrote his original idea as “Prey,” published in Playboy in 1969. Spoofed along with the Twilight Zone classic “Living Doll” in the Simpsons parody “Clown Without Pity,” the ABC version has inspired everything from a sequel in He Is Legend (Joe R. Lansdale’s “Quarry”) to YouTube videos and a 13” collectible Zuni doll.

The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977), an original teleplay Matheson wrote for NBC and his friend producer Stan Shpetner, resembles “Millicent and Therese,” with Black again in the title role. Miriam Oliver dons a blonde wig and the flashy wardrobe of a dead woman, Sandy, but this “possession” is the reassertion of her own persona, the guilt-ridden Sandy having taken the identity of her slain friend. Matheson worked with Shpetner on several projects that did not come to fruition, including a TV-movie based on his novel Bid Time Return, a comedy Western, Skedaddle, and an adaptation of Matheson’s book Earthbound, more recently optioned by others.

Dead of Night (1977) has a complex history, one that is tied up with Curtis’s continued efforts to launch an anthology series of the same title, which was originally called Inner Sanctum. He had Matheson and Nolan write adaptations of such stories as Matheson’s “Therese” and “Prey,” both used in Trilogy of Terror, and Jack Finney’s “The Love Letter,” which he expanded into a 1998 telefilm with a different writer. Another teleplay, “No Such Thing as a Vampire,” was based on Matheson’s Playboy story of the same name (which had already become an episode of the BBC series Late Night Horror) and shot by Curtis as a stand-alone pilot for ABC, which did not air it.

Undaunted, Curtis had Matheson write two more segments, which he combined with “No Such Thing as a Vampire” into a second unsuccessful anthology pilot film (as Trilogy had been) that he sold to NBC. The first segment was a romantic fantasy based on Finney’s “Second Chance,” about a man who literally drives backward in time and unwittingly ensures the existence of his future inamorata. “No Such Thing,” a story acquired for Playboy in 1959 by Ray Russell (who later wrote screenplays for William Castle, Roger Corman, and Terence Fisher), casts Patrick Macnee of Avengers fame as a cuckold who uses the fear of the undead to dispose of his rival.

The last segment, “Bobby,” was an original Matheson script in which he and Curtis aimed for the pace and mood of “Amelia,” featuring Joan Hackett as a woman who comes to regret conjuring up her drowned son. “Bobby” was remade in Curtis’s Trilogy of Terror II (1996), with Lysette Anthony starring in all three segments. The other two, written by Curtis and Nolan, were a loose adaptation of Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats,” in which an adulterous murderess gets her comeuppance from the titular oversized rodents, and “He Who Kills,” marking the return of the eponymous Zuni doll, but as with The Night Strangler, it felt more like a retelling of the original.

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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