Every Tuesday, Matthew R. Bradley takes us through the career of Richard Matheson. Catch up with the series through the Richard Matheson—Storyteller index.
Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983) reunited Matheson with Steven Spielberg, the director of Duel (1971), for whom he had declined to work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and possibly Jaws (1975); “I’ve got great judgment,” he told me. Despite doubts about the approach, he scripted remakes of three classic Zone episodes: his pal George Clayton Johnson’s “Kick the Can,” Rod Serling’s “It’s a Good Life” (from the story by Star Trek scribe Jerome Bixby), and his own “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Writer-director John Landis, who produced the film with Spielberg, contributed “Time Out,” a reworking of Serling’s “A Quality of Mercy,” as well as a prologue with unwitting motorist Albert Brooks picking up monstrous hitchhiker Dan Aykroyd.
“Time Out,” in which a bigot must endure prejudice as a Jew, a black man, and a Vietnamese, ended in a headline-making tragedy when star Vic Morrow and two Asian youngsters working illegally were killed in a helicopter crash during filming. Matheson ended up sharing the script credit on Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” with Johnson, who had come up with a new ending for his tale of a children’s game that rejuvenates rest-home residents, and “Josh Rogan,” a nom d’écran for Melissa Mathison, who wrote E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). He regretted that “Rogan” softened the story, but luckily director Joe (Gremlins) Dante left his take on Bixby’s opus, whose schoolteacher protagonist agrees to tutor telepathic mutant boy Anthony Fremont, largely intact.
Envisioned at one point as a vehicle for Gregory Peck, the new “Nightmare” ultimately featured John Lithgow—soon to win an Emmy Award for Matheson’s “The Doll” on Amazing Stories—recreating William Shatner’s role of the frenzied airline passenger facing a gremlin on the wing. Matheson did not fault Lithgow’s performance, but felt that director George (Mad Max) Miller’s uncredited rewrite started with the character already at fever pitch, and left him no room to build a finely calibrated performance such as Shatner’s. This casting led to an ingenious in-joke when Shatner made his Emmy-nominated first appearance as the “Big Giant Head” on Lithgow’s NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, and the two compared notes on their terrifying aerial experiences.
Matheson’s involvement with the next Zone incarnation, adapting his 1970 “Button, Button” for the short-lived mid-’80s CBS revival, was brief and unpleasant, with their reworking of his script spurring another use of his Logan Swanson pseudonym. The story (to which Gary A. Braunbeck wrote a sequel, “Everything of Beauty Taken from You in This Life Remains Forever,” for He Is Legend) concerned a middle-class couple offered a mysterious push-button unit and the promise of $50,000 for pushing the button, which will lead to the death of a stranger. It was disastrously remade as The Box (2009), with Matheson’s original serving as the grain of sand around which writer-director Richard Kelly created a pearl of dubious value about the machinations of aliens.
The treatment afforded to Matheson’s material in his two 1990 credits, Loose Cannons and The Dreamer of Oz, was a study in contrasts, the former having begun life as Face Off, a speculative screenplay written with his son Richard Christian as a sequel to Cobra (1986). After Sylvester Stallone dropped out, it was revised beyond all recognition by director Bob Clark into a critically reviled buddy-cop comedy, placing Gene Hackman opposite Aykroyd as a forensics expert with multiple personality disorder. An NBC TV-movie, Dreamer—Matheson’s latest feature-length script produced to date—was an affectionate biopic that interpolated scenes of the beloved Oz characters into the story of creator L. Frank Baum’s life, in a rare dramatic role for John Ritter.
Matheson’s final trip into the Zone was a minor excursion at best, set into motion when several Serling stories and scripts were discovered after his death, two of which became the misnamed CBS telefilm Twilight Zone: Rod Serling’s Lost Classics (1994). Matheson based his half-hour segment, “The Theatre,” on an outline about a woman who sees her future projected in a cinema, while Serling’s ninety-minute “Where the Dead Are” was a moody tale of animated corpses on an isolated island. Since then, excepting the remake of “Bobby” in Trilogy of Terror II (1996), Matheson films and shows have been written by others, including episodes of The Outer Limits (“First Anniversary”) and Masters of Horror (“Dance of the Dead”) adapted by his own children.
Interestingly, Matheson novels published two decades apart, A Stir of Echoes (1958) and What Dreams May Come (1978), were filmed within a year of each other, and once again, his reaction was polarized. Robin Williams voluntarily left Heaven to rescue his suicidal wife from Hell in What Dreams May Come (1998), yet despite its Oscar-winning special effects, Matheson was displeased with the work of Ron Bass, an A-list screenwriter brought in by producer Stephen Simon to ensure that the project would get a green light. He was delighted, though, with writer-director David Koepp’s updated Stir of Echoes (1999), starring Kevin Bacon as a man tormented by ghostly psychic visions, and unfairly overshadowed by that year’s similar The Sixth Sense.
Matheson’s classic short story “Blood Son,” about a young misfit who aspires to be a vampire, was made into two independent shorts in 2006, under its own title and as My Ambition, but the advent of YouTube and its ilk has muddied the waters of his filmography considerably, with a plethora of ephemeral amateur shorts that pop up like mushrooms and vanish just as suddenly. Despite its stunning commercial success, the Will Smith version of I Am Legend (2007) was a disappointment to fans of the novel, and it is to be hoped that Real Steel, due out in October, will help make up for that and The Box. Meanwhile, the eighty-four-year-old author’s literary career continues unabated, with the hotly awaited novel Other Kingdoms coming from Tor in March.
Matthew R. Bradley is the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, now in its second printing, 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.