There are certain names within the world of classic horror that embody the genre and its essence: Stephen King, John Carpenter,Vincent Price… and of course, author and screenwriter Richard Matheson. Though he passed away in 2013, Matheson’s indelible influence on the genre continues to endure.
Stephen King, Anne Rice, Brian Lumley, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill and countless more legendary authors have all given kudos to Matheson for his inspiration on their careers.
For example, in 2012, when the Horror Writers’ Association named his landmark novel I AM LEGEND “Vampire Novel of the Century” over King’s SALEM’S LOT and Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, Rice took her loss in stride, saying it wasn’t hard to lose the title to an author “whose stories were inspiring me when I was still a kid… writing everything with a ballpoint pen in a school notebook.”
Matheson’s massive bibliography contains so many landmarks in horror literature, it would be fruitless to list them all here… though we strongly recommend you seek out each and every one of his novels and short stories, including HELL HOUSE, THE SHRINKING MAN and A STIR OF ECHOES.
As you might have noticed, all of the above titles have been adapted into motion pictures (some of them multiple times), which leads to our next point: Beyond his contributions to the printed page, Matheson’s genius is also forever linked to some of the finest moments in horror cinema and television.
Dozens of Matheson’s stories have been adapted — often by the author himself — into episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (the original series, the 1983 theatrical adaptation and the ’80s series reboot), THE OUTER LIMITS, THRILLER, NIGHT GALLERY and AMAZING STORIES, and arguably the most terrifying made-for-TV movie ever aired, TRILOGY OF TERROR, in which Matheson’s short story “Prey” unleashed a possessed Zuni doll upon legions of traumatized viewers. Other notable television works from Matheson include THE NIGHT STALKER (which led to the cult series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER), and the 1971 TV movie DUEL, which was the first feature-length project from an aspiring young director named Steven Spielberg.
On the big screen, Matheson’s achievements began in the late ’50s with a classic adaptation of THE SHRINKING MAN, and his successes continued well into the 21st century. His screenplays for Roger Corman’s beloved Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the 1960s (most of which star aforementioned genre hero Vincent Price) include HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and THE RAVEN; his celebrated short story “Button, Button” was adapted as THE BOX in 2009; and his TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Steel” was loosely remade in 2011 as REAL STEEL.
It’s also worth noting that, without Matheson’s contributions to the genre, cinematic classics such as JAWS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD would never have been made — or at least they would have turned out very differently.
George A. Romero has said the vampires that appeared in the 1964 film adaptation of I AM LEGEND — entitled THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, and also starring Price — served as the inspiration for those now-infamous zombie hordes in Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; the success of DUEL led to Universal’s decision to sign Steven Spielberg for JAWS, after the he observed how both stories deal with “these leviathans targeting everymen.” (Even the “dinosaur roar” sound effect heard in the climax of DUEL is replicated in JAWS, as Spielberg claims there is a “kinship” between DUEL and JAWS and it was “my way of thanking DUEL for giving me a career.”)
Matheson’s influence continues today, lending its stamp to the latest generation of acclaimed filmmakers: Most recently, Jordan Peele’s brilliant social thriller GET OUT reflects many of Matheson’s fantastical elements, and although Peele has cited ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES as inspirations, the film that first came to my mind was the 1999 adaptation of STIR OF ECHOES, which inverts the role of hypnosis: the “sunken place” into which GET OUT’s protagonist Chris is banished is shown as a mental prison, whereas ECHOES’s main character Tom is “awakened” by his own hypnosis session, which leads to the plot’s shocking resolution.
At the heart of Matheson’s many tales, you’ll find simple but compelling moral dilemmas. There are dozens of fine examples, but one of the best and most memorable lies at the heart of his classic story “Button, Button” — which poses the question, “Can I live with the sacrifice of someone else’s life in return for a big monetary payment?”
Studios respond to these kinds of stories, because they’re easy to understand or relate to, and therefore accessible to a wider audience. When filmmakers utilize Matheson’s ideas or channel his influences, the results can be exhilarating… and everlasting.