No one mastered the twist ending more than Richard Matheson, who died last week at the age of 87 after leaving an indelible mark on science fiction and horror. He married his slam-bang climaxes to endearingly relatable protagonists, blending the inexplicable with the utterly normal in astonishing ways. Small wonder that television and the movies found him so irresistible; his legacy moves so effortlessly between the mediums that it’s impossible to say which was more effective.
In light of that, here’s a list of the ten finest movie and television moments that sprang from his imagination. His literary genius is self-evident – if you want a list of those moments, pick up any copy of his work and you’ll have more than you can count. This list is intended to demonstrate how his creativity inspired others, and how his normal, rational characters could react in cinematic moments that defied the explainable.
Stephen King once said that all haunted house stories are financial in nature: that once you get past the ghosts and the bleeding walls, they tap into anxieties about mortgages and repair bills and rapidly emptying bank accounts. I never quite believed it until Stir of Echoes – based on Matheson’s novel – in which a bit of hypnosis at a quiet party opens Kevin Bacon up to the commands of an unquiet spirit. In one memorable sequence, he takes a pick-axe to the gorgeous hardwood floor of his living room, in a scene that caused the whole audience I was with to moan in shock. “He’s not gonna get his deposit back!” my date whispered to me in a panic: proof that our deepest fears can sometimes still be reached through our wallets.
Matheson wrote one memorable episode of the original Star Trek entitled The Enemy Within in which a transporter accident divides Captain Kirk into good and evil halves. It sounds pretty cheesy, and to be sure William Shatner has never chewed on the scenery like he does here. (Fair warning: Shatner’s all over this list like a bad rash.) But it also contains one of Matheson’s typically thoughtful observations: that we need the horrible side of ourselves if we hope to survive in this world.
The episode also features the first appearance of Spock’s beloved Vulcan nerve pinch, but Matheson can’t take credit for that; it was pure Nimoy.
Matheson’s endings were elegant because they were so simple, keeping the theatrics to a minimum. Button, Button is a textbook example: someone shows up at your house with a strange button and says that if you push it: 1) you’ll get a suitcase full of money and 2) someone who you don’t know will die. Richard Kelly tried to spin it out to feature length with 2009’s The Box and failed dreadfully. The reboot of The Twilight Zone did better, with a slick twist, a brief pacing, and a quiet message about our inability to rise about our own petty needs.
There have been three movie versions of I Am Legend to date. The best, in my mind, is still the first – titled The Last Man on Earth – which suffered from a beyond-low budget and remains unknown to all but the most ardent horror movie fans. It’s also closer to the novel than either the admirable Charlton Heston version or the execrable Will Smith version. It helps to have Vincent Price in the lead, playing an achingly sympathetic man left alone in a world overrun by vampires. His horrified realization at the end of the film cuts to the heart of Matheson’s novel and proves how much better things can be when you just stick to the script. (Price also benefited from Matheson’s numerous screenplays written for Roger Corman and based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe.)
Shatner returns to this list for a second time in a much more understated performance as a superstitious ad man on a road trip with his wife. He stops for lunch and plays with a novelty fortune-telling machine at his table… whose predictions appear to be eerily accurate. The great thing about this episode? Contrary to Mr. Serling’s assurances, we never know if the machine can really tell the future or not. It doesn’t matter whether the supernatural is involved at all; it focuses on our own fears and desires, and the way they can easily make prisoners of us if we let them.
As the meme assures us, snuzzly kittens think about murder all day. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of the show-stopping moments of The Incredible Shrinking Man when Grant Williams – now small enough to live in a dollhouse – has a nasty encounter with his former pet. Suddenly, a creature many of us live with every day becomes a terrifying monster… and those of us with cats know that our little darlings would be no more merciful to us if we were in Grant’s shoes.
Genre fans don’t normally associate Matheson with Somewhere in Time, a science fiction romance he penned that later became a feature-length movie. Christopher Reeve plays a man who uses self-hypnosis to travel back in time and meet the woman he believes to be his soulmate. The romance itself has its share of fans – many quite passionate – but the moment that always gets me is when he’s unceremoniously wrenched back to the present, only to slowly die of a broken heart. It’s a time-worn literary conceit which Reeve brings to tragic, soul-crushing life, aided by Matheson’s writing and ensuring that there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
I’m a mild fan of Real Steel, the Hugh Jackman boxing sci-fi film from a couple of years back. But like The Box, it can’t compete with the purer Twilight Zone version. Lee Marvin plays a down-on-his-luck manager of a robot boxer in a future where the sport is outlawed. In order to make enough money to survive, he has to step back into the ring, disguised as a machine but all too human in his fragility. The episode celebrates our indomitable will to survive, even when the cards are stacked against us and no one on Earth realizes what we’re doing.
(Sadly, there are no existing clips to this episode on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it though, it’s awesome.)
Matheson penned Duel after a cross-country trip in which a truck driver tried to run him off the road. It posits a similar scenario, as a hapless salesman runs afoul of a psychotic trucker hell-bent on killing him. Universal made a TV movie out of it, and handed it to a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg, who was a huge fan of Matheson’s (and actually worked for Serling directing an episode of Night Gallery). The film was so good, they eventually gave it a theatrical release. Spielberg was on his way… in no small part because he listened to Matheson’s admonition that we never see the actual driver. The truck itself becomes the monster, conjured from whole cloth by a pair of men who would go on to become living legends.
Any discussion of Matheson ultimately comes back to Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, his short story that now stands as the greatest Twilight Zone episode of all time. Matheson toyed elegantly with the notion of insanity – whether or not this guy is going crazy or whether there really is a gremlin out there – which easily trumped the rather silly make-up they used to invoke the monster. We’re in Shatner’s shoes from beginning to end, wondering feverishly what we would do in that situation, and suspecting we might convince ourselves that what we think we saw didn’t actually exist. The scenario was so brilliant, so perfectly conceived and executed, that George Miller repeated it two decades later for Twilight Zone: The Movie without losing a beat.