Wednesday, August 29, 2012


When I was growing up, the two downtown Austin movie theaters, the Paramount and the State, had an unusual tradition that I've often wondered about and one which I often benefited from

On Sunday evenings, the theaters would hold a special "sneak preview" of whatever film was scheduled to open the following Friday. It would be a one time only showing on Sunday night and you could come for the regular feature and stay for the "sneak" for the price of one ticket. I don't know if the theaters kept these prints until the films officially opened on the following Friday or if they shipped them to other theaters in other cities and towns for showings Monday through Thursday. I can't imagine that any theater would sit on a print of a film for several days, effectively taking it out of circulation when it could have been generating revenue for some other theater somewhere. If anyone reading this (I'm looking at you, John Stewart) can shed some light on this practice, I'd really appreciate it.

One of the films that I recall seeing as a "sneak" at the Paramount was THE OMEGA MAN (1971). I was in high school at the time and I was mightily impressed by this science fiction film with Charlton Heston in the title role. I watched the film again yesterday for the first time in years and I must confess that my impression of the film has changed over the last forty plus years.

The screenplay is very loosely based on the classic modern horror novel I AM LEGEND by genre legend Richard Matheson. The material was originally filmed as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH in 1964. That version is a black & white Italian film starring the always fun to watch Vincent Price in the title role. The material was also remade again a few years ago under the title I AM LEGEND with Will Smith in the lead.

In the original novel, the hero, Neville, is beset by vampires who only come out at night. OMEGA MAN has Neville under attack from the survivors of a deadly strain of biological weaponry that was unleashed in an apocalyptic war that wiped out most of civilization. The survivors only come out at night (they cannot tolerate sunlight or other bright light sources) but they're more zombie like than vampiric. Actually, they're more like Luddites than anything else. Their leader, Mathias (Anthony Zerbe), was a television news commentator before the war and he's convinced that his followers ("The Family") must eradicate all traces of the old world because technology, science and medicine were the sources of the deadly plague. They're slightly infected and slowly dying and all quite mad.

Neville (Heston) was a doctor at the time of the war and he is shown in flashbacks working feverishly to develop an antidote to the  disease. He injects himself with the serum and becomes immune to the plague. This makes him public enemy number one to the "family".

Neville prowls the deserted streets of Los Angeles by day (a combination of scenes shot on real locations on Sundays and on the Warner Brothers back lot) and takes refuge in his fortified townhouse by night where he is constantly besieged by the "family." Neville raids stores for necessary supplies (food, clothing, automobiles, weapons) and treats himself to repeated showings of WOODSTOCK at an empty movie house.

The main conflict is between Neville and the "family" until a third element is introduced: a small group of humans that are mostly untouched by the plague. Neville finds love in the form of Lisa (Rosalind Cash), an attractive young woman whose little brother is partially infected. Neville develops an antidote from his own blood and saves the young man from a deadly fate. Once cured, Neville plans to develop additional serums from the blood of both himself and the boy. With the regular humans safe from the disease, the group plans to leave the city and the "family" behind and start life anew somewhere else. Things don't go as planned.

Veteran television director Boris Sagal directs with a heavy hand and the film at times looks like something made for television right down to the generic (and truly awful) '70s TV cop show musical score. It's really annoying. The screenplay strains itself by lifting twin weights composed of oh-so-hip and cutting edge relevancy and belabored Biblical analogies. The group of normal humans refer to starting over in a new "Eden" and it's Neville's blood which provides the potential salvation for them all. And in case we still don't get it, Neville's climactic death scene finds him posed in the position Christ assumed upon the cross.

Heston is serviceable enough in the role of Neville. He spends a lot of time in the first act of the film talking to himself and flashing some truly enormous, horse like teeth. Cash is pretty and likeable but she's hampered by the script's insistence on playing the then relevant "black power" race card. She looks like she belongs in a blaxploitation film, not this one.

THE OMEGA MAN is one of three classic science fiction films that Heston made over the course of several years, the other two being PLANET OF THE APES and SOYLENT GREEN. OMEGA is worth seeing at least once if only to remind us all of how bad things would have been if the world had really ended in 1975. If you were lucky enough to somehow survive that horrific fate, you would have been forced to rely on 8 track tapes (as Heston does) for your musical listening pleasure.

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