Sunday, December 4, 2011

I Know Why the Bad Movie Stinks

When I saw The Omega Man for the first time as a young teenager, I thought it was pretty good. To be fair, I saw it on network television, and my sense is that it was quite heavily edited to get it down to the standards that TV censors demanded back in those days -- maybe some of the worst scenes came out along with the violence, swearing, and the topless black chick.

Because, Oh Yes, when I tried to watch it again as the inaugural feature of my annual winter science fiction filmfest, I was greatly brought down to realize that this picture is one heck of a smelly Stink Bomb. It took me three sessions over three days just to get through the damn thing.

Back in 1971, we still had this thing called "Mod." It was dying a slow and painful death, but when The Omega Man was made, there were still some very un-Mod people who thought it was the thing to do to rake in the Youth Audience. And The Omega Man wants so very much to be "Mod" -- it tries so hard to be "Mod" that it only ends up showing you how deeply Un-Mod it is.

Their first mistake was in casting Charlton Heston in the title role. Heston may have been many things (or Not), but "Mod?" Yeesh! Maybe when they were changing the title from The Last Man on Earth, they should have gone with The Least Mod on Earth. Only Nancy Reagan is less "Mod" than Charlton Heston.

Then there's the music -- my GOD, the music! Jumpy, Fake Pop Elevator Music at best, fake Electronic Gothic, and worse. The best example of how deeply wretched this score is comes at the very end, as a kind of bouncy Supermarket tune plays over the fade-out of Heston lying symbolically crucified in a fountain of his own blood.

I'm not making this stuff up!!!

Then we have the villains. In the original story (and the actually very good first film version starring Vincent Price in the Heston role), a virus had turned everyone on the planet into Walking Dead. They didn't talk much. They did spend their nights trying to break their way into Vincent Price's home. This was well before George Romero stole the idea, added piles of gore and gave us the zombie genre that is with us, very much like a disgusting virus, to this day.

But no, The Omega Man has to be really MOD, baby! So in this version, the virus turned everyone on the planet into Albino Cultists who go around in long black robes and chant "The Family is Everything!" Anthony Zerbe plays the Head Cultist and, under his white Fright Wig and white pancake make-up, he works overtime (and I do mean overtime) to prove to us How Very Evil he is. By allowing the Cultists to talk, and to do so at great length, the screenwriters have opened themselves up to vast opportunities for Silly Dialogue which does not go un-mined.

The script, that's another big part of the trouble. By trying to expand upon Richard Matheson's original story, they turn terror into camp, and humanity into pathos. It tries so hard to be profound that it forgets how to be a simple science fiction thriller. Mod, meet Miss Guided!

And don't even get me started about the Jive-Ass Black Chick. I know lots of African Americans and not one of them looks or talks like they just stepped out of a Pam Grier movie. This was written by White People who wanted to prove to someone (maybe themselves) that they were not bigots. They failed.

Along  the way, this movie does play with one of my favorite themes: the creation of a Family. In this case, not only doesn't the family "take," but it raises the question of "What if you don't like your new-found relatives?" See, the Jive-Ass Black Chick and Charlton Heston become a deeply unlikely couple when he saves the life of her little brother. And just as soon as he can talk again, little brother proves to be kind of a Pain in the Ass. In-laws!! Go figure!! He gets killed for it, but then so does almost everyone else.

The one thing that this picture gets right is also the one thing it has in common with the Vincent Price version: an interesting, accurate depiction of Men Living Alone. Where Price lives in squalor and depression, dragging himself out every day to dispose of the bodies and shore up his ever-diminishing defenses, Heston lives in city style with every kind of luxury he wants, and ventures out by day as a gun-toting Warrior, tooling around the streets in a new car every day. You can almost hear him saying "Out of my cold dead hands. . ." and that's what happens.

I've not seen the recent remake with Will Smith and probably never will. At the time of its release, I had only my memory of the Heston version to go on, and I scoffed. "Why would they remake The Omega Man?" I said. "It can't possibly be as good as The Omega Man!"

Now, with the bar very much lowered, I have to say, "If it isn't as good as The Omega Man, then it's really in the shit!"

-- Freder.

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