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(original posting - 10/3/11)
 (updated / revised - 7/4/13)

* (April / May 2012) 20/20 FUTURE VISION: THE 20 BEST SCI FI FILMS OF THE PAST 20 YRS.
* (Dec. 2011 / rev. Nov. 2016)  THE 12 (24 ALTERNATE) DAYS OF CHRISTMAS - PT. 1

REAL STEEL's Real Deal -
RICHARD MATHESON (1926 - 2013)
"Future Vogue"

(...and how his classic TWILIGHT ZONE
 story got a nifty 21st Century upgrade)

by CEJ

     Early in 2011, when the first spots and trailers for DreamWorks/Touchstone’s sci fi family drama cum action / sports pic REAL STEEL began to appear, there was a collective audience response of “Hmmm? A movie version of ‘Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots’, huh?”.  And while we too picked up on the obvious homage to Marx Toys venerable two-player game from the 1960s / 70s (which did you prefer, the “Blue Bomber” or the “Red Rocker”?), there was yet another sense of familiarity.  For all the world the film kind of felt reminiscent of an old TWILIGHT ZONE episode starring Lee Marvin, entitled (coincidentally) "STEEL".  "Lo and behold” a look-up of the film’s production credits (you have to do that sort of thing online nowadays as you seldom get that info in the rapid-fire trailers) revealed it was indeed “Based on the Short Story "STEEL" by literary stalwart RICHARD MATHESON, which had earlier been adapted as that famous 1963 TZ episode.  We say “Literary stalwart” because to call Matheson a “genre stalwart” (though the bulk of his stories do live, breathe and have their being within the science fiction, fantasy and horror milieu) would be a disservice.  Not on this end, mind you.  We love that sort of thing here.  

     But elsewhere as soon as many (did someone say  “literary critics“?) hear the word "genre", they immediately (consciously or no) tend to drop that novelist into the “cheapie bin” of writers who are good “at what they do”, but certainly not worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as your Hemingways or Fitzgeralds.   Y'know, for all the SHAWSHANK REDEMPTIONs, STAND BY MEs and DOLORES CLAIBORNEs Stephen King writes, he'll still forever be to some "that horror guy who wrote that thing about the big dog and the Pinto, right?".  Not so with Matheson.  Having influenced the modern history of literary output, his stamp on the art form (genre and non-genre alike) can only accurately be measured by equating him to others of his like: men like Dickens, John Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It’s but a mere peripheral fact that the “narrative delivery system” of Matheson’s moral allegories and examinations of the human condition come via the genre route.      

REAL STEEL Theatrical Trailer


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"When I write anything—a short story, a novel—I see it in my mind like a movie."


   Going wireless - "Can you hear me now?" ...
   A fallen phone line on a grave is the cause of "stalker messages"
   from beyond in Matheson's NIGHT CALL (TWILIGHT ZONE - 2/7/64)

      STEEL (orig. airdate 10/4/63) was one of sixteen episodes of Rod Serling’s original TWILIGHT ZONE series penned by the prolific Matheson.  Some of the other more famous include the legendary “A Nightmare At Twenty-Thousand Feet” (with William Shatner as a nervous airline passenger who swears he sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane), “Little Girl Lost“ (about the efforts of a suburban couple to rescue their child after she tumbles from her bed one night into an alternate dimension … this episode inspired the movie POLTERGEIST by the way), and the bone-chilling “Night Call” (about an elderly woman’s ordeal with a phone stalker … who turns out to be her late husband).  If these titles don’t “ring a bell” (sorry, couldn’t help the boxing pun), perhaps others will.

TRILOGY OF TERROR (ABC Films - orig. airdate 3/4/75)   

     Other Matheson works adapted into feature films (successful and otherwise) include THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1955), SOMEHWERE IN TIME (1980), STIR OF ECHOES (1999), WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998), THE BOX (2009), and three versions of I AM LEGEND - the two before Will Smith’s 2007 actioner being THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964 - with Vincent Price) and THE OMEGA MAN (1971 - starring Charlton Heston).  

     As for non-TWILIGHT ZONE television, Matheson’s typewriter is responsible for one of classic STAR TREK’s most popular episodes “The Enemy Within” (1966 - the one with the alternate evil Enterprise crew and the “bad” Spock sportin’ that mean goatee), two TV movies THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) which gave birth to the popular if short lived series starring Darren McGavin.  Director Steven Spielberg’s nail-biter TV movie DUEL (1971).  And of course, the cause of millions of childhood nightmares around the world, the infamous anthology film TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) - it’s final story “Prey” featuring the terrifying-to-this-day spirit-possessed, spear weilding, African Zuni doll which maniacally stalks Karen Black about her swanky inner city apartment.  Oh yeah, ... and take note ye fans of fantastic cinema, just as Matheson's "Little Girl Lost" inspired Spielberg & Tobe Hooper's POLTERGEIST, so was "Prey"'s Zuni doll major (if unacknowledged) inspiration on director Tom Holland's CHILD'S PLAY (1988) and the lucrative franchise it launched.

  Fox Muldar (David Duchovny) and Senator Richard Matheson
  (Raymond J. Barry) "LITTLE GREEN MEN" (X-FILES - 9/16/94)

     As for Matheson's influence on generations of writers and film makers?  Well,  there aren’t enough web pages to list 'em all.  Some of the more noteworthy include Stephen King (his novel CELL dedicated to Matheson), INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE’s Anne Rice (Matheson’s “A Dress Of White Silk” spurring her interest in vampire fiction as a child), director George Romero (I AM LEGEND the inspiration for his NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) and X-FILES creator Chris Carter, his famous show directly inspired by Matheson's THE NIGHT STALKER. 

     Carter would specifically pay homage to his thematic “birth-parent” on numerous ocassions: the two most obvious being 1) the featuring of STALKER’s monster-seeking journalist Darren McGavin in two prime episodes as elder FBI agent Arthur Dales - who originally founded the titular "X-Files".  And 2) the naming of a U.S. Senator (who assists David Ducovny's Agent Muldar) "Richard Matheson" in the Season 2 opener "Little Green Men" (orig. airdate 9/16/94).  There’s also the aforementioned POLTERGEIST, as well as the twist-ending films of M. Night Shyamalan ("Dr. Mathieson" even the name of the physician who delivers the child at the beginning of UNBREAKABLE, the child who will grow into Samuel L. Jackson’s mysterious Elijah Price / Mr. Glass).  And as if that weren’t enough, Matheson’s actual children have also left indelible marks on the industry, most notably son Richard Christian Matheson, responsible for writing some of television’s most popular series including THE INCREDIBLE HULK, KNIGHT RIDER, THE A-TEAM, HARDCASTLE AND McCORMICK and HUNTER, as well as being the pen behind the cult fave feature film THREE O’CLOCK HIGH (1987).

Two of Matheson's most popular excursions into THE TWILIGHT ZONE:
"The Invaders" (orig. air - 1/27/61) and "Little Girl Lost" (orig. air - 3/16/62)



     “Sports item, circa 1974: Battling Maxo, B2, heavyweight, accompanied by his manager and handler, arrives in Maynard, Kansas, for a scheduled six-round bout. Battling Maxo is a robot, or, to be exact, an android, definition: 'an automaton resembling a human being.' Only these automatons have been permitted in the ring since prizefighting was legally abolished in 1968. This is the story of that scheduled six-round bout, more specifically the story of two men shortly to face that remorseless truth: that no law can be passed which will abolish cruelty or desperate need - nor, for that matter, blind animal courage. Location for the facing of said truth: a small, smoke-filled arena just this side of the Twilight Zone“.

Mantell and Marvin "STEEL" (orig. air 10/4/63)  

     First airing in October of 1963, STEEL detailed the John Henry-like "Man vs. Machine” dilemma of Lee Marvin as one-time heavyweight fighter “Steel” Kelly - so nicknamed because as a pro he was never knocked down.  Since man to man boxing was outlawed in the “future world of 1968” and replaced with android bouts, Steel has become manager to “Battling Maxo of Philadelphia”, an outmoded B2 robot slated for a six-round bout in Maynard, Kansas.  Before the scheduled fight, the already malfunctioning Maxo breaks down, and desperate for the five-hundred dollar purse to repair his fighter, Steel himself secretly takes the robot’s place in the ring.

"Battling Maxo" (Tipp McClure)

     In adapting STEEL for the medium of television, Matheson would remain faithful to the narrative and text of his original 1956 short story - first published in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, then later collected in the popular volume THE SHORES OF SPACE (1957)

     Of all his stories turned into TWILIGHT ZONE episodes (a total of 16 between the years 1959 - 1964) STEEL was his personal favorite, in large part due to Lee Marvin’s searing (and witty) performance as “Steel” Kelly.  Matheson recalled:

     “’Steel’ was his nickname and that was his character, his backbone, that he was so determined.  When you have a monomaniacal character like that, it’s easier to handle.  Captain Ahab is like that, too.  He has no grays; he just wants to kill the whale.  I remember Lee Marvin making crowd noises and street noises to get himself into the feeling.  Even though there was no set or anything, he was psyching himself into feeling the moment, which I found impressive, that an actor would go to that trouble” 

     In Marc Scott Zicree’s superlative THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION (1982 - Bantam Books) the author posits, if there is a weakness to the story, it’s in the area of Steel’s motivation.  “Steel goes into the ring to get the money to repair his robot”, he states, “Yet Pole (Steel’s business partner/mechanic portrayed by Joe Mantell) pleads with him not to do it, explaining that there are safer - although more time-consuming - methods of getting the necessary money.  Rather than seeming an act of courage, on the face of it Steel's actions seem the result of a near-suicidal bullheadedness”.  But Matheson counters:

     “I saw the Lee Marvin character as the sort of man who never liked to ask anyone for help but chose, in the old-fashioned way, to take care of things for himself, however mad.  To him it was a straight line progression: to get the money to put Maxo back in condition, he had to get that fee … now!  So he got it in the most obvious way he could as he saw things.  He couldn’t see Pole wiring for money.  That would take time.  Worse, it would be begging.  The money might not come anyway.  What if Pole’s sister said no?  What if the work in Philadelphia did not eventuate?  Much too complex for Steel.  Go in the ring and hang in there and get the money and leave.  Even when he got his brains beaten out and only a small percentage of the money, he did not give up.  Not the brightest man in the world but, in many ways, pretty admirable, pretty brave”. 

Watch the entire original episode:
TWILIGHT ZONE "Steel" (10/4/63)




     Born in Allendale, New Jersey on February 20th, 1926, Matheson officially sold his first story at the age of nine.  But it wasn’t until (not unlike his contemporaries TWILIGHT ZONE creator Rod Serling and STAR TREK’s birth father Gene Roddenberry) he returned from WW2 service that he seriously sought a writing career.  His first published short story was “Born of Man and Woman”.  A creepy little yarn told from the first person point-of-view of a pitiful yet monstrous child chained in the basement by it’s parents, it appeared in the late and truly great "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" in 1950.  His first published novels, SOMEONE IS BLEEDING and FURY ON SUNDAY (both 1953) were quickly followed by what would become, still today, two of his most famous - I AM LEGEND (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1956 - orig. titled THE SHRINKING MAN). 

     The first film version of LEGEND, 1964’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, starred Vincent Price as a lone scientist battling a world of vampiric former humans.  Produced on a shoestring budget, it would leave it’s mark by not only becoming immensely popular at the time of it‘s release, but also in that it’s black and white cinema verite’ style would majorly influence director George Romero’s similarly themed 1968 chiller NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; which in turn would go on to influence later sci fi thrillers such as 28 DAYS LATER, WORLD WAR Z and even the spoofish SHAUN OF THE DEAD. 

     Matheson’s tale of  “The Last Man on Earth … who is Not Alone” would get a major studio upgrade with Warner Bros.’ 1971 THE OMEGA MAN (this time with PLANET OF THE APES star Charlton Heston), then yet again under it’s original title in director Francis Lawrence’s 2007 I AM LEGEND starring Will Smith - which is actually more a remake of THE OMEGA MAN than a literal adaptation of Matheson’s source material.


     With the possible exception of 1998’s Robin Williams’ afterlife drama/fantasy WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, never was Matheson’s brand of lean, character-based, existentially allegorical fiction better realized on screen than in 1957’s THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.  Opening with strapping tall and successful businessman Robert Carey (Grant Williams) on an afternoon boat trip with his wife, he thinks nothing of it when an apparent fog bank passes over him while his wife is below deck.  In time he finds himself becoming smaller … and not just physically.  As his size diminishes, so does his social stature and worth as a man … at least in his own post-War, Madison Avenue, corporate raider eyes.


     After a series of life altering confrontations worthy of Jason or Odysseus (including a run in with his former pet cat, and a sewing needle battle with a giant house spider) his world … no! … his universal view is altered to the point that, when he finally vanishes into atoms at the film’s climax, he’s come to understand what actually binds reality and that universe together.  It’s a truth he could never see before because of the pride and arrogance of his former “big man” mentality.  Heady material indeed for a 1950s-era sci fi yarn playing at the local Saturday matinee.  And it’s to the credit of director Jack Arnold (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON - 1954, THE MOUSE THAT ROARED - 1959) and Universal Studios, that SHRINKING MAN, while replete with those bravura sci fi action sequences, doesn’t succumb to the temptation to side step the more philosophical subtext of Matheson’s source material. 

     Throughout the 1960s, in addition to his work on
THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Matheson would be instrumental in re-firing world interest in Edgar Allen Poe when producers
Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson’s American International Pictures undertook new period-set versions of classic Poe tales scripted by Matheson and filmed by B-movie maestro Roger Corman.

Roger Corman and Vincent Price (circa 1960)  

     Shot in gloriously lurid color, the eight Matheson/Corman/America International Poe chillers (among them HOUSE OF USHER - 1960, PIT AND THE PENDULUM - 1961, TALES OF TERROR - ‘62, and THE RAVEN - ‘63) were huge hits, not only reigniting the careers of genre stalwarts such as Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre, but sending droves back to the libraries to rediscover Poe’s brand of darkly poetic literary magic.  Both THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and HOUSE OF USHER would in time be listed with the United States National Film Registry, deemed “"culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" to America’s artistic heritage. 

     As the decade ended a new frequent Matheson collaborator would emerge - a young up and coming filmmaker named Steven Spielberg. 

pg. 1,2

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