The Fantasy Films of Richard Matheson

Surveying the afterlife in What Dreams May Come

From The Incredible Shrinking Man to Stir of Echoes, no one has done more to transform Hollywood into a haunted kingdom than the screenwriter and novelist Richard Matheson

by David Miller

Selected from Starburst #264

Although he began his career writing Science Fiction, Richard Matheson is also responsible for some of the great frights of the 20th Century. As a novelist, he brought readers such paranoid masterpieces as The Shrinking Man and I Am Legend. For the screen he adapted not only his own work but also that of Edgar Allan Poe, Dennis Wheatley and Bram Stoker.

On television, he developed the character from a Jeff Rice novel into Carl Kolchak for the memorable TV movie The Night Stalker and later for a sequel and a spin off series. He gave William Shatner a Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in The Twilight Zone and went on to write one celebrated and highly influential episode of Star Trek.

In recent years two of Matheson’s novels were successfully adapted for the screen – What Dreams May Come starring Robin Williams, and Stir of Echoes with Kevin Bacon. Ray Bradbury called Matheson “one of the most important writers of the century”, while Stephen King called him “the author who influenced me most as a writer.”

Richard Burton Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey on 20 February 1926 and raised in Brooklyn. He made his professional writing début in 1950 with the short story Born of Man and Woman. The story – about a couple who keep their mutant offspring locked in the cellar – appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Matheson asserts that he never deliberately went into Science Fiction writing. “It was just that Science Fiction was very big in magazines at that time,” he stated. “So I began to explore that field.”

Matheson’s first SF novel, I Am Legend, was published in 1954. It tells in gripping detail the story of the last human survivor after a plague has turned the population of the Earth into vampires. I am Legend was followed by his fourth novel, another chilling and highly original Science Fiction classic that would signal a change of career from novelist to screenwriter – The Shrinking Man.

Hollywood Calls

Although Matheson had always harboured ambitions to be a film scriptwriter, he did not attempt to break into the field until Universal approached him in 1956 to buy the rights to The Shrinking Man. Matheson drove a hard bargain insisting that if the novel was to be sold he should write the screenplay himself. Universal finally accepted the writer’s terms and Matheson’s novel duly became, with predictable and characteristic Hollywood hyperbole, The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Matheson soon found work as a television scriptwriter too, and in 1960 contributed a script, The Last Flight, to The Twilight Zone, significantly the first not written by the series’ creator Rod Serling. Matheson’s later episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (adapted from one of his magazine stories) featured William Shatner as a terrified aircraft passenger who sees a woolly gremlin tampering with the engine. It is widely regarded as the series’ finest half-hour.

Matheson’s memorable contribution to genre TV series would also include the Star Trek episode Enemy Within – with Kirk (Shatner again) split into two beings, one good and one evil. Matheson admitted that he borrowed an idea from one of his old magazine stories – “It worked,” he said, “because it hadn’t been done a thousand times before at that point...”


Incredible Shrinking Man poster

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
The Beat Generation (1959)
The House of Usher (1960)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The Master of the World (1961)
Tales of Terror (1962)
Night of the Eagle (1962)
The Raven (1963)
Comedy of Terrors (1963)
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Fanatic (1965)
The Young Warriors (1967)
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
DeSade (1969)
Duel (1971)
Cold Sweat (1971) novel only
The Omega Man (1971) novel only
Les Seins de Glace (1972) novel only
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Dracula (1973)
Somewhere in Time (1980)
Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) story only
Jaws 3-D (1983)
Loose Cannons (1990)
What Dreams May Come (1998) novel only
Stir of Echoes (1999) novel only

Dracula (1973) and Spielberg’s Duel (1971) were originally TV movies, but were released in cinemas in Europe

His novel Someone is Bleeding was filmed as Les Seins de Glace, Ride the Nightmare as Cold Sweat, and The Beardless Warriors as The Young Warriors.

Images © Polygram, Universal Pictures

Feature © Visual Imagination 2000. Not for reproduction

This is just a fraction of the full feature. Read on in Starburst #264