In this blog series, we are celebrating the life and work of Richard Matheson, a master of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. His stories and novels have inspired countless films, TV shows, and writers, from The Twilight Zone to Steven Spielberg, from Stephen King to George A. Romero. He wrote about vampires, shrinking men, haunted houses, time travelers, and more. We are also exploring his connections to three of the collections at the American Heritage Center. In the first part of this series, we focused on his early life and his works in the 1950s. In this second part, we will look at his works in the 1960s.
Throughout the 1960s, Matheson wrote for several television series, including fourteen episodes of the TV series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Those encompassed some of the most memorable ones, such as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Steel,” and “The Invaders.” His short story “Little Girl Lost,” which he also adapted into a Twilight Zone script was based on a real-life incident involving his young daughter, who fell off her bed while asleep and rolled against a wall. Despite hearing her daughter’s cries for help, Matheson’s wife was initially unable to locate their daughter.
You’ll also find Matheson’s work in the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Lawman, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., and Star Trek. He wrote the script for the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” which features a transporter malfunction that splits Captain Kirk into two versions of himself: one good and one evil.
He also wrote the script for the first episode, “Forgotten Front,” of the war series Combat! (1962-1967), which followed the grim lives of a squad of American soldiers fighting the Germans in France during World War II. The series offered a unique perspective on war, focusing on the moral dilemmas faced by soldiers rather than action-packed scenes. “Forgotten Front” was directed by Robert Altman and credits Matheson’s pseudonym “Logan Swanson” as the writer. Matheson’s own WWII war service would have aided him in writing this episode. A copy of Matheson’s script for the episode is included in the papers of writer Jerry Sohl, which are housed at the AHC.
Among Matheson’s film works in the 1960s were his collaborations with director Roger Corman. In 1960, Corman directed, for American International Pictures, House of Usher, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Fall of the House of Usher that was scripted by Matheson and starred Vincent Price.
Following the success of this film, Corman directed several more films based on Poe’s writings, and Matheson wrote three of them – The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). Matheson’s adaptations of Poe’s work are considered classics.
Matheson also wrote the horror comedy “The Comedy of Terrors” (1963), which was directed by Jacques Tourneur for American International Pictures. The film depicts dishonest undertaker Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) and his sidekick Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) who create their own customers when they cannot find willing ones.
The movie was not a big success at the box office with The New York Times calling it “A MUSTY, rusty bag of tricks rigged as a horror farce.” Nevertheless, Matheson countered that he was proud of the picture. He stated, “It didn’t lose any money. They [AIP] told me that the title itself cost them a lot. It’s such a contradiction in terms, though. Terror sells and comedy makes them go away, so it’s like they’re walking in two directions at once. But I thought it was very clever to do a take off of Shakespeare’s, Comedy of Errors…. I think they were probably sorry they didn’t use a Poe title, because Poe had a certain marketability. I guess they couldn’t figure out how to market it. But it was the last one because I was getting tired of writing about people being buried alive, so I decided to make a joke about it.”
Richard Matheson was a master of suspense, imagination, and emotion, who explored the dark and mysterious aspects of human nature. He left behind a legacy of unforgettable works that will continue to entertain and challenge readers and viewers for years to come.
Post contributed by Processing Archivist and AHC film expert Roger Simon.