It’s a thrill to discover that something you liked as a kid has a pedigree you can respect as an adult. In this case, I’ve just learned that a classic “Twilight Zone” episode that scared the wits out of me when I first saw it 22 years ago (age eight or so) was written by Richard Matheson. Matheson is best known for his novella “I Am Legend,” which is getting yet another cinematic treatment later this year, this time starring Will Smith. (I’m a fan of the 1971 Charlton Heston version, “The Omega Man.” There have been variations as well — arguably the whole zombie genre, from “Night of the Living Dead” to “28 Days Later,” owes almost everything to “I Am Legend.”) The “Twilight Zone” episode that made such an impression on me is “The Invaders,” about twelve-inch-tall robots terrorizing a woman in a rural house. Seeing it again tonight, I could understand why I found it so creepy as a youngster: it’s not only heavily atmospheric (and almost dialogue-free, which adds to the feeling of alienation and claustrophobia) but surprisingly violent, from the radiation-burn blisters the robots inflict on the woman to the attempt by one of the robots to saw off her foot with a kitchen knife.
I remembered the twist ending quite vividly — the invaders turn out to be from the U.S. Air Force. I’ve been referring to them as robots, which is how I remembered them from the first time I saw the episode, but my memory was wrong: they’re actually humans in space suits and (in what’s a “Twilight Zone” cliche) the seemingly ordinary woman is actually a giant. No wonder it’s Matheson: “The Invaders” is virtually the same story as “I Am Legend.” Same set-up: solitary human being against a terrifying menace. Same resolution: a reversal of the monster-protagonist roles. What’s artful is that Matheson leads his readers/viewers to identify with different sides in each story. The harried woman remains the most sympathetic figure in “The Invaders” right till the credits roll. “I am Legend” gives us the story from the other side of the divide. Both stories play off of the ambiguity of who’s really the monster. Unfortunately, I don’t hold out much hope that the Will Smith “I Am Legend” will preserve any of the story’s essential ambiguity and irony: Smith presumably has to be a clear hero. “The Omega Man” didn’t preserve those elements either, but it did staple onto the story some Christian allegory, which counts for a little, and it had 70’s sci-fi Charlton Heston cred (it was filmed between “Soylent Green” and “Planet of the Apes”), which counts for a lot.
More about Matheson and his work can be found here. I highly recommend “I Am Legend,” though unfortunately I haven’t read much of his other work.