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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Matheson Files (originally published 2/02)

Don't let Chris Carter kid you. He already knows the truth. And the truth is this: the profits are out there. "The X-Files," Carter's phenomenally successful television series demonstrates that intelligent, imaginative contemporary fantasy can command an enthusiastic and loyal audience.

The only problem is that it's a devilishly difficult form to do well. It may look easy enough - just come up with a way-out premise and see where it takes you - but those who have tried it know better. The films of recent vintage that have sought to cash in on the success of "The X-Files," from M. Night Shyamalan's excellent "The Sixth Sense" (1999) to the somewhat less sure-footed "Mothman Prophecies," which is currently playing nationwide, have all had to deal with the fact that Carter's style is not easily emulated.

At the same time, Carter and "The X-Files" didn't spring full blown from the head of Zeus. It seems to me that the success of Carter's show and its many clones ought to be the occasion for a renewed interest in some of the practitioners of contemporary fantasy who blazed the trail that Carter follows so capably.

In particular, no one deserves to share in the adulation of the X-fans more than novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson. If you're a fan of "The X-Files," or if you enjoyed "The Mothman Prophecies," and you aren't familiar with Matheson's work, run, don't walk, to the corner video store and look for these titles.

"The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957). I know, it's a silly title. It wasn't Matheson's fault. This was Hollywood in the 1950s, when silly titles were all the rage, and it was Matheson's first film script. Even though it was based on his novel, "The Shrinking Man," he didn't have much say in the movie's title. The script, however, is anything but silly. This shivery fantasy about a man who begins to shrink after being exposed to a radioactive cloud pursues its premise with inexorable logic to a disquieting conclusion.

"The Twilight Zone: Nick of Time" (1960). If you're thinking of calling one of those psychic network 900 lines, watch this first. William Shatner and Patricia Breslin play a young couple who are passing through a small town. While waiting for a car repair, they stop in a local café for lunch. At the table, they have some fun with a little fortune telling device that answers questions for a penny. The fun takes a serious turn, however, when some of the answers prove to be a little too close for comfort.

"Star Trek: The Enemy Within" (1966). When the Enterprise's transporter malfunctions while beaming Captain Kirk aboard, two Kirks materialize instead of just one. The two Kirks are not identical, however. One manifests only Kirk's good character traits, while the other has only his evil tendencies. Matheson's script updates the Jekyll and Hyde theme with skill and intelligence.

"Duel" (1971). Dennis Weaver stars as a man whose business trip is complicated by an ongoing duel with a malevolent truck driver. Matheson does this sort of story wonderfully - an everyday, mundane situation that gradually spirals out of control and into the realm of fantasy. This TV movie was one of the early successes for a young director named Steven Spielberg.

"The Legend of Hell House" (1973). Matheson's tribute to Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" places a group of intrepid ghost hunters in the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," a creepy old mansion called the Belasco House, to see what transpires. Soon enough the overnight guests, who range from paranormal researchers to psychics, have reason to doubt the wisdom of their little adventure.

"Somewhere in Time" (1980). Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour star in a most unusual love story. Reeve's character becomes infatuated with the 1912 portrait of a beguiling actress. By means of directed imagery, he manages to transport himself back to her era and meet her (or perhaps he's imagining the whole thing; Matheson leaves that for you to decide). Naturally, they fall in love. The circumstances, however, are anything but natural, which does not bode well for the relationship.

Oh, and if you're wondering whether Chris Carter is aware of his debt to Matheson, you'll find the answer in earlier seasons of the show itself, in the name of Agent Mulder's contact in Congress: Senator Richard Matheson.

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