In my ongoing march through the post-apocalypse, I saw Omega Man last night, and boy, was it not especially good. Charlton Heston’s emotional range goes from stoic to constipated; faced with the end of all civilization, he spends most of his time laconically wisecracking and randomly taking off his shirt. It all makes a sort of sense, I guess; if he were a more responsive actor, he might notice the Giant. Fucking. Plotholes. Scattered every few feet. As it is, the fact that the bioplague trasforms innocents into, not zombies or vampires, but hooded melanin-challenged medieval Luddites just slides right off him. Oh right, you can see him saying. Those crazy Russians engineered a bacteria which turns us all into murderous robed hippie flower-children. Damn commies; I always knew they were behind all that environmentalist crap. Well, time to take off my shirt…..
Meanwhile, a couple of hundred years earlier, as they say in the comics, Melville wrote Benito Cereno, which, I realized as I read it, is really to all intents and purposes a horror story. In the story an American captain boards a damaged Spanish ship. The Spanish captain (Benito Cereno) seems oddly distant and damaged; strangely despotic, yet unable to effectively rule over the black slaves who seem to have the run of the ship. And what’s the deal with Cereno’s black bodyservant, anyway? The whole story is basically a series of paranoid foreshadowings, giving way at the end to shocking revelations and a couple of extravagant gross-outs. As in horror, too, the plot hinges on innumerable doublings (between Cereno and the manservant and Cereno and the American captain) and displaced and anxious intimacy. The American’s ship is called “The Bachelor’s Delight,” and I’m sure that there are tons of academic papers about the relationship in the story between masculinity and race. Basically, the story, obviously written from a white perspective, associates black men with hypermasculinity (they’re silent, efficient, violent, etc.), and then expresses its massively anxious desire for that masculinity through images of death, apocalypse, and paranoia. Or in other words, it’s a great story because its willing to explore the terror that’s (ahem) aroused by masculine bodies and desires. Omega Man, on the other hand, is pretty blithely and worshipfully heterosexual; Charlton Heston never really has a compelling moment of weakness; at one point he’s even compared, jokingly but not really nearly ironically enough, to God. He can’t really ever do anxious, just stoic, so the whole thing just seems stupid. Horror in this tradition is really about loss of self, especially compromised masculine identity. The title of “Omega Man” suggests it’s about the Last Man, but it’s not — instead, when Heston does offer the ultimate sacrifice it’s as a completely unambiguously gendered Christ, ushering in a world as stable and dull as the Man himself. Benito Cereno also dies at the end of his story…but his death is less about heroics than it is about self-compromise and being unable to face oneself.
So, yeah, Herman Melville, better than Charlton Heston. No one’s really surprised, I guess….