The Last Man on Earth Movie Poster

There’s few authors who have been as influential as Richard Matheson — and yet, unless you’re a hardcore fan of science fiction/fantasy/horror, you might not know his name.

Yet the author and screenwriter, who passed away in June at the ripe old age of 87, not only influenced generations of other writers, the adaptations of his work helped launch many major careers — and likely gave you some of the worst nightmares of your life.

You’ll get a chance to experience some of Matheson’s horrors when an adaptation of one of his novels, The Last Man on Earth, screens at the Carolina Theatre on Friday, Sept.6 at 7 p.m. Don’t know that one? Trust us, you know the story, but we’ll get to that later.

Here’s a partial checklist for the grand master:

The Incredible Shrinking Man: Matheson adapted his own novel The Shrinking Man for this scientifically-implausible but eerily effective tale of a man who literally wastes away to nothing. The film is memorable for its then-groundbreaking special effects, but still retains much of the novel’s chilling subtext about the protagonist gradually losing his masculinity and power in his life and marriage.

I Am Legend: Matheson’s tale of the last human alive in a world of vampire-like mutants was filmed not once, not twice, but three times — first as The Last Man on Earth in 1964 with Vincent Price, then asThe Omega Man in 1971 with Charlton Heston, then once more a few years back under its original title with Will Smith.

Not one of these correctly captured the irony and terror of the original novel’s ending, where the last man realizes that he is now the monster to this new, mutated society, but each has their own virtues, with The Last Man on Earth the most faithful adaptation of the original narrative (this also means it’s a bit slow) . Stephen King later credited it as a major inspiration for his novel The Stand, while George A. Romero credited it for helping inspire the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. In short, we owe most modern post-apocalyptic stories and zombie films to this book, for better or worse. It’s also credited as one of the first modern interpretations of the vampire myth so…yeah, let’s not go there.

William Shatner vs. the Gremlin in NIghtmare at 20,000 Feet

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet:” Matheson’s style was tailor-made for The Twilight Zone, with many of his tales providing their most memorable episodes. Chief among them was this blood-curdler with William Shatner as a man recovering from an airplane-induced nervous breakdown, who sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane as it goes through a storm.

Many of Matheson’s other Twilight Zone scripts would provide equally-memorable material — “Little Girl Lost,” about a child who slips into a limbo-dimension from which her parents must rescue her, was borrowed almost wholesale for Poltergeist, while “Steel,” pitting Lee Marvin against a robot boxer, was redone as the more family-friendly feel-good tale Real Steel in recent years. In the 1980s Twilight Zone revival, Matheson’s tale “Button, Button,” about a box that will give you a million dollars while killing a complete stranger, was adapted, which later formed the basis for the bizarre Richard Kelly film The Box.

The Monstrous Monster Truck from Duel

Duel: After a few other TV assignments, Steven Spielberg got his first big break with this 1971 TV-movie adaptation of Matheson’s story about a mild-mannered everyman (Dennis Weaver), whose cutting-off of an unseen trucker in a massive rig on a desert road leads to a life-or-death struggle. Artfully shot by Spielberg, the film was such a hit that it later got a theatrical release, and remains a classic (the truck used in the film was in Charlotte last year as part of a monster movie convention, where a dollar would let you sit in the cab and honk the horn).

The Night Stalker: Matheson’s adaptation of an unpublished novel about a newspaper reporter (Darren McGavin) who discovers a series of murders are being committed by a vampire was such a surprise hit that it not only spawned a sequel but a television series, with McGavin’s Carl Kolchak encountering a different supernatural threat every week. Chris Carter later stated this was one of the biggest influences on his hit series The X-Files; the series also provided the first TV job for a young David Chase, who would go on to create The Sopranos.

Trilogy of Terror: This TV anthology adapting three of Matheson’s tales, all with main characters played by Karen Black, is 2/3 forgettable…and 1/3 unforgettable, thanks to the last segment’s adaptation of Matheson’s story “Prey,” where Black is stalked by a knife-wielding “Zuni Fetish Doll” come to life. The hideous doll has become such a cult icon that replicas of it sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Somewhere in Time: Matheson’s work wasn’t just about horror — his made-for-TV work included scripts for the Dick Van Dyke-starring alcoholism tale The Morning Afte and The Dreamer of Oz, a biopic of The Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum with John Ritter. He also adapted his novel Bid Time Return for this cultishly-adored time-travel romance with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, and covered similar territory in his afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come, which was…liberally adapted into a 1998 film with Robin Williams.

And Many Others: Matheson, who continued writing up until his death, produced countless other memorable short stories, novels and screenplays, including the immortal “Born of Man and Woman” (the broken-English tale of a mutant child locked up in a basement), numerous films for Roger Corman including several Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and the satirical Comedy of Terrors; Stir of Echoes, later made into a film with Kevin Bacon; The Legend of Hell House; and too many more to mention.

Matheson’s work was so influential because of his ability to combine the worries of everyday life — being powerless in your own home, assailed by threats that no one believes — with the supernatural, with the emphasis less on why these things were happening than how his protagonists reacted to them. It was one of those simple, direct ideas that captured the imagination of not just audiences but his fellow writers, and the fact that his work is still being adapted and rediscovered decades later is a testimony to its power.

You might not have known Richard Matheson by name — but once you saw his work, you never forgot it. And now, you can see it on the big screen at this screening. Just watch out for giant trucks on the highway as you drive home.