Monday, April 8, 2013
Reeling Backward: "Beyond the Time Barrier" (1960)
"Beyond the Time Barrier" was not lampooned on the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" show, but it came awfully close. It was originally released as the bottom half of a double-bill with "The Amazing Transparent Man," also directed by B-movie king Edgar G. Ulmer.
"Man" got the MST3K treatment while "Time Barrier" did not, but it certainly was every bit as deserving of send-up.
The movie is about time travel, but it's also (unintentionally) about the enduring nature of really bad B-movies. To even call "Time Barrier" a B-movie is an insult to the second letter of our alphabet. It was shot in 10 days in Texas on a shoestring, with all the sumptuous production values of a high school musical with a moderately generous booster club.
It is a prime example of low-budget mid-century cheese, more valuable now as an artifact of that era than for any supposed entertainment value it might have possessed in 1960. It can only be enjoyed ironically.
Star Robert Clarke was also the producer who put together the project, tapping Ulmer to direct. He gets to walk around some really awful sets meant to look futuristic, often while wearing a preposterously silly flight suit that the U.S. Air Force -- which cooperated with the making of the film -- must have found quite embarrassing. For some reason it seems to have the stitching on the outside and a bunch of non-functional dongles all over, which has the effect of making it look like an ancestor of those motion-capture suits actors wear now for CGI scenes.
The original screenplay by Arthur C. Pierce (who also had a bit part as one of the mutants) actually has an interesting premise, though virtually everything else about it is amateurish. Test pilot William Allison (Clarke) accidentally travels 64 years into the future while on a mission, returning to find his airfield a dilapidated ruin.
He looks around and spies a matte painting with some pulsing lights that is supposed to represent a futuristic city. Though it's soon revealed that radioactivity drove the human race underground in 1971, so why their metropolis would have towering spires is a bit of a mystery.
Anyway, he gets captured by the remaining humans, who have all been rendered sterile. Everyone except the very old are deaf and mute as well. The shining exception is Trirene (Darlene Tompkins), the granddaughter of their leader, the Supreme (Vladimir Sokoloff). She not only has the ability to read minds, she also has functioning giblets, too. They hope to mate her to Allison and restock their dying population.
Tompkins, a bright blonde beauty, had one of those aborted careers you often don't hear about in Hollywood, but which happens all too often with young actresses. "Beyond the Time Barrier" was her first role, and led to a plum role in the Elvis Presley vehicle "Blue Hawaii" the next year. But after a few more roles in film and television, she got married, had kids and found that Tinseltown wasn't interested in a 30-year-old has-been.
Allison is alternately hounded by the fearsome security captain (Boyd "Red" Morgan) and then released to wander about the underground citadel on his own. He soon learns there are other 'scapes" -- three other people who traveled through time to avoid the radiation plague and ended up as guest/prisoners.
They hatch a plan to have Allison return to his plane and fly back through time and try to prevent the plague. But each of the trio of scientists double-crosses him in turn -- does that make it a quadruple-cross or a double-cross cubed? -- in an attempt to return to their own eras.
The story does have a neat twist ending, where Allison successfully lands back in 1960 but finds he has aged into an ancient man. The makeup used to make him look much older is actually pretty decent considering the time and budget.
I wish I could say the same about the rest of the movie, which is riddled with errors and cheapie special effects. For example, even though more than six decades have passed the citadel guards still carry carbine rifles and pistol sidearms. I guess weapons technology wasn't a high priority for them.
The mutants -- end-stage victims of the plague -- are locked in a vast dungeon, kept alive for some reason instead of exterminated. They're represented as barefoot stunt actors wearing completely obvious bald rubber caps -- the skin tones often don't even match. I kept waiting for a black guy with a pink head to show up, but apparently in the future African-Americans don't exist.
I couldn't help but notice that all the women still wear uncomfortable high heels, especially Trirene's clacky little stilettos. The only time she doesn't have them on is for a brief swimming scene, during which the musical score makes several abrupt skips. Apparently they filmed a nude sequence for overseas release, and never bothered to adjust the music for the American censors' edits.
If that wasn't bad enough, every single actor with a speaking role pronounces Trirene's name differently. I heard "Try-reen," "Tie-reenie," "Ter-eenie," "Try-renny" and even a "Try-rayna."
Movies like "Beyond the Time Barrier" inspire both laughter, and sympathy for the casts and crews that probably considered themselves serious artists. They did manage to make something that lasted through time, just for the wrong reasons.