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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Terror from the Year 5000

This somewhat obscure low-B film might show up on people's "worst film ever" lists, if it were better known. Terror From the Year 5000 (TFY5K) has most of the usual things people complain about: weak acting, slow pacing, cheap props and effects, plot holes galore. Many of these perceived flaws may stem more from the trouble inherent in having the same man be writer, producer and director. There's no one to buffer the "artist's" vision with marketing input. While the many shortcomings are all valid enough, the film still has some interest to the fan of 50s B sci-fi. It features two-way time travel. It's also a member of the post-apocalyptic angst sub-genre.

Quick Plot Synopsis
On a remote Florida island, Dr. Erling and his patron, Victor, experiment with a time machine booth. They beam in a small statue from the future. Erling's daughter, Claire, sends the statue to Robert Hedges, curator of a New York museum for dating. He determines that the statue is from the year 5200. He flies to Florida to investigate. A stormy romance triangle begins between Victor, Claire and Bob. Victor has been surreptitiously using the time machine. He succeeds (unawares) in almost bringing a mutant woman from the future. Her radiation levels give Victor burns on his arm before he closes the door. Bob uncovers evidence of Victor's reckless use of the time machine. Bob tries to expose Victor's deeds. Victor tries to kill Bob. Bob beats the stuffing out of him. They take him to the mainland hospital. Bob, Claire and her dad spend the evening in town (movie and supper) awaiting the radiologist's report. Victor slipped out, back to the house. He cranks up the time machine again. An ugly-faced woman with sequin body suit and long silver claw-nails jumps him. The other three return to find Victor amid the shambles of the lab. They send for a nurse to tend Victor. When the nurse comes, future woman chases and kills her. She steals the nurse's face and clothes. Future woman-as-nurse keeps Victor hypnotized with her sparkly nails. She tells him about the radiated future and rampant mutations. They need his pre-atomic genes in the future. Bob and Erling search the woods and find the faceless dead nurse. Future woman coaxes hypnotized Victor into the time machine, but Claire interrupts. They argue and struggle. Bob intervenes and shoots future woman. She dives for the time machine. Victor holds the door open causing both to be electrocuted. Bob, Claire and Erling muse about preventing the terrible future by being more responsible in the present. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There are several points of interest. See the Notes section for details. Post-apocalyptic time travelers who can steal faces is not your typical saucers or monsters story line.

Cold War Angle
Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale of what might happen if nuclear proliferation goes unchecked. When Bob Hedge's wonders aloud how they might help those poor people in the future, Dr. Erling's closing monologue sums it up. "Whether there will be creatures like her, depends on us...on all us. On mankind. On what we do today, in the present."

First Time (Travel) -- TFY5K has the distinction of being the first American sci-fi movie to use a time travel machine. A couple other movies touched on travel to the future, such as World Without End ('56), but that was a one-way deal. In TFY5K, objects are sent from the 20th century to the year 5200. The people of the future send back objects to the 20th century. Finally, a woman from the future travels back to 1958 to bring back with her a "pre-atomic" man.

Apocalyptic Vision -- TFY5K joins a sub-genre of films which imagined earth having a bleak future because of uncontrolled nuclear war. Captive Women ('52) (a.k.a. "1000 Years From Now") was set in 2500 AD New York, where radiation from nuclear war had created a civilization of mutants. World Without End ('56) posited the world of 2508 AD America, in which radiation from nuclear war created a caveman civilization of mutants. In all three of these movies, the purported solution was the infusion of untainted genes to break the mutation cycle.

Identity Theft -- An interesting, and pivotal plot device is that the woman from the future is able to "take" the face of the dead nurse and wear it as a perfect mask. This gets no explanation. The future woman has a face-lifter mask with her. Perhaps the mutants of the future use these to operate outside the isolated mutant colonies?

Scatter Plot? -- There are sub-plots which do not (obviously) feed the primary story line. Why the suggestion of a plot to kill Hedges? Why Angelo as the loner-peeping-Tom? Why have the bucolic evening in town? Gurney wrote the screenplay for Invasion of the Saucer Men. He wrote the screenplay of TFY5K from a short story titled "Bottle Baby" by Henry Slesar. Gurney must have had something in mind with those sub-plots. A victim of tight budgets?

Carbon Error -- A science fact mishandled in TFY5K is the idea that a metal statue could be carbon dated. (Miss Blake does specifically say "Carbon-14") That test only applies to things once alive. Nevermind. Assume there is a test that can place an article on an objective timeline.

Edsel Star -- An inadvertent, minor, "star" is the 4-door hardtop Edsel Corsair which Hedges rents from Hertz. The Edsel debuted on Sept. 4, '57 amid great media hype. Perhaps typifying the hubris of the late 50s, the Edsel could not live up to the expectations and its times. It fell flat with the public. The brand was dropped in 1960. But, while TFY5K was being filmed in late 1957, the Edsel was hot news.

Bottom line? TFY5K is unpolished enough to annoy people who expect bigger budget productions. Fans of 50s B sci-fi will find it interesting, if they can view the original, not the MST3K version. Fewer distractions (amusing though they were).


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Unknown said...

This is a true so-bad-it's-good classic. Slightly better made technically than, say, "Beast with a Million Eyes," this cheese fest always cheers me up. "Terror From the Year 5000" isn't so badly made that you can't tell what's going on though. It's creative enough to be watchable (gotta love that mutant kitty cat), and just bad enough to be charming. The perfect film for MST3K, and of course they were all over it. Too bad you can't find a decent copy of it, but the copyright is held by some gal in Cali who hasn't seen fit to release it on DVD (and a number of other flicks of similar vintage). An all-time favorite.

thingmaker said...

#1 - Thanks! I hadn't ever noticed that this is based on a story... And By Henry Slesar... Anyway, thanks to the magic of the internet, I have a copy of that magazine containing said story on the way to me.
#2 - Have you noticed the similarity between this film and "Millennium" (1989), which is based on a short story by John Varley? We have the post apocalyptic future reaching back to our present to kidnap intact people... The future people are also represented by a female agent who uses stealth and guile... In the original story and the novel Varley wrote, the female agent was not pristine like Cheryl Ladd in the film but scarred and needing something like the high-tech disguise used by the agent in "Terror From the Year 5000". I suspect Mr. Varley was influenced as a child by this movie.

thingmaker said...

It is, however, dead certain that nobody was in any way influenced by "Bottle Baby" by Henry Slesar (Fantastic Science Fiction, April, 1957)...
The story is an intolerable sex farce about an introverted scientist (Mortimer Wormstocker) who is unaware of the charms of his lab assistant, Cherry... When a beautiful, naked girl (Lolly)from Galaxy 01-84 appears in his lab on two weeks vacation, bedroom farce ensues and Mortimer eventually winds up with Cherry, to whom he explains the apparition of Lolly appearing, changing size and disappearing, as "optical dementia erotica".
Astonishingly enough this story got the cover of the magazine.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the film. No classic but no turkey either. Salome Jens is hot! Best wishes, Zokko