“IN THE YEAR 1947, MAN BROKE THROUGH THE SOUND BARRIER... IN THE YEAR 1958, MAN LAUNCHED THE FIRST SATELLITE AND PIERCED THE SPACE BARRIER... NOW IN AN AREA OF CENTRAL FLORIDA, MAN STRUGGLES TO PENETRATE THE MOST IMPOSING BARRIER OF ALL --- THE TIME BARRIER!”
- Pompous opening narration
Among bad movies, AIP’s Terror from the Year 5000 is truly a Holy creation. It’s the perfect synthesis of sci-fi clichés and fifties naivete, done with deadpan seriousness by a director who one suspects was trying to worm in a kind of anti-nuclear message so humanity could avoid a devastating post-apocalyptic future.
In this case, the fear of nuclear annihilation has nothing to do with Communist invaders nor anything alien, because apparently the whole reason people in the year 5200 are plagued with mutants is women: they stood idly by, while men built and used atomic bombs, so it’s their fault!
Moving at a surprisingly brisk pace (more on that later), this dynamically plotted story begins when wayward blonde Claire (Joyce Holden) sends a headless gold statue her father Dr. Howard Erling (Frederic Downs) and fiancé Victor (John Stratton) received in their secret time-traveling, transportation device to one Dr. Robert Hedges, another egghead.
Incredibly, she figured they would never miss the statute of a half-naked, well-assed woman they just got, and incredibly, she was right, because Doc Robert manages to discern overnight (using test tubes, pencil, and paper) that the statue is 5200 years old. (Or roughly +/- 200 years, according to the film title proper)
Given scientists have the ability to date artifacts from the past, it’s astonishing Doc Robert could do the reverse, and be precise.
When the statue is revealed to be radioactive, eyebrows at the department are raised, and Doc Robert is compelled to travel to the isolated island where the Erlings have been conducting their experiments in deepest, mossiest Florida. Luckily, exposure to radioactive matter isn’t so serious, because no one in the film ends up getting more than nasty blisters and burns, but the danger of radioactive sickness is implied, and the few bouts of flu-like symptoms that later affect Victor are mere portents of the badness that can happen if the mess the group have created isn’t resolved.
The experiments of Victor and Doc Howard are the movie’s most intriguing plot devices: inside their lab of bar stools and curled copper wire, the dynamic duo have been sending objects into the future, bartering them with people in the year 5200 who, in turn, send back goodies like radioactive, big-assed statues. What Doc Howard doesn’t know is that Victor, the project’s chief financial underwriter, feels he’s not getting his money’s worth, so he’s been secretly upping the ante, sending small life forms and receiving things like Blinky, the four-eyed cat (which, sadly, didn’t survive the trip).
Victor and Doc Howard chose the isolated island because their inter-time transporter has a tendency to create blackouts - from TVs to radios to outboard motors. It’s also really noisy, as evidenced in the film’s decent sound design, but whenever Victor sneaks down into the basement lab/house bar to conduct his own extreme experiments, he does it with such tact that neither house lights nor shrill noises wake up Doc Howard, Claire, unwanted guest Doc Robert, nor the local handyman Angelo (Fred Herrick), a dirty old man who lives in a shed and clearly beats off using the girly magazines taped on the walls when he isn’t hiding in the shrubs, watching Clair change into her nightie.
Victor’s skullduggery inevitably brings back a mysterious female humanoid (Future Woman) with ‘a radioactive touch,’ but the fifties humans soon discover the unexpected visitor’s mission is to bring back juicy-good male DNA, so she seeks to convince Victor to return with her to the year 5200 where he can improve the gene pool, and save humanity from looking like herself. Played by Salome Jens (Seconds), Future Woman is a mutant could also pass as the great-great-great granddaughter of an inbred Appalachian family.
With a putty face and protruding teeth like Uncle Zeke, she almost convinces Victor to come (so to speak) by hypnotizing him with her sparkly nail polish, her dancercise cat suit, and gold pumps (with twistee-twirlee ornamentation), but her plan doesn’t succeed, leaving Docs Howard and Robert to concede at the end that the way to correct future mishaps is to do good NOW, rather than send more trinkets to the future, and upgrade to big-boobed platinum statues.
The story ends well for Robert, because he also gets the girl, and the two can settle down on Doc Howard’s island and swim on hot days, and rebuilt the transporter if the impetus is still present.
However, there are moments of perplexity that occasionally remove the viewer from the film’s hypnotic narrative. Why does Victor keep a headshot of another man in his bedroom? Why do the hallways for the bedrooms and the basement lab/bar look awfully similar, as with the separate bedrooms of Victor and Claire (who should be sleeping in one bed if they’re unofficially engaged)?
How does Victor rebuild the transporter after it blew up real good? If he has radioactive poisoning, how is he able to discharge himself from the "Spooner Hospital" and go on a bender at the local bar all night? And if Clair and Docs Howard and Robert are worried about Victor’s escape, why do they choose to assuage their worst fears by seeing another AIP film, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, at the local cinema?
Equally important to this Holy cinematic imbecility are the constant discontinuities between day for night, night for night, and dusk shots of what are supposed to be continues night scenes; and the choppy music editing, wherein stock music is either over-emphatic, or bizarrely comedic.
Writer/director Robert J. Gurney, Jr. also sticks with the classic cinema fromage convention where the alienesque Future Woman moves like an off-Broadway dancer (perfectly parodied in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra), and is outfitted in a dancer’s hoodie suit, tricked out with small round mirrors that 'mimic’ glistening globes of atomic sparkly lights seen in the film’s lone (and likely expensive) optical effect.
In fairness to the film, Gurney based Terror on the short story “Bottle Baby” by Henry Slesar, a prolific writer for print, screen (Two on a Guillotine) and TV (Alfred Hitchcock Presents). That probably explains why the film has the intriguing idea of communicating with future humans through objects, which in turn reveal a dire world not far from complete collapse, but Gurney’s budget and his own screenwriting doom the project into a laughable Z-movie.
Fortunately for bad movie fans, Gurney either had little money to waste on filler material, because he keeps adding new information every few scenes; the film’s no-nonsense tempo, though, may stem from editor Dede Allen, whose subsequent work include Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), The Hustler (1961) and most importantly, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Breakfast Club (1985). This film stinks, but it moves.
Pity there’s no DVD of this gem (although it was part of the MST3K series), but fans of this fromage may also want to hunt down Gurney’s other films as writer/director, Edge of Fury (1958) and The Parisienne and the Prudes (1964); as writer/producer, Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957); and as producer, Reform School Girl (1957).
After appearing in more than a dozen live TV dramas and the occasional film (including Fred Sears’ laughable 1956 lycanthropy tale, The Werewolf), actress Joyce Holden bid adieu to acting in 1958. For actor John Stratton, Terror from the Year 5000 was his first and last film role, and as well as Arthur Florman’s lone cinematographic effort.
A Pity? Perhaps not.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan