Terror from the Year 5000 (1958) (part 1 of 8)
According to the title frame captured above, this movie is being presented to us by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. This can mean only one thing: I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing an American International Pictures release.
If you’re a B-movie fanatic, you’re probably wondering what took so long. Over the course of three decades, AIP released literally hundreds of low budget exploitation and genre flicks, and most other Bad Movie websites you find will each feature at least half a dozen of these. Yes, a lot of AIP movies sucked, but many of them were great, and more importantly, most of them turned a profit. In the end, this is what made AIP one of the most influential genre studios in movie history.
Our current subject was clearly cooked up using what was Nicholson and Arkoff’s standard recipe in the early days: First, come up with a cool sounding title. Second, make a poster that matches. Third, use both of these to secure enough financial backing to actually make the movie.
Only after all of this is done do you hire a cheap screenwriter (like Robert J. Gurney, Jr., fresh off Invasion of the Saucer Men, which would ultimately be his career masterpiece) to pound out a script that roughly corresponds to whatever you put on the poster. Get somebody just as cheap to direct it (Gurney again), blend thoroughly, bake half way, and you’ll probably end up with something that’s a lot like Terror from the Year 5000.
Like so many AIP releases of the period, this movie opens with stock footage accompanied by the extremely echo-y voiceover of an Obnoxious Shouting Narrator. For reasons unknown, these kinds of movies couldn’t simply begin with the characters talking to each other. No, instead they had to scream at the audience for a couple of minutes to let them know exactly what they were in for.
To stock footage of Air Force jets taking off, we hear the narrator yell that “In the year nineteen hundred and forty-seven, man broke through the sound barrier!” Then there’s stock footage of a rocket taking off, and the narrator shouts, “In the year nineteen hundred and fifty-eight, man launched the first satellite and pierced the space barrier!” This brings to mind three questions:
1 – Who wrote this opening spiel, Zager and Evans?
2 – Wasn’t Sputnik, the first satellite, launched in 1957? (Considering this movie was made in 1958, you think they’d be a little clearer on the historical details.)
3 – What the hell is a “space barrier”?
We get half a minute of dead silence and more NASA stock footage of rockets taking off and the earth from orbit. Then, to help represent the massive achievements of the space program, the director inserts a photo of a nebula out in deep space [?]. This must represent our piercing of the “wildly unjustified optimism barrier”.
“Now,” the narrator yells, “In an isolated area of central Florida, man struggles to penetrate the most imposing barrier of all!” (There’s a Britney Spears joke here that I can’t quite bring myself to utter in mixed company.)
According to the narrator, it’s “the time barrier!” As he speaks, we pan across a swamp until we come to a plantation-like house sitting behind some cypress trees and low-hanging moss. We then fade into two standard Movie Scientists in white coats working in their laboratory, and the narrator shouts that “Professor Howard Erling, nuclear physicist, probes relentlessly into the future!” Which is just what you would expect a “nuclear physicist” to be doing.
Finally, the yelling and the echoing get wildly out of hand as Obnoxious Shouting Narrator warns us that Professor Erling will ultimately “unleash upon the world… TERROR! FROM THE YEAR 5000!!” Geez, I can read the title on the screen, you don’t have to scream at me.
So the credits roll as Prof. Erling and his younger assistant Victor use some very science-y equipment that, much like the plot, seems like it was hobbled together using leftovers from The Fly. The professor is played by Frederic Downs, who might not be a great actor, but certainly deserves some kind of medal for having to endure roles in Red Zone Cuba, Skydivers, and Hellcats. Of course, he has more lines in this movie than in all three of those combined. Which is to say, he has lines in this movie.
At the end of the credits, we find Victor standing in front of what looks like a hot water heater with a window in it and Darth Vader’s chest plate pasted on the side. The Prof asks how it’s going, and Victor nonchalantly says, “It should be there in a minute.”
We get a close up of the window and see the superimposed image of a sparkler being lit up. (The mark of a quality movie is when the special effects are done with stuff you can buy on the side of the road.) Suddenly, a foot-high metallic sculpture appears inside the water heater. It’s an angular female figurine with its head and arms missing, making it look like a cubist version of the Venus de Milo.
At the same moment, however, a negative image of someone wearing what appears to be a polka-dotted hood also appears, flickering on and off. Victor, probably thinking he’s catching a scrambled glimpse of the Spice Network, excitedly says, “Professor, look quickly! A woman!”
The Prof, apparently just as hard up, sprints over eagerly. Upon looking inside the hot water heater, however, he’s disappointed because it’s just another statue that’s materialized out of thin air. And here he was hoping to see some honest to gosh boobies! The Prof tells Victor that he only saw an “optical illusion. No doubt a refracted image.” Well, that would only follow. But now, explain the sparkler.
Suddenly, a buzzer goes off and a light bulb on the wall starts blinking. Curiously, there’s a long white arrow painted on the wall pointing up to the light bulb. I guess this is in case the blinking light doesn’t give you enough information on where to look. The Prof yells for Victor to help him turn off the machine because “we put the voltage too high!” The two scramble over to some Whatever Technology (©Television Without Pity) and start randomly flipping switches and turning dials.
Finally, the Prof pulls a lever on what is quite obviously a circuit breaker. Well, that stopped the blinking light, so mission accomplished, right? The two breathe a sigh of relief, then the Prof says, “That settles it. No more forced experiments [?] until we get outside verification.” How about this: You two shouldn’t be “probing relentlessly into the future” in your boiler room. There, I’m outside, and I’ve verified it.
Victor gets all snippy about this and says he wants to move forward. The Prof, however, wants to be “thoroughly sure why this happens!” Victor, who might just be Queen for a Day today, says, “Not for my money, we won’t!” In other words, it’s his Scattergories, and he’s going home.
The Prof says he knows Victor’s bankrolling these experiments “more for personal than scientific reasons!” (Well, of course. Who wouldn’t jump at an excuse to wear a snazzy white lab coat?) but he accepted Victor’s money on the condition that the Prof gets to make all the decisions.
“Look, Professor,” Victor says. “I never pretended to be a scientist.” Just an actor. “But I know one thing: My old man didn’t get rich waiting for ‘outside verification’! He just plowed ahead and he got results!” Victor, if you’re the “result” of your “old man” just “plowing ahead”, then I think I see where the Prof is coming from.
The Prof refuses to budge an inch, saying Victor is free to take his money and run. “You know I wouldn’t walk out,” Victor says, and with sinister undertones, he adds, “And you know why.” Is it me, or did this just turn into a gay soap opera? They stare hard at each other until the Prof gives him a jocular punch in the shoulder, and then it’s back to business as usual.
We again see the cubist statue as the laboratory behind it suddenly fades out, and is replaced by footage of a commercial airliner in flight. I guess this is supposed to be a clever (and cheap) way of letting us know that the statue is being delivered somewhere. Eventually, the airplane passes over lower Manhattan with the statue still superimposed over it.
The next thing we see is the façade of the Natural History Museum in New York. The museum is never referred to by name, however, which is certainly a wise decision on the part of all those involved. After stock footage of people looking at exhibits and some guy getting really close to a big Egyptian sarcophagus, we see a door labeled “Dr. Robert Hedges, Curator”.
Dr. Bob Hedges, as most museum curators tend to do, is chain smoking at his desk. Bob is played by Ward Costello, who in later years would guest star a few times on Star Trek: The Next Generation, most notably in the episode “Conspiracy” where he beats the crap out of Riker. Bob examines a telegram, then calls for his secretary Miss Blake to come in.
When she enters, he reads the telegram to her: “Do not understand why you have not returned my letters. You have proof that I am not insane. Please establish date of origin of statue to your own satisfaction.” The telegram turns out to be from Prof. Erling, apparently living in Spooner Beach, Florida. We get a close-up of the telegram as Bob reads it, revealing a big Western Union logo. This might be the one of the earliest (and most embarrassing) movie product placements ever.
Bob is confused, however, because he never received a statue. This reminds Miss Blake of a package that arrived in the morning’s mail. “Perhaps that’s it!” she says. Hey, you think? She walks out, and after a weird moment where we’re just staring at Bob staring at the telegram, she re-enters with the package and hands it to him. Bob sets it down on his desk about two inches from his smoldering cigarette butt and begins opening it. This is standard procedure in museums, right?
Eventually, he pulls out the cubist Venus de Milo and begins blowing on it with his nicotine-laced breath to remove some dust. He asks Miss Blake how old it looks, and she comments that it “doesn’t look old at all. As a matter of fact, it looks new. Brand new!” Bob wonders why the Prof would send him an obviously modern statue and ask him to determine the date of origin.
Miss Blake, apparently the office ditz, rests her fingers on her temple and says, “Isn’t that what you do with that, uh, that… Carbon-14 thing you’re always talking about? Find out how old things are?” Maybe you should just stick to getting the coffee and delivering telegrams. It’s obvious you still need a little practice in the whole “giving your boss packages that come in the mail” area as it is.
“Miss Blake,” Bob says, getting all snooty, “You should know that that ‘Carbon-14 thing’, as you call it, is only the most advanced method known to mankind for establishing the precise date of origin of archaeological artifacts!” Hah! That’s tellin’ her! Girls are so dumb, aren’t they?
“Well, that’s what I said!” Miss Blake replies. “Find out how old things are!” Hardy har har. Bob confesses to Miss Blake that “ever since I studied with Professor Erling, I’ve been a little afraid of him [?].” Relax, Doc, no one can make you gay.
Bob says he’s going to go ahead and do what the Prof asked and establish the statue’s date of origin, so I guess in some situations it’s good to be feared. When we next see Bob, it’s nighttime at the museum. He’s got the statue and several test tubes laid out in front of him at, of all places, his desk [!]. I guess this is a good idea if he also wants to carbon date his tie and his ashtray too.
“It can’t be minus!” he cries out. “It can’t be!” Apparently, if it’s “minus” then “that means this statue wasn’t made until the year 5200 AD!”
Okay, everybody calm down. I know the obvious flaw in this statement and I’m sure you do, too. Actually, anybody who ever took high school chemistry could point out the obvious flaw in this statement. Actually, anybody who flunked out of high school chemistry after only showing up for the first lecture and then spending the rest of the year getting stoned behind the Circle-K can tell you that you can’t use carbon dating to determine that something is from the future.
What’s worse, carbon dating can only be used to date organic material. Or, to get really pedantic, it can only be used to determine the amount of time that’s passed since something died, which probably wouldn’t be of much use on a metal statue. What’s that I hear you ask? Can’t we give the movie the benefit of the doubt that it’s really made out of wood and just painted to look metallic? To that, I say just keep reading.
The dumbest part, of course, is that the statue is from the year 5200, after the title of the movie clearly promised us that we would be experiencing terror from the year 5000. All in all, I’m beginning to think the screenwriter-director saw more than a little bit of himself in Miss Blake.
Angered, Bob slams the statue down on his desk [!]. Geez, if you don’t want the thing, just send Sacheen Littlefeather out to refuse it for you. He scratches out some of his calculations, then grabs the statue again and starts yelling at it. “Listen, you she-devil! You can’t exist! Not here, not now! Not for another three thousand years!” He then slams the statue down again [!!] for good measure. I heard he did the same thing to a Fabergé egg once; That wasn’t one of Bob’s career highlights.