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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Beyond the Time Barrier’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, having only a good sense of timing, and nothing else, won’t get you far…

Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
Distributed by: American International Pictures
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer

We sometimes imagine the future as filled with wonders, and sometimes with horrors. There are times when we’d imagine that both could exist in the years to come, one leading into the other over the course of, say, 60 years.

And when we do look ahead sixty years on, we can assure ourselves that when we do that, we’ll do it a lot better of it than these folks did…

We open at Sands AFB, where test pilot Major William Allison (Robert Clarke, who also produced this movie) shares some light but wooden banter with Colonel Martin (Ken Knox, in his last side gig as an actor before concentrating on his career as a DJ). This ends mercifully quickly as we go to the briefing for Allison’s next mission.

After the explanation of Allison’s mission, to fly to 100 miles over the earth to get data for manned trips to space, we see him get into the experimental X 80 aircraft (an F-102, but who’s checking anyway…?). We watch as he pilots his craft up to the edge of space before we what looks like the plane being two places at once:

When Allison lands, he finds Sands AFB is now a ruin. He wanders afield to find where everyone’s gone to, during which time he’s a paralyzed with a ray from a nearby futuristic city we glimpse briefly. Thanks to the ray, he’s now their prisoner, and he’s held by a people who never answer any of his questions in a way that might better explain what’s going on.

We find out that he’s in a citadel of some sort ruled by the Supreme (Vladimir Sokoloff) who along with his head of security the Captain (Boyd Morgan) are the only people who can still speak. Supreme tells us that everyone else in the place is a deaf mute, even his granddaughter Trirene (Darlene Tompkins in her first role), although she has the advantage of being a telepath and who read minds.

Allison’s told that he was better off with them than the hostile mutants that roam the outside (whom he sees briefly when he’s locked in the dungeon with them), and he stops freaking out like a pilot expecting the Air Force Pararescuemen to show up at any minute and settles down for a stay. He’s encouraged to get to know Trirene a lot better, especially when they determine that both of them are the last fertile couple out there and are expected to save humankind together, ifyouknowwhatImean. Before they can get to that task, though, Allison persuades her to take them to some of the prisoners her grandpa and his henchman mentioned earlier, who were caught the same way he was.

He gets taken to their workspace, where we meet General Karl Kruse (Stephen Bekassy), Dr. Bourman (John Van Dreelen), and Captain Markova (Arianne Arden). Between them and Trirene, things start to make a little more sense, or at least they try to:

Ends up where Allison landed is in the far-off year of 2024. A few years after Allison’s mission took place, the landing of men on the moon led very quickly to colonies being placed on Mars and Venus, which led to greater cooperation between nations. Which all said was a wonderfully hopeful idea of the future to give an audience in 1960.

But then come 1971, disaster struck: All the particles from nuclear bomb tests that were stuck up in the atmosphere allowed cosmic rays to penetrate to the surface, which was the cause of a plague that caused hideous mutations, or only turning the “lucky” ones into sterile deaf mutes. As two billion died, the uninfected went off world to avoid the plague, leaving the survivors among the ruins.

How Allison jumped ahead to 2024 by accident, we discover, is similar to how the prisoners got here, Markova from 1973, and Kruse and Bourman from 1994. The fact that of the four, Allison is the only time traveler who, if they send him back to his time, might change the course of history. But can they get him out of 2024 before it all goes to hell…?

For the audience, it’s too late to get away from this hell. The script by Arthur C. Pierce is so overloaded with bad science hiding in the techno-babble, it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Sloppy physics to explain how everyone got to 2024, having cosmic rays cause a plague, not really understanding what the plague does to the infected that disrupts the world by 2024…

Well, okay, we can give him a few points for giving us a world wracked by disease in the 2020s, sure…

But that’s just the small stuff. There are also a lot of big “huhs?” that we get in the script. For example, how can one fertile couple by themselves save humanity, and if one of them is affected by the plague, what kind of generational traits will these kids have anyway? If the deaf mutes are sterile, what about the mutants; are they going to out-breed the folks in the citadel, or are they dying off too? And why haven’t any of the people who escaped to Mars and Venus tried to come back?

All of these questions we ask serve to avoid confronting the bigger question, where the hell was quality control on this pic? Despite Ulmer’s efforts to create the underground citadel on his sound stage with triangular shapes and motifs, it never really feels like an actual inhabited space. As Ulmer was shooting The Amazing Transparent Man at the same time, with both films shot in only two weeks in total (!?!), it’s probably safe to say that this one got less of his attention.

Which is a better excuse than the actors had. Universally, no one on screen can do anything with the materials to make it work. The biggest offender was Tomkins, who managed to give a ham-fisted, over-the-top performance despite not having a single word to say; if a facial expression can say a lot in a film, her looks manages to say it all badly.

As much as a viewer of the film might feel like a victim for sitting through it, probably the one who got hurt the worst was Clarke. Feeling that he could make a name for himself as a producer, after having ushered to the screen The Hideous Sun Demon two years earlier, Clarke tried to set up a separate in-house production unit under American International, but Sam Arkoff did not want to work with Clarke in that capacity.

Clarke would get what he wanted from another outfit, Miller-Consolidated Pictures, with whom he hoped he could produce more films. However, the company folded as soon as they acquired his pic. When the company was forced to liquidate, American International picked up all rights to this movie, cutting Clarke out of any fees due him as a producer, while A-I ended up releasing this time travel movie a month before MGM’s The Time Machine came out, to capitalize on interest in the bigger film.

In this case, Clarke was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time…

 

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