Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper title fight in ‘Time After Time.’
The best films typically have much more going for them than simply an interesting narrative hook, but sometimes a strong and simple setup is all you need for a movie to pull you in from the opening frames. Writer/director Nicholas Meyer’s feature debut, Time After Time, does just that, and when combined with three terrific lead performances and some fun suspense beats it becomes one of the great, under-appreciated genre films of the 1970’s.
H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is sharing dinner with friends including Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner) and proceeds to show them his latest invention, a time machine. The men scoff, especially when Wells admits he has yet to test it, but their ribbing is interrupted when members of Scotland Yard arrive with news that Jack the Ripper has struck nearby. The men are shocked by the killer’s return, and amid the chaos Stevenson – the Ripper himself – sneaks into Wells’ basement and escapes into the future by playing guinea pig with the device.
Feeling guilty that his invention has allowed the killer’s escape, Wells follows his friend eighty-six years into the future where he exits the machine to find himself in a San Francisco museum exhibit dedicated to his own legacy. His search for Stevenson leads him to a bank’s foreign currency teller named Amy (Mary Steenburgen) who falls in love with the dapper oddball before discovering the truth behind his visit. Wells’ efforts to catch the killer compete with his blossoming romance, but both paths meet at a bloody crossroads when Stevenson points his blade in Amy’s direction.
Meyer’s film remains a fun, thrilling, and sweetly romantic ride that works beautifully as cross-genre entertainment even as it accuses mankind of being incapable of escaping its own barbaric tendencies. The time travel elements alongside the Ripper’s killings make for an exciting story, while the casting of McDowell and Steenburgen proves an irresistible pairing. That held true for the actors too as they fell in love during production and were married for a decade afterward. Steenburgen and McDowell were a real-life couple! Their onscreen chemistry and charisma add to the film’s effect as it bolsters the romance and increases our concern for Amy’s well-being. It’s impossible to dislike this couple onscreen.
Both are also playing against type, or at least against the type audiences most typically see them as. McDowell is still best known for A Clockwork Orange, but even more jarring is the realization that Time After Time is book-ended by Caligula and Cat People. Has an actor ever experienced a greater about-face in characters across three consecutive films? He went from raping, feasting, and fisting to playing a bespectacled gentleman feeling the sweet pangs of love to bringing a murderous, incestuous shape-shifter to bloody life. McDowell isn’t often thought of as showing much range, but his turn as Wells has you convinced of both his intelligence and heart. (But I still wouldn’t invite him to my wedding.)
Steenburgen meanwhile is a full-blown romantic lead here, and she manages to maintain her quirky charms without diluting her sex appeal. Her character is a modern woman of the late ’70s – she initiates their first date and even pushes to get into Wells’ knickers – but she’s also allowed to be a smart, funny career woman. Warner sticks to what he does best – pure British villainy – and he kills it.
Fictional takes on Jack the Ripper have sent the world’s most famous serial killer traveling through time before, most notably in Robert Bloch’s wonderfully nasty short story from 1967, “A Toy for Juliette” – Harlan Ellison’s sequel “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” is an equally enjoyable read – but film fans are limited to Meyer’s feature and the 1985 TV movie, Terror at London Bridge, starring David Hasselhoff. (Unless I’m missing one?)
Time After Time is the clear winner in that head to head bout for obvious reasons – sorry Hoff – and credit goes to directly to Meyer. He optioned Karl Alexander’s novel before it was even published and began working on the script in tandem with the author’s own writing. Meyer’s biggest hit, and unarguably his best film, remains Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but even with this debut he shows talents both as a director and writer. He takes full advantage of San Francisco’s beauty and ugliness – the tourist spots, the skyline, the rundown strips populated by the forgotten and the forlorn – and he captures the atmosphere of both the past and present with an engaging energy.
His script finds an appealing optimism in its main couple while acknowledging mankind’s failings in the opposite direction. Wells was of the belief that humanity is heading toward a Utopian existence free of war, conflict, and violence – his reasoning for wanting to visit the future is that he belongs in a “better world” – but 1979 reveals just how wrong he was. By contrast, Stevenson sees mankind’s violent tendencies as a permanent fixture. “I’m home,” he says, in regard to a world that encourages and often celebrates slaughter. “Ninety years ago I was a freak,” he tells Wells. “Today I’m an amateur.” It’s a chilling observation delivered flawlessly by Warner, and it’s something neither Wells nor the film can argue against.
Other small touches delight including Wells’ joy at seeing inventions like escalators and planes that typically startle most travelers from the past, a glimpse of Exorcist IV on a theater marquee (eleven years before part III was even released), and a brief nod towards his atheism. “I don’t believe you exist,” he says aloud after taking refuge in an empty church, “but if you do I need your help.” A priest immediately enters the scene and kicks him out.
It’s easy to love this flick, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a couple flaws as well. There are two in my opinion capable of putting off modern viewers, but one of them at least deserves some leeway for the time.
The visual effects are not good. They’re focused mainly in the first act with the time travel shenanigans, but they are clearly an afterthought here. The film’s 36 years old though, so these dated optical effects should get a pass. Yeah yeah, Star Wars is even older, but that’s an effects-heavy feature so shut up.
Second, and to me the bigger issue, is a logic problem affecting far too many films featuring time travel. Namely, almost any obstacle they encounter here could be remedied via – wait for it – time travel, but they don’t seem to even consider it. Wells takes Amy forward a few days to prove his story is true and they discover that Amy will be the Ripper’s fifth victim, so in order to prevent that they return to a few days prior where Wells states that since they can’t prevent the third murder they’ll try to stop the fourth. This makes no sense because why wouldn’t you just go back an extra day or a week? It’s a simple fix too – have the time machine only work in years so cherry-picking days isn’t even an option. Boom. Granted, that doesn’t explain why Wells doesn’t just go back to 1893 to the day before Stevenson escaped in his damn time machine…
Did I mention this is Corey Feldman’s first movie?! (This is a lie for the purpose of distraction. It’s his second, but has anyone actually seen 1978’s Born Again?)
I’ve wanted a sequel to Time After Time since my very first watch – Stevenson survives his dispatch to “infinity” and is still out there killing in Time After Time After Time! – and in the decades since I’ve even been in favor of a remake. I’m of the opinion that reboots can be worth it if they can improve in some relevant way on the original, and that’s easily done with better visual effects and an explanation as to why Wells doesn’t just go back in time to stop Stevenson. Various reports surfaced over the years of a sequel and/or remake – Alexander even wrote a follow-up novel – but it wasn’t to be.
That changes later this year with the premiere of ABC’s new series adaptation, but while Kevin Williamson’s involvement is promising the first trailer for it looks more like Sleepy Hollow with Wells standing in for Ichabod Crane. Only time will tell if it’s worth our attention on a weekly basis.
Regardless of the show’s fate though, the film remains a gem that doesn’t quite seem to get the love it deserves. Sure the effects are dated, but they can’t detract from a fun, suspenseful tale and the chance to see H.G. Wells chase Jack the Ripper through time.
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