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The Time Travelers

by Glenn Erickson Mar 09, 2021

Ib Melchior’s best-directed movie is a futuristic space opera with a time travel theme, all done at a production level suitable for a Halloween fun house. Yet its talented crew comes up with exciting visuals to match Melchior’s flaky-but-fun eclecticism: Androids, Mutants, ‘deviants,’ hydroponic gardens, force fields, time warps… and a sexist attitude or two to remind us that we’re seeing 2071 through the eyes of 1964. And it’s one of the earliest Hollywood credits for cameramen Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs.

 

The Time Travelers
Blu-ray
Scorpion Releasing / Kino Lorber
1964 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 84 min. / Street Date April 27, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Preston Foster, Philip Carey, Merry Anders, John Hoyt, Dennis Patrick, Joan Woodbury, Delores Wells, Steve Franken, Forrest J. Ackerman, Peter Strudwick, Wayne Anderson .
Cinematography: William Zsigmond (Vilmos Zsigmond)
Camera Operator: Leslie Kovacs (Laszlo Kovacs)
Lumichord Effects: Oskar Fischinger
Visual Effects: David L. Hewitt
Assistant directors: Lew Borzage, Clark L. Paylow
Film Editor:
Original Music: Richard LaSalle
Story by Ib Melchior, David L. Hewitt
Produced by William Redlin
Written and Directed by
Ib Melchior

This one was definitely enabled by Forrest J. Ackerman…

Monster fan, magician and unproven master of movie effects trickwork David Lee Hewitt wrote a time travel script. Then he got himself connected to writer-director Ib Melchior through Forry Ackerman, the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Melchior’s writing agent. The unlikely confluence of good luck reportedly continued to set in motion a relatively micro-budgeted science fiction epic. Hewitt sprang for a test reel of his magic tricks-adapted-for-film-scenes, Melchior showed it to animation producer Bob Clampett who interested a producer pal named Bill Redlin. Melchior already had a good relationship with American-International through his work on Sid Pink’s AIP pictures; when Nicholson and Arkoff saw the low, low numbers on Melchior’s proposal the project got a green light.

The Time Travelers is an inexpensive independent film that attempts many big-scale effects scenes and pulls off quite a few of them in high style. David L. Hewitt did almost everything: the basic story, designing the shots with Melchior, supervising most of the props and personally building the large giant miniature representing a rocket base in a futuristic post-apocalyptic Earth. Those faceless Androids look appropriately mass-produced, turned out by the dozens from the same cookie-cutter mold.

 

The film is an impressive achievement for a young man with little industry experience and a director who began in 1950 doing technical effects for TV’s Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Ib Melchior’s film career was patchy at best but he made his mark in ’60s sci-fi; this is his best-directed picture. It gives off a friendly aura — everyone associated with the movie seems to have warmed up to their Danish writer-director, and the actors look like they’re giving the show their best. The production of The Time Travelers makes for good reading in Robert Skotak’s book Ib Melchior Man of Imagination.

Melchior simplified Hewitt’s time travel yarn, retaining its many off-the-shelf space opera elements and injecting constant nods to appropriate sci-fi ideas, such as Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. This show may make the first direct filmic reference to the ‘time-space continuum,’ and then proceeds to illustrate a ‘time-space warp’ for its conclusion.

 

Researchers Dr. Erik von Steiner, Steve Connors and Carol White (Preston Foster, Philip Carey & Merry Anders) are working on a time portal window to allow them to see a few minutes into the past or future. Electrician Danny McKee (Steve Franken) shows up to tell them that the University is pulling the plug on the project. But a glitch in the system opens a window to the distant future. All four pass through the portal and when it collapses become stuck in the year 2071, when the campus is nothing but a barren lava flow. Chased by savage Mutants, they find shelter with a group of people that have survived a nuclear war and are preparing to evacuate Earth on a star ship, a space ark to the star Alpha Centauri. Our researchers are impressed by the future advances: the humans are tended by lookalike robot servants called Androids. Danny couldn’t be happier — the future women are beautiful, and technician Reena (Delores Wells) falls in love with him at first sight. Leaders Dr. Varno and Gadra (John Hoyt & Joan Woodbury) welcome the newcomers but Councilman Willard (Dennis Patrick) resents von Steiner’s team and pushes through a resolution to deny them passage on the space ark. Varno gives permission for von Steiner to build another time portal — one of their matter transmitters uses similar technology. But as soon as the city’s power source is transferred to the star ship, the Mutants attack in force, overwhelming the Android defenders and laying waste to Varno and Willard’s plans.

 

Daily Variety liked The Time Travelers’ ideas but tagged the scripting and acting as deficient. We never mistook this for Great Literature — hopelessly marooned in a time-space warp, forever separated from their lives and loved ones, our researchers seem only moderately inconvenienced. For sci-fi fans the film’s ideas, creativity and general enthusiasm have always compensated.

The art direction has its ups and downs yet the show has a consistent high-key look thanks to cameramen Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs, Eastern European transplants that worked their way up the ladder of 1960s exploitation films. To represent a robot factory, David Hewitt worked with mannequin fabricators to mass produce Android parts. Technicians poke fresh eyeballs into the sockets of Don Post’s rubber Android heads. The show’s main talking point has always been Hewitt’s magic tricks adapted for film effects. Variety’s review called these effects stagey, as when a robot head on a shelf moves its eyes, or one pinned to a wall is torn in two. Some of the direction belabors those points. But the most impressive ‘trick’ shows us an Android’s damaged head being switched out for a new one, on camera without a cut. The gag was on Hewitt’s demo reel, and is apparently what sold A.I.P. on Ib Melchior’s movie project.

During a Mutant break-in scene Merry Anders’ Carol finds a deformed, mute and pathetic intruder hiding in a dark corridor, a ‘Deviant’ rejected by the other Mutants. Melchior claimed that he was approached by Peter Strudwick, a man with severe birth defects, to be in the movie and the role was created for him. The character is sympathetic, and Carol makes a welcome plea for humanity and inclusiveness. The opportunism of Strudwick’s condition feels exploitative just the same. Before we ’60s kids discovered Tod Browning’s Freaks, the Deviant made us question the conventions of filmic good taste.

 

The live action scenes were filmed in three weeks on tiny stages used for commercial work; the show is quite an accomplishment even if not everything we see looks great. Coming off extremely well are most of the time portal images, especially when the portal is suspended over a patch of volcanic desert East of Barstow.  Top Image  Some of the augmentations to the underground city (ceilings, a force field barrier) work well, while a few angles that enlarge sets with miniatures are a little dicey. Robert Skotak says that expert Paul Hansard added the Time Portal images via rear projection process work. Most of the screens-within-screens are inserted with optical mattes — this new Blu-ray reveals little scratches and dirt whenever an optical composite is present.

Of course, every so often a detail sticks out that betrays the film’s ‘Let’s Put On A Show!’ level of craft. A close-up of a security alarm beacon is revealed to be something glued together with an ordinary aluminum pie plate. Still, the flashing light works well enough.

The makeup crew patches together an excellent batch of Mutants, six-foot bruisers with leather outfits and bald heads. If they really were recruited from the L.A. Lakers, they must be the second-string musclebound squad. Even better are the Androids, with nicely designed identical heads and costumes that allow chests and backs to be sprayed with uniform makeup to resemble naked Ken Dolls. The Mutants’ and Androids’ halfway decent pantomime was the first thing that found approval with kid audiences. Melchior and company found plenty of non-pro players to populate the survivors’ underground city. Experienced second unit director Lew Borzage surely orchestrated the busy-busy activities of the numerous extras, aided by the ubiquitous Clark Paylow. * The underground city never looks underpopulated, as with Flight to Mars or Beyond the Time Barrier.

The middle of the show is arranged as a series of ‘Halloween house’ amusements showing various adapted magic tricks. John Hoyt takes us on tours of various factories and chambers, with rather advanced technical patter — this may be the first time I heard the term ‘hydroponic garden.’ The women are posed rather stiffly in a tanning salon; Merry Anders stands behind a wall striped for modesty while former Playboy centerfold Delores Wells is revealed a tiny bit more. Don’t expect progressive social values; Delores Wells’ Reena coaches Merry Anders’ Carol to stake a claim on a man of her own as soon as possible.

 

Varno’s matter transmitter is a spinning table that looks altogether too much like a standard disappearing trick. Varno says the transmitter device is useless to get to Alpha Centauri because a receiver cabinet would need to get there first, and the trip will take many years. It’s too bad that the solution can’t be to simply beam everybody somewhere safe, Star Trek- style.  It worked great for Paul Birch in Not of this Earth.

The film’s most unusual credit is for the legendary German experimental filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, whose animation was seen in Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond. He’s credited with ‘Lumichord effects’ for a scene in which colored light patterns form over a musical instrument with an organ keyboard. Skotak doesn’t mention Fischinger, and what we see looks like a practical effect with a muslin sheet and puppeteers manipulating some lights, something Hewitt might have cobbled together. Perhaps Fischinger’s overlays didn’t work out, or weren’t finished in time?  It also looks as if the weak Lumichord lights forced Vilmos Zsigmond to darken the set even more.

 

Also underwhelming are a robot hand manipulated through a hole in a table, a trick with liquid in a glass, men that instantaneously splice ropes and chains together, etc. — tricks that belong at an unpopular demo table at a magician’s convention. Forrest J. Ackerman’s first cameo part sees him popping round frames into square frames. I readily admit that I don’t know how it’s done, but it would be a much cuter trick if we were told the practical purpose for such a thing. I’m reminded of Peter Sellers’ dotty old professor in the comedy The Wrong Box, who says he is researching a method to ‘teach ravens to fly underwater’…

Our University researchers have no difficulty adapting to a world with force fields, gnarly Mutants, weird Androids and the remains of civilization getting ready to exit in an untried rocket for a voyage to the end of the universe. After the exciting destruction of the rocket base miniature (A+ for those explosions, David!) the finale puts them in a predicament utterly alien to human experience. Editorial tricks create film’s first time-loop time trap. The visual effect doesn’t need a verbal explanation, as any ten-year old will interpret the flicker-frame images as a vicious time cycle, whipping the events of the movie into an ever-quickening time whirlpool. With their clumsy time hopping, von Steiner and Co. have basically ‘crossed the streams,’ “…with all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.” The whole Universe becomes an ever-shrinking Moebius Strip of Doom. You know, like Reality TV.

But hey, just before the Time Trap commences our survivors appear to take a side exit into a lovely verdant landscape 100,000 years in the future. Did they perhaps dodge the Black Hole of Time-Cutta?   That’s what I like to think.

 

The functional script and direction don’t leave much room for believable emotional reactions, yet the main cast comes through fairly well. Preston Foster’s egghead is much nicer than his Doctor Wells of thirty years previous. We’re told that Philip Carey was the only cast member who resented being in this movie, but his ill-temper is a good fit for his character. Merry Anders is as charming as ever; she’s always fun in fare as varied as The Hypnotic Eye and Violent Road. We loved Steve Franken as ‘Chatsworth Osborne Jr.’ in TV’s Dobie Gillis; his Danny is the ‘doofus along for the ride’ role but Franken gives him some warmth. Franken is also memorable as a drunken cameraman with James Garner on a D-Day mission in the great The Americanization of Emily.

By this time John Hoyt was playing doctors and authority figures; he’d probably like to remind people of his James Bond-like treasury agent in Trapped and his prison body builder in Brute Force, from only fifteen or so years before. Gary Teetzel points out that this is Hoyt’s second attempt to get aboard a space ark fleeing a doomed Earth. The first was the George Pal classic; perhaps Varno is Sydney Stanton’s great-great-great-great-grandnephew in a parallel universe where Bellus missed the Earth, but the Stanton family still has no damn luck with space arks.

Dennis Patrick is the sourpuss Councilman Willard; Melchior is too ‘nice’ to let Willard be a real jerk, like a similar character in World Without End (which The Time Travelers strongly resembles). I’m partial to Patrick because he was cut out of Major Dundee — he would have been great as a cranky Captain escorting a wagon train of Army munitions. A nice old-Hollywood connection is Joan Woodbury, who graced many mid-range movies in the ’30s and ’40s and was the screen’s first Brenda Starr. Although I don’t think anyone would recognize her, she’s also the tiny queen in a glass jar in The Bride of Frankenstein.

The film’s climactic events are not bad, even if the action in the Android-Mutant battle is a somewhat shapeless, pausing every time one of Hewitt’s mutilation effects is on view. Variety complained that the purpose of von Steiner’s time experiment was never explained, but Robert Skotak tells us that the better part of a reel was lopped off right at the beginning. Actors Berry Kroeger, J. Edward McKinley and Margaret Seldeen played University officials in a scene where von Steiner’s funding is stripped away. The ‘motivation’ for the time experiment was to see a few hours into the past. The scene is gone but the actors’ names remain in the credits.

According to Robert Skotak, Ib Melchior claimed that the Rand Corporation was actually working on just such a time-shifting spy device … and that the unusual actor Peter Strudwick was a Rand Corporation Mensa, a Think Tank thinker. Melchior came up with similar ‘what the?’ statements like that from time to time. Gary Teetzel reports that Melchior repeated this particular claim at an American Cinematheque screening of The Time Travelers, even insisting that they had gotten the device to work, but could only see ‘a few seconds’ into the future!

 


 

The Scorpion Releasing / Kino Lorber Blu-ray of The Time Travelers is an excellent encoding of this odd but satisfying Sci-fi nugget that most of us saw chopped up on television. It looks very good. The material shot out on the desert helps to open things up, as the minimalist sets and tight spaces tend to make us feel a bit claustrophobic. But with so much happening we’re never bored.

The bright and colorful image shows the limitations of the film’s art direction but also the skill of the two immigrant Hungarian cameramen. Some opticals are a bit soft or have minor scratches that were there from the start. The higher resolution flatters most of the makeup and magic effects. The clear soundtrack highlights Richard LaSalle’s too-busy music score, which uses ‘cute’ arrangements to lighten up the factory scenes.

Scorpion adds no extras. Robert Skotak would be the logical commentator but he is reportedly saving his extensive Sci-fi film research for his own publications. He recorded a fine commentary for the A.I.P. picture Queen of Blood and offered some of his insights for the recent Blu-ray of This Island Earth.

A menu choice gives us a mediocre-quality TT trailer, followed by trailers for three other Scorpion releases.

What’s the appeal of The Time Travelers?  Despite its rough edges and occasional tacky moments, we can tell that it’s made by people who are really excited about what they’re doing, and committed to the subject matter. When Star Wars came out, guys my age who thought escapist Sci-fi had been neglected for too long knew Hollywood was long overdue in realizing that a market existed for far-out pulp fantasy.’ Ib Melchior’s movie may be only a step or two up from Rocky Jones Space Cadet, but it delivered the goods for young Sci-fi fans.

 


* When I worked on 1941 Clark Paylow had an office at Columbia right outside that of the head of production, John Veitch. Because his last name seemed comically ideal for a Production Manager, I always noticed his credits. But I had no idea that he had worked on so many movies I was curious about. Look him up at the IMDB.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Time Travelers
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 6, 2021
(6457time)
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Here’s Ib MelChior on his film, The Time Travelers:

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.