I thank the universe pretty much every day that I was born at the time I was. My formative years corresponded almost exactly with the explosion of punk and post-punk, the birth of MTV, the home video boom, and the expansion of cable television into more and more homes. Yes, despite my dewy youthfulness, I am, as the kids say, “an old.” And this almost goes without saying, but get off my lawn.
Cable TV, for all you whippersnappers out there, wasn’t really a thing until about the late 70s. I spent most of my very young childhood planted in front of one of those giant faux-wooden-cabinet televisions with a dial that you turned to change the channels, of which there were three (four if you count PBS). Later on we got another channel, Fox (which was channel 35 on the dial in my area), which back in the day showed pretty much nothing but “Sanford and Sons” reruns and Hanna Barbera cartoons.
But then, when I was about nine years old, my dad began working for our local cable company, and one of the perks of his job was that he got all the cable channels for free, including the new pay movie channels, like HBO and Cinemax. Gone was the dial; now there was a large beige box that sat on top of the TV and lit up (oooooooh!). It had a slider that you used to change the channel, and I remember being so excited that there were SO MANY NUMBERS on the slider. SO MANY.
I really only went into this brief history lesson to say that a great deal of the memorable movie experiences of my youth came about because of those magical, commercial-free movie channels we were lucky enough to have. Since HBO and Cinemax were fairly new and untested at that point, they tended to show older, B-grade, or forgotten films, often in rotation several times a day (which explains how I managed to see the wincingly terrible Kristy McNichol musical The Pirate Movie roughly four-hundred times before I hit puberty).
But they showed a heap of great movies too, and one of those is our discussion film for today. It’s not technically a horror film, though I’m not sure what you’d classify it as. A science-fiction thriller, perhaps? Regardless, it was and is a perennial favorite of mine, and true to the spirit of this blog series, it did have a few creepy scenes that stuck with me over the years. Onward.
1979’s Time After Time, directed by Nicholas Meyer, had an absolutely genius premise: writer H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), not content with simply scribbling about time machines, has actually built one that works, though of course he is pooh-poohed by the stuffy upper-class twits he has invited over to demonstrate it to. In the middle of the little snark party, a police constable shows up and tells them that Jack the Ripper has killed again, and clues have led right back to Wells’s home. After a search of the premises, it turns out that one of Wells’s guests and close friends, John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner) has left behind a medical bag containing bloody gloves. Police search for him everywhere in the house, but if you know anything about movies, you know where that slippery serial killer has gone. That’s right, he’s hopped right into Wells’s time machine and boogied right into the future to escape justice. The only mistake he made was failing to snag Wells’s “non-return” key, so that after Jack the Ripper ends up in 1979, the machine automatically travels back to 1893, allowing Wells to follow the killer into the future to try to bring him back.
Much to his confusion, Wells ends up in San Francisco in 1979, not in London as he was expecting. Turns out that in 1979, the machine is part of a San Francisco museum installation about his life. After climbing out of the roped-off machine with as much poise as he can muster, clad in full late-19th-century regalia, he sets off in pursuit of Jack the Ripper. There are some amusing scenes as Wells tries to figure out what the hell is the deal with the mind-bogglingly disco-saturated twentieth century, but these are thankfully not as zany as they could have been, as McDowell brings such grace and dignity to the role that you mostly just kind of sympathize with him, even as you chuckle at his cluelessness.
He eventually finds Jack, all right, but along the way he also finds love. Wells, being no slouch, realizes that the Ripper will need to exchange his (very old) money for modern American currency, so he starts asking at the currency desks of all the nearby banks to see if another old-fashioned lookin’ dude with Victorian-lookin’ money has been in the joint. As luck would have it, the woman managing the desk where Jack changed his coinage is the gorgeous and delightfully forthright Amy Robbins (played by Mary Steenburgen, who actually married Malcolm McDowell the year after this movie came out, though they sadly divorced in 1989). Amy is allllll about Wells’s kick-ass vintage duds, his foxy upper-crust accent, and his gentlemanly manners, and so, being a liberated woman, straight-up asks him out. Wells, taken aback but pleasantly so (he had been an early advocate of women’s rights, after all), handles the situation with remarkable aplomb, and the two become entangled.
Wells tells Amy that the man he’s looking for is a murderer, but obviously does not tell her that they have both come from the past. However, as the story goes on, Amy becomes a target of the Ripper, and Wells is forced to spill the truth in order to save her life. Though she doesn’t believe him at first (who would?), a quick trip three days into the future and a newspaper with Amy’s murder on the front page is enough to convince her. There are a lot of tense moments, many women fall under the Ripper’s knife, but in the end Wells sends the Ripper into oblivion by essentially dissolving his atoms in the machine, and the thoroughly modern Amy has decided that she loves Wells so much that she wants to go back to 1893 with him.
All that aside, let’s get to the scene. I’m going to have to recap it entirely from memory, as I can’t find it on YouTube and don’t have the full movie available to me at the moment, so forgive me if some of the details are incorrect.* As I mentioned earlier, Wells and Amy know the day and approximate time of Amy’s impending murder, since they traveled a few days into the future and saw it in the newspaper. They plan for Amy to simply be absent from her apartment when the Ripper turns up to kill her, but several things conspire to prevent this from happening. For example, the clock in Amy’s apartment has stopped (I think I’m remembering that right), so it is actually much later than she thinks it is. Also, she has been waiting for Wells to arrive so that they can leave together, but he has mysteriously failed to show. Finally, when she realizes that her clock isn’t working and that the time of her demise is nigh, she throws some clothes in a bag and readies herself to get the fuck out of Dodge on her own. As she’s heading for her front door, she sees the doorknob turning. Panicked, she drops her shit on the floor and hides in a closet just as Jack busts into her apartment, big as life and knives a-gleaming.
Unbeknownst to Amy (no cell phones in 1979, yo), Wells has been picked up by the police and is in the process of being interrogated for the killings. See, turns out police find it a little suspicious when you appear out of nowhere – wearing strange clothes, bearing no ID, and calling yourself Sherlock Holmes thinking no one in the future will get the reference – and claim to know where the killer that’s suddenly plaguing the city is going to strike next. Wells tries pretty much everything he can think of to get the police to listen to him, growing sweatier and more desperate with every glance at the clock that shows that Amy’s murder is growing ever nearer. If I remember correctly, Wells first tries to convince the police that he is simply psychic, but after a while he gives them the whole story about traveling from the past to track down the Ripper. The investigator doesn’t buy this for a second, naturally, and keeps hammering poor Wells to admit that he’s the killer. Wells sticks to his guns, repeating over and over that he is from the past, and that Jack the Ripper is in San Francisco, and that a woman is going to be murdered at Amy’s address and WOULD THEY PLEASE JUST SEND A CAR OVER THERE TO CHECK, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?!? At one point he even confesses to the murders (“I killed them! I KILLED THEM ALL!”) to try to get them off his back. He begs, he pleads, he freaks out, but nothing he does seems to convince them. At last, he looks at the clock and sees that the time of Amy’s murder has passed. He slumps down in his chair, his eyes full of tears. “Please just send a car,” he weeps, defeated, and tells them her address again. “Send a car and I’ll sign anything you like.”
The interrogating officer, apparently moved by Wells’s sincerity and perhaps hoping to get a confession, finally agrees to send two officers over to Amy’s place to see what’s what. The officers arrive and find her door ajar. They peer inside, then one of them turns his head to vomit. For the inside of the apartment is completely painted with splattered blood; it’s just covering everything. And there, lying on the carpet amid the signs of an epic struggle, is a woman’s severed hand.
In the next shot, a somber (and slightly sheepish) police inspector is informing Wells that the murder has indeed gone down as predicted. “Please believe me, I am truly, truly sorry,” says the inspector, while Wells just stares blankly ahead. “You’re free to go.”
Wells, completely grief-stricken, begins wandering the dark, empty back streets of San Francisco. He walks through a park, an absolutely heartbreaking expression on his face. The only sound is the echo of his footsteps.
Then, another sound: the eerie chime of the Ripper’s pocket watch. And then, Amy’s ghostly voice, calling Wells’s name. Wells spins around and sees Amy standing by a wall, looking every inch a spirit or a figment of his tortured imagination.
But no, Amy is somehow alive. “He killed Carol, my friend from work,” she says. “I forgot I invited her over for dinner to meet you.” And then the viewer remembers that indeed, she had asked her co-worker over on Friday night, much earlier the film. We had forgotten all about that, but the screenwriter hadn’t.
Then, there’s a closeup of Amy’s white, terrified face. “The newspaper was wrong,” she intones, in a flat, echoey voice that always creeped me the fuck out. Jack appears from behind the wall, holds a knife to Amy’s throat, and threatens to kill her unless Wells gives him the non-return key. And from there the story builds to its final climax.
I can’t tell you how much I adore this film. It played approximately five times a day on one or another of the movie channels, and every time I happened to stumble across it, I would watch it again. I have to mention that the chemistry between McDowell and Steenburgen is absolutely electric, and it was no surprise to me that they married shortly after the film’s release, as it almost seemed as though the actors were falling in love for real as their characters were falling in love on screen. In addition to that, I just loved the overall story, the gore, the fish-out-of-water element of prissy Wells harrumphing around 1979. David Warner also made a great Ripper: cold, calculating and ruthless, yet still somehow alluring. “Ninety years ago I was a freak,” he says to Wells at one point, as he’s flipping through TV channels showing various violent crimes and war atrocities. “Now, I’m an amateur.”
I wonder if the real Jack the Ripper, were he somehow transported to the modern day, would say the same. Goddess out.
*ETA: A few hours after I wrote this recap, the God of Hellfire was obligingly able to find the entire movie online, and we watched the whole thing through. My memory of the described scene was fairly accurate, but there were a couple of things I got wrong. For example, the actual reason that Amy was still in her apartment when the Ripper came calling didn’t have anything to do with her clock stopping. Rather, she and Wells had been up the entire night before, trying (and failing) to prevent the murder that took place before Amy’s. The following morning, Friday, it is 10:30am when Wells announces that he needs to leave the apartment briefly (he is going against his pacifist principles and going to a pawn shop to buy a gun to defend Amy, though he doesn’t tell her this), but tells her that if he isn’t back in an hour, she should register at the Huntington Hotel and he will meet her there. The freaked-out Amy (who saw the Ripper’s fourth victim being dredged from a canal the night before) unwisely takes a sedative and a few sips from Wells’s flask, thinking Wells will be back in plenty of time to wake her up. But as he is returning to the apartment, he is picked up by the cops, who find the gun he just purchased in his pocket. They haul him away as he is screaming up at Amy’s window. The zonked-out Amy doesn’t hear him, and doesn’t awaken until an hour before her murder was predicted.
I also misremembered Wells trying to tell the police he was psychic. I remembered it that way because earlier in the film, when Wells goes to the police to give them the Ripper’s description, the police ask him if he’s a psychic and he says no. When Wells himself is dragged into the interrogation room and accused of the murders, he tells them the truth right away, and keeps telling it to them until it’s clear that they won’t send a car to Amy’s place unless he agrees to confess. He doesn’t call Amy to check on her, because he has used his one phone call to contact the Huntington Hotel to make sure she checked in (which she didn’t, hence his panic).
Another thing I had mostly forgotten was the splendid chess-like pitting of the overly idealistic and morally upright Wells against the brutally realistic Ripper, who understands all too well that the utopia Wells thought he would find in the future was never going to be anything but a pipe dream. This gave the film a bit of added depth and edge; even though Wells “won” in the end by defeating the Ripper and saving his love, he also had his illusions of human progress shattered, as he realized that the Ripper had been damnably right about humankind all along. “Every age is the same,” Wells tells Amy at the end. “It’s only love that makes any of them bearable.” Truer words, Wells. Truer words. Goddess out, again.