Another not-really-horror-at-all movie followed Dead Ringers as Killtoberfest continued.
My movie selection process prizes a lack of information over almost everything else–if I can get one good reason to see something, I try to stay in the dark about everything else. It’s a Christopher Nolan film? Don’t even tell me the premise. A number of horror films are on my list this year for the title alone (how can you resist something like Thriller, which is subtitled “A Cruel Picture”, or The House That Dripped Blood?). The downside of this process is that you can seriously misunderstand what a movie is–hence Time after Time, which isn’t remotely a horror film.
The premise certainly could have gone that way, though: “H.G. Wells uses his time machine to hunt Jack the Ripper.” (You can see why I wanted to watch it. Or you’re a hopeless, joyless person and I pity you.) There’s certainly a version of that which would be dark, violent pulp. What I got instead was a hybridization of horror elements, romance, and fish-out-of-water comedy. Somehow those all manage to work together, which I put down to two things: the script, and Malcom McDowell.
McDowell plays Wells as just about the exact opposite of his most famous role, Alex from A Clockwork Orange. He’s erudite, educated, charming, and a gentleman. He’s also a pacifist, which gives his face-off with the Ripper a strong thematic underpinning. In a speech later echoed in Alan Moore’s From Hell, Jack tells H.G. that the author doesn’t belong in the 20th century, whereas the Ripper fits right in amidst a backdrop of war, crime, and violent television. Whether or not Jack is right about Wells belonging is the main question of the film, one it explores comedically, romantically, and dramatically.
In broad strokes the non-Ripper story elements resemble any of a number of time-traveling romantic comedies of recent years, most of which simply sucked. Here the performances are just enough better and the script just enough smarter that it works pretty well. While hunting Jack in 1979’s San Francisco, Wells meets and falls for a bank teller named Amy (played by Mary Steenburgen, who gets a lot more to do than she did later as the love interest in Back to the Future 3). The movie takes the time to build their relationship, keeping it plausible and interesting without sacrificing the more absurd aspects of the plot. (My favorite moment is probably when Wells brings up his essays on free love, his usual method for getting women. Amy laughs at the archaic term and then launches into a rambling monologue about how much casual or experimental sex she’s had and how much she’s attracted to Wells, who is completely thrown.)
Meanwhile, the fish out of water comedy is better than usual, because Wells isn’t so much befuddled by modern ideas and technology as he is fascinated and awed. He’s also usually smart enough to figure out what he’s doing, as in a delightful shot when he hails a taxi and then discovers how to open a car door. There’s also a gentle skewering of his ideals–Wells opens the movie by planning to use his time machine to go forward to a future he’s sure will be utopian, with war, strife, poverty, hunger, and the oppression of women a thing of the past… only to travel to 1979 and have someone casually mention not one but two World Wars.
Overall I was surprised to find that the movie wasn’t really horror (although it does have a few excellent chilling scenes of the Ripper stalking his victims, and a great pulpy time travel story moment involving a future newspaper article naming one of the characters as his next victim), but I was more surprised to find out how much I liked it. It’s a good little movie, full of nice moments and just a bit smarter than you’d expect. It’s worth checking out, if you can find it. They don’t really make movies like this anymore, the kind you might call “adventure,” that take an outsized, crowd-pleasing story and walk it through a range of dramatic and comedic tones without feeling schizophrenic or unbalanced. Like Wells himself, that sort of film is a part of the past.