Due to the constant bombardment of cosmic rays, all organic matter on earth contains some traces of Carbon-14. Carbon-14 is an unstable isotope though, so eventually it decays into Carbon-13 and then into the standard Crabon-12. So, if the organism you’re examining is old enough you won’t find any Carbon-14 in it at all. This phenomenon is the basis for Radiocarbon dating, in layman’s terms you can tell how old a sample is based on how much Carbon-14 you find in it relative to how much Carbon-12. I’m bothering to explain this because today’s film makes a monumental flub of Radiocarbon dating, and it’s much more amusing if you have some understanding of how the process works, or at least have more knowledge about it than the filmmakers did.
The above-mentioned flub comes right at the beginning of the film when archeologist Dr. Robert Hedges receives an odd package from his old friend and mentor Professor Howard Erling. The package contains a small statue, apparently made recently, and a note requesting that Hedges find out how old the statue is. Erling has invented a primitive time machine, and has managed to pull the statue back from the year 5000 AD. Hedges uses radiocarbon dating to determine the statue’s age. Right off the bat we’ve already strayed into the realm of scientific error; the statue is obviously made of metal, not anything organic like wood or bone, and consequently radiocarbon dating would be completely useless on it. The only way that radiocarbon dating can help identify the age of such objects is by testing the nearby organic samples. That’s a small error, but then comes the whopper: when Hedges examines the statue he comes up with an age of negative 3000 years. This is ridiculous though, because if the statue were pulled from the future it would have exactly as much carbon-14 as if it had been made today. Hell, getting a negative age from radiocarbon dating is impossible even if we assume that time travel is possible.
But being 3000 years younger than should be possible isn’t all the statue has going for it, after Hedges sends it into the lab for further testing, the team there discovers that it is highly radioactive as well. If Hedges had spent another week or two with the statue he’d have come down with a potentially fatal does of radiation poisoning. Fearing that his former mentor might want to kill him, Hedges books a flight to Erling’s remote Florida-based laboratory. Now, personally if I thought a mad scientist was trying to kill me I wouldn’t drive out to his hide-out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by swamps where you could easily dispose of a body, but then again a movie version of my life would be pretty boring. Besides, all this concern on Hedges part turns out to be completely ungrounded, as the statue was sent not by Erling but by his daughter, Claire. She didn’t realize the statue was radioactive, and forged the letter from her father asking Hedges to identify it, all in an attempt to get some independent verification of her father’s work. While this does raise concerns about safety conditions in Erling’s lab (nobody seems at all concerned about handling dangerously radioactive objects) it confirms that Erling is of the benevolent strand of mad scientist.
Erling, and his over-eager assistant/financer/future son-in-law Victor, have got the time machine working but they are split on how to proceed. Erling thinks it would be better to play it safe, get independent verification of their findings, and generally behave in away that is completely antithetical to the established norms of mad science. Victor on the other hand thinks it would be better to transport new and bigger things across the veil of time, and plunge ahead on the research while keeping everything secret. I don’t see what Victor is so worried about; he’s invented time travel, I’m sure the Nobel Prize money alone will cover his initial investment. When Hedges sides with his former mentor, Victor all but throws a hissy fit. If that pissed Victor off so much, then you can imagine how he’ll react when he discovers the nascent love triangle forming between Hedges, Claire and himself. The ensuing melodrama will consume most of the film’s second act.
Victor isn’t about to let the others get in the way of his poorly defined ambitions, he continues pushing the apparatus further and further, going so far as to bring back horribly mutated life forms from the future. He locks these up in suitcases and dumps them into the swamp. Hedges observes the rather odd behavior of his romantic rival, but doesn’t kick up much of a fuss about it. Victor’s secret obsession with dumping dead animal laden bags obviously doesn’t win him any points in the romantic conflict, and Claire is driven progressively further and further into Hedges’ arms.
Then tensions come to a boil when Angelo, the filthy, perverted groundskeeper that Erling employees to keep his island tidy, peeps on Claire while she’s changing into her nightgown. As an added bonus, the audience gets to peep right along with him; clearly director Robert J. Gurney and his paymasters at AIP had realized the best way to convince adolescent boys that spending their Saturday mornings at the cinema wasn’t a total waste. Once she spots the peeper Claire raises a ruckus, causing Erling and Hedges to fly to her aid and chase down the sexual predator. However, all the commotion comes just as Victor is working on one of his secret experiments in Erling’s lab. At a crucial moment he loses focus and is attacked by what appears to be a human arm reaching out of the time machine. Whatever the creature is, it’s not entirely human: the scars it leaves are radiation burns.
It’s at this point that Hedges starts to put the pieces together about Victor’s experiments. Erling though isn’t hearing any of it; he knows about Hedges’ burgeoning romance with his daughter and is willing to chalk up all Hedges’ suspicions as byproducts of the love triangle. Hedges doesn’t like the implication that his libido is interfering with his rational processes (what scientist would?). So he sets about dredging up the life forms that Victor has dumped into the bog. When Victor sees what Hedges is up to he leaps into the pond after Hedges and initiates a rather dull fistfight. It should be noted that for modern audiences, accustomed to the fist-a-cuffs of the great Chinese martial arts stars, mid-century fight scenes are improbably more boring than the filler that surrounds them. Terror from the Year 5000’s fight scene here is an especially bad one, because its semi-aquatic nature (and shirtless participant) invites unfavorable comparison to the climatic bout in Cape Fear (1962), a rare fight scene from the period that doesn’t totally suck. Hedges comes out on top in the interminable brawl, and reveals Victor’s radiation burns from his secret experiments. Claire, Erling, and Hedges escort the disgraced, burned, and possibly concussed scientist off of Erling’s island and into town for medical treatment.
What follows is perhaps the most baffling sequence in the entire film: The heroic trio drops Victor off for treatment at the local hospital. Victor promptly escapes, and when Erling and the others are notified of this development they do not alter their plans in the slightest; heck they don’t even bother to phone the local sheriff about the run-away patient. Instead they take in a movie, naturally a contemporary film from AIP’s roster: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957). With the film done they go out for dinner and drinks. While the threesome was enjoying their plesant evening on the town, Victor was off getting mind-bendingly drunk. In this stupor he decided that it was a good idea to steal a boat, head back to Erling’s island and fire up the time machine one more time, this time giving it enough juice to bring back a full-size person from the year 5000.
The monster that Victor has unwittingly unleashed is a deformed woman with bright, sparkly nails dressed in a black cat-suit bestrewn with sequences. In the future the level of radiation has increased so much that one out of every five children born is a horrible mutant like her. Now, being a mutant has some advantages: You can hypnotize people with your nails, steal faces off of dead bodies to use as a disguise, and kill with a few scratches of your atomic claws. Not a bad deal, considering that all excess radiation gives you in real life is cancer. The creature uses these powers to kill Angelo, steal the appearance of the nurse sent to treat Victor, and seduce Victor into coming back to the year 5000 with her, where his pure, un-mutated genetic stock will help her restore mankind to relative normality.
Terror from the Year 5000 contains a terrible premise that goes woefully unexamined, and is even undercut by a certain degree of nonsense in the dialogue. How did the earth become dangerously irradiated in the relatively short period (by geological standards anyway) of 3000 years? If you were watching this in 1958, the natural though would be that the United States and Russia waged a catastrophic war that left the world all but unlivable. This seems to have been the original intention of the filmmakers as well, as the film’s coda stressed the importance of preventing this terrible future, placing the onus on the people of today to prevent the horrors of tomorrow. Yet, elsewhere the film the titular terror reveals that it’s just a natural increase in the atmosphere’s radiation, and that it’s been getting steadily worse. A nuclear war would, assuming anyone survived the initial holocaust, eventually get better for the post-war inhabitants. I suspect that the horror of the irradiated near future was toned down so as to not upset the children and teenagers that constituted AIP’s target demographic for their sci-fi and horror films. It’s a shame, a time machine that reveals there is no future is a wonderfully bleak and particularly Cold War idea; hopefully out there somewhere unknown to me there is a film or story that puts it to better use.
The film’s biggest problem is in pacing, not its intellectual content. This is, after all a monster movie so a viewer has a right to be a little bit peeved when the monster doesn’t show up until the last fifteen minutes. The rest of the picture is padded with plot threads that either go nowhere (like Hedges’ suspicion that Erling is trying to kill him) or a just plain boring (like the love triangle between Claire, Hedges and Victor). The monster, when she finally arrives, has some cool powers but they are not used effectively. A shape shifter, like the titular terror, is most alarming because it can assume any form, even that of a loved one. But the only disguise that our terror adopts in that of a nurse, a character that was never seen before and never seen again once she was killed.