What Unmakes A Scary Movie: Time Walker
As someone who considers music to be as vital of a thing as oxygen, water, or food, it has long vexed me that I don’t possess the tools to adequately explain just what it is that music does FOR me. I can’t read music, I don’t have perfect pitch, and I play no instruments; it’s frustrating not to be able to qualify music’s impact in some way.
Movies, are slightly easier for me to parse, and not because I have a degree in Film Studies, either. Even if one doesn’t use the word “mise en scene” on a regular basis it feels less overwhelming to try and break down just what it is about a movie that engenders a specific reaction.
Frequently it is not just one thing but a combination of different factors that cause a horror movie to be truly horrifying. What is it about the synthesis of story, acting, cinematography, music, and editing that makes a film feel so frightening? Perhaps an easier way to try and understand it is to discuss an example of something that isn’t frightening at all.
I saw 1982’s Time Walker (a.k.a. Being From Another Planet) on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 years ago. There was a mummy and some kind of deadly fungus and for whatever reason---maybe just the simple fact that I watched a low-res version of a low-budget movie at night---I remembered the film being downright creepy, even with two mad scientists, a sleepy-eyed custodian, and two wise-cracking robots talking throughout.
Rewatching Time Walker in its entirety on YouTube and without the commentary not only revealed that I was dead wrong, but also made it easier to determine why this movie is such a failure as a horror film.
Time Walker’s premise is somewhat hokey---a recently unearthed mummy is really an alien who needs the crystals that were stolen from him to return home---but that didn’t stop E.T. from being a massive success when hit theaters around the same time, although granted it wasn’t exactly scary. With the right team, the story in Time Walker could still have been executed in a creepy manner (even if it does feel a lot like Ancient Aliens).
The music is composed by Richard H. Band, who despite his long list of credits on IMDB, doesn’t deliver the goods here. The score feels more like a made-for-TV drama than a horror film proper. Robbie Greenberg’s cinematography is at best, serviceable, despite a few spooky scenes where the mummy is backlit and framed in an imposing manner. Perhaps the worst mistake the movie makes in this department is the ongoing use of the POV of the mummy; this “mummy cam” doesn’t increase the tension one bit nor does it make us sympathize with Ankh-Vanharis (he is thus named based on some hieroglyphs found in his coffin). It’s mostly just tedious.
There are different camps of horror enthusiasts: those who are scared when the monster appears in every scene and those who think that keeping the monster hidden for most of the movie translates into heightened suspense and thus, frights (i.e., what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see), but even the fact that the mummy in Time Walker doesn’t make an appearance until well into the movie doesn’t make him all that much of a perceived threat to the characters.
Overall, there just isn’t that much suspense in Time Walker. Part of this is because the core of it feels more like a collegiate sex comedy than a horror movie. The California Institute of the Sciences (not a real university) is where the mummy is brought after discovery, but we find out less about the scientific team leading the research than we do about the annoying, out-of-touch university president Wendell Rossmore and his flunky Bruce Serrano, who doesn’t actually have a job title, unless “supercilious” counts as one.
Additionally, there is far too much time spent on the equally annoying Peter Sharpe, a student who is also an oversexed frat boy. He ogles Jennie, the girlfriend of fellow student Jack Parker, as she’s undressing in the bathroom right before he gives a present (one of the crystals he’s stolen from the mummy’s sarcophagus) to his actual girlfriend, Sherri, who’s also Jennie’s roommate. Sharpe’s rapey antics are more irritating than the mummy is scary, which is not a good thing in a horror movie. Unsympathetic, underdeveloped, and/or clichéd characters can ruin a film and unfortunately, that’s the main problem with Time Walker.
When the mummy does show up, he is admittedly, somewhat spooky. He doesn’t speak and he doesn’t run so he comes across like Michael Myers wrapped in bandages. The deadly fungus that he is carrying is reminiscent of The Blob: anyone who touches it suffers from instantaneous burns and severe necrosis of the flesh. Still, that doesn’t translate to scary, more like terribly inconvenient. When the mummy is revealed to be an alien in the Stargate-esque climax, it actually destroys any creepy cred it had up until that point.
There are other movies with just as outlandish of a subject matter that were made with a low budget and which star competent actors that still manage to be truly scary. There are too many to list, but Absentia immediately comes to mind. While Absentia manages to be scary despite so many factors stacked against it, Time Walker can’t overcome its failings.
Even when all the correct pieces seem to be in place, however, there are certain movies that do nothing for me, and nowhere is that more apparent then when a movie could be scary, and is the complete opposite, proving that horror movies are still a bafflingly subjective enterprise.