After 25 years as an author known primarily for dread-laden tales of terror and suspense, Richard Matheson surprised his readership in 1975 with a romantic fantasy novel, Bid Time Return. Matheson had been struck by a portrait of the late 19th/early 20th century actress Maude Adams and was inspired to concoct a story of a playwright who travels through time to pursue the woman of his dreams. Film rights were quickly sold to producer Stephen Deutsch, but it wasn’t until 1978 that a receptive director was found for the project: Jeannot Szwarc, a veteran of television who had recently scored a big screen hit with Jaws 2. Retitled Somewhere in Time, the resulting film was released in 1980 to lukewarm reviews and disappointing boxoffice. Most films that meet with such a reception are quickly forgotten, but Somewhere in Time proved an exception. First, it was championed by L.A.’s eclectic cable outlet Z Channel. Then in the early ’80s it became one of the first examples of a film to discover a second life through home video. Enthusiasts soon banded together to form an international fan club making annual pilgrimages to the film’s principal location, Mackinac Island, Michigan.[i] The story was even recently adapted into a stage musical. Now the original film that inspired this devotion can be enjoyed in high definition thanks to a new Blu-ray release from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
Somewhere in Time tells the story of Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) who, as a young student playwright in 1972, is confronted during a backstage party by a mysterious elderly woman (Susan French) who gives him an old-fashioned pocket watch and whispers “Come back to me.” Eight years later, Collier, now an established professional, takes a break from work on his latest play to visit the quaint old Grand Hotel. There he finds himself fascinated by a photograph of a beautiful actress, Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) who performed at the hotel decades earlier just before abruptly retiring and becoming a recluse. Obsessively researching McKenna’s life, Collier is astonished to discover that she was the old woman who gave him the watch. Following suggestions from an old college professor, Collier dresses himself in period clothing and, using a form a self-hypnosis, wills himself back in time to the year 1912. He finds Elise and the two are immediately drawn to each other, but her stern manager (Christopher Plummer) and fate work to keep the lovers apart.
The original novel signaled a turning point in Matheson’s career. Prior to Bid Time Return, he had specialized predominantly in short stories (and the occasional novel) that found horror not in cobweb-bedecked Transylvanian crypts, but in everyday modern life. In “Children of Noah”, for example, a traffic stop in a small town turns from a petty annoyance into grisly terror; in “Through Channels” a television becomes a gateway for deadly interdimensional entities; and in “Being” a seedy desert roadside attraction harbors an alien monster. Tales like these had a profound influence on the development of horror literature in the mid-20th century and would influence numerous future authors, most notably Stephen King. Around the time of Bid Time Return, Matheson suddenly changed gears, for the most part stepping away from short stories and horror and experimenting with other genres and forms. In interviews he gave no reason other than being tired of doing the same old thing, but it appears that as Matheson left the anxieties of his youth behind, he became more interested in expressing his emerging personal philosophy, one that had grown out of a life-long interest in metaphysics and the paranormal and included beliefs in an afterlife, karma and reincarnation. These convictions would inform the latter part of his career; he would even author a slim volume of metaphysics titled The Path. Whereas early Matheson stories often had characters struggling powerlessly against forces that emerged unexpectedly from seemingly banal sources (his own children had nicknamed him “Mr. Paranoia”), later Matheson works would more frequently feature protagonists able to find untapped potential within themselves, especially if motivated by love.[ii] This theme is most strongly communicated in Bid Time Return and What Dream May Come (1978), a novel about the afterlife in which the hero risks the horrors of Hell to rescue his wife.[iii]
Matheson wrote the screenplay for Somewhere in Time himself, remaining faithful to the novel except for discarding a story point about Collier having a fatal brain tumor, and thus having possibly hallucinated his experiences in the past. The resulting film plays at times like a longer, more romantic episode of The Twilight Zone—not surprising given that Matheson had been a key contributor to that series, and director Szwarc’s TV background included multiple episodes of Rod Serling’s later anthology program, Night Gallery. Unfortunately, Szwarc’s direction of the script varies between being merely workmanlike and clumsily obvious. In the scene where Collier first sees Elise’s portrait, for instance, Szwarc simply has Christopher Reeve walk slowly toward the picture with wide-eyed wonder while Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini blasts away on the soundtrack to convey the idea of love at first sight.[iv] It would have been much more interesting to have Collier be mysteriously drawn to the portrait without immediately recognizing the first stirrings of love, but the movie has no patience for such an approach. It’s got to be Mad, Passionate Love at First Sight, and by golly the audience is going to be clobbered with it to make sure no one misses the point.
Szwarc does a better job depicting the time travel, using subtle aural cues and lighting changes to convey Collier’s transition into the past. The first meeting of the two lovers in 1912 also features a nice touch where Elise is first revealed to the audience reflected in a window while Richard looks for her. Once the two meet, however, the film stumbles. Matheson, Szwarc and the cast never communicate what is so special about Richard and Elise’s love, aside from the time travel angle. On what level are the two connecting? All we know if that they are both young, attractive, involved with the theater and like Rachmaninoff. We are essentially asked to accept their great love as a given simply because they are the leads in a romantic movie. When the two finally get to spend a day together, the film resorts to that most tired of romance movie clichés, the Montage of the Couple Having Fun Together Outdoors. Szwarc shoots it all in soft focus, staging tableaux that suggest French Impressionist paintings. It does indeed look pleasant and romantic, but it feels like a lazy cheat, like Matheson and Szwarc are dodging having to write and show scenes of genuine bonding. Szwarc wanted the film to resemble past romantic fantasies like Peter Ibbetson (1935) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), but those films flesh out their leads far more successfully, so the love and romance feels earned.
As Collier, Christopher Reeve is likeable and sincere—and that’s about it. There isn’t much for him to work with, and at times he just seems awkward and naïve.[v] Somewhere in Time was his first role following his breakout success in Superman (1978), and the film’s poor critical and box office reception damaged his nascent film career. Jane Seymour makes a better impression; she’s so beautiful and charming that it’s easy to imagine wanting to cross time to be with her. In spite of being saddled with stiff period dialogue by Matheson, she has some good moments in the early stages of the romance, displaying initial trepidation and caution—she’s never had a serious love affair before—which later gives way to an engaging sense of playfulness. She gets one of the film’s most memorable scenes, when Elise, in the middle of a performance, abandons the script and delivers an improvised monologue about the man of her dreams, secretly expressing her love for Richard. It’s one of the rare times one of the characters speaks deeply from the heart. It successfully conveys the genuinely romantic tone most of the movie tries but fails to achieve, and is a hint of what the film might have been. Significantly, that scene is a monologue, because when Reeve and Seymour are together they don’t really spark as passionate lovers. Once the two characters have connected, they seem more like good pals. Christopher Plummer works to bring shading to his role as Elise’s jealous manager, William Fawcett Robinson, but it’s all too obvious that he’s just there to be an obstacle for the lovers, a plot device in a natty suit and nothing more. In smaller roles, Theresa Wright is wasted delivering exposition, but character actor Bill Erwin has a memorable turn as Arthur, an old bellhop at the Grand Hotel.
With the writing, direction and acting often coming up short in terms of expressing the required mood, it’s up to composer John Barry to bolster the romance through his score, and he succeeds spectacularly. Around this period Barry’s style was shifting away from the pop/jazz influences of his early work to a more lush and romantic sound that suits the film perfectly. Although built primarily around the film’s tender love theme, Barry doesn’t allow the score to become mushy or sentimental by giving much of the music a slightly bittersweet edge that hints at the tragic side of this time-crossed romance. The theme has become one of Barry’s most popular; fittingly, it was recently used for the “In Memoriam” segment of the Academy Awards that honored, among others, Richard Matheson.
Even with the film’s obvious shortcomings, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of Somewhere in Time to its fans. What romantic wouldn’t be drawn to a tale of a pure love that transcends time, of lovers overcoming overwhelming obstacles to be together? It’s an attractive fantasy, and the film serves it up with likeable stars, lovely settings and music that could tug at the heartstrings of the coldest cynic. The film is unapologetically old-fashioned, a rarity at the time it was released and even more unusual now. For its fans, these things make Somewhere in Time special and worth celebrating, and its flaws easy to overlook.
Those fans should be thrilled with Universal’s new Blu-ray of Somewhere in Time, which is a dramatic improvement over the DVD from 2000. That disc featured a noisy, grainy non-anamorphic transfer that did the film no favors. The Blu-ray finally gives the film a worthwhile home video presentation, with a beautiful, crisp and colorful HD transfer that is significantly less grainy while retaining a natural-looking film texture. Certain scenes appear soft, but this accurately reflects Szwarc and cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky’s selective use of diffusion filters, and is not a flaw of the transfer. The 2.0 mono DTS Master Audio won’t blow away anyone’s speakers, but the track is clear with good range, and John Barry’s score comes across well in the mix. A French track is also available; the only subtitles are English for the deaf and hard of hearing.
All of the extras from the DVD edition have been carried over to the Blu-ray. “Back to Somewhere in Time” is an excellent 63-minute documentary by Laurent Bouzereau that includes interviews with all the major participants: Szwarc, Matheson, Reeve, Seymour, Plummer, Barry, etc. One gets the impression that everyone believed in this modestly-budgeted project and gave it their all, only to be disappointed by its initial failure; it’s heartwarming to see them able to enjoy its later status as a beloved cult classic. Szwarc returns for a feature-length commentary track, an entertaining mix of production anecdotes and technical discussion of his approach to the film’s look. Also included is “Inside INSITE”, a brief featurette on the fan club, the International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts; a disappointing photo gallery with the images very small on the screen; and an old standard def copy of the theatrical trailer. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray, like the DVD, uses a dull, generic photo of Reeve and Seymour gazing out at the water rather than the original classic one-sheet.
Although the film itself may be flawed, this Blu-ray is a superior disc that is highly recommended for confirmed Somewhere in Time fans and incurable romantics.[vi]
[i] Located between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas, Mackinac Island (the “c” is silent) was well known to Michigan natives as a favorite summer vacation spot long before Somewhere in Time. It’s famous for not permitting any motor vehicles on the island, forcing visitors to get about by foot, bicycle, horseback or horse-drawn carriage. Beyond the Grand Hotel, its best-known attractions are Fort Mackinac and fudge—lots and lots of fudge. The main street is lined with innumerable fudge shops—signs for two can be glimpsed in the film during a brief sequence when Christopher Reeve goes in to town—and tourists are sometimes referred to as “fudgies.” At least all the walking one must do helps keeps the pounds off!
[ii] Matheson did write a horror novel during this part of his career titled Earthbound (1982), yet even in that case the central theme is one of lust—depicted as empty and energy-draining—versus redemptive, empowering love.
[iii] What Dreams May Come was also adapted into a film in 1998 by Somewhere in Time producer Stephen Deutsch and director Vincent Ward.
[iv] The Rachmaninoff selection was a last-minute substitute for a Mahler piece called for in the script. Although a lovely piece of music, the Rachmaninoff suffers from being too familiar, thanks to its popularity in the light classical repertory and inclusion in innumerable “Classical Music’s Greatest Hits”-type compilation recordings.
[v] Matheson doesn’t write Collier much better in the novel, either; he keeps coming across as a fumbling schoolboy experiencing his first crush rather than an adult capable of a mature relationship.
[vi] A brief personal anecdote regarding Somewhere in Time: In the summer of 1979 when the film was being shot, this reviewer was a mere lad of 13, thrilled that Superman himself had come to his home state to make a science fiction movie. Since the family took regular vacations to northern Michigan, it was easy to persuade my father to make a day trip to Mackinac Island. Alas! It was the 4th of July weekend, and the film crew was on break. This reviewer solemnly avows that his childhood disappointment in not getting to see Christopher Reeve in person had no influence whatsoever on the contents of this review.