William Conrad’s The Past Tense falls squarely into the DIY time-travel sci-fi genre. Of all films in said DIY time-travel sci-fi genre, it stands tall as one of the best. As I remove my tongue from my cheek, it’s hard not to admire the hard work and resourcefulness that went into this ultra-low-budget movie, which marks Conrad’s feature-length debut.
James Moore (William Conrad) is on the verge of a major breakthrough: time travel. Helping him is his trusty gang of neighborhood teen assistants, including Jay (Phi Huynh), Will (Steve Kasan), and Allison (Cassie Podor). Before James can flip the switch, he is interrupted by local loan shark Rooney Wagner (Dan Bertolini) and his goons. It looks as if James had used Rooney to fund his project, and now he wants his money back.
James talks his way into getting an extra day, and as his gang of teens begins arguing over what to do, James flips on the time machine and is sent one day back into the past. Realizing he just conquered time, he leaves a note for himself in the past to watch out for Rooney the next day.
I would describe The Past Tense as a fun and somewhat silly sci-fi motion picture. Most filmmakers with no money would rather sit on their story and wait in vain for the money to come. As we like to quote at Film Threat, “the cavalry ain’t coming.” So, do what William Conrad did—screw the money and make your film anyway. Honestly, if he had $100,000 to make his movie, it would have lost its charm.
“…on the verge of a major breakthrough: time travel.”
The rules of time travel in this feature are very different than other films. James can’t physically change the past, so the note he left himself was never delivered to himself. So, he can’t go back in time and buy a winning lottery ticket, but what he can do is interact with people from the past, and those new interactions and memories stick; turtles and pizza will never be the same.
The charm of The Past Tense is the balance between the movie’s seriousness and silliness. When it comes to science and time, Conrad plays these elements deadly seriously. It’s in his characters that he winks at the camera and decides to have fun. James’ teen assistants are his Scooby gang. Allison is the only smart one with real answers to problems. Jay and Will are the Scooby and Shaggy, going off on their own time-fighting adventures. Rooney is an over-the-top, slightly effeminate mobster. His power comes from his annoying high pitch voice and tough-looking thugs.
My favorite part of The Past Tense was its overdubs. Part of me wonders if this was an accident or intentional, but the dialogue was dubbed over in post-production (you know, ADR). It felt and sounded like I was watching the badly dubbed martial-arts flicks of my youth. As bad as this comment sounds, I loved how it came off.
Finally, in the beginning, there’s a chase scene that’s shot perfectly for a low-budget DIY film. I would direct any filmmaker with no money to look at it. The camera angles are set precisely using forced perspective to frame the hunter and hunted in the same shot, but gives the illusion of significant distance between them. Again, if you have no money, you can still make your movie.
The Past Tense is not going to win any awards (except maybe Award This). The acting is OK, the production values are cheap, and the sci-fi logic is suspect. But whoever said a film had to be perfect to have fun and why should money be the only requirement to make a movie?
"…felt and sounded like I was watching the badly dubbed martial-arts flicks of my youth."