Friday, November 1, 2013

Movie Review: Monster On the Campus (1958)

Well, it’s another Friday, and thanks to problems in my personal life, I haven’t had a chance to do any blogs this week. However, I’m working on that, and I’m breaking my week-long hiatus.  The good news is that Fridays are movie days. The bad news is that every other one is going to be a bad movie. This week’s bad movie has no dinosaurs per se, but some prehistoric “monsters” and some typically terrible science. Today, we’re looking at 1958’s Monster on the Campus, directed by Jack Arnold and starring Arthur Franz in his last major film role.  It’s a fairly obscure film, neither revered classic like Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space or Creature from the Black Lagoon, nor a cheesy disaster like King Dinosaur or The Beginning of the End.

Monster on the Campus is not a teen comedy as the title infers; it’s a pretty serious film about a college professor. While his students do reoccur as characters and are briefly menaced by one of the prehistoric creatures, they’re minor characters at best. The story is focused on Donald Blake (not Thor, another guy), a paleontology and evolution professor at fictional Dunsfield university. We meet him making a mold of his fiance’s face  (“Ah, the human female in the perfect state - helpless and silent” Thanks, 50’s America!) to place next to the faces of “Java Man” “Peking Man” (both Homo erectus) and “Piltdown Man” (debunked by scientists only a few years before the movie). Because of the unbelievably rich director, the college is getting a coelacanth for study (although Blake only uses it as a prop while he blathers on civilization vs barbarism), and Blake, obsessed with humanity’s relationship to “primitive savagery”, can’t wait to get his hands on it. Water containing coelacanth blood leaks from the case, and one of Blake’s students’ dogs licks it up and immediately turns violent. The dog is subdued and caged, and Black notes that it has long canines and an evil temperament, something he says is a prehistoric trait.

Of course, this seeming aggression would be natural for a suddenly caged wolf-unless the wolf has been habituated with its environment and nearby humans, it would be violent in an attempt to break free. On the other hand, a newly created wolf would also run away in terror and confusion, so that doesn’t make any sense. And, of course, the fangs of wolves may be powerful killing tools, but nothing like the fanciful sabers given to the German shepherd.

Anyway, Blake cuts himself on the coelacanth’s sharp teeth (said fish is given spikes to make it look scarier and its formidable jaws are emphasized in its prop form) and unlike a real scientist, he shrugs it off instead of cleaning and bandaging it. He doesn’t even have a first-aid kit in a lab sure to be full of potentially dangerous substances! Naturally, it gets infected when he slips his hand into the coelacanth’s water. A nurse drives him home, and he wakes up to find his clothes in tatters, his house in shambles, and the nurse dead “from fright”. That same night, the dog also recovers from its transformation, leading to more confusion on the part of the police, the civilians, and any moviegoer not paying attention.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, this is a creative-to-the-point-of-silly variation on the werewolf movie. Of course, the filmmakers can’t just restrict themselves to one monster. A dragonfly lands on the coelacanth to feed on it, despite the facts that dragonflies have only been observed eating small, live prey, and so turns into a Meganeura. Meganeura, by the way, was never an ancestor to modern dragonflies. You see, dragonflies belong to the order Odonata while Meganeura belonged to the order Protodonata, called Griffinflies by paleontologists. It’s like mistaking someone’s uncle or cousin for their father.  The Meganeura, played by a puppet, is not remotely menacing, and Blake and his students dispatch it with a net and scalpel without much hassle.

In the struggle, Blake’s pipe gets soaked by the Coelacanth’s water, and he obliviously smokes it, only noting the odd taste. Sure enough, he transforms again, killing the policeman assigned to protect him from a presumed murderer before transforming back, completely unaware of what happened.  By this time, he’s looked at the police evidence from the attacks and postulates that it was a “subhuman” that attacked his house. The police, medical doctor, head of the college, and fiancé all think he’s gone crazy, but he’s not done. 

Blake’s next move is to look at bacteria in the water off the coelacanth and to call the French scientist who caught it (called Dr. Moreau in a nice touch by the filmmakers). He sees that the bacteria temporarily “crystallize”- if real bacteria “de-evolved”, they would just turn into the species of bacteria they evolved from. The other scientist tells him that the coelacanth was treated by radiation, and it’s then that Blake finally realizes what’s going on and what happened. Yes, irradiated plasma from a deep-sea fish can cause any organism it contacts to transform,  Digimon-like, into a fanciful version of what Hollywood thinks their ancestor was.

He explains his theory to his associate and the police, and it doesn’t help his case against his insanity one bit. They have him take a leave of absence in the doctor’s cabin, making the titular monster no longer on the titular campus.  Determined to prove his theory, Blake uses an audio record and camera trap to capture his transformation, deliberately injecting himself with the plasma. Sure enough, he turns hairy in a transformation scene right out of The Wolf Man and turns into stuntman Eddie Parker wearing a rubbery apeman mask that’s both horrific and laughable at the same time.  Not helping is that Blake is wearing slacks and a checkered shirt before, during, and after the transformation. To make things more hilarious, he picks up an axe, instantly figures out how to use it, and lumbers off looking like Lon Cheney Jr guest-starring in a Monty Python sketch (he’s a lumberjack and he’s okay!). 

His fiancé (what her actual job or why they like each other is never touched on. She’s just another dull, sexist stereotype. I can’t even remember her name or her actress) , being even dumber than he is, drives up to visit him, is promptly abducted by the monster , leading to the inevitable screaming, fainting, and carrying off sequence required in every monster movie. A park ranger comes to the rescue, only for the caveman to throw an axe into his head (pretty good for someone who just figured out what an axe is). Trog!Blake finally comes to around the same time as the fiancé, and so has to explain to her what happened again.  The cops arrive, and this time he injects himself in front of the doctor and the police, who empty their revolvers into the apeman.  The end.

I wouldn’t call this a terrible film. Yeah, it’s all very stock-50’s exploitation. It’s sexist, full of stupid characters, and truly laughable science. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to hate it.  Arthur Franz does a very good job as a neurotic scientist, and while his stupidity, pomposity, stubbornness, and chauvinism are par for the period, the character is sympathetic and convincing. It’s got a stock werewolf plot, and that’s never a bad idea for garnering sympathy for the protagonist. Yeah, none of the supporting characters are any interesting or sympathetic or memorable, but the story isn’t about them. Arnold is a very good director, and the film is well-paced, lifelike, and very comprehensible. While the coelacanth, Meganeura and “sub-human” are laughable, they’re creative choices for monsters.  There’s not much to this film, and it’s certainly a bad one, but not painful to watch. It’s just another stupid but likeable B-movie. I give it a 35/100: not a good movie by any means but I’d rather watch it again than, say, Gone With the Wind.

Besides, how can you not have fun with a film with lines like:
 “I’m injecting myself with coelacanth plasma.”

"Do you know anything about paleontology?" "I know very attractive men study it."

So, tomorrow, I’m doing a Top Ten List, and next week stay tuned for some book reviews!


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