Tuesday, February 03, 2015

MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958)


Professor Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) is a biology teacher at Dunsfield University. Having convinced the dean of the school to fund the purchase of a rare coelacanth fish, he is thrilled the day it arrives. But as the slowly melting specimen is being unloaded from the delivery truck by student assistant Jimmy (Troy Donahue) and Dr. Blake, Jimmy's German Shepard drinks some of the melt water. Within minutes the dog has turned feral and tries to attack Blake' fiancée Madeline (Joanna Moore). They capture the enraged animal and lock it up, fearful that it might have rabies.

Examining the animal Blake notices it has enlarged teeth and seems to be part wolf. But by the next day the dog is its normal docile self and the big teeth are gone. Still pondering this, the professor accidentally cuts himself when moving the coelacanth and gets some of the melt water in the wound. Suddenly woozy he asks to be driven home by his friend Molly (Helen Westcott), a lady who has been trying unsuccessfully to win Blake's heart for years. Soon after helping him stumble into his home she is attacked by some beast in his living room. When her mauled body is found hanging in a tree behind the house near an unconscious Dr. Blake, the cops start to wonder.


The bloody elongated fingerprints at the scene are definitely not the prof's so they eliminate him as a suspect. Since the violence happened in his home the police conclude that he is in danger from the attacker, and a 24-hour watch is placed on him.


A few days later Jimmy and Blake notice a dragonfly land on the decaying coelacanth. They are stunned when, only moments later, a monstrously large insect similar to a dragonfly attacks them. At the sight of this creature many times the size of any modern insect, the doctor begins to suspect the terrible truth. But obviously the slow turning wheels are just now grinding into gear and it takes another accidental 'Hulk-out' before he's sure of what's occurring. Transforming into a hideous evolutionary throwback, Blake trashes his lab, runs out into the night and kills the cop working surveillance on the campus. Ape-like footprints found around the dead body make the police sure they are after a freak; Blake is convinced that any living thing in contact with the fish plasma will devolve into a raging beast.


After failing to sway the police or his own academic colleagues to his theory he decides to produce proof by getting a picture of the transformation. To do this he sets himself up in a cabin well off the beaten track and like so many movie men of science, he tests his wild theory on himself by injecting the fish juice into his own veins. Even though he tries to make sure no one is harmed this time, his not-so-carefully laid plan backfires and another corpse is added to the tally. Wracked by guilt, Dr. Blake decides he has to answer for these deaths and sets the scene for the police so that they'll have to believe him.


Proof that not even Jack Arnold could hit one out of the park every time, Monster on the Campus is easily the least of his genre credits. That doesn't mean it's a completely bad movie, but after the heights reached by Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man this has to look like a step down. But while never reaching the level of those movies, MOTC still holds real pleasures. Yeah, it's a little silly, the monster makeup leaves a lot to be desired, and Dr. Blake is incredibly slow to figure out the obvious. But it's a fun film with a game cast, some nice character interplay and a brevity that helps it slide past some nagging questions.


The film's main mistake was probably the giant dragonfly, which looks terrible — the DVD's wonderfully clean print reveals every trick used to bring it to 'life'. Or maybe it's the hysterical fact that the doctor's second transformation is AGAIN accidental, and still causes me to say out loud on each viewing, "Watch out, Doc! You're smoking coelacanth!"

But even this absurdity isn't too much for a die hard '50s monster film fan like me. Over the years I've returned to this flawed little mess repeatedly just to soak up the 1950s atmosphere and straight faced nuttiness. I even get a chuckle or two out of the police detective's attempts to shoehorn normal ideas about the crime into the scenario. And the movie boasts some effectively eerie shots, including the sight of Molly's body hanging from a tree by its hair.


Of course, as an old Marvel comics fan I also get a laugh out of Dr. Don Blake being The Mighty Thor's alter ego, so clearly I'm pretty easy to please.

4 comments:

Nick Rentz said...

I believe the makeup was recycled from Abbott and Costello meet Dr Jekyll.

Nick Rentz said...

Speaking of Jack Arnold, I still need to see The Space Children. Should I make that sooner or later?

Rod Barnett said...

Space Children is lesserArnold but worth seeing. Its rarity makes it seem more interesting than it turns out to be.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I had that poster in my dorm room in University. Loved that poster.