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Monday, April 6, 2009

Monster on Campus

Universal's B unit produced another sci-fi/horror hybrid in late 1958. It comes as an interesting coincidence, being released around the time of Hideous Sun Demon. Evolution must have been a hot topic then. Both movies feature a Jekyll & Hyde theme with "regressive evolution" as the science part of their fictions. Directed by Jack Arnold (of Black Lagoon fame), Monster on Campus (MoC) has above-average production values for the B market. The acting is pretty solid, with a couple exceptions, and the props are also above-average for what the B market was becoming accustomed to. The overall effect is an entertaining, if somewhat predictable tale.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A university professor receives a ceolacanth (a "prehistoric" fish still found off South Africa). A dog who licks up the melt water from the fish's ice, goes savage. His fangs grow. The professor, Donald, cuts his hand on the fish's teeth and gets more melt water in the cut. He feels woozy, so a nurse drives him home. She is found dead (of fright) and Donald's house ransacked. He remembers nothing. The police suspect him, but fingerprints at the scene are not his. Later, a dragonfly is eating (or drinking) off the fish body. It later returns 2 feet across. Donald kills it, but its blood drips in his pipe. He smokes it, and gets woozie again. He becomes an ape-man. In this state, he kills a policeman assigned to guard him. Donald is sure that the ceolacanth's blood causes reverse evolution. Dog to wolf, dragonfly to a Meganeura, and a man back into an ape-like cave man. Donald's bosses think he's becoming unglued with his talk of giant bugs and ape men, so he's sent up to a mountain cabin for rest. In the cabin, Donald decides to inject himself with ceolacanth plasma, tape record the results and had set up cameras to capture it on film. He does this, but his girlfriend, Madeline, is driving up to see him. She encounters the ape-man on the road, swerves and crashes. Ape-man carries her off. When she screams, a forest ranger investigates. Ape-man kills him with a hatchet. The police arrive too, but Donald has returned to normal. After learning of the killings, Donald decides there is just one thing to do. He says he'll take them all to see the ape-man. He injects himself. When he returns down the hill as the ape-man, the police shoot and kill him. In death, he reverts back to Donald. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The production values are good enough to keep a viewer focused on the story. As yet another evolution-based modernization of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it has some interest. Jack Arnold does a good job keeping the visuals interesting and the pace moving. The musical score uses many familiar themes and tones. One can almost hear the Creature's theme woven in there. It was also fun to see the old familiar trope of the "monster" carrying off the pretty girl in his arms.

Cold War Angle
There's no Cold War here. There is only a minor element of atomic cautionary tale in that gamma radiation altered the ceolacanth's blood to make it the monster-maker. Radiation makes monsters. Everyone knows that.

Notes
Star Gazing -- Several of the actors and others in MoC are familiar 50s sci-fi names. Jack Arnold directed Creature from the Black Lagoon ('54) and Tarantula ('55). Writer David Duncan wrote for Monster That Challenged the World ('57) and Black Scorpion ('57). Arthur Franz, who plays Donald, also starred in Invaders from Mars ('53) and The Flame Barrier ('57). Whit Bissel plays the skeptical Dr. Cole. He also played in Creature From the Black Lagoon and Target Earth ('54).

Another Jekyll & Hyde -- Like Hideous Sun Demon, MoC reuses the good-doctor and evil-beast device. As in HSD, the transformation was accidental, not deliberate as in Jekyll's case. MoC does return to the chemical agent, and returns to the ape-like imagery of the evil-beast. Common to them all is the good-doctor not remembering what he did while the evil-beast. All three had the faithful girlfriend. He original and HSD had the "other" woman (Ivy and Trudy), but MoC had only a rather chaste echo of that in Molly Riordan. MoC returned to the moral of the original, that every modern man carries his beast within.

Evolution as Star -- The populist form of the theory of evolution is the unmistakable foundation of MoC. The genetic connection to the past was more scientifically clean than the embryology basis used in Hideous Sun Demon. The notion that chromosomes were additive over time was quite a leap, however. The ceolacanth was symbolic of evolution halted. Hence, it's blood (with some gamma ray help) had the power to neutralize those modern added layers. Hence the savage ape man, wolf-dog and giant dragonfly.

Weak (Missing) Link -- Shown in the first couple minutes of the movie, Professor Blake's collection of anthropoid face sculptures is a classic linear progression. A quick-eyed viewer might spot Piltdown Man in the line. This "early human ancestor" was finally confirmed as a hoax in 1953, fabricated from a modern human skull fragment and an orangutan jaw. Scientists might drop bogus facts quickly, but the public tends to hang onto them -- especially if they fit the mental model.

Neo-Neitzsche -- Near the end, Donald gives a little monologue on mankind. "It's the savage in man which science must meet and defeat if humanity is to survive." This was a rather Neitzschian view, that mankind was evolving into a better being, leaving behind his brutal self. Note, too, the science-as-savior angle. Mankind's savage nature (evil) was something chemical which science could cure.

Bottom line? MoC is a notch above the typical B-movie fare of the late 50s. It's production quality is enjoyable. The recast of Jekyll and Hyde is entertaining too. A triple feature of the 1931 Jekyll & Hyde movie, the Hideous Sun Demon and MoC, would be fun.

2 comments:

Darci said...

This idea had been explored earlier in The Neanderthal Man (1953).

John Drake said...

Howdy,

It is entertainment, sorta of.

I always like watching Arthur Franz - not one of his best vehicles.

Whatever you do, defrost seafood in the refrigerator - not on a cart in the lab.

John