November 25, 2014

The Day the Blog Stood Still

hi·a·tus   noun \hī-ˈā-təs\
: an interruption in time or continuity : break; especially
: a period when something (as a program or activity) is suspended or interrupted
Courtesy of Merriam-Webster

Still - The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Gort, I'm going to take a nap. Wake me up when the Earthlings
have learned to live in peace, love and harmony.
Four years ago, I boldly set out to explore strange old films, to seek out new life and new meaning in them, and to write about things few self-respecting adults have bothered to examine before.

Now, four years into the mission, I realize it's time to pull into the nearest port for some serious R&R.

I'm calling this a hiatus, because I want to keep all my options open. If and when Films From Beyond returns, it will probably be with a new scope -- more looks at other genres like film noir and westerns -- and a new format.

I've had a lot of fun with the blog. Here's a baker's dozen + 2 of the "best of the blog" (as determined by yours truly).

Safety Last: Close Calls in B Movie Stunt Work
Safety Last: Close Calls in B Movie Stunt Work

Fantastic Faceless Foes from 50s Sci-Fi
Fantastic Faceless Foes from 50s Sci-Fi

Alien Family Values
Alien Family Values

Don't Accept Dinner Invitations from Vampires
Don't Accept Dinner Invitations from Vampires

Two Heads are More Bitter than One
Two Heads are More Bitter than One

X Marks the Spot
X Marks the Spot

2163: A Czech Space Odyssey
2163: A Czech Space Odyssey

"Mommy Dearest, please put down that axe!"
"Mommy Dearest, please put down that axe!"

Science Meets Seance
Science Meets Seance

Dancing with the Horror Movie Stars
Dancing with the Horror Movie Stars

King Kitsch
King Kitsch

"Mummy will make it all better."
"Mummy will make it all better."

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Caveman
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Caveman

The Ronald Reagan Memorial Killer Tree
The Ronald Reagan Memorial Killer Tree

"Hang on to your parkas!"
"Hang on to your parkas!"

October 30, 2014

The Leech Woman's Kiss of Death: The Darker Shades of Coleen Gray

Poster - The Leech Woman (1960)
Now Playing: The Leech Woman (1960)

Pros: Memorable performances by Coleen Gray and Estelle Hemsley in strong female roles
Cons: Meandering script spends too much time on the build-up and not enough on June Talbot as the Leech Woman; the ending is forced and rushed

Special Note: This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's fall blogathon, "Forgotten Stars." Check it out and see how many names you can recall.

Lord help me, but I couldn't avoid noticing the media storm that recently erupted over Renee Zellweger's new look. With all the truly concerning issues in the news, it's tempting to just dismiss this as yet another trivial celebrity tempest-in-a-teapot, scarcely worthy of any serious person's time and attention. But then, as someone who is a bit age-challenged, it strikes a chord.

I don't want to join the ranks of those who have dumped on Rene for supposedly rejecting natural aging and setting an impossibly high standard for the rest of us. She did what she thought was right for her. On the other hand, she debuted her new look in a very public way, and her explanation that it's all due to healthy living and new love is, well, somewhat hard to believe. Her new face has become a sort of Rorschach test for the public. We see in her transformation what we want to see: a strong, proactive woman who's unafraid to take charge of her life and remake herself, or a somewhat sad, declining celebrity who, like so many before her, has made a Devil's bargain with the glamor industry to keep her looks and fame going for a while longer.

The CMBA Fall Blogathon Forgotten Stars
The glaringly obvious fact of the matter is that no one likes getting old. It has to be especially difficult for someone in the entertainment industry, who relies so much on his or her looks to stay popular and get work. In a culture where almost everything is acceptable, getting old is not. Inevitably, those distinctive features and quirks that make us so cute, endearing and approachable in our 20s and 30s get more pronounced and less endearing as we age. Renee decided to do something about it. It's hard to fault her.

Except that, in the end, you can't stop Father Time ® and you can't fool Mother Nature ™. We're not androids with replaceable parts (at least not yet). Even the best, most expensive surgeries and treatments leave us looking just a little unnatural to start, with no where to go but down. Once you start down that path, it's always just another nip here or a tuck there to keep looking like you. And pretty soon, you're staring in the mirror and seeing Joan Rivers or Mickey Roarke staring back, and you're wondering "where did it all go wrong?"

In Universal-International's The Leech Woman (1960), an aging, alcoholic housewife, June Talbot (Coleen Gray), transforms into a take charge kind of woman who manages to jettison an abusive husband while discovering a unique way to recover lost youth and beauty. But this being a sci-fi-horror-thriller with overtones of a morality play, she too ends up wondering "what went wrong?" as Father Time and Mother Nature get together to exact a terrible vengeance on this woman who dabbled in things better left alone © ® ™.

Lobby card - The Leech Woman - Jungle encounter
Paul is drafted into the pineal donor program.
At Leech Woman's opening, we're introduced to endocrinologist and world-class jerk Dr. Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry), who has his own selfish plan: get rich selling anti-aging cures to wealthy older women and divorce his wife, whose whining and neediness is cramping his style. A withered old African woman, Malla (Estelle Hemsley), comes to the office to consult the doctor. She claims to be over 150 years old, and his initial tests do indicate extreme old age. His interest is piqued when she attributes her longevity to a mysterious anti-aging powder, Nipe, that her mother gave her when she was a child. She wants to return to her village to secure an additional substance that, mixed with the powder, will actually reverse the aging process. If the doctor wants in on the secret, he will have to help her get back to her people, the Nandos.

The skeptical doc at first begs off, but after Malla ingests some of the powder, subsequent tests verify its miraculous properties. With $$ in his eyes, Talbot announces his discovery to June and family lawyer Neil Foster (Grant Williams). The divorce is off, and June is to come to Africa with him to uncover Malla's secret of eternal youth. The desperate woman takes her husband's sudden change of heart at face value. However, once she sets out on the jungle expedition with Paul and guide Bertram Garvey (John Van Dreelen), she learns there's a catch: she's to be the guinea pig to see if the youth treatment really works. If she's going to be a guinea pig, then hubby is going to pay a steep price.

Vintage postcard, St. Augustine, Fla.
If only Paul had taken his wife to St. Augustine instead...
The group is captured by Malla's tribe, and they're finally allowed to witness the secret of youth restoration in a typical B movie jungle ceremony full of witch doctors, skulls, and smoking cauldrons. There's another catch-- the rare orchid powder must be mixed with the fresh pineal gland fluid of a healthy young male to achieve its dramatic age-reversing effects. The witch doctor uses a ring outfitted with a curved, faceted blade to extract the fluid from the back of a young local’s neck. Once old Malla takes the compound, the smoke billows around the throne where she sits. When it clears, a beautiful young woman (Kim Hamilton) has seemingly taken her place.

The smokin' hot version of Malla ominously tells the group that they will never take the secret back to the States, and when she dies, they die too. Meanwhile they can have anything they wish except for their freedom. Paul asks that June be allowed to partake of the serum. June at first resists, not wanting to take another life, but when Paul makes it clear that the ceremony is to divert the tribe's attention to allow him and Garvey to escape, she gets a brilliant idea-- what better pineal donor than her selfish, abusive husband?

Just like Malla, a young, beautiful June emerges from the ceremony thanks to her dead husband. Meanwhile, Garvey sneaks some sticks of dynamite from the expedition’s captured provisions and lights a few sticks to cover their escape. As they make their way back to civilization, Garvey becomes very enamored of the rejuvenated June. Like the cat that swallowed the canary, he shows her that he also made off with the Nipe powder and ritual ring. Soon, they uncover another secret that Malla hinted at during the ceremony -- the treatment doesn't last very long. When June wakes up and discovers that she has reverted to a wrinkled old crone, she begs Garvey to help her. Stunned and disgusted by her appearance, he takes off into the jungle with June in hot pursuit. Bad move.

Garvey stumbles into quicksand, and in desperation trades the pouch of powder for June's help. As she pulls him free, she stabs him in the back of the neck for his pineal fluid and allows him to sink back into the muck.

Lobby card - The Leech Woman - June is cornered by the police
"So detective, it's now a crime to wear
a silver lamé dress around the house?"
Looking even younger and more beautiful, she flies back home, where she introduces herself to Neil and his new fiancée Sally (Paul's former assistant, played by Gloria Talbott) as June's niece Terry. June aims to get Neil for herself, but things get complicated as she realizes that without a steady supply of fresh pineal glands, she will almost literally dry up and blow away. She's trapped herself in the ultimate Devil's bargain and now she has to go on the hunt.

Universal-International made The Leech Woman as a second feature to accompany their U.S. release of Hammer's Brides of Dracula. It's tempting to write it off as just another exercise in low-budget movie making with sexist overtones typical of the era. Women were seldom allowed to be outright monsters, but when they were, their evil-doings were usually less ambitious and more self-centered. No designs on the world for these monstrous women -- instead it was all about keeping themselves eternally young and beautiful by draining the lifeblood of hapless victims (e.g., Dracula's Daughter, The Wasp Woman, Countess Dracula). The only time a woman can be truly evil, these films seem to say, is when her vanity is at stake. Now that's insulting.

But looking at it another way, The Leech Woman breaks the old sexist mold, empowers its female title character, and gets a dig or two in about the unjust inequality of the sexes. June starts out the film being an emotional punching bag for Paul, and we cringe when she happily agrees to accompany the a**hole on his safari. But she soon sheds the role of willing victim, turns the tables and takes the ultimate youthful power ride at his expense. She may not have thought it all the way through, but at least she's trying to take control of her life. The price of control is to become a monster, but the men in her life pushed her in that direction.
Publicity still - Coleen Gray as the Leech Woman
"Whoa, I can't believe my insurance doesn't
cover pineal gland extractions!"

During her rejuvenation ceremony, Mala solemnly sums up the age-old frustrations that turn some women into vain monsters:
"For a man, old age has rewards. If he is wise, his gray hairs bring dignity and he is treated with honor and respect. But for the aged woman, there is nothing. At best, she's pitied. More often, her lot is of contempt and neglect. What woman lives who has passed the the prime of life that would not give her remaining years to reclaim even a few of moments of joy and happiness, and know the worship of men? For the end of life should be its moment of triumph. So it is with the aged women of Nandos -- a last flowering of love and beauty before death."
The film's female characters all “flower” in their own ways: Malla claims the life of a young villager as her right as a matriarch of Nandos; June starts out weak and needy, but soon learns to take what she wants in short order; even Sally has the gumption to confront June/Terry and fight for her man. In contrast, the men are greedy cowards, or in the case of Neil Foster, clueless male eye-candy for the newly empowered June to desire.

According to sci-fi movie critic Bill Warren, Coleen Gray’s performance in an unusually strong female role was one of the few saving graces of the film:
"[C]oleen Gray’s performance is surprising. She’d rarely had a starring role before, and her few leads were mostly of the colorless hand-wringing 'Oh-Jed-don’t-go' type, or cheap molls, or the heroine’s girlfriend. She’d been in films since 1947, and in addition to starring in minor As and some Bs, such as The Sleeping City (1950), The Fake (1953), Twinkle in God’s Eye (1955) and The Black Whip (1956), she also appeared in Kiss of Death (1947), Red River (1948) and The Killing (1956). Her other genre films include The Vampire and Phantom Planet; she’s uninteresting in both. She made only a few more movies after The Leech Woman.
  Perhaps the strange, quasi-sympathetic role of June Talbot liberated or energized her; it’s one of the few really memorable performances of her career, and the greatest strength of the film." [Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Volume II, McFarland, 1988]
Filmfax magazine, No. 136, Winter 2014
Gray’s roles might not have been particularly energizing, but she got them with a one-two combination of pluck and luck that reads like the most hackneyed of Hollywood cliches. Born Doris Bernice Jensen, she grew up on dairy farms in Nebraska and Minnesota. Doris followed a boyfriend who had been drafted into the service out to California, and eventually wound up in Los Angeles. She auditioned for a part in a play at a small Hollywood theater (she’d done the play in high school), got the part, and sure enough, was noticed by a talent scout for Twentieth Century-Fox.

Like so many attractive aspiring actresses of the time, she was nearly swallowed up and spit out again by the crazy, impersonal studio system. But she possessed a guilelessness and fearlessness that baled her out on several occasions. In a Filmfax magazine interview, she relates how she almost lost a part in Red River (1948) with the legendary director Howard Hawks and John Wayne. She had successfully auditioned with Hawks for the role of Fen, but then learned that since the studio hadn’t okayed the audition in advance, they weren’t going to let her do it. She courageously made an appointment with studio head Darryl Zanuck, who was a fellow Nebraskan, and got him to green light the role. [Anthony Petkovich, “Gray Matter: A Delightfully Candid Interview with the Ever Youthful Coleen Gray,” Filmfax, No. 136, Winter 2014]

Of her “energizing” role as the Leech Woman, she remembers being amused:
“Loved it! It’s so hokey. We had such a fun time making it. We would laugh over it, and then we’d have to get serious. I mean, the pineal gland is in the middle of the head, so there’s no way by hitting someone in the back of the neck with this little ring with the spur on it that you’re going to get anything from the gland. The whole thing was hokey. And we’d laugh our heads off. But then we’d sober up and get to work.”
Publicity still - Coleen Gray
For Coleen, whether the work was on the set of Red River, Kiss of Death, The Phantom Planet, or The Leech Woman, she was above all a professional: “[E]verything I did, whether it was low-budget and/or a bad script, if you are going to do it and they’re paying you, you better believe in it and do it right.” [Ibid.]

After a promising start in Red River and in some of the most iconic and memorable film noirs of the 40s and 50s, she settled into what some would call Hollywood mediocrity. But her work ethic kept her going, and when the movie roles dried up, she transitioned successfully to television, appearing on some of the great series of the 60s and 70s like Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, Perry Mason, Mannix and McCloud. And when that was not fulfilling enough, she and her husband devoted their energies to helping prisoners through the Prison Fellowship outreach program.

She’s still going strong at the age of 91. If that’s not the secret of eternal youth, I don’t know what is.

Update: Ms. Gray passed away on August 3, 2015, at the age of 92. Rest in peace Coleen, you made your own special mark on the movies and gave us many fond memories.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

For her there could be no love... only endless horror!

October 10, 2014

Haunted Houses for Halloween: Special Unreal Estate Edition

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." -- Robert Frost
All well and good, but what if you share your home with ghosts? And the hand unlatching the door to let you in isn't a hand at all, but the skeletal fingers of a malevolent specter long dead?

As the days get shorter, the evenings get cooler, the house starts shifting ever so slightly, and the October night winds set the curtains fluttering, I've been thinking about this place called home. We go to great lengths to secure the best abode we can afford, signing away a good portion of our paychecks to rent or mortgages, then going out and spending even more on furnishings, appliances, decorations -- anything to make it distinctly ours.

Hill House, The Haunting (1963)
A man's home is his castle until it isn't. No matter how many alarms or dead bolt locks you install, there are all kinds of little creatures who will march, crawl, fly or slither into your attic, the basement, behind the walls, under the deck -- you name it -- stretch out their legs or wings, get comfortable, and think about a nice midnight raid on the kitchen.

You can call the exterminator or set traps yourself, but you know it's always going to be a rear-guard action. Common household pests are bad enough, but what if you’re one of the unlucky few who have to put up with ghosts along with all the other household annoyances? Exorcists are few and far between, and how do you go about booking one? Plus, there's always the possibility that the ghost considers you to be the annoying intruder, and bringing in a ghost buster might just escalate things instead of solving them.

It seems like ghost busters and whisperers have been in high demand on movies screens lately. The popularity of The Blair Witch Project (1999) unleashed a Pandora’s box office of malevolent spirits and entities in such films as The Others (2001), Paranormal Activity (2007) and its sequels/prequels, The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), The Conjuring (2013), etc., etc. Better still, most of these films at least attempt to generate some real suspense, vs. simply shocking audiences with gross-out gore.

But since this blog is dedicated to oldies, I’ve searched the most remote, shadowy corners of the internet to come up with a poster tour of classic haunted house films -- 13 of 'em -- for your enjoyment and edification this Halloween season. Most are readily available on DVD and/or for streaming.

Still, The Haunting (1963)
There are much worse ways to spend an October night than to pop one of these into your DVD player and give it a spin. Just don't freak out afterwards and start imagining that every little creak you hear has a supernatural origin. It's probably just a rat or a bat making himself at home.

Poster - Terror in the Haunted House (1958)
Aka My World Dies Screaming, 1958.
"And then through the branches of the old trees I see the house again. It sits there waiting for me. Silent, malignant. A place of unspeakable horror." -- Sheila Wayne (Cathy O'Donnell)

Poster - The Innocents (1961)
"It was only the wind, my dear." Miles (Martin Stephens)

Poster - Hold That Ghost (1941)
"Oh a bed, that's just what I need, a nice big bed to hide under." Ferdie (Lou Costello)

The Haunted Palace (1963)
Tagline: A warlock's home is his castle...Forever!

Poster - House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Tagline: First Film With the Amazing New Wonder EMERGO:
The Thrills Fly Right Into The Audience!

Cover art: House of Darkness (1948)
Tagline: Love and Hate Under One Roof!

Poster - 13 Ghosts (1960)
Tagline: 13 Times the Thrills! 13 Times the Chills! 13 Times the Fun!

Poster - The Legend of Hell House (1973)
"This house... It knows we're here." Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin)

Poster - The Ghost Breakers (1940)
"Listen, you stay there, and if a couple a fellas come runnin' down the stairs
in a few minutes, let the first one go. That'll be me." Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope)

Poster - House of Usher (1960)
"If the house dies, I shall die with it." Bristol (Harry Elerbe)

Poster - The Uninvited (1944)
"They call them the haunted shores, these stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall and Ireland which rear up against the westward ocean. Mists gather here... and sea fog... and eerie stories..." Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland)

Poster - Castle of Blood (1964)
Tagline: They love only for blood!

Poster - The Haunting (1963)
"It was an evil house from the beginning - a house that was born bad."
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson)

September 14, 2014

Everything I Know I Learned From B Movies: Rockin' Reform School Confidential Edition

I’m very ambivalent about the prospects for kids coming of age today, the millennials, ‘tweeners and all the other groups that pop sociologists love to label. On the one hand, young people seem to be rightly skeptical of all the hoary old B.S. that people of my generation hold near and dear. They are spiritual, but they are turned off by organized religion’s many and egregious hypocrisies. They want to live and let live. And they are far less predisposed to scapegoat society’s poorest and least powerful members for our collective faults.

Poster - High School Caesar (1960)
On the other hand, while they are smart, clever and the best educated generation in history, they seem especially ill-equipped to meet life’s mundane challenges. It’s not their fault. They’ve been hovered over and protected, had all the important decisions made for them, and been told over and over how dangerous and treacherous the world is. It’s no wonder they’ve retreated to cell phones, texts and selfies as their preferred means of interacting with the world.

A new poll illustrates just how far we’ve come down this well-intentioned, yet dim-witted path. Sadly, 68 percent of adult respondents to a Reason-Rupe poll think that it should be illegal for parents to let kids 9 and under play outdoors unsupervised. Huge percentages would apply it to 12 year olds as well. Boston College Psychology professor and author Peter Gray was prompted to say, “I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, anytime, that underestimates children's abilities more than we North Americans do today.”

It wasn’t always so. When I was a kid, parents shooed their snotty brats out the door so they could relax, whip up a batch of martinis, smoke a cigarette or two and have a nice adult conversation. We’d get on our bikes and head out to the nearest construction site, where we’d hurl dirt clods and chase each other around with rusty pipes.  Sure, we sometimes got hurt, but Mom would spray some Bactine, slap on a band-aid, and we’d be good to go.

Poster - Reform School Girl (1957)
This was of course before the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, when your TV antenna only got 3 fuzzy channels or so, and those channels actually signed off for the night. Back then, if we’d been subjected night and day to the talking chuckleheads of cable news instead of reassuring old Walter Cronkite, we’d have been scared silly too.

Parents of that era weren’t uncaring monsters. It’s just that they realized that kids needed some space to be themselves, make mistakes, and learn some responsibility. And if the adults got a little me time out of the bargain, all the better. Sure they worried — what generation in recorded history hasn’t fretted over the avoidable mistakes that their progeny insist on making? But they also would have found it demented to call the cops on parents who let little Johnny or Susie have some unsupervised time at the local park.

With any generation there will be problems and challenges, and society’s worries about Johnny and Susie inevitably came out in the popular culture. Movie screens especially were filled with rebels without causes, hot rodders, reform school girls, juvenile delinquents and even a teenage werewolf and Frankenstein monster. But in between stints in juvie detention centers, the kids of 50s B movies also took heroic action and warned clueless adults of invasions by alien saucer men, voracious blobs and giant gila monsters.

What if ‘50s movie parents had been too afraid to let their kids out at night? What if it had been illegal for kids to mess around on their own? They’d have all been Blob food, or herded around like cattle by pitiless alien invaders. Something to think about as you kick back, smoke your cigarette and sip your martini.

Poster - The Blog (1958)
"Just because some kid smacks into your wife on the turnpike doesn't make it a crime to be 17 years old."— Lieutenant Dave (Earl Rowe), The Blob (1958)

"I wouldn't give much for our chances, us running around in the middle of the night, looking for something that if we found it, it might kill us." — Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen), The Blob (1958)

"The only problem children I know are the ones that have problem parents, which leaves us out. Cheers, darling!" — Jack Staples (James Todd), High School Confidential! (1958)

"If there’s anything I like better on a hot day, it’s a cool chick!" — Jackie (Ralph Reed), Reform School Girl (1957)

Tagline: Prehistoric Rebels Against Prehistoric Monsters! — Teenage Cave Man (1958)

"These aren’t kids. These are morons!" — Detective, The Violent Years (1956)

"Would you rather be dead with him or alive with me?" — Georgia Altera (Mamie Van Doren), The Beat Generation (1959)

Frankie Dane (John Cassavetes): "Look, what do you want out of me?"
Ben Wagner (James Whitmore): "You're 18. I'd like to see you live until you're 21."
Frankie Dane: "Why?"
Ben Wagner: "So you can vote."  — Crime in the Streets (1956)

Tagline: She’s Hell-on-Wheels… fired up for any thrill! — Hot Car Girl (1958)

"You’ve gotta *bow* to authority!" — Bill Logan (S. John Launer), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

“Speak! I know you have a civil tongue in your head because I sewed it back myself.”  Prof. Frankenstein (Whit Bissell), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)

"Don’t hit me in the mouth again, you’ll break my dental plate." — Lillibet (Jeanne Carmen), Untamed Youth (1957)

Tagline: She turned a cool-school into a hot-bed of violence! — High School Caesar (1960)

Irma Bean (Mamie Van Doren): "When I want something, I want it now. Take me out there. Come on, Ralph."
Teen Boy: "Still on the prowl, huh?"
Ralph Barton (William Campbell): "Take it easy, boy." —Running Wild (1955)

"I expected to be frightened on my wedding night, but nothing like this!" — Joan (Gloria Castillo), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)

Arnie Haines (Alan Dale): "Well, we have a point to prove Mr. Everett. We'd like to show the rest of the country that Rock and Roll is a safe and sane dance for all young people."
Sunny Everett (Jana Lund): "It hasn't hurt me any, has it?" — Don’t Knock the Rock (1956)

Tagline: Teenage terrorists tearing up the streets! — Hot Rod Girl (1956)

Tagline: The FACTS about the taboo sororities that give them what they want! — High School Hellcats (1958)

Dan Carlyle (Lee Kinsolving): "Listen, I want to ask you..."
Police Captain (Stafford Repp): "You'll ask me *nothing*. It's about time you kids were seen and not heard! 30 seconds, alright, hook up those fire hoses!"  — The Explosive Generation (1961)

August 23, 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Caveman: Special Back-to-School Edition

Poster - Monster on the Campus (1958)
Now Playing: Monster on the Campus (1958)

Pros: Good production values, cinematography and direction
Cons: The clumsy, slow-witted protagonist provides unintentional comedy and gives science a bad name; Monster makeup is disappointing

So, are we human beings violent by nature or not? Typically, the scientists whose job it is to investigate this stuff tend to hedge their bets. Well, yes, they say, there is some evolutionary advantage in aggressiveness. It's easy to see that we've evolved into one of the most violent of species.  Yet the latest interpretations of fossil and archaeological findings show that early humans lived largely in peace, and weren't constantly bashing each other over the head with large clubs like our popular culture suggests.

Popular culture has long thrived on speculations about our essential nature. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll found a potion for distilling and freeing the evil in himself, which came to dominate and then entirely replace his "good" self. H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau discovered that no matter how much you try to civilize the beast, tooth-and-claw always reasserts itself. And in his epic prelude to 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick brilliantly and succinctly burned the image of the dawn of man, fueled by homicidal violence, into our brains.

2001: A Space Odyssey, Dawn of Man sequence (1968)
"Oh man, that's the third bucket of KFC I've polished off today!"
Ironically, even as modern man demonstrates his capacity for mindless violence over and over in the 24 hour news cycle, our early ancestors have been getting huge image makeovers in research articles and Geico commercials. Kubrick’s hairy killers have somehow morphed into gentle, awkward beings who are sensitive about their looks. Science has chipped in with an almost complete rehabilitation of everyone’s favorite Pleistocene scapegoat, the Neanderthal. The prevailing view now is that they were as smart as our direct ancestors of the time, competent toolmakers, creators of art and jewelry, and compassionate caretakers. Kind of like the Geico caveman. It’s enough to make you think that maybe the real clumsy, unreasoning brutes are your contemporary friends, neighbors and elected officials ... not some poor hairy slob with a sloping forehead and protruding brow meandering around in the dim past.

Monster on the Campus brings paleo-man and modern man together in the body of one earnest, yet inexplicably clumsy scientist, Dr. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz). Blake becomes a sort of updated Jekyll and Hyde when he inadvertently (and repeatedly) exposes himself to the blood of a coelacanth (a prehistoric-like fish) that he’s studying. This being ‘50s sci-fi, Blake’s inner caveman is a ravening, unthinking, murderous beast. Back in those days, we just didn’t have the benefit of sophisticated paleo-archaeological studies painting a much different portrait of primitive man. It’s a good thing too, because I don’t think Blake transforming into a hairy, insecure and easily offended forerunner of the Geico caveman would have been nearly as entertaining.

Arthur Franz as Dr. Donald Blake
Remember kids, don't try this at home!
It all starts with the delivery of the coelacanth to Blake’s cozy laboratory. In his excitement to get the specimen into the lab, bloody run-off from the packing crate sloshes into the street, where a German Shepherd belonging to one of Blake’s students laps it up. The dog suddenly turns vicious, attacking Blake and his fiancee Madeline (Joanna Moore). Blake and Jimmy, the deliveryman and the dog’s owner, manage to wrap the beast up in a blanket and stash him in a cage to be tested for rabies.

When the local doctor’s nurse comes over to the lab to pick up saliva samples for testing, Blake tells her the dog has no rabies symptoms. He’s just vicious, and has very long teeth, like a prehistoric wolf’s. Before they run back to the doctor’s office with the samples, Blake picks up the coelacanth to move it to cold storage, cutting his hand on the dead thing’s teeth. As he struggles to put the specimen away, his cut hand slips into the water that the fish had been resting in.

At Doc Cole’s office (Whit Bissell), Blake complains that he’s not feeling well. Nurse Molly (Helen Westcott) agrees to drive him back home. When they get to his place, Blake is comatose, so Molly lets herself in to call Dr. Cole. As she’s on the phone, a shadow looms over her. She turns around and screams at what she sees…

Madeline starts to worry when Blake is a no show for their date. She arrives at Blake’s house to find the house torn up, and her own picture torn in half. She hears moaning coming from the back yard, and finds Blake lying face down, barefoot and semi-conscious. They’re not alone-- the dead body of nurse Molly is hanging by her hair (!?) from a nearby tree.

Joanna Moore, Arthur Franz and Phil Harvey as police sgt. Powell
"So detective, would you like to stay for cocktails?
Don makes a Bloody Mary that's out of this world!"
It all looks very suspicious to the police -- especially since the dead woman was clutching Blake’s tie clasp -- but a huge thumbprint on the torn photo and a misshapen hand print on a windowpane let the professor off the hook.

The police begin to think that Prof. Blake has a deformed enemy who’s trying to frame him for murder. They decide to assign a plainclothes cop to keep an eye on him. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s dog has reverted to his normal, lovable self, and exhibits no evidence of long, wolfish teeth. Blake insists that the dog had prehistoric characteristics, and is frustrated with everyone’s skepticism.

Before he’s had a chance to figure out what happened to the dog, he, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s girlfriend witness a two-foot long prehistoric dragonfly buzzing around the laboratory. Using the coelacanth as bait, Blake and Jimmy throw a net over the monstrous insect, but Blake has to stab the thing through its midsection to keep it from ripping through the net. Blake remembers seeing a normal dragonfly alighting on the fish specimen earlier in the day. Hmmmmm, something to think about in the privacy of your office while puffing away on your favorite pipe… a pipe that just happened to be under the huge dragonfly, leaking bloody fluid like a sieve as Blake moved it over to an examining table.

The monstrous, misshapen brute strikes again, this time tearing up the lab and killing the plainclothes cop shadowing the professor. Again, Blake is found at the scene, clothes ripped and semi-coherent. Blake may not be the brightest small-town college scientist ever, but the latest incident moves him into high gear. He calls the folks in Madagascar who supplied the fish and learns that it had been irradiated to for preservation purposes. So, to review (pay attention, there may be a quiz): radiation + coelacanth blood + accidental exposure/ingestion = regression to a primitive evolutionary state.

A prehistoric dragonfly dines on a prehistoric fish.
Time to call Orkin!

Blake’s department chair and prospective father-in-law, Prof. Howard (Alexander Lockwood) seems more concerned about the huge long-distance charges to Madagascar Blake has racked up than all the murders and chaos going on. He suggests that the discombobulated scientist take some time off, offering his cabin in the woods.

Blake, finally (!!) suspecting that he himself may be at the center of the bloody mystery, repairs to the remote cabin to experiment on himself and perhaps document one of the most astounding scientific discoveries of all time.

If Monster on the Campus is representative in any way of science as it was practiced in the twentieth century, then it’s a wonder that we managed to cure cancer, eliminate obesity, and enhance the IQ of every man, woman and child on earth through genetic engineering. (Oh wait, I double-checked and we haven’t done any of that. Hmmmmm……)

Dr. Blake gives absent-minded professors a bad name. He is a clueless, careless menace to himself and others. First, he hires a well-meaning but inept college student to deliver the precious specimen to the lab. Jimmy (played by soon-to-be teen heartthrob Troy Donahue in his first movie role) has about as much experience handling delicate lab specimens as the local butcher.

Dr. Blake begins his transformation
"Hmmm, maybe it's time to switch to one
of those fancy Gillette razors..."
Blake himself seems to know next to nothing about handling fragile specimens. He picks the ugly thing up with his bare hands to move it, promptly cutting his hand on its teeth. He leaves it out on a lab table for long stretches at a time, practically inviting dogs, dragonflies, microorganisms and anything else that might be wandering in and around the lab to feast on it.

Then he absentmindedly leaves his smoking pipe near the thing, and sure enough, Murphy’s Law goes to work-- as the fish gets jostled, more irradiated, bloody effluent drips unseen into his pipe. Later, as he takes a long draught from the pipe, he crinkles his nose at the strange smell and taste, but then continues to puff away!

But the real kicker is Blake’s inability to add 2 and 2 to get 4 (something of a deficiency for a scientist). He’s able to see quickly enough that ingesting bloody, irradiated coelacanth water causes living things to revert to primitive evolutionary states. And he’s aware that the murderer who appears to be stalking him has left misshapen hand and footprints more characteristic of a primitive anthropoid than a human being. He even comes to the conclusion that the killer must be someone with access to his lab who perhaps cut himself on the fish or otherwise exposed himself to the blood… uh-huh.

Let’s see now, we have two victims of a murderous subhuman thing, and in both cases, the befuddled doctor was found unconscious at the murder scene. Okay, so 2 and 2 is, uh, uh… As we watch Blake furrow his brow trying to piece it together, smoke practically coming out of his ears, we realize that denial is not just a river in Egypt, it is a state of being with poor professor Blake. It’s enough to make you want to throw your popcorn, or remote, or shoe at the screen.

Fortunately, Monster on the Campus is redeemed from such moments of unintentional comedy by good production values and solid direction. Russell Metty’s cinematography is top-notch. Much of Monster is shot at night, with ominous shadows looming everywhere and creepy clutching hands emerging out of the inky blackness. At times it has almost an “old dark house” mystery feel, and at other times it reminds you of sci-fried film noir.

The murderous anthropoid sneaks up on its next victim
"Hey, is that the pizza already? You guys really are fast!... uh-oh..."

The aftermath of the first murder is particularly well-staged. Donald’s moans from the backyard sound strange and half-human. As Madeline helps him stand up, in the background, like a luminescent specter, is the upright body of nurse Molly. Cut to a two shot, where we see Donald’s anguished face as he focuses on the body over Madeline’s shoulder. Madeline looks around and screams. Cut to a close-up of the body, which we see is hanging by its hair from the branch of a tree. Blood-curdling stuff for ‘50s sci-fi!

Of course, shadows and suggestion are not enough of a pay-off for drive-in audiences, so we do finally see the monster when Blake sets up his experiment at the cabin. The pay-off here is meager, as the stuntman doing all the heavy monster lifting (uncredited Eddie Parker) is outfitted with an unconvincing rubber mask complete with obvious eye-holes. More shadows and less rubber mask are clearly called for here. On the other hand, Blake’s old school, Wolf Man-inspired transformation is nicely done.

Stuntman Eddie Parker carrying Joanna Moore
"Is it my aftershave?"
Arthur Franz has been featured on this blog before. Like fellow B leading men John Agar, John Carradine and Robert Hutton, Franz was all over ‘50s sci-fi, taking a Flight to Mars in 1951, battling Invaders from Mars in 1953, testing The Flame Barrier in 1958, and commanding The Atomic Submarine in 1959.

Of course, director Jack Arnold helmed some of the greatest, most iconic sci-fi films ever, including It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Monster on the Campus is not in this league, but its deficiencies are not Arnold’s fault. His expert hand clearly overcomes a weak script and monster effects to make something very enjoyable, albeit campy. Arnold biographer Dana M. Reemes relates how the director, upon his return to Universal-International after pursuing other projects at MGM and Paramount, was assigned an exploitative B thriller tailored for the teenage drive-in market. A first time producer was also assigned. Arnold was not exactly thrilled:

Cover art: The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection"Joseph Gershenson was a very fine man who wanted like crazy to be a producer. Universal finally gave him his chance with Monster on the Campus and I was assigned to direct. The science fiction craze was dying out and I didn’t want to do this kind of picture. But as a contract director I had little choice. I had to do it or risk being suspended. There were many problems with the script, but the studio liked it and wanted us to go right ahead with the picture. I tried very hard to do the best I could with it but we had a very tight schedule. If I had to do all over again with more time and a little rewriting I could make it a good picture. It’s not one of my favorites." [Quoted by Dana M. Reemes, Directed by Jack Arnold, McFarland, 1988]

Jack is a little hard on himself and his retrogressive monster movie. It’s an atmospheric, enjoyable B that scores high in repeat watchability. And it has an important message for all of humankind. As Prof. Donald Blake himself says,
"Unless we learn to control the instincts we’ve inherited from our ape-like ancestors, the race is doomed."
Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

“Horror that waited a hundred million years becomes a terrifying reality!”