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!”