This week I got to watch a rather enjoyable movie for the 12th installment in the Forgotten B&W Horror series. With this entry, we look at Monster on the Campus, a 1958 teenage drive-in movie that was sure to cause your girlfriend to hide her face in your chest.
Director Jack Arnold, whose cult-classic Tarantula I possibly reviewed a little harshly, gives us the story of a college professor and his unfortunate encounters with gamma rays, fish blood, and prehistoric man. Sounds fun, right?
Monster on the Campus starts with a series of sculptures showing mankind’s evolution. We then see our hero, Professor Donald Blake, using his girlfriend to create a plaster cast for his newest sculpture in the series – “modern woman”. This is how we learn Professor Blake is an expert on evolution. Next we see a frozen coelacanth (an ancient species of fish thought to be extinct for millions of years before its rediscovery in 1938) being delivered to the Prof’s laboratory at the local college.
While being unloaded, the quickly melting fish apparently loses a lot of bloody water into the street, where the German Shepherd pet of Jimmy (a poorly-acted role by future 1960′s heartthrob Troy Donahue) drinks the water and promptly devolves into a wolf-like state. After examining the dog for rabies, Prof Blake suddenly remembers his melting fish and puts it in his walk-in refrigerator, where he is accidentally “bitten” by the dead fish. Through the course of the movie, we see Professor Blake turning into a sub-human man on several occasions, each leading to the death of yet another person. Along the way, he tries to solve the puzzle of these mysterious devolvings using his expertise on evolution. Eventually, it all comes to a tragic end.
Why This Movie Has Been Forgotten
It’s hard to pin down why this movie has been relegated to near non-existence among horror fans. The acting is mostly good, the plot moves along nicely, the special effects are pretty good for the time period, and the overall story is entertaining. I found a few flaws with the film, but not much.
Troy Donahue, as mentioned above, did a pretty poor job of acting, but his role was small. His wooden delivery of lines would have been much more distracting in a leading role.
There are a couple of factual errors: 1) the display of sculptures at the beginning of the film includes Piltdown Man, whose “discovery” in 1912 was discredited in 1953 – long before this film was made and 2) the Professor states the reason the coelacanth species hasn’t evolved in millions of years is some mysterious substance in its blood that actually prevents evolution. Strangely enough it is this substance that, when exposed to gamma rays, causes a reversal of evolution in the German Shepherd, a dragonfly, and Professor Blake.
Director Jack Arnold continues his use of the “scary” hand that opens a door or comes around a corner and precedes the full appearance of a monster. I hate that particular bit of directing, but my personal pet peeve probably has nothing to do with the millions of other horror fans dropping this film off their list of must-see movies.
The plot is a little too much like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, meaning everyone had already seen this film in a previous form.
Why Horror Fans Should Watch This Movie
This film has a lot to recommend it to horror fans: it’s a well-done version of the archetypical Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plot that gives us some mildly scary moments, some good lessons in how to be noble if you’re an accidental murderer, and possibly the first reference to gamma rays making a man more bestial and strong. I daresay it could have inspired Stan Lee when he was creating The Hulk, despite Lee’s saying he was inspired by Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein. I think he’s lying.
The art on the wall of Professor Blake’s office looks like Chagall’s work. How often do you see such awesome art in a B movie? And if you know the artist responsible for the fish image by the professor’s door, let me know in the comments.
Blake offers up one of the greatest lines in movie history when his girlfriend’s face is encased in plaster to create a mold for his sculptures – “Ah, the human female in the perfect state – helpless and silent”. Try saying that to a woman today and you’re liable to get a kick in your giblets.
The cars of the 1950′s are incredible!!
I think two different horror classics are foreshadowed in this movie. To begin with, while our hero Professor Blake is solving the mystery of the devolved beings, he tracks down the man from Madagascar who sent him the coelacanth – a guy named Dr. Moreau!
The second horror classic I spotted here was The Evil Dead. If you recall, the demons in The Evil Dead are released when a reel tape recorder at a cabin in the mountains plays a professor’s voice as he reads from the Book of the Dead. In Monster on the Campus, Professor Blake heads to a cabin in the mountains that looks a lot like the interior of the cabin in The Evil Dead. He then proceeds to use a reel tape recorder to document his experiments with the fish blood. To top it off, he sounds a lot like the professor’s voice in The Evil Dead. I got a little creeped out watching this scene!
Monster on the Campus is definitely an underrated gem. The story is good, the monster is a little scary, and this film was responsible for The Hulk, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Evil Dead! Ok, maybe not – but you should still watch it.
This article was first posted on October 16, 2012