In the 50s, atomic monsters or alien invaders were all the rage – from giant tarantulas to flying saucers – but despite their inability to destroy buildings, one other science fiction staple overshadowed them all, and that would be that of the mad scientist. In fact, many of the atomic monster that rampaged across America were created by such scientists “meddling in things that man must leave alone,” and today we will look back on one of the lesser known entries in this genre, Monster on the Campus. Directed by Jack Arnold, legendary director of such classics as The Creature of the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, we get a film that seems to be trying to say something – message pictures were nothing new to this genre – and with Monster on the Campus, you can certainly try and read some deeper meaning into the film, and many people have tried. But all I found was a film about a scientist who was a bit of a dick, nothing more, nothing less.The main character of Monster on the Campus is Dr. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) – sadly not the Donald Blake who turns into The Mighty Thor – a science professor at Dunsford University, who after receiving a coelacanth (a once presumed extinct fish) from a lab in Madagascar, he soon finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, when dead bodies start piling up around campus. Blake is impressed with the coelacanth’s ability to remain unchanged after millions of years. He informs college student — the fish delivery guy — Jimmy Flanders (Troy Donahue) that, “The coelacanth is a living fossil, immune to the forces of evolution.” Professor Blake lectures his students about evolution and de-evolution, telling them that man is the only creature that can decide whether to move forwards or backwards, and this bit of “science” proves he must have serious tenure because such spoken beliefs would get you kicked out of any credited college or university.
What Professor Blake will soon come to understand is that the coelacanth has irradiated blood – the lab that shipped the fish used gamma radiation as a preservative – and any ingestion of the blood will cause the victim to regress down the evolutionary ladder. Jimmy’s German Shepherd licks up some of the irradiated blood and becomes immediately vicious – while also sporting enlarged canines – and later, Blake cuts his hand while transporting the fish into storage – by stupidly sticking his hand in the fish’s sharp toothed mouth – and this results in Molly Riordan (Helen Westcott), assistant to fellow college professor Dr. Cole Oliver (Whit Bissell), being found hanging from her hair, dead in Blake’s backyard, with an unconscious Blake lying next to the body. The police rightfully suspect Blake in the woman’s death – his tie clip is even found in the poor woman’s hand – but when finger and hand prints of a much larger man are found at the scene, the police believe somebody might be after Blake.
Later, a dragonfly lands on the coelacanth for a little snack – which Blake seems to insist on leaving out unrefrigerated – and soon it is transformed into a prehistoric monster with a two foot wingspan. It at first buzzes around Jimmy and his college sweetheart Sylvia Lockwood (Nancy Walters) – despite dragonflies not having the ability to buzz – and it then enters Blake’s lab where, with the help of the two students, he is able to capture and kill the overgrown insect. Remembering that a dragonfly earlier drank from the coelacanth’s corpse, the professor starts to put two and two together, which means he’s about five steps behind everybody in the audience, but shit hits the fan again when he dribbles infected dragonfly blood into his pipe.
Once again, a prehistoric man rampages across the campus – this time killing the policeman sent to bodyguard Blake – yet despite the “evidence,” the college authorities do not hold with Blake’s theory that the killer is a de-evolved madman. It’s when Blake tries to explain to his colleagues, and the police, that this killer could be transforming into a Neanderthal – going step by step over how the events could have taken place – that it finally dawns on him that he himself is the Neanderthal, and because Blake is a complete dick, he doesn’t immediately come clean. Instead, he borrows keys to Dr. Oliver’s mountain cabin, so that he can go off and experiment in private. This, of course, results in a poor forest ranger (Richard H. Cutting) getting killed — an axe brutally embedded in his face — and Blake’s beautiful fiancée (Joanna Moore) being menaced by the monster. It is not until this moment that we the audience finally get to see what the Monster on the Campus looks like, and when we do, it is no wonder they kept it hidden until the end.
Monster on Campus is a weird combination of The Island of Doctor Moreau and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the scientist who sent Blake the coelacanth was even named Moreau – with Professor Blake transforming into a hideous creature that would terrorize the populace, but this movie lacks any of the thoughtful philosophies brought up by H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson in those stories. What we are left with is bottom-half Drive-In material – the disturbing death of Molly being the only moment that stood out for me – but at a brisk 76 minute running time, at least the film didn’t wear out its welcome. As mad scientist movies go, it’s not the worst example – with Blake being more of a jerk than truly mad – but overall, the film is a fairly forgettable entry in the genre.
Monster on the Campus (1958)
This is easily one of the lesser entries in the filmography of director Jack Arnold, but the cast all give decent performances – doing their best to sell the ridiculousness of it all – and there are some fun moments to be had.