Monster on the Campus: Another winner from Jack Arnold
In the five-year period 1953 – ’57, director Jack Arnold brought forth five sci-fi/horror classics that are still beloved by psychotronic-film fans today: It Came From Outer Space (’53), Creature From the Black Lagoon (’54), Revenge of the Creature (’55), Tarantula (also ’55) and one of the all-time champs, The Incredible Shrinking Man (’57). Following up Arnold’s string of crowd-pleasing entertainments came the lesser-known Monster on the Campus in 1958, a picture that, as it turns out, is just as much fun as the others.
In the film, we meet a likable and soft-spoken professor at fictitious Dunsfield University, in California; a biologist named Donald Blake (a name that perhaps influenced Stan Lee four years later when selecting a moniker for Thor’s alter ego!). When we first encounter Blake, he is very excited about the arrival of the school’s latest prize acquisition, a preserved coelacanth from the seas off Madagascar. (It should be remembered that the coelacanth, a fish believed to have gone extinct 65 million years ago, was initially caught off the coast of South Africa 20 years previous to this film, in 1938.) But problems arise when it turns out that this fish had been preserved with pesky gamma radiation, and that its blood has a tendency to revert those who touch it or drink it (or, as happens in the film, even smoke it!) to their earlier evolutionary form. Thus, before long, a prehistoric dog, a giant dragonfly and a decidedly simian maniac are all terrorizing the area around Dunsfield U…
Monster on the Campus, cheaply made as it is, is an efficient little thriller, compactly told (the whole thing clocks in at 77 minutes) and often fairly exciting. Arthur Franz is very ingratiating as Blake, and the creature that he turns into both looks and sounds pretty frightening. While some have complained about Blake’s overly slow realization of his own transformations, this fact did not bother this viewer as much as the film’s ending; without giving anything away, let me just say that I wish the picture could have concluded otherwise. Joanna Moore, future mother of Tatum O’Neal, is quite good as Blake’s fiancée here, and displays convincingly real terror when confronted by the titular killer. The picture boasts any number of memorable scenes, my favorite being the initial appearance of that giant dragonfly as it beats against a windowpane; somehow, this sequence brought to mind the scene with the giant bugs on the supermarket windows in Frank Darabont’s 2007 horror masterpiece The Mist. Director Arnold keeps his film moving along nicely, and if the picture’s FX don’t match those in some of his earlier sci-fi films (especially those to be found in The Incredible Shrinking Man), they are nonetheless cheesily endearing; I love the look of that dragonfly in repose!
In all, a wholly likable ’50s sci-fi/horror outing, surely deserving of a greater renown. I would like to add here that 1958 also saw the release of another Jack Arnold sci-fi film, The Space Children, which I have never seen, as well as the Arthur Franz sci-fi picture The Flame Barrier, which I haven’t seen since the early ’60s on NYC television. Both have never appeared on either VHS or DVD, and both are films that really ought to see the light of the digital day soon. Studio heads, please take note!
Is this the movie where they pronounce the fish “Koala-canth” and there’s a “giant” dragonfly that looks like a radio-controlled toy?
That’s the one, Marion!
I loved the dragonfly. Scary!