Evolution is one such concept. If you haven't seen the following illustration or some variation, you must have been living under a rock or some oppressive Christian parents who want to keep trans women out of bathrooms but are okay with their sons being sexual predators:
That's not really how evolution works, however. I'm not going to go into the full details here because this is not a science lecture, but evolution is not a linear process at all. You can't trace one long straight line from single-celled organisms to humanity, despite what illustrations in elementary school textbooks may say. Nor does it necessarily require millions of years. In fact, it's a near-constant process--if it wasn't, nobody would ever catch a cold or the flu. Evolution is a constant state of organisms adapting to their environment through mutation--whichever organisms are born with the best mutation for their environment get to go on and have more mutant offspring, and so on.
Yet popular culture continues, to this day, to willfully misunderstand the process of evolution. Science fiction is especially guilty of this, often leaning too hard on the "fiction" part. Thus we have stories that treat evolution as a predetermined course that you can move forward and backward on. You end up with stories about people "de-evolving" back into their more primitive ancestors--even if those ancestors weren't ancestors at all!
As you may have guessed, today's feature is one such example. I'd cut it some slack for being from the 1950s, but even then we should have known better, damn it! (Incidentally, you know you're a certain type of nerd when you're watching the credits and go, "Hey, Whit Bissell is in this!")
The film opens as Jimmy Flanders (Troy Donahue) swings by his frat house in a refrigerated truck to pick up his German shepherd, Samson. Jimmy is making a delivery to the biology department. At said department we are introduced to a series of "life masks" showing the various hominids leading up to what is listed as "Modern Man." One of those life masks is for "Piltdown Man", which was recognized as a hoax in 1953. We're maybe 2 minutes in and the film has already declared it can't be bothered to have its science even within 5 years of being up to date.
Well, those busts notably end with a plaque for "Modern Woman" that is missing its mask. We are then introduced to our mad scientist for the evening, Dr. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz), as he looms into frame and jokingly intones, "Ah, the human female in the perfect state: helpless and silent." He is not, as you might expect, looming over his latest victim but rather a woman currently covered in the plaster for the mold of her life mask. After threatening her with tickle torture, he helps her out of the mask and we discover she is his fiancee, Madeline Howard (Joanna Moore), who is definitely too good for our hero but you know how that goes.
After thanking her assisting him, Blake trails off into the expected musings about how the human race is doomed if we can't shake off the barbarous instincts of our ape-like ancestors. Madeline teases him about shaking off his instincts for their plans that evening, though you'd think she should be joking that he ought to embrace them. Their canoodling is interrupted by Jimmy pulling up in the ice truck and hollering that the delivery is already thawing out. Blake explains to Madeline that Jimmy has brought a specimen, which he mentions is the fish from Madagascar that her father let him order.
Jimmy notices that some water is dripping out of the truck and that Samson is drinking it. Jimmy drags Samson away by the collar, commenting about the "bloody water" since it's impossible to tell bloody water from regular in black and white. Blake excitedly joins Jimmy in the back of the truck as they open the box to reveal: the coelacanth within! Hilariously, the prop makers seem to actually have based the fish on an actual reference photo of a coelacanth, but apparently decided it didn't look prehistoric enough, so they added some horns on its snout.
|"Yeah, I got a rhinoplasty! Heh heh...look, my jokes haven't changed in millions of years, okay?"|
Of course, there's so much wrong with this I don't even know where to begin. For one thing, coelacanths are not "living fossils" because they are not the same species as were known previously only in fossil form. Modern coelacanths are bigger, for one thing, and have adapted to a deep water environment when their extinct ancestors preferred shallow waters. Also, it is impossible to be "immune" to evolution. Species may not need to evolve because they have found themselves at the most ideal niche, but that doesn't mean they stop evolving at an almost imperceptible rate. Just look at modern humans--the average human today is taller than the average human a hundred years ago.
However, coelacanths need to be immune to evolution for our plot to get into gear. Which it does when Madeline steps outside and discovers that Samson has suddenly transformed into a saber-toothed German shepherd! Madeline does not notice the fake fangs in the dog's mouth and thus is shocked when the normally gentle Samson attacks her. She manages to get back inside and slam the door in time for Jimmy to intervene and get his arm savaged for his trouble. Blake throws the tarp from the truck over Samson and...well, I'm not sure what he does with the bundled up dog because we then fade to a doctor's office, where Dr. Oliver Cole (Whit Bissell! Whoo-hoo!) is treating Jimmy's arm.
We do know that Samson hasn't been put down because Jimmy asks if his dog has gone mad in the present tense. Dr. Cole doesn't have an answer for that because it doesn't sound like rabies--still he wants to take every precaution, which oddly includes rubbing acid on Jimmy's wound! Cole advises Blake to examine Samson in his lab, and that Cole's nurse, Molly Riordan (Helen Westcott) will come by to get a saliva sample. Blake just requests that Molly pick it up by 7:30, as he has to help Madeline chaperon a dance that evening at 8.
In his lab, Blake toils over beakers, flasks, and a microscope--while the saber-toothed Samson snarls at him from a cage in the corner. Molly arrives just then and Blake hands her the saliva sample, which she avers that Cole won't want until morning. Blake tells her it's pretty clearly not rabies, since Samson doesn't exhibit any of the signs beyond being vicious. Blake has finally noticed the damn tusks, which he observes are odd.
"You know anything about paleontology?" he asks her. "I know that very attractive men study it," she replies while eyeing him hungrily. Blake gives her a look that seems at first to be disturbed, but then he quips that she should be careful because Samson is in no position to protect her. Dude! You have plans with your fiancee in half an hour and you're trying to rape-flirt with a hot nurse? You deserve your inevitable comeuppance.
Molly's face momentarily looks as suitably horrified as it should be, given he just implied that if she doesn't stop flirting with him he'll assault her, but she gets even more horrified when Blake keeps poking his hands just out of Samson's reach so he can point out that the dog has teeth like those of ancient wolves. Of course, if he means dire wolves, I'm afraid their teeth weren't really any more impressive than a modern wolf (or German shepherd), they were just larger animals overall.
Blake apologizes for frightening her, but then says that she rather frightens him. Molly looks offended as he goes to answer a phone call, but really she should just decide that Madeline can have this creep and go flirt with someone who's not a total ass. After assuring Madeline he'll make it on time, Blake goes to find Molly in the next room standing over the coelacanth and asking what it is. Blake explains it's a coelacanth and then says he better get it in the fridge before it spoils.
You don't say! What the Hell, Blake? It's been hours and you haven't found two minutes to put away a rare specimen before it's ruined?!
Blake enlists Molly's help in opening the fridge while he--picks up the coelacanth by the tail and mouth. Yes, he's carrying a fish with notoriously sharp teeth by the mouth. After making a joke that it's a relative of our ancestors, he sets the fish down on the table inside the walk-in fridge. In a totally shocking twist, he manages to get the thing's jaws closed on his hand and draws blood. "First time I was ever bitten by a fossil," he quips. It's not a fossil, you cretin!
Anyway, rather than dealing with the open wound on his hand he decides to have Molly--the person who could help him bandage his hand up and all--help him push the crate full of bloody coelacanth water out of the room. He plunges his wounded hand right into the water, of course, so I see we have an Idiot Picture going here. This is confirmed when, over Molly's chiding, Blake is sucking on his wounds when he walks back in. She asks where his first aid kit and he replies he doesn't have one! You work in a lab, you total nincompoop!
Well, Molly has one in her car and leads him out to get it. She flirtatiously jokes that he needs a nurse to take care of him, but then notices he's acting woozy and agrees to take him home right away. (Like she wasn't angling for that already) He's completely passed out when they arrive at his house, so Molly lets herself in to use the phone to call Cole. She is waiting for the other nurse to fetch Cole when a hairy hand opens the front door. When a shadow falls over her, Molly turns and freezes before letting out a horrified scream...
Meanwhile, Prof. Gilbert Howard (Alexander Lockwood) arrives home to greet his daughter, Madeline. The two briefly talk about how his "future son-in-law" was supposed to pick her up to chaperon the dance, before Howard is talking about how Dunsfield College having a coelacanth is going to really boost alumni donations and publicity. And in 1958, he's probably right. At any rate, a call for Madeline that results in the kind of movie phone conversation where the person we can't hear must be a cattle auctioneer takes place. Madeline learns that couples are showing up and the house mother isn't there, so she needs to get to the dance even if Blake hasn't shown up. Howard advises her to stop by the science building, since Blake may have lost track of time.
When Madeline arrives, she gets a false scare from Townsend (Hank Patterson), the night watchman, who came by to investigate the refrigerated truck that's still sitting open on the street. He lets Madeline in to the lab, where they discover that Blake is nowhere to be found. They also discover the Samson has returned to his normal, friendly self after Townsend ignores Madeline's warning and sticks his hand in the cage. He attributes this to his innate goodness with dogs, not being aware that we are clearly following werewolf rules here.
So Madeline goes to Blake's house instead. Finding Molly's car probably doesn't help her mood--the registration is helpfully stuck to the convertible's sun visor--but she forgets all about that whhen she gets inside and finds the living room looks like Keith Moon has been through it. She phones the police before she hears Blake groaning nearby. She goes in the bedroom and discovers that it is also a shambles and--horror of horrors--Blake has torn up the signed headshot she gave him! Is Madeline a model or actress or something? Because I don't think signed headshots have ever been a typical part of American courtship,
She follows the groaning to the veranda out back and finds Blake on the ground, nursing a typical lycanthropic hangover.We get an actually very effective shock set-up when she helps Blake to his feet and we see before they do that Molly is behind them, hanging by her hair from a tree branch with staring eyes and her throat bloodied. When Madeline sees she screams, which brings the two cops that have just arrived running to the back of the house. Blake's white, though, so nobody ends up shot. Instead, Blake mumbles to Madeline that he doesn't know how Molly got there as the cops hoist her down instead of waiting for forensics.
Lt. Mike Stevens (Judson Pratt) takes Blake's statement inside. He naturally doesn't buy Blake's story about not remembering anything after cutting his hand, and then Sgt. Eddie Daniels (Ross Elliott) brings in a tie clip found in Molly's hand. Blake recognizes it as his own, but Madeline tries to pretend he's never worn it before. So apparently she's either not an actress or not a good one. Blake thanks her for lying to the police, but still owns up to it being his clip and is therefore taken into custody.
Stevens turns the tie clip over in his bare hands, helpfully covering up any fingerprints it might offer, as Madeline insists Blake is innocent. Sgt. Powell (Phil Harvey) then calls Stevens over to show him the fingerprints on the torn photograph and a handprint left on the glass patio door. They not only don't match Blake's, they appear to be deformed. So, to Madeline's rather macabre delight that means Blake can go free after he's done being questioned.
Free to commit further crimes like lecturing his students about the coelacanth having been stablized for 200 million years. Humans are not stabilized, he claims, and unique among all living creatures can choose the direction their change can take. Um, what? Apparently man can "destroy all spirituality and reduce the race to bestiality"--a poor choice of words, there--or choose to advance beyond our wildest dreams. After he dismisses his class with that nonsense, Sylvia Lockwood (Nancy Walters) comments to Jimmy that sometimes Blake scares her--but Jimmy just wants to know how Samson is doing.
Blake shows them to the back office, where Madeline is watching Cole examine the dog. Obviously, dogs don't just get over rabies, so Cole is stumped. Blake proceeds to make himself look crazy by commenting about how Samson is a throwback with huge fangs--fangs that are no longer there. Cole waves it off as Blake's work getting the better of him, but Jimmy sure doesn't seem amused. Blake decides to take his mind off all that by showing Madeline her life mask. He uses this as another excuse to rant about how close humanity is to barbarism. We get it, already!
Madeline takes her leave of Blake after asking if there was anything between him and Molly. That really seems like a question that could wait, to me, but she is satisfied when he says Molly was attractive but he totally wasn't boning her. When she leaves, Stevens arrives and asks Blake, "One more time, are you sure no one hates you?" You mean, besides this reviewer? Over Blake's objections, Stevens advises he is going to assign Daniels as a bodyguard for him in case whomever killed Molly makes another attempt on his life. He then leaves Blake with the curious fact that Molly wasn't badly injured at all, in spite of the bloody corpse we saw earlier. No, what killed her was heart failure: she died of fright.
Daniels gets bored pretty quickly of watching Blake let the coelacanth rot on a table, but he's the one who notices a dragonfly has landed on the fish. I'm not sure what it's doing, but I'm pretty sure dragonflies don't feed on dead fish, so I don't see why Blake says there's no harm done because he has to dissect it, anyway. Blake sees something odd on microscope slide so he urges Daniels to follow him on a quick run to Cole's office. On the way they meet Jimmy and Sylvia, whom Blake tells to meet him at the science building to discuss Samson.
On the way there, though, Sylvia and Jimmy hear an odd buzzing. Sylvia spots the source of it, a shadow passing a street lamp. But Jimmy and Sylvia decide to have an intimate, tender moment near a tree before a really bizarre false scare involving the male half of a necking couple on the other side of the tree gropes her head. Look, if you're making out and your partner is able to put his left hand past you and over a tree branch to his right, something has gone awry. Jimmy and Sylvia laugh it off, though.
It turns out that Blake wanted to show Cole crystallized bacteria, which he has never encountered before even though he's heard of crystallized viruses. But Cole just sees bacteria, and when we see an insert shot of the bacteria, we see what are clearly sperm. Also, are they suggesting bacteria evolved from viruses? Because I'm pretty sure microbiology doesn't actually work that way. Anyway, feeling condescended to by Cole, Blake decides to tell the doctor that the infected bite on his hand was caused by being bitten by the coelacanth and then storming off without explaining that bizarre statement. At the science building, Blake is snippy with Jimmy and Sylvia but agrees to let them take Samson, while Daniels goes to the police call box to report in.
Howwever, when they go inside to get Samosn, the buzzing comes again. There's a knocking at the window and Blake raises the blinds to discover--a Meganeura hovering outside the window! (Sadly, not a Meganula, however) Sylvia's scream frightens it off momentarily, but Blake opens the window to let it in so he can capture it. Sylvia and Jimmy are not exactly down with this plan, but the Meganeura immediately flies in and alights upon the mask of a Neanderthal. And I have to say, it's a very mobile puppet--even if the wires manipulating it are clear as day on DVD.
|"Oh my God, are you James Coburn? I'm a huge fan!"|
It's hear that Blake figures out that feeding on the coelacanth made a regular dragonfly transform into this prehistoric creature, and he also finds out that Samson drank the fish's blood. He pretends like he thinks it's a crazy notion, but tells Sylvia and Jimmy as they take Samson home not to tell anyone so he can make the announcement himself. Naturally, we see that Blake stabbed through into the coelacanth, and as he carries the Meganeura over to his desk, he drips blood into his pipe.
Well, faster than you can say, "Put mutagenic coelacanth blood in your pipe and smoke it," Blake is getting woozy off the buzz. Before his wavy-lined vision, the Meganeura morphs back into a regular dragonfly and then Blake's hairy hand smashes it in a rather messy composite shot. Daniels hears the lab being trashed and rushes in, gun ready. He narrowly avoids the life mask of a gorilla being chucked through the glass of the lab door, and then finds that Blake has gone out the window leaving a shoe behind. Daniels pursues, firing once into the air to try and get the fleeing man to stop.
Glad to see police were always careless about discharging their firearms around unarmed people.
Failing to catch Blake, Daniels goes to the call box to let Stevens know that Blake is gone and he chased some kind of maniac from the scene. He doesn't notice the noir-like shadow advancing on him as he talks, until it's too late to do anything but stare and then scream into the phone as a hairy hand grabs his face.
|"I can't talk now, I'm being shadowed!"|
Howard thinks the footprints are faked, but Stevens is unsure that they are. He is certain that whomever left those prints and killed Daniels wants the police to blame Blake, but the fingerprints--which are not fake, he points out--don't match any known criminal in the police, FBI, or DMV databases. Blake for his part puts a call in to a Dr. Moreau in Madagascar (boy, that guy gets namedropped a lot, huh?), which...goes nowhere.
Blake is busy poking at the coelacanth when his class shows up and he tells them class is canceled. Jimmy hands Blake his pipe, saying he found it where Daniels was killed. Blake shrugs it off, but then Madeline shows up and points out that her father is already mad that Blake is telling the press about a murderous "subhuman" running around killing people, but he'll be really steamed if he finds out Blake isn't doing his damn job, Blake goes all mad scientist on her, blathering about disproving theories he was hired to teach. (Er, come again?) He won't rest, he says, until he finds the killer.
Dr. Moreau then returns Blake's call, and Madeline runs to tell her father that her fiancee is making calls to Madagascar on the company dime. Howard calls Cole to tell him to meet him at the science building. He's going to force Blake to take a leave of absence, and you'll note he's most upset about the calls to Madagascar at this point. Blake ends his call and is then confronted by Howard and Cole over the $400 phone call and is suggested a leave of absence until the police catch the killer However, they do grant Blake an audience to explain to them how this "subhuman" came to be.
Blake shows them coelacanth plasma, which he tells them not only "resists evolution" (the...the plasma resists evolution?), but when administered to another organism it temporarily reverses evolution. I...what? How exactly does that work? Cole points out that this is ridiculous because natives near Madagascar have been eating coelacanth for centuries with no regression. Although, actually nobody eats coelacanths because they taste awful and the heavy oils in their flesh basically make eating coelacanth a great way to, shall we say, bring the revenge of Montezuma down on your head. I think I'd prefer turning into an ape man.
Well, Blake has an answer for that: the coelacanth he received was bombarded with gamma rays (!) to preserve it for shipment. "It's the latest thing," he declares. Sure, okay. Blake goes off again on how much humanity wants to turn back into the beast before Cole asks how he thinks someone could have discovered how to turn themselves into a beast this way. And then, the film suddenly turns into a bit from a Zucker and Abrahams parody as Blake begins to realize that he's the monster but tries not to let on that he knows: first by saying the first transformation was clearly an accident caused by cutting themself on the teeth (Blake stares at his hand) but the second hand to be deliberate (Blake looks at his pipe in dawning realization and sniffs the plasma).
When Stevens and Powell arrive, Blake even more hilariously backtracks his earlier declaration and decides he'll take that leave of absence after all. Howard offers his cabin. Blake naturally uses this a chance to record a confession on tape that he knows he must be the murderer and is about to deliberately turn himself into the monster. He sets up the 1958 version of a selfie to record his transformation,
Of course, Jimmy and Sylvia chose just then to go to Madeline and tell her about the Meganeura being real. Naturally, she decides she has to go to the cabin. (Thanks a lot, Jimmy) However, Blake is already being annoyed by another extraneous character as a knock at the door turns out to be Tom Edwards (Richard H. Cutting), a nosy forest ranger. Look, movie, we're an hour in and you barely run 80 minutes. Now is not the time to introduce more characters! This isn't exactly a body count picture, after all.
Blake gets rid of Edwards after being told that the ranger's station is just down the road, and proceeds to inject himself with the plasma. So now it's time for him to cross dissolve into--an ape man! And, oof, what a sorry sight it is.
|Oh, sorry, that's Mark Jeffries, former CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch. My mistake!|
Maybe I'm giving Patrick's talents too much credit, but it wouldn't be the first or last time a man threw a hissy fit because a woman did his job better than he could.
Well, at any rate the ape man responds to the sight of the tape recorder by flipping the table and sets off the various cameras, which he then also tries to smash before grabbing a hatchet to play with it, Before you know it, he's smashed the window and escaped. Meanwhile, Madeline has been driving over to the cabin and blows past Edwards at his station. She almost runs Blake down, but when she sees his mutated face she drives off a ledge and is knocked unconscious by the time her car rolls to a stop.
Yep, it's time for the monster to fulfill the "carrying the heroine around" part of his contract. Well, after he scares off Edwards, of course. Edwards runs back to his station to fetch his gun and call the police. When Stevens gets the call about a half-man, half-ape, he doesn't waste any time loading himself, Powell, and Howard into a police car and speeding to the cabin. Edwards, for his part, goes to the cabin to fetch Blake--but of course finds an empty cabin. It just so happens that the monster has set Madeline down near the cabin and she wakes up, sees the ape-man, and screams her lungs out. Edwards arrives in time to see her faint again under the beast's rough advances, but his attempt to sneak up on the monster is ruined when he steps on a branch. He succeeds in putting a bullet in the creature's shoulder, but the creature succeeds in throwing the hatchet--and burying it in Edwards' face!
Well, shit, I guess this kind of is a body count movie.
Madeline wakes up and flees to the safety of the cabin, while her pursuer passes out from its wound. However, when Blake appears behind her in the cabin, wearing the same clothes and featuring the same shoulder wound, she doesn't put two and two together. When Blake develops a photo of himself after transforming into the beast, she comments, "He's wearing your clothes," but she still doesn't get it. Look, I realize it was 1958 but was it really necessary to make the heroine this fucking stupid?!
Blake pockets the photo when the cops arrive at the cabin, though. He tells them that the beast is not dead but he knows where it's hiding. He tells Madeline he loves her and begs her to stay in the cabin, which she does. He then grabs a syringe of coelacanth plasma and after he leads the three other men into the woods, he takes Howard aside so he can make sure Howard understands wants going on as he turns into the ape-man one last time. Howard's pleas for the cops not to shoot is not listened to and Blake is gunned down. Stevens and Powell turn out to be almost as dumb as Madeline when they ask where Blake is and Howard points to the corpse as it turns back into Blake. The End.
And note that, at this point, poor Madeline doesn't even know that her fiance is dead. Way to make the heroine totally superfluous, movie!
All in all, I have to say that Monster On The Campus isn't actually all that awful. It tells very much the same story as the earlier B-Movie about de-evolution, The Neanderthal Man, but is definitely a better film overall. While the monster make-up isn't all that much better--both are terrible masks--the story is a bit more focused and it lacks the hilarity of the plush sabre-tooth tiger head. Though I naturally find that an endearing trait about the earlier film.
Obviously, as I've stated the two biggest hurdles to a modern viewer is that the science is painfully awful and the hero is a total jackass. The former is actually kind of part of the film's charm, as it makes it a hilarious experience. The latter, on the other hand, I honestly can't tell whether it was intentional or not.
After all, a hero who's a sexist and makes jokes about rape as a flirtation tactic? In 1958 that was probably expected to be an endearing trait.
Still, Blake can be a seriously unlikable jerk and I think we would be expected to feel that way about him even in 1958. After all, he is a scientist, right? Though God knows what kind of scientist, since he has the office of an anthropologist but is tinkering with coelacanths and talking about paleontology and microbiology when he's not ranting about the fundamental flaws of humanity. So, basically, a Movie Scientist.
The other problem, one could argue, is that the film's title is a tiny bit misleading. Yes, Blake is working at a college and yes he does transform and go on the rampage on the campus...once. The first time he transforms at home, and after he transforms the second time he ends up at a cabin many miles from any campus! The title, and the poster for that matter, seem to promise a fiendish beast menacing coeds--but the creature never attacks any students!
In the end, I find this film a fascinating slice of cheese with some hilariously dumb science on display. However, while it's definitely no lost classic like some of Jack Arnold's other genre films from the 1950s, it has a lot going for it. For one thing, it has an earnest adherence to tropes that were well-worn even by 1958--in a later film, this might feel reflexive or self-referential, but here it's rather charming. Yes, it's a boilerplate mad scientist story with a bit of the Hollywood werewolf mixed in, but that somehow adds to the charm.
Would I recommend it? To a genre, fan, absolutely. To a more general viewer, I'd point them towards an actual classic like The Creature From The Black Lagoon or The Incredible Shrinking Man, just to name a couple of the director's better films. Naturally, I'd also recommend this to a scientist, since they'd no doubt laugh themself silly.
And while I'm making recommendations: seriously, don't pick up a coelacanth by the mouth, folks.
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