Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 14, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 13

Monster on the Campus (1958)

“Monster on the Campus” gets to its premise quickly. The film begins by panning across a series of face molds, showing man’s evolution through the ages, from ape-man to modern man, just in case the viewer didn’t understand that. Despite the title summoning images of sorority girls stalked by some sort of monster, “Monster on the Campus” is actually about a college professor. Dr. Donald Blake, an evolutionary biologist, comes into possession of a coelacanth specimen. Before the fish is even unveiled, a student’s dog drinks some of the water it was preserved in. Seconds later, the friendly German Shepherd has transformed into a vicious, ancient wolf. When Dr. Blake cuts his hand on the coelacanth tooth, he too transforms. Campus police are baffled by a series of murders apparently committed by a deformed man while Dr. Blake slowly begins to unravel the truth.

“Monster on the Campus” is essentially a werewolf story. After being bitten by the dead fish, Blake transforms unwillingly, another mind taking over his body. The professor does not remember the transformations. It’s not until half-way through the film that Blake even realizes he is the were-ape. Like the werewolf, the Ape-Man kills seemingly because it’s in his nature. The movie even seems to acknowledge the connection during Blake’s only on-screen transformation, when the make-up fades over his body the same way it did to Lon Chaney back in 1941. There are differences, of course. The condition isn’t commutable and a bullet of the non-silver variety is enough to put the monster down. However, the ape monster is as much a symbol of man’s inner animal as the werewolf is.

Rewatching these fifties sci-fi flicks this fall has really made me appreciate Jack Arnold. When many of the films have such bland, forgettable direction, Arnold always put the extra effort into his picture. “Monster on the Campus” is by-far the best looking film of his career. Arnold holds off on showing the monster until the last act. In many ways, he extends the opening scene of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” to feature length. The shot of the Gillman covering a victim’s face with its claw is almost recreated completely here. Shadows are used excellently. The monster is seen approaching its victim across the lawn, his shadow cast over the unaware man. One transformation is shown from the doctor’s point of view, his world-view shaking and quivering as he turns from man to monster. Non-caveman-related sequences build suspense as well. A pair of college students walk across campus, hearing the buzzing of the giant dragonfly. The two stop behind a tree to canoodle, a hand creeping over the girl’s shoulders. Amusingly, the sequence has a comical pay-off, the hand belonging to another canoodling couple on the other side of the tree. In general, Arnold’s frames have a deep, rich quality to them. Disappointingly, this would be the director’s last horror film, the filmmaker mostly focusing on television for the rest of his career. 

It’s a good thing the monster is kept off-screen for most of the run time. The Were-Ape is not Bud Westmore’s best work. Stuntman Eddie Parker, stepping in for leading man Arthur Franz, wears a not exactly convincing mask. His eyes peer out of awkward holes while the lips extend outward, mostly unmoving. If you thought Lon Chaney Jr. looked goofy as a Wolfman in a work shirt and pants, wait until you see this. The Neanderthal Man’s muscles bulge out of a flannel shirt, his oversized Popeye forearms looking especially ridiculous. There’s a reason the poster art just has the monster going shirtless. The performance is a bit awkward as well, the monster waving his limbs back and forth or stumbling to the ground. Even then, the climatic scene of the monster tearing up a cabin half-way works. The giant dragonfly isn’t the most convincing special effect either. It’s a cool model but the wires operating it are frequently visible.

Far more effective then the monster make-up are the performances. Arthur Franz actually does a great job in the lead role. He plays Blake’s confusion properly, someone stressed out by the mystery and people dying around him. Franz’ best scene is when, while trying to prove to the University staff his theory about the irradiated coelacanth, he realizes he is the ape monster in question. Franz final confession to his love interest is heartfelt and mournful. I especially like his reading of the line about how some part of the monster has to love her. Joanna Moore as that love interest is more then just a damsel in distress. She has true chemistry with Franz and her growing concern over her love’s condition is easily readable. The two above-average lead performances root the slightly ridiculous material in some emotional truth, elevating the film overall.

It would have been nice if “Monster on the Campus” focused on that love story more, especially the bit about the monster loving the woman too. Ultimately, the script is somewhat thin and the central monster unimpressive. However, a talented director and leading man makes this short 77-minute film a fun, exciting bit of late night monster programming. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “Four-Sided Triangle

Aw man, Patricia Arquette is hot in this. I always try to prevent personal feelings from affecting my critical judgment, but she’s absolutely delicious in this. The short-blonde hair, dirty white tank top, torn but very tight jeans, and cutey-pie hillbilly accent is a combination that really does something for me. Her character also seems to have an aversion to wearing bras. I’m not the only one to oogle Patricia in this, as the camera lavishes attention on her, especially when she’s down on her hands and knees in the chicken coop. Arquette manages to make this probably the sexiest episode of the series, despite it not featuring any nudity. A sense of intense and frustrated erotic longing fills “Four-Sided Triangle.”

It’s another “Tales” episode about infidelity. This time, a redneck farmer is developing lusty feelings for the teenage runaway they’re blackmailing into staying, much to the consternation of his haggish, crippled wife. The horror elements are light, provided by a conk-on-the-head aided hallucination of a walking scarecrow and some climatic pitchfork stabbings. There are only three characters in the episode and each actor gives a great performance. Chelcie Ross’ George should have been unsympathetic. He is, after all, nearly a rapist. However, his wife is so shrewish, and Arquette so intoxicating, he becomes sympathetic after all. Arquette allows for a bit of ambiguity in her character. Is Mary Jo the light-headed, spacey young girl she appears to be or, as the ending suggests, has the whole situation been plotted out to help her escape? Either way, Arquette is vulnerable, enchanting, and not just because of how she looks. Susan Blommaert’s Luisa is the wicked witch to Patricia’s imprisoned princess. She’s cartoonishly mean, the actress really hamming it up. Unexpectantly, Luisa shows a softer side at the end, once it’s too late.

Tom Holland returns to stylishly direct another episode. He obviously drawls on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” with bright blue skies, oppressively flat landscapes, and prominent placement of pitchforks. George’s erotic fantasies are created brilliantly and, once the scarecrow finally steps down from his perch to kiss Arquette, the camera spins around the two, symbolizing their passion for one another. As you can probably tell, “Four-Sided Triangle” is one of my favorite “Tales,” a funny and sexy parody of Southern American sexual woes. [8/10]

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