Isn't actually this whole thing improbable?
Only as improbable as life itself.
What do a dead coelacanth, a giant dragonfly, a vicious dog, and Piltdown Man have to do with a quiet suburban university? Well,
add in some awful makeup and 77 minutes of bad science and you have discovered the Monster on the Campus (1958).
Welcome to campus
The film opens on the campus of pleasant and oh so white Dunsfield University where paleontologist Professor Donald Blake is about to
receive a specimen of the coelacanthan "evolutionary throwback," a "living fossil, immune to the forces of evolution" (well, not
really: all living organisms are acted upon by natural selection, the mechanism behind evolution). Unfortunately, the fish begins to thaw
and bloody water leaks onto the ground by the transport van. There the lovable dog Samson laps it up. Not a good move.
Within minutes the dog goes mad. And becomes...I guess a saber tooth dogthree-four inch canines (that the Professor seems to
have to keep pointing out to people for some reason). Caged up, he takes a look at his fish (probably a better facsimile than one might
expect from a 50's monster movie). Then, moving it to the refrigerator, this college-educated Professor picks it up by putting one hand
into its mouth under the upper jaw and cuts his hand when he puts it down. Blake wields the fish quite easily given real coelacanth's
average about 80 to 100 pounds (36 kg to 45 kg)though this one at least a foot or more short than the average five foot length (1.5
But that's not all! He then moves the box out of the way and clumsily plunges his hand into the bloody water. So, you know something
is going to happen. The first murder happens that night. A nurse who was picking up a saliva sample from the dog (conveniently lodged
in Blake's lab) had given Blake a ride home because he feel dizzy. Her body is found hanging from a tree (actually a genuinely creepy
moment), the house is trashed, and the Professor is sprawled in the grass unable to recall how he got there.
He becomes a suspect when his tie clasp is found in the nurse's hand. But there is a handprint way too big to be his on the window
pane and a fingerprint on a photo that doesn't match his. That pretty much concludes any actual police work by Dunsfield, California's
Next, a dragonfly (apparently one of those bloodsucking ones) lands on the fish and gets shooed away. (And just how long after
coelacanths die do they continue to bleed?) You guessed it, next a giant dragonfly starts buzzing campus. It's actually nicely done. First
just the buzzing. Then Blake and two students are in the lab and you hear buzzing and knocking against the window The blinds are lifted
and there it is! The Professor's first instinct? Hurry, open the window and let it in!
Some people really mock the dragonfly effects but I actually think they were pretty well done. It looks pretty good (per demands of
budget, I'm sure), the wings move nicelybut, and it is a big "but": you can easily see about a dozen strings (white strings)
attached to it as it perches on the busts of ancient man. One's mileage may vary.
Blake figures it wants the fish, so he wheels it out and the dragonfly lands on it. Blake and a student throw a net over it (and why the
head of the paleontology department has a large dog cage and a large net in his lab, I cannot fathom) and he pins it to the fish. Blake is
convinced that something about the coelacanth blood is creating this "throwback." Butlet's not tell the cops because Blake wants to
make the announcement himself. Then, on the way to his desk, he holds the dragonfly over his pipe just long enough for it to bleed into it.
You see where this is going.
More rampaging by what will soon be known as "The Beast of Dunsfield." They are careful not to really show the beast (for good
reasonbut it also adds some to the suspense). This time a cop is killed (the one supposed to protect Blake). Blake again wakes up
with partial amnesia, this time Incredible Hulk-like: shoeless (and sockless) with clothes torn. Authorities are baffled and no one believes
the Professor's idea that it is the work of some subhuman evolutionary "throwback." One of his students finds his pipe near the place
where the officer was slain. He returns it to Blake. No one tells the cops.
Continuing his work on discovering just what properties the fishblood has that cause this "throwback"itude, he calls Madagascar. I
only really mention this because the name of the scientist he speaks to...Dr. Moreau. Okay, also because it was
costing the university $5 a minutewhich according to this site is
the equivalent of
$35.03/minute. He also finds out the fish was preserved with gamma rays (that must work so well that it still needs to be packed in ice). It
also seems to preserve the fish's ability to continue bleeding long after its death. Bravo science.
Meanwhile there is a lot of fun stuff surrounding everyone's growing consensus that the Professor has gone nuts. Plus a phone bill
that climbs to $3083.04 in 2006 US dollars. He takes a leave of absence and goes to a mountain cabin where he plans to see if he really is
the Beast (a conclusion that was awful long in coming). Most rampage time. Except now the viewer gets to see that the majority of the
makeup budget must have been blown on those silly teeth the dog was sporting. It ain't pretty, in fact, it's pretty stupid. There is a little
bonus: in one shot you can briefly see the shadow of a crew member on the side of the (big reel to reel) tape recorder in front of
More rampaging when his fiancée shows up while he is still in character. There's some fun with screeching tires on a dirt road, a car
crash, and a surprising hatchet to the face. In the end, Blake allows himself to die (the police at least aim right) rather than continue as the
creature. Though it's not clear that he would continue changing into it if you didn't keep getting coelacanth blood in his system (bite,
dragonfly bonghit, two deliberate injectionsI mean, come on).
But this is a movie where people keep going in and out of the door clearly marked "USE OTHER
It is really that bad? Yes and no. It's also kind of fun. It's an old, silly monster movie. There's some nice use of shadow and good crisp
camerawork. In addition to the shot of the girl hanging from the tree, there's another false scare while some teens are disregarding the
possibility that a murderer is still on campus and that mysterious buzzing sound above to engage in a little smooching. The lead's somewhat
stiff performance kinda works once they all start thinking he's cracking up (and he's not quite convinced they are wrong).
There's even an interesting subtext ("No!" you say) about the beast being almost metaphor for his stifled desires (a metaphor clumsily
handled with pseudophilosophical drivel, though more subtle with Blake on a personal level). The first victim openly flirts with him and he
doesn't really fight the urge to toss a few comments back himself. Shortly after, she dies. Later his fiancée asks him if anything was going
on between them, as if she suspects he cannot suppress his bestial desires. Perhaps that is why he must diebecause he knows
he cannot contain that side of himself and will probably continue finding ways to ingest coelacanth blood. Or not. You figure it out.
Nostalgically fun, great to laugh at, entertaining to the connoisseur of these kinds of movies. Low expectations can be your friend. I
saw this when I was in middle school on some late night hosted creature feature type show. All I really remembered was that it was black
and white and had a coelacanth. Always wanted to track it down and see it again. I learned the title some years ago and now I have my
own copy. Perhaps I am a "throwback," too.
Bonus features exclusive to this special edition of Monster on the Campus!
A coelacanth you say?
Yes, a coelacanth. A large, lobe-finned fish of a species that has changed little in millions of years is an important element of the plot. In
fact, a fish that had been thought extinct for about 80 million years. A quick overview of the story:
In 1938, off the east coast of South Africa, a fishing boat caught a strange fish in a shark gill net. The captain didn't know what it
was but called a local museum curator who was building a collection of exotic fish. The curator came and looked at the fish and decided
this could possibly be an important find. She tried preserving it with formaldehyde-soaked rags but it didn't work (should've used gamma
rays!) and went to taxidermy to save the outside of the fish. She studied books and decided it might be a coelacanth. This was later
confirmed by an expert. Now, here's the thing: this was the sole specimen other than fossilized remainsanother one would not be
caught for 14 years. Not until 1952. Through 1998, a total of about 200 were found. Yet, this drive-in low budget B movie makes it a
centerpiece just six years after the second was caught. Weird.
(In 1998, one was caught near Indonesia. It appears that there was a divergence into two species poulations.)
The movie is accurate that the islanders of Comoros were familiar with and even eat it (dried and salted). The scales are rough, they
use them as an abrasive. The contention that they use their front fins to walk across the bottom of the ocean, however, is wrong.
Ah yes, Professor Blake's heads of ancient man. Heads of several precursors to modern man are arranged along the wall near the ceiling.
An interesting collection. The collection of heads is a progressive timeline (right to left) from ape to modern man. First the ape. Then
Piltdown Man marked 400,000 BC. Thing is, Piltdown Man was thoroughly discredited and proven to be a hoax five years earlier in 1953.
Then Pekin Manpresumably supposed to be "Peking Man," rather than a native of a town near Peoria, Illinoisat 300,000
BC (acceptable: between 500,000 and 300,000). Then Java Man at 200,000 BC. Here we run into trouble. Java Man predates "Pekin" Man.
The fossils are thought to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000 years old. Further, these are both, simply, examples of Homo erectus,
the range of that species is about 1.7 million years ago until about 200,000 years ago. There are variations among many H. erectus
finds but the good Professor Blake has set up a false sense of progression.
They are followed up by Neanderthal Man at 150,000 BC, which fits the range. They evolved between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.
And lasted until 28,000 years ago. That is important because next we have Aurignacian Man at 75,000 BC. Huh? What? Yeah, me too.
Here's the thing: Aurignacian isn't a type of man, modern or otherwise. It was an culture/eraone of the earliest human cultures. It
took place around 22,000 and 35,000 years ago. It was characterized by the proliferation of tools, particularly blades and scrapers made by
flaking flint or other rocks. It was also the introduction of body ornamentation and the earliest art, including cave painting, the most famous
example being the cave at Lascaux, France. But the Neanderthal and modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) both coexisted until
around 28,000 years ago when Neanderthal died out. More rich, creamery falseness.
The lineup finishes with Modern Man, presumably modern 1950s man: white, head of the paleontology department and Dunsfield
Say that again?
Ah, such sparkling dialogue. So profound, so scientifically illiterate.
Madeline: Humanity still has a future, you know.
Blake: Well, sometimes I wonder. Unless we learn to control the instincts we've inherited from our apelike ancestors, the race is
Blake describing the coelacanth: a "living fossil, immune to the forces of evolution."
He also claims that the coelacanth is unchanged is because it has "stabilized" as a species. Man, being a younger species has yet to do
He continues, "Man is not only capable of change, but man alone, among all living creatures can choose the direction in which that
change will take place. In other words, man can use his knowledge to destroy all spiritual values and reduce the race to bestiality. Or he
can use his knowledge to increase understanding to a point far beyond anything now imaginable." That concluded a class lecture.
"How do certain species resist the force of evolution? I have the answer here, coelacanth plasma. Not only does this plasma resist
evolution, but when administered to another organism, evolution is reversed."
Then there's this: "Ah, the human female in the perfect statehelpless and silent." Though this is often cited as the example
of dialogue in this film, maybe a bit more context. It's from the beginning. Blake is making a mold of his fiancée to add to his collection
(modern woman) and the mask is just about to be removed. He also proceeds to tickle her. Sure, on the superficial level, it speaks to a
certain substrata of sexism but it's really just a couple teasing each other.
Two last points of interest
One reason some are so disappointed in this film is that the director is Jack Arnold who had done such films as It Came from Outer
Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), and
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). It would be his last sci-fi/horror film for Universal Pictures.
And speaking of Universal, Monster on the Campus had zero original music. The score is made up of music from several other
composers from other Universal monster movies. (It appears using "stock" scores was a pretty common practice by the company.)
Personal copy on DVD
The Wonderful World of the imdb.com
Several sources were consulted for the various hominid material, most importantly:
http://www.britannica.com (coelacanth info, also; accessed through personal account)
and "Fossil Hominids" http://www.snowcrest.net/goehring/a2/primates/fossils.htm
Other info on 'evolutionary resistant' fish:
"Coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae" http://www.austmus.gov.au/fishes/fishfacts/fish/coela.htm
Susan L. Jewett "On the Trail of the Coelacanth, a Living Fossil" 11 November 1998 The Washington Post
"NOVA Ancient Creature of the Deep Anatomy of the Coelacanth PBS"