March 30, 2011

The Movie Jack Arnold Didn't Hate

Monster On the Campus (1958)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Starring:
Arthur Franz as Prof. Donald Blake
Joanna Moore as Madeline Howard
Judson Pratt as Lieutenant Mike Stevens
Troy Donahue as Jimmy Flanders

Jack Arnold (1916 - 1992) was, by general agreement, the most skilled director to have worked in the B-movie, sci-fi genre during the 1950s. If Arnold had only directed The Creature From the Black Lagoon, he would have done enough for a significant shard of screen immortality. But with other movies in his oeuvre like It Came From Outer Space, Revenge of the Creature, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and (my favorite) Tarantula; Arnold has garnered attention from film scholars not known for their love of "giant bug movies."


Monster On the Campus (Dir. Jack Arnold, 1958)

That is to say, Arnold is a B-movie director preferred by slumming members of the film intelligentsia who toss off the phrase "rises above the genre," with grand benevolence - like Cesar's generals tossing coins from horseback. Before one considers this backhanded compliment as the final word on Arnold, please consider that Orson Welles was an enthusiastic fan of Arnold's work in Shrinking Man without feeling it necessary to qualify his praise.

The film under discussion today, Monster On the Campus, is one seldom cited or reviewed by even the most ardent fans of the director. Indeed, hard-core Arnold fans take pains not to mention it, as did the director himself. In a 1979 interview for Photon, writer Mark McGee asked the director about Monster On the Campus: "Oh, please!" said Arnold. "Frankly, I did it as a favor for Joe Gershenson who was head of music at Universal. I thought the script badly written. I only did it because of my love of Joe. I tried to take a bad script and make it look good."

The interview is very charming in that one can tell Mr. McGee, who also wrote 1970s Equinox, is a fan of Monster On the Campus - yet the most positive statement the writer could wring out of Arnold was that he "didn't hate it."

So, considering the above, you may logically ask why I am wasting your time with this campus monster? Well, dear friends, there are many reasons I love this film and consider it time well spent: First and foremost; It's directed by Jack Arnold. Yes, it's not his favorite, he did it as a favor, he hated the script, blah, blah - It's still Jack Arnold. As the man said himself: "I tried to take a bad script and make it look good." He succeeded.

Secondly, the three leads do fine work. Briefly, they are: Arthur Franz - an actor so intense he practically burned holes in whatever he looked at; Joanna Moore - who's sexuality was so far off the charts she could make clothes look like skin; and finally, Troy Donahue who, while not being the most emotive actor ever to toe the line, could be as comforting and likeable as the red, yellow, and blue balloons of a Wonder Bread wrapper.

Final point worth loving (well, perhaps "loving" isn't quite the proper word to use): The striking level of brutality in the film. Now, don't get me wrong - I'm not talking about "violence" in the modern sense of the word ala the horrid bloodletting and wetly exposed human insides seen in current day "horror" films; no, no. That type of hip, red spillage we confine easily to our screen experience and doesn't really touch us in our "real world." For all the gothic, heavy-metal grinding of films like Saw (Wan, 2004), the violence therein is cartoon violence, not dissimilar in its unreality to a Bugs Bunny cartoon. What I'm talking about here in Monster On the Campus is good old American brutality; that is: The blunt use of force depicted so casually, so surprisingly, that our own world seems suddenly harsh. Because of this quality, moments in Monster still have the power to jar over half a century later.

I've tipped my hand a bit, discussing this good stuff first, but I will expand more on each pleasure a bit later. Now, let's go over the plot and storyline:

In essence, Monster is an atomic age Jekyll-Hyde movie. Paleontologist, Prof. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) teaches and does his research at a southern California university; where he spends a great deal of time packing his pipe, staring off morosely into space, and being very concerned about the baser instincts of man - those primal, warlike urges which, the professor is convinced, must be understood and controlled if the human race wishes to avoid self-destruction.


Opening the crate (Arthur Franz and Troy Donahue)

Early in the movie, Blake receives a preserved coelacanth (a species of fish unchanged by evolution since the Devonian Era). The fish is delivered by Blake's student assistant, Jimmy Flanders (Troy Donahue) and his trusty German Sheppard, Samson. During transit, the fish has begun to thaw, dripping pools of bloody water. Once the van is parked in front of the lab, Samson licks from a pool that has drained from the bed of the van onto the street. Within a few minutes, Samson goes rogue, snapping at everyone and attacking Blake's fiancée (Joanna Moore). Once caged, it temporarily reverts to a pre-historic wolf, growing saber-like incisors.

Prof. Blake eventually discovers that after capture, the coelacanth was given high doses of gamma radiation as a method of preserving the fish from decay . In true atomic age fashion, the gamma rays have mutated the fish corpse, causing anyone who ingests any part of it (yuck) to revert to a prehistoric state - matching the fish's Devonian origins (approx. 150 - 300 millions years ago).

Soon, a dragonfly, feeding on the carcass of the coelacanth, is transformed into a hawk-sized Meganeura (a prehistoric ancestor of the dragonfly from the Carboniferous period); and (naturally) Blake himself is infected by the irradiated fluids of the fish when he scraps his hand on its teeth and sucks at the wound. The professor is even given an extra dose of Devonian juice when the tobacco of his pipe becomes saturated with the blood of the monster dragonfly. After dispatching the giant insect with a letter opener, blood from the impaled insect runs down the length of the opener while Blake carries it around like a shish kabob. The blood drips into a very continently placed pipe bowl (this is one of the film's most contrived moments, but not the only one). Not only is the pipe's placement an astounding play of chance; as a pipe smoker myself I can attest that one would have to incinerate the pipe with a blowtorch to make such soggy tobacco ignite. In Monster, Dr. Blake is able to light his blood-drenched pipe with one pass of a lighter. Perhaps even more astoundingly, Blake notices a foul taste - ya think? - but just keeps on puffing. With this wild contrivance, Blake is now occasionally transformed into a prehistoric, hairy beast-man; answering only to his own primal instincts (which forces him to instantly attack and kill every human he sees).

Eventually, after a couple of murders that leave police scratching their thick heads, Blake realizes the monster is himself (the film's major weakness is its ham-fisted, police-procedural plot structure - with dull, chunky policemen fumbling around with prehistoric hand and footprints). In a final nod to author, R. L. Stevenson, the film ends with Blake killing himself before the primal monster within can take over his soul completely. After nearly killing his super hot fiancée, Blake injects himself with fish extract in front of Police Lt. Mike Stevens (Judson Pratt), who is only to happy to empty his police revolver into him. While the closing music soars, we watch the prehistoric monster, laying now belly-up on the side of a hill, transform back into Prof. Blake, his eyes staring blanking Heavenward.

With that, let's hop right on top of the good stuff outlined earlier:

The Good Stuff, Part I: Jack Arnold (even on a bad day)

Despite bringing absolutely zero enthusiasm to this particular project; Jack Arnold couldn't help but be Jack Arnold. Actually, it is probably wrong to credit the director with no enthusiasm whatsoever. He was making a film, and by his own words he at least wanted to make one that looked good. This means that Monster, at the very least, engaged that part of Arnold's DNA wherein the film making gene is contained. Jack Arnold was a fluid, often thrilling cinematic storyteller. He couldn't help himself. Consequently, Monster goes down smooth with no glitches or speed bumps.

Sure, Arnold was absolutely hogtied by the "police procedural" or "mystery" plot structure of the film. Every time we see the particularly stupid cops blunder into a scene, discussing "clues" and "suspects," the energy drains out of the picture as though someone pulled the power cord (one can only guess that the police presence was a misguided attempt to stay close to the Jekyll and Hyde source material). Yet Arnold had on important ace up his film making sleeve for Monster: Cinematographer, Russell Metty - who was one of Orson Welles' favorite cameramen. Metty worked with Welles on The Stranger (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958). His credits also include Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1954 & 1955); Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960); and Flower Drum Song (Koster, 1961). With such a great cameraman working at his side, Arnold is able to give the film many fine moments.


Moments after injection (Arthur Franz)

The best example of such a moment is the scene when Blake injects himself with "coelacanth plasma" in an attempt to record the transformation on tape and film. The physical transformation is smooth and creepy; and once transformed into a prehistoric man, Blake "awakes" lost and confused. The trip-rigged cameras he has placed around the room begin flashing at him, so he smashes them along with the tape recorder. Prehistoric Blake picks up an axe by the fireplace and handles it - clearly discovering tools (much like a similar moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey - Kubrick, 1968). The cleverest touch, though, is when Blake becomes frantic when he can't escape the room because he no longer understands what a door is. Finally, thinking a window is just a clear hole, he cuts himself when he puts his hand through the glass. Enraged, he uses his new tool to shatter the window frame and escape. Pretty cool.

The Good Stuff, Part II: Casting Call!

Monster would have been a much different movie, and a much less interesting one, without the fine casting. The players are:

Arthur Franz:
Arthur Franz had a boyishly handsome face and a killer smile (which he used very seldom). His gift as an actor was an ability to portray an intense inner life behind the clear façade, often haunted an obsessed (as here) - even tortured (see his superior performance in The Sniper - Dmytryk, 1952). His sharp, clear eyes held incredible focus when gazing inward, and the things he saw there made him twist into a knot of bitter self-loathing. In Monster, this uncompromising, puritanical introspection - this sense that he can never look away from what he has done - demands the ultimate punishment. Others, most notably writer Bill Warren in Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (McFarland, 2010); have argued that Blake's self-sacrifice at the end of Monster is cowardly. As a dedicated scientist he should have lived to become an object of scientific study; offering the world a glimpse into primal man. I don't agree. By the end of Monster, the scientist in Blake is no longer supreme or even important. He is instead a man unable to live with what he has done - a man unable to see himself become less. Perhaps a different man might have been able to offer his living body to the alter of science, but not Donald Blake - not Arthur Franz. Those burning eyes had stared inward, locked themselves upon a terrible judgment, and demanded death. He could not allow the man to live to save the scientist. A living sacrifice for science is far too subtle and nuanced a response for this rigid soul. One may as well expect glass to be cut with a sledgehammer.

No other fate is possible for this character, and no other actor from the era could have made the conclusion as believable as Arthur Franz.

Joanna Moore:
Prof. Blake certainly has it all going on. Not only is he clearly the young Turk of the University's staff (probably on the verge of tenure), he's engaged to the Dean's beautiful daughter. Moore's spectacular, natural sexuality as fiancée Madeline Howard seems a perfect fit against the ramrod straight scientist, and more than once she makes Blake forget himself and actually smile. Blake's infatuation with her is made clear in their first scene together: She is laying flat on a table under protective towels, her face covered. Blake is making a plaster cast of her face which will represent "modern woman" in a display of the steps of mankind's evolution. When Blake gently lifts off the cast, her beauty is luminous. "How'd it come out?" she asks, fluffing at her hair. "Oh, perfect," he answers.


Joanna Moore in Monster On the Campus

Heaven knows, atomic age sci-fi is rife with beautiful fiancées, stunning wives, and sexy lab assistants. Yet in Monster, Moore - probably because of her real chemistry with Arthur Franz - never seems a romantic contrivance, despite the fact that she isn't given a great deal to do. The scenes she has with Franz click just right. Moore's Madeline seems to find such genuine pleasure when clearing Blake's storm clouds.

"Unless man learns to control the instincts we've inherited from our ape-like ancestors, the race is doomed," says Blake a bit later, in one of his typical cheery sermons.

Madeline steps up to him, high heels clacking across the tile of the lab, and she wraps her arms around his shoulders. She lets her weight drape a bit as she grins up at him. "Why don't you learn to control your instincts," she says grinding her hips against his, "and stop being so pessimistic?"

He suddenly beams. "You know, you're right!" he says, smiling. You're goddmamned right she is, Donald. The two seem destined for a laboratory nooner, but the mood is broken by the delivery of the frozen coelacanth.

It is said that opposites attract. Personal experience suggests that opposites do indeed attract; but eventually wish to kill one another. Whatever may be true, these two opposites work fabulously as a pair and, by the end of the picture, Blake cannot live with the memory of harming Madeline - or that he might easily kill her. In fact once primal, Madeline is the only thing that Blake seems to recognize from his "civilized" life. Near the finale, Blake as beast is running wild across the hilly country of southern California and startles Madeline, who has been racing to his house in her convertible, so that she runs off the road. She is knocked unconscious and Blake, poised to kill her, stares at her instead. After a moment, he brushes her hair clumsily with his huge hand. Their relationship has been so well established by earlier scenes, the moment works. It is easy to imagine the memory of Moore piercing the bestial mind.

Joanna Moore was a Georgia girl; a beauty contest winner whose natural radiance was jettisoned into the exotic by a stunning pair of eyes - twin dark lamps in cream hinting at deep, carnal reserves. In this performance in 1958, her voice had a hint of smoker's husk wrapped up in a southern accent that could be heard at the fringes of sentences (she had worked hard to loose her Georgia palette). She was featured in a small, juicy part in Welles Touch of Evil (1958); but mostly appeared all over television in 1960s (most notably as Andy Taylor's love interest on the great The Andy Griffith Show - another match of opposites made in Heaven).

The bare details of Moore's life do not suggest a happy passage. Orphaned young, married and divorced young, spotted by a Universal scout at a Hollywood cocktail party young - all the light footprints of a youth over too quickly. Moore was very briefly and very loudly married to Ryan O'Neal in the mid-sixties, producing a daughter and son (Tatum and Griffin O'Neal). By 1970, Moore's drinking was prominent. By 1980, Moore was financially supported by her daughter. Her last decade was littered with DUI arrests. A heavy smoker, she died of lung cancer in 1997 - her daughter, Tatum, at her bedside.

These brief, gossipy facts do nothing to commemorate Moore, offering only a sort of Hollywood outline in neon. I include it here because it affords a real sense of wonder - a moment of reflection upon Moore's beautiful, celluloid phantom. In Monster, she moves with such perfect, sexual grace; her eyes and smile so full of an easy happiness. She places gloomy Blake in sunshine with her touch; with her voice and smile. With her ways. Moore's nearly tangible presence here makes it so easy to believe another biography was possible, even deserved.


Nearing the end - Donald and Madeline (Joanna Moore and Arthur Franz)

Troy Donahue:
It makes me feel wholesome just to watch Troy Donahue in Monster. With his cuffed jeans and sandy, blond hair - with his freckles and untroubled, Nordic handsomeness - Donahue was the perfect, blank American canvass.

He was tall, naturally, but modestly so at 6'3" - nothing ostentatious or overwhelming. His perfect, neat face friendly and completely free of cruelty, pettiness, or anything else that might suggest an unpleasant inner life. His smile radiated simple kindness and a confidence only those born beautiful can ever know. Why shouldn't a guy smile, after all? Occasionally, the smooth, open expression might reflect a girlfriend's unhappiness, or perhaps he may frown because his car won't start, but the clear, blue eyes gaze forever forward - never darkened by true melancholy or (snort) depression. At his worst - at his very, very worst - a Donahue character might go a bit sulky.

Watching Donahue as student assistant, Jimmy Flanders, is a profoundly comforting experience. His Jimmy seems a young man genetically designed to never lie or cheat, abuse a friendship, respond selfishly in an emergency; or hurt a girlfriend. It is absolutely no wonder that the very next year after his work in Monster, the actor was catapulted to stardom after appearing with Sandra Dee in Delmar Daves', A Summer Place.

His acting? Don't be so quick to judge. His acting, free of trouble, only enhances the aura of safety that surrounds him.

His voice is modulated - never nervous, never angry - never giving anything but a pleasant reading of words. He speaks with such a simple, pure lack of emotion a consistency emerges that might be called a style - one that projects a fine diet and plenty of fresh air. After watching a generation or two of shrill shouters (Pacino leaps first to mind), I find Donahue a simple pleasure. No, he can't act worth a damn, I suppose. But to my eyes, his hitting the mark looks far less silly that does the grandstanding bullshit of Nicholas Cage.

The Good Stuff, Part III: Brutal, plain and simple

This film isn't violent by today's . . . well, I guess there is no other word to use than "standards," yet the very concept of a standard for film violence isn't applicable in an age when an entire, wildly successful franchise (Saw) is based on scenes of torture porn. The next step, naturally, will be the mainstreaming of snuff films. After that? Hollywood investors are considering "reality cannibalism" filmed in a Manhattan apartment in hologram HD.

In Monster we see no severed limbs exposing the sliced-bone center and no teenage girls holding in their own entrails. In fact, there isn't any blood at all in Monster. Still, and despite these obvious drawbacks, Monster has a few jarring moments that obtain power because of Arnold's innate skill as a film maker.

In modern horror films, with their hyperkinetic editing, grinding soundtracks, and "gritty" hyper-realistic cinematography; an audience is predisposed to grotesque acts of graphic violence. The glut of action or slasher/horror movies today are only ugly vehicles carrying ugly cargo. We, the audience, are assaulted long before the violence happens, thus the potency of the actual moments of violence is lost - as is all tension. By trying so hard, these movies have lost us - left us with only those shit kids sitting in the row in front of us, giggling at the carnage. (a grand exception to this trend would be Sam Raimi's 2009 effort, Drag Me To Hell; which - due to Raimi's love of "traditional" film making - is full of tension and actual horror).


The hanging (far right: Judson Pratt, Arthur Franz, and Joanna Moore

By contrast, Monster works a placid, ivy-league context as a framework. The music is lilting, young men wave happily from frat-house porches, and Troy Donahue loves to take his pretty girlfriend for walks on campus, arm in arm. The students all look virginal - clean and safe in an atomic-age, well-groomed youth. Even the young lady we see dead, hung by her hair from a tree limb, has on a beautiful dress and perfectly done makeup.

We see her first dangling in the background of a nighttime scene, a slightly bloated, white doll. Her dress is only a little bit torn; and her bouffant hair style only tussled where the campus monster has wrapped it around a limb, suspending her in the air like a cocoon. Her eyes stare. The cops have to push her up by the armpits to untwine her hair. When we first see her, a luminescent corpse hung in moonlight, it is a jolt. A blessed, enjoyable jolt.

Sure, this was Jack Arnold's least favorite Jack Arnold movie. But don't take his word for it. After all, Arnold himself admitted he was his own worst critic (as are most artists). See it for yourself, and don't forget the butter for the popcorn.

****

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16 comments:

  1. I want to love Jack Arnold--I love some of his movies to death--but I can't get around the mercenary nature of his career. The anecdote you relay here only adds to my frustration. Monster on Campus isn't nearly the debacle that High School Confidential is, but it's not nearly as much fun as it should be. Still, I'll we'll always have Tarantula, I guess.

    Good post, as usual.

    Oh, and you've been tagged.

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  2. Jack Arnold is the Man! heaven forbid that he should make some money!...

    speaking of Tarantula, when's the last time you did a Google image search for Mara Corday? i recommend it!

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  3. Dr. Morbius: Tarantula is my favorite Arnold movie.

    Prof. The reason Tarantula tops the list is for the presence of Mara Corday.

    Dr. Morbius & Prof.: In Tarantula, remember the scene when Corday arrives in town, getting off a bus in that white dress? Jesus help me. What a stone cold fox.

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  4. A true midnight classic. Arnold was a working artist, some bad stuff comes with that, but the good always shines through.

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  5. Great review.

    This is boyhood fave. My local TV station played this one and some of the other Jack Arnold Universal classics over and over. I actually was scared by this movie when I was a tyke.

    Now it's just great fun. It's where I learned about the coelacanth. Now that I think about it these types of movies are where I learned most of the science I know.

    Sheesh!

    I have these are handy dvd, and I need to get them out for another rotation. It's been a while since I saw Tarantuala, Monolith Monsters, and such.

    Rip Off

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  6. I thought I should tell you that the Casablanca essay was an April Fools Day joke :)

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  7. You got me, girl! My only defense, and it's a feeble one, is that I didn't think you guys had April fools in Sweden (I would have fallen for it anyway).

    I suggest everyone take a trip over to Ms. Kane's place, Lolita's Classics, to see her (fume) fine April fools shenanigans.

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  8. A definite classic! I didn't hate it too.

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  9. I love Jack Arnold and I love this film but I admit I have a weirdass take on it. One of the symbols of christianity is of course the fish. One of the rites of various denominations is communion where at least in catholic doctrine actually involves taking the flesh of Christ.
    Now here is a materialistic scientist who has found the physical representation of evolution (his messiah) in the form of a fish and shares that power through a scientific style communion.

    Am I over thinking this?


    Lazarus Lupin
    http://strangespanner.blogspot.com/
    art and review

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  10. Lazarus Lupin: Quite the contrary.

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  11. He he! Your screen capture "moments after injection" is wonderful. It's gonna be my new wallpaper.

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  12. I'm not too familiar with Jack Arnold to be honest, but he sounds like an interesting character! I recognised the poster for this straight away but alas, I have yet to check out the actual film. What is wrong with me that I have neglected watching this midnight classic all my life!?! MUST. RECTIFY. As always, Mykal, an insightful and engrossing write up. Welcome back!! :o)

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  13. James: I heartily recommend Arnold's work - most enthusiastically Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Oh, hell, let's toss in It Came From Outer Space, too, for some dazzling camera work.

    And thanks for the kind words.

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  14. I had always skipped this one, knowing it only as the movie Jack Arnold never wanted to make in the first place. This entry has completely changed my mind.

    I may even try "Tarantula," but I'm not keen on movie spiders. It's a quirk.

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  15. Stacia: Nice to hear from you!

    I suppose Incredible Shrinking Man might be a better movie; and It Came From Outer Space has some of the most beautiful cinematography of any Arnold picture - but Tarantula remains my favorite. The makeup and special effects are just astounding in Tarantula - and Mara Corday really steals the picture. Arnold really gave her the star treatment.

    I must warn you, though: The spider scenes are very spidery (but please give it a go!).

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  16. Mykal,
    Gershenson must have collected on a lot of debts. He produced 35 films.

    It would be interesting to read your comparison of this film to 1953's "The Neanderthal Man".
    Thanks!

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