Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cardboard Science: Bitten by a fossil


Cardboard Science's salute to Jack Arnold comes to a strong finish, with this near-classic moral fable of a man's bestial transformation.  Monster on the Campus questions science's responsibility for the horrors it can sometimes unleash, and just like any good 1950s creature feature, it does so in a format that involves several really cool murders.

Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by David Duncan
With Arthur Franz (Prof. Donald Blake), Joanna Moore (Madeline Howard), Alexander Lockwood (Prof. Gilbert Howard), Whit Bissell (Dr. Oliver Cole), Troy Donahue (Jimmy Flanders), and Nancy Walters (Sylvia Lockwood)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The year is 1958.  The decade still had one more year to go, and while Jack Arnold only had one more year of high-intensity filmmaking left to his name, he had another couple of decades of intermittent output still in him (also, many fine episodes of Gilligan's Island).

So, this isn't even close to final, as goodbyes go.  We've already taken a loving look at No Name on the Bullet, one of the last two films from the seven years of Arnold's golden age, 1953-1959.  The Peter Sellers tricycle, The Mouse That Roared, is on our schedule, if for no other reason than to see how such a melodramatic director handled his first comedy.  Of course the infamous High School Confidential! will be gracing these pixels soon enough.  I don't doubt, either, that Arnold's later period will eventually get a glanceit contains a couple of Bob Hope comedies on one end, with Black Eye and, um, Boss Nigger, his pair of blacksploitation films, on the other.  The latter two could be as good an entree into that genre as I'll ever find.

And naturally, as funds and fate permit, I'll watch the hell out of all of those other 1950s movies that are, at present, nearly or entirely possible to acquire: all those barely-available Westerns he did, those semi-lost noirs, and (apparently) some isolated genus of Lana Turner romance.

But if it's not a farewell to the director, it is still a goodbyea bittersweet goodbyeto the Jack Arnold who was cinematic science fiction's leading light for seven great years.  After this, Arnold would make only a single SF film for the rest of his life, a zany affair about Roddy McDowall and Janet Leigh living in an underwater house.  Frankly, this sounds amazing, but it isobviouslyof a different era.  Monster on the Campus is the end of this era.  And it isn't a bad way to go out.

Monster premiered in 1958, probably one of the very last years it could and still get away scott free with how it plays its premise; and it doesn't quite manage it without any point of failure.  That premise is, after all, a heady 1950s twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the gamey flavor of The Wolf Man.  In Monster, Arnold has the difficult problem of directing a film in which no one has ever read the former nor ever screened the latter, as if they simply didn't exist.  But we know otherwise, and that's a problem.

Now, David Duncan's script is a fine one in all other respects (in comparison to The Space Children, it's a damned masterpiece).  Indeed, it's rather close to the perfect version of itself, other than in its absolute need to blinder its protagonistand everyone elseto the possibility of the archetypal beast-within story they're so patently living in.

There is a sensible progression to Monster, so long as you concede the film its true fantastic premise: that Professor Donald Blake has passed out at the scene of two murders, that at each his clothes have been torn to shreds, that in neither case does he possess any memory of what occurred, and that he is actively pursuing the possibility that a certain serum is causing somebody to regress into a savage primitive... but that it takes impossibly overwhelming evidence, evidence so overwhelming that the phrase "putting two and two together" is far too strong a praise for the deductive skills involved, in order for his intellect to finally pierce his superhuman capacity for denial and accept the blindingly fucking obvious.  And concede this premise you should!  For, as I see it, it is tantamount to the point.

But that horrible compound-complex sentence puts us ahead of ourselves.  It all startsand why not?with a coelacanth.

Pictured: really, a coelacanth.

So begins perhaps the weirdest version of the Hyde story ever wrought until Altered States took it in a decidedly psychedelic directionand Paddy Chayefsky might have penned his novel and written his screenplay based on all manner of firsthand research into this nonsense, but if you told me the man had never seen Monster on the Campus, I wouldn't call you a liar; I'd denounce you as a witch and have you burned at the stake.  Now, no movie is likely to be stranger than a Ken Russell freakout, but Monster manages something close, just in a completely different register, because its weirdness is so tourniquet-tight straitlaced.

This coelacanth, we learn with express speed, is not the ordinary living fossil.  It is delivered to the evolutionary biology lab (on the campus, marginally justifying that teensploitation title).  There, it will undergo paleontological study by our man, Professor Blake.  Unfortunately, it is, well, it's leaking.  A fraternity bro's German shepherd laps up the fish's spilled juice, and in an instant he turns vicious, attacking his owner, and Blake, and Blake's girlfriend, Madeline.  The connection is not immediately made; instead, rabies is suspected.  In the meantime, Blake, in the midst of forgetting about his lovely girlfriend and making time with a hot laboratory assistant, rakes his wrist across the dead submariner's teeth.

Long story short, time is a flat circle.

Blake is Arthur Franz, a minor light in the constellation of 1950s B-movie actors.  He was a veteran of the space-age jungle adventure The Flame Barrier; he'd go on to head up the cast in The Atomic Submarine.  It's pretty clear that in Monster, Franz understands exactly the character he's playing: he is admirably unafraid to be a total bitch.

One of the interesting things about his reversions to the Primal Man is that they are not chronic, like the Wolf Man's, but the result of repeated ingestions of the coelacanth blood, the first two so accidental they seem even unlikelier in a fiction than they would in life.  The result is a slightly arbitrary nature to the proceedingswhich, thanks to Arnold, is never offensiveand this winds up imbuing Monster with a certain paradoxical realism.

But there's also, perhaps, a theme to be had hereone that serves as a fitting conclusion to Arnold's science fiction career.  Arnold began in It Came From Outer Space with a Richard Carlson performance that united science and morality together; each subsequent film is more cynical, till you reach The Incredible Shrinking Man, where science is nearly worthless except as a means to destroy Scott Carey.  The Space Children, bad or not, is clear in its distrust of the science that creates world-annihilating weaponry.  That distrust edges into dislike in Monster.

Blake is outwardly as thoughtful and morally condescending a science hero as Arnold ever presented; he ruminates upon weighty matters, and is prone to impromptu declarations about "the great temptation of our time," our society's desire to "let the beast triumph over the seeker of truth."

Hubris much, Professor?

Yet each of his first two transformations also coincides with an ethical hypocrisy: first, flirting with the lab girl that he's strongly implied to be schtupping behind his girlfriend's back; then, swearing the frat bro and his babe to secrecy about the giant dragonfly they find, so that he can claim all the glory of its discovery.

...wait, the what?

Throughout it all, there is that utter inability to perceive the truth he thinks he's seeking, leading to mayhem and death (it should be said, the kills in Monster are amazing for a 1950s film).

There's a certain enjoyability to watching this prideful prick grope through the darkness, toward a conclusion he keeps refusing to acknowledge.  Yet, as despicable as he may be, Franz is not also unlikeable, and this pays off whenat a length which any longer would break the film completely in twainour alleged science hero finally realizes that he is the monster he's been hunting.

In the end, Blake takes the responsibility so fully onto his own shoulders, that even the audience, who has known that he's been something just short of a premeditated murderer all along, will find itself quailing at his terrible bid for redemption: a plan that will prove to the world that he has made a great discoveryand that he has made an unforgivable mistake.

Arnold is just one misstep away from a perfect staging to his ending.  It's as simple as Blake kissing Madeline, and walking out a door.  If Arnold had just stayed with her, for a longer moment, and faded to black against the inevitable, awful sounds outside, there would be nothing to hold me back from declaring Monster another perfect Arnold film.  But, so sadly, he doesn't.  The movie goes on, rendering prosaic the would-be mythic.

Without that ending, Monster on the Campus isn't even, really, a great film.  Instead, it's just a very good movie, with just a very good ending.  Yet it is a fine seal upon the finest phase of a great director's career.  Fittingly, it leaves you wanting, selfishly, just that little more.

Oh, and it has this in it.

Seriously, is this not the single most Goddamned science thing you will ever see in your life?

(And this too.)


Score:  7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Coelacanths have a chemical factor that protects them from the "forces of evolution."  We may've gotten flashier imagery and more realistic performances and more naturalistic screenplays (I mean, if you absolutely insist this is the case), but one thing we've never grown out of since Darwin wrote his little book is to impute some kind of teleological drive, or even intelligent agency, to the "forces of evolution."  Or, maybe, Blake just means coelacanths have great repair genes that depress mutation rates in their gametes; though how this turns him into a monstrous proto-human is probably best left unexplained.  (Oh, gamma irradiation you say?  Well, nevermind!)
  • On a further note, Monster on the Campus probably isn't the first to espouse it, but it is an early example of the idea that organisms contain the genetic code of ancestors within them, just waiting to be reawakened.  To an extent, this is true, but it's not like the human genome, or any genome, is simply a billion years of overlay onto single-celled life forms, and if you explore just the right chemical pathways, you can turn a guy into a puddle of prokaryotes.
  • The dog turns into a wolf, as evidenced by his larger canines.  In these movies, does it bother anyone else that, even disregarding all the thermodynamic problems inherent in rapid cellular division, teeth simply do not just grow and shrink?  No?  It's just me?  Well, screw you.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • The very first line of the film is Blake's: "There she is!  A female in the perfect statedefenseless and silent!"
  • Monster is in sharp contrast to Alfred Hitchcock's most egregious failure (and one of his very few of any kind), the absolutely worthless The Wrong Man (1956).  When Blake is suspected of slaying the lab assistant, Madeline immediately advises him to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights and wait on his fucking lawyer.  Turns out the 1950s weren't all idiotic submission to the Man.
  • Having barely survived an acknowledged poisoning as well as what the cops determine to be an attempt on his lifeand not twelve hours after he's seen a corpse that he once knew as, at least, a friendProfessor Blake GOES BACK TO WORK.  Man, maybe old people are right.  We are entitled brats.
  • Watching Jack Arnold's movies in chronological order like this, you really do see the corrosion of belief in the twin pillars of 1950s awesomeness, the American defense establishment and the seemingly unlimited reach of benevolent scientific progress.  In perhaps less artful ways than that of this master, that's something of the arc of all 1950s sci-fi.  Maybe this is not quite wundaful, and maybe it's more like its opposite, but it presages the themes of the science fiction to come: all cynical, all the time.


  1. I haven't spent nearly as much time as I should with 50's movies. Maybe when I'm finished wringing the neck of the 80's, I should consider branching out.
    I've been loving this exploratory look at some of the key films of the period. Inspiring stuff ~

    1. Thank you, B. You're a gentleman.

      DECISION ITEM: we should take a week and switch! You do mid-century sci-fi/horror, I do 80s slasher films. "Census... Bloodbath?" (Bearing in mind that it's very likely that if left to my own devices, it'd all be Nightmare on Elm Street movies.)

    2. That's actually a great idea! I think we'd have to decide what the other would watch though. Because otherwise I would just rewatch The Blob 3 times.