August 23, 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Caveman: Special Back-to-School Edition

Poster - Monster on the Campus (1958)
Now Playing: Monster on the Campus (1958)

Pros: Good production values, cinematography and direction
Cons: The clumsy, slow-witted protagonist provides unintentional comedy and gives science a bad name; Monster makeup is disappointing

So, are we human beings violent by nature or not? Typically, the scientists whose job it is to investigate this stuff tend to hedge their bets. Well, yes, they say, there is some evolutionary advantage in aggressiveness. It's easy to see that we've evolved into one of the most violent of species.  Yet the latest interpretations of fossil and archaeological findings show that early humans lived largely in peace, and weren't constantly bashing each other over the head with large clubs like our popular culture suggests.

Popular culture has long thrived on speculations about our essential nature. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll found a potion for distilling and freeing the evil in himself, which came to dominate and then entirely replace his "good" self. H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau discovered that no matter how much you try to civilize the beast, tooth-and-claw always reasserts itself. And in his epic prelude to 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick brilliantly and succinctly burned the image of the dawn of man, fueled by homicidal violence, into our brains.

2001: A Space Odyssey, Dawn of Man sequence (1968)
"Oh man, that's the third bucket of KFC I've polished off today!"
Ironically, even as modern man demonstrates his capacity for mindless violence over and over in the 24 hour news cycle, our early ancestors have been getting huge image makeovers in research articles and Geico commercials. Kubrick’s hairy killers have somehow morphed into gentle, awkward beings who are sensitive about their looks. Science has chipped in with an almost complete rehabilitation of everyone’s favorite Pleistocene scapegoat, the Neanderthal. The prevailing view now is that they were as smart as our direct ancestors of the time, competent toolmakers, creators of art and jewelry, and compassionate caretakers. Kind of like the Geico caveman. It’s enough to make you think that maybe the real clumsy, unreasoning brutes are your contemporary friends, neighbors and elected officials ... not some poor hairy slob with a sloping forehead and protruding brow meandering around in the dim past.

Monster on the Campus brings paleo-man and modern man together in the body of one earnest, yet inexplicably clumsy scientist, Dr. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz). Blake becomes a sort of updated Jekyll and Hyde when he inadvertently (and repeatedly) exposes himself to the blood of a coelacanth (a prehistoric-like fish) that he’s studying. This being ‘50s sci-fi, Blake’s inner caveman is a ravening, unthinking, murderous beast. Back in those days, we just didn’t have the benefit of sophisticated paleo-archaeological studies painting a much different portrait of primitive man. It’s a good thing too, because I don’t think Blake transforming into a hairy, insecure and easily offended forerunner of the Geico caveman would have been nearly as entertaining.

Arthur Franz as Dr. Donald Blake
Remember kids, don't try this at home!
It all starts with the delivery of the coelacanth to Blake’s cozy laboratory. In his excitement to get the specimen into the lab, bloody run-off from the packing crate sloshes into the street, where a German Shepherd belonging to one of Blake’s students laps it up. The dog suddenly turns vicious, attacking Blake and his fiancee Madeline (Joanna Moore). Blake and Jimmy, the deliveryman and the dog’s owner, manage to wrap the beast up in a blanket and stash him in a cage to be tested for rabies.

When the local doctor’s nurse comes over to the lab to pick up saliva samples for testing, Blake tells her the dog has no rabies symptoms. He’s just vicious, and has very long teeth, like a prehistoric wolf’s. Before they run back to the doctor’s office with the samples, Blake picks up the coelacanth to move it to cold storage, cutting his hand on the dead thing’s teeth. As he struggles to put the specimen away, his cut hand slips into the water that the fish had been resting in.

At Doc Cole’s office (Whit Bissell), Blake complains that he’s not feeling well. Nurse Molly (Helen Westcott) agrees to drive him back home. When they get to his place, Blake is comatose, so Molly lets herself in to call Dr. Cole. As she’s on the phone, a shadow looms over her. She turns around and screams at what she sees…

Madeline starts to worry when Blake is a no show for their date. She arrives at Blake’s house to find the house torn up, and her own picture torn in half. She hears moaning coming from the back yard, and finds Blake lying face down, barefoot and semi-conscious. They’re not alone-- the dead body of nurse Molly is hanging by her hair (!?) from a nearby tree.

Joanna Moore, Arthur Franz and Phil Harvey as police sgt. Powell
"So detective, would you like to stay for cocktails?
Don makes a Bloody Mary that's out of this world!"
It all looks very suspicious to the police -- especially since the dead woman was clutching Blake’s tie clasp -- but a huge thumbprint on the torn photo and a misshapen hand print on a windowpane let the professor off the hook.

The police begin to think that Prof. Blake has a deformed enemy who’s trying to frame him for murder. They decide to assign a plainclothes cop to keep an eye on him. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s dog has reverted to his normal, lovable self, and exhibits no evidence of long, wolfish teeth. Blake insists that the dog had prehistoric characteristics, and is frustrated with everyone’s skepticism.

Before he’s had a chance to figure out what happened to the dog, he, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s girlfriend witness a two-foot long prehistoric dragonfly buzzing around the laboratory. Using the coelacanth as bait, Blake and Jimmy throw a net over the monstrous insect, but Blake has to stab the thing through its midsection to keep it from ripping through the net. Blake remembers seeing a normal dragonfly alighting on the fish specimen earlier in the day. Hmmmmm, something to think about in the privacy of your office while puffing away on your favorite pipe… a pipe that just happened to be under the huge dragonfly, leaking bloody fluid like a sieve as Blake moved it over to an examining table.

The monstrous, misshapen brute strikes again, this time tearing up the lab and killing the plainclothes cop shadowing the professor. Again, Blake is found at the scene, clothes ripped and semi-coherent. Blake may not be the brightest small-town college scientist ever, but the latest incident moves him into high gear. He calls the folks in Madagascar who supplied the fish and learns that it had been irradiated to for preservation purposes. So, to review (pay attention, there may be a quiz): radiation + coelacanth blood + accidental exposure/ingestion = regression to a primitive evolutionary state.

A prehistoric dragonfly dines on a prehistoric fish.
Time to call Orkin!

Blake’s department chair and prospective father-in-law, Prof. Howard (Alexander Lockwood) seems more concerned about the huge long-distance charges to Madagascar Blake has racked up than all the murders and chaos going on. He suggests that the discombobulated scientist take some time off, offering his cabin in the woods.

Blake, finally (!!) suspecting that he himself may be at the center of the bloody mystery, repairs to the remote cabin to experiment on himself and perhaps document one of the most astounding scientific discoveries of all time.

If Monster on the Campus is representative in any way of science as it was practiced in the twentieth century, then it’s a wonder that we managed to cure cancer, eliminate obesity, and enhance the IQ of every man, woman and child on earth through genetic engineering. (Oh wait, I double-checked and we haven’t done any of that. Hmmmmm……)

Dr. Blake gives absent-minded professors a bad name. He is a clueless, careless menace to himself and others. First, he hires a well-meaning but inept college student to deliver the precious specimen to the lab. Jimmy (played by soon-to-be teen heartthrob Troy Donahue in his first movie role) has about as much experience handling delicate lab specimens as the local butcher.

Dr. Blake begins his transformation
"Hmmm, maybe it's time to switch to one
of those fancy Gillette razors..."
Blake himself seems to know next to nothing about handling fragile specimens. He picks the ugly thing up with his bare hands to move it, promptly cutting his hand on its teeth. He leaves it out on a lab table for long stretches at a time, practically inviting dogs, dragonflies, microorganisms and anything else that might be wandering in and around the lab to feast on it.

Then he absentmindedly leaves his smoking pipe near the thing, and sure enough, Murphy’s Law goes to work-- as the fish gets jostled, more irradiated, bloody effluent drips unseen into his pipe. Later, as he takes a long draught from the pipe, he crinkles his nose at the strange smell and taste, but then continues to puff away!

But the real kicker is Blake’s inability to add 2 and 2 to get 4 (something of a deficiency for a scientist). He’s able to see quickly enough that ingesting bloody, irradiated coelacanth water causes living things to revert to primitive evolutionary states. And he’s aware that the murderer who appears to be stalking him has left misshapen hand and footprints more characteristic of a primitive anthropoid than a human being. He even comes to the conclusion that the killer must be someone with access to his lab who perhaps cut himself on the fish or otherwise exposed himself to the blood… uh-huh.

Let’s see now, we have two victims of a murderous subhuman thing, and in both cases, the befuddled doctor was found unconscious at the murder scene. Okay, so 2 and 2 is, uh, uh… As we watch Blake furrow his brow trying to piece it together, smoke practically coming out of his ears, we realize that denial is not just a river in Egypt, it is a state of being with poor professor Blake. It’s enough to make you want to throw your popcorn, or remote, or shoe at the screen.

Fortunately, Monster on the Campus is redeemed from such moments of unintentional comedy by good production values and solid direction. Russell Metty’s cinematography is top-notch. Much of Monster is shot at night, with ominous shadows looming everywhere and creepy clutching hands emerging out of the inky blackness. At times it has almost an “old dark house” mystery feel, and at other times it reminds you of sci-fried film noir.

The murderous anthropoid sneaks up on its next victim
"Hey, is that the pizza already? You guys really are fast!... uh-oh..."

The aftermath of the first murder is particularly well-staged. Donald’s moans from the backyard sound strange and half-human. As Madeline helps him stand up, in the background, like a luminescent specter, is the upright body of nurse Molly. Cut to a two shot, where we see Donald’s anguished face as he focuses on the body over Madeline’s shoulder. Madeline looks around and screams. Cut to a close-up of the body, which we see is hanging by its hair from the branch of a tree. Blood-curdling stuff for ‘50s sci-fi!

Of course, shadows and suggestion are not enough of a pay-off for drive-in audiences, so we do finally see the monster when Blake sets up his experiment at the cabin. The pay-off here is meager, as the stuntman doing all the heavy monster lifting (uncredited Eddie Parker) is outfitted with an unconvincing rubber mask complete with obvious eye-holes. More shadows and less rubber mask are clearly called for here. On the other hand, Blake’s old school, Wolf Man-inspired transformation is nicely done.

Stuntman Eddie Parker carrying Joanna Moore
"Is it my aftershave?"
Arthur Franz has been featured on this blog before. Like fellow B leading men John Agar, John Carradine and Robert Hutton, Franz was all over ‘50s sci-fi, taking a Flight to Mars in 1951, battling Invaders from Mars in 1953, testing The Flame Barrier in 1958, and commanding The Atomic Submarine in 1959.

Of course, director Jack Arnold helmed some of the greatest, most iconic sci-fi films ever, including It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Monster on the Campus is not in this league, but its deficiencies are not Arnold’s fault. His expert hand clearly overcomes a weak script and monster effects to make something very enjoyable, albeit campy. Arnold biographer Dana M. Reemes relates how the director, upon his return to Universal-International after pursuing other projects at MGM and Paramount, was assigned an exploitative B thriller tailored for the teenage drive-in market. A first time producer was also assigned. Arnold was not exactly thrilled:

Cover art: The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection"Joseph Gershenson was a very fine man who wanted like crazy to be a producer. Universal finally gave him his chance with Monster on the Campus and I was assigned to direct. The science fiction craze was dying out and I didn’t want to do this kind of picture. But as a contract director I had little choice. I had to do it or risk being suspended. There were many problems with the script, but the studio liked it and wanted us to go right ahead with the picture. I tried very hard to do the best I could with it but we had a very tight schedule. If I had to do all over again with more time and a little rewriting I could make it a good picture. It’s not one of my favorites." [Quoted by Dana M. Reemes, Directed by Jack Arnold, McFarland, 1988]

Jack is a little hard on himself and his retrogressive monster movie. It’s an atmospheric, enjoyable B that scores high in repeat watchability. And it has an important message for all of humankind. As Prof. Donald Blake himself says,
"Unless we learn to control the instincts we’ve inherited from our ape-like ancestors, the race is doomed."
Put that in your pipe and smoke it!


Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com

“Horror that waited a hundred million years becomes a terrifying reality!”

July 22, 2014

Pardon our dust!

And by that I mean, pardon the dust that has metaphorically settled on posts here at Films From Beyond the Time Barrier, as the interval between new ones has gotten longer and longer.

Lately, I've felt more like an extinct ground sloth than the Energizer Bunny.

So, I'm going to try to shake off the dust,

Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

and take some time off to recharge the old batteries...

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Check back here in about a month!

July 12, 2014

The Hardest Ticket to Get in the Solar System

In recent weeks I've been reading with bemusement (and a touch of sadness) about the latest entrepreneurial efforts to sell things that heretofore have not been for sale. With the right app and a fat wallet, you can now reserve that precious downtown parking space or cut in line at the hottest restaurant. And of course, if you live in the Cleveland area and have been thinking about Cavaliers season tickets, you can forget about it -- they sold out in a matter of hours after King James' announcement.

It got me thinking about the ultimate hot commodity. What if the world was about to end, and there were just a couple hundred seats on the international space-ark set to take off for the nearest habitable planet? What would you do to get a seat? Would there be an app for that?

So I decided to consult with one of the biggest fans of When Worlds Collide (the book and the movie), who also happens to be a very good friend. Doug Mappin and I have been discussing science fiction (among other things) for over 25 years. Here's his report on how sci-fi visionaries of the 20th century thought this "big ticket" event might go down.

Now Playing: When Worlds Collide (1951)

Pros: Producer George Pal does a creditable job with a modest budget and no-name actors.
Cons: Most of the richness of the original book is inevitably lost; What would Cecil B. DeMille have done with it?

From book to the silver screen: When Worlds Collide

In the southern hemisphere skies Sven Bronson, a South African astronomer, sees something no one has seen before. Something is moving in the darkness where nothing should be moving. After training his telescope into the skies for nights on end, Bronson realizes two wandering worlds have entered our solar system.

Calculations are made and Bronson secretly enlists the aid of others in the scientific community to formulate a plan for how to tell the world’s populace the news that Earth and everyone on it are doomed.

BUT if lucky, not all of humanity need perish. A scant few hundred people may be able to flee Earth for the smaller of the two worlds (named Bronson Beta) that would take Earth’s place in a similar orbit. Bronson Alpha, roughly the size of Uranus, could wipe out the Earth in a glancing blow.

When Worlds Collide (book) - paperback cover
Thus is the premise for the 1932 novel When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Immediately after the publication of the novel, Paramount Pictures optioned the story as a project for famed director Cecil B. DeMille. It might have been intriguing to see what the king of film spectacle would have done with the film, but a script could never be agreed upon and the project sat awaiting someone like producer George Pal to tackle it.

Many a book and film has envisioned the end of the world but none quite so absolute as in this work. Where others concocted a way to kill off humanity, this work went all the way. Not only was mankind wiped out en masse but the world was left as rubble—and presumably our moon too (in the novel that detail is clearly spelled out).

I have long admired the authors of the book for having the courage to do it, to end it all and not wimp out. The phrase “the book was better,” applies to this production. For whatever reasons, film producers and their production teams always want to put their stamp on a cinematic version of a novel. Pal’s production is no exception. Needless to say, When Worlds Collide, and its sequel After Worlds Collide are my two all-time favorite novels.

The movie? Not quite as much. This by no means should be construed as an out-and-out criticism of the movie. Both the book and the movie were products of their time. Both have quaint and widely inaccurate viewpoints of how space travel would take place. Where both succeed, especially the novel, is highlighted in how humanity would face utter annihilation… but the book does it much better.

When Worlds Collide (1951), a Paramount Pictures release, was produced by George Pal, directed by Rudolph Maté and with a script by Sydney Boehm the film took off and in most ways succeeded admirably. But first things first. Pal went on to film two other science fiction classics, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) -- far more successfully, I might add.

Lobby card - When Worlds Collide (1951)
Comparisons are in order. The book, in my opinion, is very well done. The book’s strength lies in its characters. Tony Drake, Eve Hendron and Dave Ransdell are the three main characters. Tony and Eve have long time been lovers, almost on the verge of marriage. Ransdell’s appearance complicates matters as he is drawn to Eve and she him—and naturally because of this, Tony harbors feelings of jealousy of Ransdell. As a result, an uneasy triangle exists between the three characters.

Cole Hendron, Eve’s father, is the leader of The League of Last Days and responsible for finding the means to save a small number of people from the impending doom. The other characters celebrate intelligence and bravery.

The display of humanity is the book's strongest suit. The novel conveys the many sides, good and bad, of mankind as our world faces its demise. The film focuses more on establishing how we will get the chosen few off of the planet.

One prurient aspect of the novel, a favorite theme of author Philip Wylie’s, is how society views the relationships between men and women. As set up in the novel, more women than men survive earth’s destruction. When the Hendron camp formulates plans to transplant a small number of humans to the new world, the men and women become less individuals and more breeding stock to perpetuate our species.

The movie takes a smattering of the book’s details for foundation and then changes them slightly. Mere hints are what is left, leaving the viewer those thoughts to ponder. Some things are for the better, some not so much.

Space ark - When Worlds Collide
The needle-nosed space ark rests at the bottom of its launch ramp.
One change was an absolute necessity. In the book, Tony Drake was a stockbroker. In the movie, Drake was a doctor. Asking an audience to believe that a stockbroker could be transplanted to the new world was just too much to ask. Changing his professions was a wise choice.

Another aspect that was changed was the science, particularly the portrayal of the space ark. In the book, the spaceship was powered by atomic energy and the ship’s physical shape as described, would with what we know today, be as flightworthy as a brick. Again, the science of the time was so undeveloped that in the years since we can see just how wrong the authors got it.

The movie took a more traditional approach and even then… again, knowing what we know today, the ship is not very flightworthy. The odds a spacecraft would be launched by speeding down a long monorail is impractical… but I must admit, it sure looked pretty darned impressive.

The movie’s emphasis on spectacle, 1950s style, was visually appealing but I still prefer the book. Seeing New York City swamped by a deluge was compelling. Watching the Earth open and belching fire and lava conveyed the doom yet to come. The largest part of the film’s small budget was spent on special effects. And for 1951, they were spectacular (for today’s audience a little less so).

When worlds collide!!
"Hey, I'm not cleaning up that mess!"
When mankind descends into savagery and society self-destructs, the novel clearly shows the dichotomy between civilized men of science versus the rest of society becoming little more than animals ruled by greed, lust and fear. In the movie, this is hinted at and barely shown except for depictions of those who lose out on the lottery and are to be left behind.

The movie inexplicably changed one detail from the book. Personally, I find this change unacceptable. In the book, two planets, Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, were the instrument of Earth’s destruction. However, in the movie the smaller planet was named Zyra and the larger planet was now a star named Bellus. How 1950s can you get?

In the book, Earth’s destruction was described as follows:
“Tony shuddered as he watched. A distance, short on the screen--even as solar measurements are contemplated--separated the two planets. In the chamber of the hurtling Space Ship no one moved. Earth and Bronson Alpha were but a few moments apart. It seemed that even at their august distance they could perceive motion on the planet, as if the continents below them were swimming across the seas, as if the seas were hurling themselves upon the land; and presently they saw great cracks, in the abysses of which were fire, spread along the remote dry land. Into the air were lifted mighty whirls of steam. The nebulous atmosphere of Bronson Alpha touched the air of Earth, and then the very Earth bulged. Its shape altered before their eyes. It became plastic. It was drawn out egg-shaped. The cracks girdled the globe. A great section of the Earth itself lifted up and peeled away, leaping toward Bronson Alpha with an inconceivable force.

The two planets struck.

Decillions of tons of mass colliding in cosmic catastrophe.”
This scene, even after reading the book hundreds of times (I am not lying), still leaves me in tears. In the film, 30 seconds are shown as Earth approaches Bellus and flames engulf the Earth. I hate to say it but the film’s destruction of our home was somewhat lacking, if not a bit anti-climactic. But then again, Pal was working with a very limited budget.

Now playing: When Worlds Collide (circa 1951)
When theatre-goers collide!

Let us not forget that science fiction films in the 1940s and 50s were considered by Hollywood as the embarrassing bastard stepchild. The fact that films like War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World and a scant few others were able to rise above their meager budgets to challenge the usual Hollywood film fare says a lot about those who believed in science fiction as a legitimate form of filmmaking (and literature). It wasn’t always about green bug eyed monsters and silly robots.

For 1950, the movie’s budget was still inadequate for what Pal was trying to convey. To make up for a lack of a budget, he relied on a cast of no names. The film starred Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, Richard Derr, Larry Keating and John Hoyt. Each of the actors were virtually unknown at the time. Many went on to bigger things: Peter Hansen, Barbara Rush and John Hoyt each became more well known.

The space ark is loaded and ready to launch
"This is the captain speaking. Fasten your seatbelts
and please observe the no-smoking signs."
Personally, I think the acting in the film, while competent, was far from compelling—stiff perhaps, compared to their respective characters in the book. As you read this, you might think I do not like the film. Au contraire mon ami, I love the film. But as I stated, the word almost always trounces the film. Where the film condenses the essence of the plot, the book exudes the experience, the drama, the futility, the full meal, so to speak.

If you have not seen the movie and some time to kill some pleasant weekend, please do so.  Incidentally, Steven Spielberg is contractually obligated to Paramount Pictures to remake this film. In 2005, he announced he would be producing the film. Normally, I do not like remakes, but in this case, I wish he would! The book deserves a more competent and modern approach (and the sequel would make an awesome television show).

If you have not read the book, I strongly urge you to do that too, but a word of warning. Both When Worlds Collide and its sequel After Worlds Collide are dated in their characterization of science, women and minorities—there are no blacks and the villains—woo-ee! Remember now, the two books were written during the time of the uprising of fascism and Nazism, communism and socialism in Europe and Russia. Japan was still misunderstood and mistrusted.

After Worlds Collide (book) - cover
The book is available at Barnes & Noble (sorry, sad to say it is not available as an e-book). The book most recently was published by the University of Nebraska Press. The two books were published in one volume.

Thanks to Brian for asking me to write this issue. I am a long-time fan of science fiction. I read When Worlds Collide for the first time when I was 10 years old. In the years since, I have read it more times than I can count. Brian and I have, since 1988 (or so) been friends and compared notes on this and that, music, science fiction, politics, life, NASA, space science, fandom, family, Star Trek…. and more.

I have a fantastic son who shares my love for science fiction and friendship with Brian and Beth (Brian’s lovely wife). In but a few months, I will celebrate my 20th year In the United States Navy Reserve. I am a former high school U.S. History teacher and am avid collector of books, tropical fish, cats, music, DVDs… heck, I admit it, I’m nuts!

And to seal it off and to drive it all home about how much I love When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, I am throwing caution to the wind by attempting to write a prequel to the first novel. Wish me luck, this is hard!

-- Doug Mappin


Where to find the movie:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com


"Written in the stars is a message of doom for this, our world!"