Monster on the Campus (1958)

Monster on the Campus (1958) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 10/01/2016

Of all of Jack Arnold’s wonderful 1950’s horror-scifi, Monster on the Campus is probably the silliest.  This is the man who delivered It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and The Space Children (1958), a ranging list that includes a few true classics.  But even if you throw in 1957’s The Monolith Monsters, which he provided story but didn’t direct, Monster on the Campus is still a winner for silliness.

This might be one of the only coelacanth-oriented horror films out there.

A professor at a small state college lands himself a coelacanth specimen upon which to experiment, only to discover that the fish has been irradiated in shipping.  This modern form of sterilization might not sound too bad initially, but it results anything that ingests, injects, or even smokes the blood of the coelacanth suddenly reverts to their own prehistoric form.

For a German shepherd, wolf-life fangs and a nasty personality.  A dragonfly turns gigantic.  For the professor, he reverts to a gruesome, murderous troglodyte.  Though we are eventually given a transformation scene, showing make-up fades into progressive hairiness, it’s a rubber mask monster in its full form, a pretty ugly one at that.

What tends to the hilarious is just how the professor manages to take in this coelacanth  blood.  The first time, he cuts his hand on the dead fish’s teeth.  The second time, blood dripping from the knife with which he skewered the giant dragonfly, drops into his pipe, and he winds up smoking it.  Though that is probably the most hilarious of events, he does later twice inject himself with coelacanth blood, finally to prove to the authorities that he is the “monster on the campus” who needs to be gunned down.

Like The Monolith Monsters, and like a lot of Arnold’s movies, I grew up with this one on TV, and even though it’s a lot more silly than a good horror film of the period should be, it still found a soft spot in me.

The Space Children (1958)

The Space Children (1958) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 07/11/2015

What? A 1950’s Jack Arnold sci-fi picture I’d never seen?  Sign me up!

Unsurprisingly, the 1958 movie The Space Children is not exactly a hidden gem.  It’s a good-looking film and it features the likes of Jackie Coogan and Russell Johnson in character roles, but it’s not quite the likes of It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), or The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), but that’s okay.  It’s still some strange wonder of 1950’s Cold War paranoia and while no great thing, it’s interesting enough.

At a secretive military base on the California coast where families live with their scientific husbands/fathers, the children find a glowing space brain in a cave that communicates with them telepathically.  Turns out that the scientists are launching a warhead of sorts into space, a provocative/protective/proactive part of the arms race and the space race.  But this brain from outer space is really against all the violence and dangerous potential in human nuclear warfare and technology.

It grows in size as it prepares itself to destroy the missile, protecting the weak from the violent (Johnson plays a drunken and abusive step-father).  Why it communicates with the children?  Well, the story isn’t overly well-conceived, so a lot really doesn’t play out in significant or notable ways.

It’s weak stuff, overall, though it did vaguely call to mind the Ivan Tors cautionary flick Gog (1954) that I watched a couple weeks back.  Maybe there was a lot of cautionary sci-fi then.

Boss Nigger (1974)

Boss Nigger (1974) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 11/21/2014

I don’t know if Jack Arnold and Fred Williamson’s Boss Nigger is the most confrontational of blacksploitation films, but it certainly has the most confrontational title.  Still so much so, the film’s DVD release has been simply retitled Boss.  And while Boss would still be an appropriate title for the film, given the story, it somewhat denudes it of that brash black-empowerment cachet that pushes the film’s edginess to the far more dramatic.

Star Williamson, who had already appeared in a number of blacksploitation movies including Black Caesar (1972) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973), actually wrote the script of this revisionist Western.  And in one of the more unusual pairings in Hollywood, legendary 1950’s science fiction director Jack Arnold is the man in the directorial seat.

Williamson plays “Boss”, the black-leather clad bounty hunter, who with his amiable sidekick Amos (D’Urville Martin), hunt down wanted white men and bring them to justice, dead or alive.  When they find themselves in the small town of San Miguel with a notice allowing them to become the town’s sheriff and deputy, they lay down their own set of “Black Laws,” dictating respectful behavior from all citizens.

It’s easy to see that the character of Boss was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), from the notion of a black bounty hunter in the Old West down to Django’s stetson.

Though the film has a few radical black power statements, dramatically delivered by Williamson and Martin, it’s not a deeply radical affair at heart.  Arnold keeps the violence to a bloodless, almost television-style minimum (which is an interesting tack in post-Spaghetti Western 1970’s action fare), and maybe that is to the film’s ultimate detriment as a political statement.

It’s still quite the radical thing in and of itself, made during the height of the Black Power movement, the simple placement of a black hero in the (arguably) “whitest” of popular American film genres, force-feeding anti-racist behavior to the frontier town’s folk, and headed by the tough and manly “Boss Nigger” himself, tips the hand of deep-seated white fears and wrestles self-empowerment into the hands of the movie’s heroes.

Some have suggested that Williamson’s portrayal is at play with parody of blacksploitation roles he himself had already portrayed in a genre/style that even by 1975, only four years after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was already potentially played into hyper stereotype itself.  On this point, I cannot say.  I’m still pretty junior to the whole blaxploitation period and oeuvre.

It Came from Outer Space (1953)

It Came from Outer Space (1953) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 01/04/2013

It Came from Outer Space was the final film of our unplanned Jack Arnold triple feature, care of Turner Classic Movies.  The last time I had seen it, seven years ago now (Jesus!), I caught it at The Red Vic Movie House (RIP) in its original 3-D.  Old 3-D still has some novelty, but seeing it on television is how I came into contact with it in the first place.  As I’ve often mentioned, I grew up on these kinds of movies, this one in particular was a personal favorite.

Seeing it this time with a couple other of Jack Arnold’s movies alongside, Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), it offers a bit more of an opportunity for any auteurist perspectives on his work.  All of the films are classic B-movies, featuring not any top name stars, but capable, quite good leads and a plethora of fantastic character actor performances.  Like Tarantula, It Came from Outer Space was filmed in the desert outside of Los Angeles, and it seems that Arnold had a particular penchant for the space, the heat, and the bizarre joshua trees.

Though the aliens only show up in a handful of very brief flashes, I always thought they were pretty cool looking.  Big blobs with one eye, potential progenitors of Sigmund the Sea Monster.  And of course, the gelatinous “alien vision” perspective when we see the world through their eyes.

A triple feature on a Friday night was definitely an endurance run for Felix and Clara.  Felix zonked out through most of the film, but Clara was engaged throughout.  I’d told them that it was one of my favorite films when I was their ages and so maybe they had greater expectations of it.  While it features some eerie, semi-zombie-like acting by characters that the aliens disguise themselves to look like, the weird creatures are not villainous at all.  You see, they crashed on Earth by accident and realized that humans were not yet sophisticated enough to deal with them peacefully, so they are just doing what they can to fix their ship and get the heck out of Dodge.  Richard Carlson is the amateur astronomer who is the lone sympathizer with the aliens, fascinated by them, though also disgusted by their natural appearance.

It is adapted from a Ray Bradbury story and bears the clever sensibility of his work.

My only other note is the odd fact that the last time that I wrote about the film, I noted that Siouxsie and the Banshees used a snippet of dialogue from the film on one of their songs (“92 Degrees”), which was an observation I made.  Someone then cited my blog on the Wikipedia page for It Came from Outer Space.  I only note this here because it’s the lone time that my blog has been cited for anything like that.  Which isn’t surprising, but still.  I thought it was cool, since it is one of my favorite 1950’s sci-fi/horror films.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 01/04/2013

The second film of our impromptu Jack Arnold triple feature was The Incredible Shrinking Man, which TCM noted for us is considered Arnold’s best film.  It was the one that intrigued Clara the most of the three titles.  Oddly enough, as familiar as I’ve been with this film over the years, I don’t know that I’d actually ever watched it.  Certainly not in its entirety.

Written by Richard Matheson from his own novel, it’s pop science fiction with a heady little spin.

When Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife are out on the sea one day, he is fatefully caught in a weird cloud of what turns out to be some form of nuclear radiation.  When months later he is exposed to an insecticide, the combination of exposures triggers his body to start shrinking.

Arnold employs a number of clever camera tricks to portray Williams in various levels of decreasing size in comparison with his wife, house, and world around him.  The effects are a big part of the film’s lasting appeal, creating some its most recognizable images, with Williams armed with a pin, facing off against the housecat and a tarantula.  Arnold’s work on his 1955 film Tarantula helped hone these camera tricks to create such impressive imagery.

The ending of the film is a sort of anti-climax, though it’s arguably conceptually more interesting.  Williams shrinks beyond microscopic size, into an atomic and subatomic world that changes all concepts of reality and self.  Not surprisingly, this was a bit of a stretch for 1950’s special effects and so this change is described in voice-over and plays out with a vague abruptness.  It actually disappointed Clara quite a bit, who had enjoyed the film considerably up to that point.  I agree that as dramatic denouement it is a tad low key.  And since the visuals don’t really communicate it, it’s a little vague.  But I think conceptually it’s quite interesting, moving from a story of such literal, physical challenges in our known world to something utterly abstract…that’s pretty interesting.

I’m still partial to It Came from Outer Space (1953) (which would turn out to be our final film of our triple feature too) as my favorite of Arnold’s films, but The Incredible Shrinking Man is good stuff all the way around.

Tarantula (1955)

Tarantula (1955) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 01/04/2013

I’d had a DVD for the kids and I to watch, but in skimming the channels just before, I saw that TCM had a Jack Arnold quadruple feature, with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) playing as I discovered it.  Oddly enough, Felix had just watched that movie on his own volition via Netflix streaming.  It took only a modicum of influence to sign us up for the rest of the Jack Arnold movies for our evening entertainment.  A triple feature is something unheard of for me and the kids.  Double features once or twice but a triple feature?

Felix remembered us watching Them! (1954) a few years back, so comparing Tarantula to the giant ant movie made for an easy sell.  Funnily enough, Felix had convinced a couple of his friends to watch Them! with him (not sure how long ago), only to find that they didn’t get into it at all.  Apparently I’m developing appreciations in the kids that they will have to search longer and further for others to share with them.

I, of course, remembered Tarantula fondly from my childhood.  I can’t say that it was my favorite science fiction/horror film.  Like I said, I always preferred Them! if it really got down to it.  Though I did recall that Tarantula was still better than The Deadly Mantis (1957).  I wasn’t keyed in on Jack Arnold like I have been in the last decade.  I’ve come to really appreciate him and his films of the 1950’s.  I actually knew most of them from my childhood.  I’d liked him without knowing who he was.

Like It Came from Outer Space (1953) and The Monolith Monsters (1957) (as well as who knows how many others), its desert location, with California standing in for small-town Arizona, always stuck with me.

The film begins with a monster-like humanoid dying in the desert, before the titles roll.  It turns out that a mad professor, the great Leo G. Carroll (kind of like a poor man’s Boris Karloff), has been experimenting with radioactive nutrients on animals like rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, and a tarantula, making them grow progressively massive.  Of course, human experimentation goes wrong; thus the monstrous humanoid of the film’s beginning.  And when an angry lab assistant sets fire to the lab, the tarantula escapes, going on to terrorize the countryside, sucking down everyone/everything in its wake, leaving only bones behind.

It takes a pilot (Clint Eastwood if a very early role) to napalm the thing to bring the film to its heady end.

Unlike Them!, most of the shots of the spider use a real animal, only going for a gigantic construction for close-ups and also the wonderful “fang vision”.

We had some discussion of the effects, as Felix has become more cognizant of “old fashioned” techniques.  We had to note that these were all pretty good for 1955.  They were a bit corny even in the 1970’s when I used to eat this stuff up.  But still, this is pretty great stuff.  And luckily we all agreed.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) movie poster

(1954) dir. Jack Arnold
viewed: 08/15/09 at the Red Vic Movie House, SF, CA

As I’ve oft-noted, I grew up loving “monster movies”, as I called them as a kid.  So, when I saw that Creature from the Black Lagoon was playing in 3-D at the Red Vic, I put it on my calendar and was eager to revisit it.

This is 3-D in the original, with the red lens and blue lens in a light card frame shaped into “glasses”.  I am not really a fan of 3-D, but this is 3-D from the original 3-D era and seems an appropriate way to go.  The effects are more akin to showing vague depth-of-field, rather than feeling a real sense of the creature’s claw reaching out for you.  Maybe it’s my eyes and the best tricks don’t work so well on me.

Directed by Jack Arnold, a true quality name among the lesser-known B-movie makers, Creature is a good romp, if not a great romp, a sort of subgenre of its own, that of The Lost World (1925), an image of the Amazon jungle, of South America and its rainforests, hiding the last unknowns of the Earth.  Even Anaconda (1997) in the modern sense, and even Pixar’s latest Up (2009) seeks the “lost” and living fragments of the yet undiscovered.  Perhaps it’s one of those increasingly dated images, that “out there” lives something great and tremendous that humans have yet to classify.  Because while new species are discovered quite a bit, it’s very unusual to discover anything of great size or significance.  We’ve just covered most of the globe by now.  But even so, the fantasies persist.

Oddly enough, my last trip to the Red Vic Movie House was to see Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space (1953), also shown in old-fashioned 3-D.  Kinda ashamed I don’t make it there more often.   It’s a great place, with the benches and the re-usable plastic glassware and popcorn bowls.  It’s a co-op and it’s unique in this city.  And if you live here, you should go there when you can.  One of my favorite films, Dead Man (1995) is playing there this week.  I am hoping to figure out how to get there for that.

For Creature, I think that the best thing about the movie is “the creature” himself.  Now, this may be debateable to a modern audience, but I think you have to look at the pervassiveness of his image among the other classic monsters of the Hollywood classics to say what an impression his image has made.  I personally think the design is quite cool, and they must have thought so at the time too because he gets a lot of screen time compared to some beasties of the movies, hidden a lot so that you can’t see the flaws in their effects and design.

Additionally, I always had a crush on Julia Adams, the damsel in the film who fills out her one-piece bathing costume with great flair.  I had this Creature Features board game, which played like Monopoly, but instead of properties, you bought movies, and instead of houses, you bought the monster and the stars.  I often bought Creature from the Black Lagoon so that I could have Julia Adams to look longingly at.

But the Creature is an icon, and I think rightfully so.  And I think Jack Arnold and Julia Adams have earned their respectful places in my subjective and seemingly-random heart.

It Came from Outer Space

It Came from Outer Space (1953) movie poster

(1953) dir. Jack Arnold
viewed: 07/29/06 at the Red Vic Movie House, SF, CA

The Red Vic Movie House is one of the great theaters in San Francisco, with its repertory schedule, its cooperative-run and scheduled selections, the fact that popcorn and soda come in actual bowls to be returned rather than more disposable garbage, and it’s homey seating.  It’s a great place that I always think that I should come to with more regularity than I do every time I walk in the door.

The reason to be there this time was quite compelling, a showing of It Came From Outer Space, one of my favorite horror/sci-fi films as a kid, in its original 3-D.   When I was growing up, I loved and lived for “monster movies”, which is what I referred to them back then, with a heavy emphasis on Universal, Hammer, and all black and white horror films, dating back to Lon Chaney and encompassing in particular 1950’s horror and science fiction.  Basically, Famous Monsters of Filmland would have been more and more my bible if I had been able to get my hands on more than a couple of issues of it.  This film was indeed a personal favorite from that time and from seeing it again, I have to give myself some credit for taste.

Directed by Jack Arnold, who has several notable horror/sci-fi films from the period to his credit, including Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and  Monster on the Campus (1958), It Came from Outer Space is a top quality 1950’s B-Movie.  Full of Cold War paranoia and xenophobia, the script also seems to criticize pack mentality and conformity to the conservative small town culture that epitomizes its period.  When the spaceship lands, the moderately radical amateur astronomer/writer proves himself the outsider in the small Arizona town by thinking against the grain, quickly tabbed as a nut for his ideas about aliens and so forth, he is the free thinker in the town.  How much of this comes from the Ray Bradbury story that this was adapted from, I have no idea.

From a visual standpoint, the film has great style.  Set in a small desert town, the Joshua trees and landscape play significantly into the design and aura of the film, even offering itself up significantly as one of the great red herring shocks of the film.  My favorite thing, the thing I always remembered about the film was the “alien vision”, the perspective shots from the aliens’ point of view with this watery gel overlay backed with some serious theramin music.  I’d still say it’s great.

The performances throughout the film are solid from all of the character actors to the leads and the script has several surprises and excellent moments, most notably the “92 degrees” speech given by the town’s sheriff, which was used in the Siouxsie and the Banshees song of the same name from their Tinderbox album.  It’s full of qualities and fun.  It’s a great film, not maybe the utmost pillar of the period, but a very rock solid and cool film.

And yeah, it was in traditional 3-D with those glasses that have one red lens and one blue one.  This is pretty much a top experience all the way around.