Thursday, July 5, 2012
Monster on the Campus (1958): The Hulk's Missing Link?
I don't know what it is about creature features from the 1950s. Even when they descend into the depths of accidental camp, there's still something quite charming about them. Maybe it's because creature features were still finding their aesthetic legs, or that the still-new Atomic Age had generated so many larger-than-life anxieties that only creature features could do them justice on the big screen. Regardless, I just re-watched Monster on the Campus, one of Jack Arnold's lesser sci-fi flicks from the 50s. I first saw it a long time ago when running this kind of movie on syndicated TV during the weekend was a common practice, and I was looking forward to seeing it again. Read on for my retrospective of this cult classic, which includes some thoughts as to how it’s connected to Marvel Comics’ not-so-jolly green giant, the Hulk.
For those of you who don't know anything about this film, Monster on the Campus is about a college biology professor named Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) who cuts his hand on teeth of a coelacanth, a prehistoric fish that his department just received from Madagascar. As he begins to suffer blackouts during attacks made against him by an unknown assailant, the professor notices how animals that are exposed to the coelacanth suddenly take on attributes of their prehistoric ancestors (larger fangs, bigger body sizes, etc.). After making this discovery, Blake realizes that his attacker could be a visitor from humanity's distant past, a visitor who is much closer to Blake than he ever could imagine.
While the plot is similar in many respects to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Monster on the Campus is actually a rip-off of an earlier creature feature called The Neanderthal Man (1953). (You can watch The Neanderthal Man on YouTube here.) It's also worthy to note that the same ideas from The Neanderthal Man and Monster on the Campus would be re-used in Altered States (1980), a hallucinatory body horror film that was directed by Ken Russell and based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky.
Monster on the Campus doesn't meet the same standard of quality as Arnold's other sci-fi films, such as Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Arnold himself has voiced his displeasure with the film in interviews, saying that he agreed to direct it as a favor to someone at Universal. Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for this film because Arnold was able to add some polish and charm to an absurd script and poor special effects. Adding to the film's appeal is the enthusiasm of the cast, particularly Franz's performance as Blake. During the movie, Blake does several things with the dead coelacanth that anyone else would know never to do with raw, rotting meat; thus, Blake shouldn't be allowed to cook food let alone teach a biology class. Yet Franz keeps you believing in the sincerity of Blake's motives and actions, no matter how unintentionally funny they get.
I think that the most intriguing aspect about Monster on the Campus is how at times it feels like the missing link between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Marvel Comics' superhero Hulk. Stan Lee has cited Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as one of the key influences in the creation of the Hulk, but there are enough details in Monster on the Campus to suggest that Lee and Steve Kirby probably saw Arnold's film and drew a lot from it when they developed their monstrous hero.
For example, the Hulk is the alter ego of Dr. Bruce Banner, who became the Hulk after being bombarded by gamma radiation. In Monster on the Campus, Blake finds out that the coelacanth itself is not causing the evolutionary regressions (including Blake's own regressions into a Neanderthal) but that the fish was exposed to gamma radiation to preserve it and thus gave its blood a regressive property. The Hulk hates his human half, and Banner feels lingering remorse over the destruction wreaked by the Hulk. Likewise, the Neanderthal that Blake transforms into harbors a raging anger against him--to the point where local police even think that someone is stalking Blake--and Blake becomes overwhelmed with guilt when he realizes that it is he who is the murderous beast that has been stalking his campus. Furthermore, the relationship dynamics between Banner, his love interest Betty Ross and her father General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross is similar to Blake's relationship with his fiancée Madeline Howard (Joanna Moore) and her father Professor Gilbert Howard (Alexander Lockwood). Another bit of Jack Arnold/Marvel trivia: "Donald Blake" was also the name used for the former alter ego of Thor, another superhero character created by Lee and Kirby.
Monster on the Campus isn't the only example of a commonality between creature features from the 40s and 50s and Marvel Comics characters that were first published in the 60s. I've posted before about how the Fantastic Four bears some similarities to other space radiation films, and two of Spider-Man's archenemies, Electro and the Lizard, have backgrounds are similar to the respective titular monsters in Man-Made Monster (1941) and The Alligator People (1959). I can see why Lee would prefer to mention a literary classic by Robert Louis Stevenson over a b-movie as a source of inspiration for the Hulk, if for no other reason than to suggest an air of artistic sophistication to the creation of a superhero. Nevertheless, movies like Monster on the Campus serve as a reminder to fans of the close conceptual kinship between b-grade creature features and pulpy superhero adventures. The way I see it, that's a beautiful thing.