Eureka Classics have delved once more into the secret depths of the Universal vaults to unearth Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror, George Waggner’s Man-Made Monster of 1941, The Monolith Monsters of John Sherwood, originally released in 1957 and Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus from 1958, each of them making their UK Blu-ray debut in 1080p restorations.
Opening the set, Man-Made Monster sees Lon Chaney, Jr as Dan McCormick, a sideshow performer and the only survivor of what the newspaper banner describes as a “spectacular crash fatal to five,” the others electrocuted by the collision of their bus with the pylon but “Dynamo Dan, the Electrical Man” apparently immune.
A curiosity whose discharge from the hospital sees him taken into the care of kindly Doctor John Lawrence and his daughter June (The Invisible Woman’s Anne Nagel), it also brings him into contact with Lawrence’s ambitious and unstable assistant Doctor Paul Rigas (The Vampire Bat’s Lionel Atwill) who exposes him to greater charges of electricity in hopes of creating a superman.
In many ways transposing the plot of The Wolf Man which Waggner also directed for Universal and paralleling the “mad scientist” films of Boris Karloff of the same era – Man-Made Monster was even re-released in 1953 as The Atomic Monster in keeping with the obsession of that decade – it is a frustrating outing for Chaney, initially an ebullient character who is reduced to a shambling monster as his treatment progresses, far less rewarding than his later Inner Sanctum films.
The whole plot structured to take Dan to an ineffective execution in the electric chair, discreetly offscreen, the commentary from Stephen Jones and Kim Newman describes the film as part of the third wave of Universal horror and disappointingly points out that the impressive modelwork of the opening crash scenes is in fact stock footage, all three of the films having been made with the barest resources.
While perhaps unable to compete with the production values of This Island Earth, the jewel in the Universal crown of that era released two years before, The Monolith Monsters is certainly a step up in terms of technical achievement and narrative ambition and is by far the best film in the set, the California mountains and buildings of the Universal backlot familiar from later use in Gremlins and Back to the Future presented in crisp monochrome.
Opening with a monologue describing falling meteors “from planets belonging to stars whose dying light is too far away to be seen,” in the desert outside San Angelo such an object is found and brought to the District Office of the Department of the Interior run by Ben Gilbert who is found dead the next day, his body turned to stone.
Geologist Dave Miller (The Incredible Shrinking Man’s Grant Williams) investigating, he finds the mountain path overrun by mighty blocks of towering rock which are growing at an alarming rate; worse, his girlfriend, kindergarten teacher Cathy Barrett (Kid Galahad’s Lola Albright), has taken a field trip to the area and her students have returned with a sample of the strange space rocks, bringing the menace into the town itself.
An unusual tale of an unearthly threat in that it is non-biological, an inanimate mineral which cannot be bargained with or killed in any conventional manner, The Monolith Monsters is still representative of the “suburban” science fiction cinema of the era such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers or I Married a Monster from Outer Space, a first foothold defeated by a community coming together and pooling their resources to defend the planet against the unknown.
The special photographic effects credited to Clifford Stine who would create similar scenes for 1974 disaster epic Earthquake, the commentary from Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby describes The Monolith Monsters as “one of the last of the serious science fiction films of the nineteen-fifties” but reminds of the prevailing contemporary concern of the genre: “those may be rocks but they’re Commie rocks.”
Released eighteen months after Michael Landon basked in a June moon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Monster on the Campus has many parallels with that film, not the least of which is the presence of The Time Tunnel’s Whit Bissell as a doctor, though here his capacity is treatment rather than experimentation bordering on malpractice, Doctor Donald Blake (Invaders from Mars‘ Arthur Franz) willing to disregard his own safety and that of others unassisted.
Obtaining a rare coelacanth specimen from Madagascar, Doctor Blake observes the curious effect its blood has on the dog belonging to his student Jimmy (Rocket to the Moon’s Troy Donahue) and a dragonfly which lands on the corpse, regressing to primitive evolutionary forms; injecting himself with a plasma extract to document the effect and blacking out, he wakes up to find there has been a murder on campus.
The makeup created by the legendary Bud Westmore whose career stretched from Brute Force to Soylent Green, the animalistic version of Doctor Blake is impressive considering the time and modest budget though it is insufficient to detract from the awkward plot mechanics, the police creating elaborate stories around the evidence while failing to investigate and Blake waking up in strange places in torn bloodstained clothes yet continuing undeterred.
More concerned with Samson’s elongated canines than the murders on campus, raising philosophical questions only to cast them aside immediately and driven by poor protocols – no gloves, no washing of hands, smoking in the laboratory – Monster on the Campus is surprisingly violent for the era in the final scenes, but even the enthusiastic Jones and Newman consider it barely a passing grade in their commentary.
Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror will be available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 11th April