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Blu-Ray Review - THREE MONSTER TALES OF SCI-FI TERROR

Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror review
Boxset of three vintage monster movies: Man-Made Monster, The Monolith Monsters and Monster on the Campus.

Review by Eric Hillis

Eureka Entertainment give three vintage monster movies - 1941's Man-Made Monster, 1957's The Monolith Monsters and 1958's Monster on the Campus - their UK blu-ray debut with this collection.

Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror bluray


Man-Made Monster review

Man-Made Monster
In 1941 director George Waggner and his leading man Lon Chaney Jr revitalised Universal horror with The Wolf Man. Earlier that same year the pair worked together on Man-Made Monster, a cheap programmer that showcased the director's skill and highlighted Chaney's likeable lug persona.

Chaney plays Dan McCormick, a circus freak who is impervious to the effects of electricity. Dan's curious talent is brought to the attention of Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) when he is the lone survivor of a collision between a bus and power lines. The affable Lawrence wants to study Dan, but his associate, Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill), has more sinister plans for Dan.

Thus begins a classic mad scientist b-movie. Atwill hams it up as the megalomaniacal Rigas, justifying his torturing of Dan with claims of the "greater good," but his intention is to create an army of zombified men controlled by electricity. Atwill gets to wrap his distinctive British tongue around some great speeches, calling out the average man as a "non-entity" and writing off most members of the public as "millstones around the neck of progress."

Waggner finds some novel ways to get around the Hays code, like how he visualises an electric chair through the eyes of the men manning the prison's electrical system in the basement. Waggner and cinematographer Elwood Bredell give us some nicely staged deep focus scenes that remind us this is a classier production than its poverty row rivals of the era. Chaney's glowing Ready Brek Man effect is cheap but effective.

Chaney wasn't yet considered romantic lead material at this point, and so it's newspaper man Mark Adams (Frank Albertson) who gets the girl, Lawrence's daughter June (Anne Nagel). Mark and June team up to stop Rigas's plan, which leaves Chaney's Mark as little more than a punching bag. The next collaboration between Chaney and Waggner would similarly exploit Chaney's hang-dog, tortured looks, while also making him the centre of the story.



The Monolith Monsters review

The Monolith Monsters
Inspired perhaps by the infamous radio drama 'The Chicken Heart', 1957's The Monolith Monsters is a similar tale of an initially innocuous object that threatens the world by its multiplying in size. In this case it's the fragments of a meteor that lands in the Californian desert that grow rapidly whenever they come into contact with water (Gremlins creators Joe Dante and Chris Columbus were likely watching as kids).

Voiceover stalwart Paul Frees opens the movie with a brief lecture about how various "bits and pieces" are constantly falling through the universe, most of which burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Some, we're told, occasionally make it through, like the meteor in question here.

Fragments of the space rock fall into the hands of a local geologist and a schoolgirl, with deadly consequences. The geologist is ironically turned into something of a rock himself while the little girl's hand is similarly stiffened. A specialist doctor seeks a cure to prevent the girl being turned into a human statue while various other scientists try to figure out a way to stop the rocks from growing.

1950s monster movie fans were well accustomed at this point to the threats posed by the cold war and aliens from outer space. While the Russkies and little green men might be open to negotiations, you can't hold peace talks with a rock, so The Monolith Monsters must have knocked the Saturday morning kids for six.

Director John Sherwood, who previously helmed the Creature from the Black Lagoon sequel The Creature Walks Among Us, does a good job of capturing the small town California atmosphere, with the fictional San Angelo increasingly dwarfed by the distant growing rocks. There's a very Spielbergian moment where the town's kids are recruited to deliver evacuation orders, setting off on their bikes like the heroes of ET. And like Spielberg, Sherwood isn't afraid to put children in peril to amp up the tension.

Most of the characters are stock b-movie types, like the square-jawed hero (Grant Williams) and his teacher lover (Peter Gunn's Lola Albright), but British actor Les Tremayne gets the best lines as the publisher/editor/sole journalist of the town's newspaper (what could the circulation be?). Look out for an amusing cameo by Nancy Drew's Dad William Schallert as a nerdy weatherman (Schallert would go on to appear in the beloved Star Trek episode 'The Trouble with Tribbles', which boasts a similar premise of a multiplying menace). Courtesy of Clifford Stine, a veteran of King Kong, it's the special effects that steal the show as clever use of the matte process brings the monoliths to life.





Monster on the Campus review

Monster on the Campus
Most of the sci-fi movies of the 1950s golden age concerned very futuristic threats, posed by either invading aliens or by man's own hubristic folly. With 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon, director Jack Arnold flipped this idea with the threat posed by Earth's history, the film's heroes battling a creature preserved from prehistoric times.

Arnold returned to this notion with 1958's Monster on the Campus. Like his Black Lagoon sequel, Revenge of the Creature, the action here doesn't play out in some exotic locale but in suburban America, in a place of higher learning no less. I always find it amusing in these movies when some provincial college gets their hands on an incredible scientific find. The Smithsonian? The British Museum? No, Poughkeepsie community college gets a rare mummy or some such artefact. Here it's Dunsford University that acquires a coelacanth, a rare fish that holds the key to studying our own evolution.

The fish is transported to the university in haphazard fashion, leaking all over the back of the van belonging to student Jimmy (Troy Donahue), who is delivering it to science professor Donald Blake (Arthur Franz). When Jimmy's pet German Shepherd licks some of the leaking residue, it turns vicious. Later, a dragonfly sucks blood from the fish and reappears a thousand times larger. Things really get messy when Blake cuts his hand on one of the fish's scales and regresses to a throwback, much like William Hurt in Altered States.

Thing is, Blake doesn't realise he's the monster committing murders on his campus, as he has no memory of his werewolf-like throwback transformations. The cops are equally clueless, represented by some of the worst detectives ever to pin a badge on their chests. This gives rise to some of the movie's funniest moments, as the cops stare at giant hand and footprints and mutter things like "Nobody has a footprint like that."

Monster on the Campus has everything you could wish for in a 1950s movie about a monster on a campus. We get the obligatory warnings about man's folly delivered by an uptight professor; a few sexist comments regarding his female assistants; students played by suspiciously old actors; and a great monster courtesy of make-up titan Bud Westmore.

Arnold's direction and Russell Metty's cinematography add a touch of class usually absent from such fare, with the pair making great use of negative space to create suspense sequences as shadows creep up on unsuspecting victims. The movie is also surprisingly graphic for its time, with a shocking axe to a park ranger's face and a young female victim left hanging from a tree by her hair.

Extras:
Commentaries by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones on Man-Made Monster and Monster on the Campus; commentary on The Monolith Monsters by Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby; limited edition collector's booklet.

Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror is on UK blu-ray from April 11th.