Synopsis: Dr. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) is a professor of biology at Dunsfield College, and while he has a great job and a loving relationship with beautiful girlfriend Madeline (Joanna Moore) he is gloomy about humanity’s future. The human race, he reasons, is too self-destructive to survive in the long term. But today he is in a good mood: he is going to receive a shipment from Madagascar that contains the frozen carcass of a coelacanth, a primordial fish long thought extinct but recently discovered alive.
Student Jimmy Flanders (Troy Donahue) helps Blake unload the fish from his truck, but as he does so a small amount of bloody water from the melted ice drips onto the pavement. Jimmy’s dog Samson laps up some of the water, and within a few minutes begins snarling at Blake’s girlfriend Madeline (Joanna Moore). Blake locks Samson up in a kennel. When he examines the dog he sees that it has huge canine teeth, and he tells Jimmy that the dog must be a throwback to a much more primitive creature. Jimmy protests, saying Samson is nothing more than a purebred German Shepherd.
Within a few hours the dog seems to be back to normal, and the giant canine teeth are gone. No one can explain its suddenly aggressive behavior, or why he just as suddenly returned to normal.
Later, Blake is working in his office when nurse Molly Riordon (Helen Westcott) arrives to pick up a saliva sample from the dog. Molly brazenly comes on to Blake, who admits to her that he finds her advances unnerving. While returning the coelacanth to the freezer, one of the teeth in its mouth cuts into his hand. He begins to feel faint and asks Molly to drive him home.
Later, Madeline arrives at Blake’s house. She finds Molly hanging from a tree in the backyard, strangled by her own hair. Blake is unconscious in the house, his clothes shredded. The inside of the house has been smashed up by an incredibly strong assailant, and a picture of Madeline has been ripped in half. The fingerprints found at the crime scene are barely human — they must be from someone who is deformed, the police reason.
Blake is seen by the police as the most likely suspect in the crime, but the freakish fingerprints absolve him; nevertheless he is racked with guilt and throws himself even deeper into his work.
Jimmy and classmate Sylvia (Nancy Walters) are at the lab one night when they and Blake witness something truly astonishing: a foot-long dragonfly, of a species that disappeared millions of years ago, flying around the room. Jimmy protests that there’s no way such a species could have survived to the modern era without anyone knowing about it. Nevertheless, Blake says, there it is….
Comments: This film about evolutionary throwbacks is something of a throwback itself, directed by Jack Arnold after he had graduated from monster-movie duty at Universal. As the story goes, Joseph Gershenson, music supervisor for countless films at the studio, wanted desperately to be a film producer. The studio wouldn’t trust him with a producer assignment unless he had an experienced hand behind the camera, so Jack Arnold took the job as a personal favor to him.
This was a smart choice, because Arnold makes this sort of movie look easy. The premise is silly and the screenplay isn’t particularly well written, but Arnold paces it well, and as always gets the most of his bread-and-butter actors. In the end it isn’t great, but much more memorable and interesting than it would have been in the hands of a lesser director.
It differs from previous Jack Arnold efforts in a number of ways, particularly in tone. Dr. Blake is unusually gloomy and pessimistic about the future of the human species and unlike the scientists in other Universal pictures of the time (It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth) he is not a hero. He is more like Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, or the protagonist of a Greek tragedy — someone who doesn’t see until too late the ironic fate that has befallen him.
Arthur Franz does quite well with the role of Dr. Blake, with a seriousness that’s well-suited to the tone. He rarely got lead roles like this one, spending most of his prolific career portraying character roles or second-leads. He had a memorable turn in William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (1953). Jack Arnold must have liked him in this picture, because he cast him in a starring role in the 1959 syndicated TV series World of Giants.
Smoky-voiced beauty Joanna Moore was also extremely busy; the same year she did Monster On the Campus she appeared in another (and much better-known) Universal picture: Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. She played Marcia Linneker, the daughter of the businessman killed by a car bomb on the Mexican border. She continued to work steadily in film and television over the next couple of decades, including a season as Andy Taylor’s love interest on The Andy Griffith Show. She later married Ryan O’Neal, and is the mother of actress Tatum O’Neal.
Troy Donahue was being groomed for stardom at the time, and would enjoy a taste of success appearing in the hit film A Summer Place (1959). Alas, his career prospects would be hampered by a distinct lack of talent. Anyone who’d seen Monster on the Campus could have predicted that.