A Cryptful of Creature Features: ‘Three Monster Tales’ Blu-ray

❉ Eureka’s recent two-disc Blu-ray set unearths three neglected genre creations from the Universal vaults, writes Jonny Restall.

The release of Dracula in 1931, followed by Frankenstein later the same year, established Universal Studios as pioneers in the field of American horror cinema. Their classic monster characters remain iconic today, even if recent attempts to revive them have proved both artistically and financially underwhelming. However, even at their creative height many of the studio’s efforts fell by the wayside, failing to ascend to the horror pantheon.  While the likes of The Invisible Man (1933) and The Phantom of the Opera (1943) are generally remembered fondly, fewer celebrate bizarre titles such as Captive Wild Woman (1943) or The Mole People (1956). Eureka’s recent two-disc Blu-ray set Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror unearths three such neglected genre creations from the Universal vaults.

The earliest film included is 1941’s Man-Made Monster. Keen horror fans may note a certain thematic and structural resemblance to the same year’s The Wolf Man, a far better-known beast from the Universal stable. However, Man-Made Monster actually predates its hirsute cousin, marking the first collaboration between the later film’s director, George Waggner, and its star, Lon Chaney Jr. As in The Wolf Man, Chaney plays a slightly bumbling innocent undone more by circumstance than inherent evil, with the storyline following a similarly tragic arc. Utilising some nifty model work, the film opens with a dramatic crash as a storm sends a bus straight into a roadside pylon. The sole survivor is Dan McCormick (Chaney), whose apparent immunity to electrocution is subsequently studied by the benevolent electro-biologist Doctor Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds). Unfortunately, McCormick’s resilience also attracts the attention of Lawrence’s sinister assistant Doctor Rigas (Lionel Atwill), who enslaves him through a series of distinctly unethical high voltage experiments.

Although the character of Rigas is open to interpretation as either a fascist or a ruthless capitalist (declaring the electronically-possessed McCormick “the worker of the future, controlled by a superior intelligence!”), the film never really sinks its teeth into its potentially biting subtext. It clocks in at an enjoyably brisk 59 minutes, but only fully lights up for the nicely macabre climax, as the authorities foolishly try to execute the wronged McCormick in the electric chair.

1957’s The Monolith Monsters takes perhaps the most unexpected approach to its titular threat. Directed by John Sherwood from a screenplay by Science Fiction Theatre’s Norman Jolley (based on a story by monster-movie stalwarts Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco), it tells the tale of a strange meteor landing in the Californian desert. When its fragments are exposed to water, they grow violently to an unearthly size, unleashing destruction on the local community and menacing the world at large.

By making its ‘monster’ from inanimate (if fast-growing) rocks rather than the expected man-in-a-creature-suit, the film seems closer in style to an ecological 70s disaster movie than a 50s sci-fi horror. It also takes a remarkably dim view of humanity’s attitude to the environment for its time. The film opens with government worker Ben (Phil Harvey) nonchalantly spilling water from his car across the desert road, before idly taking a small meteor sample back to the office. An astonishingly lax school trip leads to a young girl taking a further rock home; her mother refuses to have the “dirty” souvenir in her clean house, inadvertently sealing her own doom when her daughter obediently tries to wash it. Eventually, the hero Dave (Grant Williams) has to destroy a dam to defeat the alien monoliths, literally obliterating a man-made subversion of the natural world in order to survive.

While the expected 50s genre cliches are present and correct, with square-jawed men, helpless women, and elderly professors all in attendance, the film does get significant mileage from its more unusual plot. Its old-fashioned effects still create a sense of spectacle and excitement once the carnage begins, and at just over an hour and a quarter, it never outstays its welcome.

Sadly, the final film in the set is arguably the most underwhelming. Despite being directed by Jack Arnold, whose previous works include the wonderful Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), 1958’s low-budget Monster on the Campus is fairly stiff and slow. Although the title suggests campy fun along the lines of AIP’s contemporary hit I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), our protagonist is not a crazed delinquent but the distinctly dull, conservative Professor Blake (Arthur Franz). Due to his staggering carelessness with priceless specimens, Blake repeatedly manages to become infected by the giant prehistoric fish he is studying. This causes him to temporarily regress to a monstrous primitive state in which he commits violent attacks, which he cannot remember once the effects have worn off.

The film does have some intriguing and potentially subversive ideas at its heart. The toxic nature of the fossil is caused by its recent exposure to gamma rays, suggesting that an unquestioning faith in modern nuclear discoveries could accidentally return us to a deeply uncivilised past. The violent regression of the stuffy, sexist Blake could be interpreted as a biting comment on the brutality lying beneath the oppressively pompous and patriarchal values he represents. However, its promise is largely undone by unsympathetic characters, cheap effects, and a general sense of tiredness and over-familiarity.

The transfers used by Eureka are strong, showcasing crisp black and white images with minimal signs of wear and tear. While the extras are few, the booklet by Craig Ian Mann is informative and makes a passionate case for taking the films seriously. While none of the three would quite qualify as forgotten masterpieces, they all have aspects of interest to the committed monster-movie fan, and their re-release is very welcome.

❉ ‘Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror’ (Eureka Classics) Two-Disc Blu-ray, RRP £29.99. Director(s): George Waggner / John Sherwood / Jack Arnold. 214 minutes (60 mins / 77 mins / 77 mins). Certificate PG. First print run of 2000 copies feature a Limited-Edition O-Card Slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling and Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver. Available to order from Eureka Store: https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/three-monster-tales-of-sci-fi-terror/ 

❉ Johnny Restall writes and draws inky pictures. You can find him on Twitter @johnnyrestall.

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