The film was the last of Universal's science fiction monster films released before Island of Terror (1966).
Dr. Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) is a science professor at Dunsford University. When his student Jimmy (Troy Donahue) delivers the coelacanth that Blake has purchased, Jimmy asks Blake if the fish is really a million years old. Blake replies, "It's the species that's old. No change in millions of years. See, the coelacanth is a living fossil, immune to the forces of evolution. That's what's so remarkable about it." Blake lectures his students about evolution and devolution, telling them that man is the only creature that can decide whether to move forwards or backwards, and that "unless we learn to control the instincts we've inherited from our ape-like ancestors, the race is doomed."
Inside the lab, Blake moves the partially-thawed coelacanth into the freezer. He lifts the fish, putting one hand inside its mouth. Blake scratches himself on its teeth and then accidentally sticks the same hand into the pool of water and blood in the container which held the fish. Molly Riordan (Helen Westcott) assistant to Dr. Cole Oliver (Whit Bissell), is with Blake and offers him a ride home. When they get to Molly's car, Blake says he doesn't feel well and passes out.
At Blake's house, Molly is attacked by person or persons unknown. A short time later Madeline Howard (Joanna Moore) - Blake's fiancee and daughter of Dr. Gilbert Howard (Alexander Lockwood), president of the university - arrives and finds the house in shambles and Blake, lying on the ground, moaning. Then they see Molly - dead, eyes wide open, hanging by her hair in a tree. Madeline calls the police.
Detective Lt. Mike Stevens (Judson Pratt) and Detective Sgt. Eddie Daniels (Ross Elliott) arrive. They find a huge "deformed" hand print on a window and Blake's tie clasp in Molly's dead hand. They take Blake down to the station when he says he can't remember anything after getting into Molly's car.
Stevens releases Blake after concluding that someone with a grudge against him is trying to implicate him in Molly's murder. He assigns Daniels as Blake's bodyguard and tells Blake that Molly's autopsy shows she died of fright.
Later, working in his lab, Blake shoos away a dragonfly that has landed on the coelacanth. He thinks nothing of it, but the dragonfly later returns, now grown to two feet in length. Jimmy and his girlfriend Sylvia (Nancy Walters) are also in the lab, and Blake and Jimmy try to catch the giant insect in a net when it again lands on the coelacanth. Blake stabs the dragonfly, killing it. But when he examines the dragonfly at his desk, he doesn't notice that a bit of its blood has dripped into his pipe. Lighting up, he notices the odd flavor, but smokes anyway. He immediately feels ill. As the dragonfly shrinks back to its normal size, a large, hairy hand reaches out from where Blake is sitting and squashes the insect. Then someone trashes Blake's lab and kills Daniels. The police find huge footprints near Daniels' body and conclude that the footprints and the handprints are from the same maniac.
Blake learns that the coelacanth, which has been preserved by gamma rays, has blood plasma which, if it gets into the bloodstream of an animal or person, causes them to temporarily revert to a more primitive stage of being. Only then does he realize that when he scratched his hand on the fish's teeth, he might have gotten a dose of irradiated plasma himself. If he has, then he has been reverting to the homicidal caveman, a throwback with large hands and feet, dark skin, heavy body hair and prominent brow ridges.
Blake decides to take a few days off at Dr. Howard's cabin in the hills. But Blake isn't there for rest and relaxation. Instead, he plans to experiment on himself, to learn whether he is actually the caveman.
He rigs the cabin with two cameras on trip wires to record whatever happens during the experiment. He injects himself with coelacanth plasma and transforms into the caveman. He wrecks the room, tripping the trip wires and photographing himself. Then he picks up an axe and runs outside.
Madeline speeds toward the cabin but runs off the road when the caveman suddenly appears in her car's headlights. She's knocked out in the crash. The caveman is just about to carry her off when the local forest ranger (Richard H. Cutting) arrives. The caveman chases the ranger away. The ranger goes back to his office and phones the Dunsford police for help, then grabs his gun and goes after the caveman alone.
The caveman carries the still unconscious Madeline into the forest, with the ranger in pursuit. When Madeline comes to, she struggles with the caveman. When she breaks free, the ranger shoots the caveman, but the caveman throws his axe, killing the ranger. Madeline runs to the cabin. The caveman collapses. But then Blake, once again himself, returns to the cabin. He develops a photo and shows it to Madeline, who doesn't seem to understand and asks why the caveman is wearing Blake's clothes.
Lt. Stevens, Detective Sgt. Powell (Phil Harvey) and Dr. Howard arrive at the cabin. Blake tells them that he not only knows who the murderer is, but where to find him. Out in the woods, he explains to Howard what his experiment proved and injects himself with coelacanth plasma. Again transformed into the caveman, he chases Howard, forcing the two detectives to shoot him. As the caveman lies dying or dead on the ground, he slowly changes back into Blake.Arthur Franz as Dr. Donald Blake
Joanna Moore as Madeline Howard
Judson Pratt as Lt. Mike Stevens
Nancy Walters as Sylvia Lockwood
Troy Donahue as Jimmy Flanders
Phil Harvey as Sgt. Powell
Helen Westcott as Nurse Molly Riordan
Alexander Lockwood as Dr. Gilbert Howard
Whit Bissell as Dr. Oliver Cole
Ross Elliott as Sgt. Eddie Daniels
Anne Anderson as Student (uncredited)
Louis Cavalier as Student (uncredited)
Richard H. Cutting as Forest Ranger Tom Edwards (uncredited)
Hank Patterson as Night Watchman Mr. Townsend (uncredited)
Ronnie Rondell Jr. as Student (uncredited)
Eddie Parker as the Monster (uncredited)
Production took place between April and May 1958. The on-campus scenes of Dunsford University were filmed at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, a suburb of Los Angeles, California.
The working title of the film was Monster in the Night. Although Universal music director Joseph Gershenson had received executive producer credit on some films of the 1940s, Monster on the Campus marked the first film for which he received sole credit as producer. This was the film debut of Nancy Walters. Arthur Franz only played Prof. Donald Blake. Once the makeup transformation scenes were over, stuntman Eddie Parker did every scene as the monster.
Sci-fi film critic Bill Warren writes that director Jack Arnold said in an interview with Cinefastastique magazine (Vol.4 No.2, 1975) that the movie was shot in 12 days and that Arnold told Photon magazine (No.26, 1975), "I didn't really hate it, but I didn't think it was up to the standards of the other films that I have done."
Monster on the Campus had a wide international release. Its USA premiere was in Bismarck, North Dakota on 17 December 1958, followed by Finland on 1 May 1959, West Germany on 22 January 1960, France on 27 January 1960, and Mexico on 3 March 1960. The film was also released in the UK, Belgium, Greece, Italy, the Soviet Union, Argentina, and Brazil. In the UK, it was given an "X" certificate by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), which meant at the time that the film could not be exhibited to people under age 16. In 2016, BBFC reclassified the DVD of Monster on the Campus. It now has a PG rating.
According to Warren, there were few reviews of Monster on the Campus when it first came out because it was the "bottom half of a double-bill with the more colorful Blood of the Vampire." He quotes a few contemporary reviews. It was called "'a pretty fair shocker'" in Daily Variety. Jack Moffitt, in The Hollywood Reporter, said the movie emphasized the "'human rather than the monstrous side of this modern 'Dr. Jekyll' story." The Monthly Film Reporter, however, called it "'depressing,'" even though it had been "'tailored for the horror market.'"
BoxOffice magazine in its issue of 19 January 1959 showed positive reviews from most of the publications listed in its "Review Digest." BoxOffice, Film Daily and The Hollywood Reporter all rated it as "very good;" Harrison's Report and Variety rated it "good;" Parents' Magazine gave it a "fair" rating; and the New York Daily News had not reviewed the film.
The reviewing division of the Catholic News Service evaluated Monster on the Campus in 1958 for its "artistic merit and moral suitability." This resulted in The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) giving the movie a rating of "A-III," which meant it was suitable for adults, although USCCB cautioned that it contained "stylized violence with some intense menace."
Many of the more recent reviews have centered on the monster/caveman/ape-man makeup. Warren writes, "The mask is unconvincing, with tiny shell-like teeth and a built-in scowl; it resembles similar Universal-International over-the-head masks of the period, as seen in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tarantula and other outings." Bryan Senn notes that keeping the moster off-camera until near the end of the movie is a good idea as it adds a "bit of build-up and mystery," but doing so "only makes the rubbery mask and hirsute padded shoulders (making him look like a simian linebacker) that much more disappointing when finally revealed."
But reviews have noted more than just makeup. Phil Hardy writes that "cinematographer [Russel] Metty and special effects man [Clifford] Stine make the most of the ape-man's path of destruction through the campus but the script lacks any sparkle." Senn calls the film "visually flat, with the 'action' taking place in labs, offices and cabins, and with exteriors consisting of one back-lot hillside." And Warren says that the film is "hampered by trivial locations and drab sets. The film has no arresting images. The best [Arnold] can come up with is a swift glance the ape-man gives a mirror before smashing it and one shot of a woman dangling by her hair from a tree," In summary, he calls the film "routine, unimaginative and foolish ... Jack Arnold's worst science fiction film."
But not every reviewer disliked Monster on the Campus. Critic Ken Hanke wrote that "part of the charm of this little movie is that the monster is so hokey. No, it's not classic horror, but it's a good bit of fun." He gave the film a score of 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Popularity with the public is harder to judge. The film holds a 5.8/10 from 1,111 votes on the Internet Movie Database and a low 22% from 270 viewers on Rotten Tomatoes.
Monster on the Campus has attracted a fair amount of academic interest. Prof. Cyndy Hendershot in 2001 wrote that the film examines "issues of conformity and individuality" through a "metaphor of monstrous transformation." Hendershot says that while Blake the professor represents conformity, Blake the caveman is a representation of individuality. But he can't be conformist and individualistic at the same time. His employer, Dunsfield University, "conspires to stamp out individuality that does not follow the direction of the organization as a whole." That is, "while Monster on the Campus adopts the typical sf/horror plot of the mad scientist versus the blind authorities," the movie "frames the issue specifically within the world of the organization man." According to Hendershot, a man such as Blake - driven from within toward individualism and not at all a good organization man who willingly submits to conformity imposed on him from the outside - can't win. His personal goal of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not that of the university, which seems more interested in the publicity that owning a rare coelacanth will bring. "But, if the film condemns the other-directed society as stifling scientific knowledge, it equally condemns Blake's rampant inner-directed man. It reveals, in fact, that the individual within is a beast."
Also in 2001, Hendershot looked at Monster on the Campus as an exploration of a "wide variety of issues related to the emergence of teen culture in Fifties America." Specifically, her focus is on juvenile deliquency, which she says "provoked feelings of intense horror" in adults at the time. The Dunsfield Police, for example, "suspect the teenagers on campus of being guilty" of the murders of Molly and Daniels, yet the "true criminal is located at the heart of adult authority on campus." But unlike many films in which young people are the villains, Monster on the Campus inverts things, so that "only the students emerge as having any clear moral sense about the horrors that are occurring on campus." In other words, "the kids in Monster on the Campus are fine; it's the adults that have to be watched, as they may transform into monsters at any moment."
Prof. Patrick Gonder looks at the film in racial terms. He writes that Monster on the Campus was released just a few years after the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In that light, he says, "the monster on the campus is the demonized black male student, threatening to contaminate the purity of white women and cause the reversal of white evolutionary potential. The Caveman is imaged as a racist caricature of the African American: bestial, violent and corrosive to the tenets of white society." However, Gonder goes on to point out that the "creature and the professor are one and the same: several times, Blake comments on how the beast is 'within' him." And at the end of the movie Blake solves his problem: he "does not turn himself in but instead organizes his own lynch mob by purposefully (for the first time) transforming himself into the Caveman, thus forcing the police officers to shoot him."
Monster on the Campus was first released in the USA on VHS in 1994. Universal released Monster on the Campus on DVD in a boxed set called The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, which features four other classics as well (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Mole People, The Monolith Monsters and Tarantula).
Monster on the Campus has been referenced in a number of other films and television programs. Among other examples, it was shown on Svengoolie in 1981 and 2013; scenes from it were used in the films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and American Grindhouse (2010); and it was mentioned in the Canadian comedy Ding et Dong le film (1990).
In music, The Modern Airline, a neo-New Wave band from Brooklyn, New York, released a song titled "Monster on the Campus" in 2017.