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Big Man On Campus
(1989)
 

Director:Jeremy Paul Kagan                         
Cast:
Allan Katz, Corey Parker, Melora Hardin


I remember seeing at least one advertisement (published in a major movie magazine) trumpeting an upcoming release of Big Man On Campus in 1989. It was full page, and indicated it was going to be released to theaters. It doesn't seem it wasn't, though it may have received a small regional release somewhere. This might be explained by the fact that the studio behind it, Vestron, was experiencing major financial problems around that time, and became defunct not long afterwards. Not long ago, I stumbled across the movie in one of the video stores I frequent, and remembered the movie by the artwork of the movie advertisement, reproduced on the video box. Would the movie have succeeded in a full theatrical release? After viewing it, I don't think it would have initially become a hit - there are no real big stars, and the tone of the movie isn't wacky or outrageous enough to command an instant audience. But I think that afterwards it would have soon built up a cult via network showings and from renters, most of who just seem to rent theatrical movies. As it is now, I think the movie still has cult potential, but since it was released at the bottom rung of the ladder - direct-to-video - it still needs a long time to build a cult.

The premise of this movie can best be summed up in the movie's original title, The Hunchback Of UCLA (though it was actually filmed at USC, and the identity of the campus, UCLA or other, is never mentioned once in the movie): For some years, ______ University has been a place where people have claimed to have seen quick sightings of some kind of mysterious monster. Campus couple Alex (Parker) and Cathy (Hardin), like many others, have dismissed such sightings, believing the supposed monster is as real as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. What no one knows is that there really is a "monster" - though it's actually a hairy, hunchbacked man who has spent virtually his life in isolation, hiding out at the top of the campus' clock tower, and resulting in him acting completely primitive. But he knows desire, using his telescope to keep a close eye on Cathy, and when one day he sees her in possible danger at the campus' medieval festival, he swings down to rescue her.

His arrival causes a sensation, but also statements from a few that he should be placed in some kind of asylum, for seeming unable to fit into society. The campus' Dr. Webster (Skerritt) disagrees, and is determined to rehabilitate the hunchback. Alex reluctantly agrees to become a teacher and constant companion to the patient, partly to get credit to prevent himself flunking out, and to win more favor from Cathy. The problem is that the hunchback soon makes it clear, despite his animal instincts and unintelligible grunts, that he is also very interested in Cathy.

Allan Katz plays the hunchback, and steals the show; he plays his character to have the personality of "Animal" from The Muppet Show, though somewhat softer in word and actions. Before he starts learning, he manages to make some laughs by his primitive behavior - he hums, mutters, jumps around, and swings carefree on ropes. When the university starts teaching him English and proper human behavior, it sets off a lot of very funny reactions. (When he disagrees that a dog goes "woof woof", he loudly demonstrates how a dog really sounds and acts, much to the horror of his teacher.) Wisely, Katz doesn't act out these scenes as if the hunchback really knows the answer and is a smartass - that wouldn't be funny. His character is a real innocent, and this leads to his actions being both funny and believable. For example, later in the movie, the hunchback has learned enough to give himself a name - and gives himself the name "Bob Malooga Looga Looga Looga Looga", reasoning that no one else in the world could possibly share that same exact name. It sounds stupid written here, but it manages to work with Katz, and it's a real credit to his acting and comic talents. He also does well in a couple of serious scenes, bringing in sympathy for poor Bob. One objection I have with these serious moments is that, although they are well done by themselves, they don't have any bearing on the rest of the movie whatsoever. It seems like they were concocted up to artificially make the audience feel sympathy.

The rest of the performances in the movie are generally good. Parker shows some comic talent, and it was interesting that though you'd expect his character Alex to be hateful towards Bob because of Bob's crush on Cathy, Alex actually does try to do his job, despite the frustrations. But occasionally, Alex makes cruel comments like, "He forgot to comb his face," or "Bedtime for Bonzo" directed at Bob, which is irksome. He works well with Katz, helping to make an amusing comic duo, managing to generate chemistry and humor in their non strident conflicts, both verbal and physical. There's a small jewel of a performance in Big Man On Campus that's almost hidden from us. That is the performance of Melora Hardin as Cathy. She has a fresh-faced, natural approach to her acting. Watch her carefully at the beginning of the movie, when she tries to slowly shy away from a TV news camera; this acting is as about as close to real life as you get in the movies. Her sweetness really shines, and it's a shame that she only makes sporadic appearances in this movie. I sincerely hope that she gets bigger parts in the future.

Big Man On Campus is a pretty plotless movie; it's more concerned with building a gentle, amiable tone as well as chuckles, rather than develop any real story. Maybe that's why it seems the movie, though running at 102 minutes, seems cut. At one point in the movie, Bob suddenly has a 1000 word vocabulary, when just minutes before he could only utter a few words. When Bob is shown a bell in one of his classes, it would seem natural some kind of gag connecting this hunchback with a bell would be obvious, but the scene suddenly ends. The same thing also happens when Bob later starts commenting on a model house Cathy built. Later, when Bob is giving a lecture during one of the regular classes at the university, we see in the background a strangely decorated bicycle set aside on the floor of an aisle. Obviously, there was some scene originally shot concerning Bob and the bicycle, but was left out of the final print. Such stuff as this doesn't really hurt the movie, but it makes it clearer to viewers this movie is pretty plotless, though I'm sure many viewers who didn't notice those details will still realize the same thing, that the movie is pretty much about putting a wild man in a variety of situations. Eventually, the movie reintroduces a cold-hearted scientist who thought Bob should have been placed in an asylum, and plots to sabotage his efforts to be considered normal. We've seen such characters in other movies about misunderstood people and creatures (for example, Trog), and it's pretty tiring knowing more or less what's going to happen next and how it will be resolved. Fortunately, this doesn't start until quite late in the movie, and even in the few remaining minutes, the movie manages to keep all of this down to a minimum of time.

Potential renters should be warned that Big Man On Campus is not a laugh riot movie. It does have a number of laughs, but they are of a gentle nature. In fact, the movie seems content in building up a sweet tone and affection for the characters. I actually found it pleasant to watch, and a relief from seeing the loud and slapstick-laden version it could have easily been. It's also nice to watch a comedy where you don't have to worry about keeping the plot in your mind, and you can just sit back and be pleasantly entertained. It's not a movie for a dorm party, but you'll be get a lot out of your stay with this campus.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Stuart Saves His Family, Hollywood High, Pandemonium

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