Big Man on Campus (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Jun 18, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Big Man on Campus (Blu-ray Review)


Jeremy Kagan

Release Date(s)

1989 (May 21, 2024)


Regency International/Vestron Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A

Big Man on Campus (Blu-ray)

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Big Man on Campus gives a big nod to Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in a tale of a mysterious creature who lives in the clock tower of a university campus. The comedy suffered from poor distribution in the late 1980s, became a favorite of cable TV and VHS viewers, and now makes its bow on Blu-ray.

Campus legend has it that a blob-like monster lurks in the clock tower. The monster, in fact, is a shy, frightened, humpbacked man (Allan Katz) who for years has secreted himself in the abandoned tower, sheltering in a rat’s nest of old furniture and objects he’s hoarded and subsisting on vending machine candy bars. His only connection to human beings is through a telescope as he watches the people on the campus grounds.

The “monster” has become enamored of sweet-natured, pretty student Cathy (Melora Hardin, 27 Dresses). Only when he perceives that she’s in danger does he reveal himself. Swooping down on a rope to rescue her, he misses his mark, crashes into bystanders, runs wild, and eventually is captured by campus police. Psychology professor Dr. Webster (Tom Skerritt, Alien) sees the beast as a unique opportunity to study such a previously isolated person and taps Cathy’s boyfriend, Alex (Corey Parker, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), to be the creature’s round-the-clock caretaker. The inducement: Alex is about to flunk out of college and Dr. Webster will see to it that Alex gets the B average he needs to stay in school. Feeling he has no choice, Alex agrees to live with, look after, and domesticate the hideous, grunting creature.

Dr. Webster feels it will be easier to communicate with his prize subject if he had a name. Together they settle on Bob Malooga-looga-looga-looga-looga. Speech therapist Diane Girard (Cindy Williams, The Conversation) works tirelessly with Bob to teach him language, with comic setbacks (balls bounce, bananas do not) that include a developing romantic attraction. The resident villain is Dr. Fisk (Jessica Harper, Minority Report), a rival psychologist who states publicly that Bob is a danger to society and should be institutionalized. Dr. Fisk resorts to nefarious means to prove her diagnosis correct and preserve her reputation.

In a therapy session with Dr. Webster, Bob reveals something of his past. His father left when Bob was an infant. He loved his mother very much. His mother died when he was still a child. He was institutionalized and treated so cruelly that he ran away. There’s just enough backstory to explain Bob’s origins without overshadowing the film’s comedy.

Katz is very funny in a role that combines pantomime, slapstick, verbal humor, and romance. He’s adept at doing whatever it takes to make a scene funny, from pratfalls to linguistic mishaps. When we first see Bob, he’s a veritable wild man with long, matted hair and beard, clothed in baggy tatters. As Bob becomes more civilized, the make-up becomes less extreme and he looks increasingly more human than animal. Katz is comfortable in the role and shoulders the lion’s share of the film’s comedy weight.

The screen chemistry between Katz and Parker is a key reason the film works. There’s a definite rapport between them. Parker’s Alex projects an easygoing manner, a good guy vibe, a wry sense of humor, and an understated acceptance of Bob’s peculiar behavior. We believe Alex feels for Bob in spite of himself. As roommate and caretaker to Bob, Alex has to deal with Bob’s ignorance of social mores. He serves as Bob’s resident Emily Post, teaching him manners and general etiquette.

Cindy Williams milks lots of laughs as the dedicated speech therapist who tries not to be sidetracked by Bob’s unorthodox behavior. She struggles to maintain composure and professionalism and forges ahead even though Bob is the strangest subject she’s ever had to deal with. Williams’ expressions are priceless, and director Jeremy Kagan wisely cuts to close-ups of her at critical points to enhance the laugh factor.

Director Kagan maintains a brisk clip and never lets the film bog down. There’s a constant driving motion that keeps the gags coming, and most land beautifully. Kagan has the benefit of seasoned performers supporting the unknown Katz. Skerritt, Williams, and Harper are excellent as university members who become involved with Bob, treating him almost like a new species. The film is reminiscent of Encino Man but Big Man on Campus has a sharper, more clever script.

Big Man on Campus was shot by director of photography Bojan Bazelli on 35 mm film with Panavision cameras and lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The Blu-ray release features a new HD master sourced from a 2K scan of the 35 mm interpositive. Clarity and contrast are excellent. Details such as Bob’s clothing, piles of furniture and other hoardings in his clock tower lair, matted hair, lush trees, and a padded room in which Bob is observed are nicely delineated. Our first glimpse of the creature is in deep shadow, his back to the camera, in the darkened clock tower. Aside from that, the color palette is generally composed of bright hues.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Initially, Bob utters grunts and other guttural sounds. When he learns words, he says them with emphasis in a deep voice. Ambient noise on the college campus is blended smoothly with dialogue and music. Joseph Vitarelli’s score is appropriately light and upbeat, and never works too hard to “sell” a joke.

Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics include the following:

  • Audio Commentary with Jeremy Kagan and Andrew Bentler
  • What About Bob? – Interview with Actor and Screenwriter Allan Katz (15:41)
  • Alternate Ending Featuring Optional Audio Commentary by Director Jeremy Kagan (8:17)
  • Stills Gallery (3:19)
  • Trailer (1:36)
  • The Experts Trailer (1:32)
  • Amazon Women on the Moon Trailer (1:32)
  • Making Mr. Right Trailer (2:08)
  • Haunted Honeymoon Trailer (2:19)
  • The Monster Squad Trailer (1:57)
  • The Wild Life Trailer (2:00)
  • Date With an Angel Trailer (1:34)
  • D.C. Cab Trailer (2:33)
  • The Sting II Trailer (2:09)

Audio Commentary – Director Jeremy Kagan and film historian Andrew Bentler share this commentary. The interviews that open the film were shot in post-production. The screenplay was written in the late 1970s. Many actors wanted to play the hunchback including, at one point, Dustin Hoffman. Allan Katz was unknown as an actor but was able to make a screen test, which was instrumental in getting the film greenlighted. Originally titled The Hunchback of U.C.L.A., the film was shot at USC when UCLA refused permission. It was Kagan’s first comedy. Corey Parker was cast because he had a good improvisational style. Katz was willing to have changes made to his script if they enlivened the film. The main character had three “looks.” City Hall played an important role in the film. A courtroom scene was shot on an existing set that the company rented. Jessica Harper’s role was originally written for a man. Someone was hired to work with Katz on how he would use his body. Moving car shots were filmed with a camera rig attached to the car. Many visual gags were filmed in uninterrupted takes as wide shots. The clock tower sets were made up of actual existing locations and constructed sets. Many trained mice were used to play Bob’s rodent friend. Director Kagan refers to Cindy Williams as “a gift to the movie.” Some gags were thought up during filming “in the moment.” The distributor, Vestron, ran out of money and didn’t have enough to open the film in theaters. It was shown on cable TV and sold on VHS and eventually found an audience, but it could have reached a bigger audience with a theatrical release.

What About Bob? – Screenwriter and actor Allan Katz asked his friend Marty Feldman to read the script, and Feldman asked him to act out the role. He was so impressed, he told Katz that he should play the lead himself. Katz, however, felt that with him as star, the film would never be greenlighted. The script was passed around until it came to Arnon Milchan, who had a reputation for getting films made. Milchen paid to have Katz screen-tested. The screen test made the rounds and there was great interest in the property but Katz was offered up to $1 million to let someone else play the lead. Jeremy Kagan saw the test and liked it. He didn’t feel it was necessary to add schtick because the screenplay was inherently funny. The film did not have a big budget, so Kagan took advantage of existing buildings and locations. Limited prosthetics were used on Allan Katz so his expressions wouldn’t be lost. Katz wore a body suit that got intensely hot. Between takes, he would have coolant pumped into a vest he wore under the costume so that make-up wouldn’t melt. Because Vestron sold off the foreign rights, it was difficult to get a distributor interested. Over time, Big Man on Campus has developed a cult following. Katz notes, “Any time anyone can get a movie made is an experience, and this was a great experience.”

Alternate Ending – This ending was inspired by the films of Harold Lloyd, a silent comedian known for daring stunts. While the trial that will determine whether Bob will be institutionalized is in progress, Bob is running from the police. Desperate to help his friends, Bob swings from a crane and crashes through the window of the courtroom. Impressed by Bob’s willingness to risk himself to protect his friends, the judge makes his ruling. The alternate ending is shown with and without commentary by director Jeremy Kagan.

Stills Gallery – In slideshow format, accompanied by music from the film, color and black & white production stills, drawings, and portraits of the actors are shown.

Big Man on Campus is an interesting find. Allan Katz delivers a humorous and endearing performance as a frightened, uncivilized outcast with a wide-eyed thirst for knowledge and desire for social acceptance. Both writer Katz and director Jeremy Kagan keep the tone light, basing gags on Bob’s innocence and ignorance of social norms. There are instances where jokes are telegraphed before the payoff but for the most part, the gags are fresh and smart. The finale is overly contrived and has a desperation that the rest of the fine-tuned film happily lacks. In all, the film’s a hoot, and Allan Katz’s performance shows that acting civilized doesn’t come easy.

- Dennis Seuling