by Steve Habrat
We have arrived at our final classic Universal Movie Monster and we end this series with a true legend. The Creature from the Black Lagoon moves away from the supernatural flavor that was favored by Universal Studios and embraced a scientific fear that was popular after World War II. He may not emerge from a coffin at night and he may not be a walking corpse but Gill-man is certainly a monster that will continue to haunt our dreams for years. Without further ado, here is the final installment in Anti-Film School’s Universal Movie Monster series. Read on if you dare…
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Of all the classic monsters in the Universal horror line, one of the most iconic is Gill-man, the underwater terror from Jack Arnold’s classic horror adventure The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Made in 1954 and originally released in 3D, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was Universal’s attempt at trying to remain in the horror loop. After World War II, the genre had moved away from the supernatural beasts like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf-Man, and the Mummy and embraced more of a fear of science, atomic age mutants, and extraterrestrials. Born out of the movement, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the finest creature features from the golden age of drive-in spectacle, an A-list horror movie that steps out of B-movie assembly line. With a timeless creature that refuses to show his age and a rollicking adventure with plenty of brains to spare, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a film that you just can’t pull yourself away from. And then there is Gill-man himself, a sympathetic specimen who was simply minding his own business when the men in the safari hats dropped in on his beloved lagoon and began desecrating it. In my humble opinion, he remains one of the most sympathetic of all the classic monsters that made their way out of Universal Studios.
After a geology expedition in the Amazon uncovers the skeletal remains of a link between land and sea creatures, a team of scientists is quickly put together and sent into the thick jungle to examine the remains. The team consists of leader Dr. Carl Maia (Played by Antonio Moreno), ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Played by Richard Carlson), financial backer Dr. Mark Williams (Played by Richard Denning), Kay Lawrence (Played by Julia Adams), and grizzled captain Lucas (Played by Nestor Paiva). Once they arrive in the jungle, the team that originally made the discovery is discovered dead near the remains. As the new team tries to figure out the cause of the death, they come face to face with Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman), an amphibious creature that is extremely territorial. Having made the discovery of a lifetime, the group grapples with how to capture the Gill-man but the creature plans on putting up a hell of a fight. But after Gill-man lays eyes on Kay and falls in love with her, he begins plotting a way to abduct her from the group.
Featuring a number of jaw-dropping underwater sequences, The Creature from the Black Lagoon becomes a must see for these scenes, which I’m sure just astonish in 3D. The most beautiful of the scenes is when Kay decides to take a dip in the lagoon, only to be stalked by Gill-man, who swims just underneath her. When your eyes aren’t glued to Kay’s iconic bathing suit, you will marvel at the precise choreography of the scene, especially how Gill-man manages to mirror all of Kay’s movements. While the scene may make you swoon, there are plenty of suspenseful moments in that murky water that will have you holding your breath. David and Mark relentlessly hunt the poor Gill-man, who hides among the rocks and seaweed that cakes the bottom of the eerie lagoon. These scenes are given a shock from a hair-raising blast of horns that announce the Gill-man when we catch a brief glimpse of him. Arnold also allows his camera to take a plunge when the scientists use various methods to try to drug Gill-man. The camera lingers underwater as an array of chemicals trail down to the bottom of the lagoon, our monster hidden among the rocks and staring up in horror. It is scenes like this that make us feel for the slimy guy.
Then there are the colorful performances from the cast, who all do a bang up job with the characters they are given. Carlson’s David is the typical all-American hero who questions whether they are doing the right thing by capturing the Gill-man. His confliction makes him easily the most likable character next to Kay. While she is mostly asked to scream when she sees the Gill-man, Kay still is a stunner in that white one piece. In a way, it is tragic the way she fears the creature as he just has misunderstood feelings for Kay and no way to confess those feelings. The most monstrous of the human characters is Denning’s Williams, who is so desperate to capture the creature that it borders on obsessive. He is constantly at odds with David and he usually is the one who resorts to violence to solve their differences. Then there is Gill-man himself, who remains largely unseen for part of the movie. Still packing a mean visual punch, the Gill-man’s desperation to stay in his swamp and rid it of these human terrors is what ultimately tugs at your heartstrings. For a while, he just stays submerged and watches, reading the actions of these intruders. The creature does pop more underwater (when underwater, he is played by Browning and when on land, he is played by Chapman) as he glides around David and Mark. On land, he shuffles like the Frankenstein Monster, emitting guttural growls that sound vaguely like demonic pigs. He can truly be a frightening force, especially to those who have never been exposed to him.
There are points in The Creature from the Black Lagoon where the film ceases to be a great horror movie and becomes a great adventure into the unknown with plenty of action that will be enjoyed for many more years to come. It introduces us to a creature that will continue to grab our imagination and haunt our dreams. Over the years, many audiences and even critics (!) have been calling for a remake of the movie and there have even been rumors that Universal has been considering giving Gill-man a face lift. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen and that the studio leaves the film alone. I fear that they will resort to senseless bloodletting, a CGI makeover for the green guy, and a slew of disposable pretty faces that can barely act their way out of a paper bag let alone the Black Lagoon. No, Jack Arnold’s film is perfect as is, one that still can pack a mean spook and white knuckle action scene with the best of them.
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
Apparently having survived the events of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Tom Hennesy) is once again preyed upon by nosy scientists eager to study him. This time, animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (Played by John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Played by Lori Nelson) capture him and have him transported to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida. Soon, the Gill-man falls in love with Helen and he begins trying to escape from his tank. Naturally, he manages to free himself and he sets out to find his true love, killing anyone who gets in his way.
Lazily made and devoid of any suspense or atmosphere, Revenge of the Creature is a massive step down from the original Creature from the Black Lagoon, which happened to be one of the finest films in the Universal library. Originally released in 3D, it is fun to see the Gill-man terrorizing swarming masses of innocent civilians but yanking him out of his legendary lagoon may not have been the smartest idea out there. I found myself longing for the confrontations in the Black Lagoon and almost bored with the tedious scenes of Clete and Helen trying to communicate with the angry creature. Gill-man certainly does win our sympathy, maybe even more here than he did in the original film. The first time around, we saw his beautiful swamp desecrated by careless humans but this time, he is chained and forced to sit still as curious citizens swarm to his tank to point and gasp. Poor guy! No wonder he is angry when he breaks out of those chains.
The acting of Revenge of the Creature is certainly nothing to write home about, although do make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a cameo from a young Clint Eastwood. As the story plays out before us, it is easy to assume that the film is going nowhere fast. We are subjected to one bloated conversation after another as the Gill-man bobs around in the background. Director Jack Arnold seems to realize this and he frantically tries to make up for it in the final twenty minutes of the film with an extended chase. Basically, all he does is hit the lights and let the Gill-man wander the dark as police try desperately to prevent him from escaping with Helen in his slimy arms. Trust me, you’ve seen this sequence before in countless other Universal monster films. Overall, there was plenty of potential here but the lack of enthusiasm with the material hurts the final product. It’s obvious this was made simply to make money for the studio and it is a shame because Gill-man deserves better than what he gets. This film drowns right before our very eyes. Someone grab the life preserver! Grade: C
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
Somehow surviving the hail of gunfire at the end of Revenge of the Creature, the Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Don Megowan) is once again hunted down by a team of scientists led by the deranged Dr. William Barton (Played by Jeff Marrow). After a lengthy search, the Gill-man is discovered and captured in the Everglades. During the capture, the Gill-man is seriously wounded, which forces the scientists to race to save his life. He undergoes a procedure that radically alters his appearance and has him using his lungs to breathe rather than his gills.
An even bigger dud than Revenge of the Creature, The Creature Walks Among Us finds the franchise sinking fast under a bizarre premise that has Gill-man evolving into a towering human being with vaguely human features. The beginning of the film finds some of that effective atmosphere from the first film creeping in but things go south quick when the film sails out of the swamp and arrives at a sprawling mansion compound where the Gill-man is forced to live behind an electric fence. Riddled with plot holes, The Creature Walks Among Us finds the human beings acting more monstrous than the Gill-man, who once again nabs our sympathy in his electric prison. Tour guide Jed Grant (Played by Gregg Palmer) lusts after William’s wife, Marcia (Played by Leigh Snowden), and he makes a very half-assed attempt to hide it. William relentlessly accuses poor Marcia of seducing every man she comes across, something completely untrue. The savage bickering and arguing finally ends with one of the men killing the other and then trying to blame it on the Gill-man.
Clunky and bogged down by a slew of rotten humans doing terrible things to each other, The Creature Walks Among Us is a messy and overwhelmingly bleak conclusion to the Creature franchise. What hurts the worst is seeing Gill-man edged off the A-list of horror icons and relegated to B-squad of atomic age abominations with very little intellectual purpose. Halfway through the film, Gill-man is stripped of his original trim appearance and morphed into a hulking brute in a Halloween mask that just stands around and stares at everyone. While it can be argued that there are minor traces of what once was here and there, the film wouldn’t scare even the jumpiest horror fan. Overall, I wish I could say it wraps everything up in a satisfying manner, but there is no muggy or buggy inspiration or creativity on the filmmaker’s part. I’m afraid that the Black Lagoon is all dried up. Grade: D+
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD. Revenge of the Creature, and The Creature Walks Among Us are available on DVD.