Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Film Appreciation - From the Amazon's Forbidden Depths

Cody Hamman dredges up Film Appreciation for the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy.


Long before I watched the majority of the Universal Monsters movies, I was learning all I could about them (and other monsters, like King Kong and Godzilla) through a series of books released by a company called Crestwood House. It was only recently that I found out that the books had been published by Crestwood House and were a beloved part of many a monster kid's youth, but I have always remembered borrowing those awesome books, with the titles in orange on the black and white covers, from the local library. I poured over those books, fascinated. They told me all about the monsters, about the movies I was missing out on, the fact that sometimes monsters would cross paths with each other. A Crestwood House book was how I discovered a film called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man even existed.

Crestwood House also introduced me to the monster who would star in my favorite of the Universal Monsters series. The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The Creature, who would come to be known as the Gill Man, came much later than his fellow Universal monsters and madmen, showing up on the scene twenty years after Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man had their day. And yet the Gill Man was so iconic that he was warmly welcomed into the monsters' midst. It's not too often that a monster introduced decades after others can gain equal footing with its predecessors. I haven't seen it during my decades of being a horror fan - while some horror characters introduced in the '90s and '00s may be ranked alongside characters from the '70s and '80s by some horror fans, its often that fans of the earlier characters will put down the more recent characters. I'm guilty of this myself; I don't hold more recent horror franchises in the same regard as the series I grew up with from the '80s. But I don't see that happening with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I don't see arguments that he shouldn't be considered part of the group with the monsters of the '30s. It helps the Gill Man's case that he's the star of an excellent film.

Unlike some of his peers, like Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Invisible Man, the Gill Man has no literary background. He was a monster created specifically for the screen. The idea began with producer William Alland, who heard - from cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa - the legend of a half-man, half-fish creature that lived in the Amazon River and would rise from the water once a year to take a woman as its bride. This legend stuck in Alland's head for a decade, and when he got a job producing films for Universal he decided to make it the basis of a movie. A story was crafted out of the legend by combining it with concepts lifted from King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World and writers Maurice Zimm, Harry Essex, and Arthur Ross were responsible for getting this idea into a filmable form.

Directed by Jack Arnold, Creature from the Black Lagoon begins in a way that Mummy movies often do, with people on an expedition finding something incredible. But this time the setting is on the edge of the Brazilian Amazon, and the thing unearthed isn't an ancient tomb. It's the fossilized arm of a Gill Man. The person who makes this find is geologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), who realizes he needs to bring in other people to help him figure out what sort of discovery he has made, and to hopefully dig up the rest of the creature's skeleton.

If Maia stuck around a little longer, he would have seen a living example of the creature. When he leaves to gather a team of other scientists, his two assistants are brutally murdered by a scaly monster with webbed fingers - a monster that is kept off screen for now. All we see it the Gill Man's arm as it grabs its victims.

Some time later, Maia returns to the Amazon with scientist Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell) and three characters who are caught up in a love triangle of sorts - ichthyologist David Reed (Richard Carlson), his boss Mark Williams (Richard Denning), and his girlfriend/assistant Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams). They take a boat called Rita and captained by a man named Lucas (Nestor Paiva) down the river... and when they arrive at Maia's camp, they are shocked to find it inhabited by the corpses of his assistants.

The assistants were obviously killed by some kind of animal, the top suspect being a jaguar. But the scientists have to continue the search, as they are facing what may be the most important discovery in the history of mankind; the Gill Man fossil dates back to the prehistoric Devonian age, thus this thing could be the missing link in the development of humans. Not an ape-like creature as expected, but a fish-like creature.

No more of the Gill Man skeleton can be located where the arm was found, and the theory is that it may have been washed away in the river. Perhaps into an area called the Black Lagoon. A paradisiacal place that has been the site of many disappearances. Not expecting that they'll disappear as well, Lucas and the scientists take the Rita into the Black Lagoon.

Creature from the Black Lagoon doesn't waste any time. The fossil discovery is the first scene, and during that scene we see the arm of the living Gill Man rising from the nearby water. The threat has been established within the first 5 minutes. Around the 20 minute point, the Rita reaches the Black Lagoon. David and Mark immediately take a dive in the lagoon, and the first reveal of the Gill Man face and body comes during that underwater sequence.

Designed by Millicent Patrick and brought to the screen by the crew of makeup artist Bud Westmore, with Jack Kevan building the body suit and Chris Mueller Jr. sculpting the head, the Gill Man is an amazing looking creature, and the filmmakers clearly knew they had something special on their hands, because they give this monster plenty of screen time. Sometimes less is more when it comes to showing the monster in this type of movie, but the Gill Man is one that needs to be seen and admired. It's a creepy and awe-inspiring creature, whether it's gulping air while walking on land (Ben Chapman played the Gill Man for its moments above water) or displaying its swimming skills (underwater, the Gill Man was played by water show performer Ricou Browning, who would go on to co-create Flipper and direct the extensive underwater sequences in the James Bond film Thunderball).

The most impressive example of the Gill Man's swimming comes after David and Mark return to the Rita, at which point Kay decides to take a swim of her own. As she swims along the surface, she doesn't realize that the Gill Man is swimming right beneath her, looking up at her. It's quite a sight. And the Gill Man thinks Kay is quite a sight, developing an interest in her. Remember, the original legend said that the fish-man would take a human bride. This is also where the Beauty and the Beast and King Kong references come in.

The presence of the Gill Man is realized not when it touches Kay's foot, but when it briefly gets caught in the Rita's drag net right after, leaving behind a claw as it tears through the rope. The characters know they're dealing with a living Gill Man when there's well more than half of the film's 79 minute running time left go. The rest of the film is a back and forth struggle between the humans and the Gill Man. At first, the scientists only intend to observe and study the creature, but when it proves to be dangerous - and when Mark shoots the Gill Man with his spear gun, he makes it even more dangerous - the plan changes. While the people on the board the Rita try to either capture of escape from the Gill Man, it picks them off one-by-one (including Lucas's two innocent bystander crewmen), building up to grabbing Kay off the boat and taking her away to its lair. That's where the climactic confrontation takes place.

The pace, the design of the monster, the simple and action-packed story, these are all part of why Creature from the Black Lagoon is my favorite of the Universal monster movies. It followed some greats, but this one is the most entertaining to me. It's a whole lot of fun.

Creature is also one of the few Universal monster movies I've been lucky enough to see in a theatre, projected on film. At one of the earliest twenty-four hour theatrical horror marathons I attended in Columbus, Ohio, my mom and I got to watch the film as it was originally released (in the year my father was born): in 3-D. That was a great viewing experience.

It has tough competition, but the Gill Man is my favorite of the classic monsters. Like Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man, you can sympathize with it, because it's an animal that wasn't meant for the modern world and it should just be left alone. But these people won't leave it alone. And it doesn't want to leave Kay alone. There's just something extra appealing to me about this murderous fish-man, and I wish it had been in as many movies as Frankenstein's Monster was. I could have done with a lengthy series of Gill Man adventures.

The Gill Man did get its own trilogy, though. Within three years, Universal got three Creature movies out into theatres... and, you may not realized, even introduced the monster to Abbott and Costello.

The comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello crossed paths with most of the Universal Monsters - Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein features Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, with a cameo by the Invisible Man, and they also met the Mummy in a different film. Unfortunately, the Creature from the Black Lagoon was left out of all of the classic Universal monster mashes, partly because it made its debut so long after the others. The first Creature movie was still ten years away when Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man were meeting up in House of Frankenstein.

Abbott and Costello were reaching the end of their run at Universal by the time Creature from the Black Lagoon was released, so we never got a feature built around the guys coming face-to-face with the Creature. But they did meet the Creature.

On February 21, 1954, about two weeks before Creature from the Black Lagoon reached theatres, Abbott and Costello made an appearance on the TV sketch show The Colgate Comedy Hour, and during this 15 minute segment they take a trip to Universal's prop department... where some strange things begin to happen. Surrounded by wax dummies of horror characters, Costello notices that items are moving on their own as if the place is haunted. Or as if the Invisible Man is messing with him. Soon enough, Frankenstein's Monster has risen from a crate (and this wasn't the only time Abbott, Costello, and the Monster were on The Colgate Comedy Hour together) to freak him out - and then the Creature comes busting in. This was probably the first time a lot of viewers were getting a look at the Creature, and their first exposure to it was the image of it towering over Lou Costello.


The filmmakers already had it in their minds while making Creature from the Black Lagoon that the movie could be the start of a franchise like the earlier Universal monsters had. Sequel ideas were being tossed around even in the early days of development. When a design was rejected for the look of the Gill Man, it was mentioned as a possibility that the look could still be used for a female Creature in a sequel. Unfortunately, that never happened.

There were two different endings on the table for Creature from the Black Lagoon - one was the ending we got, which kept the action at the Amazon and ended in the Creature's lair. The other would have taken the King Kong similarities even further: the Creature would have been successfully captured and taken away to a scientific institute, where it would end up escaping to wreak havoc in civilization.

Rather than end the first movie, that idea was used as the basis of the second movie. Producer William Alland built a story around the concept, with Martin Berkeley fleshing it out into a screenplay. It's pretty good business when you can get a whole other movie out of one's alternate ending.

Creature director Jack Arnold returned to direct the Creature's revenge, and the sequel picks up right where its predecessor left off. The Amazon. Chugging down the river is the Rita II, the replacement for the boat in the first movie. The captain is the same, Nestor Paiva as Lucas, but the passengers have changed: Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) and George Johnson (Robert B. Williams) are employees of the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida, and they have come to Brazil to capture the Gill Man. Despite what happened last time he strayed into the Gill Man's territory, Lucas has agreed to risk running into the creature again.

The last people to enter the Black Lagoon didn't have much luck when they tried to capture the Gill Man, but they didn't have the right equipment. They hadn't expected to need to capture anything on their expedition. Joe and George have brought exactly what's needed - a whole lot of dynamite, which they detonate on the water's surface to stun the underwater monster.

The Gill Man is taken to the institute in Florida, where they start off treating the creature no differently than a shark. That nearly results in disaster, since this thing is a bit more dangerous than a fish. It ends up being chained inside an aquarium exhibit, where it becomes a hit with the oceanarium's visitors - possibly becoming even more popular than Flippy, the educated dolphin. The presence of that dolphin is an interesting one, since Ricou Browning, the man who played the Gill Man for the underwater scenes in all of these films, would go on to co-create the dolphin show Flipper nine years later.

The oceanarium seeks to give the Gill Man an education of its own. With Joe overseeing, animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and aspiring ichthyologist Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) conduct behavior experiments on the Gill Man, like shocking it with a bull prod to discourage negative impulses. While the trio works together, a love triangle situation arises, just like in the first movie. This time Clete and Helen start dating, to the disappointment of Joe.

Make that a love square. With the first movie's Kay having fled from his life, the Gill Man develops an attraction to Helen, and the audience knows it's only a matter of time before he's going to escape from his tank and go after his new lady love.

Of course, that's exactly what does happen, and when the Gill Man does get free to wreak havoc at the oceanarium and the surrounding Florida countryside, some viewers may be wishing one of Clete's friends was there to help him out. When Clete is introduced, he's working at a place where one of his colleagues is played by Clint Eastwood, making his screen debut. Unfortunately, his role isn't like Lee Van Cleef showing up as a sharpshooter in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Eastwood's character here is just an absent-minded fellow who can't keep track of the rats he's working with. This same year, Alland, Arnold, and Agar would work with Eastwood again for his very brief appearance in Tarantula.

Covering much of the same ground as the first movie did, just in a different location, Revenge of the Creature is a decent sequel, but I don't feel that it quite lives up to its predecessor. It's not bad, I just get less enjoyment from seeing the Gill Man in captivity than I did seeing it go after people in his natural habitat. I don't like seeing this monster being treated as if it's just another fish at the oceanarium.

In fact, while watching Revenge of the Creature now there's a sense that it served as inspiration when Universal was thinking of what they could do for Jaws 3-D (and Revenge was originally released in 3-D, too). Just replace the Gill Man with a shark and move the setting from an oceanarium to Sea World.

The climax comes off as being rather lackluster to me, too. You might think that watching the Creature (played in the on-land scenes by Tom Hennesy) cause trouble in Florida would be even more exciting than seeing it go after one boat in a river, but it turned out the opposite. Once it got out of the oceanarium, things started to feel drawn out... building up to an ending that, in true sequel fashion, does the same thing the first one did, but bigger. And bigger in this case means "more guns".


The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature director Jack Arnold didn't return to helm the third and final Creature film, with veteran assistant director John Sherwood stepping in to the direct it instead. Since Sherwood was making his directorial debut, it was probably helpful that this movie wasn't shot in 3-D like its two predecessors.

Series producer William Alland was still in charge, though, and he hired a writer who had Creature experience to craft the story for this trilogy capper. That writer was Arthur Ross, one of the co-writers of Black Lagoon.

Given the story of the third movie, it's no surprise that the series ended here. The Gill Man is irreversibly changed over the course of the film; if it had ever returned, it wouldn't really be the Gill Man anymore. Sure, they could have just had another member of the Gill Man species show up and continue on with that new iteration of the character, much like Universal's Mummy franchise switches out mummies, but for this specific Gill Man that we've been following since the events of the first film, this is definitely the end of the road.

Things kick off when an expedition led by the wealthy Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) heads into the Everglades on board Barton's yacht the Vagabondia III in search of the Gill Man, equipped with sonar, sedative, and a makeshift laboratory right there on the yacht. The members of Barton's expedition are geneticist Dr. Tom Morgan (Rex Reason), roentgenologist Dr. Borg (Maurice Manson), biochemist Dr. Johnson (James Rawley), and guide Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer). Barton's trophy wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) is also on board the ship, and Jed makes it very obvious that he has an inappropriate interest in her. These salt-of-the-earth guide types are usually the good guys in this sort of film, but Jed is a bit of a lech.

Our hero this time is actually Morgan, who is appalled when he hears what Barton has in mind for the Gill Man. Barton intends to mess around with the creature's genes, altering the species, trying to prove a species can be changed enough to be able to survive in different environments. Because, you know, someday humans are going to be going into outer space, and they'll need to be altered to be able to survive out there. That's the best way I can describe it, but it sounds just as cheesy and nonsensical in the film, if not more so.

The expedition takes up almost the entire first half of the movie's 78 minutes, and even though The Creature Walks Among Us is the shortest movie of the three, it becomes clear during this first half that they needed some padding to even reach 78 minutes. This stretch feels overly long, and isn't helped by the fact that we don't see any new footage of the Gill Man until 36 minutes in. Sure, there are glimpses of it swimming around before then, but all of the underwater footage in this movie is footage that was shot for The Creature from the Black Lagoon and not included in that movie. That's Ricou Browning swimming two years before this one was made.

When the Gill Man finally springs into action, it's stuntman Al Wyatt Sr. in the suit, and in a minute you'll see why they needed a stuntman. While attacking the doctors, the Gill Man picks up a can of gasoline to throw at them, accidentally dousing itself with gas. A torch is tossed at it, it goes up in flames... and that's the last we'll see of the classic Gill Man.

The badly burned creature, dying due to damaged gills, is taken on board the Vagabondia III, where Barton is able to do exactly what he always intended to. He alters the creature - although now he can say it was done in the effort of saving it, rather than experimenting on it. X-rays show that the Gill Man does have lungs, and the doctors are able to get those lungs working. It can't breathe underwater anymore, but now it can breathe air just fine.

The Gill Man also starts to mutate, shedding its burned scales, taking on a more human-like appearance. The "new and improved" Creature, no longer a Gill Man, is played by Don Megowan, and it has a lot of trouble in the second half. Having suffered some brain damage during its near death ordeal, the Creature isn't thinking like its usual self, and it isn't so scary anymore. It becomes docile, and we feel more sympathy for it than ever before. It longs to return to the sea, but it can't. It would drown. As it finds out the hard way.

The real tension in the second half comes from the love triangle between Barton, Marcia, and Jed, which isn't even a real love triangle, because there's nothing going on between Marcia and Jed. She's not interested in Jed. Honestly, she's not that interested in her husband, either. But the lack of an affair doesn't stop Barton going mad with jealousy. He is the monster of the movie, not the Gill Man.

There's not much interesting about The Creature Walks Among Us. It's slow and packed with filler, there's not much going on, the Gill Man isn't the Gill Man. You're drawn into it expecting some more cool monster action like Black Lagoon and Revenge delivered, and instead what you get is some dark relationship drama. It's not a bad movie, but it's not what I want to see from a Creature movie. It's a bit of a letdown.... At least I knew what to expect from it long before I actually watched it, thanks to that Crestwood House book.

A lackluster third film doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for the Creature or my appreciation for the series overall. I'm a fan of plenty of franchises that have much worse installments than The Creature Walks Among Us. It was a commendable attempt to try something different, it just could have used some more action and substance. 

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