Universal Monsters in Review: The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the last of Universal’s classic monsters. The Creature Walks Among Us, released in 1956 in 3D, was the final movie showcasing one of the original pillars of horror and the end to a rather lengthy franchise. All things considered, it is a very sad farewell. To say goodbye to an era of film now entombed in cinematic history, discussed only by historians and the most dedicated of film noir nerdom. But sometimes its okay to say goodbye. There’s a famous saying, stop me if you’ve heard this before, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In many respects, for whatever dollar bill reason, producers keep certain franchises going, long past their prime. I think the classic Universal Monsters could have probably ended with The Creature from the Black Lagoon back in 1954, but as it would seem, there was still a little life left in the series. The 1950s, the Atomic Age, the Red Scare Days, were breeding a different type of monster. For horror in America, there was either radiated beasts and scientific blunders OR invaders from space. There was no fear for the gothic tales of old anymore. Mythology wasn’t scary anymore, not knowing who your neighbors might be, not knowing if someone was going to invade your town, or not knowing if some mutated creature created from mankind’s atomic mistakes was going to come and bite them on the ass, that was scary. Times were changing, and The Creature Walks Among Us debuted at the curtain call, giving the long loved characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and The Mummy a somewhat provocative end. There is some interesting dualities at play in this film. Man verses nature. Regression verses progression (symbolized in this movie with the return to the jungle verses the coming space age). And of course, domestication and women’s suffrage (represented here between Dr. Barton and his wife, Marcia). All seemingly packed in tight inside an 80 min movie. Did it work? Was The Creature Walks Among Us a proper goodbye to a franchise spanning three decades? Lets see what our esteemed guest has to say.
THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US
By Daniel Marc Chant
Today franchise film making is in vogue, no studio likes to just release a standalone solo film but rather pin their hopes on each installment being part of a wider cinematic universe. It’s therefore easy to grow weary of sequel after sequel and remakes of films barely a decade old. But way back in the 1950’s it was a much different story, horror films didn’t really get directly connected sequels.
While the Universal Monsters films were all painted on the same loose tapestry they didn’t really share any meaningful connections and the studio’s need for more meat for the grinder meant the later films suffered in terms of quality and consistency. Indeed in 1954, when The Creature From the Black Lagoon first crawled from the depths, Universal’s fortunes were already in decline and had been for many years. So when the titular Creature struck box office gold the studio wasted no time in green lighting a sequel – Revenge of the Creature (Clint Eastwood’s first film!). The film was a success for Universal’s coffers and so, once again, they craved more meat for the grinder. And so, in 1956, The Creature Walks Among Us hit multiplexes in the hopes of scaring cinema-goers out of their hard earned dollars.
As with Revenge, little to no explanation is given why the Creature is once again among us. In Revenge the monster is mercilessly gunned down by Policeman on a beach but reports of its death is (of course) greatly exaggerated so a team of scientists pursue the Creature from the Florida aquarium where it was captured in the prior film to the swampy Everglades. So douchebag scientist William Barton (Jeff Morrow) and his beautiful wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) head out with professional hunter Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), geneticist Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason), and biologists Borg (Maurice Manson) and Johnson (James Rawley). The relationship between Marcia (presumably here as bait given the Creature’s predilection for hot women in swimsuits), William and Jed is an overwrought love triangle that even has Jed attempting to rape Marcia not once but twice. Add to the mix her asshole of a husband and the rest of the cookie cutter cast soon become annoying distractions leading you to actually root for the Creature. In fact for the majority of the film’s run time the Creature is arguably the most human character and does little to live up to his monstrous reputation until the film’s climactic ending.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The group track the monster down in the Everglades, recycling a lot of the underwater footage from the first film in the process, and during a clumsy fight the Creature inadvertently sets itself on fire and is hit by two shots of Grant’s tranquilizer gun causing it to collapse and be captured. When aboard the ship surgery on the monster’s body reveals that the fire has damaged the skin of the Creature and, as they investigate further, they soon realize that the outer layer of skin hid a layer of human-like skin beneath the surface, and as a result of this discovery the creature morphs and loses its gills and begins to breathe using humanoid lungs.
It’s here that Barton goes full mad scientist and in the grounds of his mansion begins to experiment with the Creature’s mind as well as his body, but the Creature has become rather enamoured with Barton’s wife (as you’d expect) and soon becomes the patsy for Barton’s jealous rage. Barton catches Marcia and Grant swimming, and attempts to throw the hunter out but in a heated exchange Barton pistol-whips the hunter to death. He drags the body to the pen where the Creature lies captive in an attempt to shift the blame to the aquatic beast, but he has switch off the power to the pen’s electrified fence, and in a moment of predictable stupidity doesn’t have time to turn it back on. This gives the Creature an opportunity to escape and he storms after Barton, giving him his comeuppance when he catches up before lumbering off to the seaside, wading into the water. What’s important to note about this sequence is that the creature can no longer breathe underwater so, effectively, the monster is committing suicide. You can draw some deep meaning out of this sequence if you so wish, and indeed again the Creature is the most sympathetic character within the whole film. The whole ‘man is the real monster’ concept is something that litters genre media today but this film was one of the first to have a completely unlikable cast other than the monster, whether that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers or not is unclear but I like to think this subtext is there on purpose.
I’m sad to say that the creature FX is sorely lacking in this installment, the prosthetics and make-up look distinctly cheap and the lithe athletic beast from the first film is, after it’s skin shedding, a distinctly larger and hulking behemoth by comparison. Giving some of the complexity mentioned above it’s a shame that the FX can’t equally match the opportunity for emotion a few story beats provide.
While the film has a lot of interesting ideas none are fully developed and are thrown out in preference of script brevity and cheap production values. Universal had an opportunity with this third chapter to broaden the mythology, expand and develop the world in which the beloved Creature inhabits but due to their desperate longing for their golden age with Dracula and Frankenstein they didn’t give the Creature adequate room to breathe.
Indeed there’s a metaphorical comparison with the Creature and Universal’s fortunes at the time, both formerly larger than life but now struggling to find their place in a world they no longer understand and therefore having to react quickly, and aggressively, at their change in circumstances. This misguided passion unfortunately means The Creature Walks Among Us falls significantly short of its lofty forebear but remains an important stepping stone in the journey of Universal’s hallowed monster canon.
Daniel Marc Chant is the published author of several terrifying tales, including: Maldicion, Burning House, and his newest venture, Mr. Robespierre. Daniel is also one of the founders of The Sinister Horror Company, the publishing team that brought us such frights as, The Black Room Manuscripts and God Bomb!. You can follow Daniel on his blog, here.
Universal Monsters in Review: Revenge of the Creature (1955)
The safe word today is, science runs amok! A familiar theme with Universal Monsters. And come to think about it, nearly all of the monsters, at one point or another, have been tethered to mad science. Even Dracula, who in Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, ole Draco mixes himself up in some strange business with bolts and laboratories, in an attempt to resurrect the infamous monster in his own image. And lets not forget the amazing Werewolf of London, to which the werewolf curse is passed on to a botanist who then attempts to use science to cure himself. The main theme people typically walk away with is that science never solves anything, but that doesnt sound right, does it? No, science in itself is not the enemy, nor is nature singularly the enemy either. Maybe we can look from the perspective of the characters, and with those characters, sure, nothing ever seems to go right. Considering, if science is by definition man’s way of understanding nature and the world around him, mankind sure seems to always blunder any attempt to understand his world. The more these characters force to understand nature, the more we get the impression that maybe there are some things we shouldn’t know. Last night, during my first screening of Revenge of the Creature, the running thought in head during the duration of the film was basically the idea of man attempting to concur nature, and failing, because nature is something that cannot be tamed or easily categorized (yup, borrowed that one from Fox Mulder). And perhaps there are some things mankind should not know, or perhaps is not ready to know. The Gill-Man returns in form with some excellent script writing for this round-about sequel to Creature of the Black Lagoon. I found myself routing for the monster, especially due to its mistreatment and shameful exposure for paying customers of the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, which became, for a time, the new Freak Show. Well, I think we’ve all had enough of my own ramblings, lets see what our esteemed guest has to say regarding, Revenge of the Creature.
Revenge of the Creature
By: Jeffery X. Martin
It’s not easy being the missing link. People keep trying to capture you for research, and there’s no Anti-Vivisectionists League for bizarre aquatic creatures. If they can’t capture you, then they just try to shoot you. Tranquilizers, bullets, anything that can be fired out of a gun, humans will shoot it at you, just because you’re different. Oh, and forget dating. It’s one thing to have psoriasis or contact dermatitis, but full-on scales and gills? No woman puts that on her list of likes.
The end of The Creature from the Black Lagoon shows our old buddy, the Gill-Man, in precisely that situation. He’s been dynamited, shot, and after eons of hunting for a nice girl, he finds one. But as soon as he tries to take her home, the humans get all twitchy. They take the girl back, and they shoot the Gill-Man a few times for good measure. That’s a bad day, y’all, and if I were he, I would want revenge, too.
In 1955, the Gill-Man returned in Revenge of the Creature. There’s not much actual revenge in the movie, but the story of the Creature does take an interesting turn. Although we were led to believe the creature died in a hail of bullets at the end of the first film, that’s not the case. He is captured with ease back at the Black Lagoon and taken to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, a waterpark much like Sea-World. Scientists there hope to study the Gill-Man and find out what makes him tick.
This goes exactly as well as you think it will.
Revenge of the Creature is a low-budget production. It stars John Agar, and that makes it feel even more low-budget than it actually is. He’s not an actor normally associated with high-quality work. He’s handsome, all right, but what did it get him? In this movie, he’s nothing more than a giant chin and hormones, as he tries to get into the pants of the “lady doctor,” played by Lori Nelson.
Nelson’s character finds herself in one corner of a love square between John Agar, the Creature’s caretaker, Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), and the Creature himself. Every main male character in the movie (including the Creature) is a sexist schmuck, attempting to mold Nelson into some kind of precious doll that needs to be protected. Never mind that she’s a brilliant student of ichthyology, perfectly capable of taking care of herself. There are so many “step aside, little lady” moments in this film, she may as well be doing the Electric Slide instead of walking.
Joe and John Agar fight over her. The Creature and Joe fight over her. John Agar and the Creature fight over her. No one wants to fight alongside her, or get to know her as a human being because that would make their testicles fall off.
The main point of the film involves the scientists’ attempt to communicate with the Creature. I’m not sure why this is important. It’s not like the Gill-Man has read any good books lately and would love to discuss them. Their big idea for communication is teaching the Creature involves shocking him when he does something wrong. This kind of Pavlovian conditioning elicits responses, but that’s no more communication than someone grunting when they stub their toe.
At least the Creature still looks cool. In a movie filled with wonky science and terrible human relations, he’s the high point. He’s got those huge eyes, webbed hands, and the tendency to open his mouth wide, gasping for air, when he’s on land. He’s a scary monster, difficult to humanize, because you cannot tell his intentions from his face. He can’t raise an eyebrow, give a sly glance, or smirk. There’s no way to tell what he’s thinking, which may make the Gill-Man the scariest of all the Universal Monsters.
It’s a shame this sequel isn’t better. It feels cheap and the script is shallow. If anything, it feels like Jaws 3-D was a remake of Revenge of the Creature. In a lot of ways, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the other. While the shark is an eating machine, the Creature just wants to fertilize some eggs and go back home. Maybe, in that way, the Gill-Man is also the most human of all the Universal Monsters. The Frankenstein Monster and Dracula have their own particular pathos. It’s part of why we love them. The Creature from the Black Lagoon has no personal demons to be dealt with, no extended back story. He has aught but the instinct to survive.
This singularity of vision makes the Creature hard to love, but easy to fear. It certainly makes him worthy of a better sequel. This isn’t it.
Jeffery X. Martin, or Mr. X to you, is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elder’s Keep universe and Tarotsphere. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work on Amazon. When Mr. X is not writing creep mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and blogs, including, but not limited to, Pop Shiftier and Kiss the Goat.