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.
Welcome one and all to the wildest show on earth…okay, maybe not that wild, but speaking of wild, on today’s chopping block we’ll be taking a closer look at one of the more fascinating monsters in Universal’s classic monster roster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). About a month back, during the X-Mas season, the Universal Monsters DVD box-set was set at a ridiculously low price on Amazon, so I did what any honorable horror junkie would do, I ordered the set as an earlier birthday present. Getting the box-set also gave me an idea. Why not review the movies? I’ve watched and reviewed some, but not all of the old classics. Why not? So, I did a little polling on my Facebook page. I wanted some advice and opinion on how I should go about reviewing all these classics. In all seriousness, 30 films is quite a lot to take on, plus, they’re all characters that’ve played important roles in developing future monster makers and writers and fans alike. It goes without further explanation how important these films are. In the polling, I asked basically two questions:
- Should I review in groups of monster or individually?
- Which monster should I start with?
And the pollers have spoken. Individual review and Creature from the Black Lagoon won the vote. 30 TOTAL movie reviews…thanks for that! In all humility, I cannot do this alone. So, I’ve called in an excellent cast of bloggers and authors alike, to take on an individual monster for review. Fair enough, right? You’ll see opinions globally, not just stagnate in one pond, but across all ponds and walks of life. You’ll be reading reviews from the twisted and fantastic minds of Duncan Ralston, Daniel Marc Chant, Jeffery X. Martin, Dawn Cano, and Kit Power to name a few. Its going to be a blast and I hope you all enjoy as we walk through the treasure trove of classic horror monsters.
Now that I’ve wandered off the path of actually reviewing The Creature from the Black Lagoon, how about we get back to it, shall we?
The Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed in 1954 with Jack Arnold at the helm, a rather well known movie and television director, of such 1950s sci-fi works as: The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula, It Came from Outer Space, and the sequel to Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature. And speaking of “It Came from Outer Space,” there seems to be a few carry overs from that film into Black Lagoon, including a very charismatic Richard Carlson. Some of the screenwriters and stage hands were also carried over from “Outer Space,” along with other 1950s atomic age monster flicks I’m sure. And, with that said, we’re getting to what intrigues me the most with this Lagoon film. The movie is very much a film born within the atomic age, the 1950s was a golden era filled with mutated creatures and space alien invaders, however, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, aka The Gill-man, was not a “atomic” creation. The Gill-man was not alien either; rather, terrestrial. In the opening credits, this terrestrial affirmation is given in a very brief albeit accurate depiction of the earth and the process of evolution, thus from the get-go, we learn this is a creature that comes to us by natural selection and not through atomic tomfoolery or by any other supernatural means. As the last pillar of the classic Universal monsters, this makes the Gill-man a very unique addition to the roster, don’t you think? Frank, Drac, Mummy, Wolf-man, they’re all supernatural characters, whereas Creature is not. With Creature, we’re given a monster completely bred from the natural world, from our environment, as it is, without all the glitter and glamour of some kind of special effect or something imaginative. The only imagination used here is believing such a creature could exist, a gnarled branch of homo erectus or perhaps homo sapiens, or even further back in our illustrious family tree. And this aspect of the story gives us some insight or foreshadowing at what we’ll be watching, what themes will be tackled, and maybe what questions will be asked.
Here’s a quick fire synopsis:
Remnants of a mysterious animal have come to light in a remote South American jungle. A group of scientists intending to determine if the find is an anomaly or evidence of an undiscovered beast find themselves cut off in a remote section of the jungle, simply known as, The Black Lagoon. To accomplish their goal, the scientists (Antonio Moreno, Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Whit Bissell) must brave the most perilous pieces of land South America has to offer. But the terrain is nothing compared to the danger posed by an otherworldly being that endangers their work and their lives.
Or something like that. I think perhaps the “otherworldly” part included in this synopsis is a bit misleading.
As said before, this was my first screening of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I watched it once as any typical movie goer would, with an open mind and a bag full of popcorn. I enjoyed the movie, as I would probably many classics. There were moments that came into question, mostly the scientific approach these so-called university scientists were taking. Call me a layman, but ripping a bone out of the mud and taking it into the city for examination seems like we’re missing a few important steps. But then again, i’m more of a historian than I am a scientist. There were also some more laughable moments, namely the obvious sexism with the ONLY female cast member, Julie Adams (playing Kay Lawrence). There were only a few bits of that though, mostly between her and the perhaps not-so obvious antagonist, Richard Denning (playing Mark Williams) who is often quick to remind Kay that she is in fact a woman and should not put herself in danger and thus should stay on the boat, the boat here I’m assuming symbolizing “the home.” And when she does as she pleases and goes for a swim, she is again rebuked. Though sexism is non-excusable, we must be careful of egocentrism and ethnocentrism by not judging these older pictures by taking them out of the culture in their own place in time and putting them into our own. Moving on, there were also harrowing and frightful moments, especially for those poor local expedition helpers…and speaking of which, all the deaths in the movie were of the indigenous and one white cast member, Richard Denning. Everyone else survived, more-or-less, unscathed. The first kill scene was rather horrifying, though not much is actually seen. But this works well for the movie, given its place in history. Besides, sometimes less is more. Not very characteristic for a flick in the Atomic Age of Cinema, I must say. But its all for the better.
What I found to be most impressive was the cinematography. The moment when Kay is out for a swim and the Creature sees her and though has no dialogue whatsoever, you can tell the beast is intrigued with her and becomes attracted to her. The part with Kay swimming and the Creature directly below her, following parallel upside down is mesmerizing. All of the under water scenes are impressive, now that we’re talking about it, for the day and age of production. The acting, I thought, was also on par with those scenes, though marred a bit in cultural sentimentality. The sea captain was humorous. The practical effects for the Creature were surprisingly fantastic. Having never seen this flick before, I was rather timid. I thought it’d be a stereotypical “King Kong” movie. And though there are certain “King Kong-isms,” the story is still all its own. The way David Reed (played by Richard Carlson) fought to keep a rational approach to their escalating nightmare was out of characteristic of these types of movies. Dr. Reed, despite his crazed counterpart, Dr. Williams, insistence of capturing the Creature, wanted nothing more than to obscure the Creature in its natural habitat and not leaving any more of a footprint then what they had already left within the monsters environment. This is where during my second screening, while listening to the film historian’s notes, something odd came to me. What exactly is this movie about? Looking at it from its place in history, this is the first Monster movie to take place post-WWII. Though not resembling a Atomic Age flick, it certainly grew out of those films. Well, as we have already deduced, this is not a supernatural nor a cosmic story. The science in the film is generic. So what? What could it be? I think The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a movie about naturalism, asking a very general albeit profound question regarding the hubris of mans ignorance and places within the terrestrial realm humanity does not fully understand.
The best part of movies like this is that they do not give away the answers to the questions they insinuate. Some things can be readily deduced. The Creature was not monstrous, but rather acted monstrously when provoked. The so-called elder in the scientific team was for the most part silenced by the more loud-mouthed Mark Williams, who wanted to capture the Creature, dead or alive, as some kind of sideshow attraction and fame. The only reason the others followed his lead, for a time, was because of his position in society, his wealth and standing in the unnamed university. The only level-headed member on the cast was David Reed, who wanted to leave the Creature alone and observe, if they could, but was, in the end, forced to destroy the very thing he wanted to protect. It was a very tragic ending, slow and painful to watch, but one that certainly left a lasting impression. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see this pillar of the Universal Monsters, please do. And if you’ve had the opportunity, but decided against it, please reconsider. Who knows, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.
If you liked what you read here, why not give us a “like” on that button below. You can also keep up by subscribing the blog here. Universal Monsters in Review will be posted weekly, on Wednesdays. Next week, you’ll have the pleasure of reading Dan Marc Chant’s insights into The Mummy (1932).
My Review: 4/5