Monday, April 26, 2010

Three Creatures from the Black Lagoon (Universal-International, 1954-1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I ran The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature consecutively. I’m not sure why Jack Arnold has acquired something of a cult following among horror film fans — the two movies are well-directed enough (he did not direct the third in the series; John Sherwood did) but are done pretty much on autopilot, and Ricou Browning’s performance in the title role (unbilled!) is, likewise, a pretty straightforward piece of moving (one can’t really call it “acting”) in a story that is highly derivative of both Frankenstein and King Kong. In those movies, one felt a real sympathy for the monsters — in Frankenstein due to James Whale’s sensitive direction and Boris Karloff’s magnificently subtle performance, both of which rose above a pretty threadbare script — I still like to fantasize a Frankenstein movie in which Karloff could have played the Monster the way Mary Shelley wrote him, using that great voice to deliver Mary Shelley’s beautifully written speeches for her fully articulate version of the Monster:

“I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph. Remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? You would not call it murder if you could precipitate me into one of those ice-rifts and destroy my own frame, the work of your own hands. Shall I respect man when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness; and, instead of injury, I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance.

“But that cannot be. The human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union. Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I will revenge my injuries. If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care. I will work at your destruction, not finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth.”

— and in King Kong the sympathy was created by Willis O’Brien’s unique talent in giving Kong himself a characterization similar to the one Karloff had acted. In Creature, the “Gill-Man” never managed to cross over from monster to sympathetic being, at least partially because the writers (in Creature, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, from a story by Maurice Zimm; in Revenge, Martin Berkeley from a story by producer William Alland) didn’t give the Gill-Man any scenes that might have humanized his character. (No wonder Ricou Browning, whose chief talent seemed to be aquatic rather than thespian, didn’t get billing — though the part was so underwritten even Karloff in his prime couldn’t have made the character come alive as a sympathetic figure!)

About the only thing they gave the Gill-Man to indicate his links to humanity was a sexual itch for the leading ladies of both films (Julia Adams in Creature, Lori Nelson in Revenge — Nestor Païva, as the captain of the Amazon boat, was the only actor besides Browning who played in both) — and, while the actors playing human beings in Creature were at least competent (and Richard Carlson in a bathing suit was quite attractive, with nice chest hair and great nipples), the ones in Revenge were considerably less than that, leads Nelson and John Agar (Golden Turkey Awards nominee for Worst Actor of All Time) delivering their lines in the kind of monotone that bad actors lapse into when they don’t have a clue about how to modulate their voices to create a character.

Ironically, the first 20 minutes of Revenge (before the Gill-Man is captured and moved from the Amazon to Florida) were considerably better directed than Creature, with Arnold maintaining a tighter pace and creating superior suspense effects, but the remaining hour of the film slowed to a crawl, with large amounts of dull dialogue between Nelson, Agar and John Bromfield (who both out-acted and out-hunked Agar, but — alas — got drowned by the Gill-Man halfway through) before a final scene where the monster shows up at a nightclub (with an R&B band playing — what else, in a Universal movie — “I’ll Remember April”) and creates absolutely no reaction at all until Lori Nelson shows up and he kidnaps her.

Another annoyance of both movies is the political incorrectness — the racism in Creature (nobody cares about the mounting death toll until one of the scientists, played by Whit Bissell, gets attacked and nearly killed by the Gill-Man, and Adams laments the “loss of all that experience” if he dies — apparently the four Brazilian bit-players who’d been killed earlier were considered expendable) and the sexism in Revenge (there’s a long scene between Agar and Nelson in which Nelson totally accepts the need for her to abandon her scientific career in order to get married — even though the man who’s romancing her is in the same field). It’s ironic that the blurb on the video box, seeing a 1955 movie through 1993 eyes, says, “The tormented Creature begins to emerge as a hauntingly beautiful alien, and a female researcher (Lori Nelson) forms an uneasy emotional link with him, as her own doubts about career vs. motherhood parallel the Creature’s feelings of alienation and confinement. Soon they are both driven to break free of their respective ‘prisons,’ with exciting results.”

Had the makers of Revenge actually made the movie the video blurb-writer describes (a sort of cross between The Day the Earth Stood Still and Rebel Without a Cause), it would have “held up” as a considerably more interesting work than the one we actually have. Still, Revenge is historically interesting for its early depiction of a pre-Disneyland theme park (Marineland in Florida) and as the first film of Clint Eastwood (he plays a lunk-headed research assistant who loses a lab rat — and would have been virtually unrecognizable if the blurb hadn’t helpfully identified him and his mini-bit part). — 11/6/94


I decided to screen the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of the 1955 film Revenge of the Creature, Universal’s first of two sequelae to The Creature from the Black Lagoon — virtually no one realizes that the monster in that film is actually called the “Gill-Man” because he’s humanoid but has gills and therefore breathes water instead of air — and, at least according to a “trivia” post on, the only sequel to a 3-D movie that was itself in 3-D. One reason I wanted to see this just now was that after having just seen Clint Eastwood’s first credited screen role in the 1956 film The First Traveling Saleslady (with Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing — which makes it count as at least a sort of “doubles” movie, since Channing created the role of Dolly Levi in the stage musical Hello, Dolly! and Rogers was one of her mid-run replacements) I was curious to re-see Eastwood’s first movie role ever. He plays a dorky lab technician who loses one of the four white rats entrusted to his care, worries that a cat ate it and then realizes he had it in his pocket all along. “He’ll never amount to anything in movies,” the MST3K crew couldn’t resist joking after Eastwood’s brief scene came on.

Revenge of the Creature begins in the Amazon, where the first Creature from the Black Lagoon was set — Nestor Païva, the boat captain, was the only actor who carried over from the cast of the original Creature movie to this one (unless you count Ricou Browning, the champion swimmer who played the Gill-Man in his underwater scenes — when I saw the obituary for stunt man Ben Chapman I was startled to find him credited with playing the Gill-Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon since I’d always thought Browning had played him, and it turned out they both did: Chapman played him on land and Browning played him underwater — and in Revenge Browning repeated his phase of the Gill-Man role but stunt man Tom Hennesy replaced Chapman for the land-based scenes) — and it shows the Gill-Man getting captured and brought back to the U.S. for exhibition at Florida’s Marineland, the first aquatic theme park (which did a good business — enough so that it spawned a West Coast version, Marineland of the Pacific — until it was eclipsed by Sea World), though they call it something else in the film.

The people in charge of nursing the Gill-Man back to health after all the bullets that got fired at it both in the first film and this one are oceanographers Prof. Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson), who being that they’re first- and second-billed and of different genders naturally fall in love with each other, albeit quite diffidently (and the MST3K crew couldn’t help but kid the virtual torpor of their love scenes).

The Gill-Man naturally gets tired of being put on display as a freak — though he seems almost as put out by the monotony of his diet (just those fresh fish that get handed to dolphins at aquatic theme parks as rewards for successfully completing a trick) — and of course he escapes, pulling out the chains that are supposed to be holding him in place in the grand manner of amorous movie monsters from Frankenstein’s creation to King Kong, and he ambles around Florida more or less stalking Lori Nelson and also crashing nightclubs (there’s a neat scene in which a rather limp jazz band featuring tenor sax and trombone plays “I’ll Remember April,” a song that had already featured prominently in at least two better Universal movies: the 1942 Abbott and Costello vehicle Ride ’Em, Cowboy, in which it was introduced; and the 1944 film noir Phantom Lady) and various joints until he’s finally plugged, more or less for good, though there was a third Gill-Man movie, The Creature Walks Among Us — in which the scientists in that one give the Gill-Man a trachaeotomy that saves his life but converts him from a water-breather to an air-breather; at the end of that one the Gill-Man, acting on instinct, walks down a beach and back into the water — either we were supposed to think that, no longer being able to breathe underwater, he would drown or that would be the end of him; or the screenwriters just screwed up.

Revenge of the Creature isn’t a bad movie — though it’s not especially good, either; John Agar and Lori Nelson don’t have any charisma at all, either jointly or severally — they’re hardly in the same league, either as actors or as personalities (or as bodies!), as Richard Carlson and Julia Adams from the first film in the series — and the Gill-Man’s antics, including his sort-of crush on Nelson’s character (anemically reprised from the first film, which itself was an anemic reprise of King Kong in that department), have the sort of been-there, done-that air about them that infects all too many movie sequels. Still, it’s better than the sort of fare MST3K usually ridiculed — good enough that we can watch it as entertainment but not so good that we’d resent seeing it made fun of — though the other Universal-International movies they gave the “treatment” to, including The Mole People, The Deadly Mantis and especially The Leech Woman, were more appropriate targets (both for them and for the San Diego-area early-1980’s precursor, Schlock Theatre, in which the snarky comments on the film were run under the action as subtitles rather than spoken over the dialogue). The best line from the MST3K group in Revenge of the Creature: when the Gill-Man emerges from the Universal-International studio tank one of the crew said, “Man, Esther Williams aged really badly!” — 4/26/10


Charles and I got together at about 6:45 last night and we joined in a screening of one of the videos I just bought, The Creature Walks Among Us. This is the third and last of Universal’s “Gill-Man” movies of the 1950’s, with a completely different cast from either of the first two (except for Ricou Browning reprising his role as the underwater incarnation of the Gill-Man), and considerably better than the second in the series (Revenge of the Creature) in its plot (story and screenplay by Arthur Ross) and acting (reuniting Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason from the science-fiction film This Island Earth the year before, and also featuring Gregg Palmer and the obligatory blonde bombshell, played by Leigh Snowden in an Esther Williams-like performance, especially when she does a nice water ballet while supposedly suffering from “rapture of the deep” 200 feet under in the Florida Everglades).

Unfortunately, Jack Arnold yielded the directorship to John Sherwood this time out, and the film doesn’t have the same kind of atmosphere and suspense Arnold brought to the two previous entries in the series. The Creature Walks Among Us is one of those frustrating films that could have been a lot better than it was. Its premise — that, in order to save the Gill-Man’s life after its gills are damaged in a fire (after it pours gasoline on itself, apparently thinking it’s water), a trachaeotomy is performed on it and it therefore acquires the capacity to breathe air directly, while losing its natural ability to breathe through water — is easily the strongest of any of the films in the series, and with sufficiently sensitive direction and acting in the role, the movie could have been a classic tale of the “outsider,” a creature earning sympathy for being out of place on land or water (much the way director James Whale and star Boris Karloff evoked so marvelously sympathetic a portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 classic Frankenstein).

But whoever is in the Gill-Man’s suit this time (the reference books say it’s Ricou Browning in all three films, but the Gill-Man looks considerably heavier-set and clunkier once it’s converted into a land creature — indeed, I’d hazard the guess that it was Tor Johnson in the suit post-op) [it was actually Browning underwater and Don Megowan on land] is no Boris Karloff, and Sherwood is no James Whale, either. With the Gill-Man having little to do in the latter stages of this film but hole up in an electrified pen on the estate of mad-doctor Morrow — and cast long, lingering glances at Morrow’s private lagoon, the closest he could come to his ancestral oceans — the film’s focus shifts to its human characters (a mistake) and the sordid romantic intrigue between Morrow, Snowden (his wife), Palmer (who tries to rape her twice — ironically, she’s saved by the Gill-Man both times) and Reason (who ends up with her at the end, after Morrow and Palmer conveniently die). The ending is moving, though: the Gill-Man walks across a ridge and stares at the sea, about to walk in and head “home,” not knowing what we know: that he no longer can breathe water, and therefore he will drown.

Charles joked later that the Gill-Man was actually a Lesbian Gill-Woman (“Did you see a dick on her?” he asked — “Maybe it retracted, like a dog’s,” I replied, to which he said, “No dog — or any other animal — retracts its balls”), homosexually attracted to human women. — 4/23/95