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The best and practically the only 1950s original movie monster is everyone's favorite denizen of the Amazon, The Creature. Drummed up by Universal when studios were still putting resources and effort into far-out fantastic films, The Creature, aka The Gill Man is a beautifully designed and executed fish-monster, perhaps the best rubber-suited thing Hollywood ever turned out. He has an immediate graphic personality barely tapped by his three starring vehicles and an immediate appeal for kids who like their monsters big, slimy and savage.
Universal's Legacy Collection gathers the original feature and its two sequels together for the first time - in the early 1990s you could have them on laserdisc for about $85 if you got there before they sold out, and that was without any extras save for perhaps a trailer. This two-disc set comes with the previously released excellent docu and commentary track from the lofty writing team of David J. Skal and Tom Weaver, plus some new goodies to savor. The Gill Man would certainly give a bullfroggian roar of approval.
They may be neither classy nor classics but the Creature movies remain an entertaining trilogy well above the standards of most 50s monster movies, including efforts by Universal. There's a wealth of lore and anecdotal incident in the three pictures, most of it covered in the set's docu and three commentary tracks. But a few points stand out.
The Creature is a Hollywood original, derived neither from a book nor recorded legend, a fish story invented for its time. The scientific attitude is a thin veneer over a concept that has little to do with the 50s sci-fi craze; as Tom Weaver got producer Alland to admit, his story was a retread of King Kong, which had enjoyed an enormously popular theatrical revival in 1952. The first two movies combined recreate an identical plotline centered around a monster's efforts to possess the leading lady.
The first movie was made by eager talent itching to pull off a scare-show in 3-D. Jack Arnold was an unpretentious director less interesting than the fantastic subjects he ended up helming for the studio system; he'd later completely transcend the sci-fi ghetto with his wonderful Matheson adaptation The Incredible Shrinking Man. With the exception of a few atmospheric moments the Creature is a rather literal mutant fish that only remains a threat when the situation is in his favor - underwater, the dark, confined places, the element of surprise. The first two films have to prop up a fairly artificial storyline to stay afloat. People wander idle and relaxed when they know a menace could be sneaking up on them; blasts of trumpet music accompany the monster's every un-sensational appearance. The Creature does a lot of reaching blindly onto footpaths and through portholes with a trembling claw that's supposed to be terrifying. Instead, we admire the artful sculpting of his webby scaled paw.
The first two movies were in 3-D and looked great in a process that thrived on artificial thrills - hands poking into the camera, the Creature leaping up a ten-foot aquarium wall into a giant groggy close-up. In the original Polaroid projection system audiences saw underwater scenes in 3-D for the first time, an extra gimmick that added to the novelty. I was too young to be there in person but I'll bet that the Creature was kind of a tongue-in-cheek nostalgic holdover from the old 30s monsters, the ones most 50s kids would have to wait until 1956 to see on TV. He's funny but cool - we watch to see how human he is. The Gill Man turns out to be everyone's favorite kind of monster, a basically nice guy who makes mincemeat of the cast only because they won't leave him alone or because he's attracted to a girl from the wrong side of the evolutionary tree. He's at least as convincing as the human cast, and we like him a lot.
I always thought that the true sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon would be a courtroom drama. Let's see, eight of you go into the jungle and four come back. We've got some mutilated corpses and a story about a fish-man being responsible? No photos, no evidence, no nothing. I see some long prison terms in the future.
The Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us are okay follow ups, each with some good production values - location shooting, nice action. But neither really builds on the Creature's character in any substantial way. Revenge is numbingly predictable. The Gill Man is reduced to a goldfish in a bowl getting poked by an electric prod, which incidentally would almost certainly shock everything else in the water too. There are about eight minutes of classy rampage action and the rest is scientific doubletalk, travelog filler and abortive suspense scenes with the creature turning Peeping Tom to spy on Lori Nelson in her bathroom. (Even giant Tarantulas tend to do that over in Universal City). Some scenes, like the one where the Creature swims 'with' Lori and tickles her heel, cover the same ground as the original. The posse that tracks him down at the end isn't very interesting but the nighttime photograpy is. Also, the cast of the first film generates a theatrical smoothness in the dialogue scenes, but most of the dialogue in Revenge doesn't even pretend it's worth listening to - Lori Nelson's offhand explanation of icthyology shows that she can barely pronounce the word.
The top thrills are brief but memorable - a car overturned, a baby menaced, the Gill Man snatching his late night date from the dance floor of a restaurant bar.
By the time of The Creature Walks Among Us Universal was cutting corners and its monsters were relegated to the lowest tier of production. Ambitious fantasies like The Mole People ended up looking like PRC groaners of ten years before. Writer Arthur Ross (reportedly the true auteur of the first film) tailored a cost-cutting sequel with a clever ruse: Instead of another difficult shoot with those pesky rubber full-body suits, Walks uses mostly outtakes from the first two films to show the Creature in his original amphibious form. Then he's surgically transformed into a more easily managed monster with just a head mask, new hands and new feet. A gunny-sack zoot suit covers the rest of him. Voila! Except for a few new shots showing his capture, the earlier full crew of latex wranglers are replaced by one or two guys touching up a couple of hunks of rubber. Any big actor can don the gear, and he doesn't have to stay in an unbearable rubber suit for eight hours at a clip.
So our former Gill-Man is reduced to a shuffling lummox in a sheep pen with a lot of vague new feelings that aren't fully articulated by the script or the direction. The Creature kills a mountain lion as if deciding he's now the protector of wooly rights. Some fish, as they say.
Although it never really gels into a theme statement, screenwriter Ross keys the monster into his simple soap opera plot. Obnoxious big boss Jeff Morrow creates a hostile atmosphere that drives his wife to lure other males into compromising situations. She's played by Kiss Me Deadly's "No" girl Leigh Snowden as a brazen tramp. Halo-pure Rex Reason observes virtuously from the sidelines but apparently steps in to claim Snowden's dance card at the finale. Almost predicting the violent rebellion of The Birds, the Creature observes the cruel human interaction. When he can't stand any more he rips free of his cage to smite the offenders. So he has also become a moral judge as well. Soon he'll be ready for greater things. 1
But at least he's integrated into the drama of the movie, and The Creature Walks Among Us has the germ of a solid monster idea lacking in most formulaic efforts. Doubtless this was all made possible simply because the studio didn't care about the picture. You can bet that few top execs sat all the way through it at screenings.
Director John Sherwood made this film and The Monolith Monsters, both good efforts. But by then the studio apprentice system was shutting down and bigger assignments didn't follow as they had for Arnold, who had broken into direction years earlier. Still, Sherwood manages the best-directed scene in the whole trilogy when the Creature invades the mansion house to punish the abusive Jeff Morrow. Excellent blocking shows the monster paralleling Morrow through a series of rooms, and he spots his prey out of the corner of his eye at the same time we do. The Creature barrels through a window to cut off Morrow's escape. The simple action scene is beautifully laid out for maximum involvement.
The ending almost works, but not quite. The escaped monster stands atop a sand dune and decides to return to the sea. We're aware that he can no longer breathe underwater, so he's a goner for sure. But does the Creature know that? Is he going home, or committing suicide? If the final shot of him lumbering past the camera to the surf weren't so artlessly filmed, this could be a truly enigmatic and thought-provoking ending.
Universal's Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Legacy Collection two disc set comes in a fancy box to match their earlier releases. The quality is excellent, although all three movies could have been enhanced widescreen. 1954-56 were the changeover years for aspect ratio, when everything was projected from 1:37 to 2:1. But the key to studio preference can be seen in the text blocks used for the title and credit sequences. If you matte off the top and bottom on a widescreen TV, all the lettering fits perfectly, even on the first film. Heads are never cut off and all essential action is still there.
In his excellent (and very fast!) commentary, Tom Weaver shows us a blooper where a telephone pole can be seen as the explorers first enter the forbidden Black Lagoon. Cropped to 1:78, the pole is no longer visible. Yes, the 3-D Creature looks good projected at 1:37, but contrary to a lot of web talk, when I saw it and It Came from Outer Space projected in the original 3-D system in an early 70s revival they were somewhere between 1:66 and 1:78.
Weaver's commentary continues on the new-to-DVD sequels where he's joined by Bob Burns and Lori Nelson for some lively banter. The only docu is David J. Skal's elaborate piece that came with the first Creature disc, but it covers all three films and just about every other Gill-Man related piece of Hollywood lore right down to the various he-men who portrayed the Creature and the genesis of its various sculpted versions. It also includes mention of the Gill Man's nominal appearance in Billy Wilder's The Seven-Year Itch. Since the Creature inspired Marilyn Monroe's emotional outburst on her way to that famous subway grating, I always thought it appropriate that the famous photo of her skirt flying over her head should have an added scaly claw reaching up from below.
The extras include lots of production stills from the first movie and none from the sequels. One notable Revenge still has Lori Nelson being manhandled by the Creature in the water during her kidnap. The great lighting shows her hair flying and flinging water as she screams. It's actually a frame blow-up from the movie. It looked familiar, but I didn't know why until one day I realized that the screaming female victim on the key poster art for The Day of the Triffids was a copy of the exact same image, right down to the dress she's wearing. Somebody tell Lori Nelson!
This Creature disc set will make any Gill Man fan very happy while driving his family out of their minds. That soundtrack: "ta TA TAHHHH!" And am I glad that Wayne Schmidt talked me out of buying the older disc at a high price after it went OOP.
Last thoughts: In the first film, does the Creature room with the Phantom of the Opera? What are those organ pipe-like columns in his subaquatic lair? Also: The Gill Man comes from the headwaters of a tributary of the Amazon. That should make him a fresh-water kind of guy. Why doesn't he turn belly-up and float when they dump him into a salt-water oceanarium tank! Hm? Yeah? Real scientists wouldn't make a goof like that.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I'd like to cut a gag reel, therefore, altering a
scene from Spartacus. The Romans ask the defeated rebels to identify their leader. After a bunch of gladiators
stand up and shout "I'm Spartacus!", the newly-emancipated good-guy Gill Man can do the same, only in croak-speak. Then
cut to Kirk Douglas sniffing back a tear. Why doesn't anybody listen to Savant's sure-fire movie ideas?