paul.mccluskey -> RE: Universal Horror (11/5/2013 7:16:51 PM)
ORIGINAL: Dr Lenera
A geology expedition in the Amazon uncovers fossilised evidence from the Devonian period of a link between land and sea animals in the form of a skeletal hand with webbed fingers. Expedition leader Dr. Carl Maia visits his friend, Dr. David Reed, an ichthyologist who works at a marine biology institute. Reed persuades the institute’s financial backer, Dr. Mark Williams, to fund a return expedition to the Amazon to look for the remainder of the skeleton. They go aboard a tramp steamer and are accompanied by Reed’s girlfriend, Kay Lawrence, and another scientist. Back at the camp site, an unseen creature attacks two men in a tent, and when the others arrive at the camp, all they see are dead bodies…….
The three films featuring the ‘Gill Man’ are in some ways more a part of the science-fiction cycle [to which Universal contributed many great movies], of the 1950’s than the earlier horror series. The Gothic horrors petered out in the late 40’s except for the Abbott and Costello larks, but fears from things such as atomic power and communism led to a new wave of films often featuring monsters and mad scientists, and though they aren’t always regarded as such, many of them such as The Thing From Another World and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers are definitely as much horror as science fiction. With Creature From The Black Lagoon, Universal obviously set out to create another monster that would rival characters like Dracula and the Wolf Man in popularity and maybe lead to a series. The Gill Man quickly became an icon, a creature both scary and sympathetic, and stayed very popular, especially with teenagers to whom the character especially appealed. The film…well, it doesn’t reach the very high quality of say, Frankenstein or The Mummy and perhaps never entirely rises above its ‘B’ movie status, but it is a hugely entertaining monster movie, exciting and fast paced, and therefore a good one to show the kids!
The origins of the film date back to 1941 when, at a dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane, producer William Alland was told by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about a myth of a race of half-fish, half-human creature who lived in the Amazon river. Ten years later Alland wrote a treatment entitled The Sea Monster which included most of the elements that ended up on screen, though he offered two endings; the one the film has and a lengthier one involving the Gill Man being taken to the US and escaping before being killed. This was expanded into a full screenplay by Maurice Zimm, who went with the longer ending and seemed to borrow a great deal from King Kong, such as the Gill Man finding the heroine. It was also mooted at some point that the Gill Man may have once had a mate who has been killed by alligators. This was all lost in re-writings by Arthur Ross and Harry Essex, who later took sole credit for the screenplay. For years Bud Westmore made sure he received sole credit for the design of the Gill Man but it later came out that Disney animator Millicent Patrick actually designed the creature. Filmed mostly on Universal’s back lot with some location footage shot in Florida, the film was filmed in 3D during a mini 3D boom and director Jack Arnold, a generally average director who for a while found out he had a distinct affinity and talent for science fiction, had just had a hit with It Came From Outer Space in the format. Creature From The Black Lagoon was a huge success and decades later a bewildering number of people including John Landis, John Carpenter and Ivan Reitman planned a remake. After 30 years of rewrites and false starts, it’s still in development as I type.
What is most striking about Creature is how fast it moves. We begin immediately with the discovery of the fossil, then there’s only about ten minutes to sit through before they set off for the Amazon, which we seem to arrive at in no time, and even before this we have the Gill Man attacking Dr Maia’s camp. His full appearance is not revealed for almost half about half an hour into the film so at first we mostly see a webbed hand coming out of the water accompanied by an insanely loud three note musical motive. Most of the deaths committed by the Gill Man are actually off screen, at least at first, adding to the strange sympathy one feels for this animal whose habitat is being invaded by humans. Typical folk of science fiction films of the time, there is one main character who wants to study the creature and one who wants to kill it, though ethical debates are kept to a minimum in this film which, once it reaches the Amazon, never really lets the action stop for more than a moment.
Much of it takes place underwater and the photography is often very evocative, sometimes minimalist but quite beautiful as the sunlight streams into the dark ‘abyss’ that is the Gill Man home. There’s much chasing, fighting and firing of harpoons, but of course the highlight of the whole film is the lengthy sequence where Kay goes for a swim and the Gill Man sees and follows her, remaining behind her or under her when she is above the water, and often mimicking her movements. It’s distinctly erotic watching Kay perform what is a rather sexual underwater ballet, and we feel the Gill Man’s interest, but of course we cannot touch and neither can the Gill Man, who only lunges impotently at her feet towards the end of the scene. The Freudian aspects of all this go without saying and definitely contributed a lot to the monster’s popularity with teenage boys who were maybe awkward with girls, horny, moody and misunderstood relating to the Gill Man. This monster is usually only seen to kill when attacked first and you start to feel somewhat sorry for him, though this undercuts the scariness somewhat.
The story doesn’t consist of much more than the humans trying to capture and/or kill the Gill Man, and even ends up resembling a 40’s Mummy movie as the Gill Man ends up carrying Kay into his grotto and the others are rushing to save her. The simplicity is quite appealing though I’ve often wondered if they could have done a bit more with the concept. Somewhat distracting is that it’s painfully obvious that none of the cast are actually on location, with much use of back projection, though it’s better than some of the CGI backgrounds you see now. Try and figure out why the Gill Man’s grotto appears to be underwater yet only has water coming up to the knees in it! It’s also easy to tell that the film was shot in 3D with things like harpoons, bubbles and even the Gill Man obviously intended to loom out at the audience. It has been said that Arnold was a master at shooting in 3D and occasional showings of this and It Came From Outer Space in the format are well received. I remain surprised that they haven’t tried to convert them with the 3D they have now. I’d much rather see films like these in 3D, which used it as the gimmick it is, then half the 3D movies we get nowadays which shoot in or convert into 3D because it seems to be required and makes more money because of higher ticket prices.
The acting in Creature is more solid than good with Richard Carlson, in the last of three films he made with co-star Julie Adams, likeable but a touch stolid, and Adams rather wooden, though she looks good in as bathing suit so that’s the main thing. The underrated Whit Bissell contributes a nice performance as another scientist. The Gill Man, who was originally intended to bne played by Glenn Strange but he didn’t like all the swimming involved, was actually played by two people, Ben Chapman, and Ricou Browning for the underwater scenes. The music score is a combination of music by Herman Stein [who came up with the signature Gill Man theme], Hans J.Slater and believe it or not Henry Mancini with the addition of a few cues from other Universal pictures, and actually it flows really well, with it being really hard to tell who wrote what. There is some especially fine music for the underwater scenes, particularly the ‘ballet’ scene which mixes beauty, menace and an effective kind of pulsating eroticism. With some nice lyrical bits in between the action, it’s a fine score which could do with being recorded in full. Creature From The Black Lagoon is not an all-time classic, but it’s definitely a highlight of the decade where science fiction met horror with an appealing innocence which would probably be lost in the remake…when they eventually get to do it. And the Gill Man remains a potent symbol of adolescent frustration and subliminal desires.
At a tributary of the upper Amazon, another boat is searching for the Gill Man. Captain Lucas the pilot explains that he came to the lagoon the previous year with an expedition, and five people were killed during that trip, but to no avail. An attempt is made to ensnare the creature in a net, but it kills one of their number instead. The next day a series of explosives is set off around the lagoon and the creature floats unconscious near the boat. He is transported back to Ocean Harbour in Florida where not only scientists including Prof. Clete Ferguson, come to study the monster, but the publicity generated is enormous and hotels are book for 50 miles around by tourists wanting to see the creature. At the moment though the Gill Man is in a coma…..
Revenge Of The Creature has not attained the classic status of the previous movie and it definitely isn’t as good, though it’s still quite an interesting film. Removing the Gill Man from his home and placing him in civilisation makes for an intriguing contrast though you could say that some of the mystery and atmosphere is lost in doing so. Concentrating rather more on matters of love, it’s not as action packed though still moves at a fair clip. It’s actually a rather sad film to watch, especially to ‘enlightened’ modern eyes, as the Gill Man is treated even worse by humans than in the first picture and you really feel sorry for him throughout, even when he goes on the loose. This gives the film an edge which is both interesting but might make it somewhat painful viewing if you’re an animal lover.
Now if you’ve just read the review of Creature From The Black Lagoon [not to mention having seen King Kong!], the idea for Revenge Of The Creature will seem very familiar, for producer William Alland went back to the early idea planned for the first film of the monster taken to captivity and breaking out. As soon as Creature From The Black Lagoon started to bring in the crowds, he wrote a treatment expanding on some of the earlier material, though rather more mindful of the budget this time. This was turned into a script by Martin Berkeley and it seems that that was it, there were no major alterations or rewrites this time. The whole project was rushed out very quickly, which is probably why it doesn’t seem to have the care given to the original. Again Jack Arnold directed, and again in 3D, though it ended up being shown in most cinemas flat because the 3D craze has petered out, people seeing it for the rip-off gimmick that it was. Or should I say…still is. Stuntman Tom Hennesy almost drowned during filming. Playing the creature, he grabbed stuntwoman Ginger Stanley on a pier and jumped with her into the water, only for a freak current to pull them down and, while Ginger broke free, Tom’s carried on down to the bottom because his suit was waterlogged. Revenge made even more money at the box office than Creature, making a third film obligatory.
We open with a bit of dullish chat, with the usual debate about what to with the monster, though the dialogue is mostly flat and the acting mediocre. After this we get into the action and indeed the early section of the film plays like a scaled-down remake of the first one. There’s no real build-up to the Gill Man’s appearance this time but there doesn’t really need to be. There’s some decent underwater fighting before we relocate to Florida where we are introduced to our main human ‘hero’ Ferguson, then cut to a laboratory scene where we seem to see and hear…is it?….he seems very young…but that voice is so distinctive….YES, it’s Clint Eastwood, in his first film role, given a silly gag involving a lost mouse which turns out to be…well, I won’t ruin it, and you can easily view the scene on line if you’re not to bothered about seeing the whole movie [but then why would you be reading this review?], but you certainly wouldn’t think “he’ll go far”, that’s for sure!
After this the film gets remarkably cruel. Not only has the Gill Man been kidnapped for the purposes of both clinical research and money, we have some ‘training’ scenes where Ferguson and Helen Dobson, the female student who joins him, show the monster who’s boss by going into the tank in which he’s being held, enticing him to come near them with both a box of food and a ball, then stabbing at him with a bull-prod [which probably wouldn’t work underwater but never mind]. It’s hard to accept these two as the ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’. Most of the ‘action’ is restricted to this tank and and the middle section of the film spends too much time alternating tank scenes with ‘romance’ scenes involving Clete and Helen, but eventually the monster escapes in a great set piece where people run and scream everywhere and he overturns a car, though he only actually kills two people and even passes by a woman protecting her child [though he does kill a dog, which still seemed to attack him first]. The low budget ensures that afterwards the Gill Man avoids heavily populated places and seems to hide more from humanity as he searches for Helen, but it’s somehow realistic; he’s probably as afraid of us as we are afraid of them, and obviously has to keep going into the water every few minutes.
The Gill Man’s infatuation for a female human [he obviously got over Kay pretty quickly!] takes up more of this film, and it’s even more touching. First of all he hears her voice before later gazing at her through a window. He sees her and Clete frolicking and even follows them when they go for a swim, though doesn’t decide to snatch her until later, where he locates her house incredibly easily. Obviously, this being the 50’s, the Gill Man is not allowed to do anything to her besides lying her down on sand while he goes for a swim. Three decades later Humanoids From The Deep would give an idea of what the Gill Man would probably have really done to a human female! Overall the Gill Man is less menacing here and the whole film is lighter in feel, with a fair bit of comic relief, though it’s never really intrusive. Helen jokingly telling of how her dog is her boyfriend is certainly amusing and Lori Nelson is definately a better actress than Julie Adams.
There’s less exploitation of the 3D process here, in fact seeing it flat it’s hard to tell it was even filmed in the format, though there are some great instances of things coming out from the side of the screen which in any case work well enough in 2D. Jack Arnold seems more interested in framing shots interestingly. The script has its stupid aspects like a news announcer saying the kidnapped student is “pretty”. Male lead John Agar was a familiar star in this kind of movie and was a very hammy kind of actor though he’s always enjoyable to watch. Herman Stein and William Lava scored the film un-credited, and Stein’s loud Gill Man theme often blares out while other bits and pieces are recognisable from the previous film’s score, though there’s much original material too and it’s all quite well mingled in. Revenge Of The Creature is really little more than a ‘programmer’, but it has an odd kind of charge to it. Whether this was entirely intended by the filmmakers I don’t know, but when, at the end, loads of cops arrive to gun the poor animal down, you might feel like screaming at them to stop.
Dr. William Barton organizes an expedition to the Florida Everglades with the scientists Dr. Thomas Morgan, Dr. Borg and Dr. Johnson to capture the Gill Man, who has been spotted there since he was supposedly gunned down by police on the Florida coast but actually survived. Barton’s wife Marcia is also along for the trip along with three other scientists. Marcia starts to be harassed by Jed Grant, while Barton is turning to alcohol in an attempt to cope with the fact that his wife, who is far younger than he, is attractive to other men. They chase and capture the Gill Man though he is totally burnt in the struggle. Rushing him to a hospital, it is discovered that not only has he survived what would seem like certain death, but has turned into an air breather through hidden lungs and maybe even a totally different and more human-like creature…..
For some reason I had had vague memories of The Creature Walks Among Us being one of those many films I snuck downstairs to see on late night TV after my parents had gone to bed, and more than that the film actually being good, but I now think I was mistaken at least on the second point. For this is a very dull, pedestrian sequel where they seem to have dreamt up an interesting, if crackpot, idea and then badly stretched it into a full length film without adding much else. Of course a slow pace can be a good thing if there’s some mounting tension, nail-biting suspense or good acting, but this film has hardly any of either, and I can imagine audiences of the time who had thrilled to the first two films being bored out of their minds. It’s only really interesting thematically and because it’s such a bleak, almost depressing affair. Very occasionally, it shows signs of being a movie that is at least compelling, if not necessarily enjoyable. But only very occasionally.
Though less information exists about this instalment than the other two, the feeling I get from The Creature Walks Among Us is that they felt that the Gill Man was limited in terms of what they could do with him, and decided to finish the series in a way that would make it very hard for it to be continued. Arthur Ross, who co-wrote Creature From The Black Lagoon returned to write this one, but Jack Arnold chose not to return after directing the first two films [I don’t blame him], feeling he had done enough with the Gill Man, so John Sherwood, an assistant director on a large number of films but an actual director of only two other features, was enlisted to direct. For the makeup that the Gill Man would sport in the second half of the film, Bud Westmore went back to the original, more human-like makeup what was originally intended for the Gill Man when they were making the first film, and used it with only minor alterations. Much of the film was shot in the same house what had just been used in This Island Earth and it even had its two male stars. By 1956 the 3D craze had passed [I wish it would now: can you tell I don’t like 3D?], so Creature was shot in 2D. With its cool poster implying that the Gill Man terrorised San Francisco replete with the words a city screams in terror and all-new underwater thrills, the film still attracted audiences though they must have felt deceived.
As with the previous entry, we open with a conversation between two scientists over ethics, and it’s clearly a hallmark of this trilogy, except that this particular movie than proceeds over the course of its duration to give us more and more of the same, and you just want to yell at the screen; “yes guys, we get the point”! We are in the Florida Everglades, though it seems like we are in the same locale as before, and once again we witness attempts to capture the Gill Man. Unfortunately, even though this takes up the first half of the film, the running time is mostly taken up with chat or endless swimming footage. A sequence where three of the team are swimming underwater and the Gill Man pursues, than overtakes, them, and it goes on forever without much really happening. Worse than that, all the shots of the Gill Man swimming are from the previous two pictures. After what seems like an eternity with hardly any tension building, there’s finally a bit of Gill Man action, though it’s pretty brief, and a bit where he picks up a boat is laughably staged, replete with stunt people who barely react to what is going on. After this we switch to a hospital and then to San Francisco, and the film starts some plotting which is at least admirable for its audacity.
Barton believes that organisms are capable of evolution on the individual scale, and if this sounds crazy, there was a 19th-century biologist called Jean Baptiste Lamarck who believed the same thing and whose theories were popular for a while until supplanted by Charles Darwin’s more believable ones. The Gill Man ends up confirming this idea when not only do auxiliary lungs begin to do the job that his burnt-off gills once did, but a second skin reveals itself after the other one has been consumed by the fire. The first close-up of his face is quite eerie and the design has a certain effectiveness, but this creature has a totally different build to his previous incarnation, he’s far bulkier and has very short arms. Worse than that, very little is done with him. He spends most of the time either strapped to a bed or trapped in a cage until, with twenty minutes of the film to go, he escapes, kills a lion [I think], trashes a room, saves Marcia from probable rape and then seemingly goes to kill himself. He clearly falls for the heroine [well, she’s not really a heroine] but doesn’t even attempt to carry her off. Just think of the potential!
Creature focuses more on its dislikeable human characters and in particular a strange love ‘square’ rather than a triangle [think about it, there’s three guys after Marcia]. Perhaps it does this to make its monster more sympathetic, but it doesn’t work. This is because the creature isn’t given enough scenes within which to be sympathetic besides gaze forlornly at the water into which he wants to go but cannot without drowning, though you can now see the eyes of the guy playing him, Don Megowan, and they have a distinct sadness which works for the character. Some of the many chats between the humans reveal some attempt at strong characterisation, particularly Barton, whose not-entirely-unwarranted jealousy of his wife gives Jeff Morrow the chance to shine in a couple of scenes, but the actor botches it because he is seemingly capable of only two pained expressions. He’s better than Leigh Snowdon, who is embarrassingly bad in a complex role that encompasses slut and saint and which a decent actress could really have made something of. Still, it’s intriguing that one is not sure if she is supposed to be sympathetic or not, and only Thomas Morgan, played with typically easy-going charm by Rex Reason, is the sole major human character that we like.
John Sherwood doesn’t seem bothered about creating any fear or excitement but cinematographer Maury Gertzman does give us some terrific shots, especially in the first half where he paints some really compelling nocturnal pictures with his camera of the undergrowth, beautifully contrasting light with dark. The music score, again credited solely to Joseph Gershensen as ‘musical supervisor’ but a joint effort between Irving Gertz, Heinz Roemheld and Henry Mancini, is quite good. It seems like the Roemheld stuff was taken from older films and Gertz, who incorporated the Gill Man theme, and Mancini wrote new music, but it works reasonably well. There’s a very pleasant, lilting theme for Marcia which is unmistakeably Mancini in the way it looks forward to the famous themes he would go on to write. Overall though this is a poor effort which at times just seems like they didn’t really care. And yet, I was rather moved by the final shot of the creature, walking into a sea which he knows he will drown in. It’s a curious but effectively low-key end to the fairly short career of a monster which is still one of Universal’s most iconic.
I had no idea that there were sequels to Creature from the Black Lagoon. Are they available on DVD?