Home > Reviews > Gills and the Man: Universal’s CREATURE trilogy

Gills and the Man: Universal’s CREATURE trilogy

I’ve recently finished a watch-through of the trilogy of films featuring the last of Universal Studios’ classic monsters, the Gill-Man: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (’55), and The Creature Walks Among Us (’56), courtesy of Netflix and a 2004 “Special Edition” 2-CD set that, oddly enough, is under the title of just the first film but contains both sequels as “bonus features” on disc 2. These are films that I haven’t seen in decades, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the third film, so I was able to come into them pretty fresh.

The original film, directed by Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, It Came From Outer Space), is based on a reputed South American legend of a half-fish, half-man that carried away native women, which producer William Alland heard from a guest at a party held by Orson Welles, IIRC. The movie Creature is based pretty closely on the legend. The first film portrays him as a missing link between sea life and land life, unchanged since the Devonian period some 400 million years ago — conveniently overlooking all the stages of life between fish and hominid, like amphibians, synapsids, mammals, and primates. It also claims that the whole Amazon rainforest is unchanged since the Devonian, which reflects a 1950s view of science — not only unaware of continental drift and the many climate changes the Earth has gone through in the interim, but unaware of findings that have only recently come to light (and are still not universally accepted), that the Amazon is not so much an untouched wilderness but one of the most expansive human-cultivated areas on Earth, essentially a vast orchard developed and managed by the native South Americans for many centuries before European contact, due to the unfeasibility of standard agriculture in that environment. (See Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus for more.)

Of course, one shouldn’t expect scientific accuracy from a Universal monster movie in the tradition of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. But what’s interesting about the Creature films is how non-supernatural the Gill-Man is, and how he’s approached throughout as a subject for scientific investigation, more a large, exotic animal to be captured and studied than a force of evil. True, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Invisible Man were creations of science, but it was a fanciful pseudoscience of an imaginary past, and both characters were more human than the Gill-Man.

And to me, that’s kind of the weakness of CftBL. The Gill-Man here is not a very impressive monster. He’s certainly well-designed, a great-looking creature, and very well-performed by Ricou Browning in the underwater scenes (Ben Chapman played him on land). And one has to admire the cutting-edge cinematography, with the filmmakers inventing the first portable underwater 3D camera and doing things that had never been done onscreen before. But since the Creature is more animal than monster, he doesn’t really have a lot of motivation or personality to make him interesting. In the documentary on the DVD, there were people talking about a “love story” between the Creature and female lead Julie Adams, but the Creature was too much of a blank slate for that to come across to me. I guess the idea was that he “fell in love” with her while watching her graceful swim in the beautiful but voyeuristic underwater sequence which is the highlight of the film and which both sequels copied. But it felt like the movie was just going through the motions — like the Creature’s only motivation for carrying Adams off is that that’s what ’50s movie monsters were obligated to do to beautiful women, whether it made any sense or not. (Also because the film was basically a knockoff of King Kong.)

And few monsters’ love/abduction interests have ever been as beautiful as Julie Adams. Really, I’d say that Adams is the highlight of the film, a stunning beauty who spends a lot of time in what for the era was a very daring, high-cut one-piece bathing suit. She’s a charming presence and more interesting than most of the rest of the human cast. (Although she was doubled by Ginger Stanley in the underwater footage, which was shot second-unit in Florida while the aboveground stuff was shot in Hollywood.) There is a fairly dull scientist-hero played by Richard Carlson, who was in a lot of sci-fi movies of the day, and a comparably dull heavy played by Richard Denning; Carlson is the compassionate scientist who just wants to study and understand the Creature in its natural habitat, even after it kills a bunch of people and kidnaps his girl, while Denning is the macho hunter who’d rather have him stuffed and mounted. (Genre stalwart Whit Bissell is also on hand as a scientific colleague, but is underutilized.) But Carlson comes off as more ineffectual than really heroic, and the film comes to a rather weak climax — though the ending is deliberately inconclusive, since a sequel was already planned.

I suppose you could say there’s a subtle theme of environmental abuse, with the explorers using heavyhanded tactics like drugging the lagoon in order to capture the creature; there’s even a shot where Adams tosses a cigarette butt in the water and we tilt down to see Gill-Man looking up with an attitude that reminds me of the iconic crying Indian in ’70s anti-pollution ads. So maybe the Creature’s motivation was supposed to be self-defense and retaliation against these heavy-handed invaders. But I’m not sure if that was intended or just a modern reading imposed on the film, since such harsh tactics were pretty typical of how scientists treated animals at the time.

This theme becomes clearer in the second film, Revenge of the Creature, also directed by Arnold. The film has an almost entirely new cast, aside from Browning returning as the underwater creature (Tom Hennessy takes over on land) and Nestor Paiva as the boat captain from the first film (whose main role is to recap that film’s plot for the audience). Yet despite this, it’s a pretty direct followup to the original, as a second expedition comes back to the Black Lagoon a year later and succeeds in capturing the Gill-Man (actually called that by name in this film, and I think only in this film), bringing him back to the “Oceanarium” in Florida for study and display. The Oceanarium is actually the Marineland aquarium, where much of the film was shot. Here, even more than in the first, the Creature is treated like an animal being studied by science rather than a conventional monster. Usually the monster is out there unseen, able to strike at any time, but here the Creature spends much of the film in captivity, being studied by the new leads, a scientist played rather blandly by John Agar and an ichthyology grad student played by Lori Nelson, who doesn’t hold a candle to Julie Adams. Their “study” involves chaining the Creature by the leg and shocking him with a bull prod (which somehow fails to shock them too even though they’re underwater with it) to teach him the meaning of “Stop.” So here it’s easier to understand why the Gill-Man gets enraged and fights back (echoes of Frankenstein’s Monster being tortured by Fritz in the 1931 Frankenstein), though his persistent stalking of Nelson once he’s escaped is just monster-movie formula again. Basically this was meant as the second half of the King Kong homage, but the fact that the surrogate Fay Wray is an entirely different character this time around makes it even harder to justify. You’d think, given that Nelson’s character was one of his jailers and torturers, that he’d sooner kill her than abduct her.

Overall, I find this the weakest film of the trilogy. Too much of it is just an extended infomercial for Marineland, padding that gets tiresome after a while. And the cast just isn’t as engaging this time around. Plus the ending has the same faults as the first film’s, with Agar’s hero not really accomplishing much in the climactic moment and the story just kind of fizzling out afterward.

(And yeah, here’s the obligatory mention that Clint Eastwood makes his film debut as a lab tech in the first act. Which doesn’t mean much to me personally, but yes, I am aware of it.)

Going by the DVD commentary, The Creature Walks Among Us (from first-time director John Sherwood) is apparently regarded as the weakest of the trilogy by many, and I didn’t expect to like it much, because its premise — the Creature being burned in a fire and somehow turned into a land-dwelling humanoid — seemed silly. But it turned out to be my favorite of the three. It reunites Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow, who had been in This Island Earth the previous year, as the male leads, alongside female lead Leigh Snowden, who’s not at Julie Adams levels of hotness or likeability but is comfortably in second place among this series’ leading ladies. And it has the most interesting character development of the three. Morrow is a borderline-mad scientist who wants to capture and experiment on the Creature, intending to transform it through surgery in the odd belief that this will alter its genetics too (I guess he’s a Lamarckian?), with an eye toward developing techniques to engineer humans for space colonization. (I find it intriguing that even in a movie having nothing to do with space, the characters were motivated by the idea of space travel. That says something about the ’50s.) Reason is a geneticist who believes in letting nature evolve at its own pace, humans included. (So Morrow is Dr. Moreau and Reason is the voice of reason. That’s easy to remember.) Morrow is also psychologically abusive and insanely jealous toward his wife (Snowden); she’s resolutely faithful to him, but he’s unable to see it and feels threatened both by Reason (who hits it off chastely with Snowden) and by an assistant (Gregg Palmer) who’s constantly hitting on Snowden without success. The DVD commentators call this padding, but I think it makes the characters richer, and Reason and Morrow’s debates about science and philosophy add some depth to the proceedings.

Anyway, the Creature’s original form is seen mostly through underwater footage shot but never used for the first movie — a clever bit of recycling. The DVD commentators claim there’s no footage of Browning swimming in the unmodified Gill-Man costume in this film, but they overlook one shot of the Creature hiding in the seaweed while the film’s three leads swim past. Otherwise, the only newly-made scene of the original-look creature is the brief one where he attacks the boat the explorers are in, whereupon he’s badly burned and taken captive. This burns away the outer scales and reveals a more humanoid anatomy within, and an unsuspected pair of lungs starts working (there’s some science behind this; a type of lungfish whose lungs are only seasonally in use is referenced). The land form of the Creature is played by Don Megowan.

And it’s when the Gill-Man becomes a land Creature that he begins to take on more personality. Not only is he more human in appearance, but being out of his element, he’s more helpless and dependent, and is affected when Reason shows him compassion, saving his life when he tries to dive back into the water without gills (and Browning makes his final appearance as the creature in this underwater sequence). He then becomes a spectator to Morrow and Palmer’s respective abuses of poor Snowden, and his role changes from the designated abductor of the film’s heroine to her defender, at one point saving her from attempted rape by Palmer’s character. It took three films, but the Creature has finally become sympathetic. And that further underlines how much these films treated him not as a monster, but as an animal, an entity that could be understood by science and even reconciled with through compassion. It reflects the era in which these films came out, the ’50s, when science had displaced the supernatural as the most powerful perceived force in the world, or at least in the world of cinema — when science was the source of both our greatest fears and our greatest hopes. Maybe that’s why the Gill-Man was the last of the Universal monsters. It certainly makes him one of the most unusual.

Walks Among Us is also the strongest film musically. The three fims were scored with a mix of stock music and new cues by various uncredited composers, including future Lost in Space composers Herman Stein and Hans J. Salter as well as a young, pre-fame Henry Mancini. Stein composed the Creature’s strident, rising three-note leitmotif, a shock cue which was used constantly throughout the first two films, less so in the third, while Salter did the main title cue that I think was used in all three films, or at least the first two. But it’s Mancini’s work that’s the most impressive. He does some beautiful work for the underwater scenes in the first film. I don’t think his music is used in the second, but the bulk of TCWAU’s music is original scoring by Mancini, and it’s very impressive stuff.

All in all, it’s impressive what a tight trilogy these films make. Even with all the cast changes, and even with the third film’s retcons about the Creature’s biology, there’s a remarkably cohesive narrative throughline to these films, an arc about human civilization intruding on an ancient part of nature, taking it out of its environment, mistreating it, and indelibly transforming it — until one voice of reason (or Reason) belatedly tries to treat it with respect and understanding, offering a tentative ray of hope for the future. I kind of regret that there was no followup to the third film; it might’ve been interesting to see the further development of the transformed Creature. But maybe it’s just as well that the series ended with three films, since further ones might not have fit together with their predecessors as smoothly as these three did. I think the first two films work better as chapters in this one big three-part saga than they do as standalone movies.

Still, in my ideal world, Rex Reason would’ve been the star of all three films, his character filling the Carlson and Agar roles in the previous ones (since they were all pretty much the same character) and providing continuity as the leading Gill-Man expert, and Julie Adams would’ve been the female lead in the second film as well as the first, with maybe a cameo in the third (Snowden’s role as Morrow’s wife is too important to the third film’s story for her to be replaced). Then again, the male leads do have different specialties in the three films: ichthyologist, animal psychologist, geneticist. It’s hard to say whether a single scientist could’ve played all three roles without some significant rewrites, and I’m reluctant to embrace Hollwyood’s tendency to treat all scientists as interchangeable polymaths. But Adams’s character could’ve been subbed for Nelson’s quite easily.

A note on the DVD commentaries: The first film’s commentary was done solo by film historian Tom Weaver, and was basically an ongoing monologue of historical background and film trivia. Some might find that boring, but I actually enjoyed the more scholarly approach to the analysis of the film. I wish more DVD commentaries were in that vein. In the second and third commentaries, Weaver was joined by Bob Burns, a major figure in classic genre-movie fandom and a veteran monster-suit wearer himself, while Lori Nelson joined them for the second film’s commentary. These were more in the standard conversational vein of commentaries, and I found the Revenge commentary to be the weakest of the three just as the film was, with far too much of Nelson and Burns relating anecdotes of their Hollywood experiences and far too little background and analysis of the film itself. The third commentary was somewhat better, but not as focused as the first, and I don’t think Weaver and Burns were as interested in the film as I was.

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