Sunday, April 21, 2019

Gill Man Sequence: Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal-International, 1954); Revenge of the Creature (Universal-International, 1955); The Creature Walks Among Us (Universal-International, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s San Diego Vintage Sci-Fi screening ( was a bit of a marathon: all three of Universal-International’s “Gill Man” movies in sequence: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. I’ve written extensively about these movies on my movie blog,, based on our screenings of all three movies from the Universal Legacy boxed set for our Hallowe’en features in 2011. I didn’t think I’d have that much more to add about them, but this time around Creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t seem as strong as I remembered it (there were some awfully ponderous longueurs in between the excellent action scenes) and the other two movies actually seemed stronger. There was surprisingly little overlap between them either in cast or behind the camera. Nestor Païva as the captain of the Amazon fishing boat in which the scientists explore the titular Black Lagoon in the first film was the only actor, at least one playing a human, who carried over between the first two films. Champion swimmer Ricou Browning played the aquatic version of the Creature in all three but his land incarnation was a different stunt actor each time: Ben Chapman in Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tom Hennessy in Revenge of the Creature and Don Megowan in The Creature Walks Among Us (and you can see the progression because each new Creature was stouter than the previous one had been — I guess they had to keep letting out the Gill Man costume each time). Jack Arnold directed the first two films but was replaced by John Sherwood for The Creature Walks Among Us, and the first two were shot in 3-D (Revenge of the Creature is so far the only sequel to a 3-D film that was also shot in 3-D, and is likely to remain so until James Cameron gets off his throne and makes Avatar 2 already) but the third one wasn’t. Charles and I have both seen Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D and the film gains a lot from the dimensional effects — aspects of Arnold’s direction that had always puzzled me before just seemed more right in 3-D — and I only wish the Vintage Sci-Fi proprietor’s video projector could accommodate 3-D so we could have seen both the first film and Revenge that way.

What comes off most strongly seeing the films in sequence — “binge-watching,” as they call it today — is that in each new movie, with a different set of writers each time, the filmmakers went farther in trying to make the Gill Man a figure of real pathos. In Creature from the Black Lagoon he’s pretty much just an unmotivated machine of destruction — though they gave him a crush on leading lady Julia Adams (in all three films he falls for a woman wearing a white swimsuit — if he were human that would be called a fetish) à la Kong’s thing for Fay Wray in the original 1933 King Kong. In Revenge he gets a lot more screen time and becomes a figure of almost Frankensteinian pathos. Revenge is usually considered the weakest of the three films — partly because in terms of power and authority, the human leads, John Agar and Lori Nelson, are far below Richard Carlson and Julia Adams in the first film (you could believe Julia Adams as a dedicated, committed scientist interested in partnering Carlson’s character both professionally and personally, while Nelson seems much less interested in her supposed career than in getting John Agar to marry her —she’s your typical movie dumb-blonde of the 1950’s and Agar doesn’t help; he was a close friend of John Wayne and tried mimicking Wayne’s physical and vocal mannerisms even in roles, like this one, for which they were totally wrong) — but this time around I found it considerably better than I remembered it in making the Gill Man someone you would feel sorry for, especially when he’s being poked and shocked with a cattle prod in the tank at Ocean World (“played” by Marineland, Florida, the world’s first aquatic theme park and the prototype of Sea World) to get him to recognize the command “Stop!” I’ve also been struck that in a way Revenge of the Creature is a prototype for Jurassic Park: a living prehistoric animal is put on exhibit by an unscrupulous entrepreneur, escapes and causes havoc. (I particularly like the scene in which the real Gill Man knocks over the wooden cut-out of him at the entrance to Ocean World which advertises his exhibit.)

The Creature Walks Among Us is an even stronger — though stranger — movie, which mashes up not only the first two Gill Man movies and Frankenstein but also Written on the Wind, a property Universal-International was filming at the same time with Douglas Sirk directing and showing off his ability to bring depth and power to a pretty typical soap-opera script. The Creature Walks Among Us reunited the two male leads from Universal-International’s big color science-fiction film from the previous year, This Island Earth, Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason. They gave Morrow the equivalent to the Robert Stack role in Written on the Wind — the wealthy and insanely jealous husband who gets more and more convinced that his wife is a no-account tramp — while Reason got the Rock Hudson part of the hunky guy on her husband’s staff whom she’s clearly falling for. As the wife, who in Written on the Wind was played by Lauren Bacall (who said in her autobiography she didn’t understand why that film got such a cult reputation later — she said she thought it was a nothing script she took only because making a movie seemed healthier for her psyche than just sitting around the house waiting for her then-husband, Humphrey Bogart, to die), they got an actress named Leigh Snowden whose career went nowhere but who seemed quite capable and could have become a star with the right buildup.

The plot of The Creature Walks Among Us, written by Arthur A. Ross, is a doozy: Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) is determined to capture the Gill Man where it was last seen — the Florida Everglades — and find out if it has lungs and can be converted into an air-breathing creature, which he thinks would help solve the problem of how humans could survive in outer space. His assistant Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) thinks he’s nuts and doesn’t want to be part of such a diabolical experiment, but Barton is convinced that he can create an entirely new form of life out of the Gill Man. (In an age in which genetic engineering has become almost routine this plot “plays” quite differently than it no doubt did in 1956.) Morgan doesn’t want to do the experiment, but in the end they have to because in order to capture the Gill Man, they threw a flaming bomb of gasoline at him and it irreparably burned his gills. They not only make him over into an air-breather but put clothes (made from sail canvas) on his as well, making him oddly resemble Tor Johnson from Ed Wood’s movies — though Charles “read” him as an artificially created Black person, an artifact of the “scientific racism” of the early 20th century that held that Blacks weren’t fully human but just a lower step on the evolutionary ladder between apes and white people. (Charles says he’s encountered this attitude mostly in the novels of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, who apparently got his view of Black people at least largely from the scientific racists.) The Gill Man ends up attacking and killing a lion that’s threatening some sheep on Barton’s private estate in Sausalito (near where I did a lot of my growing up, which alone makes this a special movie for me!) — Barton has, among other things, his own private zoo with all sorts of exotic animals on the ground — and at the end the Gill Man walks towards a beach and returns to the water for an ambiguous ending which I’ve always wondered about — did Arthur A. Ross mean us to believe that the Gill Man didn’t realize he could no longer breathe water (or did Arthur A. Ross himself forget that according to the previous scenes of his script, the Gill Man could no longer breathe water), or did he mean it — the reading I’d prefer given my affection for doomed romanticism — as the Gill Man deliberately committing suicide because he’s no longer at home either on water or land?