Creature From The Black Lagoon, Revenge Of The Creature (1954, 1955)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Arthur Ross, Harry Essex, Martin Berkeley, William Alland
Starring: Antonio Moreno, John Agar, John Bromfield, Julie Adams, Lori Nelson, Nester Paiva, Richard Carlson, Richard Denning
Universal’s final ‘classic’ monster, born out of the science fiction craze of the 50’s but one of its most popular, showcased in these two fun creature features, the second probably more notable for featuring the first screen appearance of one of the greatest stars the cinema has ever produced!
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.