Friday, October 29, 2021

Monsterpiece Theater: The Creature from the Black Lagoon

by Rustbelt

Yes! Oh, yes! We’re back! They said I was crazy! They said I was mad! Well, regardless of how right they absolutely were, it’s finally happened! We’ve reached the conclusion of our Universal Monster Mash!

Now, before we (literally) dive into the most original chapter of Universal’s class monsters, I want to share two things with you regarding the subject of today’s article. First, when I originally proposed this series to Andrew back in 2018, I suggested not including the Gillman (the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s common nickname), as his sci-fi nature didn’t seem to fit with the Gothic/supernatural feel of his Universal brethren. I can only conclude that Andrew must have thought I was nuts. He replied, declaring that this was- and I quote- “THE classic monster film,” adding that, “the film was so smart and well done compared to so many others where the monster was just a rubber suit with no motivation.” I believe this is where members of the legal profession then say: “lawyered.”

Now picture, if you will, nine-year-old Rustbelt, who, upon having reached the school’s second floor and the ‘big kids’ library, has come across a set of ‘monster books’ on a shelf in the back. Gleefully, he grabs one about Godzilla, and, just for curiosity, one about the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Of course, he reads and looks at them voraciously in the library, during lunch, and on the bus ride home. Now, imagine that, after being told to finish his homework (ugh) and then go to bed early since it’s a school night (also ugh), in a trick of fate, the heavens open outside and turn a calm evening into a genuine dark and stormy night. Imagine. There’s nine-year-old Rustbelt lying on the upper of the room’s two bunk beds (his brother sleeping soundly below), the room is dark, some light from the hallway seeps in under the door and creates otherworldly shadows on the walls, and thunder and lightning put on an unwanted show outside. Rustbelt pulls the covers up, nervously looks behind around, and jumps at every thunderbolt, rumble, and shadow because all he can think about is the head of the Gillman popping up at the top of the ladder to the bed and his clawed hand coming down from above!

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal, 1954) proud. However, the Gillman blocks the river with logs, kills Williams, and then abducts Kay that night. The rest of the group follows the Gillman into his lair in a Mist-Enshrouded Underwater Cave. Reed rescues Kay and the others open fire on the Gillman, who walks laboriously to the water, slides in, and sinks to the bottom.

Thoughts and Background: Oh, my. Had to hold back on some details to prevent that part from going on too long. But this is such an important film in the history of silver screen monsters that I felt it warranted a little more attention.

‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’s’ origin started as far back as 1941 when producer William Alland attended a party held by Orson Welles while the latter was filming ‘Citizen Kane.’ (Alland played a faceless reporter in that film.) At some point, Alland met Gabriel Figueroa, a Mexican-born cinematographer who told him about a south-of-the-border legend concerning a race of half-men, half-fish creatures. Alland then wrote a story called ‘the Sea Creature’ that was eventually picked up by filmmakers at Universal. The rest, as they say, is history.

It can be hard for this film to be seen as the groundbreaking movie it was back in 1954. This is mainly due to its plot template being copied so many times over the years. We’ve come to expect naive scientists bent on discovery putting themselves in an obviously dangerous situation- despite eerie omens and warnings from locals- that is going to end in disaster. But unlike all that B-movie fodder, CFTBL, even after all these years, doesn’t feel like schlock at all.

Everything that happens in this film feels organic, logical, and natural. The scientists, of course have no reason to believe that a living version of the fossil they found would be encountered. There are plenty of things in the jungle that could’ve killed the Expendable Assistants. And you can hardly fault them for trying to find the Gillman once they know he’s there. The very heart of science is the search for knowledge, after all. But their eagerness also reveals that they’re flawed human beings. They throw caution to the wind in their zealous efforts to catch the Gillman, only realizing the danger he can present when it’s a little to late. And speaking of which… Ben Chapman/Ricou Browning as the Gillman: Easily one of the most recognizable monsters of all time. The design itself was created by former Disney animator Millicent Patrick. However, in a classic act of backstabbing Hollywood politics, she was fired from Universal after the release of the film when Bud Westmore, the head of the studio’s makeup department, became jealous of Patrick’s success with the Gillman design. It literally took decades for Patrick to receive widespread credit for her work on the costume.

The Gillman was portrayed on land by professional dancer Ben Chapman and by professional swimmer Ricou Browning in underwater scenes. Normally, I would discuss how the actors played the role, but there was little Chapman or Browning could do. Aside from the gills, the costume’s face didn’t move. Instead, the Gillman’s strength comes form the story.

Alland had based his original idea on ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and that part survived into the final script. The filmmakers portrayed the Gillman as lonely and curious. He observes the humans with as much interest as they observe him. When he sees Kay swimming, the creature becomes enraptured and mistakes her for a creature like himself (since she swims without diving equipment). At the start, at least, the Gillman’s motives are completely benign. It’s only when he’s threatened that the Gillman becomes violent. He attacks the Expendable Assistants only after they attack him when he came to see what was going on. He only went after the crew after being attacked with a spear. All of his actions, from defending himself to his desperate desire to have Kay for a mate, are both understandable and relatable. This makes the Gillman more than just a rubber suit; he’s an actual character with motives, personality, and soul.

Octaman (Heritage Enterprises, 1971)

Have you ever thought that if an idea for a story was good enough that even bad filmmakers couldn’t possibly ruin it? If you did, then you’re WRONG! This little number from the 70’s (which also appears briefly during the first ‘Grampa Fred’ scene in ‘Gremlins 2’, shows just how badly a good concept can be mangled. It’s not worth a full review. Suffice to say, except for forced 70’s ecology messaging, it’s a direct remake of CFTBL. Hell, it was written by Harry Essex- the co-scriptwriter of CFTBL! Consider:

-CFTBL: Two Expendable Assistants are killed when left behind / Octaman: One Expendable Assistant is killed while examining the title creature’s offspring.
-CFTBL: The Gillman is captured after being stunned and injures a crewmember while escaping / O: Octaman is captured by passing out in a ring of fire(?) and kills while escaping.
-CFTBL: The Gillman blocks the river with debris / O: Octaman blocks a road with debris.
-CFTBL: The Gillman is shot and sinks after trying to abduct Kay / O: The Octaman is shot and sinks after trying to abduct the female lead.

Okay, that was more than enough. Moving on…

Revenge of the Creature (Universal, 1955) Trailer

“Between the times when the water swallowed Rondo, and the rise of the sons of Rami, there was an age undreamed of. (Drive-Ins, mostly.) And unto this, Agar, destined to wear the moniker of Ex- Mr. Shirley Temple upon a caveman’s brow. It is I, this blogger, who- at the moment- can alone can regurgitate his saga. Let me tell you of the days of truly awful sequels!”

Plot: A year after the previous expedition, another group of scientists arrives at the Black Lagoon, brought again by Captain Lucas who tells them they should also turn back. (So, why exactly did he return? Food for thought.) These guys waste no time using dynamite to blow up the lagoon from beneath and stun the Gillman into submission. It works, BTW, and the Gillman is quickly taken to an aquarium theme park in Florida for study.

What follows is about 40-45 minutes of padding as super-smug Professor Clete Ferguson (serial B-movie offender John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) perform chemical-bubbling experiments in a lab and subject the Gillman to obedience school training.

This fails, of course, when the Gillman breaks out, terrorizes the park, and heads for the beach. But instead of swimming back to Brazil and ending the movie, he hangs around to stalk and ensnare Helen…despite her being well inland somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard and there being plenty of other blondes to choose from and… oh, forget it! Gillman captures Helen and moves her up and down the beaches. Eventually, a Pitchforks-and-Tor…er, uh…Rifles and Flashlights Mob corners him, rescues Helen, and shoots the Gillman, who stumbles into the water and sinks.

Thought and Background: What is there to say? This is one of the worst sequels I’ve ever seen. First, this film makes the characters form the first film look like fools by having the next team capture the Gillman with little to no effort. Then, we’re subjected to merciless padding. Just long and drawn-out scenes of the Gillman being moved from boat to truck to receiving tank and then newsman-delivered exposition while the Gillman is slowly revived in the tank. Then comes all the underwater tests where the scientists teach it to avoid electric prongs and to only accept gym balls with food. The final twenty minutes- where things actually start to happen- feel like someone hit the fast forward button. It only reveals how little plot this film had from the start.

And, of course, there’s John Agar, the Bruce Campbell of the 1950’s. Only without the charm. And comic timing. And charisma. And roguish likability. And boomstick. As people who have seen too many bad films know, Agar has only two modes: mugging and dull surprise. And he uses both to no effect here. Plus, his character develops an overnight relationship with Lori Nelson’s character, (despite a complete lack of chemistry), which is quite uncomfortable. Agar is 34 years old and looks about ten years older. Nelson is 21 and looks like a little girl who broke into her mom’s makeup drawer. Personally, I think the censors felt the same way. During expository radio broadcast near the end- which was almost certainly filmed in post-production- Nelson is referred to as Agar’s fiancée, despite the two never taking their relationship to any believable level. Tim Hennesy/Ricou Browning as the Gillman: I can’t really evaluate the stuntmens’ performance here for the same reason as above: the costume only allowed to move from point A to point B. And due to both the boring nature of the script and the shameless recycling of the ‘Kay storyline’ from the original, there’s nothing that could be done with the character. Seriously, the Gillman feels like a supporting character in his own revenge film. And just to show how lazy the production was, try this: In CFTBL, Ricou Browning had to hold his breath for up to four minutes so that no bubbles would show and break the illusion of the Gillman breathing water. In this film, nobody cared and you can Browning’s breath streaming out of the top of the Gillman’s head.

This film is a waste. No legacy. Nothing. Well, except for some guy starring in his first on-screen role

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Revenge of the Ceature (Sci-Fi Channel, Episode 801, 1997)

Okay, I’m gonna get something good out of this! In 1997, movie-mocking show ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ moved from its old home at Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel (before it was the SyFy Channel). Mike Nelson and his robots, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, again found themselves trapped aboard the Satellite Of Love and being forced to watch bad movies. And what was their first film of Season 8, you ask? Why, it was ‘Revenge of the Creature,’ of course! This episode holds a special place in my heart because it was the first episode of MST3K I ever saw. My introduction to the series, in other words. (And also why I prefer Mike over Joel.) For our purposes, there’s no need to review the episode. Instead, I’m just gonna list some of my favorite riffs from it. And here we go!

The Creature Walks Among Us (Universal, 1956)Trailer

Plot: An unspecified time after the end of the previous film, another expedition is put together to find and capture the Gillman. Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) believes the purpose is simply to study the creature. However, resident Mad Scientist Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) reveals an ulterior motive: he walks to experiment on the Gillman to improve upon its strength and other natural abilities; ultimately, he claims, this will lead to research to make men capable of entering space! (Don’t ask how; it’s never really explained.)

After finding and tracking the creature, the expedition corners the creature in a (not Black) lagoon. After the group lights their skiff’s torches with gasoline(!), the Gillman attacks, accidentally pours gas on himself, and set ablaze when attacked with a torch. He passes out on a log, covered in third-degree burns. In an operating room on the boat, Morgan, Barton, and ship’s physician Dr. Borg (Maurice Manson) discover that the Gillman has hidden lungs and they operate to make them dominant. (The fire burned off the creature’s gills.) Barton declares they will now “turn a sea creature into a land creature.” The extent of this transformation is revealed when, later during a party, the Gillman tries to escape by jumping into the water and nearly drowns before being rescued.

The expedition arrives in California and the Gillman is placed in an enclosure. At this point, Grant (Gregg Palmer), who has been hitting on Barton’s wife, Marcia (Leigh Snowden), amidst the couple’s disintegrating marriage, decides to make a move on Marcia while she swims at night. Grant is interrupted when a mountain lion climbs a tree over the Gillman’s enclosure, attacks sheep inside (put there as the Gillman’s food), and is killed by the Gillman. Everyone runs out to see what happened. Barton, who has had enough after catching Grant going after Marcia, forces Grant out of the building and then kills him in a jealous rage. Realizing what he’s done, Barton tries to put the body in the Gillman’s enclosure and blame the creature for the murder. However, the Gillman breaks out, kills Barton, and escapes.

Later, the group gets together and waxes philosophical at Barton’s funeral. Shortly afterward, the Gillman reaches his beloved sea. The camera fades to black as walks toward it, presumably to his death.

Thoughts and Background: After the garbage fire that was ‘Revenge of the Creature,’ I have to admit that this film was a much better follow-up. It seems to be more of philosophical, Golden Age of SciFi style film, as opposed to an action or horror film. Rather than trying to make a mindless rubber-suit-monster movie, this film tries to pose questions concerning mental, emotional, and moral evolution as opposed to just physical evolution. (Reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s old saying, “science faction is about advances in science and how we react to them.) This is borne out by the discussions between Morgan and Barton.

(The Golden Age connection is made even stronger by the reunion of Reason and Morrow, who both starred in the classic “This Island Earth’ the previous year.)

Morgan, the more cautious one, is against Barton’s plans. As noted, Barton starts wanting to adapt human bodies for space travel, but soon thinks that through scientific manipulation of biology including controlling the Gillman’s metabolism and brain functions, he can literally turn the creature into a human being.

A subplot I only barely touched on is the marital issues between Barton and Marcia. Though it seems like a soap-opera-ish cliché, I see it as a good extension of Barton’s professional behavior. He seeks to control life at all costs. As a person, he’s controlling over his wife and often paranoid when she talks to other men, resorting to attacking her when drunk. His em-shambled personal life is thus a reflection of his twisted morals as scientist. It allows him to be more than a typical mad scientist. As Morgan observes, Barton is ‘disturbed.’ Makes me wonder if a degree of madness is thus necessary to advance scientific knowledge in such a way. And if madness is required, how can the outcome beneficial?

The movie’s answer is that it isn’t. Barton may have changed the creature’s physical features, but he failed to alter the Gillman’s mind. It still behaves in the fight-or-flight style it did back in the original film. In the end, he changed little and brought destruction on himself for his failure. It’s actually quite poetic, IMHO. It’s one answer to what would happen in such a situation. But is it the only one? We just don’t know.

Don Megowan/Ricou Browning as the Gillman: The final act in the Gillman’s tale is a genuine tragedy. As the suit doesn’t allow the actors to do very much, the strength of the Gillman’s story once again rests on the script. After losing his gills and other fishy features in the fire, the creature’s head is moved slowly on the operating and we see actor Don Megowan’s real eyes. It’s like the Gillman is saying “why?”

The rest of the film shows the Gillman walking slowly, as if subdued or morose. And he often gazes longingly at the sea. While his body has changed, his soul hasn’t. He’s still same animal he always was, with his instructive desire to return to the water. The final scene, with him walking laboriously over some rocks and his mouth hanging open as if he was about to cry, (a nice touch on the mask!), his body ruined by the fantasies of a lunatic, and about to go kill himself even though he doesn’t realize it, is actually quite heartbreaking when you think about it.

Well, after four years and six categories (Silent Era, Dracula/Frankenstein Sequels, Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and the Gillman), we’ve made it to the end of our Universal Monster Mash.

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