As I may have said before, the Creature from the Black Lagoon is my favorite of the Universal Monsters, at least since I was a kid and we watched a broadcast – in 3D – on the TV at my Gram’s house. I’ve seen the original film quite a few times, with only Bride of Frankenstein surpassing it for number of re-watches among the Universal Monster pictures.
I haven’t seen the sequels anywhere near as often. Part of it is down to the fact that neither of them are quite at the same level of quality as the first (though Revenge WAS shot in 3D, like the original). Part of it is due to the self-contained nature of the first film. If you just want to watch one movie with a water breathing leftover from the ‘Devonian Age’ you can watch the original and never feel the need to see another. I’ve probably only watched them a couple of times each.
It had been long enough that when I recently found a collection of all three films on DVD (at Goodwill for $1) I was surprised to see that Jack Arnold – purveyor of fine 50’s sci-fi like Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man as well as the director of the first Creature – had also directed the second film. Well I decided to watch it again, as all I could remember from that film was John Agar (also in Tarantula) was the male lead and that Clint Eastwood (also… in Tarantula) had a bit part.
Well, come on. You can’t just watch the middle film in a series (unless it’s Halloween III)! I decided it was time to watch all three Creature films back to back. It works surprisingly well as a trilogy, following the same poor monster as he’s forced to deal with idiots, scientists, idiot scientists and a trio of women in white bathing suits.
I have the Creature from the Black Lagoon Legacy Collection on DVD that was released in 2004, as well as the original Creature from the Black Lagoon on Blu-ray. The Blu is the best, but the DVD looks surprisingly good as well.
Streaming options are complicated. Direct TV and TCM subs have access to the original film while Peacock is currently the only place to see The Creature Walks Among Us. Revenge of the Creature isn’t included with any service, but can be rented or purchased from multiple vendors, as can the original film.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Creature straddles the line between the older monster movies and the soon-to-be default giant bug movies of the 1950s. I inevitably lump it with the first classic horror cycle (Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Dracula etc…), and am always slightly surprised when I remember it was made by Jack Arnold in 1954.
Jack Arnold is, of course, as mentioned, the director of two of my favorite 1950’s sci-fi/horror films, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man, and he handles the fairly thin story with finesse. After finding the fossilized hand of a possible link between sea and land creatures an expedition heads into the Amazon looking for the rest of the skeleton. When the fossil proves elusive, they continue up the river to the mysterious Black Lagoon, where the fossil may have originated. Unknown to them the expedition is being followed by an actual, living descendent of the very creature they’re looking for.
The cinematography is beautiful and sharp, not something you would necessarily expect for a film created for 3D, but the cameras built specifically for the film worked well, particularly underwater. Pacing is slow, but typical for the time and the monster is well worth the wait. That incredible design was created by Disney animator Millicent Patrick (she also worked on the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Fantasia, with another great monster). It’s a shame I never knew that as a kid, because her boss – Bud Westmore – hogged all the credit. The soundtrack is relatively subdued for a monster movie, except for the monster theme – which my niece wandered around singing the first time she saw the film (dun-dun-DAAAAHHHH!).
Once the expedition arrives at the lagoon and the Creature makes its first full appearance – shadowing Kay Lawrence (the lovely Julie Adams) as she swims – the movie picks up the pace. Expedition financer Mark (Richard Denning) clashes with head scientist David (Richard Carlson), the Creature kills an extra or two before being captured and then escapes and blocks the expedition from leaving the lagoon. (No one ever thinks of fleeing on foot through the jungle.)
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is full of broad but intriguing themes. Science vs Business, Creature vs Man, man vs nature – there’s even a scene where Kay throws a cigarette into the lagoon and the camera pans down to a lurking creature who looks absolutely pissed at the littering going on in his little slice of paradise. Even with the scaly monster ripping up extras and putting likeable older scientist guy (Whit Bissel as Dr. Thompson) into traction our alliances are never in doubt. This is the gill-man’s house, after all, and all these loud, fleshy creatures are coming in and killing all the fish and generally acting like they own the place.
That the creature seems lonely and fascinated with Kay begs the question – is he the last of his species? There certainly don’t seem to be any other Creatures around. Not that this justifies him abducting her and taking her to his cavern hideaway, but you can see why a young Guillermo Del Toro wondered why the two of them couldn’t end up together.
You can’t just go around killing people and abducting others, however, and the movie ends with a bullet-riddled Creature floating gently downward into darkness. The good guys have prevailed. Then why am I singing that Creature theme as the credits roll? (dun-dun-DAAAAAHHH!!!)
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
People will just never leave well enough alone. With rumors of the Creature being alive, a new expedition heads to the Amazon, using existing footage to make you think it’s a recap. Actually, it’s the boat skipper from the first film (Nestor Paiva) wringing a few more bucks from those crazy scientists. Except this time they actually DO manage to capture the Creature! (The creature floats, unconscious, to the surface like a discarded party float.)
Brought to the Seaworld-like venue of Ocean Harbor Oceanarium (actually Marineland), the Creature is chained to the bottom of a large tank as both an attraction and an object of scientific study. The Creature is subjected to negative reinforcement training by Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and visiting ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) and while they’re pretty excited to discover the gill-man can be taught to understand the word ‘no’ (when subjected to electric shock), the monster is far less impressed and eventually escapes his prison. The scenes of the Creature stomping through a tourist venue, clobbering employees and flipping over cars on his way to the sea are some of the best in the film.
If the Creature has a weakness other than, you know, needing to breath water, it’s for women in white bathing suits, and poor Helen has caught his eye. He returns from the sea to abduct her and the chase is on before she’s drowned or worse. (No one ever utters the phrase A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH, but boy is it heavily implied.)
The action in Revenge of the Creature is decent and the gill-man is just as fantastic as always (Ricou Browning returns for the underwater sequences with Tom Hennesy replacing Ben Chapman for the land scenes). I particularly enjoyed the way the film plays up his incredible strength. One moment where the Creature throws a man through the air only for him to hit a tree and tumble sideways was originally intended for the first film, but nixed. I can understand why, as it’s a little too obviously a guy on a wire (though still startling). Scenes with the Creature in or around crowds are also great. Agar and Dobson are fine in their roles, but the human element isn’t nearly as interesting in this film. (It’s pretty hard to root for the humans when they’re shoving a cattle prod into the Creature every time he goes for a fish.)
Once again the Creature is riddled with bullets and disappears beneath the waves. At this point I expect the ending of the next film to feature the Creature dying of lead poisoning.
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
I started to feel for the creature a lot with this third and final entry in the Creature series. In general he seems to avoid people – they even mention that he’s gotten good at keeping away from them. And yet there’s always some rich jackass ready to mount an expedition to study/capture/experiment on him. I guess it’s a wonder that more people don’t end up dead in these films. If people kept coming into my living room, knocking me unconscious, chaining me up and occasionally shooting the crap out of me I’d be raising living hell.
This time a rich scientist, Dr. Barton (Jeff Morrow, This Island Earth) organizes yet another expedition to find the Gill-man. His wife, Marcia (Leigh Snowden), accompanies the crew – though Morrow seems extremely jealous and borderline abusive, especially when their guide, Jed (Greg Palmer) keeps making passes at the married woman. (She’s not interested, but that doesn’t seem to matter to either Barton or Jed.)
Head scientist Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason, also This Island Earth), Jed and Marcia go diving in a test of the scuba gear and are surprised to find the Creature lurking (isn’t he why you’re here?). Marcia dives too deep and sufferers nitrogen narcosis and the creature disappears as the men help her back to the boat.
It’s only a matter of time before they capture the creature, though, and he’s badly burned in the process. Badly injured and brought into the air, the Creature begins to undergo a transformation – starting to use vestigial gills and shedding the damaged scales to reveal human-like skin. Barton, leaning heavily into the mad scientist as well as bad husband schtick, insists that this proves that genetic transformation is possible – leading to humans being able to live underwater or even in outer space.
Dr. Morgan just wants to get the poor thing some pants.
Though the wonderful suit is sidelined for the second half of The Creature Walks Among Us I actually don’t mind the new creature design. It’s nowhere near as good as the original, but it serves the purpose of feeling like yet another step up the ladder between fish and man. The mask also has a melancholy cast to it, which comes in handy when most of the time Don Megowan is only called up on to stare longingly at the water.
Morgan is sure that the monster’s behavior can be moderated simply be being kind to it. After they save the creature from drowning (apparently switching over to the lungs renders the gills useless) he does seem to respond to kindness with… gentleness, anyway. He seemingly only becomes violent when confronted with it, as when a mountain lion enters his cage. And when Dr. Barton goes from crazy-jealous to just crazy, attacking and murdering Jed.
The scenes that follow, with the enraged creature tearing down the cage and rampaging through the nearby house are some of the best, scariest parts of the film. His tremendous strength once again on full display as the bends metal, throws furniture like toys and even topples a brick tower. There’s some suspenseful use of doorways and sets, with a nice bit where the creature proves he’s at able to lead a target.
At least this film ends with the Creature still alive, though not exactly bullet free.
The Bottom Line
I think this works as a trilogy of films, following the Creature as he is continually hunted and changed by his contact with human beings. The original Creature From the Black Lagoon is still my favorite and works the best as a whole story. Of the two sequels I actually found myself enjoying The Creature Walks Among us more, with an attempt to try something new with the Gill-man and featuring a female lead who is smart, independent and the least objectified of three actresses. They’re all great monster-movie fun, and Revenge of the Creature does have some of the best Creature on land sequences, so I guess I’m just going to recommend watching them all!
Though remakes and reboots of the Creature From the Black Lagoon have been rumored since at least 1981 (when John Landis wanted to produce a version directed by Jack Arnold from a script by Nigel Kneale), there is currently no project on the horizon. Guess I’ll have to make do with The Shape of Water for now.