The Universal monster cycle – and the series of films starring their only original creation, the Gill Man – ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon, perhaps unexpectedly, launched a final – and brief – final monster franchise for Universal in 1954, a decade or so after their previous classic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Invisible Man) had breathed their last. The first two Creature films, though more ostensibly science fiction themed than the earlier films and far removed from the nebulous European setting of most of the studio’s classic monster movies, felt more like the end of an era than a reboot – in the same year that this final instalment appeared, Hammer shot The Curse of Frankenstein, starting a new era for the classic characters and ensuring that there would never be a ‘House of’ monster jamboree featuring the Gill Man. It’s perhaps for this reason that, despite the best efforts of Universal in more recent years, the Creature has never quite felt like he is part of that classic monster group – he’s essentially a transitional figure, doomed to be too recent to receive the Hammer reboot treatment in the way that the Mummy did.
He’s also a character who ran out of steam fairly quickly, in part because of changing tastes but also because as a character, he’s rather limited. After all, a monster that lives underwater in the Everglades is actually pretty easy to avoid, and it was obviously increasingly hard to justify him coming into contact with people after the initial film. Like Jaws two decades later, it was increasingly difficult to rework the story without things seeming increasingly desperate. And so this final movie, made in 1956, feels very much like a last gasp effort by the studio to squeeze what they could from the character.
While the first two films – Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature – were high profile, highly popular 3D productions directed by Jack Arnold, this final film was shot ‘flat’, and directed by Arnold’s assistant director John Sherwood, making his directorial debut. To give the film its due, it doesn’t feel like a first time effort – Sherwood had clearly learned his craft and he handles this story as well as it allows him to. The problem the film has is that the plot is rather plodding and offers the titular character very little to do.
After the Creature’s escape from a Florida lab in the second film, this story follows a group of scientists who head off to the Everglades to recapture him. They are led by Dr William Barton (Jeff Morrow), who is one of the angriest men you’ll ever see on film, distrustful enough of his glamorous wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) to drag her along on the mission… aboard a boat full of horny men. This may have been a mistake, as guide Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer) is not above making the sort of passes that only 1950s men would openly make to married women, while Marcia seems somewhat taken with Dr Tom Morgan (Rex Reason).
All these marital soap opera antics take up a good third of the film, possibly leading audiences wondering just who the ‘us’ the Creature is walking among are, as they are clearly not any of the characters in the film. Short of a few token glimpses, there is little to remind us that this is a Creature film.
Eventually, the team get around to capturing the Creature, and during the process of this ‘take him alive’ mission, he’s both shot at and set on fire, suggesting that the whole point of the expedition had been forgotten in the thrill of the chase. There’s something odd about the way American genre films of the era regularly portray their lead, heroic characters as gun-crazy nutters who can’t resist firing, even on the monsters that they are trying to capture alive, and the way that anyone not trying to kill a monster is shown to be shifty, naïve and untrustworthy. There’s probably a book in this waiting to be written. But I digress…
The injured creature is taken aboard their boat, and when he appears to be on the verge of death, is subjected to some medical gobbledegook that sees him losing his gills and developing a primitive lung system. Stop and think about that for a moment. The ‘Gill Man’ is robbed of both his most recognisable features and his USP – namely the fact that he lives under the water. Smart move. Though perhaps it is a smart move, strictly in monster movie requirements, as it allows him to live on the land where he can be much more of a threat. However, with both the creature evolving (thanks to more half-baked science) into a rather blander looking monster and then spending much of the film standing around inside an electrified fence at Barton’s ranch doing precisely nothing, the opportunity provided by this change is essentially wasted. As the Creature is once again reduced to supporting character, Barton, Grant and Morgan engage in more petty squabbling over Marcia (who, quite frankly, isn’t all that), leading to a rather-too-late finale where the Creature is finally enraged (or bored) enough to break out of captivity, engage in rather weak havoc and then head off to the sea – presumably to drown, given his lack of gills. It’s a pretty pathetic end for an iconic monster.
Without question the weakest film of the series, The Creature Walks Among Us isn’t entirely terrible as long as you head in with suitably reduced expectations – the early scenes of the Creature in the swamp are as effective as any in the earlier films (admittedly, some of them may well be lifted from the earlier films), and his final rebellion is impressive, though brief. But the remodelling of the Creature is frankly unforgivable, leaving him looking more like Tor Johnson than the classic Gill Man. It’s interesting to make him a sympathetic character (Barton is the real monster here), but we don’t get to see enough of him to really relate to him as a character or to understand why he is so easily domesticated. The cast does its best with what they have, but this sort of cinema was definitely on the way out by the time the film was released, and compared to what was being made elsewhere – not just by Hammer, but on films like Les Diaboliques – it must have seemed pretty hokey and old-fashioned stuff. Nostalgia and the distance of time improve it somewhat, and unfussy fans of 1950s monster movies will probably find enough here to make it passable. But the series, like the Creature himself, feels very tired and defeated here, and had nowhere left to go but vanish into oblivion.
Help support The Reprobate: