The Creature From The Black Lagoon: Legacy Collection Review

The Creature From The Black Lagoon 9/10

The Creature From The Black Lagoon is one of the best monster movies ever made. In a genre which has frequently become a vehicle for cheap special effects, cheaper Cold War polemic and unintentional comedy, it stands out as a well made, intelligent and chillingly atmospheric piece of popular filmmaking which can hold its head up high in the company of great American movies of the 1950s. Particularly striking points are how influential it’s been on later horror films and, more surprisingly, how effective it remains, even after fifty years of having its best moments copied and coarsened.

The story is a familiar ‘Venture into the Unknown’, a plot which has worked ever since the days of Homer and is the basis for many great monster movies, from King Kong to Alien. In this one, a group of scientists, tempted by evidence that a new link in the evolutionary chain has been found, travel into the Amazon basin to verify their theory and discover a new creature which can best be described as a cross between a fish and a man. This Creature - christened The Gill Man - isn’t at all happy about having his natural habitat disturbed by intruders but his bad temper – vented occasionally on people who stray a little too far into his domain – is alleviated by the sight of a beautiful female scientist wearing some particularly fetching swimwear.

Essentially, Creature is, like a number of monster movies, a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story and the Gill Man himself is a peculiarly sympathetic creation. Ricou Browning’s extraordinarily graceful swimming (particularly impressive considering the limitations of the suit) and the expressive body language of his land counterpart Ben Chapman turn a potentially laughable monster into a fully realised character and he has considerably more appeal than the majority of the human cast. This in itself isn’t particularly new. King Kong, the great granddaddy of movie monsters, was undoubtedly more of a hero than either Robert Armstrong or Bruce Cabot and in recent months you only have to think of the rather splendid monsters compared to the terminally bland human cast in Alien Vs Predator to see that it’s often still the case. Indeed, I vividly recall a screening of the abysmal Jaws The Revenge in which every shark attack was greeted with cheers and tedious human characters received the chant “shark food, shark food” whenever they appeared. The Gill Man is a marvellous achievement for both Browning and the make-up supervisor Bud Westmore. His only competition for the audience’s attention is the easy-on-the-eye Julie Adams who, on this evidence, can’t act very well but looks absolutely gorgeous in a one-piece swimsuit. It’s hard to blame the Creature for wanting to mate with her. Indeed, given that his competition is the deeply boring Richard Carlson, I’m not altogether sure that she wouldn’t be better off with the one who’s half-fish. It’s surely not accidental that the only love scene in the film is a beautiful piece of synchronised swimming between Adams and the deeply enamoured Creature. Scandalously, but not unusually, Ricou Browning doesn’t rate a mention on the credits, but he’s the one you’ll remember.

Like Jack Arnold’s earlier It Came From Outer Space, this film was originally released in a 3-D version, which accounts for the occasional moments when objects are hurled at the spectator and the creature lurches towards the screen for no obvious reason. Having seen this in 3-D, I have to say that it’s just as effective in the ‘flat’ version and may even be more effective because the format is less distracting. One of the problems of 3-D was that the process took over and became the raison d’etre for the film and this tended to impact on even the better 3-D movies. This does, however, have an advantage when looking at the films in retrospect, making it easier to make a judgement on quality. You’d be mad, for example, to watch Fort Ti ‘flat’, but there’s plenty of entertainment to be had from Creature no matter how you watch it. Jack Arnold was a very good director of this kind of movie, possessing an unerring sense of pace and atmosphere. This is probably his best work, along with the equally impressive The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Unusually, there’s no right-wing political subtext to this film. Scientists, so often the bad guys in 1950s monster movies, are seen as having benevolent intentions, even if the results aren’t exactly what they expected. If anything, it’s an early example of environmentalism, making it crystal clear that the Gill Man was more than happy in his Amazonian paradise until men came along and started screwing it up. A single image sums this up as cigarette ash is casually tapped into the water and we see it float down, a potent symbol of the polluting effects of mankind. Assuming that this was intentional – and the lingering shot suggests it is – then the obvious sympathy extended to the Creature is surely no accident.

Revenge Of The Creature 6/10

The ending of Creature was deliberately kept open-ended. Executives at Universal were immediately aware of the potential of the Gill Man, particularly at the height of the Monster Movie cycle, and it was decided to clear a way for him to return. Tom Weaver, in the commentary track claims that this was the first film ever made where the sequel was in the mind of the studio while the original was still in production. I would quibble with this – there are obvious signs that The Wolf Man was intended to start a series – but Weaver knows a good deal more about this than I do so I won’t press the point.

The first fifteen minutes of Revenge are quite suspenseful with two scientists venturing out to the Black Lagoon to investigate reports of the Gill Man. There’s a good underwater confrontation with the Creature and, as before, the underwater filming is one of the highlights of the film. But the way they treat the Gill Man’s environment and capture him is so cruelly primitive that one’s reaction is likely to be one of disgust rather than excitement. Once the scene moves to Florida – where the Gill Man is being held – this continues apace. This sequel, also directed by Jack Arnold, extends yet more sympathy – possibly inadvertent - towards the Creature. In this instalment, science is again supposed to represent us – in the shape of John Agar and Lori Nelson – but so mistreats and exploits the Creature that there’s little option but to be on his side. The excuse is an attempt to ‘understand’ this missing evolutionary link but it’s really just intended to get him out on the rampage, albeit a rather subdued one, as he falls for Nelson’s vaguely benevolent researcher. Considering her hopeless lack of charisma, his fascination suggests that the Gill Man’s tastes in women have got considerably worse since the first film.

Much of the sequel was filmed in Silver Springs, Florida at a water park named Marineland. This was unusual in itself for a relatively cheap movie in the early 1950s, since location shooting was considerably more expensive and harder to control. Universal make the most of the setting although since we’re firmly on the side of the creature, all the hysterical onlookers do get a little tiresome. It doesn’t help that the leads are so dull. John Agar was as boring a leading man as Richard Carlson, and probably a worse actor, and Lori Nelson is nothing like as devastatingly sexy as her predecessor – and friend – Julie Adams. However, it’s worth looking out for Clint Eastwood making his debut with an appallingly written comedy relief role. He doesn’t do it very well but, to be fair, he’s never pretended to be much of a comic.

Like the first movie, Revenge was filmed in 3-D. However, by 1955 when the film was widely released, 3-D was on the decline largely due to projectionists being unable to perform the synchronisation of two projectors with the necessary skill. There are certainly fewer obviously intentional 3-D effects here – not too much throwing things towards the camera for example. Jack Arnold’s direction overall is certainly professional enough but it doesn’t have the tension or intelligence of the first movie. The chance to make more comments about man’s destruction of his environment seem to have passed him by. He’s also hampered by the fact that the underwater scenes in Florida are nothing like as atmospheric as the studio-based Black Lagoon of the first film.

The best thing about the film is the Gill Man. He really is an ingenious monster, with enough physical and facial mobility to produce audience empathy and a quite wonderful suit – this one being slightly modified from the original. The grace and beauty of his movement through the water belies the fact that we’re meant to find him scary and when he’s roped and tied, it’s genuinely distressing. Even when he’s on land, turning over cars and threatening dumb Americans, he’s got more genuine character than the entire human cast. At one point we see scientists feeding fish to dolphins and treating them in a humane and decent fashion. Why should the Gill Man deserve any less because he’s not cute or sufficiently friendly? If you had John Agar poking you with a stick, would you be friendly?

The Creature Walks Among Us 6.5/10

For this, the final part of the series, we take a trek into the lower end of B-Movie territory. It’s hard to find anyone with a good word to say about this film. It’s certainly a genuine oddity and this in itself makes it worth watching. However, in terms of suspense or excitement, it doesn’t really deliver the goods.

A group of scientists, led by Dr Barton (Morrow), take a trip into the Everglades to find the Gill Man and capture him for further medical experiments. However, the Gill Man pays them an unplanned visit and is accidentally set on fire. In saving his life, the deranged Dr Barton discovers that he has lung tissue and can thus be changed to become more human than fish. But the modified Creature, put on display as a freak, finds little acceptance in an intolerant world and pines to return to the lagoon from which he came.

It must have taken some effort for Universal to go much further down the casting scale from Lori Nelson and John Agar, but they manage it here with Rex Reason, Leigh Snowdon and Jeff Morrow, none of whom have anything more than the absolute minimum of dramatic resources. The result is a film in which, once again, the Creature becomes the only possible point of audience sympathy. As in Don Taylor’s 1971 Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, the whole point is the inhumanity of mankind – intolerant, judgemental and cruel – and as in that film, tragedy is inevitable. Don Megowan‘s performance as the modified Gill Man is surprisingly touching.

What’s rather baffling is how long it takes director John Sherwood to get to the point. The first twenty minutes of the movie are largely taken up with psycho-bull and bad science in what appears to be a desperate attempt to add some scientific verisimilitude to the film. However, he manages to achieve a nice shock moment when we first see the Creature – played underwater, once more, by Ricou Browning – and the underwater scenes are effectively atmospheric. But the second half of the film, moving to San Francisco, is strangely muted and the expected thrills never quite materialise. Rather like David Fincher with Alien 3 and the directors of the three sequels to The Exorcist, Sherwood seems to have wanted to do something different and, consequently, to have lost the support of the audience which wanted a re-run of the original.

The most interesting aspect of the film, however, is its subtext about the ability of mankind to both transcend his baser nature and decline into cruelty. This is partly represented by the twin nature of the surgically ‘enhanced’ Gill Man, and partly by the various intentions, good and bad, of the scientific community. Rex Reason’s character states at one point, “We all stand between the jungle and the stars at a crossroads. I think we better discover what brings out the best in humankind and what brings out the worst, because it’s the stars or the jungle.” Finally, at the point in history when McCarthy was exposed as a hysterical schoolboy and Khrushchev was attempting to open rapprochement with the West, we get a political statement and it’s a much more complex one than might have been expected. Rather than the simple equation of monster with Anti-Americanism, we get a relatively complex meditation on the possible futures of man and his ability to create either something better or, equally, to destroy himself. Quite apart from this, the final scene, of the Gill Man staring longingly at the water he can no longer inhabit, is beautiful and moving – a summation of what the trilogy seems to be saying about the way human beings destroy their environment while having the best intentions, and the havoc which this causes to the balance of nature.

The Discs

Universal’s Monster Legacy sets have come in for some criticism as being little more than a repackaging of existing discs. Thankfully, The Creature From The Black Lagoon Legacy Collection is a very impressive set which at least makes an attempt to provide something new.

The quality of the restored transfers on these three films are generally gorgeous. Each film is presented in its original fullscreen ratio and in gloriously crisp black and white. There are occasional signs of print damage and you will also find a certain amount of artifacting, particularly in the darker exterior scenes. It's also very obvious that the second film looks a good deal grainier and in worse condition than the other two. But overall these transfers are another feather in Universal’s cap and fans of the movies will be delighted by how good they look.

The mono soundtracks on the films have also been carefully restored and the effect is impressive. The music scores are strong and dialogue is eminently clear.

The first film was released by Universal a few years ago in their first wave of classic horror DVDs. The first disc of this two-disc set is a repackaging of the original Creature release. It’s a fine presentation with a well researched, intelligent documentary that contains plenty of good material, notably interviews with Ricou Browning, Julie Adams and Lori Nelson. Most of the running time is understandably spent on the first movie but the second and third films are also commented upon. We also get an enjoyable commentary track from Tom Weaver which is a fan’s dream, packed with trivia and insightful observations. The theatrical trailer is included, along with a good stills gallery.

The second and third films are accompanied by their original theatrical trailers – delicious relics from the great days of the hard-sell – and, surprisingly, by commentary tracks. Revenge Of The Creature features a very entertaining track from Weaver, SF-expert and collector Bob Burns and Lori Nelson, which covers all sorts of ground ranging from Nelson’s experiences as a contract player at Universal and director Jack Arnold’s less than gentlemanly intentions towards her to the design of the Creature suits and Ricou Browning’s smoking habits. The third film receives a similarly diverting commentary, with Weaver and Burns providing a track that is packed with nostalgic reminiscences about seeing these films back in the 1950s and some astute observations on changing audience expectations in regard to what they got from horror movies. I can’t imagine any fan of either these movies or the great days of Hollywood failing to find these commentaries a sheer delight and the third one in particular is a damn sight more fun than the movie it accompanies.

Each film is presented simply but efficiently, with static menus and a variety of subtitles for the main feature. The set is accompanied by a leaflet containing plot summaries for the three films, sadly marred by the writer’s apparent belief that John Agar and Jeff Morrow played the Gill Man.

I heartily recommend The Creature From The Black Lagoon Legacy Collection. It may only contain one film which can be regarded as anything special but the commentary tracks for the other two place them in context and make them considerably more entertaining. I also have to say that I found the book-like packaging quite beautiful – something quite remarkable for me, since I don’t much care about packaging. If you have a monster movie fan in your family, this would be a great Christmas gift – especially since the two sequels are not currently available in the UK and the first is only available in an overpriced Monster Legacy collection box.

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