Every horror fan has their favorite type of monster. Some people love shambling zombies, others prefer squid-faced aliens from beyond the stars, and I’m sure there are a few people out there who would swear that The Mangler is the greatest beast to grace the silver screen. But for me, one archetype has always reigned supreme: the scaly fish-man.
I can’t explain why, but ever since I was a kid, sea life has always interested me, so it should come as no surprise that as far as famous monsters go, the Gill-man’s always been my favorite. Unfortunately, being a fan of the Gill-man can lead to some issues. Unlike Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the Gill-man was an original creation of Universal, and as such, was not in the public domain. So, while there are many great films bearing those iconic names, the Creature from the Black Lagoon only has three, and The Creature Walks Among Us is barely a Creature from the Black Lagoon film. This means fans such as myself only have two options to get our gilly fix: rewatch Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature yet again, or take a dip in the weird, wild world of Gillsploitation. This is your guide to the latter.
Before we begin our trip into the murky abyss of Creature knockoffs, it’s important to define just what “Gillsploitation” even is. Much like other exploitation sub-genres such as the post-Easy Rider biker films or cheapie Italian cannibal flicks, Gillsploitation films do their best to capture the mood and success of Jack Arnold’s 1954 classic with amphibious humanoids wreaking havoc on humans who dare sully their natural habitat with their modern technology and disregard for the wellbeing of Mother Nature.
It wasn’t long after the Creature trilogy wrapped up that Gillsploitation started rolling in, with one of the first notable entries in the sub-genre being The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959). Instead of following scientists investigating the rainforest, The Monster of Piedras Blancas is set in a quiet Californian coastal town à la John Carpenter’s The Fog (it even has a finale set on the roof of a lighthouse), with a mysterious creature terrorizing the local populace. Like many sci-fi films of the era, not a lot happens for a good chunk of The Monster of Piedras Blancas, with most of the time spent on drama and people investigating the titular monster than actually doing anything. However, when the monster does finally get some screen time, the film attempts to compensate for the lack of intrigue and flat directing with brutal violence, including the monster even decapitating one poor sap followed by a frankly amazing shot of a head lying on the sandy beach. This sort of low-quality, high-violence approach defined the sub-genre’s early days, until one film attempted to change everything.
The film in question just so happens to be the most infamous of these Creature wannabes, The Horror of Party Beach (1964), a low-budget schlock-fest best known for being riffed in season 8 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and being mentioned as a guilty pleasure in Stephen King’s non-fiction book Danse Macabre. Still, despite its astounding lack of quality, The Horror of Party Beach’s discount Gill-man (or Gill-men, in this case), has a concept much more interesting than most. Instead of just another fishy humanoid, the titular horrors of Party Beach are bloodthirsty, re-animated skeletons covered in irradiated seaweed. Unfortunately, much like the film itself, the monsters are a lot more interesting on paper, with the actual creature designs looking like bloated versions of the Gill-man with teeth that have an inexplicable similarity to hot dogs. Naturally, the next year another beach party Gillsploitation would be released, The Beach Girls and the Monster, which features a theme song written by Frank Sinatra Jr. and not much else.
The next “big” Gillsploitation film of note wouldn’t come until 1971 with the release of Octaman, a movie about a pollution-born humanoid octopus on a quest to retrieve her babies after scientists take them to a lab. This change of species from “fish-person” to “octopus-person” may seem like a minor detail, but it allows for the movie to descend into outright lunacy, with the creature using its multiple tentacle arms to slap, choke, and even brutally stab any human dumb enough to get in her way. It also happens to be completely bonkers, with droning music, long stretches of nonsensical dialogue, over-the-top violence, and a near-Italian level of bloodshed rarely seen in pre-’80s American creature features.
While Octaman is certainly not a very good movie by any stretch of the imagination (it’s become a standby for cheesy B-movies, shown by horror hosts in 1985’s Fright Night and Gremlins 2: The New Batch), the Octaman suit is shockingly impressive for such a cheap movie—and for good reason. The Octaman suit just so happened to be the big-screen debut of special effects guru Rick Baker, who would go on to win seven academy awards for makeup, including his work John Landis’ monster masterpiece, An American Werewolf in London, and the excellent makeup that transformed Martin Landau into an old Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.
Of course, the United States wasn’t the only country to get in on Gillsploitation. In the Philippines, Demon of Paradise (1987) featured a carnivorous creature stalking the beaches of Hawaii. Spain had a western/Gillsploitation hybrid with Swamp of the Lost Monster (1957), and Italian genre maestro Sergio Martino directed the predictably violent Island of the Fishmen (1979). Unlike many Gillsploitation films, Island of the Fishmen is set in the past (the 1800s, to be exact), where a group of sailors get shipwrecked on a tropical island. Naturally, the island is inhabited by fish-people, who act as slaves to an evil professor trying to uncover Atlantis and pillage its riches. As to be expected from a Martino film, Island of the Fishmen is not only extraordinarily well-shot and lit, but it’s also quite violent, with its brutal fishmen ripping people apart like they’re human bundles of tissue paper.
Curiously enough, Island of the Fishmen had a complete overhaul when released stateside, first being billed as Something Waits in the Dark, then drastically reshot and re-edited to become Screamers (1981). While it maintains the same basic plot (save a new, bloodier opening), Screamers inserts some additional segments in which the film’s creatures inexplicably turn from lizard-like beasts to what may as well just be the Gill-man we all know and love, albeit with a decidedly fleshy consistency. As odd as it may be, this is actually the closest a Gillsploitation film has come to having a monster that actually looks just like Milicent Patrick’s brilliant design seen in Creature from the Black Lagoon, complete with plenty of visible gills and webbed claws.
Another major change to Island of the Fishmen comes in the form of how blatantly dishonest its marketing was, with the tagline reading, “BE WARNED: YOU WILL ACTUALLY SEE A MAN TURNED INSIDE-OUT.” It should go without saying that this scene wasn’t actually in any of the prints sent to theaters, just the trailers, and had to be added in at a later date. Unfortunately, since this scene was never part of the original negative, it’s been lost, but I can only assume there’s plenty of blood involved.
Still, it’s hard to deny that Screamers is one of the best Gillsploitation films out there, with Martino’s mastery over lighting and the colors he picked up from his giallo days translating wonderfully to this hyperviolent creature feature. The fact that this cut is almost half an hour shorter than the somewhat bloated original and a lot bloodier to boot certainly doesn’t hurt, either, elevating an otherwise passable-at-best horror film into some good campy fun—and arguably the best Gillsploitation film out there.
Speaking of camp, even horror superstar Vincent Price got in on the action with 1965’s War-Gods of the Deep (aka City Under the Sea), which features Price as a sea-dwelling immortal who has, much like the human villain of Island of the Fishmen, enslaved a whole species of fish-men. In true cheap ’60s horror fashion, War-Gods of the Deep even marketed itself as one of the fantastic Vincent Price-led Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, while really there’s just a scene at the end where Price reads Poe’s classic poem “The City in the Sea.”
Of course, this is only a taste of the weird and wonderful Gillsploitation films that were released during the sub-genre’s heyday. Zaat (1971) followed a former Nazi scientist transforming himself into a human/catfish hybrid, ‘It’s Alive!’ (1969) features a farmer who traps people in a cave with his pet carnivorous fish-person, and Terror Beneath the Sea (1966) focuses on a group of sea-dwelling fish-people who capture a pair of journalists. While a good chunk of these films are incredibly cheap and of low quality (‘It’s Alive!’ was described by one star as “a monster movie so cheap that the monster wore a scuba suit and had ping pong balls for eyes”), there’s an undeniable gleeful energy to even the most cynical of the bunch, as they revel in the carnage caused by their gilled creatures.
Unfortunately, like many exploitation movements, the sub-genre found itself dying in the late 20th century. With the rise of slasher films, audiences had less and less of a craving for grotesque creatures, and Gillsploitation had its swan song with Humanoids from the Deep (1980). Like many monster movies in the ’80s, Humanoids from the Deep is quite a bloody film when compared to the like-minded movies that came before it, with unlucky men and women getting maimed and the gory, mangled corpse of a dog washing ashore in a bundle of seaweed.
Aside from cranking up the violence found in the Creature from the Black Lagoon films, Humanoids from the Deep exaggerates the Gill-man’s more human side to a questionable level. As Marilyn Monroe said in The Seven Year Itch, the creature “just wanted to be loved.” Here, the humanoid’s quest for love manifests in its violent rape of the film’s de facto final girl, leading to a pessimistic ending that sets up a sequel that was never meant to be.
There are two ways to read Humanoids from the Deep’s unquestionably disturbing rape scene, and as a whole, the movie itself. Is it an over-the-top parody of all the elements of Creature from the Black Lagoon, ratcheting them up to a grotesque 11? Or is it a cynical, abhorrent way to make your film feel more sensational? Unfortunately, all signs point to the latter, with assistant director James Sbardellati (Deathstalker) shooting the rape scene without the knowledge of a good chunk of the crew, reportedly causing leading lady Ann Turkel and director Barbara Peeters to request their names to be removed from the film. That request was refused, Humanoids from the Deep was released, and Gillsploitation died off.
Considering how Hollywood works, it was only a matter of time before Universal would attempt to go back to the Black Lagoon. In 1992, master of horror John Carpenter was set to direct a reboot of Creature from the Black Lagoon, complete with ancient Aztec pyramids and the Gill-man being Darwin’s missing link, but the project folded after the poor box-office performance of Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man. In the years since then, directors such as Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, and Breck Eisner have all come and gone from the project. Most recently, it was announced that Aquaman screenwriter Will Beall would be writing the script, and it’s been rumored that Scarlett Johansson has been approached to star.
It’s somewhat fitting then that during this wait for the new entry in the Creature from the Black Lagoon franchise, Gillsploitation films have found new life on home video. Thanks to specialist labels such as Olive Films, Scorpion Releasing, and Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory division, titles like War-Gods of the Deep, Screamers, and The Monster of Piedras Blancas have been released on gorgeous Blu-rays for fish-people fans to enjoy from the comfort of their own homes. While it may be a long time before we see the Gill-man in proper grace the big screen, there’s a vast ocean of all sorts of quirky derivatives out there. So, do yourself a favor and dive in.