It’s funny how much one year can change something as niche as a bizarre subgenre of ’50s monster movies. A year ago, the Crypt of Curiosities kicked off with a piece that touched on tons of different films in the “Gillsploitation” genre, a silly little corner of horror cinema that riffed on Jack Arnold’s classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon to deliver all sorts of bizarre B-movie delights. There were your run of the mill rip-offs, there were Vincent Price films, hell, there were even Japanese monster movies and Italian gore-fests. It was a short-lived, sparsely populated subgenre, and to tell you the truth, I wasn’t expecting there to be any real big Gill-Man films again after Carpenter’s Creature from the Black Lagoon reboot got canned in the ’90s.
And then a little movie called The Shape of Water came out and changed everything. Suddenly, a gill-man was at the forefront of pop culture and had managed to do what the combined might of zombies, werewolves, ghosts, and aliens could never accomplish: take home Oscar gold. Yes, Gill-Men are suddenly back in the limelight, which makes it the perfect time to revisit the topic that kicked this column off last May with another trip to the Black Lagoon, this time not with rip-offs, but with the official (and oft-maligned) sequels to Jack Arnold’s classic. Presenting: Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us.
Picking up some time after the first Creature from the Black Lagoon left off, Revenge of the Creature (1955) follows a new American expedition into “a tributary of the upper Amazon” led by the square-jawed Professor Clete Ferguson (’50s B-movie standby and Tarantula star John Agar) to find and capture the infamous Creature from the Black Lagoon. Or at least, that’s how it starts. Unlike the sweet and simple Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature is a film full of different settings, cast changes, and subplots, to the point where just about every act has a radically different pace and even tone.
For example, the quest to track down the creature is your classic light sci-fi adventure tale. Clete, along with his rival Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) and returning character Lucas (Nestor Palva) go through a sort of lite remake of the first film, tracking down the Gill-Man in the water and trying to devise of different schemes to capture him. It’s easily the most action-packed part of the film, but it’s also the funniest—Lucas is as enjoyable of a comic relief as ever, mixing up some genuinely great bits of building up the mythos of the Gill-Man with his usual sailor clichés about his boat (“Like my wife, she’s not much, but she’s all I have.”) in a way that makes him feel more fleshed out and alive than the rest of the unfortunately one-note cast.
Still, the focus in these early bits aren’t on the humans, it’s all about the Gill-Man. While the suit this time around may be of noticeably lower quality than the suit featured in the first Black Lagoon, the Gill-Man still has an incredible screen presence, helped by Ricou Browning reprising his role as the creature’s underwater stuntman.
Speaking of underwater, one of the biggest hits Revenge of the Creature takes is with its underwater photography. None of the creature’s striking black and white compositions really translate to Revenge, instead leaving us with underwater scenes that are competent, but nowhere approaching the jaw-droppers seen in the first film.
We’re not in the Amazon for long before Revenge of the Creature makes its first major change. Around 20 minutes into the film, Clete manages to subdue and capture the Gill-Man, and everything changes. Suddenly, the film swaps out the lonely Amazon rainforest for the bright beaches of Florida. There, the creature is chained up and experimented on, kept as a guinea pig in an aquarium for the adoring public to fawn over.
And that’s when Revenge of the Creature starts to fall apart. Along with the introduction of the aquarium is the first appearance of ichthyologist-in-training Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson), who is very much your generic ’50s sci-fi scientist love interest. This naturally leads to a love triangle between Helen, Clete, and Joe that completely takes over the plot, leaving the creature’s struggles in the background. Which is a shame, because not only is the love triangle as blandly executed as you’d expect, but the idea of the creature being a sympathetic monster cruelly exploited by amoral scientists and businessmen is the logical evolution from the creature as a cornered animal in the first film, and for the most part, these parts just aren’t played up. Sure, there’s a fun bit where the aquarium totally rebrands itself with Gill-Man-themed ads and memorabilia that’s the closest thing the film comes to direct satire, but for every one of those, there’s at least two scenes where the leads try (and fail) to spark up chemistry.
Still, any misgivings I have towards the second act go right out the window once the Gill-Man does what Gill-Men do best: escapes from captivity and starts ruining the days of basically anyone within a one-mile vicinity. It’s practically a highlight reel of everything you could possibly want from the premise ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon rampages through Florida,’ with the Gill-Man menacing young couples, smashing through beach houses, and flipping Pontiac Streamliners on a mad dash to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a beautiful 10-minute stretch of absolute monster mayhem, and while only taking up a somewhat-brief slice of Revenge of the Creature’s running time, it’s easily the highlight.
Unfortunately, once the Gill-Man escapes to the ocean, Revenge of the Creature can’t help but become what I feared it would be for the entire running time: a subpar rehash of the first. Thanks to some absurdly convoluted and contrived plotting, Clete and Helen end up going out to a waterfront restaurant, where wouldn’t you know it, the Gill-Man returns! One kidnapping later and suddenly we have a climax that feels so suspiciously similar to that of the first that it’s hard to not draw comparisons to the masterful staging and striking visuals of the first time the creature met his end in murky waters.
Yes, Revenge of the Creature is rough. It’s poorly paced, messily executed, and feels like three or four different ideas for a Creature from the Black Lagoon sequel Frankensteined together into one inconsistent beast. Yet, despite it all, I think I like it? Yeah, it’s very clearly falling apart at the seams, but it still has enough good monster fun and high-concept weirdness to be consistently enjoyable, and the highs are high enough to make it worth slogging through the bits that are, shall we say, not so great. Plus, it features the uncredited screen debut of a certain strapping young unknown named Clint Eastwood, who plays a clumsy scientist doing research on a cat eating mice, so at least it has historical significance going for it.
Revenge of the Creature isn’t perfect, but it is still a whole lot of crazy monster fun. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) is not. Directed by second unit standby John Sherwood (Who would later helm the cult classic The Monolith Monsters), The Creature Walks Among Us closes off the trilogy by pushing the franchise into its weirdest concept yet. This time around, the Gill-Man finds himself out of the waters and into an entirely new stage of life, with an inhumane mad scientist trying to use the poor creature as a testing ground to breed a whole new species.
It’s certainly the most ambitious concept the series had since the first film, and the script this time around was provided by Arthur A. Ross, who penned the original. For a bit, it feels like The Creature Walks Among Us is going to be a successful deviation from the established formula. This time around, we follow Jed Grant (TV Western bit player Gregg Palmer), a riverboat guide helping escort the cruel Doctor Barton (Jeff Morrow, who you may remember from later Gillsploitation film Octaman) and his kindly wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) through the Everglades to—what else—find and capture the missing Gill-Man.
Despite the setup being near-identical to that of Revenge of the Creature, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the quest is paced a lot more like another, better ’50s sci-fi film: Gordon Douglas’ Them!. Much like a good chunk of Them!, the quest for the creature is less blind luck and scientific charting than it is a sci-fi procedural, where interviews with startled survivors and cutting-edge gadgets like radar do a lot of the heavy lifting. Hell, even the creature’s brief aquatic appearances have a new edge to them, feeling way closer to the lurking horror of The Creature from the Black Lagoon than the big lug in Revenge of the Creature.
These early bits of promise are not meant to last. Because as soon as the “Creature from the Black Lagoon by way of Them!” premise shows promise, The Creature Walks Among Us pulls a Revenge of the Creature and sticks the Gill-Man in captivity. Unfortunately, this time he’s stuck in a sterile lab (and later drab fenced-off farmland) and has undergone a serious transformation. Due to the burns, the Gill-Man has shed his gills, and has transformed himself into an air-breathing, land-dwelling creature. Now, that wouldn’t be a bad thing in theory, and there is a way to make people in a lab looking into the physical transformation and study of a creature absolutely enthralling.
The Creature Walks Among Us is not that. Instead, it pulls a Revenge of the Creature and all but puts the creature’s struggles on the shelf, instead focusing on the dynamic between Jed, Barton, and Marcia. And, at the risk of sounding harsh, it really is just a lot of poorly handled melodrama. Sure, there’s an attempt to make Barton’s monstrous actions parallel the creature’s violence and misanthropy, but Barton commits the deadly sin of being a villain that’s as boring as he is obviously evil, and the fact that Jed really doesn’t have a striking personality doesn’t help make it any more appealing.
The Gill-Man isn’t much help here, either. The poor creature spends most of the film either under bandages or confined in a dinky farm pen, with little to do but stare menacingly and just sort of loiter around. He gets free sometimes, sure, and his attacks are swift and brutal, but the new costume for the burned Gill-Man is a huge misfire on every level. Seriously, it’s just impossible to take the fella even remotely seriously when he’s looking like some sort of prototype for the Super Mario Bros. movies’ weird humanoid goombas.
It’s sad, but there’s no other way to categorize The Creature Walks Among Us as a total misfire. The first fifteen minutes or so are fine, sure, but from there it’s just a downhill race of absolutely everything you don’t want out of a ’50s sci-fi flick. It was a shame that the series had to end like this, but if it did get any more sequels, who knows, maybe they wouldn’t have been much better than The Creature Walks Among Us.
At least we’ll always have Island of the Fish People.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Hideshi Hino’s Guinea Pig Movies