Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) review



Jeff Morrow (Dr. William Barton), Rex Reason (Dr. Thomas Morgan), Leigh Snowden (Marcia Barton), Gregg Palmer (Jed Grant), Maurice Manson (Dr. Borg), James Rawley (Dr. Johnson)

Directed by John Sherwood

The Short Version: The inherent machismo of the CREATURE trilogy reaches its zenith in this last of the series, the most character driven of the three; and a radical departure from the two previous movies in a few ways; one of which is the abandonment of 3D. Shockingly, the relationship between the monster and the girl is downplayed for a disturbed husband, horny hunter, and a respectable geneticist looking to better mankind angle. The title has a double meaning in that the 'Creature', or monster, is also man, and that inner primal savage walks among us as well. Meanwhile, the Gill Man becomes the Gill-less Man -- castrated by his human counterparts, longing for his watery true love, but never to enjoy it again. It's a compelling, if melancholy trilogy closer, but alas, it's unfortunate that 'Son of the Creature' never materialized.

Another group of scientists set sail aboard a yacht with a fully functioning laboratory to study the Gill Man after he's been sighted in the Florida Everglades. After a harrowing encounter, the Creature is badly burned and rendered unconscious. The scientists -- some of whom have different motives -- take him to a research facility in California where they perform an operation to save his life. The operation is a success, but now with his gills removed, a noticeable change has occurred that has made the monster more human.

The CREATURE trilogy closes out on a high note with this engaging, non-3D sequel that matches the first movie in a variety of ways. Moreover it leaves the increased action quotient of the second picture, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) behind while striving for loftier, expositional ambitions. The storyline is the main focal point, so those expecting familiar Black Lagoon theatrics have something entirely different in store for them. 

Firstly, it takes approximately 30 minutes for the first interaction between man and monster to occur. We see the Gill Man prior to that, but these shots are left over from the first film. An underwater sequence where Dr. Morgan, Marcia, and Jed search for the Creature has stock shots inserted as well. The first actual encounter -- at night in a small boat -- is among the best sequences of the picture. A noticeable amount of suspense is derived despite the familiar trappings, and that we all know what the monster looks like by this point. Aside from a few exciting set pieces, the most intriguing attribute of WALKS AMONG US is in its characters and concepts.

Returning from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) is contributing writer Arthur Ross. He gets sole credit here, and he goes hog wild with characterization -- creating the sort of character arcs you rarely, if ever got in these sorts of science fiction-horror movies, particularly of the B level. As much as the Creature evolves, so does the storytelling. The ugliness of man is put on display for onlookers, while the ferocity of the Black Lagoon's most famous resident is substantially reduced. It's a daring, if ingenious concept that will be appreciated by those willing to accept a sequel going in a totally different direction from what came before it.

While the Creature does Walk Among Us, that "Creature" isn't just a half man, half fish left over from the Devonian Era -- it's the ugliness of man that walks among us within ourselves. That bridge between man's inner primitive and his civilized nature stretches across a fairly vivid quartet of four characters with the Gill Man, or the now Gill-less Man, caught in the middle. 

This love triangle was seen in the two previous pictures, but nothing quite like what is presented here. A lot of hate has been added, too. The two leads in WALKS AMONG US are much stronger than the second movie, and Ross's script gives them lots to chew on. The Carlson and Denning arc was a tense rivalry, but both men respected the other; the Agar and Bromfield arc was of a friendlier nature, what little of it was espoused in the second film. The Reason and Morrow match-up of Sherwood's movie is the most complex of the three films. It starts off very professional, then slowly dissolves from there. The two men never come to blows, but both eventually nurture an uneasiness between them. Morgan knows Barton is slipping into madness, and Barton becomes suspicious of Morgan whenever he enters into conversation with his wife. If that weren't enough, a third male suitor is added to this potentially volatile mix in the form of jungle guide Jed Grant, an all around sleazeball, and the man who takes our intrepid scientists to where the Gill Man is located. With three men centered in some way around Marcia (Leigh Snowden), that leaves us with the Creature. 

Ironically enough, the 'Beauty and the Beast' angle that was integral to the first two films is almost non-existent in this last entry. Even more surprising is that the monster is, at least once he's humanized, turned benign -- the savage beast is soothed -- for a time, anyways. He even walks into his observational area without the aid of chains or shackles. There are a couple of spots where the monster spies Marcia, but never takes it to the next step of claiming her as a mate. He even saves her from being raped at one point, but never attempts to make off with her; even more surprising is that not once in the entire movie does the Creature even carry her off! 

After he's badly burned from top to bottom during that harrowing capture sequence, the scientists discover a second skin beyond his severely charred gills, as well as a set of lungs allowing a minor amount of air to keep him just barely alive. After performing a tracheotomy, the metamorphosis of the now Gill-less Man continues. It continues to the point where the monster is no longer a monster, but an increasingly docile shell of its former self that, scarcely resembles its fishy origins; and now looks like Lou Ferrigno in a monster suit. This transformation is another startling aspect of this film. Both the fire and the surgical procedures have turned the formerly aggressive Creature into a passive beast capable of displaying emotions -- they've essentially castrated him. The loss of his gills is equatable to the loss of his manhood. Which brings us back to his disinterest in Marcia Barton. His one true love is the water, and he can never have that love again.

Jeff Morrow is the true monster of the movie. Armed with all his scientific knowledge, and understanding of what makes man tick, his base instincts of primal savagery get the best of him allowing jealousy to consume his soul. The script masterfully alludes to his mental decline, compounding on it as the finale draws near. There's a great conversation between Morrow and Rex Reason as they watch the now docile Creature in his new, caged surroundings. Dr. Morgan (Reason) senses Dr. Barton's (Morrow) animosity towards his wife, and the possibility of harm being brought to her. He subtlely tries to reach Barton's remaining sane faculties with this exchange...

Morgan: "If [the Creature] thinks all men are his enemy, if he can't see things the way they are instead of the way he thinks they are, he lives in terrible fear."

Barton: "He's only an animal."

Morgan: "The same holds true for man. If man, or animal becomes too terrified to think, he resorts to violence. And in the animal world it's called the law of the jungle. But when it happens to human beings, its name is murder."

By this point, there's been a total role reversal between the Creature and mankind that has hunted him for so long. The monster does resort to violence, but it's out of self defense whereas Barton is prone to aggressive, even murderous tendencies because his pride has been damaged.

Of all of Jeff Morrow's (at right in insert) genre performances, this is arguably his best, most complicated character he essayed in science fiction films. He co-starred with Rex Reason the previous year in the big budget classic THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955), the innovative B/W SciFi alien invasion film KRONOS (1957), and the literal turkey from outer space that is a classic of another kind, THE GIANT CLAW (1957). He returned to the genre in 1971 with Harry Essex's mediocre monster movie, the BLACK LAGOON remake, OCTAMAN.

Leigh Snowden's character is the female center by which all the men revolve; and she's an unusually strong female persona for one of these movies, at least temporarily. She's musically inclined (she plays piano and guitar), she's fearless, been on numerous hunting safaris, and is proficient with guns. At the same time, she tries to remain a dutiful wife to her mentally unstable husband who thinks she's having an affair with every man but him. The script abandons this strong feminine mentality almost as quickly as it's introduced. Marcia is gradually reduced to "woman in distress" status. For a brief moment, though, Marcia is one of the guys.

Actor Don Megowan played the land-dwelling Creature, and Ricou Browning briefly returned for the underwater sequence wherein the monster, post operation, attempts to return to the sea, only to discover he can no longer breath underwater. Megowan does a fine job as the lumbering "Frankenstein's Creature". At approximately 79 minutes in length, he's not given enough time to emote to a large degree, but there are a few moments where Megowan's monster gets the sorrow across succinctly. His rampage at the finale is extensive and spectacular wherein he thoroughly remodels the maniacal Dr. Barton's mansion while unleashing his man-fish fury.

The music is (mostly) new compositions, with only a few spots dotted with that classic Creature cue that dominated so much of the previous movies. Reportedly, Henry Mancini (THE PINK PANTHER) was responsible for a sizable chunk of the score!

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956) isn't your typical 'Part Three' of the average movie series. It takes a huge chance by refusing to play it safe, going all out in a totally new direction. Performances are strong, the script is good, and a greater deal of pathos is accrued for our title monster leading up to a surprisingly downbeat finish -- closing with a coda that echoes man's failure to cage the wild beast within us all. It could be better, but for what's here, it's surprisingly well mounted with a few great sequences and the usual scientific gobbledygook found in B cinema. Some will be undeniably disappointed with this series closer, but others may be surprised at just how creative this one gets as opposed to trotting out the same old Creature.

This review is representative of the Universal Legacy Collection DVD set.

Revenge of the Creature (1955) review



John Agar (Professor Clete Ferguson), Lori Nelson (Helen Dobson), John Bromfield (Joe Hayes), Brett Halsey (Pete)

Directed by Jack Arnold

The Short Version: The great Jack Arnold returned to helm this action oriented 3D sequel to the classic 3D CREATURE from the previous year. REVENGE is a streamlined retread that transplants the main setting to a Florida aquarium where Mr. Gill is put on display and domesticated till he breaks his bonds, and embarks on the obligatory vengeance of the title. There's subpar acting aplenty, and familiar, future monster movie cliches once the Creature escapes, and goes about killing random people. As entertaining as this is, it's a step back in the evolutionary chain of the famous Amazonian Man-fish.

A year after the incident with the Creature From the Black Lagoon, a two-man team of scientists and a local crew make the trek to the Amazon in the hopes of finding a living, breathing Gill Man. The Creature is very much alive, and he's captured and taken back to be put on display in a Florida aquarium. The monster eventually escapes, and goes on a rampage.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) was such an ambitious production, and a huge hit, that a sequel was inevitable. Jack Arnold returned to the directors chair, and so did the 3D photography. Pretty much everything that made the first film so memorable encored here, too. The opening Amazon sequence crams nearly the entirety of the first picture into the first 13 minutes before switching to a modern watery setting at Marine Land in Florida. From that point onward, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE re-creates prior highlights while adding some things, and making the monster a lot more aggressive and ferocious than before.

One of the good points about this sequel is that it moves a bit faster; at least in terms of its action. Nearly everything is cranked up a notch. There's more action; the Creature is more energetic, and he causes a lot more damage what with overturning cars, killing dogs, and hurling casual passersby into trees. Ole Fish Face even moves a lot faster. In contrast, he shambled about like the Frankenstein's Monster in the first movie. The famous score is the same, and just as loud and repetitive as before, but it too is sped up a couple beats.

There are a few negatives, but possibly the most hurtful is the aforementioned rehashing of scenes from the original. There's the familiarity of the opening in the Amazon, then the carbon copy of the famous swimming scene -- although the addition of John Agar treading water with Lori Nelson successfully eliminates the sexual subtext of the first film, as I don't think the Creature was into threesomes; but he does pursue her all throughout the movie including a Michael Myers styled sequence where he watches her through her window just prior to killing her dog! Additionally, the method of "dispatch" for the monster is identical (even using the same last shot); this seriously hindering an already weak ending.

The love triangle returns, but in a more playful manner. The combativeness of Carlson and Denning from the previous movie is absent between Agar and Bromfield; they never seem to be at war with one another over Lori Nelson's character. They appear to have a genuine, and professional friendship between them -- what little screen time they share. 

John Agar is a good actor, but isn't quite the macho man that Richard Carlson was; and John Bromfield (who ends up falling into the water with the Creature half a dozen times) is a handsome foil, but not as good an actor as Richard Denning; which brings us to another of the films problems -- the acting. Other than Agar and Lori Nelson, the performances are average at best and substandard at worst. Arnold keeps the pace moving quickly, and one shouldn't expect the upper echelon of thespianism in monster movies, anyways.

John Agar was sort of a rock star in SciFi movies back in the 1950s. He headlined other monster flicks of that time period such as TARANTULA (1955) and THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956). His best performance would easily be as the scientist possessed by the giant, horny BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957). He also littered his resume with some lackluster Larry Buchanan non-events such as CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE (1966) and HELL RAIDERS (1968); as well as the Buchanan-esque NIGHT FRIGHT (1967). He balanced out the dreck with more recognizable features like THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE (1967) and BIG JAKE (1971). You can see him in the above photo conversing with future Italian western star, American mega-movie star, Clint Eastwood in his first big screen role.

The real star of this show is the Creature, and he gets to do a lot more than he did the first time around. No longer confined to a lagoon in the middle of a jungle, he wrecks havoc at a water park, a restaurant, and a stretch of Florida coastline.

The costume itself is modified from the previous suit. The head seems more bulbous, the gills look a bit like an amphibious mullet, and the eyes bug out profoundly, looking a lot like ping pong balls. Some of the other facial features have been tinkered with, and the Creature looks to have a darker shade than he previously did, too. The differences aren't devastating, but they're noticeable, especially if you watch the films within close proximity of one another.

Like Ben Chapman before him, Tom Hennesey played the Man-fish fiend on land, and Ricou Browning encored for the vigorous underwater shots. Browning would once more turn up for the third, and last CREATURE feature, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US in 1956. Hennesey was both a stuntman and actor. His sole work as a suit performer is likely his best remembered role. At some point in the production, there were plans to implement a female version of the Creature, but this was discarded. See photo below.

Watch for another future Italian western star, Brett Halsey (among other film and television credits) as one of the Gill Man's victims towards the end. He's holding the flashlight (whose batteries don't die at this most inopportune time), and gets mauled as opposed to his buddy who is hoisted above the monsters head and hurled into a tree!

A little side-note to REVENGE: the crew that worked on the film got together and fashioned a twenty minute spoof entitled RETURN OF THE CREATURE. It was reportedly shown at REVENGE's wrap party, and shelved until it was recently unearthed.

"[RETURN OF THE CREATURE] was made in a few days by guys who never made a movie before or after -- but everyone who's seen it, including Ricou Browning, have told me that it's quite funny. During its 21-minute running time, I laughed out loud several times. Most Hollywood comedies don't make me laugh, but this nutty thing did." -- Tom Weaver in a RobotJapan interview

In a scripting decision that may, or may not have been intentional, the script for JAWS 3D (1983) by Carl Gottlieb and Richard Matheson would seemingly cherry pick plot points from REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (not to mention GORGO [1961]). These lifted moments include the Gill Man being maneuvered through the holding tank to get air flowing through his gills, and suddenly reviving in a close call for John Bromfield; and there's the Sea World type setting where the Creature undertakes a brief portion of his rampage. In another bit of history repeating itself, both films were shot in three dimensions, and both came at the tail end of their respective 3D cycles.

As a sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) is loud and cranky, and a better B movie than most. It delivers on its premise with a Creature that is far more easily agitated than the shuffling Man-fish of the much better first film. Just like the Marine Land in the picture, folks come to see the monster, and that's exactly what you get.

This review is representative of the Universal Legacy Collection DVD set.
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