I’ve always liked, if not loved, The Creature from the film “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” The “idea” of the Creature strikes several chords within me. One simplistic one is the idea that it exist in the nostalgia of the foggy, early parts of my life —The 50s—Even though it was released in 1954, before I was born. It is the last iconic Universal Monster, and is kind of a dichotomy of that and where horror cinema was at that time. Even though it is considered a major player in the burgeoning “Atomic Age” science fiction films (which I love), it is not an entity that owes it’s existence to radioactivity or any perversion of science, it’s roots are exclusively and firmly from a fictitious prehistory of the Earth. And it is this prehistoric angle, along with it’s scaly, almost reptilian look (apparently skipping the amphibian evolutionary stage) that speaks to the amateur paleontologist in me.
Speaking of my early childhood, I can’t tell you how many times as a kid, me, my brother Doug, our sleep over friends, even my sister Liz on occasion, waited up WAY past our bedtime (I’m sure we had to beg our parents) to watch “Creature from the Black Lagoon” on the late, late Friday or Saturday night “creature feature” television shows that aired in central Arkansas in the 60s. “Chiller Theater” (KTHV 11), later, Aclin Ford & Charles McRaven from Jacksonville hosted a show on KATV 7, then in the 70s, “Dr. Mazzepa Pompazoidi Show” (originating at their sister station in Tulsa—KTUL 8 with Gaylord Sartain in the title role and featuring the likes of Gary Busey as “Teddy Jack Eddy”). Later, in the 80s up to just recently, “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” ruled late night horror shows.
Anyway, we’d try to stay up to only to fall asleep during some insufferable 10:30 movie with Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, or Doris Day. In some cases there was a late night fishing show that would do us in. Then we’d wake up when the high pitched tone with the Indi… Native American test pattern would come on signaling the end of the broadcast day.
There was a time in my mid teens that I thought again of doing a Super 8mm film. A horror film. One idea was doing a “Creature” inspired movie. There were some lowland areas on our bus route going to school that would have been perfect for shooting ‘lagoon’ footage.
ANYWAY, to the main thought of this blog entry, the ‘evolution’ of The Creature…
In the original “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (CFTBL) had a somewhat slow reveal of the complete countenance of the monster. When he shows up audiences were treated to the cutting edge ‘make-up’ effects, full body suit of The Creature, designed by commercial artist, illustrator & Disney animator working for Universal Pictures, Milicent Patrick and executed by others under Bud Westmore (Ms. Patrick’s contribution to CFTBL have historically been overlooked, but recently acknowledged). The detail on the final suit was exquisite and highly detailed. His reflective fish eyes looked extremely life like and weird to me, when I was a kid and in the present as well. There’s a scene where he’s walking towards the camera on deck of the “Rita”, that still gives me the heebeegeebees!
There were two actors that played the creature, Ben Chapman was the ‘land’ creature (the one used to shoot scenes on the sound stage in Universal City, California) and Ricou Browning played the ‘water’ creature, for shooting underwater scenes in Wakulla Springs, Florida. The cast was made up of veteran “B” movie actors… Richard Carlson (Dr. David Reed), Julie Adams (Kay Lawrence), her Florida double was Ginger Stanley, Richard Denning, the antagonist (Mark Williams), the great Nestor Paiva, captain of the “Rita” (Lucas), Antonio Moreno (Dr. Maia) and the venerable Whit Bissell (Dr. Thompson).
“Creature from the Black Lagoon”’s (’54) story, allegedly based on a rumor of a half man-half fish legend, told to producer William Alland at a wrap party for “Citizen Kane” by an Mexican cinematographer, has a research team tracking remnants from a fossil of a mysterious Gill-man into the upper reaches of the Amazon. Once there, and with a love triangle sub plot between – Reed, Kay, and Williams going on in the background, they discover the live Creature. First they try to capture him, then they try to escape him. During the course of the film, there is an iconic scene—wonderfully directed by Jack Arnold—where Kay (Adams) in a beautiful and slightly risqué white bathing suit, swims in the lagoon not knowing the Creature is swimming with her under the surface, matching her stokes and speed. Believe me, any “baby-boom fanboy” knows this scene.
I’ll not spoil the film for you, but there were two, sequels. The first one “Revenge of the Creature” (’55) was put together a bit hastily. Ricou Browning was once again the ‘water’ Creature in this one, but Tom Hennesy played the ‘land’ Creature. Mr. Hennesy was the same height as Chapman was, 6’5″, so claims in this film that the Creature was more than 8 feet tall (carried over from the original film) were a bit ridiculous. The suit was bit less detailed, the ocular part of the mask (one of the best parts of the original Chapman suit), were bland. This film, directed by Arnold and produced by Alland again, has a smaller team (smaller, really?) going back to the Black Lagoon to capture the Gill-man. They do, and get him back to an aquarium in Florida, where by the way, a young Clint Eastwood has a bit part as a lab assistant. The Creature breaks free, of course, after going through some conditioning treatments that would make the film “Blackfish” look kind in comparison. It’s up to his tormentors, actors John Agar & Lori Nelson to try and find him.
The next year, Universal Studios decided to go a different direction with the franchise, this time with John Sherwood directing “The Creature Walks Among Us” (’56). This was a pretty strange film and I have a ‘love/hate’ feeling about it. Love the first act, middle act okay, last act eh… not so good. Pretty good cast… Browning once again is the marine Creature in the first third of the film being pursued by a real nice yacht going up the Amazon looking for him. Ricou, in a suit looking better than the one in “Revenge”, has some pretty cool scenes when he finally turns back and attacks the group of scientist hired by a wealthy doctor/yacht owner played by Jeff Morrow (Dr. William Barton). In the struggle The Creature gets burned severely, and collapses. The doctors, lead by Rex Reason (Dr. Thomas Morgan), find out that just below the surface, The Creature has all it needs to make the ‘next step’ in evolution to a land Creature. So after some surgical procedures, the Creature is breathing with his lung back-ups, he’s lost his scales and claws, and his marine eye-covers. The Creature at this point is played by Don Megowan. The doctors set sail for the millionaires’ ranch in Sausalito California. There, Barton pretty much loses his mind over a perceived infidelity of his young wife (Leigh Snowden) with the team’s hired hand, Jed (Gregg Palmer) and murders Jed in front of the Creature’s pen. This act of violence in front of the ‘changed’ Creature Infuriates him, he breaks free and goes after Barton. I’ll leave something of the 3rd act for you.
This brings us to the crux of this blog entry for “from the Train Room”… As we go from one film to the next The Creature seems to evolve. in the first two films it’s not as evident. But in the last one it’s pretty pronounced. I’ve never been real comfortable with were the Creature ended up. I loved him in the original… his reptilian like countenance. But, because there’s got to be an ‘upwards & onwards’ on story arcs, WE had to try and change him. I guess to make him more in “god’s image” , like us, right?
I just love how retro sci-fi always seemed to presented a moral message in it’s content. Some of which is laughable in today’s context, some still relevant.
Please check out, what is essentially, part 2 of this Halloween 2013 trifecta blogging…