WATCH THE SERIES: Creature from the Black Lagoon

There are no human beings worse than those that confront the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the Gill-man, as he is sometimes called. All the creature wants to do is swim around, eat flamingos and lounge. Yet humanity wants to impose their will on him and only tragedy ensues.

Our clammy pal was the brainchild of producer William Alland, who was attending a 1941 dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane (he plays the reporter Thompson in that classic) when Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him all about a mythic Amazonian race of half-fish, half-men. A decade later, Alland wrote the Beauty and the Beast-inspired The Sea Monster, which was expanded upon by Maurice Zimm, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross.

There’s some controversy over who designed the creature, as some say Disney animator Milicent Patrick drew the original look, but according to Andrea Ferrari’s book Il Cinema Dei Mostri. her role was “deliberately downplayed by make-up artist Bud Westmore, who for half a century would receive sole credit for the creature’s conception.” The bodysuit was created by Jack Kevan, while Chris Mueller Jr. sculpted the head.

When you see the merman on land, he’s played by Ben Chapman. When we see him swim, it’s Ricou Browning. The costume was rough to be in for an entire day, so we should really be thankful to these actors for enduring painful fourteen hour shooting days.

The first movie in the series, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), opens on an Amazon expedition. A fossilized hand that shows webbed fingers points to a missing link between land and sea animals, so Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno, one-time rival to Rudolph Valentino during the Silent Era) leads an expedition to find a complete skeleton, which includes Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson, It Came from Outer SpaceHold That Ghost) and financial backer Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning, An Affair to Remember).

The first appearance of the Gill-man, as he frightens two assistants who then attack him, is startling. Even more so is how quickly he dispatches both men.

Soon, the expedition on the tramp steamer Rita is underway, with Lucas (Nestor Paiva, who also appears in the sequel) as the stereotypically coarse sea captain, joined by the aforementioned crew plus Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell, I Was a Teenage WerewolfI Was a Teenage Frankenstein, the original Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Time Machine and many more) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams in an iconic role), the girlfriend of Dr. Reed. 

Despite the fact that no one has ever returned from the paradise the natives call the Black Lagoon, the crew decides to go deeper into the Amazon. They’re stalked by the Gill-man, who takes notices of Kay and is caught in a dragline, escaping but leaving a claw behind.

Like Jason Vorhees with gills, our antagonist wipes out the members of the crew. Only fire seems to harm the creature, who is smart enough to block the exit of the ship with fallen logs. Mark becomes obsessed with capturing or killing it, leading to him trying to fight the creature barehanded and getting his money having ass handed to him. The creature then takes Kay to his underwater lair, where David, Lucas and Carl hunt him down and shoot him multiple times.

The movie ends with the creature slowly sinking, possibly dead. This will not be the last depressing close in this series, trust me. There’s a real undercurrent of longing from the monster in this film, of which Adams said, “There always is that feeling of compassion for the monster. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved and think they really can’t ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us.” This same emotional tie to the creature was expressed by Marilyn Monroe’s character in The Seven Year Itch, who remarks that the Gill-man “just wanted to be loved.”

While we value today’s props and love horror, to show you exactly how much Universal Pictures cared for their real stars, Forrest J. Ackerman bought the mask and claws of the Creature’s costume from a young man. And how did that man get them? It turns out that after production wrapped on the three films in this series, they threw everything away. A janitor — the boy’s father — rescued the claws and mask, as he felt that they would make a great Halloween costume for his son.  thought the ensemble would make a good Halloween costume for his son. Other costume pieces were recently sold at auction by Bud, who was an assistant to Milicent Patrick, the original designer of the costume.

Originally shot in 3-D (although it played smaller theaters in 2-D), the original film was successful enough to merit a sequel, 1955’s Revenge of the Creature.

Somehow, the monster has survived and a new expedition — oh hey, there’s Lucas again — captures the Gill-man and brings him to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium — thank SeaWorld — in Florida, where Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar, Shirley Temple’s first husband, who appeared in tons of science fiction films along with many appearances alongside John Wayne) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson, who reprised the role in 2005’s The Naked Monster). Of course, Helen and Clete fall in love. Of course, the Gill-man falls for her, too.

The Gill-man eventually escapes, but he can’t stop thinking about Helen, even abducting her from a party. Clete and the police chase him down and, as is customary, gun our amphibian antagonist down. A slave to love, trapped until the end!

Despite being the screen debut of Clint Eastwood (in a blink and you’ll miss him appearance as a lab technician who misplaces a rat) and being shot in 3-D, Revenge of the Creature isn’t quite as good as the original. But it made the most money of the three, so that led to 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us.

Jack Arnold, the director of the two previous films, graduated to Universal’s A-list and John Sherwood, a long-time assistant director, took over. It’s the only film of the three not to be shot in 3-D.

Despite how we saw the Gill-man get shot to death, he somehow survived and is somewhere in the Everglades. Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow, This Island EarthOctaman) is pretty much insane, a man driven to capture the merman and abuse his wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden, who was in the same Universal acting classes as Clint Eastwood, James Garner and John Saxon). The dude loses his mind any time she is near their guide, Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer, who appeared in many of John Wayne’s films).

For some reason, Marcia joins Jed and Dr. Tom Morgan (Rex Reason, who has a name like a pro wrestler or a Stan Lee character, but he was an actor who appeared in films like This Island Earth and TV’s The Roaring 20’s) on a dive, but she somehow goes crazy and overcome with the “raptures of the deep.” Also known as nitrogen narcosis, this creates a mental state similar to doing nitrous oxide. It causes Marcia to take off all her scuba gear and the guys have to rescue her.

Of course, the Gill-man follows her and he gets shot with a spear gun, to which he looks right at the crew and seems to want to say, “Come on, dude.” Then, they set him on fire!

This all leads to our underwater pal being in need of surgery from Dr. Borg and Dr. Johnson. And why do they do all this? They want to see if the Creature can help people survive in space! Well, all their work costs the monster his gills and now, he has lungs that can breathe our air. He also has more human skin, so he has to wear clothes.

The doctors try and get the Gill-Man to live among humans, but he gradually becomes depressed, staring at the ocean. He even tries to dive into it and swim back home, but he can no longer breathe as he once did. It’s horrible. Seriously, this movie makes me so upset, as they take everything from him and he gets nothing back in return. Even when he saves some animals from a lion or tries to attack Barton when he kills Jed in a jealous rage, everyone thinks the worst of our undersea friend.

At the end, he finally makes it back to the beach and just stares at the water, unsure what world he finally belongs in. It’s the most unsettling and upsetting of endings, on par with Son of Kong. There are no easy answers — man has put the Creature in this place and nothing can return him back to the home he misses so much.

Following his appearances in these three films, The Creature showed up as Uncle Gilbert on TV’s The Munsters in 1964.

Of course, a version of our clammy friend shows up in The Monster Squad. And there was also a stage musical at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. But there have been remakes in the works for years that have never made it to production.

Let’s start with the effort made by John Landis in 1982. He commissioned Nigel Kneale (who of course, wrote Quartermass and the Pit but also scripted Halloween III: Season of the Witch) to write a script that original director Jack Arnold would return to helm. According to Andy Murray’s Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, the script had a pair of creatures — one destructive and one calm — battling the U.S. Navy. As the film was to be shot in 3-D, Universal worried about its budget and that it would compete with their release of Jaws 3-D, so the movie was canceled.

In the 90’s, John Carpenter, Peter Jackson and Ivan Reitman were all attached to a remake. And in the 2000’s, Gary Ross (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games) nearly got on board, which is interesting as his father, Arthur Ross, was one of the original film’s writers. 

Guillermo del Toro was also attached to the film for some time and wanted the movie to be seen from the Creature’s perspective and for him to finally have some romantic success. While the actual film never happened due to Universal’s rejection of these themes, del Toro saved these ideas to create The Shape of Water. Oh Universal. You had no idea what you had.

Breck Eisner (who directed the remake of The Crazies and was set to be crowned as Hollywood’s remaker, as he was due at one point or the other to direct new vesions of Flash GordonThe Brood and Escape from New York) was also attached for some time to an eco-horror version about the rainforest being exploited. The 2007-2008 writer’s strike halted this effort.

There was another movie called The Black Lagoon that was to come out in 2014, but that also failed to surface. And while the Dark Universe reboot of the classic Universal characters is in some doubt, one would think that the Creature from the Black Lagoon would show up if that ever gets any more traction. The appearance of a hand of our finny friend in the remake of The Mummy was just too much! Come on! Stop with the teasing!

What I didn’t know was that there was an Abbott and Costello Meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon TV show, created to promote the first film!

There were also two memorable appearances by the Creature from the Black Lagoon in arcades, thanks to Bally Midway’s Creature from the Black Lagoon and Monster Bash pinball games.

The former of those two machine has a startling hologram of the merman that pops up throughout gameplay.

In case it doens’t come through, I love the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I even had this Remco figure as a kid and would carry it everywhere with me.

I vividly recall the 3D reshowing of the films in the early 1980’s, too!

Our amphibian hero never gets the girl. Never gets the love he deserves. And never even gets a remake! But here’s to him! Long may he swim!

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