Two years ago Universal released an Essential Collection of their most well-known monster films in newly remastered HD Blu-rays, and now they’ve followed up that set with a far more complete box set – 31 feature films (including the Spanish Dracula) covering the years from 1931 to 1956. Universal Classic Monsters: Complete Collection 1931–1956 brings together six previously released Legacy Collections plus 1943’s Phantom of the Opera. Each collection focuses on one classic character – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon – starting with each of their highly revered debuts and followed by the characters’ appearances in sequels and spin-offs.
I’d seen those debuts of course, albeit most of them decades ago, but I’d never seen many of these sequels. Until now.
Creature from the Black Lagoon was the last of Universal’s classic monsters to see the light of day – so obviously I’m starting this month-long column with it – and with the possible exception of the Mummy he was also the least personable and empathetic of them all. I recall enjoying some aspects of the film as a kid, but I’m not sure I had ever even heard of the two sequels, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. And now I know why.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
A voice intones over the image of a newly formed planet detailing the creation of the Earth with both bible quotes and scientific highlights before we’re brought up to the present day where modern man is about to meet a remnant from the past. A research team heads to the upper Amazon after a claw probably belonging to a prehistoric, bipedal amphibian is discovered. The group is spearheaded by two men. Mark is intent on killing the creature and making a fortune while David, the brave-ass ichthyologist, is hoping to learn from it. The gill-man meanwhile just wants to get laid.
That’s a crudely minimalist take on things of course, but the monster quickly forms an attraction to the lovely Kay (Julie Adams) after the two share a swim together. The scene – a mesmerizing sequence that’s genuinely unnerving too – shows it swimming beneath her, just out of reach, clearly entranced by her form. The group’s obsession has tragic results for both the humans and non-humans alike, but it isn’t that always the case when man’s curiosity exceeds his grasp?
Director Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man) set out to make a 3-D creature feature, but his film actually surpasses that modest goal. The movie runs a sleek 80 minutes without an ounce of fat, and it manages excitement, chills and smarts (within reason obviously). We’re given the opposing viewpoints of mankind’s intentions when it comes to the natural world – respect it or kill it? – and the characters feel as real as monster movie fodder rarely do.
The gill-man has a wonderfully creepy appearance too – big gullet, empty eyes, methodically disturbing gulps for air – and he’s as effectively unnerving on land as he is underwater. He’s a lot more fluid beneath the surface though as the creature’s design (and the sharp photography) allows for some attractive and occasionally frightening sequences.
Also of note is the film’s approach to its musical score. It’s a three-tiered approach actually utilizing three different composers (including Henry Mancini) and tasking each with a different emotional beat. Basically one handled the normal narrative, another the heightened scenes and a third tackled the monster’s theme and appearances. It’s a unique take on what could have easily been a forgettable throwaway score.
The monster’s inhuman nature prevents much in the way of empathy from viewers, but Creature from the Black Lagoon remains an effective and entertaining gem from Universal’s monster heyday.
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
After the previous year’s sighting of the creature a new team heads back to the Amazon intent on capturing it, and they find near immediate success. They bring the monster back to Florida – to a theme park obviously – but soon discover no mere tank can hold it.
This follow-up is far more playful and comedic than its predecessor, and it even features Clint Eastwood’s one minute feature debut, but it is an absolute dud in every area that made the first film a winner. The biggest issue here is how obvious the lack of story is. There’s a ridiculous amount of filler here, most of it feeling like advertisement for Marineland of Florida (where it was filmed).
The film also fails in regard to the characters. None of them are all that dimensional or interesting, and they share a singular attitude towards the monster that’s never up for debate. There’s no conversation as to how they should treat it – everyone’s okay incarcerating and shocking it for training purposes. In the first film they were concerned it might drown when knocked unconscious underwater, but here? Nobody cares.
The movie is a bust across the board – all of the action takes place in a water tank, and they don’t even need to pretend otherwise – meaning the only appealing action beats are when tropical fish photobomb the frame.
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
After escaping the Florida marine park the creature has escaped into the Everglades, but it’s once again put on the run as a new group of scientists come looking to satisfy their curiosities. While previous expeditions were content simply capturing the beast this go around sees a scientist with a very specific intention. He wants to play god by manipulating evolution on a micro level. When the creature is set ablaze and loses its scales the scientists surgically alter its pre-existing lungs and soon, well, the creature walks among us.
This is a pretty terrible movie. It absolutely gives up even trying to craft likable or interesting characters to the point that even the woman is obnoxious – and I’m not just saying that because of her extended water ballet sequence while the guys are hunting the creature just a few feet away. The creature’s makeover leaves him lacking scales but inexplicably much larger, and his facial appearance lacks the frightening appeal he had previously. Turning the uniquely aquatic monster into a zombified linebacker diffuses all of its appeal.
Buy the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection from Amazon.
Related Topics: Horror