From the Archives: CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

From the Archives: CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

My earliest exploration of monster cinema, before I had seen a single reel of film, came via the Crestwood House monster series of books. I was a frequent dreamer at the local library, toiling countless weekends away sitting atop the fire escape in the children’s room flipping pages and considering the world outside of Marion, Iowa. When the light would shine in the window just right, you would have often seen an orange glow

Crestwood House CREATURE book
Crestwood House CREATURE book

emanating from my lap, the reflection from the striking back cover of one or more of the Crestwood books. Each hardcover volume put the spotlight on a different film beastie. Wolf Man, the Frankenstein monster, Dracula and all the usual rogues were present, but one stood out. The Creature From the Black Lagoon was something all together different. He looked amazing, his environment was beautiful, and I understood what he was trying to do in his attempts to fend off intruders and live life in harmony.

Fast forward to 2013, and I pitch an article concept to my editor at Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, wanting to explore the CREATURE mythology and three-film cycle. The response was positive, and in the end my effort was paired up with incredible cover art from the supernaturally talented Sanjulian, and great articles from some other scribes on the CREATURE legacy. FM issue #266 bears not only my favorite cover for an article of mine, but is my favorite monster magazine cover ever. It hits every note with grace and impact. Such an honor, and a story over three decades in the coming.

In this, my second entry in the From the Archives series, I pull my feature on the CREATURE films from the archives. I did my best to find similar images to what was used with the article. but for the full experience you will have to head to Ebay to track down a copy of the original magazine, as this cover was for subscribers only (FM does two covers for each issue), and is now quite rare. If you want the alternate newsstand cover (same article inside, just not the Sanjulian CREATURE  art on the front), you can head to the FM store on their website.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy!
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CREATURES FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
Famous Monsters of Filmland #266 Apr/May 2013
By the early 1950s, Universal-International’s monster cycle was, for all intents and purposes, dead. The iconic Frankenstein monster, Wolf Man, Invisible Man, and Dracula were relegated to playing comedic second fiddle to the uber popular vaudeville-turned-theatrical duo Abbott and Costello in films such as ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951). The beastly series of films that began with Lon Chaney shocking audiences as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME in 1923 had slowed to a low key durge by the time ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JECKYL AND MR. HYDE rolled out in 1953. It was time for a change in both creature design and process approach, and Universal-International knew just what direction they wanted to head.

Director Arch Oboler ushered in the golden age of 3D with his toothy African romp BWANA DEVIL in 1952 to great response. The idea of a more in-depth sensory experience surpassed novelty and crossed into the mainstream a year later with well received titles like THE FRENCH LINE, HONDO, and the hit Vincent Price vehicle HOUSE OF WAX. Immediately, the production crew at Universal-International began work on their own 3D process, complete with a proprietary camera, and shot their first three dimensional effort, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, between January and March of 1953, with Jack Arnold directing. When the Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush-starring space invaders picture hit theaters that May, turnstyle mileage sent a clear message to the studio that more 3D was in order. It was immediately decided that their next, far more ambitious, project should be helmed by IT director Arnold, and the wheels were put in motion for one of Hollywood’s most enduring monstrosities.

The seed for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was planted during a discussion between actor William Alland and a Mexican cinematographer named Gabriel Figueroa on the set of CITIZEN KANE in 1940, where Figueroa thrilled Alland with the legend of a race of fish-men living on the Amazon river. Fast forward twelve years to a fateful meeting on the Universal lot between Alland – then having stepped into the role of producer, and Arnold. The water-bound Amazonian mythology was dredged up, and CREATURE was born.

Maurice Zimm worked with the fish-man concept, developing a treatment that would then make its way to the hands writers Harry Essex and Arthur Ross. The resulting story tells the tale of a scientific expedition led by Dr. Carl Maia, to track and capture the elusive Gill-Man, known to inhabit a lush lagoon in the recesses of the Amazon. Inspired by the discovery of a fossilized Gill-Man hand, Maia assembles a team for the trip, including evolutionist Dr. David Reed, his fiancée Kay Lawrence, and entrepreneur Mark Williams.

The quartet board the Rita, helmed by rain forest vet Captain Lucas, and venture into the backwaters of the largest, most dangerous, river in the world. Along the way, Reed and Williams vie for the attention of Kay, a squabble that reaches a boiling point by the time the humble chugging craft arrives at its destination in a tributary. Seeing no sign of the creature, Kay passes the time with a swim, which lures the beast out of hiding. The group then make every effort to capture the monster, but they are in his environment, and he won’t go easy.

The Gill-Man is a uniquely tragic figure in the world of silver screen screamers, standing in contrast to many of his brethren in the simplicity and harmony inherent in his existence. He isn’t on the hunt for humans, the product of a deranged mind, the victim of an infectious attack, or dealing with the effects of his own scientific meddling. He is simply existing in his own space when interlopers show up and start making waves. His first interaction with one of the humans is not only peaceful, but one of the most beautiful moments in the story, as he encounters Kay during her angelic swim, aping her movements from a distance below. Like KING KONG years earlier, the Gill-Man is forced to protect what he holds sacred, while unexpectedly falling for a woman who captures his heart, positing him as the third, silent, player in a knotted love triangle. No blood lust. No violent nature. His only goal is to be left alone.

Originally simply titled BLACK LAGOON, CREATURE was always planned as the first of several films, intended to take advantage of the 3D craze, while introducing audiences to a new Universal-International monster. Alland and Arnold populated the picture with a diverse array of actors: Julie Adams signed on as Kay, Richard Carlson as Reed, Richard Denning as Williams, Antonia Moreno as Maia, and Nestor Paiva as Lucas. The Creature duties would be handled by ex-Marine Ben Chapman on land (who was actually second choice for the role, behind a disinterested Glenn Strange), and seasoned swimmer Ricou Browning in the water. Cinematographer William Snyder took control of the above ground two-camera set-up necessary to shoot in 3D, and Charles “Scotty” Welbourne was enlisted to tackle the cumbersome underwater sequences.

While cast and crew were being assembled, Universal-International went to work on development of the Gill-Man’s look, a process that would end up taking eight months, 176 pounds of foam-rubber, 16 body sketches by designer Milicent Patrick, and 32 head models at the hands of Chris Mueller. Originally conceptualized with a sleeker, more alien-like face without much texture or definition, it was eventually decided that the beastie need to look more fish than man, complete with moving gills to breathe, and a gasping, gaping mouth. The final price tag: $18,000, making it the most expensive costume in all of the studio’s monster movies.

The Gill-Man suit process would begin with sketches from Patrick, who would then hand them off to Jack Kevan and Mueller, who would take the design from art to reality. It was decided early on that the medium needed to be foam-rubber because of the necessity for it to be waterproof, flexible, and practical to work with. Molds of hands, feet, heads, and torsos were made of Chapman  and Browning to ensure proper fit, and pieces were cast individually, then assembled.  Air bladders were employed to make the gills breathe, and the hands and feet were specially designed to help facilitate swimming.

The production made use of the Universal backlot for the above water sequences, and traveled to Wakulla Springs, Florida for the submerged footage. The two crews would work simultaneously over the course of the one month shoot, each dealing with their own challenges. For Snyder and his above-ground crew, it was cleverly setting up shots with great care taken not to reveal the lake’s urban Hollywood location. For Welbourne, aside from keeping the cameras from water exposure, special precautions were necessary to keep Browning safe as he traversed the depths. Air was delivered to the one-time show diver via hose, allowing him to stay underwater for extended periods of time. Since the creature was so constantly active when submerged, Browning would simply go limp when he needed air, and a nearby diver would swim over with said hose, delivering a healthy dose of much needed oxygen.

The scenes where the Gill-Man takes Kay to his lair were lensed on a soundstage at the Universal lot, where the elaborate cavern had been constructed by Ray Jeffers and Russell Gausman. Chapman, struggling with limited visibility through the creature mask, famously bumped Adams’ head on a corner of the set one day while carrying her through the maze. This minor injury aside, the CREATURE production was remarkably problem, and injury-free, despite its short schedule that included a burn gag, and the equivalent of days spent underwater.

The Gill-Man was first seen on the Sunday evening Colegate Comedy Hour in February of 1954, appearing with Lou Costello. The film saw release a month later, and was an instant smash, leaving terrified audiences thirsty for information on how the amazing creature look and effects were accomplished. Soon the Gill-Man began turning up in even the most unlikely media outlets, including a cover feature in the May 1964 issue of Mechanix Illustrated where details regarding the production of the suits were poured over by writer Harvey B. Janes. Life Magazine photographer Edward Clark shot a series of intriguing colorful photographs showing Chapman in full Creature regalia carrying Adams in and out of the water. CREATURE mania had arrived, and a second outing for the lovelorn scaly recluse was immediately called for.

The Gill-Man took to the cover of the August 1954 issue of Skin Diver magazine, in which scribe Richard Crosby reported box office receipts in excess creature-from-the-black-lagoon-jack-arnold-19-L-6mHPmvof $2million and spilled the beans on early plans for the second film in the series. “The fascinating Gill-Man will not only live again, but the next time they [Universal-International] promise he ‘will be much bigger than the original guy,’” quoting an unnamed source. Truth was that production began on REVENGE OF THE CREATURE just three months after the original film landed in theaters, and was already wrapped by the time this article found print.

Jack Arnold signed on to direct again, and despite waning public interest in the format, the stereoscopic 3D process was once again employed. Production was slated for June through August, eyeing a March 1955 release, and screenwriter Martin Berkeley, working with Alland, quickly hashed out the story of the continuing adventures of the beast from the deep. Charles Welbourne returned as cinematographer, although acting alone this time around.

The first film’s ambiguous ending left the door wide open for Berkeley, who starts the second in familiar territory. Captain Lucas (Paiva reprising his role), has a new boat, the Rita II, this time commissioned by George Johnson and Joe Hayes from the Ocean Harbor aquarium and water park in Florida. The duo, played by Robert Williams and John Bromfeld, are out to capture the Gill-Man and make him a marquee attraction at their park. This time around, the team employ a more aggressive method of capture, jolting the creature into submission with explosives. They then take him back to their theme park, where he is sedated and chained to the bottom of a tank for onlookers to oogle.

The creature’s heart strings are once again pulled, when he meets a graduate student by the name of Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) who is lending a hand at Ocean Harbor along with Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar). Helen’s voice is the only soothing salve for an otherwise miserable and abused Gill-Man, who is subjected to cruel testing and clumbsy ‘research’ at the hands of the staff. Eventually the creature has had enough, and breaks free from his chains, killing one of his captors and going on a car-flipping rampage as he makes his way to the ocean. The creature remains nearby, eluding search parties as he stalks Helen, eventually taking her captive, all leading to an inevitably violent climax.

Where the first film saw the Gill-Man as master of his domain, here he is almost instantly overcome by his captors, and again echoing KING KONG, is absconded with to civilization. His mean spirited handling breeds sympathy and compassion in the audience, and in a unique twist, viewers spend most of the running time rooting for the monster, hoping for his escape and opportunity for comeuppance. As promised in Skin Diver magazine, a bigger and badder Gill-Man is very much on display here, played on land by 6’5” Tom Hennesey. Browning once again donned the scales for the water bound sequences.

Almost the entire film was shot at Marineland in Florida, making good use of the actual water park setting. A new suit was created, with more skeletal shoulders and back, along with a completely new sculpt on the head and eyes. In accordance with the storyline, movement in the gills was accentuated.

In the only truly frightening moment during the production, actor Agar was swept away by the St. John’s river upon diving into the current after the creature, who had just kidnapped Helen (Nelson). The actor had to save himself by catching onto a buoy, finding that nobody on crew had any idea his safety was ever in question.

The creature’s temper builds throughout, culminating in the most violent scene in the series, seeing the Gill-Man throw someone across the beach into a tree before being met with a spray of military gunfire. While this kind of action would become commonplace years later in series like FRIDAY THE 13TH and its ilk, in 1954 it was a rarity, and audiences were shocked. So were ticket takers, as REVENGE managed to scare up a strong box office tally, and another open-ended last reel ensured there was more mayhem to come.

Once again, Universal-International put the pedal to the metal on the following film, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, with shooting commencing five months after the theatrical premiere of REVENGE. Alland once again acted as producer, but this time around the directorial reins were handed to John Sherwood, normally an assistant director, here taking his second bow as the captain of the ship. 3D, by this time out of public favor, was eschewed. Arthur Ross, screenwriter of the original CREATURE just two years before, returned, this time delivering a hybrid riff on his own story and the core of the Universal monster pictures that came before.

This time around, wealthy surgeon Dr. William Barton, played by Jeff Morrow, and his wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) team up with genetic scientists Dr. Tom Morgan (Rex Reason), Dr. Borg (Maurice Manson), Dr. Johnson (James Rawley), and diving specialist Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer) in search of the Gill-Man in the swamps of Florida. Barton, echoing the cinematic mad scientists of olde, is intent on creating a new race of human/animals, and sees the creature as his most direct route to manipulating genetics and evolution.

The team tracks the beast down and attempts to capture him with sedatives sprayed into the water, but the creature puts up a fight, spilling some gasoline on himself, and ends up being severely burned. The incapacitated beast is taken aboard, where he is bandaged up and studied. With scales and gills flayed off, the Gill-Man is left vulnerable, but it is discovered that he has human air-breathing lungs and skin underneath his lost fishy exterior. The result sees the creature dependent, for the first time, on breathing air. He is once again caged, and eventually ends up in the middle of the battle going on between Barton and Grant over Marcia’s hand. During a scuffle, Barton accidentally murders Grant, and then tries to plant the body in the creature’s cage, but the Gill-Man has had enough, and goes on a rampage, all leading to one of the genre’s saddest, and strangest, conclusions.

Stunt performer Don Megowan’s massive 6’6” figure makes this the most imposing of all Gill-Men, and when coupled with the makeshift clothing he sports to protect his sensitive burned body, he is every inch the product of, and tribute to, the Frankenstein monster that preceded him. The creature sports an entirely new, story-motivated, look, seeing his most human visage yet, post-burn, with no gills or scales to speak of. Browning completed his cycle as the swimming creature, only brought in for one sequence, although it is a notable one.

Underwater hose breathing had famously been employed throughout the first two films, and in WALKS, the audience actually gets the chance to see how it works. When the burned and de-gilled creature first dives off the boat, he finds himself sinking to the silt beneath, drowning because of a lack of air he has no idea he needs to breathe. In order to keep him alive, a hose is taken to him, and forced into his mouth, at which time he surfaces and manages to avoid death. In actuality, this sequence plays out just like divers handle hose breathing during such productions.

Megowan’s tear through the house at the film’s climax sees him destroying an elaborate set full of couches and tables on fly-away pullys, breakaway doors, and more. This is not a creature motivated by love, or even by survival. By this point in the series, similar to the Wolf Man’s exhausted and self destructive Larry Talbot, the beast has given up the ghost, and the picture ends with the suggestion that he takes his own life by willingly walking into the sea where he knows he will drown. After years of being hunted, manipulated, tortured, burned, and abused, The Gill-Man goes down in history as Universal’s only screen monster to choose his own demise.

The film premiered on April 26, 1956 and was met with less enthusiasm than the previous two, laying to rest to one of the most crucial genre trilogys ever to hit screens. William Alland would go on to produce films for another ten years, retiring in 1966 after his last picture, a western called THE RARE BREED, starring Jimmy Stewart. Ricou Browning continues to work as a stunt coordinator, and has gone on to a prolific career as a director, including the FLIPPER television series and films. After REVENGE, Jack Arnold continued directing, never shying away from genre material, including TARANTULA (1955), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957). His last directorial effort was THE SWISS CONSIPIRACY in 1976. He passed away in 1992 at the age of 75.

THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON initiated a monster revival, actually propelling the original Universal characters into greater legend. In the wake of the Gill-Man films, monster kids across the United States were treated to FRANKENSTEIN/DRACULA double bills, an endless flow of tie-in toys, costumes, and books, and the advent of the monster magazine. In fact, it was the very magazine you are holding in your hands, which first hit stands three years after the release of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US. The legacy of the Gill-Man can be seen and felt in scores of horror and sci-fi films to this day, and his image is one of the most recognizable in the annals of film. Great homage has been paid time and again, most notably in 1987’s MONSTER SQUAD, and talk of a remake has crept up here and there, but there is only one original. And he just wants to be left alone.

Famous Monsters of Filmland is 58 years old this year and still in print. Keep up with the magazine, order back issues and more at FamousMonsters.com.

My first From the Archives installment features an extensive interview with Crispin Glover, and can be read here.