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Saturday, October 3, 2009

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US -- movie review by porfle


(NOTE: Originally posted at Bumscorner.com.  CONTAINS SPOILERS.)

With the passing of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy from neighborhood theater screens in the late forties, it seemed the era of the classic gothic monster movie was over. England's Hammer Films would eventually revive each of these monsters in one form or another, in brilliant color and with a shocking (for the 50s) amount of blood, violence, and sex, but before they did, Universal Studios (now Universal-International) still had one great classic monster character up their sleeves.

THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) introduced eager audiences to the "Gill Man", a human-fish hybrid that had somehow been left behind by evolution, who was forced to contend with a group of scientists invading his home in an isolated tributary of the Amazon river. After apparently being shot to death, the Gill Man sank lifelessly down into the dark depths, only to return a year later in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE. This time, he was captured and taken to a marine park in Florida, where more scientists tried unsuccessfully to domesticate him. But the Gill Man had no intention of joining "Flippy" the dolphin as a performing tourist attraction, so he escaped and wrought havoc along the Florida coastline until being tracked down and riddled with bullets yet again. A reprise of the previous film's ending, with the Creature drifting slowly toward the bottom of the ocean, brought another temporary end to his ongoing saga.


Finally, in 1956, U-I decided to resurrect the highly popular character for one last adventure, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US. It begins much like the first one, with yet another group of scientists setting out to track down the Creature, now residing in the Florida Everglades (this time, however, they're better organized, much better funded and equipped, and, as JAWS' Chief Brody would no doubt have advised, have a "bigger boat"). The leader of the expedition, wealthy and brilliant yet somehow not-all-there Dr. William Barton (a delightfully googly-eyed Jeff Morrow), is all a-titter about capturing the Gill Man and turning him into an air-breather (for reasons not all that logically explained), but is equally concerned that his young trophy wife Marcia (the lovely Leigh Snowden) has begun to slip from his rigid grasp and seek romantic fulfillment elsewhere. Handsome young Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) is along to aid in the quest to capture the Creature, and also to share the focus of Dr. Barton's irrational jealousy along with Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), a sex-obsessed wolf hired to help with the more dangerous aspects of the expedition but who is more interested in helping Mrs. Barton get horizontal.

The first half of the story is pretty slow going unless these various character interactions pique your interest (as they do mine). One early foray into the deep by Morgan, Grant, and Mrs. Barton does feature some nice Creature footage from the previous movies as he stalks and observes them from afar, but it isn't until about midway through the film that the first really good action takes place when the men set out in a motorboat with a sonar-tracking device and are attacked. First, the Creature smashes their floodlight, leaving them in the dark until they frantically light a couple of gasoline lamps. Then he leaps onto the boat and picks up the gasoline can in order to hurl it at them, accidentally dousing himself with the flammable liquid. Grant hits him with one of the lamps and the Creature goes up like a flaming torch. He retreats back into the water, but soon passes out from his third-degree burns and is captured.

Back on the boat, the Creature is bandaged and treated for his injuries by Barton and Morgan, who discover that not only does he have a more human-like secondary layer of skin underneath the scales, but also sports lungs capable of breathing air after a little surgical assistance -- fitting perfectly with Barton's goal of turning him into a land-dweller. When the bandages come off, the Creature's new look is revealed -- most of his fins and other identifying characteristics are gone, and his eyes have mutated to a more human appearance. But he's still a hulking, frightening monster. He escapes from the infirmary aboard the boat, interrupts a tender love scene between Grant and a less-than-willing Mrs. Barton, and plunges back into the water. No longer possessing gills, however, he begins to drown until Morgan dives in with an air hose and rescues him. At this point the Creature seems to realize that resistance is futile and becomes more docile.

Back on the mainland, the Creature (now crudely-garbed in a baggy outfit made of sailcloth) is transported by truck to a house in Southern California where he is enclosed within an electrically-charged fence. It is here that he begins to observe the volatile interactions between the supposedly more civilized humans -- Dr. Barton incessantly berating Marcia for being a "tramp", Grant horndogging after Marcia, etc. At last, Dr. Barton's jealousy gets the best of him and he murders one of the other men as the Creature watches, then drags the body into the cage to divert blame from himself. That does it -- Dr. Barton's uncouth behavior has finally gotten on the Creature's last good nerve, and he angrily rips the door off the cage and goes on a frenzied rampage through the house.

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US is considered by many monster fans to be the least of the three "Creature" films -- which, in fact, it probably is -- but I find it to be a worthy conclusion to the series. Not only is the conflict between the human characters interesting, but I think the idea of having the Gill Man transformed into an air-breather and placed among humans is a good one, and gives this third entry in the series a unique quality that was necessary for maintaining interest in a continuing saga that had already covered just about all the other possible story developments.

Technically, the film is just as well made as the first two, and the cast is fine, especially Jeff Morrow as the flaky Dr. Barton. Ricou Browning is once again on hand to ably portray the Creature in the underwater scenes, while the land-dwelling incarnation is handled this time by bulky character actor Don Megowan. Megowan manages to be quite expressive underneath the monster suit, using his eyes and body movements to convey the Creature's emotions ranging from anger to sadness. His final rampage through the house is the film's highlight, bringing to a fitting close not only this series but the entire Universal "classic monsters" era as a whole.

But it is at the very end of the film, when the Creature at last makes his way back to the water that is his home, that we best see him as the tragic figure he was always destined to be -- accosted by outsiders, taken forcibly from his natural environment, violated by cold science, and, finally, unable to return to the very water that had always sustained him.


(The "Creature" series is available on DVD as part of Universal's "Legacy Collection." Buy it at Amazon.com)

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