Retro-Musings: “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” trilogy (1954-1956) was the last of Universal’s classic monster movie franchises…


When I was a kid, I was all about monsters. In those bygone days before the internet, my very first magazine subscription (at the age of eight) was the late Forry Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine.  The monsters of the classic Universal movies (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman) were not just imaginative and scary; they were often misunderstood innocents as well, with whom kids like myself could relate.  Despite their frightening, dramatic appearances, most of them simply craved acceptance and companionship. 

The Creature (Ben Chapman) boards the ‘Rita’ in 1954’s “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

One of the Universal monsters who best embodied this innocent quality was 1954’s “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which follows a group of scientists determined to find a near-mythical “Gill-Man”; possibly a missing evolutionary step between human and fish, rumored to be living in the darkest reaches of the Amazon River. As a kid, I was hooked (excuse the fishy pun). I had the Aurora model kit of the Creature, and I absolutely loved it. The Creature has since cameoed in “Mad Monster Party?” (1966) and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993). Even today, my wife and I still have a tiny stuffed Creature we bought from ‘Knott’s Scary Farm’ in October of 2002, and which I use as an indoor Halloween decoration every year.

A subtle redesign of the Creature (played again by Ricou Browning, who performed the Creature’s swimming) for 1955’s “Revenge of the Creature.”

While I never caught the film theatrically (my birth was still a dozen years away), I did manage to catch it in 3D during a TV screening in the mid-1980s using red/blue glyph glasses (during another cyclical, short-lived revival of 3D). The TV 3D effect wasn’t so great, but I could still appreciate the jump-out effects; foreground trees, underwater bubbles, spearguns being fired, etc. I also managed to catch 1955’s sequel “Revenge of the Creature” on TV as well, though not in 3D. I wouldn’t see the final film, 1956’s “The Creature Walks Among Us,” until I rented the VHS tape at my old video store in the mid-1990s, but it was worth the wait.  

Since I’m tackling all three movies for this column, I’ll forgo my usual point-by-point plot synopses in favor of a broader overview of each film with a few specific notes.  There’ll be more info in the summary section as well.  Anyway, let’s dive in

“The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954)

Directed by legendary ‘50s sci-fi director Jack Arnold (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”) from a story by Maurice Zimm, with a screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” begins with a scientific expedition to the Amazon which uncovers a skeleton hand with webbed, clawed fingers—a previously unknown evolutionary link between humans and fish.  

Note: While it’s true that life on Earth evolved primarily from the ocean, the most direct evolutionary trail for human beings began with small rodents and other mammals, not fish. But hey, the movie’s at least trying to science here, and it deserves some kudos for fearlessly championing evolution; something almost dangerous now in the shockingly retrograde 21st century United States.

Dr. Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva), Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and financier Mark Williams (Richard Denning) find crewman Zee (Bernie Gozier) shaken after his encounter with ‘the demon.’

With rumors of a still-living specimen deep in an Amazon tributary (‘the black lagoon’), Dr. Maia (Antonio Moreno) calls in some colleagues from the United States, including Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), ichthyologist Dr. Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), who’s more interested in killing this potential new find rather than studying it. 

Note: Casting Julie Adams (1926-2019) as an ichthyologist was groundbreaking in 1954, even if said ichthyologist looked like a swimsuit model and often acted like a classic damsel in distress. On the subject of casting, two actors played the Creature; Ricou Browning performed the swimming scenes, while Ben Chapman played the Creature on land. At 6′ 5″, Chapman was several inches taller than Browning, which required a few extra pieces added between his costume’s neck and chest section. The changes are almost unnoticeable since the costume is usually wet and in motion.

The Gill-Man (Ricou Browning) is inexplicably attracted to human women. The scene is an aquatic ballet, aided by gorgeous underwater cinematography (in 3D, no less) credited to director of photography, William E. Snyder.

The expedition itself is unknowingly stalked by the Creature (Ben Chapman), which violently kills two panicked assistants.  With the Creature retreating back into the river, the expedition hires colorful local Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva), who takes them deeper into the Amazon’s narrowing tributaries aboard his roomy yet ramshackle boat, the Rita. During a lull in the voyage, Kay goes for a swim and is stalked by the Creature (Ricou Browning underwater) in an elegantly-photographed ‘water ballet’ sequence (in 3D, no less). Thus begins the Creature’s infatuation with human women—a curious trait for an amphibian; like a frog being sexually attracted to a mouse.

Note the added section between the neck and chest of the costume for taller actor Ben Chapman, who played the creature on land. The difference isn’t noticeable on film, since the swimming creature (Ricou Browning) remains mainly underwater.

Note: The famed sequence of Kay being ‘gracefully’ stalked underwater by the Creature has a vague, “Swan Lake” quality to it. In fact, the ‘water ballet’ between beauty and beast is considered surprisingly erotic to many, beyond the sight of lovely Julie Adams (or her swimming double) in a bathing suit. Browning’s swimming style alternates from elegant to nearly frantic, just as fish sometimes make sudden abrupt moves when they’re being observed by predators. Both Browning and Chapman deliver underrated mimetic performances as the Creature.

Kay, Mark and David are stunned as the Creature tears through every trap set by its would-be captors and hunters…

The Creature then pursues Kay and the expedition as they resume their voyage deep into the Amazon River (shot in swampy Florida)  After ripping effortlessly through the Rita’s underwater drag-netting, the Creature’s encounters with the humans become increasingly violent. After trapping the Rita with a crudely-made dam, the Creature kills several other crewmen and badly mutilates Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell), while evading any attempts to capture or kill it. 

Note: Whit Bissell (1909-1996) would later play Lt. General Heywood Kirk in Irwin Allen’s colorful, short-lived sci-fi series “The Time Tunnel” (1966-1967). He would also play the manager of space station K-7 in the classic Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles” (1967).

The climactic finale in the creature’s secret lair…

The climax sees the Creature abducting Kay and taking her deep into his dark, murky cave lair, where he is shot repeatedly by David, whose sole interest is in rescuing Kay. The badly wounded Creature then retreats into the water, where it sinks to its death…

Note: The movie’s success meant that the bullet-ridden Creature was (in the words of Billy Crystal’s “Miracle Max,”) only “mostly dead.” The movie grossed $1.3 million on a $650,000 budget, ensuring the Creature’s continued survival.

“Revenge of the Creature” (1955)

Nestor Paiva appears as the colorful Captain Lucas in the first two films; he’s the closest we see to a recurring character.

Directed once again in 3D by Jack Arnold, “Revenge of the Creature” was written by William Alland and Martin Berkeley. With a trio of lackluster new leads, the only recurring character in this first sequel is Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva), who appears in the movie’s opening act as the Rita takes some wealthy gringos out to capture the Creature.

Note: Born in Fresno, California, actor Nestor Paiva is of Portuguese descent, adding some credence to his colorful South American character of Captain Lucas.

The Creature (Ricou Browning) is captured and put on display in Florida’s Marineland.

A surprise to absolutely no one, the Gill-Man (Ricou Browning/Ben Chapman) survived his ‘death’ in the final moments of the first film, only to be captured by the use of concussive underwater explosives, and delivered to the “Ocean Harbor Oceanarium” (aka Florida’s “Marineland”). 

Note: Marineland is still around today in Florida (after changing hands a few times), though its California counterpart was shut down permanently in 1987, leaving Sea World in San Diego as one of the few remaining large-scale marine theme parks in Southern California. The use of performing marine life in such theme parks has come under sharp (and justifiable) criticism in the United States of late.

Marine biologist Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) and Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar) enter into a boring, generic, 1950s white-bread romance. The two dull leads don’t help in this snoozer of a middle act.

Once at his new home, the comatose Creature is slowly revived in a shallow tank by marine creature trainer Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), until he’s able to swim on his own.  The Creature is then studied by Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and ichthyologist Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson).  Predictably, these two dull characters begin a romance, with lots of outdated, downright cringeworthy talk of ‘women scientists’ needing to have kids and settle down, etc. Their whitebread romance is the reason we have the fast-forward button today.

Note: Actor John Agar (1921-2002) was a B-movie staple in the 1950s, having starred in “Tarantula” (1955), “The Mole People” (1956), “The Brain from Planet Arous” (1957) and “Attack of the Puppet People” (1958). He was also once married to former child star Shirley Temple (1928-2014), who later became a US ambassador to Ghana and the former Czechoslovakia (now split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia).

Helen and Clete’s dull romance (lots of talk about scientists settling down) is only vaguely threatened by the presence of would-be interloper, Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), who looks like a finalist in a Buster Crabbe-lookalike contest.

The only thorn in Helen and Clete’s budding romance is a lukewarm alpha-male threat posed by the Creature’s keeper, Joe.  The sadistic Joe keeps the Creature’s shackled ankle chained to the floor of its tank, and repeatedly zaps him with electric cattle prods as part of his ‘training’ before the Creature has enough of this shit and kills would-be interloper Joe during a bold escape.

Note: You can probably guess that I tend to root for the Creature in these movies… 

Lori clings to a buoy off the Florida coast as the Creature is seemingly shot to death–or is it?
To be continued…

With the Creature on the loose, an all-points bulletin draws a huge dragnet of police and civilian volunteers to find the Creature, who crashes an beachside party and abducts Helen (once again, this sea creature has an affinity for human women).  Realizing his captive can’t breathe underwater, the Creature places her on a buoy, before he’s shot to death (death-ish?) by police…

Note: You can safely bet that bullets are no threat to the Creature’s mortality—only box-office revenue, and the sequel was successful enough ($1.1 million) to ensure a sequel.

“The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956)

Directed by John Sherwood (1957’s “The Monolith Monsters”)  and scripted by original cowriter Arthur Ross, the second sequel was made on a lower budget, meaning no 3D and less underwater footage.

Jed (Gregg Palmer) and heroic Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) suit up for a dive, as the cruel Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) continues to make his wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) miserable and self-destructive.

Once again, bullets proved only a temporary inconvenience as yet another expedition is mounted to locate the Creature, now rumored to be somewhere in the Florida Everglades. This new expedition is led by the wealthy, unstable Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow), who brings along his miserable, rebellious young wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden). Marcia is also hit upon by the expedition’s sleazy assistant and guide, Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer).  Also onboard is one of the few decent people in this movie, Dr. Tom Morgan (Rex Reason)—who also seems interested in Marcia, though he keeps his feelings to himself, more or less.

Note: Actors Jeff Morrow (“Dr. Barton”) and Rex Reason (“Tom Morgan”) previously costarred in 1955’s seminal sci-fi film, “This Island Earth.” Rex Reason would later appear in the 1968 Star Trek episode, “Bread and Circuses.” Their love triangle with Leigh Snowden (“Marcia”) in this film is far more toxic than the love triangles only hinted at in the previous two films, with Dr. Barton being an irredeemably abusive creep. Furthermore, Marcia has no science credentials, making her role in the movie as more of a trophy to be won—unlike the previous movies’ more inspiring female leads. Anyone still wondering why I root for the Creature…?

Doctors Barton and Morgan stand over their bandaged handiwork.

Over her husband’s objection, Marcia goes with the first team’s dive to look for the Creature, where she promptly gives herself a case of the bends.  After she’s safely brought back aboard and revived, the expedition continues.  The Gill-Man is soon cornered in a smaller boat, where it’s badly burned before being captured. The Creature’s condition leads a fully-equipped surgical team aboard the boat (as every wildlife expedition has, of course) to consider a drastic means of saving it’s life—removing its burnt gills entirely, and reviving its latent amphibious lungs. 

Note: The admittedly bizarre surgery to revive the creature’s nascent air-breathing ability was an intriguing way around the movie’s reduced budget, though it resulted in a smoother-featured bastardization of Millicent Patrick’s magnificent Creature design—a crime against pop art akin to painting acne scars and coke-bottom glasses on the Mona Lisa.

One serious complaint beyond the bulking up of the Creature (Don Megowan) is the marring of Millicent Patrick’s design.

After the surgery, the Creature’s physiology begins to change, as it sheds many of its aquatic scales and fins in favor of more human skin and hands. Realizing its fragile new skin layer won’t withstand temperature variations well, the inexplicably bulkier Creature (now played by Don Megowan) is fashioned with a crude wardrobe, as it awkwardly shambles about in a wildlife sanctuary on the property of Dr. Barton. The Creature begins to mellow in its new habitat, only becoming violent when a vicious mountain lion threatens a pen of helpless goats. 

Note: One of the major accomplishments of this sequel (one that I personally enjoyed more than the rinse-and-repeat “Revenge of the Creature”) is that it dares to take the Creature into new territory, using the movie’s budget constraints as an opportunity to try something new. As the Creature settles into its new life in the private zoo, we finally see it lose its murderous tendencies—only reverting when threatened, or when trying to save others. This newfound innocence of the Creature is very much in keeping with the other misunderstood beings of the Universal monster movie canon, such as Frankenstein’s childlike monster.

The gills-less Gill-Man prefers certain death in the ocean over living with neurotic, capricious humans.

Meanwhile, Barton’s marriage becomes increasingly toxic and volatile, as Morgan takes notice of Marcia’s misery.  After hired hand Jed makes another unwanted pass at Marcia, an incensed Barton fires and then kills him—trying to pin Jed’s murder on the now-peaceful Creature by placing the body in the Creature’s paddock. But the Creature ain’t having it.  Breaking free, the Creature kills Dr. Barton (yaaaaayyy) and escapes to the beach, where he walks towards the surf—choosing a certain death by drowning in the ocean over a tortured existence of living between two worlds…

Note:  Having only discovered this sequel for myself through a lucky VHS rental in the mid-1990s, I found “The Creature Walks Among Us” to be better than its reputation, though the much-bulkier ‘humanized’ version of the Creature was a bit distracting; if they removed outer layers of the creatures scales and gills, shouldn’t it be even slimmer than it was before?

The End.

Unofficial Sequel?  

Guillermo del Toro (director/producer of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Devil’s Backbone,” and the “Hellboy” movies) directed and co-wrote (along with Vanessa Taylor) 2017’s “The Shape Of Water” (2018’s Best Picture Oscar winner) as a Cold War fairytale that exists in a surreal, stylized early 1960s that brings to mind the TV series “Mad Men,” as well as some of the earlier, better films of the Tim Burton canon, such as “Edward Scissorhands.”  Actors Sally Hawkins (“Elisa Esposito”), Richard Jenkins (“Giles”) and Doug Jones (“the Creature”) turn in stunning performances, and the film deservedly took home three other Oscars in 2018 (direction, production design, musical score), in addition to Best Picture.

Sally Jenkins and Doug Jones share a tender underwater kiss in “The Shape of Water” (2017).

While the film uses broad-strokes of “Creature” lore (a mythical gill-man found in the Amazon) as a jumping-off (or diving-off) point, it also greatly expands on an idea teased in the original 1950s movies—the creature’s attraction to human women. “Shape…” also explores what might happen if the female protagonist was the one who initiates the relationship, by showing the innocent, grotesquely mistreated creature more of the compassion briefly glimpsed in “The Creature Walks Among Us.”  While not ‘officially’ part of the Universal “Creature” canon, “The Shape of Water” fits well enough for fans to make that determination for themselves

Summing It Up

The classic of the bunch is still “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which (like the final act of 1975’s “JAWS”) is mainly confined to a search for the Creature, with the Creature stalking the humans as well. With well-executed Florida-for-the-Amazon location shooting, and many opportunities for 3D tricks, the first movie is also buoyed by solid performances, particularly the stalwart Richard Carlson (1960’s “Tormented”), a colorful Nestor Pavia, Ricou Browning/Ben Chapman as the Creature, and Julie Adams playing a then-rare woman ichthyologist.

The creature is captured…but, as usual, not for long.

If I have any complaint beyond the South American ethnic stereotyping common for that era, it’s with the all-over-the-map musical score, which is credited to Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein and Henry Mancini (“The Pink Panther”), with an overused three-note brassy blast telegraphing the Creature’s every move (da-da-duuuuuum!). That three-note blast announcing the creature’s appearances quickly becomes old hat.  

Julie Adams doesn’t seem to appreciate the hands-on approach taken by the Creature…

While previous Universal monsters emphasized gothic horror and the supernatural, “Creature…” put an emphasis on natural evolution (albeit faultily), with an absolute first-rate creature suit design by the underrated Millicent Patrick (who was also an actress). The late Millicent Patrick’s work is too often credited solely to makeup artist Bud Westmore (1950s sexism at play).  Patrick’s magnificent Creature elevates the movie from a simple jungle monster-flick to a sci-fi/horror classic—most everything else in this well-executed movie is secondary to that phenomenal design (the best in the Universal monster canon). 

The comatose Creature is introduced to its new environment slowly, as sharks are when taken into captivity.

The first sequel, “Revenge of the Creature,” takes the story to its next logical step, with the capture of the Creature, and his sequester to Marineland in Florida, where (like the Frankenstein monster), he is shackled and tortured—by the movie’s ‘heroes,’ no less.  While the idea to have the Creature escape captivity (à la King Kong) and go on a rampage in Florida is a great premise, that premise is undermined by dull characterizations from actors John Agar (a B-movie mainstay) and Lori Nelson, along with a generally limp middle act, where not much happens. 

Yes, the ‘bumbling’ scientist on the right is none other than future Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood; talk about casting against type…

The movie’s main recognition these days comes from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo from future movie legend Clint Eastwood as a bumbling lab assistant (really?) who finds his missing mouse in his own coat pocket. Other than the novelty of the Marineland setting, and seeing the captured creature as an exhibit for ogling tourists, the sequel treads familiar territory in its final moments, as the Creature once again captures the movie’s female lead in its inexplicable quest for human nookie. Patrick’s creature design is subtly altered, but not unrecognizably so. “Revenge…” is also an inspiration to “JAWS 3-D” (1983).

Rex Reason confronts his sinister patron Jeff Morrow, while the Creature settles into his new life in a private zoo…

While “The Creature Walks Among Us” is generally derided as the weakest of the trilogy, it gains my support for trying to do something different with the saga, even if it revisits the same tired love-triangle story seen in the previous two movies (taken to a more toxic level).  The notion of ‘fixing’ the horribly burned creature through surgery makes this entry more of a Frankenstein tale—right down to the inexplicably bulkier creature wearing crude clothing and shuffling zombie-like in his paddock.  There’s also the faintest trace of “The Little Mermaid” in there too, as the watery native, deprived of gills, is forced to adapt to life as an involuntary landlubber. 

You can always tell when a star goes Hollywood; they get plastic surgery…

The second sequel also shows a kinder, gentler side to the Creature, as he feels some temporary peace in an animal sanctuary—until he gets between the abusive love triangle of Jeff Morrow, Leigh Snowden and heroic Rex Reason.  Like its predecessor, the movie also has a plodding middle act redeemed by an ambiguously tragic ending which suggests the Creature’s fatal return to the sea; preferring certain death to living as a penned animal in a private menagerie.

The Creature is seen briefly as its old self (Ricou Browning) in the first act of “The Creature Walks Among Us.”

While “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” retains its solid reputation through suspense, decent performances, excellent underwater cinematography and an amazing titular creature, its two sequels are—unfortunately—cases of diminishing returns and rehashed characters. All the same, there are moments here and there that make each of the “Creature” movies well worth a watch for vintage sci-fi/horror buffs.  

If one can make allowances for certain sexist/racist attitudes of the era, slower pacing and other issues (these movies are nearly 70 years old), there is still a thrill to be had at seeing the beautifully-designed Creature swim into the frame, continually outsmarting the ‘great white hunters,’ and living to swim another day… 

Where To Watch

“The Creature from the Black Lagoon” trilogy can be rented for streaming or purchased digitally on Amazon PrimeVideo, GooglePlay or YouTube ($3.99-$14.99). The movies are also available for purchase as a collection on BluRay or DVD from Amazon (prices vary by seller). 

All Images: Universal Pictures

2 Comments Add yours

  1. scifimike70 says:

    I liked Julie Adams in The Creature From The Black Lagoon. But now it’s much more preferable to see how far female expedition members have come in the SF universe since the damsel-in-distress stereotypes. Thank you for this article.

    1. Glad you liked it. 🙏

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