Monday, July 2, 2012

From The Archives: The Creature Walks Among Us: A Look At An Overlooked Masterpiece

It’s time to talk about …

This is the third installment in the Gill-Man’s saga, and even though it was the last of the trilogy it did manage to claim a few firsts (though not necessarily good ones).

For instance, this was the first of the series not to be shot in 3-D, it was the first not directed by Jack Arnold, and it was the first to feature a Gill-Man who … really wasn’t a gill man at all.

The directing duties were passed to John Sherwood who was a highly prolific assistant director, having worked in that capacity on films like Bend In the River, The Glenn Miller Story, and Francis (the talking mule) Joins The WACS. The Creature Walks Among Us was only the second of a total of three films he would ever make as a full on director.

On the plus side, William Alland is once again producing, Ricou Browning is back to perform the Gill-Man’s swimming scenes, and Arthur A. Ross who co-wrote the original Creature movie (along with Harry Essex from a story by Maurice Zimm) returns to pen the script.

The movie is notable not only for providing the Gill-Man with his most human portrayal yet, but for literally making him the most humane of the main protagonists all together.

Following his escape from Ocean Harbor at the end of the last movie, the creature is now living in the Florida Everglades. An expedition led by the emotionally unstable Dr. William Barton played by Jeff Morrow …

… attempts to (what else?) find the Gill-Man and capture him for study. Along for the ride are Dr. Thomas Morgan (the only human without serious issues in the main cast) played by Rex Reason …

… swamp guide Jed Grant played by Greg Palmer, and Barton’s withdrawn and rebellious (and much abused) wife Marcie played by Leigh Snowden.

They eventually find the Gill-Man (didn’t see that one coming, did ya?) and capture him but not before he is severely burned due to an incident with a can of gasoline.

Dr. Barton leads his fellow scientists in an emergency surgery where they discover a layer of human-like skin beneath the creature’s chard gills. He also appears to have conveniently developed lungs to breathe with. Soon the Gill-Man is more of a land walker than a sea swimmer and enters the human world.

This film, much like Revenge Of The Creature, is remarkable in that unlike so many horror franchises before it, it precedes to explore new territory instead of re-treading the same tired plot again and again. I think more than anything it’s the restless, inventive quality of this series that has helped the Gill-Man to endure so long in popular culture.

The film not only defies convention with its story, but also transcends its subject matter, using the creature as an outside observer to some of the most inhuman qualities of civilization. While still on the ship and recovering from surgery, he saves Marcie Barton from essentially being raped by Jed Grant.

He is then taken back to the laboratory of Dr. Barton (who is unaware of what Jed did but still distrusts him) and kept in a steel cage. But despite his surroundings the Gill-Man’s genuine kindness shines through. He is still capable of violence (as one scene involving a mountain lion clearly attests), but does not desire to be.
The film climaxes when Dr. Barton accuses Jed of having an affair with his wife. The two fight and Barton literally pistol whips Jed to death. Horrified at his own actions (as is the creature who has had to bear witness to all this from his cage), Barton dumps Jed’s body in the creature’s cell in attempt to frame him for the murder.

This sits none to well with the Gill-Man who bursts forth from his cage in the climax, goes on a rampage, and eventually slays Barton himself. The film ends with the Gill-Man walking back to sea.

Despite its by-the-numbers climax, manages to make several points of serious social commentary, it reinvents the Gill-Man to make him more sympathetic and less frightening, and its human characters deviate from the normal stereotypes of heroic male, best buddy sidekick, and swooning heroine to a dark, frightening glimpse of what some might term human monsters. To a point, I think it predates the formula of commentary + shock that George Romero would pioneer twelve years later with Night Of The Living Dead.

It is as much a character piece as it is a monster movie and a woefully unsung entry in the Universal Studios’ Monster Library. I’m even going to go so far as to say that I think it’s better than Revenge Of The Creature and almost as good as the original (and certainly more thoughtful).

If you’ve never seen this little gem, you are absolutely missing a spectacle you will never forget! John Sherwood didn’t direct many features, and after viewing this move I’ve come to regret that as deeply as the ocean depths themselves.

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