The Creature Walks Among Us - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
The Gill-Man is not in fact large enough to straddle the Golden Gate Bridge
I haven't covered every sci-fi-infused Universal Classic Monster movie yet, but today I'm covering the chronologically final one: The Creature Walks Among Us, the second sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon. This is an unusual entry in the franchise, and I had to watch the movie a few times to decide how I feel about it. For starters, it's pretty different from its predecessors, with only two admittedly great action sequences (three if you include the brief one in the middle) and the rest of the movie devoted to an unhinged scientist's failing marriage and the ethical/philosophical implications of trying to mold the Gill-Man into more of a human than a creature.
Parts of the premise are incredibly silly, with the head scientist--Dr. Barton--arguing that he can genetically alter the Gill-Man to somehow take a shortcut around evolution and create a human capable of surviving in outer space. If this were a full-blown schlockfest, that would be all well and good, but most of the story is surprisingly serious, focusing on the weighty issues of man's interference with nature and how we create our own traps and delusions. It has complex characters and doesn't fall back on the already well-exhausted trope of the Gill-Man becoming infatuated with the sole female in the cast.
It is the most like the previous entries in the first act, when the team of scientists assemble to track down the creature, this time in the depths of the Florida Everglades. You have your gorgeous underwater photography--highlighted by a sequence in which the girl, Marcia, gets nitrogen narcosis and begins dancing in a way that is both beautiful and suspensful in that she is also slowly removing her SCUBA gear--and with the creature doing his familiar swimming and stalking. The characters start out a bit unlikable and acerbic, but as you spend more time with them, they start to become more understandable, relatable, and even enjoyable.
Granted, she's obviously not 200 feet down like the movie would have you believe
This first act ends with the first action sequence in which the crew goes out in shallow waters, in the dark and in a canoe, to hunt the Gill-Man and capture him alive. This part has some genuine scares, and has one great moment where the creature is doused in gasoline and lit on fire before he jumps back in the water and rises up beneath the canoe to throw everybody out. In all honesty, it's the single best action sequence in the entire trilogy.
Then the plot takes a pretty wild left turn, as the scientists take the badly burned and unconscious body of the Gill-Man back to their boat, wrap him up in full-body bandages, and force him to breathe out of vestigal lungs he's apparently had the whole time. They discover that, as his outer scales slough off from his wounds, he has human skin underneath. Even his eyes become more man-like. Before long, he goes from the lithe and lean fish-man to a lumbering giant (in clothes, no less) that has more in common with Frankenstein's monster than the creature from the Black Lagoon.
This reminds me of Boy Scouts
Anyone expecting more creature feature antics will be sorely disappointed at this point, as the rest of the movie is really more of a character study that does a lot of work with some impressive dialogue to meld the personal arcs of the characters with the heady scientific debate between the two leads, Dr. Barton and Dr. Morgan (Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason, both of whom put in good performances). There's a lot of thematic depth here, even moreso than in the original film, and it very intelligently uses its themes to incite the inevitable climax in which the creature escapes captivity with murder on his mind.
The key character, of course, is Dr. Barton's wife, Marcia, who married too young to a man who has become so overbearing and irrationally jealous that she is essentially living the life of a prisoner. When we first meet her, she is fending off a pair of sharks, which is what she winds up doing with one of the other men on the boat who aggressively pursues her in the worst possible way. Despite it all, she remains perfectly faithful to her husband, but she is driven by a kind of melancholy that drives her to take unnecessary--almost suicidal--risks early in the film, just to feel alive. Played by Leigh Snowden (who also married much too young) in a remarkably dramatic performance one has no business expecting from a creature feature, Marcia Barton is the most nuanced and interesting character in the movie.
More strange than scary
It is unquestionably bizarre to see the Gill-Man walking around with a more humanoid appearance, a sailcloth onesie, and a generally peaceful demeanor, and as I said, if you go into this movie wanting it to be more like the first two films in terms of body counts, the number of action scenes, and a damsel in more traditional distress, you will probably not like it at all. On my first viewing, I was tempted to feel that way myself and dismiss the whole thing with a scathing review.
However, divorced from those expectations, this is an intelligent and meditative science-fiction parable that draws as much from other Universal Classic Monster films as it does the Gill-Man's outings. It may not be as exciting or terrifying, but it is far more likely to spark interesting conversations about the nature of man and his responsibilities to the natural world. After watching it a few times to wrap my brain around it and to get passed the goofier elements of the plot, I've come to think of The Creature Walks Among Us as a genuinely great film.
-e. magill 5/13/2021
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