While the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) is a bona-fide cinema classic that introduced us to one of the most beautifully-designed and memorable of all movie monsters, in the form of the Amazonian Gillman, it is the last and relatively underrated final film in the character’s trilogy, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), that I have always found to be the most emotional and thematically interesting. Even as a kid, long before I actually got to see the film for the first time, the title would always jump out at me whenever I came across it while pouring through my few UK hardcover books like Alan Frank’s “Monsters and Vampires”, or my growing stack of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine.
The Creature Walks Among Us. The words sounded so powerful and evocative to me, and conjured up images of terrifying paranoia, as if the Creature could literally be among us, sitting opposite to us on the train or behind us in a cinema ready to strike! Classic 1950s Cold War hysteria. When I finally caught a late, late-night television screening of the movie that aired during school holidays, it wasn’t exactly how my overactive imagination had envisioned it, but I still found it wonderfully atmospheric and quite tragic, reflecting some disturbing themes and concepts that took the whole creature mythos into completely new territory and provided a unique ending to the character’s cinematic arc.
Where the original Creature took place mostly in the Amazon jungles, and Revenge of the Creature (1955) had the Gillman running amok through Florida, The Creature Walks Among Us gives our misunderstood monster the best of both habitats for him to play around in and terrorize. The opening act set amongst the Everglades recalls the steamy primordial haze of the first film, while the third act is more in line with Revenge, having the Creature taken out of his natural environment and brought into the modern man’s world.
The film opens with a team of research scientists setting sail aboard the Vagabondia III, their mission to capture the Gillman, who is thought to have sought refuge in the Everglades after rampaging through Florida (though just like the end of the first film, the final shot of Revenge gives the impression that the Creature has been vanquished and killed, but I guess you can’t keep a good Gillman down). Headed by the cold and insecure Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow), other personnel onboard the Vagabondia III include Barton’s younger and bored wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden), the buff and handsome Dr. Tom Morgan (Rex Reason) and guide Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), whose leering eyes are more interested in watching Marcia parade about the boat in a white one-piece bikini than they are in watching the river for any signs of the creature. Barton is quickly established as a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, wanting the creature in order to use its blood for gene experimentation, much to the disapproval of the more sensible (and clearly more God-fearing) Dr. Morgan.
When the Gillman is finally located and cornered on the Everglades, things naturally don’t go as smoothly as planned, resulting in the creature being captured but severely burned. Brought back unconscious to the Vagabondia III, the creature’s wounds are tended to by Dr. Barton, who discovers that not only have the burns peeled away much of the Gillman’s scales, revealing a more human-like tissue underneath, but a pair of unused lungs hidden inside his chest cavity. Excited at the prospect of being able to manipulate and hasten the evolutionary process, Barton performs a tracheotomy on the creature in order to activate his lungs, then slaps him in some burlap clothing and drags the poor fellow back to a holding pen in Florida. It is here that The Creature Walks Among Us becomes particularly interesting, in that the Gillman is forced to not only deal with the physiological changes which he is going through (his loss of gills and development of lungs meaning he can no longer survive underwater), but also with the loss of his identity and a longing for his former self, as he spends his days behind an electrified fence looking out longingly at the salty ocean which is just out of his reach.
As the creature’s physiology slowly changes from amphibian to human, his violent impulses also seem to subside, sparking a debate between the two doctors as to what is primarily responsible for the change (while Barton is convinced the changes are purely biological, Morgan feels there is a much more psychological cause at hand, that the Gillman is responding to kindness with kindness). The creature is definitely portrayed as a lot more sympathetic than he was in the first two films, with Dr. Barton the real villain of the piece (and played by Jeff Morrow in classic, deluded mad scientist style). Unfortunately, the appearance of a wild bobcat in his pen reawakens the creature’s violent urges and impulse for aggressive self-defense, and after he breaks free and exacts his revenge on Dr. Barton (by hurling him over a balcony to his doom) he retreats to the beach and stares momentarily at the ocean, before slowly walking down the sand dune towards the water, presumably to drown himself rather than continue to live as something he does not know and nature had not yet meant him to be. Sadly, this was to be the last appearance of the classic creature on film (though his distinctive costume was later put to use on variety shows and of course as the wonderful Uncle Gilbert on The Munsters).
While the first two Creature movies were filmed in 3-D and directed by the great Jack Arnold, The Creature Walks Among Us was filmed flat (the initial 3-D craze was already waning by 1956) and helmed by prolific assistant director John Sherwood, who makes his full directorial debut here. Sherwood doesn’t have the assured hand or bold style of Jack Arnold, but he directs The Creature Walks Among Us in solid fashion, providing some great action set-pieces (particularly atmospheric and effective is the nighttime encounter with the creature in the Everglades). There are also some nice little emotive touches that Sherwood gives the film that help humanize and create sympathy for the creature, such as the moment he looks up responding to the soft lullaby that Marcia is playing on an acoustic guitar while sitting out on the balcony in the moonlight. And the sub-plot involving Jed’s lusting after the married Marcia adds a nice touch of tawdry film noir sin to spice up the proceedings.
One criticism which many people have of The Creature Walks Among Us is the way the Gillman’s classic visage was altered to suit the film’s story. And it is certainly true that once the creature does begin his transformation, he is no longer the beautifully sleek and visually unique character as designed by the wonderful Milicent Patrick. Rather his body – now hidden under clothing – becomes large and unwieldy, more like a football quarterback (no explanation is ever provided for the Creature’s sudden acquisition of broad shoulders and a barrel chest). Likewise the head (along with the hands) of the creature was changed to reflect both the burns which he receives as well as his changing evolution. The result is still distinctive and recognizable, just smoother and sparse with less detail and scaling. It’s sad to see the classic Gillman taken away from us, but the revised concept is still memorable in its own way, and plays in well with the story. It’s a pity that despite the enormous amount of Gillman memorabilia and toys produced over the years, from dolls and jigsaw puzzles to masks and model kits, virtually none of it features a likeness of the creature in his transformed state (one exception being the nice 12” Creature Walks Among Us doll released by Sideshow Collectibles in 2003).
As in the first two films, Ricou Browning played the creature during the underwater scenes, while Don Megowan dons the suit for the land sequences (following on from Ben Chapman in Creature and Tom Hennesy in Revenge). Megowan – who also played the Frankenstein Monster in the unsold Hammer Films/Columbia Pictures TV pilot Tales of Frankenstein (1958) – plays the land creature in a lot more lumbering and unwieldy manner than his predecessors, an approach certainly necessitated by the screenplay but one which helps give him a nice sense of brute strength.
While Universal produced an astonishing run of classy and often-intelligent science-fiction and horror cinema during the 1950s, the creature was their only new character from that decade that had the same audience appeal and enduring cultural impact of their big monster icons from the previous generation, like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolfman and The Mummy. The Creature Walks Among Us may not be quite up there with the absolute best genre films that Universal had to offer us during the fifties – titles like It Came from Outer Space (1953), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and the original Creature from the Black Lagoon – but it is still a top-notch little gem that delivers ample thrills and a classic, famous monster, as well as giving us some food for thought with its memorable take on the familiar cautionary tale of man’s meddling with nature and evolution.