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01 March, 2008

DVD Review: Universal Monster Legacy Collection—CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

Title: Universal Monster Legacy Collection—CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

Year of Release—Films: 1954, 1955, 1956

Year of Release—DVD: 2005

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment





[Ed. Note: As I was working on this piece, news came that Ben Chapman, the gentle giant who gave life to the Gill-Man when he was out of the water in the first film, had succumbed to illness in a Honolulu hospital. He was 79.

Those who were fortunate enough to have met Ben often remark at how much he loved the fans, and how much he enjoyed interacting with them at the various conventions where he was a regular, and very popular, guest. Sadly, I never had that opportunity, and now it’s gone forever.

But his work, the work Monster-fans have loved for generations, lives on. And even those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have met the man can still visit with him, as often as we like.
]

THE MOVIES

One of the greatest monsters Universal ever created, the Gill-Man, starred in three features for the studio in the Mid-‘50’s: CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, arguably the greatest American Horror film of that decade; REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, set, and filmed, in my home town, it’s always been a personal favorite, and; THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, the weakest of the trilogy.


When their first three Legacy Collections (DRACULA; FRANKENSTEIN; and THE WOLF-MAN…) became such huge hits among fans, Universal quickly decided to release three more sets, featuring their remaining top-tier franchises. Soon, fans were lining up to grab the MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and, of course, the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON Legacy Collections.

The three CREATURE films are some of Universal’s finest, especially from the 1950’s. The first is perhaps the greatest American Horror—Sci-Fi film of the decade.

1.) CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: The first, and definitely the best, of the Trilogy finds a party of scientists journeying up the Amazon in search of fossilized remains of a legendary fish-man. With Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julie Adams in the lead, and with Nestor Pavia doing an inspired job as Lucas, the captain of the riverboat Rita, the group discovers a good deal more than expected, as a living, breathing Gill-Man attacks these intruders into his domain. Jack Arnold’s sure direction keeps a less than ideal script moving, but it’s the superbly executed design of the Gill-Man, played on land by Ben Chapman and underwater by Ricou Browning, that transformed this film into the classic it is today.

2.) REVENGE OF THE CREATURE: My personal favorite of the series, due to it’s being filmed in and around my hometown of Jacksonville Florida, this entry finds the Creature captured and transported to the Ocean Harbor Aquarium in Florida. Once there, scientists John Agar and Lori Nelson study him, but he eventually escapes causing panic up and down the coast. Once again directed by Arnold, this lacks the iconic quality of the original, but works very well as a B-grade “Popcorn pic”, perfect for viewing with the kids on a Saturday evening.

3.) THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US: By far the weakest of the three films in the set, the final outing for the Gill-Man is the only one lacking Arnold’s deft touch, and it definitely shows. John Sherwood, who would direct the excellent THE MONOLITH MONSTERS for Universal a year later, clearly had no grasp on how to handle the Creature franchise. A party of scientists set out to capture the Gill-Man, now living in the Florida Everglades, and in the process manage to set him ablaze. Though injured severely, they are able to save his life by transforming him into an air-breather, thereby removing the Creature forever from his natural environment.

These Legacy collections were phenomenal, gathering together all the best of Universal Horror… and the CREATURE set was one of the best. With all three films featured, as well as new commentary tracks and special features, there’s something for every Gill-Man fan here.



THE DISCS

Though there were many reports of poor quality in the first three Legacy’s, Universal had most of the kinks worked out by the time they released the subsequent three volumes. At any rate, none of my sets evinced the problems encountered by others.

The sets themselves are objects of beauty, splendidly rendered packages for the treasures contained within. Using the Digipak® cases Universal Studios Home Entertainment favors for its special projects, these are about as close as you can get to bound library editions of DVD’s.
The two discs themselves are well-designed, with a common menu style and a simple, well-thought-out functionality. Every movie is subtitled; always a plus to the Unimonster, and the video and audio quality is far better than my beat-up old VHS’s.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

The key Special Feature in the set is the documentary BACK TO THE BLACK LAGOON, hosted by film historian David J. Skal. This enjoyably entertaining look at the creation of Universal’s last Horror icon features interviews with such notable experts on the Gill-Man as Bob Burns, Monster collector extraordinaire and owner of the last Creature head taken from the original mold of Ben Chapman; and David J. Schow, author. Also interviewed are the three surviving (at that time…) major cast members: Julie Adams, Ben Chapman, and Ricou Browning. Lori Nelson, who played Helen Dobson in the sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, is also interviewed during a segment examining that film.

Each film also has an interesting and informative commentary track; of which, REVENGE’s is the best. It features Lori Nelson, Bob Burns, and Horror movie expert Tom Weaver, and is full of Nelson’s behind-the-scenes memories and insights that keep this from being just another dry lecture, as so many commentaries of older films are. For instance, the Gill-Man wasn’t the only one who had amorous intentions toward Helen; the director, Jack Arnold, also tried to arrange a private rendezvous, which Nelson was able to avoid with some adroit maneuvering.

Add in the standard poster and stills gallery, and the theatrical trailers, and you have a collection that will satisfy the most dedicated “Gillie.”



IN CONCLUSION

I’ve always loved the Creature; how could I not? No other Monster in the history of Horror, with the possible exception of Kong, is so innocent yet so put upon. In the space of three films, his habitat is invaded twice; he is shot, stabbed, harpooned, poisoned, dynamited, netted, burned, captured, carried halfway across the world, transformed through surgery, and has his heart broken… repeatedly! It sounds like a week’s worth of “General Hospital”, for God’s sake! He needs either the Humane Society, or a good personal injury lawyer.

Though the Legacy set are out of print, they’re still available through a variety of sources, and at reasonable prices. Everyone who considers themselves fans of classic Horror Films really must have, not only the Creature Legacy set, but all the Legacy’s. Or quit calling yourself a fan of classic Horror.

















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