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Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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14 March, 2009

Give Me Those Old-Time Vampires, They’re Good Enough For Me…

It’s become the trend, ever since the mid-‘90’s, to portray vampires and werewolves as members of huge, underground assemblages, with armies that do battle, governments and leaders, whole societies that exist sub-rosa. BLADE and UNDERWORLD are two recent franchises that popularize this societal view of these classic monsters. But how did this trend begin, and more importantly, how do we end it?

1987 was a big year in the shift towards this new vision of vampires as social creatures. Its true start was THE LOST BOYS, a seminal vampire movie. NEAR DARK, released the same year, continued the non-traditional view of vampires, even to the point that the word “vampire” doesn’t even appear in the film. That trend ran throughout the ‘90’s and into this decade, culminating in the two UNDERWORLD movies.

Speaking personally, while I more or less enjoyed most of these films, I’m quite frankly over the ‘societal’ view of our classic monsters. The sight of groups of vampires and werewolves doing battle with automatic weapons like a common street gang just doesn’t work for me any more. I’m not sure it ever did.

Vampires shouldn’t live in ritzy, million-dollar Manhattan condos, or travel around in executive helicopters. They certainly shouldn’t need Glock 23’s in order to deal with their foes. Did Lugosi ever feel the need to slip a Chief’s Special into the pocket of his tuxedo? I think not.

Reinventing the monsters does seem to be the big thing in Hollywood these days. Columbia got the ball rolling with their “Americanized” GODZILLA, known less than affectionately as “GINO”, (i.e., Godzilla In Name Only…) Beginning with Stephen Sommers’ blockbuster remake of THE MUMMY (1999), most of the great Universal monsters have received make-overs, with varying degrees of success. Sommers’ VAN HELSING gave us new looks for Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula, and the Wolf-Man, as well as a rather Shrek-like Mr. Hyde. Now, I’m not jumping on the “Bash VAN HELSING” bandwagon here. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure that I’ll say it again—I believe that the people who were disappointed by the film were expecting something from Sommers they simply weren’t going to get, and that is a good, frightening Horror Film. Anyone familiar with this director’s work would know what to expect from him in this case: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, with monsters. And that’s precisely what was delivered.

Moreover, it’s a continuing trend. Universal’s long-rumored remake of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, originally due in 2009, has been pushed back to no earlier than 2011, but according to recent statements from screenwriter Gary Ross, it’s still on track. It’s not yet been decided whether the Creature will be live-action or CGI, but I doubt that he’ll look anything like the beloved Gill-man of our memories. And we should see a new version of THE WOLF-MAN this year, played by Benicio Del Toro, who most certainly won’t be the familiar Larry Talbot.

But these reinventions have dealt primarily with the looks and abilities of our favorite monsters. VAN HELSING’s Dracula, overwrought histronics and bad hair aside, was still recognizable as the greatest of the undead. He lived in a castle, and did his flying by bat’s wing, not Boeing. Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep may have been, supernaturally speaking, far more powerful than Karloff’s Ardeth Bey, but they were recognizable as the same character. Without being told and with the sound turned down, would you realize that UNDERWORLD was a vampire vs. werewolf movie, or would you think you were watching MATRIX: REDUNDANCY? There may be a valid reason to have your vampires packing heat, waging turf battles with Mac-10 toting werewolves. There may also be a valid reason for eating Soy-burgers.

However, you can put me down as opposed to both.

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Year of Release—Film: 2004

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated film of the 2004 Summer Season, VAN HELSING was certainly the most discussed film released that year. Depending upon what you were expecting from this film, you either thought it was tremendously entertaining, or a complete insult to the history and tradition of Universal Horror. As one of the strongest proponents of the classic Universal Horror Films, I can certainly see why some fans felt that the movie was a general insult to all things Universal. I also believe that they are wrong.

Stephen Sommers, best-known for the recent Universal MUMMY films, does a fair job here, but let’s be honest: Great Horror this isn’t, no more than they were. There’s very little in here that would scare anyone over the age of eight, certainly nothing that would terrify most in the audience. VAN HELSING is an adventure film, more akin to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK than the great Universal Horror films of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s.

Sommers’ script, while it serves the purpose, is long on action and short on plot. The dialogue is execrable, and the characters, for the most part, are simply unlikable. It has the same tongue-in-cheek humor that made the two MUMMY films so successful, but lacks the characters (and the actors) that can pull it off.

Sommers’ direction, though widely excoriated, is really perfect for the type of movie that this is, just as it was for THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY RETURNS. He can construct an action scene with the best, and he has a terrific sense of humor that keeps the mood light and rollicking, with the feel of a Saturday matinee serial. It is the wrong feel entirely for a horror film; but as I said earlier, this isn’t a Horror film.

The cast, with rare exception, is unremarkable. I felt that every one of the lead actors missed the mark, some quite badly. Hugh Jackman’s status as a star completely baffles me; Kate Beckinsale is much better seen than heard; David Wenham, as Friar Carl, Van Helsing’s assistant, is good but the role is far too minor to help. There are two stand-outs in the cast: one in a minor role, one in a major; one a very positive stand-out, one very negative.

The positive accolades go to Kevin O’Connor, whose role as Igor is very similar to the character of Benny that he played in THE MUMMY. With a gift for quirky, strange characters, his comedic deadpan delivery is perfect for this material, and is responsible for most of the humor that works in this movie. My only complaint regarding him is that he gets so little screen-time. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film’s other stand-out, Richard Roxburgh as Dracula.

Easily the worst performance in this movie, Roxburgh rapidly supplanted Frank Langella as my least favorite actor in that role. Hammy, overblown, a man who emotes wildly while proclaiming his utter lack of emotion, his is a job of acting that would embarrass one of Ed Wood’s troupe of players. I know Christopher Lee is a little old for the role, but hair dye is cheap, and they’re doing wonderful things with make-up these days.

The cinematography looks good, not great, but acceptable. The Special Effects are the true star of the film; and, as with the rest of the ‘cast’, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. The Wolf-Man design, while not perfect, is the best of the CGI Monsters, and the Vampire Brides are also very effective; while the Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde character is by far the worst. Described by one reviewer as “Shrek with Hair”, the Hyde design is wholly unbelievable, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to any screen Hyde I’ve ever seen. However, the Frankenstein’s Monster, played well by Shuler Hensley, is primarily done with traditional make-up effects, and works extremely well. It’s perhaps the best-looking Frankenstein’s Monster since Karloff last wore the boots.

The feel and atmosphere of the film is there, but not as convincingly as with Sommers’ previous movies. As with most facets of this film, it’s hit-or-miss, with the hits slightly outweighing the misses. The CGI is overused, and is, in many cases, simply unrealistic looking, which destroys what little believability the movie manages to build.

To sum it up, this is an enjoyable movie; not great, not Movie-of-the-Year, but enjoyable if you keep your expectations low. I think that most of the negative feelings about this movie were the result of unreasonable expectations; people believing that they’d see computer-generated clones of Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney, Jr., or experience a truly terrifying film. I kept my expectations low, and, as a result, found myself generally pleased with the movie. My main problem with it is that it is a very good 25-35 million-dollar movie. Unfortunately, it cost 150 million to make. Despite the huge cost of the picture, this comes off as a very cheap movie: The CGI is unconvincing; the acting is barely adequate; the script is, to put it kindly, weak. Things that might be overlooked in a low-budget Indie stand out in a major-studio, big-budget production. Still, I enjoyed this film, while not being blind to it’s flaws. I’d call it a Bargain-bin candidate… not first on the must-see list, but still worth seeing.

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07 March, 2009

A Creature in my Backyard: The Universal Horror that was filmed in my hometown

In the mid to late 1950’s, Universal Studios, then known as Universal-International, began to regain some of its status as the Horror studio. Movies such as THIS ISLAND EARTH, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and THE MOLE-PEOPLE went a long way towards restoring the reputation that had been lost when Universal’s stable of monsters had become the comedic foils of the studio’s hottest property of the period, Abbott & Costello. True fans of the Universal Horrors were appalled at the state to which their beloved monsters had been reduced, and longed for a return to the glory that the studio had enjoyed twenty years before. The movie that answered those wishes, began Universal’s renaissance, and restored the monsters and, in a larger sense Horror Films, to their rightful place in the genre hierarchy, was Jack Arnold’s 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

The success of CREATURE… virtually guaranteed a sequel and production soon began on REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, released in 1955. Set primarily in North Florida, at the fictitious Ocean Harbor Aquarium, it was filmed in Jacksonville, as well as nearby towns of St. Augustine and Silver Springs Florida. Marineland, located near St. Augustine, doubled for the film’s Aquarium.

Once again Jack Arnold had the helm of this production, and the story flows smoothly from the first, with a second team of researchers tracking the Gill-Man into the Black lagoon. Nestor Pavia, in a brief but satisfying reprise of his role as Lucas, skipper of the Rita II, relates the story of the first expedition to the new team as they journey deeper into the Gill-Man’s lair. The group soon encounters the object of their search, and, after a brief struggle, manages to capture the creature.

They deliver the now-captive Gill-Man to the Ocean Harbor Aquarium, in northern Florida. John Agar, as Biologist Prof. Clete Ferguson, is brought in to study the creature, with Lori Nelson as his beautiful assistant, Helen Dobson. They soon come to the realization that he has an intelligence that goes beyond the simple animal cunning they expect, as well as the fact that he is attracted to Dobson. He’s not the only one, as both Ferguson and Joe Hayes, played by John Bromfield, vie for the affections of the young beauty. Hayes, Ocean Harbor’s chief diver, is working with the scientists, and is responsible for their safety.

The Gill-Man, meanwhile, is testing the boundaries of his new habitat. Chained to the bottom of the tank, he soon establishes the limitations of his freedom, as well as the strength of the chains that bind him. In a moment’s carelessness, he breaks his bonds and escapes his tank, killing Hayes and spreading terror throughout the park. He gets out of the Aquarium property, and heads for the nearby ocean, causing panic along the entire coast.

As the Navy and Coast Guard launch a massive search for the Gill-Man, Ferguson and Dobson cruise up the St. Johns River to Jacksonville, unaware that they are being followed by the fugitive creature. The Gill-Man, obsessed with the young woman, stalks her to her hotel room, but is frightened off by her dog. Still, he keeps a close watch on her, and finally attacks, abducting her from a restaurant where she and Ferguson are dining, escaping into the river.
The local police, as well as the military and civilian volunteers, launch a hunt for the creature along the riverbanks and creeks, with searchers on boats, on foot, and in cars. Two men find Dobson, passed out on a bank, but are attacked and mauled by the Gill-Man. But the creature is soon surrounded and, as Ferguson pulls the woman to safety, disappears into the water as a fusillade of gunfire erupts around him.

While not the ground-breaking block-buster that its predecessor was, REVENGE… was in many ways the equal of, and some would say superior to, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. From a technical standpoint, REVENGE… was a much nicer job of photography, especially when viewed in the original 3-D format. In the excellent audio commentary supplied with the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON Legacy Collection, Tom Weaver, Bob Burns, and Lori Nelson discuss in great detail the advantage that the sequel enjoyed over the first film in this regard. Any mistakes and errors that had been made in photographing the original were corrected for this film, and the result was some truly beautiful, incredibly dynamic shots. Not even viewing the movie in 2-D on a television screen can completely disguise the effectiveness of the cinematography.

Contributing immeasurably to the film’s success is its convincing credibility. Rarely during the ‘50’s did a film capture its setting as well as REVENGE OF THE CREATURE. From the observation level at Marineland, to the Lobster House restaurant in Jacksonville, the fact that the movie was shot on the actual locations gives it an air of authenticity that helps draw the audience into the picture.

Another factor that added to the film’s believability was the superb casting. John Agar was perhaps the most accomplished lead actor working regularly in genre films during the ‘50’s. Talented, strong and handsome, he was the prototypical B-Movie leading man, carrying such films as TARANTULA, THE MOLE PEOPLE, and, of course, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE. Remembered primarily for being the first husband of Shirley Temple, (with whom he co-starred in the John Ford western classic FORT APACHE…) he had a moderately successful career, marred by a long personal struggle with alcohol. Agar died of emphysema in 2002, at the age of 81.

Lori Nelson was a 22-year old contract player at Universal when cast as Ichthyology major Helen Dobson. Nelson, whose debut was in the 1952 Western BEND OF THE RIVER, was a beautiful young blonde, well-suited to the role of John Agar’s assistant and love-interest. While lacking the strength and depth that Julie Adams’ Kay had in the original CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, Nelson’s Helen was far from a shrinking violet; rather she was a well-educated, intelligent, atypically modern woman, pursuing a career in what would traditionally be considered a “Man’s” field, and expressing dismay at having to choose between that career and a more stereotypical, “housewife’s”, lifestyle. Still, she did fall into the same pattern that Universal required of all its leading ladies… the ability to scream loudly and look gorgeous while waiting to be rescued.

33-year old John Bromfield played Joe Hayes, Agar’s human rival for Nelson’s affections. Looking every bit the part of the Aquarium’s chief diver, his role was originally intended to be far more involved, with an open undercurrent of hostility running between the creature and he. Though that subplot didn’t quite make it into the finished movie, it does explain the Gill-Man’s vicious, fatal attack on Hayes as he escapes the Aquarium. Bromfield, who left acting in 1960 following a divorce, became a commercial fisherman, and recently passed away at the age of 83.

No discussion of the cast of this film would be complete without mentioning the two unsung stars of the film, Tom Hennessey and Ricou Browning. Hennessey, who played the Gill-Man for out-of-the-water shots, and Browning, who reprised his work as the creature for the underwater scenes, combined to portray one of the greatest Man-in-a-Rubber-Suit monsters ever. When compared to the creations of others, in films such as THE SHE-CREATURE and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, the Gill-Man was easily the most effective and natural-looking Monster design of the 1950’s; at least, from an American studio. Only Godzilla, from Japan’s Toho Studios, was his superior. Designed by Milicent Patrick and Bud Westmore for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, the Gill-Man suit was slightly revised for this sequel, most notably the head-piece, which was altered to give the actor inside better vision.

Taken together, all of these factors, in combination with an excellent script by Martin Berkeley and Jack Arnold’s sure, steady direction, produced one of the best, most memorable Creature Features of the decade… and one of this author’s personal favorites. One of the reasons for my love for this film is simple: Much of it was shot in my hometown.

Jacksonville Florida in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s was one of the state’s fastest growing cities, and (I make no claim of being unbiased here…) one of it’s most beautiful. Cut neatly in half by the wide, slow-moving St. John’s River, post-war Jacksonville was a city of Navy bases and Insurance companies, with a long, rich history.

Part of that history was a once-thriving motion-picture industry, with a reputation in the first decades of the last century that rivaled Hollywood’s at the time. Many silent films were shot in Jacksonville; indeed, many of Oliver Hardy’s (of Laurel & Hardy fame…) early movies were produced there.

Likewise St. Augustine, thirty miles south of Jacksonville, was a town steeped in history. Founded by the Spanish in 1565, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States and, when I was a child, the tourist attraction in North Florida. Before the coming of Walt Disney World made Orlando the tourist Mecca that it is presently, thousands would flock to St. Augustine in the summer, to visit such attractions as the Castillo de San Marcos, an enormous 16th Century Spanish fortress, and Six-Gun Territory, a Wild West theme park.

Another huge attraction was Marineland. Long before Shamu was thrilling crowds at Sea World, dolphins were performing before cheering throngs at this Aquarium. A favorite location for field trips among area schools, I (as well as most of Jacksonville’s schoolchildren of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s…) was a frequent visitor there.

That was part of the fascination that this film held for a young Unimonster. I was perhaps 10 when I first saw this film on television, and was immediately captivated at seeing locations that I had actually visited in person featured in a Horror Film. From Marineland, to the familiar night-time lights of my city, to the Lobster House restaurant my parents used to dine at, I was amazed at the connections I had with this movie.

That is the primary reason that this movie remains so personally important to me. While all the Universal Horrors fill me with nostalgia, reminding me of happier, more care-free days, this is the only one with the power to actually transport me, albeit virtually, back to the hometown of my childhood… the only one that can, with a few glimpses of fondly-remembered locales, chase away the worries and troubles of middle-age. This movie, as much as anything can be, is a portal back in time. It is, for me, like another familiar St. Augustine attraction… the Fountain of Youth.

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Special Correspondence--Sexes in the Cinema: A Guy, a Gal, a Gill Man

When CreatureScape.com celebrated the 52nd anniversary of the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in the spring of 2006, Elizabeth Haney and John “The Unimonster” Stevenson took a closer look at this landmark film, from their unique perspectives across the aisle. Here’s that conversation, reprinted with gratitude to Elizabeth.

UNI: When you call yourself “Unimonster,” it’s just expected that you have an abiding love of all things Universal, especially one of their greatest creations. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON certainly qualifies as one of their best. One of Universal’s “Big Five”, it has long been one of the most popular of the Universal Franchises. To me, personally, “Creech” has always been the best of a great decade. Though many great horror and sci-fi films came out in the 1950’s, CFTBL was unique. It was a movie that never failed to entertain me as a child, and still entertains me now as a grizzled aging Monsterkid.

EH: Creature from the Black Lagoon ranks as one of my all-time favorite monster movies in part because it's one of my earliest monster movie memories from back in the days when I would sneak back out of bed to watch late-night horror movies on television. The Creature made a tremendous impression on me back then, and my affection for him keeps growing through the years; I feel like every time I watch the movie, I get to know him a little better. And to know a Gill Man is to love him.

One thing that really sets the Gill Man apart from some other monsters is how sympathetic a character he is; you really feel sorry for the guy as you watch what he goes through. This is classic Jack Arnold (the director); he was a master at creating circumstances so we see the events through the eyes of the “monster” and sympathize with that character.

UNI: Well, something that Universal did better than anyone else was to create characters that, while qualifying as “Monsters”, are nonetheless sympathetic, solid, three-dimensional beings. Often evil, always dangerous, but still, they had depth. They had, for want of a better term, soul. Anyone who doubts that needs to re-examine Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster in the original FRANKENSTEIN. The Creature stood apart from the common, ‘50’s B-Monster herd by giving us, not an atomically-mutated insect or invading alien, but a natural beast, at home in his element, posing no threat to anyone who did not threaten him. We transported ourselves into his world; we entered his home; we were, in essence, the invading aliens. He reacted no differently than would we in a similar situation, by fighting back with whatever weapons were at his disposal.

EH: As with other Universal monsters, it’s the look of the Gill Man himself that is a big part of why the movie is so outstanding. The artists who worked on the concept of the Creature and then created such a wonderful costume, along with the work of the actors who portrayed the Creature, help to make us forget there is a human under there. However, the setting makes it very special as well. As a kid I was mesmerized by this small group of people trapped on a boat in an exotic jungle world. This was no rambling Gothic castle or ruined watchtower: these people were stuck on a tiny boat in a hostile jungle on a very big river until they wrangled themselves out of the situation. This was also the first time I saw a woman in an active role in a horror film. Even though it's pretty limited by today's standards, as a little girl it was pretty heady stuff having a character I could project myself into. Kay was there as a researcher, part of the team; she had a reason to be there, and wasn't tagging along as a fiancĂ©e or wife.

UNI: The location shooting (at Florida’s Wakulla Springs State Park, as well as the Universal backlot…) also set this movie apart. It was easy as a young boy to see myself on the Rita, cruising far up the headwaters of the Amazon. While Universal never turned out a totally bad looking piece of film, some photographer’s work was better than others, and William Snyder’s work was some of their best in the ‘50’s. As to Julie Adams’ unusually strong characterization of Kay… though I can now see how groundbreaking the role was, when I first saw her on the screen that was the furthest thing from my mind.

EH: I really envied Kay for her chance to have such an exciting adventure! And even though the Creature was a little scary to me when I was a little (and made a gal think twice about going for a swim), I think on some level I understood that this was a monster who was not going to bother you unless you bothered him. Now, as a grown woman, I get uncomfortable with some of the interpretations of the sexual subtext in the movie. Some people see the story merely as the male creature wanting to possess the female human, the creature being in competition with the human males, which can tweak the story into some kind of racist rape allegory. That is certainly not in keeping with what Jack Arnold strives for in his movies. Why would he create a sympathetic monster that you are supposed to relate to and then give it criminal or ugly motive?

The movie is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. It draws on elements from King Kong, but I think a major difference is in the character of Kay. Kay feels sorry for the Creature and we see and hear her express that clearly, in ways that Ann Darrow never did (or one might argue couldn’t). Kay even defends the Creature to the others and suggests they just leave him alone, and I really admired Kay for that!

To me, the more predatory battle for Kay is between the two human scientists, David and Mark. Their reactions seem so overblown and macho when they are pushed into competing for Kay, either between themselves or with the Creature.
Of course, there are two things that Mark wants and loves more than Kay. One is money and the other is that harpoon of his. And boy, does he love his harpoon. It's quite impressive in 3-D, and the corresponding dialogue when he describes the “positive weapon” is almost funny.
I see the Creature attracted to Kay not just for her beauty but because he sees someone with whom he relates. When David and Mark go diving in the water, it's very bold, and the sexual subtext is clearly there. The men prepare by putting on their scuba gear with grim determination. They penetrate the water, plunge, probe and generally intrude, bringing knives and harpoons no less.

Kay's approach to the water is completely different. She just smiles and slips into the water; no gear, no knives and harpoons, just Kay and her white bathing suit. Kay does not intrude in the Creature's world but flows into it. Kay delights in the beauty of the lagoon, appreciates the feel of the water on her body and her swimming says she is totally comfortable and at home. Small wonder the Creature feels he may have found a kindred spirit here. The Gill Man swims under her and matches her directions and strokes and when curiosity overcomes him he approaches her cautiously, gently, shyly and finally nervously touches her foot. It's almost a water ballet.
Even when the Gill Man pursues Kay in later scenes, I never get the impression he intends to harm her, which Kay also asserts in dialogue. This poor guy is lonely; whether he's been alone since the Devonian age or lost his mate or who knows what, Kay appears to be the first other being he's laid eyes on who understands and appreciates the beauty of his Black Lagoon. And she's not packing a harpoon.

UNI: While I might agree there is some sexual subtext, if not outright suggestiveness, in CFTBL, I don’t think I can agree with you on ALL of your points, Elizabeth. I mean seriously, even Freud might have a problem seeing a sexual context in the simple act of diving into the lagoon. I’ll admit you might have a point (no pun intended…) about Mark’s spear-gun… but sometimes a harpoon is just a harpoon!

Also, I do think there’s a certain sexual side to the Creature’s interest in Kay, just as I do think Kong had more than platonic feelings for Ann. It is a scientific fact that animals are attracted to menstruating women; animals such as chimps, orangutans, and dolphins have become aggressive in their interest for human women at that time. It’s not too hard to see that Creech could have such instinctive reactions. That hardly makes those impulses “criminal”; he is, after all, an animal. His actions, whether violence directed at the males of the expedition, or his interest in Kay, cannot, by definition, be criminal.

But I can’t agree with you enough on your description of how the Creature perceives Kay as she swims in the lagoon. In fact, I don’t think I could describe the scene any better than you did. It’s obvious that the Creature is captivated by Kay, perhaps to the point of obsession. As I watch the movie now, I can recognize the point at which the Creature’s motivation ceases to be the desire to eliminate a threat, to his growing curiosity and fascination with the woman.

Of course, none of this mattered, or even occurred to a nine year-old boy watching this movie for the first time while sitting three feet away from the TV late one Saturday night. I just wanted to see what all the monster-mags stacked in the corner of my bedroom were calling such a great classic. To me, classic meant Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy… maybe the Wolf-Man. Anything with so hokey a name as CREATURE in the title was usually relegated to the “Good, but not great…” pile in my mind. I’m happy to say that the magazines were right, and the Creature did, indeed, exceed my expectations.

EH: During that famous swim scene where the Creature sees Kay in his lagoon, I’ve often wondered about the wonderful white bathing suit and how much of the costuming choice there was deliberate and how much was just good fortune in terms of the effect it created. It’s white, and I’ve wondered if that was to emphasize the purity of Kay’s character, or if it was to create the wonderful image of just her shapely figure when backlit from above and filmed underneath, or perhaps a little of both, which creates some tension for the viewer. Julie Adams said that at the time the suit was almost a little racy, with the higher cut leg openings. My mother, who was a teen and worked in a movie theater when the movie came out, said seeing “Creature” inspired her to go shopping for a white bathing suit that year.

UNI: Kay’s pure white swimsuit is one of the iconic images that you carry with you from this film, and one that serves to illustrate just how powerful and effective Black & White photography could be. The stark contrast between her shimmering figure and the black and gray tones of the lagoon as she swam couldn’t have been just a fortuitous accident; it’s the job of the cinematographer to make such shots happen, and Snyder did that to perfection.

EH: Another scene that always impressed me, even way back, is when the Gill Man observes Kay toss a cigarette overboard. Growing up, my folks emphasized the importance of not littering and with a father who was an avid fisherman I spent a lot of time peering off the sides of boats. The camera captures such a powerful image there, the cigarette butt floating down in the water and the Creature observing this in a very bemused fashion. It seems like that little shot is intended to emphasize what was slowly happening in the lagoon. For me, a shift seems to occur at that point, it ups the ante a bit and his actions (even towards Kay) become more urgent and aggressive. Perhaps the Creature, who thought Kay saw his world the way he did, was disappointed to see her tossing junk in his water.

UNI: While my jerking knee is telling me that that’s a case of overanalyzing the scene, there’s enough documentation to establish that the environmental aspects of it were emphasized, as if the complicated shot set-ups weren’t proof that it was meant to be of some significance. I’m not sure that I see the change in attitude that you refer to, though. While the audience would grasp the significance of Kay’s polluting the pristine lagoon, however symbolically, I would argue that the Creature has no inkling that the item she tosses overboard was anything more than these strange creatures’ waste matter… certainly I would deny that Creech was “anti-smoking.”

EH: It’s fun to revisit this movie and celebrate the special people and circumstances that worked together to create not only a great monster movie, but to give birth to an iconic monster figure. How fortunate we are that “Captain” Jack Arnold and crew sailed down the Amazon and gave us the opportunity to discover, meet and love the Gill Man, and how fortunate we are to have him still with us today!

UNI: I agree completely with that, Elizabeth. You know, it’s been over thirty years since I first saw this film, and since then, I’ve probably sat through a hundred or so viewings of it. I’ve never been bored by it, and frankly, that’s a lot more than I can say for some of today’s films.

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

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

Year of Release—Film: 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.]

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 manages 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.
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 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.”

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 the entire Legacy series. Or quit calling yourself a fan of classic Horror.

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