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06 March, 2010

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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