Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)

What you make of The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) probably depends on how you feel about 1950s B horror and science fiction as well as the iconic monster himself. The third and final Gill Man picture revises the formula established in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) with a couple of odd twists, most notably an injury and subsequent radical experiments that make this movie's creature quite different from the original version. Many of the other elements remain the same, including the presumptuous scientists and some attractive female bait to get the Gill Man's attention, but these are standard equipment for scores of similar films from this era. Director John Sherwood takes over from Jack Arnold, who spearheaded the first two pictures, while Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, and Leigh Snowden star, but, once again, the Gill Man is the most interesting character on screen, a tragic figure of alienation whose third encounter with human beings only brings him more suffering and pain.

Jeff Morrow leads the cast as Dr. William Barton, an obsessed scientist who finances a trip to capture and experiment on the Gill Man. Along for the journey are Barton's young wife, Marcia (Leigh Snowden), the brash Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), and Barton's reluctant colleague, Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason), as well as a handful of other scientists and crew. When their capture of the creature results in his gills and scales being badly burned, the scientists trigger changes that make the Gill Man a more humanoid air breather, but they argue about the inherent violence of the creature's nature. Meanwhile, Barton's jealousy about his wife creates further tension between him and everyone else, especially when Jed pursues Marcia with boorish determination.

Like most of these pseudo-science B pictures, The Creature Walks Among Us gets off to a slow start, with lots of inane explanation and technical talk about aquatic life, genetics, and sonar. Things pick up as the human characters reveal their quirks, but the real action begins when the Gill Man makes his first appearance. The sluggish first act is more of a problem in a film that only runs 78 minutes, and it does seem like the third movie in a series, coming out so soon after the first two, could dispense with the exposition and get on with the monster mayhem. Actually, the monster doesn't even get to wreak that much havoc, since he's quickly captured, wrapped in bandages, and then imprisoned with a flock of sheep for company. He spends most of his time lying on an operating table or staring forlornly at the ocean from his cage. The cruel irony of a sea creature separated from his natural element generates a lot of pathos, but it eliminates much of the underwater action that made the original movie so interesting.

The creature is, at any rate, one of the film's more dynamic characters, since he undergoes both physical and psychological changes as a result of his experiences. He's very much a figure out of Frankenstein or The Island of Dr. Moreau, the violent but innocent victim of man's hubris. This particular installment does less with the Gill Man's usual preoccupation with the ladies, but it does draw parallels between his situation and that of Marcia, whom Barton also treats as an inferior possession. Barton, it turns out, is the real monster of the story; Jeff Morrow plays him with a creepy intensity that makes him the scariest the thing in the picture, especially in his confrontations with Marcia and Jed. Morgan, who is meant to be a humane foil to Barton, looks good in a swimsuit but has a less interesting role to play, and he goes along with the experiments too much to escape culpability. Of the humans, only Marcia is really exempt from blame, and the mixed depiction of her characters makes it hard to like her, especially when she insists on accompanying a diving expedition for no good reason and then promptly requires rescuing. The rest of the characters remain rooted in the background, providing some ostensibly necessary dialogue but never really contributing to the development of the narrative themes.

The Creature Walks Among Us is something of a weak finish to the Gill Man series, but there's enough going on here to warrant attention from fans of the genre or the monster. Be sure to see the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Revenge of the Creature (1955) first to get the whole story. John Sherwood worked much more often as an assistant or second unit director, but he's also in the director's chair for The Monolith Monsters (1957). See Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason in This Island Earth (1955); you can also catch Morrow in Kronos (1957) and The Giant Claw (1957). You'll find Leigh Snowden in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and a handful of B pictures like Hot Rod Rumble (1957).