The Gill Man is the last of the great classic Universal monsters, and he’s a big shift from his brethren. Unlike the other greats, there is no Karloff, Lugosi or Chaney to endow him with a soul. He’s not the first movie menace to be a head to toe creation of the make-up artists, but he’s certainly one of the most memorable. Not to take anything away from Ben Chapman and Rico Browning, the men who wore the suits, but I think most of this film’s success is owed to the people who designed them.
In terms of story, it’s pretty simple, and a tad uneven in places. A scientific expedition that falls victim to a hitherto unknown force of nature, in the form of the Gill Man, a missing link between fish and man. It’s a story framework that had been used before and has been done successfully several times since. (The Thing from Another World was released three years earlier, and of course later on we got that film’s remake, and the Alien and Predator films.) The characters don’t have much dimension. Richard Carlson and Richard Denning bicker constantly as the respective scientist and businessman of the institute sponsoring the expedition. Julie Adams (billed here as Julia) was a popular leading lady at the time, who took the role because it seemed like fun; she’s introduced as an intelligent member of the group, and not just a romantic interest for Carlson, but once the Creature shows up, her role is quickly reduced to that of the screaming, stumbling damsel. Then there's the Beauty and the Beast aspect of the plot, where the Gill Man is inexplicably drawn to a human female. (Either that, or she just looks like a more tender morsel than her male counterparts.)
None of this, however, dampens the fun. The Gill Man is a pretty scary creation; no visible zippers or obvious mask lines here, like many of the other costumed beasts of the era. He’s menacing on land, and creepy underwater. (The vulnerability of being in water while a silent killer lurks below is a scary concept to me.) I find him at his scariest when he stares at the crew of the boat through the bamboo bars of the makeshift prison they create to take him back to civilization. As a costumed monster, he’s almost completely believable; I particularly love the way his gills flap when he’s on land.
I was also watching a documentary this weekend that accompanied the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 Gamera collection in which the Chiodo Brothers lumped the Gill Man in with the likes of Godzilla, Gamera and the other Japanese costumed monsters. They may be distant cousins, but I think Alien, the creatures of the original Star Wars films, and the types of characters Doug Jones has played in films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth are examples of more direct descendants.
Incidentally, I had the opportunity to watch Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D last year. If the opportunity arises, I recommend it. The underwater footage alone makes it worthwhile.
This week’s supporting features:
Speedy Gonzales in Mexicali Shmoes (1959)
The Our Gang short School’s Out (1930)
Next week’s film:The Invisible Ray (1936) starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Frances Drake