Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cardboard Science: A film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite


What if... King Kong were six foot even, and he had to return to the water every three minutes to breathe? Why, it would be just terrible.

Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Martin Berkeley and William Alland
With John Agar (Prof. Clete Ferguson), Lori Nelson (Helen Dobson), Nestor Paiva (Lucas), Tom Hennessey (the Gill-Man on land), and Ricou Browning (the Gill-Man underwater)

Spoiler alert: high

"When a captured Creature (John Agar) forms an emotional link with a researcher (Lori Nelson), they're soon driven to break free of their respective 'prisons' in this classic monster film"'s wholly accurate synopsis of Revenge of the Creature, written by someone who totally watched at least thirty seconds of it.

Dubious summaries aside, the idea of not John Agar in monster makeup, and not John Agar, say, possessed by an alien brain, but just plain John Agar, being captured for cold, cruel scientific study, suggests the most appealing film that was never made, but if God really existed, would have been.

He was a friend to John Wayne, husband to Shirley Temple, player in literal scores of Western movies and TV shows.  But John George Agar, Jr., is something of a mirror of Jack Arnold as well, for he is remembered best, often solely, for his science fiction.  In Agar's case, there seems less injustice in this, for while Arnold made excellent films in many genres, it was in his science fiction movies alone that John Agar broke free of the background.  Even if this never translated into true stardom, it can never be denied that, in sci-fi, he was a titan.

And, boy, was he ever wrong for the sequel to The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Whatever it was, it smarmed me.

Before it even hit theatersand it hit them hardUniversal already knew they had something special on their hands with Black Lagoon, and the first whispers of a follow-up were already being uttered.  When it proved successful, they were ready.  Unfortunately, they weren't ready enough to hold onto Richard Carlson, whose screen persona could not have been more different than Agar's, at least within the confines of handsome white men who pretend to know science.

John Agar's approach to every performance of his I've ever seen was to walk the razor's edge that separates confident charm and inhuman dickishness.  If American Psycho had been made in 1955, there is no question that Agar would have played Patrick Bateman.  (And in 1957, for all intents and purposes, he did; and I'll save a fuller hosanna of one of my favorite actor's merits for that extraordinary motion picture.)

The narrative backbone of Black Lagoon, howeverand Arnold's It Came From Outer Space before itwas the morality Carlson brought to the screen, sensitive, hesitant, sometimes haunted.  Agar is... not those things.  But then, those things are not in this movie anyway.

No, Agar is not bad in any technical sense here, but his improbably named scientist, Clete Ferguson, is incorrect, and he is incorrect in almost every scene.  He is the wrong man playing the wrong character in the wrong movie.  Revenge is not outrageously terrible, for it was made by competent craftspeople, but it is worthless.  This saddens me so much, though I shouldn't have been surprised; as an MST3K episode (which is a little telling in itself, though not decisive) I've probably seen Revenge of the Creature ten times.  Intellectually, I've known for a decade that it sucked.  But I watched it unaccompanied for this review, hoping that, without distraction, I could still find a good movie within the thing.  I know now that I was wrong.  After a streak of three legitimately great films in a row, that he did much to make great, this is Jack Arnold reverting to typea contract director, fulfilling his duties, and hardly anything more.

Revenge is one of the grandfathers of the exploitative sequel, attempting to duplicate the form of the original while emptying it of all its magic.  The soulfulness is removed from its protagonist, the ferocity removed from its combat, and even the setting is removed, from the dark unknown, to the well-lit and dully familiar.  Now the cuts between water and land no longer feel like an aesthetic guide that separates two worlds, but only what they are: obvious editing tricks to disguise two separate sets of actors.  The already tenuous connection to Universal Horror is lost like tears in the sea.  It's a work that lives up to every stereotype about 1950s B-movies, where the most interesting thing about it is that you can spot a young Clint Eastwood, hilariously out of place, as a bumbling lab assistant.  It is a heartless picture, that only in its rarest moments implies that Arnold, or anybody else, even cared.  Ricou Browning returns as the Gill-Man underwater, but the swimming is so obviously a human in a suit, I was sure he hadn't, and there's a shot of him that can be comprehended in no other way than Browning waving, right at the fucking camera.

In one respect only does Revenge depart from the pattern of the cash-in sequel: it tells a different story.  Well, it tells the last part of King Kong that Creature didn't get to, spreading it over an hour and a half, something even Peter Jackson didn't dare do.  But this only underlines how little everyone gave a damn: for God's sakes, Revenge is a movie that is patently an allegory for slavery, and no one working on it noticed, or if they didI must believe Arnold didnone of them thought it was a theme worth really developing.

"Your name is GILL-MAN."

In an unnecessary and tensionless prologue, we return to the Black Lagoon, where a better-prepared expedition tediously goes about capturing the Gill-Man for fourteen whole minutes.  The only highlight is the return of Nestor Paiva, reprising his role as Creature's ethnic stereotype riverboat captain.  Despite his warnings of doom, no one dies, and the trappers trap their target through the simple expedient of hitting him with the shockwaves from the explosion of dynamite, because 1955.  They then render him to Marineland, a gladiatorial arena for dolphins and other undersea life.  Shackling the Gill-Man by iron chain to the bottom of an aquarium floor, Marineland is flooded by tourists whose sole desire in life is now to gawk at the obviously intelligent and terribly mistreated beast.  One of them is Clete Ferguson, a researcher in animal cognition.

On a personal note, research into animal cognition is what convinced me to become a vegetarian; it seems almost impossible to believe that it would not, at least, engender a hint of sympathy for the thoughts and feelings of higher organisms.  But, remember, this is John Agarthose hints, though occasionally present, are few and far between.  When they come, they seem to confuse him greatly, before he represses them once more.

And once he meets fellow scientist Helen Dobson, neither Ferguson as written nor Agar as he plays him seems to be capable of even pretending to care about the Gill-Man for any extended period of time.  He's a fast operator, picking her up nearly by force while heading off another suitor, in a moment that must be the most 1950s thing I ever saw that didn't involve overt sexualized violence.  But they find true love together when they bond over the torture they indifferently inflict upon the Gill-Man.  It's just awful.

The above image largely sums up the film.

The Gill-Man escapes, of courseand his escape sequence is one of those rare moments when the Arnold we know comes back to life, bringing for just an instant that same combination of idealism and cynicism that makes him a great director, when a wave of fleeing, shrieking meat knocks over the cardboard cut-out of the Gill-Man, just moments ahead of the real, justifiably murderous Gill-Man behind them.  Naturally, for this is Jack Arnold, they knock it over directly into the camera, in the only shot that signals that this was a 3D movie.

The above image, also, largely sums up the film, but at least it's fun.

More passable romance happens, that might have been better enjoyed if this were just a movie about two scientists fucking, but it's not, and so it isn't.  The story might be different, but Arnold and Scotty Wellbourne are not above failing to rip themselves off with a gelded recapitulation of the indelible bathing beauty sequence from Black Lagoon.

Eventually, the Gill-Man kidnaps Helen, presumably to make her his aquatic bride, and everything that was wrong with this in Black Lagoon is intensified tenfold, as we witness his slow shamble into the darkness with Helen in his arms... at three minutes at a stretch, before he has to put her down, retreat to a nearby river, and hydrate his gills.  It has all the romance of a sexual predator suffering from diarrhea.  There's even a point where it seems that the Gill-Man realizes that raping surface dwellers might be more trouble than it's worth, but it was probably just my own reaction to this impossible obsession he seems to have.

Dolphins are too fast to catch, I guess.

His only luck in this relationship is that, in the 1950s, women still fainted dead away at the slightest possibility of violence, rendered utterly incapable of running faster than a short-gaited assailant with breathing problems.  The end, naturally, is a hollow retread of Creatureso much so that Arnold felt entirely comfortable using the footage from the first film to close the second.  What a disaster.

Revenge could and should have been the Bride to Black Lagoon's Frankenstein.  The similarities abound.  Each original was an explosive success.  Further, Black Lagoon is an adaptation of a classic work of art, that only tells half that classic's story.  And most importantly, Revenge is the only other Universal Horror sequel to retain the original's director, and even if Arnold doesn't possess the same blatantly auteurish qualities of a James Whale, his body of work makes it abundantly clear he was a director with a voice.  The same idea man was behind it, though granted Alland only ever contributed about a paragraph's worth.  The problem is the lack of passion that permeates Revengeand, by comparison to Bride, perhaps explains its poisoned genesis.

Despite Frankenstein's great success, Whale never wanted to do a sequel, but when he was asked/required, he used the opportunity to bully Carl Laemmle, Jr., into all sorts of concessions.  He got Laemmle to back another, personal project, for one thing.  But most importantly, he got control over Bride's screenplay, and he was merciless with his screenwriters, rejecting one script after the other, till finally he got something he thought was right.  Despite a somewhat contemptuous attitude toward the project even then, Whale wound up making an even better film than the first, though it took time: Bride didn't premier till 1935, four years later.

Revenge opened barely twelve months after Black Lagoon, and to all the evidence available to me, Arnold and Alland filmed the first script that was written in coherent English.  The proof is in the pudding.  (Adding insult to injury, Alland even had better one-paragraph ideas than the one Revenge's script actually usedlike giving the Gill-Man a family, and having them held in a more benign captivity by rich preservationists who developed sympathy for the creatures before complications arose.)  Is this why the two films are so very different in quality?  The answer seems to be a simple "yes": Whale was under contract and Arnold was under contract.  The former fought for what was right.  The latter just did his duty.

But let's not burn him at the Goddamned stake.  It Came From Outer Space, The Glass Web, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon weren't flukes.  Arnold would make great movies again.  It's only that thisthismay be the worst thing he ever made.  Hell, it's not even an especially good episode of MST3K.

Score:  3/10

That which is indistinguishible from magic:
  • The Gill-Man is from the Amazon River, so naturally they put him in a saltwater aquarium.  I'm sure he'll be fine!
  • The filmmakers know when the Devonian Period happened even less than they did the last time.
  • Speaking of the Devonian Period... It's commonly assumed that all female fish lay eggs, and these eggs are fertilized by a male, and then they hatch.  Not true!  Internal fertilization was evolved independently by fish, and as I learned in the tireless research I do for you people, turns out it's been shown that they had done so as early as the Devonian, thereby completely crushing the joke I was going to make about the Gill-Man not even possessing a penis with which to rape.  Thanks a lot, Incisoscutum ritchiei.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • As we know from the Milgram experiment, delivering electric shocks to humanoid beings for no good reason was far more acceptable in those days.
  • Enslaving cetaceans to perform for our amusement was just fine, too.  Oh, poo, it still is.
  • Helen discusses her relationship with Clete, waxing melacholy over the possibility of having to give up her career if she ever decides to pursue love.  Clete, when asked how he would feel, glibly retorts, "I'm a man, I don't have to make that choice.  I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but that's how it is!"  The scene cuts before he forces her to make him a sandwich.
  • Clint Eastwood would go on to make many fine films.  That's all I've got.  This one's a dud.


  1. I don't think Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) had anything to do with this review. Why is her name in the title of your blog post?

    1. I try to stay away from six year old memes, but I can think of nothing else to say but "Not sure if serious."