Monday, June 8, 2015

Cardboard Science: Gill-Man or Astro-Man?


Loopy and unjustified, but at least there's some noticeable heart in the third and final chapter of the Black Lagoon trilogy, which is a lot more than you can say about the second.

Directed by John Sherwood
Written by Arthur Ross
With Rex Reason (Dr. Thomas Morgan), Jeff Morrow (Dr. William Barton), Leigh Snowden (Marcia Barton), Ricou Browning (The Gill-Man), and Don Megowan (The... Lung-Man?)

Spoiler alert: high

Welcome to the William Alland retrospective!


Alland once said you'd recognize him, but he'd have to turn around.  In the late 1930s he fell in with Orson Welles' New York gang, gaining a level of notoriety by abetting Welles' infamous punking of planet Earth, adding his vocal talents to The Mercury Theatre on the Air production of War of the Worlds.  His most celebrated public role by far came in 1940, however, when Alland took on the thankless job of the journalistic framing device in Citizen Kane.

"Oh, you mean William Alland."

It wasn't till 13 years later that Alland began work on his true legacy.  Now a producer at Universal, he championed a new director named Jack Arnold. Arnold, given his break, made It Came From Outer Space.  The rest was genre film history.  Whether Alland knew it then or not, he'd begun the career of maybe the most important sci-fi filmmaker there ever was not named George Lucas, George Miller, or Ridley Scott.

But let's not condemn Alland to Arnold's shadow.  First, because that's an awful big shadow to put a man in; and second, because with Outer Space, Alland took the first step on the path to becoming one of the most important sci-fi producersa name to be spoken in the same breath as Corman, Gordon, and Pal.

To be sure, Alland's best work was always his collaborations with Arnoldand Arnold's very best works involved Alland not at all (while his worst, sadly, did).  As we undertake our examination of Alland's five further contributions to the genre, we will discover thatwellmore often that not, his post-Arnold productions bore the indelible stamp of mediocrity.  Nevertheless, there remains a certain unquenchable spirit within almost every one of Alland's SF pictures; and he would oversee the production of at least one more film of ambition, and perhaps even canonical quality.

Our subject for today, The Creature Walks Among Us, is not that film.

In 1954, Alland produced Arnold's second SF outing, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, thereby giving birth to the last Universal Horror franchiseAs one of that breed's strongest pictures, it also made a ton of money.  Exploiting his success, Alland had Arnold pump out Revenge of the Creature, the objectively-soulless sequel.  Walks is the follow-up to that; and one would be right to fear even further degradation, as Alland crushed the brand beneath his heel for whatever precious juice still remained within.  Thankfully, Walks clears its immediate predecessor's unfathomably low bar.  Certainly, no reasonable person could suppose that statement contains a promise of actual entertainmentbut I aver that there is, at least, something worthwhile to be found in the Gill-Man's second best movie.

As in Revenge, a new cast of characters arrives; and for the third time running we are confronted with a group of scientists, compelled to harass the humanoid fish who once lived in quiet solitude.  However, one cannot accuse the Creature franchise of ever repeating itself in the details.  While Black Lagoon and Revenge were respectively the first and second halves of King Kong, Walks takes the series in an unprecedented new direction, bringing the Black Lagoon trilogy to a close.

This time, the team of differently-moral researchers isn't after the Gill-Man so they can put him in a cage for the delight of tourists. Rather, they've been recruited by William Barton, a depressive, rage-prone drunk with some very dippy ideas about the Gill-Man's scientific value.  Black Lagoon, we recall, made strange and unsubstantiated allusions to marine biology's contribution to the oncoming space race.  Screenwriter Arthur Ross, who helped write Black Lagoon and returned for Walks, now builds an entire plot around the non sequiturs he forced into Richard Carlson's mouth two years earlier.  Barton's immediate goal is to capture the Gill-Man, presently hiding in the Floridia swamps, for brutal experimentationfair enough.  But he further plans to take what he's learned, using it to rebuild the human body itself into a form fit for habitation in Outer Space.

So let's go to space!  Is there one among you who does not want to see Gill-Man X?

For whatever reason, Barton's colleagues still agree to get on a boat with himeven when it becomes clear that his insanity is either running parallel to, or is caused by, the ongoing collapse of his marriage, and Marcia Barton is present, seemingly solely to chafe under the wedding yoke.  Naturally, she comes to regard the mellower, far less mad scientist on the expedition, Thomas Morgan, with increasing affection.  Morgan, for his part, finds himself in the quandary of disagreeing fundamentally with Barton's goals and his methods, but still determined to see the Gill-Man for himself.  (And on the margins is Jed, the handsy boat captain, with his own, less welcome hard-on for the only woman in the film.)

"We are beyond the reach of man's laws here!"
"In the Everglades?"

Everything goes wrong.  The sonar-equipped scientists pursue their quarry, but it's not clear who's trapping whomthe Gill-Man's ambush catches them off-guard in the worst way.  Despite Barton's commands, they respond with as much force as they can muster, and the Gill-Man is accidentally set aflame.  Insensate, his gills ravaged, the scientists reel him in, certain that all they'll learn now is how a Gill-Man dies.  But something miraculous happens, confirming (at least in Barton's mind) his every batshit theory.  The Gill-Man inflates his lungs, sheds his scales, and I suppose his proud aquatic penis must become unretractable as well, since there has to be some reason Morgan orders that he be given clothes, besides the dumb one he states in dialogue (along the lines of, "due to his increasing skin sensitivity, he should be draped in rough cloth").  Intrigued more than ever, Barton renders his captive to his private zoo in California.  The domestic drama plays out as the creature bides his time, waiting for a moment of weakness.  Conveniently, that moment comes once the film has reached a feature's length.

Walks has a complicated plot for a movie that's barely over an hour long, and it helps nothing that there is precious little in the script that ever demands the presence of a Gill-Man particularly.  Walks is concerned almost exclusively with the irreconcilable dialectic between Drs. Barton and Morton, on one hand, and the irreconcilable differences in the Bartons' marriage, on the other.  Any monstrous maguffin could have brought those tensions to a boil. And so it does, inasmuch as by the halfway mark, the Gill-Man has been transmuted into a terrestrial monster.

Yet the set-up offers a minor thrill: a This Island Earth reunion.  Here, Jeff Morrow plays well to the strength he demonstrated in that picturethe evocation of passionate delusion, only now turned to eviland he adds a patriarchalism that's vile even by 1950s standards.  Rex Reason is decidedly less cocksure and unpleasant than he was in Island, instead channeling as much uncut Richard Carlson as he can into his loquacious proto-hippie of a science hero.

The disintegration of the Barton household adds a certain interest; it even dovetails nicely with the film's overarching theme of human duality.  It's solid stuff, in fact, but what it isn't is a terribly exciting horror movie.  The presumptive subject of the film spends most of his time doing literally nothing.  (Though we can be very happy that the trilogy's theme of beast-rape has finally been buried.)

Only in the very end does Walks remember that its titular character is a famous movie monster.  When the creature finally rises, it's as an eruption of wanton violence, serving almost purely to emphasize Morgan's points about the respective merits of kindness and cruelty, while underlining the human penchant for blaming all our failures on a submerged, animalistic nature.  It's good narrative and somehow unsatisfying at the same time.

The Gill-Man's plight, however, can be breathtakingly effective in the moments when the film focuses upon it, above all the grim, unexpectedly powerful endingelliptically suggesting the disfigured creature's ironic suicide by drowning, the only way he might ever escape the depredations of humankind.

The grace notes are there; but the lack of sustained horror atmosphere, dictated by the script, is a shame given the man behind the camera.  John Sherwood was an assistant director on practically everything Universal ever made, but when he was finally given his own films, he had a limited directorial career, circumscribed by his unfortunate death.  His brief resume still impresses, however, for it includes The Monolith Monsters, a film just as hare-brained as this oneyet delivered with an even graver tone, and with imagery that alternated between chilling, thrilling, and spectacularly apocalyptic, like few 1950s SF movies ever managed.  Sherwood's staging in Walks, preceding Monolith by a year, is scarcely less mature. The initial confrontation with the Gill-Man is almost scaryno mean feat for a Universal Horror filmand only a few isolated moments from the first Black Lagoon match the impression of animal strength given by the creature's last rampage in Walks.  Sherwood has a facility with the quieter scenes, as well; although they're maybe  too quiet, they do move with a suitable pace, never rushing, yet with commendably little padding.  (Most of the padding comes courtesy James Havens, returning from Black Lagoon to again direct this film's slow and surprisingly unnecessary underwater sequencesthis time without Scotty Welbourne to help make them terrifying and beautiful.)

Walks had an uphill climb in front of it, with a thick glaze of incoherent, incomprehensible pseudoscience overlaid onto one defiantly simple concept.  Perhaps a chamber drama was the only way to have made it work even as well as it does.  In fact, it's nearly worth watching just for how counterintuitively it treats its iconic sea monsterI can't say William Alland had a keen eye for quality, but he was never the kind of producer who stifled his collaborators' imaginations, even when he probably should've.

Despite the attempt at substance in Ross' script, and despite the fitful flair of Sherwood's direction, something is palpably missing from The Creature Walks Among Us.  And that's the Creaturewho walks, but mostly in circles among Barton's herd of pet goats, endlessly waiting for the plot to give him anything to think or feel, let alone do. The good outweighs the needless and the stupid here, but not by much.

Score:  5.01/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Barton's hypothesis (that savagely mutilating a creature will force it to adapt) is on the short list of the most preposterous things ever brought to bear in a 1950s sci-fi filmwhich you know is a very competitive field.  That Morgan disbelieves him is to Walks' credit; but that Barton is taken seriously for even a moment by anyone with a high school diploma, let alone a damned Ph.D., is numbingly awful.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Marcia speaks of the good old days, when she was 17 and newly wed to the good doctorwhen he was, it seems, already a doctor.  Gross, or hot?  The lawyerly answer: it depends on your jurisdiction.
  • In fairness, Walks isn't the least bit judgmental of Marcia's obvious hatred of her husband, and the pain of being trapped in an unhappy marriage is depicted with the rawness of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, if not at half that level of quality.
  • Of course, most Douglas Sirk melodramas aren't predicated on torturing a unique life form until he looks like a fucking hot dog.
  • Dr. Morgan saw the Gill-Man's nakedness, and knew shame.
  • Humanity is caught, between "the jungleand the stars!"  Bless you, Rex Reason.  You needed to be in far more movies than you were, and better ones, too.
  • Sensaclinicaldepression, more likeparticularly in the closing shot of the Gill-Man looking out at the water as he considers the meaning of loss.

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