There's no amount of rotenone that could subdue Judge Dennis Prince's high regard for this compelling new collection.
Centuries of passion pent up in his savage heart.
Although running a complete decade behind the Universal "brute pack" (that is, the unholy foursome of Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man) the Creature firmly established itself as a monstrous menace to be reckoned with, becoming the last of the true "classic monsters" from studio's legendary horror history. An immediate hit in its first feature, the Creature proved brutish enough to spawn its own batch of sequels. As happened with the other Universal creeps, the follow-on films were met with uneven regard. No matter, because the Creature is compelling in each of his filmed adventures.
Facts of the Case
This new Legacy Collection from Universal Home Video marks the first DVD appearance of all three Creature films in the digital medium. While the original film surfaced onto disc in August 2001 (then was discontinued shortly thereafter), this set delivers the second and third films of the trilogy to disc for the first time ever; previously, they were only available in inferior VHS incarnations.
Few genre fans require schooling on the plot and premise of the Creature films. But with new fans coming onto the scene each year, a brief rundown is certainly in order (especially considering many younger fans haven't even been aware of the two "Sequels from the Black Lagoon").
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)—"The record of life is written on the land where, 15 million years later in the upper reaches of the Amazon, man is still trying to read it."
After discovering a fossilized claw, a team of ichthyologists and geologists venture deep into the Amazon jungles in search of a fabled Black Lagoon and clues to the origin of a prehistoric "man fish" that may have once existed in the Devonian Era. Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson, It Came from Outer Space), financier Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning, The Day the Earth Ended), and lovely assistant (and fiancée to Reed) Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams, The Lawless Breed) charter a boat to lead them to the legendary lagoon. While their geological efforts prove fruitless, failing to turn up any additional pieces of the animal skeleton, the team does encounter a living specimen: a ferocious gill-man who shows disdain for the intruders, yet is drawn to the beauty of Kay. Piquing the scientific curiosity of the troupe, not to mention the profit-earning ambitions of Dr. Williams, the expedition's prized game soon turns the tables on the team and begins hunting them, one by one.
Revenge of the Creature (1955)—"If he is dead, you wastin' money. If he is alive, maybe you be sorry you find him."
Word of the fantastic gill man reaches the ears of those at Ocean Harbor, Florida, an aquatic research facility and theme park that finances a return to the Black Lagoon to confirm the existence of, and possibly capture, the incredible Creature. Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva, Tarantula) navigates the Amazon again to help two Ocean Harbor scientists locate and capture the beast. Using explosive charges, they stun the monster and ferry him back to the Florida aquarium. Determined to tame the Creature, Prof. Clete Ferguson (John Agar, The Mole People) and Dr. Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson, Bend of the River) attempt behavioral conditioning through reward and punishment techniques. The Creature, however, escapes the aquarium and finds his way to the ocean. He doesn't journey back to his lagoon, though, as he's developed a primordial lust for the lovely Dr. Dobson.
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)—"Gentlemen, the Creature can be changed. We can make the giant step and bring a new species into existence."
Surviving his incarceration and escape from Ocean Harbor, the Creature has been surviving deep in the Florida Everglades and is again sought out by scientists. This time, millionaire Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow, This Island Earth) has chartered a yacht and, accompanied by Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason, Raw Edge) and Barton's own headstrong wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden, All That Heaven Allows), the team finds and ensnares the Creature. Having been badly burned during his capture, the Creature is near death until the scientists discover the sea beast possesses a dormant set of lungs. Further, it's discovered that below the burned-away layer of scales, the Creature has a secondary layer of human-like skin. Transporting the monster to Barton's vast ranch estate, the Creature is penned up; now a hulking yet docile land animal. But will the human conflict around him—brazen displays of jealousy and brutish acts of retaliation—reawaken the fury of the beast?
Though a late-comer to Universal's sinister stable of spooks, the Creature has enjoyed sustained popularity and is immediately recognizable for monster lovers young and old. Following the success of 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Universal sought to hitch a ride on the success of the prehistoric mayhem films of the day, yet elected to reduce their entry into the ancient-monsters-run-amuck genre to a man-sized threat. It worked. The plotline is simple in the Creature series: man wanders into a forgotten realm, is driven by curiosity-turned-greed to capture and extract a remarkable being from its environment, an alluring female rekindles the animal desires of the beast, and a final conflict ensues between meddling man and the instinctive, misplaced animal. If you're hearing strains of King Kong here, you're right. Series producer William Alland confesses that Kong was his inspiration for the Creature, yet his underwater series actually required two pictures to complete the tale of Beauty and the Beast. It's a good tale and, as the Creature films have become so well regarded, we'll excuse Alland of any infraction here.
It's really quite incredible that a 1950s cinematic monster could garner and sustain critical acclaim, given that it's just a "man in a rubber suit." Too many genre-scoffers take misplaced pride in taking aim at yesteryear's movie monsters, gleefully trumpeting design defects, execution inconsistencies, and technical troubles (watch them joyfully point out the zipper on Gort's suit during The Day the Earth Stood Still). When it comes to Creature, however, there's very little to dispute; the suit is that good. Well before the days of Lycra or Spandex form-fitting garments, the designers of the Creature delivered an amazing costume, using a standard body stocking that had rubberized scale sections applied over it. Wetted down, the suit looked (and still does look) rather convincing. Although the film credits Universal makeup head Bud Westmore for the Creature, the record shows that lovely Millicent Patrick created the overall design of the monster, sculptor Chris Mueller was responsible for the monster's head, and effects technician Jack Kevan was instrumental in mold-making and other design and construction efforts. Westmore, as many will sneer, merely "oversaw" the effort, yet was always nearby to take full credit whenever the press visited for updates on the film, pushing aside the actual talent so he could soak up the spotlight. (Did you know that the initial design of the Creature was inspired by the Oscar statuette? Rare photos exist that show Jack Kevan sculpting a rather smooth-skinned, pointy-headed character maquette.)
Still, given that the head of the Creature is just a…well…a mask with a static expression, much should be said about the various actors portraying the monster (six in total, if you're up on your monster trivia). In the first picture, 6'6" actor Ben Chapman plundered about as the scaly scare during the above-water sequences, grasping, groping, and grunting at his human captors. It was the incredible Ricou Browning, however, who is most responsible for the Creature's "personality." An Olympic swimmer, Browning was remarkably adept at moving underwater while in the Creature suit, actually inventing the trademark side-to-side swimming motion and the underwater backstroke we've come to appreciate. Because of his graceful ease of movement as the monster (that is, the way he made it look so effortless), Browning provided the quintessential movement and mannerisms that made the Creature so believable, breathing convincing life into what could have been just another unremarkable rubber suit. Ben Chapman departed for the second film, and many believed that it was Browning doing all Creature work, above and below the water. Browning was again on-hand for underwater duty—but it was stunt actor Tom Hennesy lumbering around above ground, sporting a new monster head (see how the Creature's head is much wider and now has prominently bulbous eyes, an obvious adjustment to enable better vision for the actors). But it was in the third picture where Creature actor Don Megowan (from 1958 TV's Tales of Frankenstein) brought incredible new depth and emotion to the land-based monster, now physically transformed, solely through the effective use of his eyes and body language. It's a remarkable performance, really. Swimmer Browning was back yet again for the underwater sequences and film fans are treated to an on-screen demonstration of the "hose breathing" technique that Browning used during the filming of all underwater sequences of the series. (This was usually done off-camera, but was presented within the plot here when the character of Morgan pursues the Creature underwater. Using a hose, he buddy-breathes with the monster back to the surface.)
So what about the other actors in this series; were they any good? Actually, the films are well-stocked with good actors of the day, despite the fact that most abhorred the thought of being relegated to the B-movie hell of sci-fi pictures (they were considered the low-end productions of the day). In the first film, genre regulars Richard Carlson and Richard Denning provide unwavering melodramatic machismo during their Creature encounter, to great effect. Stunning Julia (Julie) Adams is the perfect lure for the monster and appears truly terrorized. Revenge offers a less effective John Agar, another sci-fi veteran, in a sometimes stiff and stilted performance. Lori Nelson is the new token female and does a good job. This second picture is the one that includes the much ballyhooed big-screen debut of Clint Eastwood, in a bit part as a lab assistant. Lesser known, but in no way of less import, is a brief screen appearance by Ricou Browning, sans the Creature regalia, also as a lab assistant. And, in Creature Among Us, actor Jeff Morrow turns in a terrific performance as the obsessively motivated and insanely jealous Dr. Burton. Rex Reason stands his ground well as a man of reason and morals. Leigh Snowden also performs admirably as Burton's strong-willed yet emotionally abused wife.
The persistent question of the series—one that resurfaces with this new Legacy Collection—is whether Creature was just a one-hit wonder. In 1952, before director Jack Arnold ever began shooting the first film, producer William Alland had rewritten the ending of the script to ensure the Creature could return for additional pictures. The first picture is truly the best of the series, especially when seen in its original 3-D format; yet the second, while shot and exhibited in an improved 3-D process, just doesn't compare. The third picture, however, is much better than many critics or even Creature lovers will typically profess. With the roles cleverly yet subtly juxtaposed—that is, the Creature becomes less of an aggressor when subjected to witnessing the emotional and physical transgressions of humans locked in battles provoked by jealousy and greed. Looking at the overall arc of the stories throughout the series, the Creature trilogy is very unique in that it presents three separate and distinct settings and situations for the movie monster, rather than a mere rehashing of man-fights-beast concoctions. In the end, the series clearly paints man as the "beast," bent upon infiltrating the environment, harnessing its elements for monetary gain, and ultimately exposing his own lack of humanity and the destruction that comes from it. The Creature is just a pawn in all of this, exploited and endangered against his own will. And you thought it was just another monster menagerie, huh?
Dive into this new two-disc Legacy Collection from Universal, because it's truly a treat of near-definitive quality. Beginning with the transfers themselves, all films are presented in their original 4x3 Academy Standard aspect ratio. The first film sports the same transfer found on the 2001 DVD issue previously mentioned (read the review of that disc here) and maintains a very impressive image quality that was lovingly restored to reduce imperfections and damages to the source material without distracting film grain or compression artifacts. Unfortunately, the second film doesn't fare as well. While the picture quality is generally more detailed than the former VHS versions, the amount of film grain in the underwater sequences becomes so overwhelming that we wonder if we're looking through a cloud of buoyant kelp or sea algae. This can't be the case, though, since these sequences were filmed inside Florida's Marine-Land holding tanks. Exterior shots are generally good, with the daylight sequences offering some decent detail and good contrast balance, and with nighttime shots being engulfed in murky darkness. Frankly, this transfer looks like it was fished from the bottom of the Black Lagoon—but why? Thankfully, the third film looks much better—the best I've ever seen it, in fact. The picture is clear, clean, and free of source defects. There is a bit of shimmering in the opening dock sequences (the car grille and the gang-plank wiggling wildly) but the rest of the film is free of such distractions. Contrast level is also well managed and controlled to avoid overly dark renditions. The audio for each picture is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and sounds just fine for all. There are a few moments where Herman Stein's ba-ba-bahhhh cue gets a little shrill but that's the exception, not the rule, here. The dialogue remains clear and decipherable throughout.
The real bonus in this new Legacy Collection is the bevy of information you'll glean from the extra features. Creature fans were already impressed with David Skal's lengthy "Back to the Black Lagoon" featurette created for the first picture, which has been brought back for this issue. There are also plenty of theatrical trailers for the first film, promoting both the flat and 3-D versions of the picture, and a generous helping of production stills. Film school truly goes into session in film historian Tom Weaver's running commentary, where he uncovers so many details about the film that his comments are literally non-stop for the 79-minute duration of the movie. Again, these are all the same features that were found on the 2001 disc. That's a tough act to follow but Universal steps up to the plate with their bonus features for the two sequels. Trailers are on hand for both films, and they look pretty clean (the Revenge of the Creature trailer is presented in window-box format, while The Creature Walks Among Us trailer is actually that of a double-bill showing with The Price of Fear). The frosting here, though, are the two additional running commentaries, where Tom Weaver is back to deliver his unending information and compelling trivia, joined by Lori Nelson on Revenge and the astute and affable historian Bob Burns for both pictures. Listening to Weaver and Burns is an absolute joy. The two offer such fun and informative discussions on all aspects of the productions such that even the most commentary-adverse among us would be hard-pressed to resist the two men's infectious passion for these films. During their chat with actress Lori Nelson, Weaver and Burns are quite gentlemanly and respectful, reminding us of the admirable regard and camaraderie that was once the norm in Hollywood (sadly absent in today's world of undercutting insolence among ill-mannered stars). Honestly, these two commentaries are the best I've heard, ever.
This all is delivered in a unique new slipcase package. The outer case features an embossed film title with a clear window that reveals the image from the keep-case within. The keep-case itself is similar to a glossy-finished hard-bound book, with digi-pack disc holders within. A single sheet inside gives us brief plot descriptions of each picture, and offers promotions for other Universal Legacy Collection offerings.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's nothing to rebut here outside of the few image troubles already mentioned. In the nit-picking department, though, I'll say that I don't like the fact that The Creature Walks Among Us is listed before Revenge of the Creature on the Disc Two main menu. All menus are static and feature a sort of unsettling monstrous gurgling soundtrack. Beyond this, there's nothing to complain about.
Finally, all three Creature pictures have been brought to DVD, and Universal has seen fit to give them a proper presentation. This new release is highly recommended—and at a price of less than $30, this is a definite buy it now.
This court finds that Universal has raised the bar for all other studios in the presentation of classic film material, and is to be heavily commended for their results. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature-length Commentaries
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