Although “The Wolfman” didn’t ignite the box-office enough to get within howling distance of ever breaking even domestically — the notoriously troubled 150-million dollar project grossed a respectable, if underwhelming 35-million total over the four-day Valentine’s day weekend — it at least helped Universal take one step in the right direction towards officially resurrecting their classic Monsters line.
A mainstay in Cinema’s golden age, serving both as main attractions and B-movie programmers between the mid-1920s and mid-1950s, Universal’s treasure trove of repulsive boogeymen were a powerful and lucrative brand-name, promising chilling gothic atmosphere, square-jawed heroes, screaming damsels and unsightly tragic villains to anyone who purchased a ticket.
While history has strongly favored Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, Wolfman, Dracula and the Mummy, who, following successful and beloved debuts, went on to headline multiple starring vehicles, crossovers, spin-offs and, later on down the road, big-budget remakes, one of the studio’s most iconic and recognizable grotesqueries has long been criminally ignored and under-appreciated.
I’m referring, of course, to the Creature from the Black Lagoon or, more succinctly, Gill-man, the fearsome aquatic denizen of the Amazon River. Certainly, few can forget his scaly visage and unsettling fishy eyes — say nothing of his inescapable ever-outstretched arms bearing 10 dreadful razor-sharp claws — yet he has, for a number of reasons, always felt like an A-level creation in search of a premise worthy of his fiercely distinctive talents.
A significant blockade impeding Gill-man’s ability to earn proper cinematic respect stems from his placement in the Universal monster chronology. Unlike his more famous brethren — who lurched onto the silver screen during the early days of the transition from silent pictures to talkies, with James Whale’s masterful “Frankenstein” hitting first in 1931 and “The Wolf Man” bringing up the rear in 1940 — poor Gill-man didn’t emerge from the murky depths until 1954, a period when audiences were growing disinterested in monsters and aiming their collective attentions at science-fiction and western pictures.
It was also an age when the population had begun migrating to the suburbs — away from the city centers where the theatres were located — and actively voicing their preference for television over a costly trip into town. Though studios attempted to boost their sagging numbers with the use of 3D technology (sound familiar?), projecting “Creature,” along with many other B-Movie offerings, in the gimmicky format, it was a classic case of too little, too late. Sure, the prospect of seeing Gill-man wave those vicious digits in your face was an appealing prospect, but it did little to earn him the mass popularity of his pioneering disfigured genre-mates.
Also not particularly helpful to the fishy one’s cause was the fact that the mythology established by his films felt more than a little familiar. In fact, both “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and 1955’s sequel “Revenge of the Creature” feel like a two-part remake of the influential 1933 classic “King Kong.” The first depicts the adventures of a team of scientists encountering the mystifying animal — a missing link between man and fish — while on an exploratory journey up the Amazon and attempting to capture it for study. However, the creature has other ideas and soon falls head-over-fins for the male lead’s gorgeous girlfriend Kay (Julie Adams), eventually kidnapping her and taking her to his hidden sanctuary where he is finally shot down by the surviving scientists.
“Revenge” picks up and continues to run with the rest of the “Kong” narrative, introducing a new team of scientists who snare the miraculously surviving marine being and transport him to an aquarium in Florida. Despondent and filled with affection for lovely researcher Helen (Lori Nelson), the creature breaks free of his man-made shackles, abducts the frightened girl and goes on a rampage across the city which culminates in him being gunned down by authorities.
Even if startling originality isn’t exactly on display in those two movies, directors William Alland and Jack Arnold do wonders in establishing Gill-man as an entirely alien entity, an H2O-breathing beastie who — despite the dopey love-sick angle — feels like a living, breathing, instinct-driven animal devoid of human rationality or logic. Unfortunately, their commendable work would be mostly undone by the second sequel, “The Creature Walks Among Us,” a moronic, lazy entry which features the titular scaly one being transformed into a hulking, grunting Frankenstein-clone — barely reminiscent of the brilliant earlier Bud Westmore-honed design — capable of recognizing the errors of his destructive ways. Bah. This misguided, low-grossing final chapter irrevocably muddied the franchises’ waters and left Gill-man without a webbed foot to stand on.
Hard to believe, but it’s now been over 50 years since the Creature terrorized errant scuba-divers and bathing beauties. While Hollywood has actively toyed with the property as of late — “Sahara” and “The Crazies” helmer Breck Eisner was attached to a remake project for eons before moving on to greener pastures — the raised public profile that “The Wolfman” has afforded the studio’s past successes may even rub off a little on ol’ groovy Gill-man. Commercial director Carl Rinsch — the man initially handpicked by Ridley Scott to oversee the in-the-works “Alien” prequel before 20th Century Fox shot him down — is attached and will hopefully craft an exciting, novel approach to the character without drifting too far from its engaging B-movie horror roots. Hell, with the right amount of gusto and creepiness, Rinsch could quite easily fashion the greatest “Creature” feature yet. It’s not like the bar has been set insanely high.
Without much to go on in terms of the direction Rinsch will be taking the enterprise, blind idle speculation is all we really have to go off of. I do, however, have two elements I’d like to see included in the final splashy effort.
Most crucially, I’m hoping that the new design team doesn’t see fit to deviate too far from Westmore’s original creature work. Minor updating is wholly necessary (moving eyes would be nice…) but overly “Predator”-like concepts like this one would be best left in the drawing room recycle bin. As evidenced by Rick Baker’s stunning work on “The Wolfman,” simplicity and practicality works best and allows for a more unsettling final result capable of capturing the spirit of the monster we all know and love. A mutated mixture of “Hellboy’s” Abe Sapien and Fluke-man, the wormy, regenerating man-eater from “The X-Files” season 2 episode “The Host,” would be more than sufficient — if not utterly orgasmic.
After all, the mere suggestion of ferocious, toothy killers lurking just beneath the water’s surface is terrifying enough. There’s no need to make the Gill-man into an overly-elaborate CG beastie who resembles a denizen of Jabba’s palace. All that truly matters is that he feels like an inhuman primal force capable of great brutality. The rest obviously takes care of itself, given our inherent, ongoing anxious fascination with aquatic death-dealers (“Jaws,” “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “Orca,” “Rogue,” “Lake Placid,” plus about a half-billion cheapie DTV clinkers).
My other request feels a tad less likely to actually come to fruition, but it would be wonderful if this new “Creature” was a period piece. When the 1954 film was released, the Amazon River held a great deal more intrigue and mystery than it does in the modern day, due to the fact that comprehensive sources of information such as the Discovery Channel and the internet — not to mention improved methods of travel — have done a great deal in explaining the once unexplainable and providing man with a far closer look at Mother Nature’s greatest secrets. By transporting the story back to the early 1900s, Rinsch and crew could recapture that romantic sense of untapped wilderness and impenetrable jungles — where danger lurks behind every turn. Throw in some cool 3D (as if that already isn’t a given) and it could allow for a seriously cool and foreboding cinematic setting, not to mention an easy hit.
Of course, even these mostly realistic dreams may, in the end, prove completely futile given the number of failed revamp attempts under “The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s” belt. It’ll take a bit of luck and a vast amount of patience and effort for Rinsch to succeed, but, ultimately, if the job gets done right, he could finally deliver on the property’s boundless promise and supply the fishy fiend with a means of reaching an entire new generation of rabid fans eager to help fulfill and extend the legacy he so greatly deserves. Because, after a half-decade of gathering dust in the Universal vaults, poor Gill-man, even more so than another well-known amphibious water-dweller, deserves to be the one complaining “It isn’t easy being green.”
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Follow Cam Smith on Twitter at http://twitter.com/camspcepisodes.