Revenge of the Creature (1955) **
Sometimes it really is better to just leave well enough alone. 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon was easily the best horror/monster film Universal Studios had produced in about 15 years, and I’d be willing to let it slide if someone told me it was the studio’s best since the 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera. And given that the movie’s artistic success was matched (and indeed, probably exceeded) by its success at the box office, a sequel was all but inevitable. However, as a fan, I’d like to suggest that the little voice that emanates from the wallets of big-shot movie producers-- the one that says, “Quick! Make a sequel before the audience forgets how much they liked the first movie!”-- ought to be ignored far more often than it is heeded. Revenge of the Creature shows that the difficulties inherent in making a worthwhile sequel were just as strongly in effect in the 1950’s as they are today.
A year after his first trip to the Black Lagoon, Lucas the riverboat captain (Nestor Paiva again) has himself a new boat (the Rita II) and a new crew, but he apparently learned none of the lessons his experience in that forgotten corner of the Amazon basin should have taught him. He has returned to the very same dead-end stream that nearly became his grave the year before, and this time he has brought with him another couple of scientists whose avowed mission is to capture the very same creature that came close to killing him the last time. These men, Clete Ferguson (John Agar, of Invisible Invaders and The Brain from Planet Arous) and Joseph Hayes (John Bromfield, from Curucu, Beast of the Amazon), are in the employ of a Sea World-like tourist trap in Florida called Ocean Harbor, and their bosses want the gill-man brought back for a combination of scientific study and insanely lucrative public exhibition. They’re thinking a live gill-man in captivity will pack in the crowds like nothing else on Earth, and they’re probably right. And fortunately for all concerned (except, that is, for the gill-man himself), Ferguson and Hayes have thought of the one thing that escaped the minds of their predecessors. It would seem that both men are former Southern country boys, because their strategy for catching the gill-man involves a slightly more advanced version of what was a fairly common practice in that part of the world in those days-- dynamite fishing! That’s right, the scientists place floating cans full of explosives at strategic points around the lagoon, set them off, and then wait for the concussion-stunned monster to float to the surface just like all the other fish. And sure enough, it works.
The problem is it also puts the gill-man in a coma, and he remains that way through the entire boat-trip home to Ocean Harbor. It ends up taking Ferguson a good couple of hours walking the creature around in circles in the holding tank (it’s the same technique they use to revive unconscious sharks-- the motion forces oxygen-bearing water over the animal’s gills in the water-breather’s equivalent to steady deep breathing) before it comes to. Of course, then the scientist is faced with the fact that he’s holding an enraged gill-man by the waist. All in all, it means a narrow escape for Ferguson, and no escape at all for Joe Hayes, who tries to help by tackling the creature back into the water when it shakes Ferguson off and climbs out of the tank. Ropes, nets, and stainless steel chains finally succeed where human muscle failed, and the gill-man is safely corralled and moved to a more secure tank.
I hope you like watching gill-men eat fish out of little wire boxes, ‘cause that’s about all that’s going to happen for the next 45 minutes. Ferguson and a pretty, young grad student named Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson, from The Day the World Ended) spend most of this time trying to teach the gill-man tricks and poking him with a cattle prod when he follows instead his biological gill-man imperatives and tries to grope the girl. Finally, he gets as fed up with the whole business as I did, goes berserk, and in a fury-induced adrenalin surge, snaps the chain linking his ankle to the floor of his tank. The monster makes good his escape from Ocean Harbor, and then prowls around the nearby coastal towns for a while before somehow tracking Helen to her home and spying on her in the shower. If the sight of a pretty girl in a conservative 50’s swimsuit can send the gill-man into paroxysms of lust, imagine what watching one take a shower can do! The only thing stopping our fishy friend from busting right into the place and dragging Helen’s naked, soggy ass off to wherever it is that he’s been hiding out is the Hays Code, before whose power even gill-men tremble in awe. So instead, he kills her dog and then comes back to collect her after she is decently dressed.
Now mind you, Ferguson isn’t going to take something like that lying down-- not after the scaly beast killed his buddy Joe! What do you think he is, some kind of sissy? Alright, then. Ferguson goes to the police and informs them that they are now looking not just for an escaped gill-man, but for an escaped gill-man carrying a good-looking blonde. He and the cops eventually track the monster to semi-remote stretch of beach, and once the scientist uses the half-finished conditioning he and Helen impressed on the beast to make him put his captive down, the assembled policemen hit him with everything they have. The wounded monster staggers out into the water, and the movie cuts to the exact same footage of the gill-man’s not-quite-death that was used in the previous movie.
What we have here is a prime example of why you should at least wait until you’ve thought of a compelling idea before you go and make a sequel to your well-received movie. Revenge of the Creature plays like it was written in about the amount of time that it would take to watch it twice. And what it lacks in the planning is by no means made up for in the execution. Jack Arnold, who did such fine work on Creature from the Black Lagoon, directs this movie like he’d rather be doing just about anything else, and with this script, it’s hard to blame him. In place of the first film’s exotic setting, we have ugly-ass Jacksonville, Florida. Instead of the previous movie’s ensemble cast of talented second-tier actors bringing unexpected life and complexity to their stock characters, we have two poorly developed, wholly unsympathetic leads played by actors whose hearts seem no more in the enterprise than the director’s. Even the gill-man himself suffers a major comedown in his second appearance. The new suit is visibly shoddier than the old, and the darker paint on the latex does nothing to conceal that fact. Worse still, the new headpiece includes what are obviously swimmer’s goggles in the eye-sockets, and an unmistakable snorkel protruding a good two inches from the skullcap! I’m sure the latter additions made Ricou Browning’s job much easier than it had been on the last film, but given that one of Creature from the Black Lagoon’s greatest strengths is the unparalleled credibility of the monster suit, and that Browning seemed to have come out okay from the experience of performing inside it the last time, it scarcely seems like the benefits of his convenience were worth the cost in credibility to the movie as a whole. In short, Revenge of the Creature is a misfire on just about all fronts.