Lest you think there was ever some magical time when sequels were automatically good, I submit this film as evidence you’re even more deluded than I am. They can’t all be Bride of Frankenstein, and I wouldn’t dare ask it of them. All I ask is that they not be dull. Too much to ask of Universal in 1955, that’s for sure. Am I being unfair? Probably. But when I get bored, I get even surlier.
I don’t know what happened in the time between this and its predecessor. Nearly everyone behind the camera returns for this second go-round. I don’t want to blame director Jack Arnold, who did competent work on an undoubtedly tight schedule. I’m tempted to blame screenwriter Martin (Green Grass of Wyoming) Berkeley, but I’m sure an army of Bronies will trample me to the dust if I say an unkind word about anyone involved with the Flicka series. So I’m forced to blame producer William Alland, who gets “story” credit on this, even though he heard the man-fish legend from cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa back in the 40s. So who really deserves “story” credit for these movies? No, honestly, I’m asking you. I’m just gonna be over here, reviewing this movie while you think up your response.
The “story” picks up a year after the events of Creature from the Black Lagoon, with Capt. Lucas (Nestor Paiva) once again steaming a pair of gringo scientists up “A TRIBUTARY IN THE UPPER AMAZON” (as the location card says). This year’s gringos are Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) and George Johnson (Robert Williams), self-proclaimed expert fish trappers from the (fictional) marine institute/theme park (or “Oceanarium,” as they insist on calling it) at Ocean Harbor, Florida. They’ve come to the titular lagoon to capture the titular creature. After some initial setbacks they take a page from the Redneck Dynamite Fisher’s Handbook and succeed, knocking the Creature unconscious with the concussive blast from multiple cases of high explosives.
So the first twelve minutes of Revenge play like a high-speed remake of the first Creature feature. Except there’s no tension, no Julie Adams, and none of the oppressive, hot-and-sweaty atmosphere I liked so much about the last outing. No time to develop any of that. No. There’s even less tension if you’ve watched the trailer, which gives away all of Revenge‘s best scenes, including the ending, in under two minutes. Here, let me save you the trouble of watching the whole film:
…and introduce you to one of the best melodramatic trailer voice-overs I’ve ever heard. “They dared to study him, to probe him, to tempt him with the lure of a woman’s beauty!” That line always brings a smile to my face.
The scientific community smiles with me once news of Joe and George’s catch reaches the Plot Specific News Network. From thence it travels to our real (human) main character, Prof. Clete Ferguson (John Agar)…a (*shudder*) behavioral scientist at Unnamed University. Keep an eye out for a young Clint Eastwood as The Lab Tech with the Rat in his Pocket. No wonder he quit to join the Air Force and fight kaiju infestations in the southwest.
Cletus the Slack-Jawed Scientist arrives at Ocean Harbor as Joe revives the Creature, installing it in a permanent tank. Also arriving is Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson), science major at Belmont University, in Texas…who, despite presumably living there for long enough to get a Masters, doesn’t have a scrap of Texas in her voice. Whatever. As the Chick in a monster movie, Helen’s destined to become the apex of a love triangle between our two All American Boys. In this corner, a respected scientist whose actor got top billing. And in the other corner, the man who did what Richard Carlson couldn’t and actually captured the Gillman.
Don’t worry: the conflict’s resolved in one scene and Helen spends the whole film with Cletus. Their “relationship” gets off to a great start. with Helen “helping” Cletus “study” the creature through torturous conditioning experiments. Since neither Dr. David Reed nor his partner in Science, Kay Lawrence, bother to inspect their discovery, Our Creature must seek Revenge on Clete and Helen for repeatedly shocking it with a bull prod. All in the name of teaching him the word “Stop.” In the next scene, our intrepid scientist drugs the Creature in order to hook him up to a brain scanner. “Of course,” Helen says, “it’d be better if we could test him while he was awake.”
And I have to wonder just how much I’m meant to root for our human “heroes,” and whether or not Jack Arnold intended me to be rooting for their destruction. Cuz I am. A little later, Helen almost wins my sympathy by admitting, “I pity him, sometimes. He’s so alone; the only one of his kind in the world. He’s like an orphan of time.” Cletus ignores this in favor of failing to talk Helen out of going into the tank with him. She might be distracting the Creature, which she is, but that’s okay. She’s distracting me, too. If not for Lori Nelson’s bathing suit, I would’ve completely given up on this part of the flick and skipped ahead to the inevitable Revenge.
Cletus proves correct in his assumption, of course, as the Creature goes right for Helen during the next “experiment”…though it stops when she tells it to, putting it one-up on every American male of the period. Inter -species romance is apparently powerful enough to break through language barriers and steel chains. Through its extraordinary power, the Creature finds the strength to scale the walls of his tank, terrorize Ocean Harbor, roll some poor fool’s car down the beach, and escape into the sea.
Yes, they secured the Creature to the floor of his tank with a chain. I’m sure someone, at some point in the process, told the Ocean Harbor higher ups there was, “No need for alarm, boys. Those chains are made of chrome steel!” But let’s back up a second: why chain the creature to the floor of his tank in the first place? Presumably to keep him from climbing out, right? So why put him in a tank he could conceivably climb out of? This is, after all, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, who managed to rack up quite the respectable body count in his first adventure. Why not put him in something with sheer, twenty-five foot-high walls? Works for big cats, and you’ve basically turned this “greatest scientific stir since the explosion of the Atomic Bomb” into a zoo animal.
Why do something that dumb in the first place? Because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have a movie. It’s clear Revenge of the Creature’s genesis went something like this:
Suit 1: Hot damn, did Creature from the Black Lagoon ever make money! We gotta get a sequel into the drive-ins by next July before everyone forgets it even existed.
William Alland: Well, people loved those bits where the Creature ran around roaring and killing people, so here’s what we’ll do: take the big green bastard out of his element and slap him down in the good ol’ U.S.A. Then he can run around roaring and killing people for the whole film.
Suit #2: Love it! You can shoot the whole damn thing Florida this time, save the air fare. What else?
William Alland: Well, people love 3D, right? So I’ll throw some more fish into Arnold’s underwater shots. Believe you me, they’ll be so many fish floating in front of the camera, you’ll think we shot the Fulton Fish Market with an anti-gravity gun.
Suit #1: Anti…gravity…what now? Bill are you okay?
William Alland: No! I’m possessed by a hack writer from the twenty-first century! Can’t you feel it? He’s in our skulls! Klatuu! Barata! Necktie!
Unfortunately, a movie can’t just be the sizzle we all came to see. We need some steak, damnit. Meaning we need more than one character to care about in a film where our titular character can’t talk…or really act. Ricou Browning can swim like a mad bastard, even if the line of bubbles trailing from the top of his suit’s head occasionally (okay, more like “often”) ruins the illusion. Tom Hennesy, who plays the creature on land, can raise his arms and walk in a straight line, which is no meant feat in that mask, with those bug eyes…but that’s about it.
I liked Creature from the Black Lagoon, even if I didn’t necessarily like its characters. At least they got to reveal their personalities by going through a crisis situation. Joe, Clete and Helen, on the other hand, spend the first fifty minutes in a safe, everyday routine of Creature-torturing. Once the Revenge begins, they skip Ocean Harbor on the next boat (probably fleeing civil and/or criminal prosecution for the Creature’s rampage), and pad the film with an extended underwater make-out session. We and the Creature follow them up river, and we both know its only a matter of time before the Creature kidnaps Helen, inevitably bringing about his doom. Because that’s exactly what happened in the last film. Hell, we see that moment in the trailer too.
What we don’t see are any sides to our two (human) leads, other than their professional sides. It’s not because they’re bad actors, it’s because they’ve got a shitty script and a four-, five-, or six-picture contract weighing their minds down. Instead of character development, everyone gets an expository monologue about themselves and their motivations, repeatedly slamming the movie into brick walls. And none causes a crazier splatter pattern than Helen’s “What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)” Speech:
“You know, Scientists are funny. You probe and measure and dissect. Invent lights without heat. Weigh a caterpillar’s eyebrow. But when it comes to really important things we’re as stupid as the caveman…Like Love. Makes the world go round. What do we know about it? Is it a fact? Is it chemistry? Electricity? Once, when I had a crush on the captain of the high school football team, I looked it up in the dictionary. And Love, according to Mr. Webster, is ‘A personal attachment, induced by sympathetic understanding.’ Have you ever heard such nonsense?”
Not in a while, Helen, no. This is the first Martin Berkeley film I’ve reviewed. And after listening to ninety minutes of shit like that, I hope it’ll be the last for a long o’ time.
In place of any action, apart from that in the trailers, we get padding. Lots of padding. We see every stage of the Creature’s transfer to the Oceanarium along with every stage of Clete and Helen’s courtship (it consists of lines like “You’ve become important to me.” “Very?” “Uh-huh.” And this lamest of pick-up lines actually wins Cletus a kiss.) Even for a mid-50s monster movie, this is some sluggish pacing. By the time the plot gets going, the audience is already worn out from having to sit through fifty minutes of stuff the movie couldn’t convince us to care about. What should be tense scenes of the Creature stalking our human “heroes” through the Florida Everglades become absolute slogs. Sticking with the food metaphor, we’ve filled up on bread, and now we don’t want your damn steak, no matter how sizzling it might be. Plus, when I cut the meat open to check and see what the chef considered “well-done,” a nest of squealing worms burst out and began crawling all over the table.
But the film’s not content with ruing our appetite for itself. Oh no. See, the bulk of this was shot on location in Marineland, Florida, the real life “oceanarium” that stands in for Ocean Harbor. As such, I’m sure Jack Arnold would’ve kicked himself if he passed up the chance to film all that captive sea life. Especially the dolphins. Oh how this film loves its dolphins. They even get their own whimsical “It’s Dolphin Time!” theme music as Joe feeds them by hand and they all mug for the underwater camera.
We get to experience the “joy” of sitting through a performance from Flippy the trained dolphin. He can catch footballs and raise flags. Isn’t it cute? Isn’t he pointless? This movie treats us like we’re fucking babies for the first half, and then it has the Creature casually murdering things all throughout the second. Including Helen’s dog. I’m not saying dead dogs and trick dolphins don’t belong in the same film…but putting them together doesn’t help you establish a consistent tone.
Tone is key to a good horror movie. It has to feel like a horror movie, or your audience is going to start getting restless. Is this a horror movie? It’s not nearly as horrifying as its predecessor. The Creature only kills…what? Three people? And like I said, removing things from the isolation of the upper Amazon removes the biggest arrow from this movie’s quiver. Imagine if Friday the 13th Part 2 took place in…oh, I don’t know, let’s say, Manhattan….and only had three murders in the whole movie. There would’ve been riots in the streets. Most of the original took place inside a suffocatingly hot wall of trees and stock bird calls. This movie’s all about bringing the Creature into wide-open, daylight spaces, where his ambient level of Menace sinks to Zero.
I’d be the first to call the movie out of it’d just done the same damn thing as its prequel. Instead, I have to I have to call them out for not imitating that film closely enough. Creature from the Black Lagoon had characters, a tense situation, a definite conclusion and enough murder to keep the pace taunt. Revenge of the Creature has…dolphins. And a shot of Lori Nelson in her underwear:
Apart from that, this sequel has no reason to exist. Box office numbers ensured that wasn’t an option. Its makers could’ve at least seized this golden opportunity and actually done something interesting…but that, apparently, wasn’t an option either. Instead, they made the blandest, safest, most cookie-cutter sequel they dream up and then tacked fifty minutes of crap onto the front of it. That’s Revenge of the Creature in a nutshell. Fill it full of holes and let it sink. Swamp Thing’s more than capable of cleaning up the mess. And we’ve still got to deal with The Creature Walks Among Us.