#14 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
Finally, a new monster. The Universal Monster franchise had gotten to the point where the serious thrills of the early films had been replaced by outright and intentional comedy. There was room in the market for more straight horror, but the Frankenstein monster just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Something new needed to come along. So, they came up with a fish man and made a cross between King Kong and Beauty and the Beast. Sure, okay.
An archaeologist, Dr. Maia (Antonio Moreno), finds the curious remains of a fish-like hand in the rocks near a small tributary of the Amazon River. His discovery excites his former student, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson). Convincing the head of his department, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), and his girlfriend, Kay (Julia Adams), to come along a new expedition goes out to investigate further, hoping to find the full skeleton. They return to find Maia’s two native assistants dead, killed by some large animal. They continue the work, though, and decide that they will follow the tributary to the small lagoon that their boat captain, Lucas (Nestor Paiva), describes as a local legend and a paradise, to see if any of the fossil had broken off from the main section and ended up there.
Now, none of these characters are particularly interesting except Lucas. Maia largely becomes a non-entity as the younger characters take over. David Reed is dedicated scientist. Mark Williams is greedy moneyman. Kay is damsel in distress who occasionally talks like she knows some science. There is a problem at the heart of this film, and it’s that these characters are so painfully generic and uninteresting. Where the movie is easily the most interesting is the titular creature, the Gill Man (Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning in the water).
The movie missteps by having the Gill Man kill the two native helpers in the beginning. I think it’s an effort to create a sense of menace early, and I wonder if it was inserted during a reshoot after a test screening, or something, because the Gill Man outside of that incident is actually a complete innocent that the science team simply terrorizes the second they show up to that lagoon. Remove those first two kills, and the Gill Man’s first interaction with any of these people from the outside world is when Kay decides to go swimming. Doing some underwater acrobatics for the camera, Kay swims around while the Gill Man observes and gets close, trying to touch her foot. He never hurts her or even threatens her. He does lose a claw in the ship’s net, which tells the scientists of his existence, though.
That discovery leads to the two basic approaches of David wanting science and Mark wanting money. They try to drug the water, and when the Gill Man climbs up on the boat, screams at fire, and then swims away, David and Mark pursue, invading his home caverns. There are more attempts by the Gill Man to get close to Kay, but after he gets shot by Mark’s spear gun unprovoked, I find it hard to hate the Gill Man at all. Everything he does is self-defense on some level after that, including the killing of the cannon fodder, I mean Lucas’ crew. These people invaded his home and are out to try to hurt him. The Gill Man has every right to defend himself and his home.
That paradigm shifts when the Gill Man, in the final twenty minutes, sets up a barrier to the lagoon to prevent them from getting out. This changes things from the Gill Man being preyed upon to him preying upon the ship, turning it into more of a standard monster movie. It’s fine, but it also kind of tells me that the writers Harry Essex and Arthur Ross and director Jack Arnold simply didn’t know what they were doing regarding the titular creature. I’m not sure they realized how sympathetic they were making him in how they constructed the story.
One technical aspect of the production that I’m actually really impressed with is the underwater filming. The only other major film from roughly this era with extensive underwater sequences that I can think of is the James Bond adventure Thunderball, and in that the underwater action felt slow and laborious. Here, it feels surprisingly fast. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the underwater sequences director, James C. Havens, had undercranked the camera a bit to speed things up upon replay. It makes the swimming more dynamic, the tussles with the Gill Man more exciting, and the action generally more suspenseful.
If the humans weren’t so boring and there was a clearer idea about what the Gill Man was, I’d embrace the film much more than I currently do. As it is, the conflicting elements undermine the movie while the technical aspects of the production do their best to maintain interest.
It’s not the worst monster movie ever, but it’s no King Kong.