Falling short in the eyes of those we admire can be terrible. But changing yourself – losing who you are in the process – and still encountering rejection may be worse.
Such melancholy is at the heart of the two years 1956 The creature walks among us and 2015 The lure. Separated by nearly sixty years, these films share thematic parallels which, taken together, make the horror of their stories all the more overwhelming. Both films feature a character whose identity is stripped for the needs of another, to face rejection or indifference. Beyond their immediate connection to aquatic creatures, these films are more closely related than we might at first imagine.
Join me as we dive. Be forewarned, spoilers for both films abound.
The creature walks among us is the last film in William Alland’s Black Lagoon trilogy. the years 1954 Creature from the black lagoon sees an expedition of scientists to the Amazon after the discovery of the fossil of an aquatic missing link. The “Gill Man” – a half-man, half-fish creature – still lives in the jungle waters, seemingly impervious to millions of years of evolution. The film’s first sequel arrived a year later. Revenge of the Creature sees the man Gill captured and on display at the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida. The poor man is caged and studied for commands and control, but he ends up escaping and terrorizing the county. The creature walks among us ends the trilogy and sees another group of scientists attempting to capture the man Gill. However, their goals are very different this time around.
Jeff Morrow (from This island of the earth and The Giant Claw) plays Dr. Barton, a quietly manic scientist who wishes to push the boundaries of evolution. He wants to physically change the Gill Man, and thus prove that humanity can be prepared for space travel. Barton’s plans are hastened when a member of his crew sets Gill Man on fire, burning his outer scales. A set of human lungs activate under his gills, and his face becomes less reptilian and more like us. Dressed in coarse clothes, the changed Gill Man is brought to Barton’s mansion. He is locked in an outer cage and his behavior is monitored. Barton’s scientific pursuits take a back seat in the film’s third act, as his savage paranoia over his wife’s loyalty frames the wrath of captive Gill Man.
2015 The lure is a musical fairy tale set in 1980s Poland, and is a free 1837 adaptation by Hans Christian Andersen The little Mermaid. It tells the story of two mermaids, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszańska), who become singers and dancers for a group in a seedy nightclub. Silver, the more naive of the couple, falls in love with the group’s bassist, Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), who openly regards her as an animal. Silver’s behavior contrasts with that of Golden, who asserts himself and fiercely protects his sister. While Silver yearns for Mietek, Golden eats people and has sex in lavish lesbian sex scenes. Silver craves Mietek so much that she decides to have her tail removed and replace it with human legs, but it comes at a price: her voice. Silver also learns that if Mietek marries someone else, she will turn into meerschaum – unless she kills him first. Despite Silver’s sacrifice, Mietek meets and marries someone else. Silver confronts Mietek, but cannot bring herself to kill him. She disintegrates into foam as he holds her.
The parallels emerge when considering the mutilation of Silver and the man Gill. In both films, there are characters who are altered, who are then forcibly mutilated to make them more acceptable; and yet they are Again treaty like Other. This is the essential tragedy of these films. These characters are modified to suit the whims of two very superficial men. But once their whims are satisfied, Gill Man and Silver are cast aside, having lost a part of themselves in the process.
Being a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, it might be reasonable to ask why we’re comparing The creature walks among us To The lure, not just the original story. After all, in Andersen’s tale, the titular mermaid always changes for the sake of an unworthy prince. However, it is their visual parallels of a clinical transformation, their gender congruence, and the placement of their narratives in modern civilization that allow these films to be compared.
In The creature walks among us, the Gill Man is so changed that he is less monstrous and more humanoid in appearance. And yet, he remains in a cage. Barton took it from his home, burned it, and transformed it – all in the service of great scientific achievement (read: immoral). They clothed him with the remnants of humanity, but he is still in a cage because they have an animal left. In The lure, Silver is in love with Mietek, despite using the word “animal” to describe her. From their first interaction, he decided the dynamics of their relationship – that he sees her as monstrous, like a beast. So despite the fact that he appears to be his choice to have his tail withdrawn, it is no doubt forced upon him because he implicitly told her that she had to lose it. If she wants to meet her love, she has to destroy a part of herself.
In The lure, after Silver lost both of his tails and her voice, Mietek is outraged by her when they attempt to have sex. They come closer before he moves away, his groin and stomach covered in blood from his surgical scars still healing. The expression on his face expresses disgust. Although she went through this painful transformation that stole her very voice – the symbolism of which is immense – he just doesn’t care. He leaves and finds another woman. Money is still that grotesque fish for him. An animal. Forced mutilation resulted in self-destruction, and for what?
As Steve Kronenberg pointed out in his essay on The creature walks among us (as part of the excellent Tom Weaver The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy), once the Gill Man has been changed, it results in “an even uglier, more monstrous appearance.” His closeness to humanity alarms us, perhaps because his torment is becoming more difficult to distinguish from that committed against a person – a torment we would consider wrong.
This is also in the front and center of The lure. Even though Mietek calls Silver an animal, it is only after undergoing his transformation that we see the frightened register of disgust when they attempt to have sex. Now that she is physically like him, her interest is gone. She can be rejected like any other woman. Additionally, the image of a man disgusted with blood during sex with a cisgender woman echoes the misogynistic, immature and postponed response to menstruation – another way she (as a woman) may be altered. .
It’s not just that Gill Man and Silver are forcibly brought close to humanity and are always treated like Others, it’s their very close proximity to humanity that pushes back the characters around them. An unspoken border between Us and Them has been broken, and it is hideous even to those who have actively worked to break it (Barton and Mietek).
Indeed, for Barton, power over the man Gill is also tied to the control he has (or thinks he has) over his wife, Marcia (Leigh Snowden). Later in the movie, Rex Reason’s Dr. Morgan (who is a little more sympathetic to the creature’s plight) talks with Barton about the change in man Gill’s behavior. After his transformation, Male Gill seems less aggressive and more curious about the world around him. Is it a response to better treatment or simply to its biological evolution? Through Barton’s words, we see his paranoia emerge as he rants over loyalty and betrayal. Here is a man so afraid of losing what he considers his (Marcia), that he pushes harder to control what he believes is within his reach (the Gill man). His talk about the future of mankind is just a spiel, but his control over the man Gill is also a reaction to the power he fears losing over his wife.
It sounds with The lure in the power wielded by Mietek over Silver. Everything she goes through and everything she destroys on her own is akin to minor interest in Mietek – as evidenced by the ease with which he moves forward. It’s a question of who has the power, and it’s not her.
The ways in which the two films end also reinforce their parallels. At the end of The lure, Silver lets himself die. She is still so attached to the idea of being loved and held by Mietek – a very Human desire – that she let herself perish. She knows what he put her through, but she stays in his arms as she disappears.
The end of The creature walks among us is just as heartbreaking. Earlier in the film, shortly after his transformation, the man Gill dives back into the water to escape. Dr Morgan points out that “he will die in the water!” He will use his lungs and he will drown! and indeed the man Gill almost does. At the end of the film, the Creature staggers towards a beach. He looks at the sea, the water to which he will never be able to return. He stumbles towards the ocean and the screen goes black. We know what’s going to happen. We know he’s going to drown. It knows.
Although separated by time, production techniques and culture, there is more connection between these two fascinating films than one would expect. The creature walks among us and The lure offer vivid and obnoxious depictions of self-destruction for the benefit of immoral causes – and immoral men. Whether it’s in the moving eyes of stuntman Don Megowan (who played the man Gill on earth), or the innocent youth of Marta Mazurek’s portrayal of Silver, these films build characters who, despite and because of their Otherness, are deeply sympathetic. Thus, their treatment is all the more tragic, and the narratives of the films more powerful.
Self-destruction – whether physically, symbolically, or spiritually – at the whims of an indifferent party is an eyesore, and these films excel at portraying it.