Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Little Science Fiction Monster Love

In 1954 Universal released the film that would debut the last of its great Classic Monsters to the world.  I'm talking about the Gillman, the titular Creature From the Black Lagoon.  Now the fact that the Creature is included among the Classic Monster heavy hitters is very telling of his overall impact on the youth culture.  To be fair it was only three years later that the Shock Theater package was sold to television stations and a new generation of children that had not even been considered when Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster first saw the glow of the silver screen were being made into fans all over again.  In fact the Gillman would appear 3 times (1954, 1955, & 1956) before disappearing from the cinemas.  None of his films were included in the Shock Theater package, no doubt because they were too new, but an association must have been made for the Creature stands tall as one of the iconic 6: Dracula, Frankenstein Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, Wolfman, Mummy, and the Creature.
Come to think of it, the Gillman is our Countdown mascot this year and adorns all the Cryptkeeper badges in one form or another.  He's a great character and he deserves more love than he gets from the industry.  I have held hopes for a reboot Creature for decades now and always been disappointed.  It seems that every few years somebody gets a greenlight to write a script or sign a director then it goes into limbo then it is canceled.  A part of me does not want a reboot as reboots often do great disservice to the original (I'm looking at you, Rob Zombie) but after Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992 and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein two years later, I thought we were on to something.  1999's Indiana Jonesesque The Mummy seemed to suggest there was still an interest in the Classic Monsters.  Universal certainly thought there was as they went big budget with Van Helsing and that should have revitalized their monster properties.  Sadly it did not.  Some abysmal Mummy sequels probably did not help matters.  In 2010 they gave us a rebooted Wolfman and this year we get Dracula Untold.  Will this herald a return of Universal Monster glory?  More importantly, will I ever get a Creature update?
And despite my fears that a reboot would suck (mostly because of my love of the original films) I want that validation on the big screen.  Even more than that I want the Creature to stop being treated like Universal's Aquaman*.
What do I mean by that?  Well the Gillman is primarily an aquatic monster, which is part of what makes him so cool to me personally as it combines two things I love: monsters and the water.  Sure he can move around on land but with his huge webbed hands and huge flipper feet he's a bit clumsy and slow.  While he is strong enough to flip automobiles, which should put him in the Frankenstein category of power, he really shines in the water.  Unfortunately this means that when you have the big monster get together movies he's going to be used for some weak water gag or a one-shot swamp/bog scare and that's it.  We can add to that the sad fact that old Gillman, save his appearance on the Munsters (which did him credit, I thought), is verbally inarticulate.
From the Munsters.  I don't know if I love the superfluous hat or scarf more.
That lack of speech can be a problem in monster terms for how often you get picked as focus monster in a group picture.  Dracula's a vampire and vampires talk.  Sometimes they talk too damn much.  Depending on the screenwriter old Frankie can talk to varying degrees, which can make him quite charming in a walking concussion sort of way.  He's a bit sympathetic.  Strictly speaking the Mummy is supposed to talk, and as Karloff portrayed the Mummy he did speak, and quite well.  Later Mummy characters do not talk, but then they are unliving weapons of a villain with an agenda.  Your basic Wolfman talks when he is human, so at least you get some concept of where he is coming from, but not Gillman.  He's a body language sort of monster.  Thus, unless it is a comedy romp we are going to get the silence of the underwater monster.  We don't really know his motivations but they seem limited to mate with girl and escape from hairless monkeys.  And if you know anything about non-selachian fish reproductive processes, that first motive should raise some serious questions.  Thus Gillie is treated like the monster team's Aquaman.  Dracula occasionally gives him something to do on monster missions, but since most monster missions don't involve much swimming Gillman just hangs out in the moat at Dracula's castle or in the Jacuzzi eating sushi and watching Bay Watch reruns.  In such scenarios where we actually get to see him with the other monsters in action it is like watching Flipper (which is apropos given that Ricou Browning played the Gillman in the underwater swimming scenes in all the films and he co-created Flipper).  "Gillman?  What it is, boy?  Is there a problem in the moat?"

In terms of his physical presence he is pretty awesome.  He is amphibious but more comfortable in the water, shrugs off bullets and has a lightly armored hide.  His webbed fingers terminate in deadly claws as well.  If you threw some shark or barracuda teeth in the mix he would be the perfect killing machine.  He is supposedly an evolutionary dead end that still survives to this day (or into the 50s to be more precise).  I can link the Creature to aliens, if you like.
The cover art is the best thing about this novel.
In the novel Time's Black Lagoon by Paul Di Filippo the Gillman of the 50s was the last of his race.  A scientist who is convinced that global warming means we should study the Gillman to mutate the human race to survive the climate changes (it may not seem apparent but said scientist is the HERO of the book) time travels to the Devonian Age with his girlfriend, an outdoor sports enthusiast, to find the original species.  He time travels via an iPod that his buddy, another scientist, invents.  Already you are thinking, "If they can invent time travel with an iPod why can't they fix the climate problem?"  I don't know.  They invent time travel.  In a fecking iPod.  Time travel.  Can't work out how to adapt human biology to a warmer climate or build floating cities should the ice caps melt or build a better HVAC unit or make more efficient engines or reduce greenhouse gasses but they can build a thrice-damned time machine out of an iPod.  And they made two of them.  
Sorry, I got distracted by the gaping plot hole.  Let's just fall in, shall we?
So HERO and GF go back to the Devonian Era and find the Gillman race, a smooth-skinned, lithe, telepathic race of gentle aliens whose ship crashed into the primal seas of Earth and who now call our little mudball home.  They have a weird beard hippie sea worshipping religious system and are very friendly and intelligent.  Then some archaebacteria infects one of the gentle Gillpersons and it spreads it with a scratch to another and they start mutating into the form we all know and love.  The new form is much, much stronger and hardier but less graceful and loses its gentle nature and hippie knowledge.  Eventually, as always happens in time travel stories, the monsters get loose in the modern era and wreck shit.  
It's shit pressed between cardboard covers, but such is my love of the character of the Gillman that I read the whole thing.  I won't be doing that again.  

I wasn't going to show you that picture because it is super-geek stuff, but the Creature directly inspired an AD&D monster.  Think of it as a palate cleanser.

The Gillman is a great character and is worth a quality reboot.  He's a science fiction monster but still feels like a classic monster.  He's the total package and if handled correctly a new take on this old classic would be a guaranteed win.  Why not make him heroic?  Sure, let's have Gillman save some people at a lake camp that are running from zombies.  He could be from lost Atlantis!  We have options here, people.  Maybe even go with a Swamp Thing angle.  He's a being with a noble soul in the body of an aquatic killing machine.  Gillman lovers, and I know you are out there, this is the age of social media.  We have a voice, let it be heard.  

*I say that for its pop-culture angle because, as we all know, I love Aquaman.


  1. Gillman as a hero. I never thought of that angle. It could work... better than Gillman trying to figure out how to fertilize the egg of a human female fish style. Speaking of creature reports, that's something they do at the end of each episode of Octonauts. Hey, I only watch it because the kids like it. How about an amusingly twisted Halloween episode of Octonauts featuring Gillman?