In THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), the monster becomes human, the humans become monstrous, and subtext becomes text

#31DaysOfHorror: October 26

This October, I’ll be reviewing 31 horror movies in 31 days! You can see the ongoing list of what I’ve watched and reviewed here.

For the last two days, I’ve been exploring the legacy of the Gill-Man, my favorite of the Universal Horror Monsters. After re-watching the first film, I argued that the Creature deserves to be a gay icon because of how layered and delightfully homoerotic the film is. I didn’t really like the first sequel — which, mind you, does not undercut his iconic status one bit.

The third film of the classic trilogy is not as good as the first, of course, but it’s a fair bit better than the second, even as it almost completely trades out the horror aspects of the first two films in favor of sci-fi philosophizing about the nature of Man and the Universe. Even if it’s not scary, though, the film’s project of humanizing the Creature and making even more explicit the rotten core at the center of the human relationships makes the film an intriguing, thought-provoking watch. It doesn’t really work as a horror movie, or even really as a science-fiction movie, but it’s a very interesting entry in the canon of classic Universal Horror films nonetheless. Few if any of the other Monsters got three movies that told one continuous story with a clear, defined arc across their films.

The Creature Walks Among Us begins shortly after the events of Revenge of the Creature, as a brand-new team of scientists (with yet another requisite love triangle) heads out into the Everglades to search for the Gill-Man, recently escaped from the aquarium where he had been put on display. They quickly find him, but he proves to be far stronger than they had initially anticipated, and soon their only solution to stop him from killing the entire crew is to light him on fire. It works; he’s put in a coma by the third-degree burns covering his entire body, and the scientists take him aboard their ship to treat his wounds. They quickly realize that his gills have melted shut and the layer of scales has been burned away, revealing a second layer of skin… humanoid skin.

At the same time as the creature becomes more human, we realize that this particular crop of scientists is aggressively awful in ways that were only hinted at in the first two films. Sure, Mark in the first movie was a jerk, but the film at least had the decency to layer it with a good bit of unresolved sexual tension between him and David. In the second film, yeah, they zapped the Creature repeatedly with a cattle prod, but ostensibly they were trying to help him learn to communicate. The first two films also deal explicitly with gender roles (the Creature representing a threat to typical conceptions of sex and gender), with Mark not wanting a woman along on the first film’s expedition and, in the sequel, Helen and Clete discussing the way that it’s unfair that men don’t need to make a choice between family and career.

The Creature Walks Among Us — the title of which gives us a clue as to the film’s thesis that mankind are the real creatures — forgoes whatever subtlety the first two films tried to imbue their proceedings with. Here, the lead scientist who believes that the monster holds the key to evolution — the scientist we’re supposed to put our faith in because he has faith in the Creature’s importance— is extremely abusive to his wife, Marcia. He accuses her numerous times of infidelity, although she insists on her innocence, and he berates her in front of their colleagues and warns her repeatedly that she’d better not betray him. It’s exceedingly uncomfortable to watch and far more difficult to handle than any of the (very few) scenes where the Creature attacks someone.

Moments after this scene, Marcia is assaulted by another member of the expedition, a man named Jed. He forces himself on her, and her cries for help are what inspire the Creature to burst out of his hospital room, separate the two humans in order to save the woman from being raped, and make a break for freedom.

Crucially, unlike the other films, where the Creature takes any opportunity to kidnap the beautiful female character and spirit her away from the men, after he saves her from being assaulted, he leaves her alone and leaps into the ocean himself. He’s grown and learned since the last two films, and he knows full well that capturing the woman will only lead to violence. In other words, he is now more adept at controlling the passions that were “pent-up” in the first film than his human counterparts are.

Marcia’s husband does not take this lightly; instead of being incensed on her behalf, he takes it as proof that she’s been cheating on him. It’s victim-blaming, misogynistic nonsense that just serves to highlight how awful the human men are, and how much better the Creature — who really just wants to be left alone now — looks in comparison.

Harry Benshoff, in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Benshoff writes that the Creature character’s progression to being more and more human over the course of the three films recalls the regressive horror movies of the 1940s, in which the “monster queer” was “cured” of its monstrosity. I definitely understand that interpretation, but also, I think the inverse is true as well — by making the Creature more human, the film is making him more monstrous, because the humans in the series are the most monstrous of all.

In addition, the film features a number of different scenes where the characters sit around and philosophize poetically about what the Creature represents for Mankind and his future among the stars. “We all stand between the jungle and the stars, at a crossroads,” says one scientist during a drunken night of celebration for having given the Creature the ability to breathe. He hopes to learn from the Creature “what brings out the best in humankind, and what brings out the worst, because it’s the stars… or the jungle.” If we are to take the Creature as a queer threat to heterosexual society, which I think we are, then I do find something redeeming in the film’s apparent belief that the Gill-Man’s survival instinct and ability to adapt to adverse conditions are the key to the future of humanity.

The film ultimately ends on a very cynical note. The jealous, possessive husband who expressed his faith in the Creature’s importance kills the man who abused his wife — proving right his opponent who says that, when threatened, animals revert to their primal state — and he blames it on the Creature. The Creature is offended and incensed at being framed for murder and tears down the walls of his cage, but he cannot escape back into the ocean, because he has forever been altered by his association with humanity and is no longer able to breathe underwater.

“We’re not too far from the jungle after all,” remarks one scientist.

“Ah, but we’re not far from the stars, either,” says another. “I guess the way we go depends on what we’re willing to understand about ourselves.”

It’s a poetically sad ending, a surprisingly depressing note for a franchise about a man in a green rubber suit. In a paradoxical, Biblical sort of way, the Creature represents mankind, and the trilogy traces out his fall from innocence; in the haunting final shots of the series, as the Creature longs to return to the paradise of his underwater lagoon, he stands in for a humanity aching for Eden.