Falling short in the eyes of those we admire can be awful. But to change oneself – losing who you are in the process – and still meet rejection is perhaps worse.
Such melancholy is at the heart of both 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us and 2015’s The Lure. Separated by almost sixty years, these films share thematic parallels which, when considered together, make the horror of their narratives all the more upsetting. Both films depict a character whose identity is stripped for the needs of another, only to meet rejection or indifference. Beyond their immediate connection of aquatic creatures, these films are more closely connected than we may first appreciate.
Join me as we dive in. Please be warned, spoilers for both films abound.
The Creature Walks Among Us is the final film in William Alland’s Black Lagoon trilogy. 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon sees an expedition of scientists head to the Amazon after the fossil of an aquatic missing link is discovered. The ‘Gill Man’ – a half-man, half-fish creature – still lives in the jungle’s waters, seemingly impervious to millions of years of evolution. The film’s first sequel arrived a year later; Revenge of the Creature sees the Gill Man captured and put on display at the Ocean Harbour Oceanarium in Florida. The poor soul is caged and studied for commands and control, but he eventually escapes and terrorises the county. The Creature Walks Among Us finishes the trilogy, and sees another group of scientists attempt to capture the Gill Man. However, their aims are very different this time.
Jeff Morrow (of This Island Earth and The Giant Claw) plays Dr. Barton, a quietly maniacal scientist who wishes to push the boundaries of evolution. He wants to physically change the Gill Man, and thus prove that humanity can be made ready for space travel. Barton’s plans are accelerated when one of his crew sets the Gill Man on fire, burning away his outer scales. A set of human-like lungs activate beneath his gills, and his visage becomes less reptilian and more like us. Clothed in crude garments, the changed Gill Man is brought to Barton’s mansion. He is locked in an outdoor cage and his behaviour is monitored. Barton’s scientific pursuits take a backseat in the film’s third act, as his wild paranoia about his wife’s fidelity frames the anger of the captive Gill Man.
2015’s The Lure is a musical fairy tale set in 1980s Poland, and is a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 The Little Mermaid. It tells the story of two mermaids, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszańska), who become backup singers and dancers for a band in a seedy nightclub. Silver, the more naïve of the pair, falls in love with the band’s bassist, Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), who openly thinks of her as an animal. Silver’s demeanour contrasts with Golden, who is assertive and fiercely protective of her sister. While Silver pines for Mietek, Golden is out eating people and making love in lavish lesbian mermaid sex scenes. Silver longs for Mietek so much that she decides to have her tail removed and replaced with human legs, but this comes at a cost: her voice. Silver is also told that if Mietek marries someone else, she will turn into sea foam – 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 we consider the mutilation of Silver and the Gill Man. In both films, there are characters who are Othered, who then are forcibly mutilated to make them more acceptable; and yet they are still treated as Other. That is the essential tragedy of these films. These characters are changed to meet the whims of two very shallow men. But once their whims are met, the Gill Man and Silver are cast aside, having lost 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, and not simply the original story. After all, in Andersen’s tale, the titular mermaid still changes herself for the sake of an unworthy prince. However, it is their visual parallels of a clinical transformation, their genre congruence, and the placement of their narratives within modern civilisation that allow for comparison between these films.
In The Creature Walks Among Us, the Gill Man is changed to such an extent that he is less monstrous and more humanoid in appearance. And yet, he remains caged. Barton has taken him from his home, burned him, and changed him – all in service of some great (read: immoral) scientific achievement – but he remains animal to Barton. In The Lure, Silver is smitten with Mietek, despite him using the word “animal” to describe her. From their first interaction, he has decided the dynamics of their relationship – that he considers her as monstrous, as a beast. So, despite the fact that it appears to be her choice to have her tail removed, it is arguably forced upon her because he has implicitly told her that she must lose it. If she wishes to meet his love, she must destroy a part of herself. But, like the Gill Man, it is still not enough.
In The Lure, after Silver has lost both her tail and her voice, Mietek is revolted by her when they attempt to have sex. They come close before he pulls away, his groin and stomach covered in blood from her still-healing surgery scars. The look on his face registers disgust. Although she has gone through this painful transformation which has robbed her of her very voice – the symbolism of which is immense – he simply doesn’t care. He moves on and finds another woman. Silver is still that grotesque fish to him. An animal. Forced mutilation has wrought destruction of self, and for what?
As pointed out by Steve Kronenberg in his essay on The Creature Walks Among Us (as part of Tom Weaver’s excellent The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy), once the Gill Man has been changed, it results in, “an even uglier, more monstrous appearance”. What’s interesting is that as the Creature physically looks closer to humanity, he almost seems more grotesque to us. His proximity to mankind alarms us, perhaps because the torment he bears becomes harder to distinguish from that committed against a person – torment that we would consider wrong.
This is also front and centre in The Lure. Even though Mietek calls Silver an animal, it is not until she has gone through her transformation that we see the frightened register of disgust when they attempt sex. Now that she is physically like him, his interest is gone, and he’s repulsed. She can be tossed aside like any other woman. Furthermore, the image of a man disgusted at blood during sexual activity with a woman echoes the immature and repulsed misogynist response to menstruation – another manner in which she can be othered.
It is not simply that the Gill Man and Silver are forcibly brought closer to humankind and are still treated as Other, it is their very closeness to humanity that repulses the characters around them. An unspoken boundary between Us and Them has been broken, and it is hideous even to those who actively worked to break it (Barton and Mietek).
Indeed, for Barton, power over the Gill Man is also tied with the control he holds (or thinks he holds) over his wife, Marcia (Leigh Snowden). Later in the film, Rex Reason’s Dr. Morgan (who is somewhat more sympathetic to the Creature’s plight) talks with Barton about the Gill Man’s changed demeanour; he seems less aggressive and more curious about the world around him after his transformation. Is this a response to better treatment or simply his changing biology? Through Barton’s words, we see his paranoia emerge as he rants to Dr. Morgan about fidelity and betrayal. Here is a man so fearful of losing that which he considers his (Marcia), that he pushes harder to control that which he believes is in his grasp (the Gill Man). The control he exerts over the Gill Man is a reaction to the power he fears he’s losing over his wife.
This is similar to how power is exerted in The Lure. All that Silver goes through, and all that she destroys about herself, is akin to a minor interest for Mietek – as demonstrated by the ease with which he moves on. Barton’s grasp on the Gill Man is a surrogate for his wife, reducing the Creature’s forced transformation to a tool of artificial interpersonal control – just as Mietek’s fleeting interest determines Silver’s real and painful self destruction. It is a question of who has power, and it is not Silver nor the Gill Man.
The ways in which both films end also reinforce their parallels. At the end of The Lure, Silver lets herself die. She is still so attached to the idea of being loved and held by Mietek – a very human desire – that she lets herself perish. She knows all the awful things he has put her through, but she remains in his arms as she vanishes.
The ending of The Creature Walks Among Us is similarly harrowing. Earlier in the film, not long after his transformation, the Gill Man dives back into the water to escape. Dr. Morgan points out that, “he’ll die in the water! He’ll use his lungs and he’ll drown!” and indeed the Gill Man nearly does. At the film’s end, the Creature staggers towards a beach. He looks out at the sea, at the water to which he can never return. He stumbles toward the ocean and the screen fades to black. We know what will happen. We know he will drown. He knows.
Both films end with these characters recognising that destruction is all that’s left to them. It’s bleak and upsetting.
Although separated by time, production techniques, and culture, there is more that connects these two fascinating films than one might expect. The Creature Walks Among Us and The Lure offer striking and unpleasant depictions of self-destruction for the benefit of immoral causes – and immoral men. Whether in the soulful eyes of stuntman Don Megowan (who played the Gill Man on land), or the youthful innocence of Marta Mazurek’s portrayal of Silver, these films construct characters who, because of their Otherness, are deeply sympathetic. Thus, their treatment is all the more tragic, and the films’ narratives more potent.
The destruction of self – whether physically, symbolically, or spiritually – for the whims of an uncaring party is a horror, and these films excel at depicting it.
A huge thank you to Lavinia Bonacquisti for this article’s wonderful header image. Please visit Lavinia’s Instagram and Twitter pages to see more of their incredible artwork.