Saturday, March 19, 1977: The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) / Calling Doctor Death (1943)

Synopsis: Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) is a wealthy scientist who has his mind set on capturing the famed Gill-Man, who has been presumed dead in the Florida everglades since the events of Revenge of the Creature. A man tending to alligator traps in the area claims that the Gill-Man attacked him, badly damaging his face. He says he stabbed the creature with his knife. When Barton has the knife analyzed he discovers that the dried blood matches the blood samples taken from the creature when it was held at Marine Land.

Barton has assembled a team of researchers to assist him on his quest to capture the creature: Dr. Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason), Dr. Borg (Maurice Manson) and Dr. Johnson (James Rawley). He also brings along diver Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer). Dr. Barton’s beautiful young wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) also insists on coming along, though this seems to nettle Dr. Barton a great deal.

Marcia is in every way a faithful wife; yet Barton is consumed by jealousy, constantly demanding to know who she has been talking to and warning her to stay away from other men.

Morgan discovers that Barton’s motives in capturing the creature are rooted in his belief that the creature can be adapted to survive out of the water, and useful knowledge might be gained from the creature that would benefit future space flights, which might require humans to undergo similarly radical adaptation. Morgan disagrees with the potential cruelty of such experiments, but he stays with the expedition out of curiosity.

Barton’s lavish yacht plies the waterways of the everglades, and they reach the point where they believe the Gill-man is residing. The creature is tracked down, and later an expedition sets out by small boat to find him. As in both the previous films, the piscicide rotenone is used to drug him, but he still manages to attack the small vessel. In the melee, the creature is doused with gasoline and badly burned.

Back on the ship, the scientists struggle to save the creature’s life. Its gills have been badly damaged and Morgan and Barton perform a tracheotomy to allow it to breathe through its vestigial lungs. They discover that the creature’s outer skin has sloughed off in the fire, leaving an animal that appears more humanoid underneath. Grant sews clothing for its ungainly body with sailcloth.

Back in California, the creature takes up residence in a caged enclosure outside Barton’s mansion. Morgan argues that the creature’s savagery is a response to how it has been treated. If it is treated humanely, he argues, the creature will likely behave in a more humane manner. Barton thinks such ideas are nonsense.

Meanwhile, Barton has become obsessed with what he imagines are Marcia’s infidelities. While Marcia and Morgan are clearly attracted to each other, neither does anything to encourage the other. However, Grant becomes more and more brazen in his advances on Marcia, and despite her continued rejection of him he remains undeterred. Later he tries to assault Marcia while on guard duty, allowing the creature to escape. When Barton learns of Grant’s actions he fires him. Grant taunts him about being unable to control his wife, and in a fit of rage Barton strikes him from behind, accidentally killing him.

With Grant’s dead body in front of him, Barton quickly makes a decision: he tosses the body into the enclosure, and blames the creature for Grant’s murder….

Comments: Creature From the Black Lagoon was a big enough hit to guarantee a sequel, and 1955’s Revenge of the Creature was about what you’d expect: it was louder, dumber and cheaper than the original. It also starred John Agar — the lead actor you called when the lead actor you really wanted wasn’t available.

But the third and final movie in the cycle, The Creature Walks Among Us, is different. Despite a number of plot holes and absurdities, it does something that Revenge of the Creature didn’t even attempt: it tries to say something interesting. The line between “the jungle and the stars”, as Dr. Morgan puts it, is vanishingly fine, and it turns out that the real monster running loose is of the green-eyed variety. Barton, for all his money and ambition, is in the end a pretty poor example of the human species. He’s much closer to the jungle, it turns out, than the stars. He and the creature are reflection characters, each one on a similar trajectory out of their respective comfort zones. In the end, Barton winds up dead and disgraced and the creature, staring bleakly out at the water to which he can never return, finds himself forever out of his element.

Horror films of the 1930s and 1940s were openly hostile to science, seeing it as the province of arrogant men who dared to play God. By contrast, the 1950s championed scientific progress, often in embarrassingly grandiose terms. The Creature Walks Among Us is one of the few science-fiction films of the 1950s to be ambivalent on the subject, acknowledging that Barton’s research might have some utility, but questioning if progress is really worth the cost.

This movie starred Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason, who had appeared in the previous year’s Technicolor extravaganza This Island Earth. This film is clearly a much lower-budget affair but its nice to see the two of them reunited on screen.

Rex Reason is best known for playing This Island Earth’s Dr. Cal Meacham. I’ve always thought of him as too stiff to be a leading man and not interesting enough to be a character actor. But in The Creature Walks Among Us he’s surprisingly likable, bringing a very light touch to the character of the humane scientist Morgan. As an actor, Reason has a tendency to be an overbearing presence — his imposing height and basso profundo voice tend to work against him – but here he gives a very restrained performance, perhaps the best of his career.

The top-billed Morrow was somewhat more versatile, and while he was never a showy performer he does pretty well as the angry and deeply unhappy Barton. Leigh Snowden was an intelligent actress and makes the most of her scenes, none of which were particularly demanding from a dramatic standpoint. Essentially her job was to look beautiful and get rescued, and she pulled off both tasks effortlessly.

Calling Dr. Death

Synopsis: Dr. Mark Steele (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a neurologist who uses hypnotism to cure clients of their deepest psychological traumas. In the opening scene, we see Dr. Steele cure a young woman who has been mute since a recent car crash. The girl’s parents are amazed that Steele can identify the psychological root of the problem so quickly. Steele finds his work deeply satisfying; he is a wealthy and respected man, and clearly the top practitioner in his field.

Yet for all his success on the job, Steele is miserable at home. His wife Maria (Ramsay Ames) makes no attempt to hide the fact that she is cheating on him: he confronts her after she returns home at 3 am, only to have her laugh in his face. She tells him that she enjoys the money and prestige that comes with being a famous doctor’s wife, and for this reason will never consent to a divorce.

Adding to Dr. Steele’s unhappiness is the fact that he is in love with his devoted assistant, Stella (Patricia Morison). He has kept his passion for her a secret, but the next day, Steele can’t help himself. He gives Stella the old “let’s stop pretending” speech, and though she indicates that she feels the same way, the fact that he is married makes any relationship between them impossible.

Arriving home on Friday evening, Steele finds that his wife is gone, having told the servants that she will be away for the entire weekend.

For Steele, this is the last straw. He gets into his car and drives around, trying to find her. He awakens in his office on Monday morning, with no recollection of what transpired in the intervening time.

When Stella arrives she commiserates with him and he begins to feel better, but soon word reaches Dr. Steele that his wife has been brutally murdered.

His wife’s lover, Bob Duval (David Bruce), is charged with the crime and eventually sentenced to die in the electric chair. But police detective Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) is convinced that Steele is the real culprit. And when Steele finds a button from his own suit coat at the murder scene, he realizes that the detective must be right….

Comments: Ever have one of those Friday afternoons where you hear some upsetting news, so you get in your car and drive around, and you hear your evil wife laughing at you and see a blurry montage of dark streets and stoplights shifting around on the road ahead, and you wake up on Monday morning at your office, with no recollection of how you got there or what happened during the last couple of days?

For me, that’s just a typical weekend. But it’s a first-time occurrence for Lon Chaney, Jr. in Calling Doctor Death.

Chaney’s Dr. Steele is very similar to Alex Gregor, the morose mentalist he played in another Inner Sanctum meller, The Frozen Ghost. And in many ways the movies themselves are quite similar: in both films he is involved with beautiful women much younger than himself. In both films everyone — including the protagonist — is convinced that he must have committed a brutal murder during a blackout.

And unfortunately, both films end up feeling padded with redundant scenes, in spite of their brief running times.

Thus we have Inspector Gregg wandering in repeatedly to remind Steele that his guilty conscience is going to betray him — yes, it will — any time now! The guy does everything but quote Dostoyevsky at him (Gregg even appears in Steele’s home, presumably without a warrant, though of course this was 1943).

Improbably, Steele is able to conduct his own search of the crime scene and even finds a missing button from his own suit jacket — suggesting that the police forensics experts are such bunglers they could miss the most obvious clues.

But the biggest plot hole is Steele’s conveniently-timed blackout. It makes no sense, since he hadn’t been drinking, didn’t suffer any trauma, and had no history of such episodes. The screenwriters might have been better off revealing that Steele is suffering from a post-hypnotic suggestion to block the weekend’s events, which would have been a clever way to lead us to the real culprit in the third act.

J. Carrol Naish seems to be enjoying himself here, channeling Edward G. Robinson as he chews the flavor out of every last line. Patricia Morison, alas, doesn’t get much of a chance to prove her acting chops, though pretending to be in love with Lon Chaney, Jr. must have been a stretch. Chaney himself has a part specifically tailored to his narrow acting range, and he carries the movie effortlessly.

Overall, Calling Doctor Death is the kind of mystery that would have been right at home as an episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents program. That show’s 30-minute format would have tightened up the pace considerably. As it was, the Inner Sanctum Mysteries were really proto-television shows, their 65-minute running time the absolute minimum for theatrical release.

And like television programs, these mysteries were somewhat ephemeral. They were forgotten by the cast and crew almost as quickly as they were made, and presumably forgotten by the audience almost as quickly as they were seen. Just as you, gentle reader, will forget this post almost as quickly as you have read it. No hypnotism required.

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