Saturday, April 15, 1978: The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) / The Frozen Ghost (1945)

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.

The Frozen Ghost

Synopsis: Alex Gregor (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a successful stage hypnotist who’s got it all: sold-out live performances, a national radio show and a knockout assistant named Maura (Evelyn Ankers), to whom he is engaged. Performing as “The Great Gregor”, his act is to first put Maura in a trance, then have her read the minds of astonished audience members.

One night a loud-mouthed drunk heckles Gregor, who gamely invites the man up to the stage. Gregor offers to hypnotize the guy and have him answer questions from the audience, just as Maura did. But the drunk is uncooperative and as Gregor stares into his eyes he angrily wishes the man were dead. Instantly the drunk keels over — stone dead!

Gregor is mortified and turns himself over to the police. But the coroner states that the man was a heavy drinker with a heart condition, and the death is ruled the result of natural causes.

This does not satisfy the morose mentalist, who spends the night walking the streets, muttering “Death….death!” over and over.

So distraught is Gregor that he breaks off his engagement with Maura. His manager George Keene (Milburn Stone), sensing his client needs a little R&R, urges Gregor to stay at a relaxing place in a remote area for a while, and Gregor accepts.

Inexplicably, everyone agrees that the most relaxing place in the world is a wax museum, and Gregor moves into Madame Monet’s, which is a sort of mansion with living quarters upstairs and wax sculptures on the main floor. He gets to know the people living there: owner Valerie Monet is assisted by brilliant wax sculptor and freelance kookenheimer Rudi (Martin Kosleck), and Valerie’s general dogsbody Nina (Elena Verdugo).

As the weeks go by Gregor begins to feel more himself again, but seems only dimly aware that young Nina has developed a crush on him. Finding out about this, Valerie Monet, who had been nursing a crush of her own, is furious. She and Gregor argue, and Monet suddenly collapses to the floor. Hours later, Gregor finds himself standing down by the waterfront, with no idea of how he got there. He learns that Monet has vanished, and that her scarf is in his coat pocket….

Comments: The Inner Sanctum Mysteries were a series of films produced as a tie-in with the popular Inner Sanctum anthology series on radio. The two series really had no connection beside the name. The films can be summed up pretty simply: they were mystery-thrillers with a dollop of the supernatural. A small dollop, mind you; the spooky stuff was meant to keep things interesting, not to get in the way of the main action.

For example, the question of whether Gregor the Great actually has psychic powers, or if he is just a fraud who has started to believe his own press releases, is left up in the air for most of the film’s running time. Much more attention is paid to the fairly predictable wax museum subplot, and to the shenanigans and monkeyshines of its altogether ooky inhabitants.

Lon Chaney, Jr. starred in each of the relatively short films (they usually ran about 65 minutes) and a rotating cast of Universal contract players filled out the remaining parts. Like all of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, this one was clearly done quickly and on a budget, and feels less like a feature film than an episode from an anthology TV series.

Unfortunately, the pace of television dramas hadn’t been invented yet, and The Frozen Ghost drags terribly, in spite of its brief running time. Nevertheless, the much-maligned Chaney carries things pretty well; say what you want about the guy, he could do gloomy and guilt-ridden pretty well.

Evelyn Ankers, who appeared in several of these films with Chaney, plays Maura, and the combination of Maura’s forgettable character and Anker’s forgettable performance made me feel like the guy from Memento: the second she was off screen I forgot she ever existed.

Douglas Dumbrille appears as a Shakespeare-spouting detective. Martin Kosleck is amusing as the deranged wax figure designer Rudi, who fusses with the wax figures, talking to them constantly (“Ah, Cleopatra — you are the queen of the Nile, we mustn’t let your hair get mussed like that”). Kosleck was a native of Germany who made a career playing cold-blooded Nazis, which he seemed to greatly enjoy.

Tala Birell has a shortage of screen time, but is at least credible as the curator of a wax museum, while longtime character actor Arthur Hohl is rewarded for two decades of film work with the indelible credit “Drunk Contestant”.

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