So originally, this article was titled “Movies with Fish People (That Aren’t Lovecraft-related)“. Because, you know, fish people and Lovecraft go together like butter and lobsters…or at least I thought they did. Turns out, save for Stuart Gordan’s Dagon, most movies about gillmen have nothing to do with Lovecraft. So here I was, thinking I was going to be clever and insightful, only to discover that the idea floated little more than driftwood. Still, this gives me a chance to talk about an often-overlooked monster from the library of fiendish creatures that occupy our screens.
The idea of aquatic humanoids isn’t a new one. Between mermaids and other legends, they’ve been around for quite some time. Despite that, they don’t have nearly the film presence that other monsters do. I’m assuming that’s because when people want to make an aquatic horror flick, they want to use something a little closer to home…and by “closer to home”, I mean sharks. So many shark flicks out there…However, with the recent(ish) releases of Guillermo Del Toro’s Shape of Water and William Eubank’s Underwater, maybe we’ll see a surge of the fishmen genre yet!
Howard Philip Lovecraft’s story The Shadow Over Innsmouth brought some attention to the aquatic beings (eventually), but not as much as a certain flick I’ll talk about soon. Again, I grossly miscalculated Lovecraft’s influence over the “Fish People” film genre. Anyway, enough rambling about the monsters themselves…time to ramble about movies that feature fish people! Let’s throw our lines into the water and snag some whoppers!
1. The Creature From The Black Lagoon (Directed by Jack Arnold; Starring Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning; 1954)
“A strange prehistoric beast lurks in the depths of the Amazonian jungle. A group of scientists try to capture the animal and bring it back to civilization for study.” (via IMDB)
This is the previously mentioned “certain flick” that inspired fish people movies to come, and for good reason. The Creature (or Gillman, if you prefer) has become an iconic part of the Universal Monster brand, standing up with the likes of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. When one thinks of a fish person, this is what comes to mind (or mermaids, but that’s a topic for a different discussion).
As far as the story goes, it’s classic pulp-horror. A bunch of scientists go into the Amazon and discover that the prehistoric Gillman still walks among us. Some of the crew wants to leave immediately (probably due to the Gillman killing off several of their party, but I don’t want to make assumptions), while others want to capture “the find of the century”. In any case, hilarity ensues…and by hilarity, I mean death.
The creature’s design is fantastic, looking not only unnerving, but also sympathetic in a way. I mean, don’t you feel just a least bit sorry for him? Gillman was just minding his own business in his lagoon, then all of a sudden these jerks show up and act like they own the place. Then what’s the first thing they do when they see him? They shoot him with a speargun! Granted, he did kill two people before that, but in Gillman’s defense, one of them did go at him with a machete. I think he deserves a pass on that.
So, is this movie worth watching? That would be a resounding yes from me. It’s well paced, well acted, and the monster is just as much of a character as the main cast. The star of the show, for sure!
2. Island of the Fishmen (aka “Screamers”; Directed by Sergio Martino; Starring Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Richard Johnson; 1979)
“After their prison ship sinks in the Caribbean, a group of prisoners and a doctor wash ashore on a seemingly deserted island. They soon discover a strange couple, who invite them to stay at their house. While the prisoners try to plan an escape, the doctor does some investigating, and soon finds out just what the pair are really doing, and why the prisoners keep disappearing mysteriously.” (via IMDB)
First off, there are two versions of this film that exist. The first is the original Italian cut (Island of the Fishmen) that has all the scenes intact and is probably the proper way to experience the film. The second is the cut Roger Corman made (Screamers) that took out some scenes so that he could include an awesome intro where a fishman brutally murders a group of treasure hunters. The tone of said intro is completely different from the rest of the film, but hell, I’m always down for some Corman gore! I’ve never seen the original version (I don’t feel like dishing out $100 for a copy), so I’m going by the Corman cut for this one.
After Corman’s kickass addition of fishman mayhem (and a zombie that never gets brought up again), the film begins properly…and it’s not bad. Basically, a bunch of 19th-century prisoners get shipwrecked on an island where a mad doctor is making fish people. Why is he making fish people? To steal treasure from the ruins of Atlantis, of course! Think The Island of Dr. Moreau, but with more fishmen.
It’s not what Corman’s intro promised me it would be, but overall, I really dig it. I wouldn’t call it horror, though (save for the first 15 minutes). I’d say it’s more of a pulp-adventure story in the same vein as those Amicus Productions flicks back in the ‘70s. You know, like The Land That Time Forgot, starring Doug McClure (remember that name). It’s a little slow at times, but when things start to ramp up near the end, it doesn’t slow down for a second. I wouldn’t say it’s a must-watch, but if you’re into pulp-style adventures, I’d recommend it.
Fun fact: In the original marketing for his cut of the film, Corman promised a scene where a man gets turned inside out. Needless to say, that never happens. There’s a part where a man is mutating, and I guess it looks like he’s inside out, but that’s a stretch. Here’s a video of Corman’s trailer…literally none of those scenes are in the film. That being said, I really want to see whatever movie it was advertising.
You can join the shipwrecked crew’s adventure digitally here. I’d put a link to the physical copy, but there’s only one on Amazon and it cost $300, so…it’s there if you want it. Here’s a link to a physical copy of the original Italian cut, though.
3. Humanoids of the Deep (aka “Monster”; Directed by Barbara Peeters, Jimmy T. Murakimi; Starring Doug McClure, Ann Turkel, Vic Morrow; 1980)
“ Scientific experiments backfire and produce horrific mutations: half man, half fish, which terrorize a small fishing village…” (via IMDB)
Doug McClure (the man, the myth, the legend) gets into fist fights and battles killer fishmen created by mad science! There’s more to it than that, but if you just wanted the gist, that’s basically it. Between Doug McClure being a part of my life since childhood and the terrific looking monsters/gore in this flick, I can safely say this Roger Corman romp (there’s that name again) is a favorite of mine.
I used to catch this flick on TV a lot as a kid (probably explains some things about me), so to say I have a biased towards it is an understatement. I mean, it’s Roger Corman. You get monsters! You get gore! You get nudity, if that sweetens the pot for you! Corman knew what his audience was looking for, and he (almost) delivered every time.
Now, this movie does follow the trend Corman monster films are notoriously known for. That being that the monsters violate women numerous times over the course of the film…if that’s a deal-breaker for you, that’s completely understandable. The inclusion of those scenes actually caused some turmoil during production. Just putting that out there in the open.
As far as Fish People movies go, this is a classic. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, there’s no shortage of blood in the water, and Doug McClure punches people. That last one is the main selling point, of course!
4. Peter Benchley’s Creature (Directed by Stuart Gillard; Starring Craig T. Nelson, Kim Cattrall, Colm Feore; 1998)
“An amphibious shark-like monster terrorizes an abandoned secret military base and the people who live on the island it is located on. A marine biologist, as well as several other people, try to stop it before it is too late…” (via IMDB)
This flick didn’t need to be 3 hours long…I know it was a two-part television movie, but they should have just trimmed it down and released it straight-to-video. Since they had to stretch it out, it has a lot of slow parts that drag on and on…and on…and on. That’s a shame, too, because there’s an entertaining narrative in here that would’ve made a great creature feature. Someone just needs to make a shortened, better paced cut of this film.
It’s a Peter Benchley story, so you know its going to have something to do with a shark. In this case, it’s a “Shark Man” (it counts, sharks are fish), brought to life by the ingenious effects work of the late Stan Winston. The creature looks amazing, from its appearance right down to how it moves. Winston didn’t cut any corners despite this being a television movie. The narrative isn’t half bad either. I mean, it’s the classic “monster attacks a community” routine, but when isn’t that fun?
Other than it being dreadfully packed with filler, it’s a pretty good flick as far as Fish People movies go. Is it the best? Not even close. But when you’re put up against Creature From The Black Lagoon and Humanoids From The Deep, how can you expect to be?
Wow, what a haul! There’s still plenty of fish(men) in the sea to talk about, but that’s for another time. For now, we sail back to shore, and hope the fishmen don’t follow us home. Until next time. Ciao, friends!