He was the last of the monsters, the creatures who stalked the screen in vivid black and white, the horror icons of an age before blood ran red on the screens. Ricou Browning, who died this week at age 93, was the last living person who played one of the classic Universal Movie Monsters.
The Universal monsters – Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman and more – lit up the screens in the 1930s through 1956 and helped define what we think of when we think of movie monsters. You think of Frankenstein’s monster, you think of Karloff’s looming golem, you think of Dracula, you probably think of Lugosi’s slick old-world menace. I fell in love with the Universal movies as a kid during afterschool TV marathons when I first watched flicks like Ghost of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand.
But my favourite was 1954’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which I taped on a battered VHS cassette that I watched over and over periodically for years. It’s still a succinct, chilling little fable about man meddling with nature and the uncanny allure of how beauty killed the beast. The monster was one of the best movie designs of the era – perhaps only second to Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein makeup – and recently Mallory O’Meara’s book The Lady From The Black Lagoon delves into the fascinating, contentious story of how it came to be.
The Gill-Man creature of the title was played by several people, Ben Chapman on land, and Browning, a lifeguard and excellent swimmer who at age 23 was recruited to play the monster in the film’s iconic underwater scenes.
Browning played the Gill-Man in the underwater scenes in the first Creature and the sequels Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us, a role which technically didn’t require a lot of acting – I’d imagine most of his attention was taken up by actually trying to swim in that monster gear. Yet, those scenes in the first movie particularly where the Gill-Man drifts, ominously, beneath the grey waters and stalks the gorgeous Julie Adams are indelible landmarks in creepy horror. Adams, the object of the Creature’s affections, died herself a couple years back.
The few minutes where the Gill Man and Adams do a kind of underwater duet, the monster mirroring his unaware obsession, are among the finest in Universal Horror history.
The silent way the Creature stalks Adams, nearly touching her drifting toes, made an impression on Young Nik watching on TV reruns, and the influence of a scene like that – where horror is implied, rather than splashed and splattered – can be seen everywhere from Jaws to John Carpenter’s original Halloween all the way on up to the modern day in your better horror movies.
Browning, who was just a kid when he first donned that gill man suit 70 years ago, outlived his fellow Universal monster actors by more than 50 years – Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney Jr. were all gone by 1973 – and for years he enjoyed his peculiar fame on the convention circuit among the still quite active world of classic horror fans. Unlike Chaney Jr and Lugosi, who died neglected addicts, he lived a long, fulfilling life (among his other movie underwater credits were Flipper and James Bond’s Thunderball).
Still, Ricou Browning was the last of his kind – the unforgettable monster from the deep who swam beneath your feet, always in black and white, terrifying and yet slightly sympathetic like the best of monsters. Universal’s Classic Monster greats are all gone now, but they still lurk on, flickering away every time I rewatch one of the classic scares.