(or "The Perils Of A Really Good Costume")
Realistically speaking, Universal's "classic" horror/sci-fi movie "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" isn't any better or worse than the dozens of cheap B-movies churned out in the 1950s. In fact, it's awfully difficult to tell it apart from its many competitors--a bunch of scientists go exploring a distant part of the world looking to find the truth behind a mysterious legend, and have interminably long debates over the ethics of their profession while a monster lurks in the background, jumping out whenever a good scare is needed. Eventually, the monster is defeated, and the survivors return to civilization. Back in the days when big movie studios had standing sets and actors under contract, you could whip out two or three of these a week and slap 'em together as drive-in double features. (With a much better "A-movie" as the draw, which is where the term "B-movie" came from, for those of you who didn't know.)
But "Creature" has come to be regarded as a high point of the genre, whereas films like "The Deadly Mantis", "Beginning of the End", and "The Mole People" have not. More germane to this column, it's gotten two sequels ("Revenge of the Creature" and "The Creature Walks Among Us"), while "Them" and "The Thing" did not. Why?
Well, the less-important (but immediately obvious) reason is that Universal is very good at marketing. Instead of showing the films once at the drive-in and then letting them die a quiet death, they re-packaged them dozens of times over the years for revival in theaters and on TV sets. For well over thirty years, right up until the age of home video began, young monster fans thought of the Creature as part of an extended horror family that included Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. (In fact, Remco produced a line of exactly that in the early 1980s, adding in the Phantom of the Opera for good measure.) Nostalgia and the collective appeal of the complete Universal package helped the Creature stick in people's minds long after many of its contemporaries have faded away into the mists of time, remembered only by dedicated horror fans and watchers of "Mystery Science Theater 3000".
But the more important reason was that costume. Bud Westmore's stunning creation still holds up today as one of the best monster costumes ever, a somehow natural-looking mix of fish, lizard and amphibian that looks just as good in the close-ups as it does in the long shots. Ricou Browning's swimming skills make it look fantastic and graceful underwater (to the point where you assume that the Creature's misshapen back must hide a scuba tank under the costume, but in fact Browning was just excellent at holding his breath for the long periods necessary to get the extended takes.) And on land, Ben Chapman (aided by ten-pound weights in his boots) gives the Creature a graceless lumber that makes it really feel like a fish out of water. The mix of stellar acting, swimming, and costuming makes the Creature a spectacular monster, genuinely memorable to the point where a sequel was inevitable.
Which is a huge problem, because there's no storytelling engine there. (See? I do actually remember what these columns are about.) As I said, plot-wise, "Creature From the Black Lagoon" is just your bog-standard 50s monster movie. It's almost a cookie-cutter formula. You could do a sequel that repeats the formula ("Hey, let's go down there and see what those other scientists were talking about!") but that's not a storytelling engine. A storytelling engine is designed to give writers help in coming up with stories that aren't mere repetitions of the previous film (or book, TV episode, comic, or what have you.) A formula reduces every installment to interchangeability.
The series does try, though. "Revenge of the Creature" takes the next logical step, by having the next group of scientists succeed in bringing the Creature (which they call "the Gill Man", but I think that name is too stupid to use more than once) back to civilization. I somehow doubt that the Creature would actually be put on display at Sea World if that were to happen, and I think that John Agar's "Hey, let's see if we can teach the Creature to obey simple commands by giving it powerful electric shocks!" plan would be rejected in favor of actual science, but it is one of the few directions you can go with the story.
The third movie, "The Creature Walks Among Us", shows just how hard it is to come up with any more places to go beyond that, as this one is about scientists who capture the Creature and experiment on him to allow him to breathe air. (In order to prove some point about, you know, evolution and stuff.) Unfortunately, on land and with a radically-altered costume, the Creature loses most of his appeal and the movie peters out, focusing more on a pseudo-love triangle between a jealous scientist and a "dashing" sea captain who's after the scientist's wife.
And then nothing. It's not that the series closes off all opportunities for a sequel in the third movie; it ends with the Creature heading back to the ocean, either to drown with its air-breathing lungs, or to survive with gills that may be healed enough to be useful. The problem is, either way, there are no more stories to be told. The Creature is, fundamentally, an animal. It's not supernatural, it doesn't prey on mankind unless humans intrude on its territory, it just wants to swim and be left alone. There's really only so much you can do with a central figure like that, and the "Creature trilogy" has done it all. And arguably, it only did the last two movies because people really wanted to see more of Ricou Browning swimming around in that costume.