Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)


While I certainly won’t vouch for the quality of all the classic Universal Monsters, I do admire the lengths Universal would go to keep their gravy train rolling. Once they ran out of established, “name,” monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein), Carl Laemmle, Jr. and company moved onto archetypes (the Mummy, the Wolf-Man). Once they ran out of those, on came the team-up films (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man, House of Frankenstein) to mine whatever value was left in the characters before they were laid to rest.

Then, 10 years later, horror was brought back with the Creature from the Black Lagoon being perhaps the best known of Universal’s second monster run. Okay, “best known” is a total judgement call, but let’s face it, the Gill Man is the only one of Universal’s second series to be seen hanging with the originals in pop culture. I’m also biased here, as the film’s underwater scenes were shot in FL. Seating the Creature from the Black Lagoon right next to (the opening sequence of) the original Day of the Dead and 2,000 Maniacs on the list of the Sunshine State’s greatest cinematic achievements.

The intervening decade did wonders for the production. While director Jack Arnold’s cinematography isn’t up to par with Frankenstein’s mastermind James Whale, it’s still light years ahead of Todd Browning’s. Pulling out the big guns, as if stunning underwater sequences weren’t enough (remember zombie vs shark?) the film is also in 3-D!

(Have I established that I’m a beach bum well enough on this site yet? If not, I’ll just remind you that one of my all-time favorite movies is the Creature from the Haunted Sea. Mainly due to the fact that it’s both funny and centered around the water.

Creature from the Black Lagoon - Oh, Julie Adams

Let’s be honest here, the Gill-man is the star of the movie and, for once, Universal doesn’t try to deny it. At the start there’s an archeologist, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), who dresses like a Colonel Sanders impersonator who uncovers a Gill-man(? Person?) skeleton. Maia wastes no time recruiting a ichthyologist, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Reed’s girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) to help him track down a live Gill-man.

See? Not even the movie’s characters could deny the Gill-man’s star appeal.

Creature from the Black Lagoon - Modern Couples

Creature from the Black Lagoon is also shockingly modern, as both David and Kay are called out early on for having a long-term, exclusive relationship with no thoughts of marriage on the horizon. One wonders if this was an intentional attempt at shock value. Dracula was Universal’s first monster movie, and thus carried a stigma for being different and possibly harmful to viewers. Frankenstein had a story about a man playing God, back when that was news instead of commonplace. And the Gill-man has the decline of the traditional family unit as its centerpiece.

Groundbreaking domesticity can only carry a film so far though. Its the Creature’s (equally) groundbreaking underwater cinematography (courtesy of William E. Snyder) that supplies the film with enough pizzazz to keep its name known.

Creature from the Black Lagoon - Waits

Before Jaws did it in the ’70s, and the Abyss did it again in the ’90s, the Creature from the Black Lagoon defined underwater camera work and acting.

The men behind the Gill-man’s mask, (Ricou Browning in the water and Ben Chapman on land), must be mentioned here too, as the underwater scenes wouldn’t be half as interesting without Browning’s charisma. Trying to emote through a suit of latex has to be hard enough, doing so while underwater might be near impossible, yet Browning pulls it off.

Creature from the Black Lagoon - Synchronized Swimming

The score’s cues being almost pointless once you see the Gill-man rush out from his hiding spot in the aquatic Amazonian vegetation into the foreground; catching up with Kay in the background. Immediately followed by the Gill-man mirroring Kay as she swims above him.

Even the fight sequences get inadvertently gussied up. One nice happenstance special effect occurs when the Gill-man battles Mark (Richard Denning) underwater. As they fight, the soot from the lagoon floor rises up to create a giant muck cloud around them, blocking out the detail of the struggle. You only see Matt’s lifeless form float to the top at the end.

Creature from the Black Lagoon - Creature Wounded

Such scenes make it easy to understand why my father once told me that out of all the Universal monsters, the Gill-man was his favorite. (For the record, further investigation reveals that my father was actually referencing the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s sequel, Revenge of the Creature. But my father also isn’t a B-movie fanatic, which is the more important piece of information.)

If there ever was a franchise in serious need of a reboot, this is it. Imagine the good ship Rita floating on Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid’s vision of the Amazonian rainforest, and one’s heart should be pounding. If you’re me, and still obsessed with Anacondas.

The Creature’s script could be tightened a bit too. One major flaw is the debate early on over whether the Gill-man exists or not. Science, naturally, says he doesn’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t. The photograph taken of him, of course, says otherwise. So rather than fuel the uncertainty, the scriptwriter has the Gill-man instead attack and kill someone in front of the arguing scientists.

Creature from the Black Lagoon - Gill Man in the Weeds

The debate’s over, let’s fumigate the Amazon!

I suppose the team’s willingness to poison the Amazon River in response to the Gill-man would raise some red flags nowadays. Just another script point that would need tweaking.


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