Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-06-29 00:39

Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross
Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, and Nestor Paiva

Reviewed by: Wes R.

“I can tell you something about this place. The boys around here call it ‘The Black Lagoon’; a paradise.
Only they say nobody has ever come back to prove it.”

With the dropping of the atomic bomb, World War II ended. The world would forever be changed and thus, the world of cinema would forever be changed. As the world of film entered the atomic age, Hollywood producers knew that moviegoers were looking for a more out-there scare, featuring beasts created by our very own atomic weaponry. It wasn’t enough for monsters to look like regular men wearing make-up appliances. Monsters had to be true creatures of the night. Ghastly beasts that looked more animal and alien than man. One of the leaders of the 50s monster movie craze was easily one of the sub-genre’s best: Jack Arnold’s Creature From the Black Lagoon.

The fossilized remains of a skeleton hand with webbed fingers is found in a little-traveled area of the Amazon River known as “The Black Lagoon”. David Reed and Kay Lawrence (Richard Carlson and Julie Adams) are asked to join a scientific expedition into the Black Lagoon to find out more information on the alleged link between man and fish. Soon, the bodies of the expedition’s backer’s original crew are found killed. As the group goes deeper and deeper into the lagoon and surrounding jungle, they encounter the infamous Gill Man, who proceeds to engage in a bizarre interspecies crush on Kay. Kay is kidnapped and it’s up to David to rescue her like the square-jawed, rifle-toting 50s type hero that he is. Will the Gill Man be stopped or will he live to swim another day?

This is such a great monster movie. It is basically the essential monster movie. There are none better, in my opinion, and it lays the groundwork for all the rest that would follow. Like all truly great monster movies, you end up caring about the monster, and don’t really want to see it destroyed. It’s not evil. The Gill Man is merely doing what he was created to do: Live and survive. You ultimately realize, however, that man will never let this beast live in peace. If caught, he would only be caged, trapped, dissected, and studied. Though, as most of us know, the Creature doesn’t really die for good, as Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us were released in the years following. Universal sure knew how to create and maintain a franchise, back in the day. Although, one can’t help but wonder if this series had been created two decades earlier, if there may have been entries with titles such as “Son of the Creature”, "House of the Creature", or “Bride of the Creature”. We can only speculate.

The acting is much more low-key and realistic than a lot of the 50s fare that often tended to lean toward the over-dramatic and theatrical. My favorite character would have to be the crusty boat captain, Lucas (played by prolific actor, Nestor Paiva). He reminded me of Robert Shaw’s ‘Quint’ character in Steven Spielber’s Jaws. Julie Adams is a true beauty and her screen presence is a sight to behold. Of course, also needing mention is the superb silent performances by Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman, in the Gill Man costume in water and on land. What is particular impressive about Chapman’s performance is that the Gill Man does a burn scene. A burn in a full rubber suit back in 1954 had to be a great deal more dangerous than it is today. Jack Arnold is a true master of his craft. Though he spent the latter part of his career directing made for TV movies and regular series episodes, he will always be best known for his work as the greatest of all 1950s horror/sci-fi directors. I mean, no one else even comes close. With a filmography including This Island Earth, It Came From Outer Space, Monster on the Campus, and Tarantula, his list of directed films reads like a “greatest hits” of 1950s monster mayhem. The locations of the film, even in black and white, are something of beauty. It may be ominous and claustrophobic, but those jungles offer such a great backdrop for a horror film. The underwater photography is also amazing and was quite revolutionary for its time. The deaths in the film are not bloody at all, but this was the 1950s after all. Likewise, there is no nudity, but again, Julie Adams’ flawless brunette beauty shines through regardless.

The Gill Man’s design is classic. Once more, it’s amazingly simplistic. It’s the perfect, blend of man and amphibian. It’s intimidating for sure, with visible teeth and claws, but the beauty of the design comes from it looking so much like a natural missing link between man and fish. It looks like it could actually live out in a lagoon somewhere. The same would likely not be true if it were an over-designed and “busy” creation like many modern Hollywood monsters are. It’s a shame to think that should a remake of this film ever come to light (and it has been discussed many, many times), that they would turn Gill Man into a complete nightmare of a being (almost like something out of Lovecraft, probably). When will Hollywood learn that it’s the simple things that are often the most memorable? Unlike most films of the time that preferred to keep the monster’s appearance hidden until toward the end of the movie, you get to see plenty of the Gill Man throughout. This also helps lend the film a fairly tight pace, with very little time that drags.

Speaking of memorable, arguably the film’s most remembered sequence is when the Gill Man watches and swims along underneath Julie Adams while she’s completely unaware. There’s a certain bizarre voyeuristic quality to it. Is the Gill Man looking at her longingly as a lover would (perhaps wanting to mate), or does it stare as a pet often does at its owner…to understand it? He could grab her and kill her or take her any time he wants during this scene, but he doesn’t. He merely watches. Its an understated, but chilling scene that provides much more than the usual “monster appears and attacks” type of mentality that many monster flicks have. This monster is about so much more than simply attacking, and Jack Arnold knew exactly how to show off this particular monster’s personality. The fact that it’s an animal and that it has a personality puts it on a much higher level than so many of the mindless killing machine type slashers that would later carry the slasher sub-genre to great heights (and lows).

My personal history with the film started with my discovery of it via my local Elementary School Library. There was a series of black and white books with an orange spine based on classic Universal monster movies and others, with pictures and the story of each movie told so that kids could understand them. Today, these would be known as junior novelizations, although nobody writes them for horror films anymore (can you imagine a junior novelization of Saw??) At a young age, horror films had begun to fascinate me, and the image of the Gill Man in this book was so incredibly cool, that I just had to track down the movie. Thanks to my parents owning a video store at the time, I asked and received a VHS copy for Christmas one year and I watched it multiple times. It was just as good as the pictures and story in the old orange and black book had lead me to believe. During an era where I was obsessed with all things Freddy, Jason, Michael, and Leatherface, Gill Man managed to hold his own. But my love of the film would not stop there. Later on during a family vacation, I was fortunate enough to take a glass bottom boat ride at Silver Springs in Florida, where a great portion of the film was shot. Peering through the crystal clear floor of the boat, I couldn’t help but get nostalgic that sometime many years ago, Gill Man shared these very same waters along side a dedicated film crew and cast. It was a trip I shall never forget. In recent years, I drove two and a half hours to see the film on the big screen in 3-D as it was originally meant to be seen! How I wish Universal would release this version on DVD someday. Perhaps as HD technology gets better, they will eventually make it available for all fans. Until then, I will carry the memories of this midnight showing for as long as I live.

Creature From the Black Lagoon is my favorite of all the monster movies of the 1950s. Oh, to have been a teenager in 1954. I think the reason drive-in movies started getting worse and worse as the years went on was to allow for proper make-out time. Who’d want to make out during an actual good movie? It’d be far too distracting. It’s much easier to get it on with something on the level of say, Don’t Look in the Basement playing in the background. If you are a fan of 1950s cinema, drive-in cinema, monster movies, horror films… I’ll just say, any fan of any type of film could watch Creature From the Black Lagoon and be perfectly entertained by it. It is a timeless film that will be just as great 50 years from now, as it is currently fifty or so years from its original release. Essential!

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