Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) ****
Director: Jack Arnold
Runtime: 1h 20m
For modern viewers, seeing a movie open with a narrator telling them that: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is surprising. Most films try to avoid such a strong endorsement of the Judeo-Christian creation story, at least outside of the niche indie movies made to cater to such demographics. What’s even more surprising for modern viewers though is what follows: a relatively accurate picture of how life evolved and emerged from the ocean. We are accustom to seeing science and religion as a binary, that embracing one inherently means forsaking the other, particularly when it comes to the theory of evolution. As you might have guessed from the first five minutes of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Americans in the 1950s didn’t have quite as rigid a viewpoint as us. Americans of yesteryear were more religious than they are now, and usually more Christian, but they were also far less dogmatic about their faith than later day zealots. They believed in God and the bible, but they did not see any particular reason why such faith should keep them from acknowledging the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution. Hardliners still existed of course, but they were far fewer and far less vocal than the sorts who dominate the contemporary discourse. The simple fact is Americans of the 50s, while Christian were more focused on the broad picture of their faith. It’s a remarkable stance, made all the more impressive by how offhand it is. Make no mistake though, this is no religious track, it’s a monster movie first and foremost, and a damn good one at that.
The film begins deep in the Amazon rainforest, where the older, rotund Dr. Maia makes a startling discovery: An amphibian hand of roughly human size and nearly as capable as the human hand with regards to complexity and articulation. Naturally, such a chubby old man is not suited for anything but a supporting role, so he rushes back to civilization to get some hunkier scientists to fill out some bathing suits and help him search for the rest of the skeleton. He sells the idea to Mark Williams, a researcher who is more interested in the publicity and commercial implications of the discovery than in any scientific advancement it might bring. Think of it, a missing link in the line between man and fish! That’s gotta be worth at least a dozen hominid skeletons.
Williams assembles a team consisting of himself, David Reed a scientist in his employ, David’s girlfriend Kay Lawrence, and a crusty riverboat captain named Lucas. Together they sail up the river and look for further evidence of Maia’s fossilized fish-man. The initial expedition is a failure. The team turns up nothing more of the skeleton than the hand that Maia was able to dig up. Rather than call it quits the team decides to search deeper in the jungle, following Reed’s advice. Reed figures that the river might have washed the rest of the skeleton away, so it makes sense to follow the river to a nearby lagoon where the skeleton could have plausible drifted.
Little do they know, they’re going to find more than a mere skeleton in the remote lagoon. Waiting for them there is a living example of the ancient species. The gill-man is amphibious, capable of surviving for a time outside of water, but his real home is beneath the lagoon’s surface. He first shows himself when he spies Kay taking an impromptu swim in the lagoon (note: in real life, don’t just jump into a tributary of the amazon; there’s plenty of dangerous diseases and wildlife lurking in there even if gill-men are fictional). We see the monster stalk Kay through the water, mirroring her movements further down in the gloom. It’s a startlingly beautifully sequence, but also an alarming one: as we have no idea weather the monster is looking at her with love, lust, or hunger. From the first look at the gill-man suit it’s easy to see why the creature became such an icon.
When the expedition discovers that the fossil they’re hunting is walking about and swimming they are overjoyed. Some moldy old bones may have been worth a couple papers and some grant funding, a living species of hitherto unknown ichthyoid bipedal life is something else altogether. Only problem is while David is content to capture or photograph the monster, he has some opposition from Mark who is set on bringing the creature back dead or alive. Mark’s position is an alarmingly stupid one: killing what is possibly the last living example of an ancient life form is wasteful sure, but a living gill-man will be worth far more than one stuffed and mounted on museum wall. Capturing or killing the creature is no small feat though; the gill-man possesses at least the intelligence level of a chimpanzee, is far stronger than any human, and surprisingly resistant to all forms of attack (including of course, bullets). Also, it seems to have developed a positive fixation on Kay, and is intent on dragging her back to its cavern.
There is a tendency among classics to suffer from degradation over time, as the things that made them unique and interesting are reproduced over and over again by less talented hands. Fortunately, this is not the case with Creature from the Black Lagoon. Sure, there are a distressing number of gill-man movies where the monster is a simple knock-off of the original (indeed, I’m in the process of reviewing as many of them as I can get my hands on). Yet, these monsters are often different enough from the original gill-man so as not to make the original seem like just another face in the crowd. Usually the costumes are bulkier, clumsier and there is almost no attempt made to show the creature actually swimming. Filming underwater is expensive and difficult, so if you’re making a quickie knock-off for AIP or another bottom feeding studio, it makes more sense to film the underwater sequences with an aquarium in from of the camera, as was the case in The Horror of Party Beach (1964), and call it a day. The original Creature is also a far more sympathetic monster than his predecessors. In The Monster of Piedras Blances (1959) for example, the titular gill-man is encroaching on human territory, whereas the original gill-man is mostly defending his home from invaders. It’s also plain that the gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon has genuine romantic feelings for Kay, along the lines King Kong’s infatuation with Ann Darrow. Later gill-men will still lust after human women with alarming frequency, but they will more often than not be out-and-out rapists, driven by animalistic lust rather than love; see Humanoids from the Deep (1980) for the most straightforward (and perverted) instance of this trend.
The more humane, sympathetic treatment that the Creature from the Black Lagoon receives makes him seem rather more like the romantic monsters of 1930s Hollywood than his own knock-offs that would pop-up in horror and sci-fi films throughout the 1950s and 60s. Nor, am I the only one to think so: the gill-man was accepted into the pantheon of classic universal monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, et al.) despite being introduced more than a decade after its other members. It is fitting that the creature, a monster from the lost world of the distant past, would have more in common with earlier movie monsters than his own contemporaries.
Technically, Creature from the Black Lagoon is still a marvel. Most of the exterior shots were filmed in Florida, and make a convincing substitute for the Amazon Rainforest (though I’m sure someone more knowledgeable about plant life could see through the ruse, the average moviegoer is in no danger of having the spell broken). Above the water the world is bright and noisy, there is a constant low-level trill of stock jungle sounds playing in the background. Below the surface the world becomes dark and mysterious, with untold shapes and horrors lurking in the gloom. The monster suit, worn by Ricou Browning, performs remarkably in this setting. Normally, rubber-monster suits of this era are clumsy, awkward things that make it difficult for the actor in them to move, let alone swim. The gill-man suit however is an especially well-designed costume, and the man inside it is a remarkable athlete that makes the suit look positively graceful. The monster looks natural, like it belongs in the water, only displaying a hint of awkwardness when it stumbles onto the unknown environment of dry land.
Creature from the Black Lagoon was suppose to be a 3D film, only problem is that the 1950s 3D fad was even shorter than the one we had a couple years back. As a result, most of the first-run audiences saw it without 3D effects, as did the great bulk of all future audiences. It’s a shame, because for my money it’s the only film that is actually enhanced by the 3D effects. The fact that I managed to see this film in 3D is surprising enough, only owning to the fact that I was in the right place at the right time (New York City, when one of the small art house theaters decided to screen a revival). For the people reading this review, you’ll just have to take my word that the effects are spectacular, as there is little chance of you ever being able to see them. There are the standard goofy images, a claw reaching out from the screen at the audience for example, but the really impressive scenes are the underwater ones. The effect of seeing the fish subtly popping out of the screen and the depth of the ocean is enough to transplant the viewer into the depths along with the scientists and the creature. 3D will probably never become anything more than a novelty for film, though Creature from the Black Lagoon still remains a testament to what can be done with the technology. Fortunately, the film stands on its own merits when seen in standard 2D, so most viewers will still be treated to an excellent monster movie.