Jack Arnold, 1954
Starring: Julia Adams, Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno
I was on the fence about whether or not to include Creature from the Black Lagoon in my Universal classic horror series, as it was made almost a decade after the final Universal B horror movie, The Brute Man (1946). In many ways, Creature is more in line with ‘50s-era atomic horror, but the Gill-man is considered one of the seven Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and Phantom of the Opera being the other six) and represents an important link between the classic monsters of the ‘30s and ‘40s and the oversized, nuclear or space-related terrors of the ‘50s.
After an introduction explaining the formation of the universe, we are brought to what is presumably present day and a geological expedition in the Amazon. Scientists there discover some interesting Devonian fossils that hint at a sort of fish-man, with a human hand, but webbed fingers. The head of the expedition, Dr. Maia, temporarily leaves to collect more funding and his friend, an ichthyologist, Dr. Reed. They return to the Amazon on a ship, the Rita, with the captain and a few others, including Reed’s girlfriend Kay. They discover that Maia’s former team has all been killed in his abscence, but regardless of the danger, he is desperate to find more fossilized evidence. Soon they find the Black Lagoon, which is home to a living Gill-man, a humanoid amphibian, who killed Maia’s team and has developed an unpleasant interest in Kay.
Allegedly the story is based on a South American legend about a half-fish, half-human creature living in the Amazon that killed nearby humans. This led to a story, “The Sea Monster,” from Creature’s producer, William Alland, and eventually inspired the film. As with many of Universal’s earlier horror films, they worked within in a pool of regular cast and crew members and hired regular creature feature director Jack Arnold. Arnold is responsible for some of their most beloved sci-fi horror films from the period, including Tarantula (I may be the only one who loves this movie), It Came From Outer Space, and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Arnold was in top form for Creature. Though there are some slow, talkie moments, the underwater scenes are incredibly beautiful and atmospheric. The Gill-man also looks best while underwater. Design by Millicent Patrick, though she wouldn’t get credit for years, and artists Bud Westmore, Jack Kevan, and Chris Mueller, Jr. helped create the beast. The Gill-man was played by two actors: Ben Chapman on land and Olympic swimmer Ricou Browning while underwater. Though the very tall Chapman does an excellent job with the Gill-man on land, it is unfair that he received sole credit for so many years (though in the films credits, no one is listed). Browning absolutely steals the film in his underwater scenes as the Gill-man, giving the creature an eerie, menacing beauty. Browning’s scene were filmed separately in Florida in a newly designed tank.
There are some good performances outside of Chapman and Browning, namely Julie Adams, who is an excellent scream queen. There are a lot of scenes of scantily clad men competing with each other (both intellectually and physically), but that’s in keeping with other genre films from the period. Nestor Paiva is fitting as the grumpy captain of the Rita, and Richard Carlson and Richard Denning are good leading men, not that they can really compete with Gill-man.
I think the reason I love this film so much is because of what the Gill-man represents: a deep-seated fear of the unknown. Like the earlier Universal monsters, he is humanoid and his level of destruction is relatively restrained, compared to, say, Godzilla or giant, rampaging tarantulas. But unlike the other classic monsters, he is not a creature created by man’s misuse of science (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) or by something supernatural (Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man). The Gill-man, unlike any of his movie monster brethren that I can think of from the time period, is a product of nature. Unlike the monsters of ‘50s atomic horror, he is not a mutation created by use/misuse of atomic power (or later pollutants), nor is he from outer space. He represents the unpredictable, threatening power of nature and there is something delightfully Lovecraftian about the Gill-man.
Originally filmed and released in 3-D, this was Universal’s second 3-D film after It Came from Outer Space. This certainly adds to the ‘50s, drive in style charm of the film. While it is one of my favorite Universal movies, there are some silly moments and anyone watching this for the first time as an adult may not be as head over heels for it as I am. The pleasant sense of creepiness and otherworldliness may just be nostalgia, but I’ve simply seen the film too many times to tell. This was followed by two increasingly ridiculous sequels, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us.
Creature from the Black Lagoon comes highly recommended and is available as part of the Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Legacy Collection, which included all three films and some special features. The film is also available on Blu-ray as part of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection with Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Phantom of the Opera. There are also rumors of a potential remake (god I hope not) and more rumors that Guillermo del Toro may take on the project (small favors).