Creature from the Black Lagoon - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
Creature from the Black Lagoon
There isn't an official list of "Classic Universal Monsters," but most connoisseurs seem to agree that the final one, chronologically-speaking, is the Gill-Man, the titular Creature from the Black Lagoon. Released in 1954, Creature from the Black Lagoon is a far cry from the first creature feature, but it is a highly influential one that found a perfect balance between the Universal horrors of the previous decades and the then-still-popular jungle movie. From a modern perspective, it feels pretty rote, but most of the tropes that exist today can trace their roots to this Jack Arnold classic. Without the Gill-Man, there would be no Jaws or Alien, no The Descent or A Quiet Place. It's also worth noting that Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water started out as a thought experiment about Gill-Man actually succeeding in his "romantic" interests.
Coincidentally, Creature from the Black Lagoon is also one of the movies that greatly influenced me. Regular readers know that I talk about quite a few movies that define my sensibilities, but this is one of the biggest of the bunch. I watched it multiple times when my age was still measured in single digits, and it seeded my loves for horror, for classic film, for slasher movies, for SCUBA diving, for conservationism, and much else. Until rewatching it for the purposes of this review, I think I underestimated just how profound an effect this movie had on me.
Therefore, as I often disclaim here on my website, don't expect this to be an objective review of the film. I just can't offer that. However, as somebody who has become fully submerged in classic sci-fi and who likes to think of himself as something of an amateur expert on the subject, I can more fully appreciate the context of the movie and what it did for 1950's cinema.
He once caught a human THIS big
Producer William Alland, director Jack Arnold, and leading man Richard Carlson were fresh from the 3-D hit It Came from Outer Space, and this was an enormous step up in terms of ambition and execution. Not only did it briefly revive the Universal Monsters, but it also pushed the boundaries of what you could get away with during the PCA years. Even after sci-fi began to largely devolve into kid-friendly schlock and the Universal monster franchises went into hibernation by the early 1960's, the template set by Creature from the Black Lagoon was followed almost religiously by all the major studios. Any creature feature released in its wake, whether science-fiction or otherwise, borrows quite heavily from Gill-Man's tale.
That said, it stands out among many of its imitators. For one thing, a significant portion of the movie is filmed underwater under the direction of James C. Havens, who also directed the underwater sequences in the same year's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Most films with underwater action tend to overdo it--even to this day--with long, repetitive sequences that highlight the slower motion of things beneath the waves, but Creature from the Black Lagoon doesn't do that. If anything, I'm pretty sure the cameras were undercranked to ensure more speed, with characters swimming as fast as they can as they grapple with the agile monster hunting them. There are also shots of characters shooting harpoon guns directly at the camera (no doubt to take advantage of the 3-D gimmick), but even in 2-D, they are surprisingly effective at accentuating the action.
Del Toro thought this was romantic
And as for the creature, he is hands down one of the best creature designs in cinematic history, right up there with Frankenstein's monster, the Xenomorph, and Godzilla. Not only is the monster suit carefully designed to look incredible (with most of the credit belonging to Disney animator Millicent Patrick, who was unfairly snubbed for decades in favor of the make-up artist Bud Westmore), but it also works well in the water, swimming with agility and grace as it almost dances below the swimming frame of Julie Adams' Kay Lawrence in perhaps the most iconic sequence of the entire film. I also have to applaud the fact that we don't get a really good look at Gill-Man until at least a third of the way through the picture, which goes a long way toward building anticipation and anxiety about his inevitable arrival.
I also think the plot has more ambiguity than it might first appear. Sure, on the surface, it feels like a simple morality tale, with the slimy Mark, driven by a desire to kill the creature and prove a success to the world, pitted against the noble David, who thinks the creature should be preserved in its natural habitat. They are also involved in a love triangle with Kay, though Kay clearly only reciprocates with David. The script does everything it can to make Mark feel like the antagonist and to make David the hero, but if you dive just a little deeper into the story, it isn't so black and white.
Not as clear-cut as it would seem
For one thing, Mark is proven right about how dangerous the creature is and about how foolish any attempts to capture it alive are. He also dies, not because of his hubris, but because he sacrifices himself while saving David's life. David is also wrong about how the creature only attacks because they shot first. That argument ignores the fact that the creature starts the movie by killing two people who aren't doing anything but hanging out in a tent. The fact remains that, while David's conservationist instincts are probably on the right track--if they had simply left the thing alone, more people wouldn't have died--he is a damn fool if he thinks it would have been perfectly safe to go diving in its lagoon with just a camera instead of a harpoon gun.
Now, it's not a perfect narrative--Kay's character is woefully stereotypical, the connection between the Gill-Man fossil and the living Gill-Man makes absolutely no sense if you know how fossils are made, and what kind of idiot diver regularly takes a safety stop for less than a minute at only five feet below the surface?--but it is a nearly perfect movie for its time. It's a parable about the natural world that manages to throw in a few deep thoughts about how studying evolution on our own planet might help us to adapt to other planets in the distant future, but it doesn't let that get in the way of the thrilling and suspensful monster movie it was truly designed to be. What I'm trying to say is that Creature from the Black Lagoon isn't just a sci-fi classic; it's a science-fiction masterpiece.
-e. magill 4/15/2021
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