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It came from…well, really bad science: “Creature from the Black Lagoon”

November 1, 2013

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October Spooktacular 2013 comes to a close with a monster I like so much it adorns this very site: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (that’s him up there on the left). The creature is one of Universal Studios more famous monsters—rightly so, too—and his premiere outing is a highly enjoyable, technically proficient piece of storytelling. Like The Thing, and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Creature from the Black Lagoon harkens back to a time when even a light sci-fi/horror diversion wasn’t regarded as disposable, nor were they cheap, stupid or lazy.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon tells the classic story of a beautiful woman and the two men and one prehistoric man-fish that love her. Deep in the jungles of the Amazon, a paleontologist finds the fossilized hand of what would appear to be a fish-man that dates back to the Devonian Era. He reaches out to a colleague; an ichthyologist named David Reed (Richard Carlson—remember him?), and asks him to mount an expedition into the Amazon to find further evidence of this creature. David does so, but the expedition is bankrolled by an institute run by Mark Williams (Richard Dennings), a blond-haired, blue-eyed slab of man-meat with deep pockets and a nonfunctional moral compass. Mark brings along one of his own scientists, Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams), whom David is dating, but Mark has the hots for. Things are already sizzling in the Amazon and the creature hasn’t even shown up yet.

In the '50s this was like wearing a thong bikini...

In the ’50s this was like wearing a thong bikini…

But he does soon enough. The merry band of eggheads takes a tramp steamer down the Amazon to the original dig site, only to find the camp destroyed and all the personnel dead. Chalking it up to local fauna, they continue down the river to the drainage point—the “black lagoon” as the locals have dubbed it—to sift for fossils. There, the expedition is attacked by the very pissed-off creature. At this point, the movie shifts gears as the tension between David and Mark increases. David wants to bring back proof of the creature’s existence and study its ramifications on evolutionary theory as we know it. Mark wants to stick it in a cage and charge admission. David goes after it with an underwater camera; Mark brings a speargun.

You can pretty much guess how this going to play out. The two men puff out their chests in front of Kay and clash over how to deal with this incredible find, while the creature picks them off one by one. He doesn’t seem malevolent, just kind of annoyed by them. By the end of the film, it’s pretty clear that the creature has the upper hand in the jungle primeval, and the expedition may never make out alive—with photos or a taxidermied gill-man.

Oh, and Kay’s pretty dishy, so naturally the creature develops a crush on her, so now Mark and David even more competition for her affections. And this guy has gills. I don’t know how you top that.

"'Sup."

“‘Sup.”

The creature himself is one of Hollywood’s signature creations and major kudos go to Jack Kevan and especially Chris Mueller Jr. who designed the head sculpt. Compared to the green-velour-jumpsuit men of Invaders from Mars or the eyestalk-Hefty-bag of It Came from Outer Space, the creature’s design is nothing short of brilliant. Underwater, its gills ripple in a fairly-realistic approximation of fish gills. On land, it sucks air like a bullfrog. The suit is rendered realistically enough that it manages to mimic the movement style of marine life during many of the underwater scenes. I mean, this dude just has charisma. Just how much thought went into the creation of this monster? Well, director Jack Arnold didn’t want any breathing apparatus used under the mask, since it would produce bubbles and gills don’t bubble. Consequently, Ricou Browning—who donned the suit for the underwater sequences—had to hold is breath for minutes at a time.

This was probably the most provocative movie scene '50s audiences had seen all year...

This was probably the most provocative movie scene ’50s audiences had seen all year…

The story is pretty well-constructed, too. It’s a straightforward monster movie, but it creates fairly vivid characters and establishes some nice inter-personal conflicts to fill out the scenes when the creature isn’t around. The struggle between David and Mark—between science and the commercialization of science—is familiar, but still engaging. It helps that Carlson brings some of the same sad-sack qualities to this role that he did in It Came from Outer Space and it cements his underdog status that his rival is a bronzed Adonis (I’m talking about Mark, not the creature).

In the '50s, it was totally okay to roofie chicks.

In the ’50s, it was totally okay to roofie chicks.

Even Kay has a subplot establishing her divided loyalties. She’s obviously in love with David, but feels professionally obligated to Mark. This sense of obligation takes on more weight when you consider how remarkable a position she’s been given for a woman in the 1950s. The anguish she feels at giving that up becomes all the more palpable. It’s like an episode of Man Men. With a gill-man attacking Sterling-Cooper.

"Look, Joan, if you want to be a partner you have to do some things..."

“Look, Joan, if you want to be a partner you have to do some things…”

So, just as the creature sinks into the murky depths at the end of this movie, so too does this year’s October Spooktacular fade into memory. Now I’ll go back to reviewing…well, pretty much the same kinds of movies. 

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