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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Out of This World SciFi/Fantasy Classics: Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) review



Richard Carlson (David Reed), Julia Adams (Kay), Richard Denning (Mark Williams), Antonio Moreno (Carl Maia)

Directed by Jack Arnold

The Short Version: One of the archetypes of the creature feature is this timeless 1954 scary tale of men, a monster, and a maiden. The subject matter isn't deep, but the Black Lagoon is, and we see lots of it and our creepy critter that calls it home. The evolution of the Amazon's most famous resident carried over into two sequels while influencing dozens of films and filmmakers alike. The popularity of the Gill Man lives and breathes sixty years after its original release.

A fossilized, clawed hand is discovered within a rock formation in the Amazon jungle. A geological research expedition is mounted to recover the rest of the specimen. As the team travel further into the tributary, they uncover a dangerous predator living below the depths of the lagoon -- a half-man, half-fish creature left over from a prehistoric era. The expedition soon becomes trapped by the monster, as the water-logged Gill-Man sets his sight on the beautiful female crew member while mauling the men one by one.

One of Universal's icons of classic creature feature cinema is this 1954 favorite about a water dwelling amphibian monster; a clawed, fishy fiend with a penchant for pulchritude, and maleficence for man. At that time in the 50s, atomic powered behemoths of Earthly origin and invaders not of this world were all the rage, so this non-nuclear threat was certainly unique. The message of man meddling with nature remains, but in this case, it's man's pursuit of its evolutionary past that causes all the troubles.

Speaking of man, there's a good deal of machismo on display from the two main leads that clashes with the fish-chismo oozing out of every orifice from the Gill Man. Both David and Mark have opposing views as to what to do with their prehistoric find culminating in a brief scuffle towards the end. All three vie for the affections of Julia Adams; the nautical masculinity of the title beast is especially apparent. As the film progresses, the Creature seems less irritated with the invading foreign interlopers than a succession of foiled attempts at trying to lay claim to Kay as his mate.

It had been 20 years since the epochal 'Beauty and the Beast' horror-fantasy classic KING KONG (1933). Both films share similarities between them, although the Gill Man is never taken out of his natural habitat (they'd save that for the sequel). The attraction between beast and a human female in KONG was accented in such scenes as the great ape playing with Fay Wray's clothes -- removing bits of them with each flick of a finger. For BLACK LAGOON, this human and non-human desire is exemplified in the films most talked about sequence -- where Kay goes swimming in the lagoon, oblivious to the scaly critter transfixed by her graceful motion in the water. The shots of the Creature swimming just inches below her in what amounts to a mating ritual is about as blatant a sexual subtext as you can get in an innocent monster movie from the 1950s. From that point on, our denizen of the deep makes it his mission to get the girl, and kill anyone that gets in the way. For man, this would be obsessive, psychotic behavior, but for the Creature, it's simply sexual selection; and who wouldn't lose their mind over Julie Adams?

The monster itself was a stunning creation; and likely the first such latex suit worn by an actor onscreen before Japan made the practice fashionable with factory-like precision. Bud Westmore was head of Universal's makeup department, but two key artists (among others) were instrumental in the finished product -- a suit reportedly designed and built within the span of a month. Modeler/sculptor Chris Mueller sculpted the iconic head and hands; and sketch artist Millicent Patrick (Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi) was responsible for the final design of the Creature. She acted in similar capacities with the aliens and monsters seen in productions like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), THIS ISLAND EARTH (1954), and THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956). 

The extremely talented Patrick is an enigma. Her artistry in some of SciFi's most memorable monsters has gone largely unrecognized for decades thanks in large part to Bud Westmore's unprofessional meddling. She seemingly disappeared off the filmmaking map shortly after CREATURE's release. She did appear in front of the camera in a couple dozen minor movie roles till the early 1960s.

Of the Gill Man himself, there were two 'Creatures', so to speak. Ben Chapman was the Big Lagooner on land while Ricou Browning donned the rubber suit for the underwater sequences. Chapman was a tall guy at 6'5" whereas Browning was much shorter, yet these differences between them (and their suits) go unnoticed. Browning played the monster in all three films for the underwater sequences. Likewise, Julia (or Julie) Adams who had her own swimming double in Ginger Stanley.

As the trailer exclaimed, this was the first underwater 3D thrill. The gimmicky process was on the wane at that time, but Arnold's film (and the first sequel) kept three dimensions alive for a short time before hibernating, not reviving till the 1980s. With that equally brief revival in the 80s, the Creature made appearances on television with 3D airings. One in particular was a 9pm showing of REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) on a Friday night in 1982.

In its own right, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was highly influential on many filmmakers, and in shaping the dozens of monster movies that came after it. Pretty much any genre movie with a monster that calls a body of water home owes some debt to the 1954 classic. It taps into that fear of not knowing just what's below the surface. The ultimate depiction of this is seen in Spielberg's seminal JAWS (1975), but without the Gill Man, it's debatable just how horror cinema of this sort would have turned out, and if we'd of gotten some of the classic examples we have since the release of Arnold's movie.

Additionally, director Jack Arnold was crucial in the revivification of Universal's monster movies that lay dormant since the mid 1940s -- replaced by a slew of comical horror mishmashes. Arnold directed three of the best such films of that decade, and all three were different in their styles. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) was a unique spin on the 'alien invader' motif; and 1955s TARANTULA was Arnold's contribution to the 'atomic bug' pictures that ruled the 50s. One of Arnold's most critically appraised pictures took atomic age SciFi in the opposite direction -- instead of a being growing to gigantic proportions, they shrank to miniscule size -- as seen in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957). His last two genre offerings were entertaining, if lesser affairs in the modest THE SPACE CHILDREN and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (both 1958).

Jack Arnold's most revered monster movie had two sequels -- REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956). According to Tom Weaver's commentary track, the first CREATURE had some spectacularly gruesome endings written for it. Seeing the monster riddled with bullets before being devoured by piranhas; or nearly decapitated by an axe-wielding Richard Carlson during a boat battle could have been even more satisfying endings as opposed to the more sorrowful one we got. Bringing the Creature back would have been difficult in those cases without introducing a new one altogether.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) probably holds the record for the most times you see a clawed hand reaching to grab a victim, or causing mortal damage without the entire monster seen onscreen. Some 18 different times you see this. Of course, shots of monsters reaching out of graves, or grabbing at the nearest throat had been done many times prior, but CREATURE  '54 made an art form out of it.

Below is a minor sampling of the effect this distinctive, meticulously designed monster has had on cinema culture here and abroad.

1. The genesis of Universal's fish-man reportedly came from an old Mexican legend of an Amazonian beast that took a "bride" once a year, returning to his underwater dwelling with its prize. Incidentally, Mexico made its own version of BLACK LAGOON with the 'Cowboys vs. Creature' feature, SWAMP OF THE LOST MONSTERS (1957), aka EL PANTANO DE LAS ANIMAS (SWAMP OF LOST SOULS).

2. Mexican horror cinema further utilized a BLACK LAGOONish type monster in other films such as 1958s CASTLE OF THE MONSTERS. In that picture, the Mexican Gill Man shares a striking resemblance to his Amazonian brethren.

3. CREATURE knock-offs came in all shapes and sizes in low budget productions like the moody, surprisingly bloody THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS (1959), the hilarious junk that is the HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964), and MONSTER FROM THE SURF (1965), which is a waste of time. Gill Men made an appearance in the Vincent Price fantasy WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP (1965).

4. THE MUNSTERS series had a cameo by the Creature under his stage name of Uncle Gilbert (or is it Gill-bert?) in the season 1, episode 31 episode, 'Loves Comes to Mockingbird Heights'.

5. In MAD MONSTER PARTY? (1967), the Gill Man puts in an appearance at a swingin' soiree being held by Dr. Frankenstein at his island abode in this Rankin-Bass stop-motion cult favorite.

6. Grade Z filmmaker Larry Buchanan made three movies featuring dime-store Halloween costumes masquerading as Black Lagoon rejects. What's significant of these three are the ping pong ball eyes of these monsters that share something in common with the mask of the monster in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE. Buchanan's abominations are CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE (1966), CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION (1967), and IT'S ALIVE! (1969).

7. Harry Essex (the writer of the original film) directed his own remake of BLACK LAGOON in 1971 as OCTAMAN, a Rick Baker designed rubber suit. The simplicity of the originals storyline remained, and the eco-horror of the 70s was added, but with little effect.

8. The opening of JAWS (1975) with Susan Backlinie taking her last dip in the ocean before becoming shark food was an homage to the '54 CREATURE.

9. A goofy version of the Gill Man made an appearance in a girls bathtub in one of the funnier moments in the horror spoof SATURDAY THE 14TH (1980). Interestingly enough, this same scene poked fun at JAWS (1975), too.

10. Roger Corman's New World Pictures put out a more explicit take-off on the Gill Man with a whole slew of Gill Men driven to mate... graphically with human women, and brutally maul human men in the exploitation cult classic HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980).

11. The Creature made a far more imposing appearance as one of Dracula's minions battling THE MONSTER SQUAD in 1987.

12. The box office success of B movie ANACONDA (1997) jump-started a new era of 'Nature Amuck' movies (most all of which went straight to television and DVD). The film itself was aping CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON with its tale of the search for a lost tribe, and the inevitable stumbling upon of a gigantic man-eating snake.

13. Since the early 80s, remakes have been planned, but none have yet materialized. Some of them seemed like they'd be fun throwbacks to that bygone era of monster magnificence, and others contained more profound, and possibly unnecessary ecological subtext attached. The most recent was set to have been released in May of 2014, and we are in July and nothing from the Black Lagoon has surfaced yet.

The amphibious, Devonian denizen of the Black Lagoon (actually Wakulla Springs, Florida) will likely rise again sometime, somewhere in the near future. It remains to be seen if an updated version will have the same ability to scare audiences the way the original did; or if a new Creature will have the lasting effect the '54 picture has maintained. And if we do return to the Black Lagoon, the B/W creature feature favorite of old will still walk among us for years to come. Not to mention having some big gills to fill.

This review is representative of the Universal Legacy Collection DVD set.

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