Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
1954 was a great year for monster movies. The giant bug film was introduced with Them! and the Land of the Rising Sun gave the world an international icon with the film Gojira (aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters). In 1954, Universal studios brought the movie going public Creature from the Black Lagoon. This film was a sensation and put the Gillman alongside Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the Mummy in the pantheon of classic Universal Monsters. The Creature is the greatest monster of a decade filled with monsters. He outshines his irradiated and overgrown brethren because there was the slightest bit of humanity in him. He lusts, he is cunning, and he feels pain. He is an animal on the brink of becoming something more. The Gillman’s story is one of the finest fantasy films ever made. Creature from the Black Lagoon is a true motion picture masterpiece of the monstrous.
In the heart of the Amazonian rain forest, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) uncovers a most unusual fossil. It has five fingers arranged much like a human hand, but it sports webbing and claws that suggest a marine predator. Dr. Maia assembles a team of scientists to journey to the fabled Black Lagoon in search of more fossils. Amongst the team are Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), and Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissel).
Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the captain of the Rita (their chartered riverboat), tells them the story of the aquatic monster that stalks the Black Lagoon. When Dr. Maia returns to his camp he finds that some savage beast has slaughtered his assistants. Later the team discovers that the legend of the half-man half-fish monster is indeed true. The beast stalks the crew of the Rita. The Creature comes aboard the boat and attacks. The ambitious and ruthless Dr. Williams wants to stay in the Black Lagoon to capture the Gillman. Being the levelheaded 1950’s hero that he is, Dr. Reed pleads to leave the lagoon and the Creature. There is much tension between the two young scientists over the love of Kay. The Creature also finds Kay quite the “catch.” The Creature is apprehended through the use of Rotenone (a poison used to catch fish) and is imprisoned.
The cage doesn’t hold the Gillman for long though, he escapes and seriously injures Dr. Thompson. Lucas decides to turn his boat around and leave, but the Creature has blocked the waterway leading into the lagoon with a log. Underwater, Dr. Williams and Dr. Reed attempt to remove the log but the Creature sees them. A fight breaks out and the Creature kills Williams. Using the Rotenone on the beast, David is able to remove the log. That night, the Creature comes aboard the ship and grabs Kay, taking her into his cave. Dr. Reed, Lucas, and Dr. Maia track the Gillman to his subterranean cave. The Creature is shot and stumbles to the water. He sinks into the blackness of the lagoon. The last relic of the Devonian age is dead… or so it would seem.
The Creature would return for two more films, each of declining quality. Revenge of the Creature is a fun atomic age romp with John Agar battling the Gillman who escaped from a Floridian aquarium. The Creature Walks Among Us is a real stinker of a film that has two bonehead scientists turn the Creature into a more human-like monstrosity. Of the two sequels, Revenge of the Creature is most definitely the strongest due in large part to the craftsmanship of returning director Jack Arnold.
Jack Arnold, the James Whale of the 1950s, directed Creature from the Black Lagoon, along with most of Universal International’s best films of the 50’s. This film is Arnold’s Magnum Opus. Arnold gives the story a sense of tension. He shows us the Creatures monstrous claw first; leaving us to imagine what kind of demon is attached to it. The booming score (by Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein) helps flesh out the anxiety of the film. The viewer, like the characters, lies in dread of the Creature’s return. Arnold successfully plays on one of mankind’s greatest collective fears: fear of the unknown. By using an underwater monster he tapped into one of the most common manifestations of this fear, which is fear of the deep. The obsidian waters of the Black Lagoon are the unknown and the Gillman is the horror that springs from it.
Fear of the unknown is a common theme of fantastic films of the decade. Creature from the Black Lagoon is a 50s monster film, yet it also has many qualities that link it to the horror films of earlier decades. As in movies like Dracula and King Kong, the Creature has a strange attraction to the heroine. When the Creature silently stalks Julie Adams as she swims, it is a scene of monochromatic beauty that would seem more at home in a Universal film of the 30s or a Val Lewton film of the 40s. The Creature, unlike many of his Atom Age peers, is not a towering beast. He’s big, but Tokyo need not evacuate. His size distinguishes him from monsters like Godzilla or The Deadly Mantis, but his scales and gills distinguish him from monsters like the Wolf Man or Mr. Hyde. He is a mixture of the more man-like monsters of the thirties and forties and the inhuman beasties of the fifties. Another thing that sets the Gillman apart is his origins. He is not an atomic mutant nor was he awakened by an atomic bomb. Nor is he trying to take over the earth. Like I said earlier the Creature represents fear of the unknown, a much broader fear than bombs or Marxists. America was in a decade of uncertainty. The threat of nuclear war hung over our heads. The United States was afraid of being infiltrated by the seemingly emotionless enemy of international Communism. While the Creature doesn’t openly represent either atomic devastation or the Soviet threat he represents the trepidation that these things brought to us. The world was a mysterious place filled with dangerous new technologies and enemies. Earth had become a “Black Lagoon” filled with monsters that could at any time leap out of the darkness and attack us.
No matter what the symbolic significance of the Gillman is, he will always remain one hell of a monster. Producer William Alland had heard an obscure South American legend about a swamp monster that was often described as an amalgamation of a turtle fish, alligator, and a human. Alland told Bud Westmore, Universal International’s head of make up, that he would deliver a script once the aquatic monster was constructed. The basic design of the monster had its origins in an unlikely place. Jack Arnold was nominated for an Academy Award (1950s Best Documentary, With These Hands) and received a certificate with an Oscar on it. He envisioned what the award would look like with gills, claws, and scales. Westmore, Jack Kevan, Bob Hickman, and Chris Nueller went to work on making the the monster a reality.
The Creature’s facial features were based on a frog’s, complete with pulsating jowl. The monster was given a pair of crustacean-like claws and a large mechanical tail, but these features were deleted because they would have seriously interfered with the underwater scenes. When the make up team had finished, they had produced one of the finest looking monsters in cinematic history. Excellence doesn’t come cheap. The total cost of the Creature was $12,000.
The actors that brought the Creature to life were Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning. Glenn Strange was originally considered because he was the only recognizable horror actor that could play part. He declined because of the intense underwater scenes. Ben Chapman was a tall ex-marine who donned the Gillman suit for the scenes of the Creature above water. Ricou Browning was a professional diver who was to portray the Creature in the underwater scenes. A special underwater suit was made for Browning that was much lighter in coloration than the land suit.
The “human” cast of Creature from the Black Lagoon is top notch as well. Richard Carlson (who also worked with Arnold in It Came From Outer Space) gives the screen one of the best portrayals of a 50’s sci-fi hero. Richard Denning (hero of the big bug classic The Black Scorpion) is the highlight of the cast as the greedy and misguided Dr. Williams. The scenes between Carlson and Denning bring even more tension to a film that is dripping with it. Julie Adams was one of the sexiest “damsels in distress” of the genre. You can see why Dr. Reed, Dr. Williams, and the Creature were all fighting over her. Nestor Paiva (Lucas) was one of the greatest B-movie supporting actors in history. He gave memorable performances in such films as Tarantula, The Mole People, and the infamous They Saved Hitler’s Brain.
The Gillman from Jack Arnold’s masterpiece Creature from the Black Lagoon represents an organism stuck between one form of life and an other. He is mostly a creature of the deep, yet he can freely move on land with two legs. The Creature also represents a being that is trapped between two sub-genres, the classic horror film and the prehistoric monster movie. It could even be argued that the amphibious monstrosity could represent the times that he was born out of. Times where America was in a transitional state between one period of its history and the next. We had left the primordial ooze of global conflict and entered a world that was frightening and alien to us. Like the crew of the Rita we sailed into troubled territory and did not know what would be lurking in the blackness.
Sources: Classic Movie Monsters by Donald F. Glut
The Internet Movie Database- http://www.imdb.com
For whatever ludicrous reason, neither Ricou Browning (underwater) nor Ben Chapman (above water) were credited for their performances as the titular monster.
Browning would have to hold his breath for up to four minutes at a time, as the costume was not built with an air tank.
Chapman insists that he was the real Creature, and that Browning was his underwater stuntman.