Sunday, March 23, 2014

Classics Revisited: Creature from the Black Lagoon

(1954) Directed by Jack Arnold; Written by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross; Starring: Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Whit Bissell and Nestor Paiva; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“The creature was violent because he’s provoked into violence.  Inherent in the character is the statement: we all have violence within, and if provoked are capable of any bizarre retaliation.  If left alone and understood, that’s when we overcome the primal urges that we’re all cursed with.” – Jack Arnold (excerpt from Tom Weaver’s DVD commentary)

Ever since my blog’s inception, I intended to review Creature from the Black Lagoon, but life and other projects had a way of intervening. The title creature was one of my primary influences, and could just as easily have been my avatar (I briefly considered Robby the Robot as well), before I decided upon Peter Lorre as my official mascot.  Although I’m just getting around to discussing the creature (or “gill man”) now, his importance in monster movie history can’t be denied.  Better late than never, I finally pay my respects to the last great classic Universal monster.

Creature from the Black Lagoon* was originally filmed and projected in 3D.  While the 2D images from my Blu-ray** copy (the disc includes 2D and 3D versions) look stunning, it’s one of the few times I wished I had a 3D TV to appreciate the movie as the filmmakers originally intended.  At one time, the filmmakers planned to shoot this in color, but the crisp black and white cinematography adds a layer of mystery to the movie.  Also, despite being separated from its Universal horror brethren by two decades, the absence of color helps it fit in with its predecessors more seamlessly.  Shot on two coasts (the above-water scenes were shot in the Universal Studios backlot in California, while the  underwater scenes, with a different cast, were shot in Florida) and edited together, the combined footage create the illusion that all the scenes originated from the same place. 

* The film went through a number of titles during development, including The Pisces Man and Black Lagoon.

** Nitpickers take note: the screen shots provided here are from the DVD, which was issued several years back.

The creature’s appearance is distinctly human, but different enough to give audiences the creeps.  Even by today’s standards, the suit effects hold up; a remarkable testament to practical effects.  Although no one would ever describe him as cute and cuddly, the creature remains sympathetic due to his identifiable human traits.  He just does what he does, existing in isolation, until humans encroach upon his environment.  The creature was brought to life, by Ricou Browning in the underwater scenes and Ben Chapman in above water scenes.  According to film historian Tom Weaver’s commentary, while Bud Westmore is credited for the creature’s distinctive design, in reality he had little, if anything, to do with it.  Instead, the creature’s form, which went through several iterations, was the result of many skilled individuals on Westmore’s team, including the initial design work by Milicent Patrick, and head sculpture by Chris Mueller.    

The film features a terrific composite score by three (uncredited) composers, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein, and a very young Henry Mancini.  Each handled different components of the movie, to set the tone, ranging from playful, to romantic, and horrific.  Stein contributed some of the more strident components, including the famous three-note gill man theme.

With all due respect to my blog’s mascot, this film concerns another form of mad love.  Early in the film, we witness a love triangle between the two male lead characters, David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Mark Williams (Richard Denning), his publicity seeking boss.  At the apex of the triangle is the fetching Julia Adams as their assistant, Kay Lawrence.  It doesn’t take a scholar in Freudian theory to decode the phallic imagery of Denning wielding a speargun throughout the picture.  To be fair, the ubiquitous presence of his speargun was likely a conscious effort by the filmmakers to exploit the 3D process, but added an unintended subtext to the scenes.  As a result of losing Kay to his subordinate, he takes out his aggression on the creature, fueled by his perceived impotence.  The creature becomes another participant in this love triangle (love square?), when he discovers Kay.  In a scene that would be echoed 21 years later in Jaws, we share in his voyeuristic pursuit, watching her frolic in the lagoon, unaware of the danger that lurks below.  Once he’s caught a glimpse of Kay, he’s determined to claim her for himself.  What he hopes to do with her is probably best left to our imagination.

Creature from the Black Lagoon spawned two inferior sequels: Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us, which continued the saga of the gill man but didn’t have the impact of the original.  Over the years, the idea of a remake has been thrown about, but nothing has amounted to much.  I’m not a big fan of remakes, but I was intrigued to learn about a proposed 3D remake by producer John Landis in 1982, which would have featured makeup effects by Rick Baker and Arnold at the helm once more.   The material still has potential with the right combination of cast and crew, but it will be difficult, nigh impossible, to top the original creature design.  60 years onward, Creature from the Black Lagoon still captivates and inspires.


  1. You have sold me in seekng this one out, but I may ave to wait and see it on Blueray before I do. The practical effects of a guy in a suit make the movie more realistic. Thanks for writing this .

    1. The suit effects are really well done, even by today's standards. One of my favorite Universal horror flicks.