Saturday, 24 June 2017

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit of an outlier among the classic Universal monster movies. It came out in 1954, some years after Universal’s monster cycle had ended. It’s also in some ways a typical 50s sci-fi horror offering but it still has some features that link it to the great Universal horror films. It has a sympathetic (or at least partly sympathetic) monster, there’s an emphasis on atmosphere and there’s an emphasis on achieving an impressive visual impact. It’s a movie that looks classier than most 50s sci-fi/horror flicks.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was actually shot in 3D. 3D is a silly idea that Hollywood periodically gets obsessed with. I watched this movie in good old 2D and it looked just fine.

The movie opens with an odd but mercifully brief prologue about the creation of the Earth which is purely an excuse to show off some gimmicky 3D photography.

The actual story begins in the Amazon Basin with the discovery by middle-aged scientist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) of an exciting fossil. His former student David Reed is excited as well. Perhaps he might persuade Mark Williams to fund an expedition to look for more such fossils. Mark Williams is David’s employer. Mark is always willing to fund research if the results are likely to attract plenty of public attention and enhance his own reputation. Mark is keen and an expedition is soon assembled.

A decrepit river steamer, the Rita, is hired and they set off. They are not dismayed by a disturbing tragedy involving a couple of Carl’s Indian assistants. The expedition initially seems like it is going to be a washout until someone suggests that they might find something if they’re prepared to push on into the unexplored reaches of the river to find the so-called Black Lagoon. 

What they find is not quite what they expected. Fossils are one thing, but finding a previously unknown ancient life-form is something else when it’s very much alive. The gill man is not just alive but he’s going to be quite a challenge to deal with. He’s probably not going to take kindly to any attempts to capture him and that of course is exactly what the scientists are hoping to do. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Director Jack Arnold would go on to helm some of the more entertaining science fiction movies of the 1950s including the excellent The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The characters are what you expect in a sci-fi B-movie but the relationships between them are slightly more complex than you might expect. There’s professional tension between the ruthless Mark and the more ethical David but there’s also tension between them over Kay. David and Kay are very much a couple but it’s obvious that Mark isn’t entirely happy about this and that he some interest in Kay himself. Kay seems quite happy to have two hunky young men both lusting after her.

The acting is just a little better than standard B-picture level as well. Richard Denning makes Mark an interesting character, a wealthy successful man who is still driven by uncontrolled ambition and whose ethics are somewhat flexible. Richard Carlson as David is a perfectly adequate hero. Julie Adams plays Kay as mostly a nice respectable girl but also as a girl who is aware of the effect upon men of her sexual charms and gets a certain amount of enjoyment from this.

Of course the great thing about a movie in which scuba diving plays a major role is that it provides plenty of opportunities for the leading lady to cavort about in a bathing suit (and Julie Adams fills a bathing suit more than adequately). And of course the two leading men get to spend much of the movie with their shirts off so there’s eye candy for the ladies in the audience as well as for the men.

The key scene in the movie has Kay going for a swim. Unbeknownst to her the gill man is just below her, following her every move. While he tries to kill every man he encounters he does not appear to be interested in killing her. It’s reasonable to assume that he sees her swim as some kind of mating signal and it’s a signal he’s eager to respond to her. There are some obvious parallels here to King Kong of course. There also seems to be only one creature, obviously male, which further suggests that he is desperate to find a mate and he knows Kay is female and would therefore be (from his point of view) the most suitable mate he can find. The instinct to perpetuate the species cannot be denied, although Kay was hoping to perpetuate the species with someone other than an amphibian swamp monster.

The gill man of this movie inspired countless guy-in-a-rubber-suit monsters over the next couple of decades but at the time he was a striking enough monster and he still looks rather impressive in the underwater scenes especially.

The underwater sequences (credited to James C. Havens) were the movie’s big selling point and they are exceptionally well done. On the whole the special effects stand up well.

The pacing might seem a bit leisurely but Jack Arnold knows what he’s doing. He shows us the monster early on because he’s in the happy position (for a B-film director) of having a monster that looks impressive and it makes us sense to give us a look at the said monster as early as possible. We’ve seen the creature but nothing much of a menacing nature happens for quite a while. The creature is there and sooner or later it’s going to come into collision with the expedition members but Arnold builds the suspense slowly.

Having the expedition run from a decaying but picturesque old steamer rather than a modern research vessel is a nice touch.

Creature from the Black Lagoon looks rather splendid on Blu-Ray. It’s a well-paced and quite exciting monster movie with a bit more substance than most and better made than most. Highly recommended.


Randall Landers said...

One of the greatest monster movies of all time.

Matthew Clark said...

For all the fine visuals that this movie has, its music soundtrack is way too heavy handed for much of its time.