The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a film that transcends generations. I remember first watching the movie when I was around 8 years old. It captured my imagination like no other film had at that point. Most of the films I had seen were in color, so the black and white aspect drew me in immediately. I think I had a feeling that since it was in black and white, there was a certain amount of respect it deserved. I still feel that way today, even after watching countless films that lack story and great acting along with color. Yet, after all these years and all the flops I have observed, there is something about classic films that draws me in. No genre pulls me in like a creature feature, however. Old monster movies are by far my favorite, and since that day, when an 8-year-old boy sat eyes on the Gillman for the first time, Creature from The Black Lagoon is my favorite.
Truth time, it had been years since I sat down and watched this entire movie. I caught clips here and there but didn’t dedicate the full 79 minutes the film deserves. I wanted to know if my nostalgic emotions were getting the better of me or if this film really should be crowned king creature.
I purchased the Universal Monsters box set consisting of 8 Universal Monster films. The films included are Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera, and of course, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Over the next few weeks, I will be looking back at all of these films, but today I wanted to start with my favorite.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon premiered in Detroit on February 12th, 1954, as a black and white 3D horror film. At the time, no one could have predicted the longevity of the film. Monster movies would come and go, some to be forgotten forever, but The Creature refused to sink.
Director Jack Arnold (It Came from Outer Space) did an outstanding job creating a sense of dread in each scene with the creature. Much of the credit, however, must go to Hans Salter for his musical score. The tension that builds with Salters score makes the film what it really is, a horror film. Arnold said that he wanted to tap into the fear and anxiety that one has when swimming and have that primal feeling of something lurking beneath the water. In many scenes, this feeling is evident—still, none like when Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) is swimming away from the boat. The Gill-Man is swimming just below her, mimicking her every stroke and studying her movements. When she stops swimming and is merely treading water, he reaches over and lightly touches her foot. This moment has stuck with me all these years, and still to this day, when I am swimming in murky water and feel something touch my foot, I picture this moment in film history.
Dr. David Reed’s character is played by Richard Carlson. During this playthrough, I kept thinking that I knew him from somewhere but could not pinpoint exactly where it was. Then, in the scene when they find the brush blocking the boat “Rita” from leaving the lagoon, it hit me. Carlson played John Putnam in the film. It Came from Outer Space, where he also worked with Jack Arnold. Carlson is an iconic star in the creature feature world, solely based on his two films’ roles.
The Gill-Man was brought to life by two different stuntmen. The fact that the film would be shot both on land and underwater was the reason for this decision. Ricou Browning played the creature when underwater due to his professional career as a diver. While filming the underwater scenes, Browning would have to hold his breath for up to 4 minutes at a time. This was necessary because if he breathed while on camera, his air bubbles would come out of the mask’s mouth and not the gills. Browning also said he could remember one day while filming when he was struck with the need to use the bathroom extremely bad. He swam to the nearest bank and came out of the water where a young mother and child stood. When he breached the water and came on land, the family screamed and ran away in terror.
When the Gill-Man was on land (or boat), Ben Chapman breathed life into the gills. Chapman would be the one to travel the country in the foam-rubber-suite promoting the film and scaring fans.
One of the most surprising things to me was how beautiful the film truly is. Even though it was shot almost 70 years ago, the underwater scenes have to be appreciated. The amount of detail and care that went into every scene on land and underwater proves that the crew did not just want to make another monster movie. The birth of the film’s idea even had care and respect while building the story that would become The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The film’s producer William Alland first got the idea for the story while attending a party during Citizen Kane’s filming. Aland said that a cinematographer from Mexico named Gabriel Figueroa told of a myth of half-fish, half-human creatures that live in the Amazon River. This myth stuck to Alland, and he wrote out some notes or a story titled “The Sea Monster.” Years later, with the help of Maurice Zimm, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross finished the story, and the rest is cinema history.
The Gill-Man design was done by Disney animator Millicent Patrick (Fantasia, Dumbo, and again, It Came from Outer Space). The idea of how he would look was based on a classic sea monster, The Sea Bishop.
After all of these years, the film still holds the number one place in my book. It does an incredible job of mixing beauty, terror, and suspense, all while the creature parades around in a giant foam rubber suit that should not be menacing. The actor could hardly see through the mask, only move the mouth when raising his chin, and cause the gills to appear to be breathing with a small pump inside the suit. Regardless of the film’s age, the limitations set by outdated technology and bulky practical effects, this is, in my opinion, the best creature feature film of the classic era.
Stay tuned for more articles that are a look back at Universal Monster movies.
Written exclusively for TheLastPicture.Show by Jacob Ruble
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