The idea group of explorers entering a strange land only to discover that it’s inhabited by some sort of monster is as old as the genre itself, with RKO’s 1933 classic King Kong being the standard-bearer for such a story, but in 1954 Universal Pictures decided to add a final star in their line-up of Universal Monster with a creature that brought an aquatic element to the classic story of the Beauty and the Beast, they’d also add a new dimension to this horror offering as it came out during the 3D boom.
The genesis of the plot of Creature from the Black Lagoon dates back to the silent era, with 1925s The Lost World, where you’d find a group of adventurers travelling to a part of the world that has “never felt the hand of man.” In this particular outing from Universal Pictures, we have the discovery of a fossil of a skeletal hand with webbed fingers by marine biologist Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and this leads to the formation of an expedition up the Amazon River to see if more of the fossil can be found. Making up this party is ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Ricard Carlson), girlfriend and colleague Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), fellow scientist Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell) and their boss Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), who is more financially motivated in his desires and is the closest this film comes to having a true villain.
White people traipsing all over the globe and getting into trouble has been a staple of the genre since almost the beginning time and Creature of the Black Lagoon brings forth such themes as pollution and the encroachment of so-called civilization on the natural world. The character of Dr. David Reed is a new breed of a scientist as he doesn’t fit into the “mad scientist mould” but, instead, is what one could call the “hero scientist” and it’s these types of scientists who are the ones to solve such problems as pesky alien invaders or giant tarantulas, but even as heroic as David Reed is depicted in this film it’s really only in contrast to what a huge dick his boss, whose fate at the hands of the creature is pretty apparent from almost the first scene. Reed simply wants to study the creature while his boss is all for shooting the thing as soon as possible so that he can get back to his golf game, after some arguing he eventually settles for shooting him with a camera.
Now, you can’t have a proper Beauty and the Beast story without the beauty and for that, Julie Adams fills the bill quite nicely, though one can question the attraction an amphibious creature would have towards a member of the genus Homo Sapiens, I personally can admit that Julie Adams’ beauty could possibly transcend the line between species and, to be fair, the Gill-man’s does seem awfully alone so this could simply be a case of “Any port a storm” but maybe that’s a little crass and, who knows, maybe the creature simply wanted to bring her back to his grotto to read her some poetry. Regardless of the Gill-man’s motivation towards Julie Adams, his killing of several members of the expedition was clearly justified as they are invaders and he was simply defending his home and himself.
• The opening narration starts with a quote from the Bible and then almost immediately dovetails into talking about evolution which must be the fastest one-eighty in film history.
• In keeping with jungle pictures everywhere, we hear the cry of kookaburra despite this film taking place in Brazil and not Australia, where the Kookaburra can be found.
• The Amazon River is known to have black water tributaries but what we see in this movie is not what one would call a lagoon, I guess The Creature from the Black Grotto didn’t have as nice a ring to it.
• The Gill-man is described as a Devonian life-form, but a clawed and bipedal amphibious creature doesn’t resemble anything from that era.
• David Reed ponders the idea of the creature being from outer space, but actor Richard Carlson had already encountered them a year before in It Came from Outer Space so the odds of that are slim.
• Director Jack Arnold’s intent was to play upon the basic fear that people have about what might be lurking below the surface of any body of water, and the scene where the creature “mirrors” Julie Adams, as she swims above the Gill-Man, clearly inspired Steven Spielberg when he filmed Chrissie’s death scene in Jaws.
With Creature from the Black Lagoon director Jack Arnold would usher in a new era for Universal Pictures and while the Gill-man is considered to be the last of the traditional Universal Monsters the film came out during the rise of 50s era science fiction film, where giant tarantulas and shrinking men would be sharing the screens with a variety of visitors from outer space, but what makes this particular film harken back to the classics of the 30s and 40s is that it gave us a rather sympathetic monster one whose actions of carnage and death are through no fault of their own. The creature itself is one of the best monster creations and the concept designs by Disney animator Milicent Patrick made the Gill-Man one of the most recognizable and unique entries in the Universal Monster line-up.
Extra Credit: For years Universal make-up artist Bud Westmore took sole credit for the creation of the monster but, in fact, it was a group effort with Milicent Patrick’s concept designs being the key to its success, with the bodysuit then constructed by Jack Kevan and the sculpted head by Chris Mueller Jr. which all went towards bringing the Gill-Man to life.
Note: In 2017 Guillermo del Toro released his own take on this classic tale with his film The Shape of Water, which took the relationship between a woman and a Gill-Man to a whole new level.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out the other two people responsible for the Gill-Man and that would be Rico Browning, who wore the suit for the swimming sequences, while Ben Chapman portrayed the Gill-man for any scenes where the creature roamed above the water. These two gentlemen did an excellent job of breathing life and pathos into this persecuted creature and I would place the Gill-Man up there with Frankenstein’s Monster in the pantheon of sympathetic creatures who were tormented solely due to the fact that they were different. In conclusion, Universal’s Creature of the Black Lagoon gave us one of the more iconic members of the Universal Monsters franchise and this film practically birthed a whole new genre of man-against-nature monster movies.
You can check out my other reviews here: Universal Classic Monsters: A Cinematic World of Horror.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
Not only did Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon give the world one of its greatest movie monsters it was also wonderfully shot, the underwater photography sequences were quite spectacular, and if you get a chance to see this film in 3D by, all means, do so.