Rolling our internal zeitgeist backward to the year of 1954, its easy to see how scary this film really was to the original audience who had never seen anything quite like this. Not only was this the first underwater Horror flick, it was also the first underwater 3D picture. Further, the creature himself was a model of great creature effects from the time. Make no mistake, Creature from the Black Lagoon was the Alien of its day, and its influence has been felt all over some of the all time greats like Jaws as well as some of the lesser grind-house features like Zombi 2. Even considering the dated aspects of this classic, it's amazing to note how well much of this stands up to the test of time. There are times that the film buff in all of us might view this Monster Movie and recognize something all too familiar in the thematic elements and tasteful camera choices of director Jack Arnold and say "Ah, so that got its start here, huh?"
Arnold's sincere directing takes a semi-standard Creature Feature script and helps the viewer to completely suspend disbelief and just enjoy the ride. Harry Essex and Arthur R. Ross'screenplay (based on the original story by Maurice Zimm) postulates the concept that in certain untouched pockets of the world, evolution may have stopped, or taken a very different turn. Because nature has created the "Lungfish", could a "Gill-Man" be completely impossible?
Our story begins with a scientist named Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) who discovers the fossilized forearm of an evolutionary anomaly. While almost certainly a fish fossil, the arm has five distinct fingers. What follows owes more than a little debt to The Lost World. A group of scientists led by Richard Carlson's Dr. David Reed and his strikingly beautiful fiancÚe Julia Adams' Kay Lawrence embark on an expedition to a part of the Amazon untouched for millions of years.
Unfortunately, dangerous Jurassic Junipers in Jumpsuits aren't the entirety of the mission's problems! Reed and Lawrence's boss is a life-sized G.I. Joe figure named Mark Williams (played by Richard Denning). Mark's craving isn't so much for adventure and scientific satisfaction but for money, money, money. This, coupled with his Type A, Alpha Male Personality makes Mark gung ho to spare no expense to bring back what they're looking for.
Do they find what they're looking for? Is a Gill-Man's rump water-tight? It isn't too terribly long before our science-heroes are dipping and diving and scraping and thriving in this forgotten spot of the South American Wilderness.
However, this being the Black Lagoon, a certain titular creature is none too happy about a couple of hairy, Vitalis-wearing men floating around in his water-space. However, that's before he takes a good look at sweet, sweet Kay. Now her, the Creature does NOT mind taking a little dip. And seeing the really lovely Julia (AKA Julie) Adams in the specially-made one-piece, you'll understand why! Yowza! I had to double check to make sure I wasn't watching Creature from the Blue Lagoon!
Arnold takes a classy and frightening approach to the Gill-Man (played above ground by Ben Chapman and under water by Ricou Browning). For some time the audience sees scarcely more than the living version of the fossilized hand. Much like many of the films that took their inspiration from Creature from the Black Lagoon, this original succeeds in scaring the viewer more with what is unseen than what is seen. Just imagine being a viewer in the '50's, 3D glasses perched on your nose like a pop-culture professor, watching a black and white three-dimensional fish tank open up before you and watching this monstrosity come into view only a piece at a time, before the inevitable reveal. While perhaps not quite as disturbing as the similarly revealed Alien (this film still carries its G-Rating), Gill-Man is still one of the quintessential movie monsters, brilliantly designed by Rosemary Odell and brought to life by the Bud Westmore makeup and design crew!
What follows is a creepy cat and mouse game, where the hunter and predator repeatedly trade places. Soon the explorers find that their ship has been immobilized and that they are at the mercy of the creature. To escape, or just stay alive when their crew is dying one by one, the adventurers construct makeshift weapons and invent new and untried techniques in their battle against the monster... and each other. See what I mean? This should be required viewing for any Alien or Predator fan! Trade creepy Amazon Lagoon for Uncharted Planet in Space and the similarities are striking.
Sadly, as great as this classic is, Creature from the Black Lagoon isn't perfect. The concept of the missing link falling for a sun-core hot human woman is not only a little creepy, but also feels like it's been done before. To be fair, though, Julie Adams is something else. Further the characters occasionally feel stock. Kay is most commonly there to fill the role of damsel in distress, in spite of her primarily formidable presence in other ways. The men never seem to truly feel like they're in danger, and often come off as if they're discussing the latest from the old Wall Street Ticker. That's not to say any of the acting is bad. No. Dated, yes, but bad, absolutely not.
Besides, that's what suspension of disbelief is for, and Creature from the Black Lagoon is structured so well, it allows for believability to belie the subject matter. Make no mistake, while this is a monster flick, it's no B movie. I've been to Universal Studios Hollywood in the last few years probably as many times as I went to my grandma's house when I was a wee lil' tyke. Needless to say, I've ridden past the actual Black Lagoon (really, the place this was filmed) more times than I can tell you. Even knowing this, my mind never doubted this was the Amazon. That's how engrossing this film is. And while some of the tricks (like rear projection) are a little obvious now, please note that even the best of directors used those same techniques in this time and well after. I truly mean it when I point out that for the time, the special effects were very good, and make for a very scary and suggestive monster piece.
Speaking of which, in a film that is owed such a debt by fellow Universal Studios Picture Jaws, it's fun to note that the real Black Lagoon is literally just around the corner from the reconstructed town of Amity on the Universal Studios back lot. There's twice the tribute there (coincidence or not).
Creature from the Black Lagoon might not be the greatest Monster Movie of all time, or even the greatest from Universal, but knowing how many films were inspired by this true classic, its easy to see how indispensable it really is! With great special effects for its time, a great and classic story, characters worth rooting for, a multi-leveled creature (Rubber Suit or not), not to mention music by Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein, it's definitely one to watch and add to your collection, right up there with the best Universal Monster Movie Classics! It's one of my favorites! Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Creature from the Black Lagoon, the scary classic that started its own genre in the woods, in the ocean and in outer space. Start with The Lost World continue on with this one (and its two sequels) and finish up with Jaws and Alien for a hell of a great viewing thread. Meanwhile, I'll be planning an expedition of my own... to find a lost tribe of Amazon WOMEN. See you (and hopefully them) in the Next Reel.
There are more than enough reasons to love The Creature.
But not as many as there are to click HERE for more reviews.
It doesn't take a scientific expedition to find them.
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