Universal Studios led the pack in the movie monster department in the 1930s & 1940s. The great era of "sympathetic" monsters with black & white cinematography was coming to a close when Universal came up with one more being to carry classic horror into the 1950s.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was both a commercial & an artistic success. There would eventually be a trilogy of Creature films, not to mention a plethora of weak imitations the gill-man inspired.
In the 1970s I was fortunate to see The Creature from the Black Lagoon in its original 3-D on a big screen. It was a novel experience, though to be sure, it by no means requires such a gimmick to be one of the best low budget creature features of all time.
As the story unfolds we know the Creature lives in a lagoon deep in the Amazon & has never imposed itself on the world of people, never harmed anyone. But no sooner do people find out about its existence than they invade the its tereritory & start harrassing it & doing injury to its environment.
Richard Carlson as the well-meaning scientist Dr. David Reed would like to capture it alive for study; rival Mark Williams (Richard Denning) wants to bring it back as a dead & preserved specimen. On a relative scale Williams is the bigger s.o.b., but neither one has the Creature's best interests at heart, & he's quite justified in becoming violent.
Fellow scientist Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) is the love interest not only for the rival gents, but also for the gill-man. In a gorgeous, touching, nearly erotic sequence, the creature swims with a dancer's grace in tandem with Kay, though she never sees it.
As portrayed underwater by swimmer Ricou Browning, the creature is almost delicate in its movements, though lumbering on land. With such a beautifully designed being, there's no need for mere glimpses as in films with crappy looking rubber suit monsters. The camera luxuriates in lingering portraits of the Creature.
Despite that this creature, too, is a rubber suit, it's simply & stunningly a great one, largely from the imagination of Milicent Patrick who did all the preliminary drawings for how the creature should look.
The documentary in the two-disc complete Creature set Back to the Black Lagoon: A Creature Chronicle (2000) shows some of the first sketches Milicent worked up, & provides many other inside peeks & interviews of greater than average interest.
There are interviews with the Creature's leading ladies Julie Adams & Lori Nelson, with Ricou who created & enacted the creature's physical movements underwater in all three films, & Ben Chapman who played the Creature on land, as well as with authors & illustrators who were inspired by these films.
There is a strange beauty to the Creature's design, making it emotionally impossible not to believe in him as a real being, with feelings either animalistic or human but either way still feelings.
That he remains man-shaped for all the gills & scales makes the Beauty & the Beast theme credible. He's an elemental expression of ourselves, & not merely an alien "other" without human attributes.
By contrast the humans are the greater villains, whether or not they intend to be. They harrass the gill-man, spear him in an attempt to kill him, poison his environment, net him, & otherwise refuse to let him continue in his quiet life. Yet he cannot flee because from the creature's point of view, he has already performed a mating ritual in the water with Kay.
At the end of Creature from the Black Lagoon he seems surely to have been killed & his sinking away into the depths is quite a sad image. But even before the film was released plans were afoot for a sequel, & the film's first audience would already have been hoping he was only unconscious.
The immediate sequel Revenge of the Creature (1955) is not the equal of the first film, but nevertheless good of kind. It picks up shortly after the incidents from Black Lagoon with a new expedition organized to find out if the Creature survived, this time prepared to capture him & bring him out of the Amazon & to Marineland, Florida, for public display.
With Ricou recreating the poetic swimming movements of the gill-man, it starts out quite nicely with him in his natural environment. The creature always looks its best in the water.
Those first few scenes pretending to be set on the Amazon do fairly well at capturing some of the first film's magic. There's a brief sequence in which the creature captures a large water bird that has a powerful naturalism to it.
In captivity he is less exciting, which is of course one of the film's points. He is teased & abused without mercy in the name of science & commerce. We feel pity for him, from his first enraged moments onward.
Chained in his tank, an electric prod is used to "train" him, we know damned well this treatment is wrong for we suspect he's practically human.
But even if he were merely a human-shaped amphibian or cousin to a dolphin, this abuse is wicked, the tragedy heightened by the misguided good intentions of Professor Ferguson (John Agar) & icthyologist Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) who scarcely realize how cruel they are.
As in the first film the creature has an eye for beauty & falls in love with Helen, who he'll eventually get to carry about in standard monster-carries-girl fashion, an iconic image that would seem to relate, somewhere deep inside our actual human society, to fertility myths.
The wooden characters all have less personality than the gill man, but then he's not saddled with lame dialogue. When he escapes to the sea, we're glad for him, but his interest in Helen means he won't be hiding quite well enough. Helen must have had fairly fishy pherimones, as she's practically a homing device for the Creature, who can find her wherever she goes.
By the end he is once again killed & seen sinking into the depths. But hey, if he was only unconscious at the end of the first film, why not this time too?
The third film in the trilogy, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), is not the visual equal of the original due to the change that the creature undergoes. But as a story, it's spectacular, not just more-of-same but a unique & painful tragedy.
Since escaping from Marineland Park, the creature has established a new territory in the Florida everglades & lives much as he did in the upper Amazon. But humanity still won't let him be.
That element of the gill-man that is a bit of lady's man is revisited when he is attracted to the unhappy wife of the expedition leader. There's an attempt to recapture something of the ballet-like poetry-of-motion of the creature's mating swim when he first sees her in the water, but menacing the heroine is definitely not the main thing this time around.
During the attempt to capture him anew, the creature becomes doused with gasoline & set afire. His gills, fins, & webs are burned off & to save the creature's life, he undergoes an experimental surgery that improves the performance of his rudimentary lungs. Like a salamander larvae, he begins to undergo further changes that makes him increasingly of the land.
He had beauty & grace only in swamp or sea. There's intense sadness, palpable in the creature's body language, that he can no longer live under water. What was once elegant & sleek has become awkward. As his metamorphoses progresses, he is no longer a mysterious being but increasingly a freakish human.
He becomes relatively docile, as though resigned, once he realizes he can no longer breathe in the water. After he is shippedto a California ranch, the images of him standing in a sheep pen, with livestock as his companions, & wearing pants & a shirt, captures perfectly his agonizing loss of himself. He stands in the electrified pen gazing off toward a beach, to a world that is no longer his.
The soap opera antics of the human characters merely mark time & are not that interesting. The important factor is the emotional state of the creature, who would seem genuinely to be suffering from depression.
When his sheep companions are attacked by a cougar, he defends them, but his captors mistakenly believe he has shown signs of reverting to his former violence.
Anyone who has ever felt like a misunderstood outsider for even a minute has got tobe moved by the creature's predicament.
When a jealous husband murders a man & tries to pin it on the creature, he makes what appears to be a moral choice to break out of his enclosure & rampage through the mansion hunting down the killer.
His final return to the sea was either an act of desperation, or suicide. It is just so unfair that human beings have brought the poor fellow to this impasse.
If it is a choice to live like a penned animal treated as neither man nor beast but only as a monster, then his only choice is to return to his actual element, even if he must drown in so doing.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl