Universal Monster Movies Season – The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)
It’s been a long and winding road hasn’t it gentle reader, moving from the dank sewers of the Parisian underworld in the 1920’s, through the suffocating mists of Transylvania and accursed Egyptian catacombs of the 1930’s, through the intangible British countryside and canine ravaged moors through to our final hellish destination, the steaming subtropical Palaeolithic jungles of the 1950’s. Over a quarter century we’ve seen Universal studio’s acclaimed monster movie cycle morph and mutate through its gruesome cycle, from the chiaroscuro stricken, studio-bound expressionist nightmares of the early 20th century predating the coalescing horror in Europe, feasting on other studio genres to create crimson spattered hybrids, only to finally retreat away from the interfering prying eyes of humankind, withdrawing to the primordial pits of the drive-in and B movie exhibitors chain for this final picture in the chillingly celebrated studio cycle. Now I know I had some rather grandiose plans to compose capsule reviews of all 27 associated Universal movies but frankly that was ambitious in the extreme, both from a constitutional and intellectual perspective, as although I’ve immensely enjoyed composing these reviews I feel its time to punt out into waters anew, especially given the horrific bend of three months of BFI Gothic coverage. So this will be the final picture in this series but I’m always keeping one distorted and misshapen eye out at the BFI and other repertory houses for any big-screen outings of these murderous beasts, so who knows maybe we’ll be back here before the next full moon swings into a low shrieking orbit. Until then let me acquaint you with this slimy second-run classic;
The plot is direct – an Amazonian expedition traverses the mysterious and smouldering waterway, furtively seeking further evidence of a the missing link between man and fish, an obsessive quest driven by expedition leader Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno). Maia persuades his collegial ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) to expand his work and raise the necessary funding to fund the sojourn, hiring the tramp steamer Rita captained by a Mediterranean seadog Lucas (Nestor Paiva) to transport him, colleague Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) his girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) and another scientist Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell). Discovering the devastated campsite of Dr. Maia that has been ravaged by an unidentified, slimy interloper the expedition soon nets a loathsome creature from the deeps, who might have more than just food on its primitive mind….
The Creature From The Black Lagoon was one of the vanguard pictures of the studios 3D assault against the entrenching evolution of Television into American households, it’s since managed to achieve a cult classic celebrity, as one of key monster & SF pictures of the Eisenhower era. Dwelling beneath the surface of skimpy clad ladies and the cosmopolitan jungle carapace is perhaps a sense of mans unconscious links to our liquid dwelling kin, and the film has even been read as an early environmental tract against man’s erosion of the natural world. In terms of structure it’s not particularly advanced, it takes a leisurely stroll downstream to an encounter / analysis / encounter template, with a little light crew insurrection drama thrown in to froth the dramatic whirlpool. For a scientific expedition they seem unusually well armed with rifles and handguns, with a curious lack of cameras or other recording devices, with a rather amusing disregard for indigenous stability which wouldn’t be accepted today. It’s the usual archetype of the scientist seen in the 1950’s genre period, spouting the importance of the grand new universal narratives of physics and chemistry to the lesser intelligent (Children, non-Americans, Women) in this brave new nuclear framed world. The guerrilla captured location landscapes frame the scale before the shoot moves to the Universal back-lot, with rickety and loosely decorated interiors, ghastly quality back-screen projection, yet in this case some rather graceful underwater footage.
The resources simply isn’t the equal of the earlier monster films of the Universal cycle, but it does have the confidence to provide long, uninterrupted visions of the creature which is quite a rarity for this breed of movie, and quite the convincing oozing merlock it is considering the period. Designed by Millicent Patrick alas as is so often the case her contribution was overshadowed by her male boss, the famed make-up guru Bud Westmore, I don’t she even wagers a IMDB portfolio which is criminal. But for all that it lacks in loot Lagoon still nets a sense of charm, of the always lyrical movie motif of the beast besotted with the more shapely denizens of our species, a perennial subtext which we can trace back to King Kong alongside a general fear of the alien, the ‘other’ before Bikini Atoll belched a radioactive cloud over the genre and distorted insects, lizards and indeed broads scuttled to the screen. It does have a fairly iconic sonic shrieking score – Duh, dah DURRR – .and one of two sequels, Revenge Of The Creature followed in 1955 , with a curious early sighting…..
You have to imagine that a seven year-old Spielberg some of that underwater footage of dangling appendages and circulating talons which scythed its way into his terrified brain, only to subliminally ooze out for Jaws 21 years later, this was the first of the influential Jack Arnold’s cycle of fantastical movies such as Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man which inspired the likes of Landis, Lucas, Dante and others. Of course remakes and sequels are under almost constant rumour, mostly notably John Landis, Peter Jackson and menagerie favourite John Carpenter (a huge fan of the film) developing separate projects over the years, the latter actually putting a script together at the home studio as late as the 1990’s. None of these have hatched and for my money the closest we’ve had to the picture is probably the ironically slimy little merman in The Cabin In The Woods, so I’m not holding my breath for any new birthing pod soon. So that’s that, another
twelve fifteen month season finally comes to a watery close, which paves the way for not one but two festivals we have (fingers crossed) on the horizon, I’ll be devoting more attention to my Fritz Lang series and I also have some loose plans for another writing strand which is also cultishly coalescing. Until then let’s bid a fond adieu to these ravenous daemons from the pits of cinema history, sleep well now;