After becoming a fan last year of many of Universal Studio’s 1930s monster movies, I thought this year I would kick-start October with a slightly later entry into the Universal pantheon of monsters: the gill-man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. I must admit that my first thought was that it was a cross between King Kong and Jaws. There is the beauty and the beast aspect blended with the danger from an underwater creature (though unlike Jaws, this one can come out of the water and get you).
What was interesting was how it differed from the early 1930s horror films. In Frankenstein and Dracula or even The Mummy, there is an ethos of the supernatural and dealing with powers beyond the control of man and the message is often don’t mess with the things of God (like trying to create life). In Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, it is about evolution and the message is instead, don’t mess with Nature (which seems to hearken to later films like Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”).
One thing that does remain from the earlier ’30’s films is the pathos and longing of the monster. Like Frankenstein’s monster or even King Kong (admittedly an RKO monster rather than a Universal monster), they don’t quite understand what is happening to them, but simply long for something, whether it is a young lady or acceptance or kindness (or blood, if they’re a vampire). The trouble is that they are also destructive creatures who do not seem to be able to interact with civilization without causing death and chaos.
A scientist, Dr. Maia (Antonio Moreno), is working deep in the Amazon and discovers a fossilized hand of what looks like a kind of missing link, part human, part fish (it has webbing around the fingers). He returns to America and recruits a few other scientist: Ichthyologist David (Richard Carlson), his girlfriend and fellow ichthyologist Kay (Julie Adams), Mark (Richard Denning), the man who gets the funding and is ambitious for a big find, another doctor (Whit Bissell) and Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the captain of their ship who really seems to me to be the most sensible person around.
When they return to Dr. Maia’s camp on the Amazon, the two men he left there are found dead, but the expedition remains undeterred and eventually find their way to the Black Lagoon, where legend says a giant fish-man lives. And sure enough, they discover a giant fish-man, the modern day possessor of the fossilized hand. David wants to study it in its natural habitat, while Mark wants to capture it – dead or alive – and bring it back to civilization to earn plaudits and scientific glory and there is a lot of tension between the two men while Kay tries to mediate. But it is all taken out of their hands when the fish-man sees Kay and develops a King Kong-sized crush and soon it is no longer he who is the hunted, but the hunter. He puts logs and brush across the opening of the lagoon and traps the boat, slowly picking off members of the expedition while trying to steal Kay.
I have to mention the famous scene where Kay goes for a swim and the creature first sees her. The stunt-double swimmer for Julie Adams (Ginger Stanley) does a few Esther Williams-like moves while the creature is curious and swims beneath her and mirrors some of her moves, falling in love in a kind of aquatic dance (though he’s not quite so graceful). An amphibious stalker!
I was fairly impressed at how much tension the film is still able to generate. It is not a fast, action-filled film. There’s suspense, waiting for what the creature will do, who is fairly cunning. Also, because a surprising amount of the film takes place underwater – there are a number of underwater encounters between the men and creature – there is an added tension because it is more difficult to maneuver or move as quickly as on land. It’s not as tense as Alien, but it stands in contrast to earlier, ’30’s horror films, which almost have a warm, cozy, eccentric and even nostalgic charm, like curling up with a good mystery or Gothic novel during the winter. Creature from the Black Lagoon is starting to look more like a modern film.
In early horror films, there tends to be no specific hero. There is the monster (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the invisible man, the mummy) and a group of people (or even all of London, as in The Invisible Man) who are trying to stop the monster (who isn’t always truly a villain). In contrast, in the 1999 The Mummy, there is a hero who gets to be the one to stop the mummy, who is the official villain. Creature from the Black Lagoon also has a specific hero in David, while Mark plays the greedy guy who is willing to take stupid chances in order to capture the creature (think of The Company in Alien and especially Aliens – considering how dangerous those aliens were, it always seemed to me remarkably dense that The Company was so eager to bring those creatures back to earth). Mark represents the hubris of mankind, a different kind of hubris than Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein wanted to create like God. Mark wants to exploit nature for his own ends. It is definitely a more modern preoccupation.
Despite its inevitable differences, which reflect the changing era, Creature from the Black Lagoon is still recognizably a Universal horror creation. He’s not an impossibly huge, atom-bomb induced monster. He’s fairly normal-sized, just stronger and more powerful. And there is the poignancy, the yearning, but also the genuinely dangerous aspects. He’s not just some benign and misunderstood creature; he starts the film off with killing two men, completely unprovoked.