A view to a gill. Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)
For over a decade, Universal had been content to recycle and remix their roster of monsters in increasingly crowded crossovers, even matching them up with Abbott and Costello for a fun-filled romp but the world was changing, and with it the audience’s taste for terror. The full moon might have been setting on the gothic monsters of old, but the growing public interest in scientific exploration, new technology and the possibilities of space travel was providing fertile new ground for big screen scares. Having heard of a myth of a race of half-man/ half-fish creatures living in the Amazon, producer William Alland started work on what would be the next great Universal monster.
When a scientific expedition deep in the Amazonian jungle discovers evidence of a hitherto undiscovered creature fossilised in the rocks, Expedition leader Dr Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) leaves his assistants to guard the discovery while he goes to recruit more help to study the find. Having convinced his colleagues to mount an expedition, Dr Maia returns to find the camp destroyed and his assistants killed. The expedition continues its investigations, heading to the nearby Black Lagoon, where they are shocked to discover the species which left the fossil is still very much alive.
Loosely based on a tale as old as time, that of “Beauty And The Beast”, there’s an element of latent racism at play in “Creature From The Black Lagoon” as there was in many of the ‘invasion’ sci-fi fantasies of the 1950s. Yes, the peril of the red menace was foremost in people’s minds but it’s hard to ignore the subtext of the underlying fear of the exotic foreign newcomers stealing away ‘our’ women. It’s why the image of the alien/ monster/ creature carrying away the leading lady is so iconic. It’s not the primary or even secondary allegorical driver at play in the movie but it lurks in the film’s psychological depths nonetheless.
The movie is primarily concerned with the idea of science and scientific exploration pushing too far, too fast and recklessly endangering humanity in its rush to discovery, an understandable dread in this newly forged post-nuclear age. The film opens with an awkward introductory lecture which tries to balance elements of creationism with geological evidence and evolutionary theory in a way which would sadly probably elicit more protests and complaints today than it may have down at the time. There’s also a strong environmental theme at play, as the scientists’ contempt for nature and ecology in pursuit of their goal and willingness to intrude into and indiscriminately pollute undisturbed ecosystems makes you sympathise with the creature.
Lonely and misunderstood, there are elements of the Gill-Man’s psyche that owe a debt to “Frankenstein” but it’s in his design and performance that he really carves out his own identity. The creature design is fantastic and, although it was tweaked in the sequels that followed, the original is by far the best. The inspired Gill-Man design was the work of Disney animator Millicent Patrick, although credit would be given to Bud Westmore for over fifty years. Although the ‘star’ of only three movies, the Gill-Man was so popular and memorable that he may be the most merchandised of all the Universal monsters.
Two actors performed the Gill-Man role: Ben Chapman for the above water scenes and Ricou Browning (who would go on to direct the underwater scenes in “Thunderball”) played the creature in all the underwater sequences. Like “The Invisible Man”, “Creature From The Black Lagoon” is a technical marvel. Filmed in 3D, which presented technical challenges of its own, it’s the underwater scenes which impress the most. The attention to detail is astonishing. The creature never emits bubbles to betray the diver within, meaning the actor had to hold his breath for up to four minutes at a time to get the desired shots, all the while swimming in a tank with real barracuda, moray eels and snapping turtles.
Directed by Jack Arnold, fresh from his success with “It Came From Outer Space”, Universal’s first 3D movie, there’s a vibrant, bright energy to the film, counterpointing and even heightening the horror elements of the story. Films like “Predator” can trace their ancestral roots to the creature design and even modern blockbuster masterpieces like “Jaws” owe something to the first film to really exploit the terror of that chilling feeling of something brushing past your foot as you swim in a lake or stream and what might be lurking just below the surface of the water. The Gill-Man was a new kind of monster for a new age of fearful film fun. We had trespassed into his world and he didn’t need the cover of darkness to pursue us into ours.