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Director: Jack Arnold
Starring: Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Ben Chapman, Ricou Browning
By 1954 the era of classic Universal horror was long gone. The atomic age was in full swing, gothic monsters were old hat and it as all about aliens, paranoia and science gone mad.
And then Universal pulled out one last, classic monster. Not from space or a nuclear test site, not straight from the news headlines, but from the deepest, darkest jungle. A monster so beautifully designed and so well-realised that it didn’t matter if it was in any way out of step with the times.
Trends come and go in cinema, but a truly timeless idea needs to be something special and there’s few films of the era as special as The Creature From The Black Lagoon.
Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) is leading a geology expedition in the Amazon when he discovers evidence that might prove a direct link between land and sea creatures – a fossilised hand with webbed fingers dating from the Devonian period.
After convincing Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), to fund a return expedition to the area to look for more of the unidentified creature, the pair assemble a team including Maria’s friend and former student, ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) had his girlfriend and colleague Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams). Adding another scientist to the group, Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell), the party set off along the Amazon in a hired tramp steamer.
By the time they return to Maria’s camp, they find his assistants dead, assuming a jaguar to be responsible. What they don’t realise is that the missing link they are looking for isn’t in fossilised form, it’s a very much still alive creature and they have stumbled into its territory.
Unwittingly, the party continue to explore the area until they find themselves in a secluded lagoon, completely oblivious to the fact they are being stalked. Forming a desire for Kay, the creature eventually reveals itself and is captured, but this is no mere animal and is intelligent enough to escape, badly mauling Edwin as it does.
Maia wants to abandon the expedition, but Williams insists on staying, either to capture or kill the creature. What they don’t realise is that the Black Lagoon is the Gill Man’s home and it has no intention of letting them leave alive and plans in making Kay it’s mate…
What a truly wonderful film this is. At the time it would be surrounded by futuristic, ultra-modern sci-fi horror, but Jack Arnold’s film is confident enough to not be about looking forward or to the stars, but looking back, way back to the prehistory of man while exploring one of the last uncharted places on Earth.
Remarkably, with the exception of the stunning underwater scenes, the entire film was shot on the Universal backlot. Even with that knowledge, watching long-shots of the boat making its way down the river, you just forget it’s not on location. It’s simply that convincing.
The dense, vibrant jungle that the Amazon runs through is so effectively brought to life you can almost feel the heat off it. It’s a living, breathing world and it makes it all the more effective to bring the unsuspecting scientists into.
Smartly, Arnold spends a good half hour establishing his environment before showing us what lurks within it. It feels oppressive and dangerous, like somewhere humans shouldn’t be. And that’s exactly what it is, because it’s Gill-Man territory.
Right from the off, when we first see that webbed hand accompanied by Henry Mancini’s iconic stab of music, you just know you’re going to see something remarkable.
Without a doubt one of the most beautifully realised monster designs ever created, Millicent Patrick’s creation is an absolute marvel to look at. Sure, it’s a man in rubber suit (or two men depending if it’s on land or not) but you never really think about that when it’s on screen as it’s not just visually stunning, but it feels real.
On land, played by Ben Chapman, it’s a fearsome beast. Ungainly, strong and extremely vicious. When it attacks it feels very much like a feral animal and the damage it can do isn’t shied away from. People don’t just die, they’re torn apart or st best, they have their face shredded. It’s only a small thing, but that specific attention to detail really adds to the Gill Man’s menace.
It’s a different animal underwater though. The extensive scenes where it swims alongside the unaware Kay are things of beauty. There’s an almost balletic quality to the movement of Julie Adams and Ricou Browning, the creature’s graceful movements mirroring the girl above him.
There’s a a lot of this kind of action, but it never feels excessive or crowbarred in. In fact, each time we see the Gill-Man underwater it’s impossible not to just sit and have your breath taken away by how perfect it all is.
Of course, the grace and beauty of the scenes is all setting up something truly horrific, in that the Gill Man is fixating on Kay and desires her as a mate. Despite being a different species. Brrrr. Just to add to the horror, when it traps them all in the lagoon, there’s that realisation that they’re not dealing with an animal here. It’s intelligent, it’s territorial and it wants to kill them all and take their woman. Oh, man.
The Creature From The Black Lagoon feels like a movie out of time, but is strangely timeless because of it. There’s more than one reference to the space race and modern science, just to keep it contemporary, but it’s a classic adventure story at it’s heart. One of brave explorers, uncharted territory and the horrors that lurk there.
The era of classic Universal monsters might well have been over and their attention would be spent on more atomic-age horror in the ‘50s, but with The Creature From The Black Lagoon, they proved there’s always room for a classic monster if you do it right.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy