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CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
Universal International Pictures, USA, 1954, Not Rated
Universal Studios

Review by Gerry Carpenter

Background and Plot

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was one of the last of the monsters to enter the Universal pantheon. I refer to it as a pantheon, because like no other studio before or since, Universal defined the look of classic monsters like Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Invisible Man. The Universal characterizations become a part of American culture. They have entered our communal psyche, if you will. Cartoon Draculas always mimic Bela Lugosi's look in the 1931 classic; depictions of the Frankenstein's Monster in TV commercials always have that square-headed, peg-necked appearance of Boris Karloff's Monster. I could go on and on. And there is a very good reason that the Universal Monsters have achieved this status. It's because they were horrifying, and the people loved it. It wasn't until the 50s that the fear of monsters was replaced by the fear of aliens in the 50s sci-fi movies like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

So in 1954, along came CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, yet despite it's late entry into the pantheon, it has been immortalized just as the others. I remember as a kid shuddering when someone mentioned the title. I had never seen it. In fact, I must admit that I watched it for the first time this year. Yet despite that, I felt like I was meeting up with an old friend. Never having seen the film, I had carried bits and pieces of the character along with me ever since I was old enough to shudder at the title. I knew what it looked like. I knew it came up out of the water to steal the beautiful woman and that was enough to scare me right there. I'm very happy I did finally see it though. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is a tight, suspenseful piece that is deserving in my mind of its icon status. It's far better than many other late Universal entries in the worn out Monster genre, like THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, which features the Wolfman, Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, and a hunch-backed nurse. (They were really running out of ideas.) So CREATURE was an attempt to breath some fresh life into what was a dying mega-franchise, and it succeeded—at least for that one picture anyway. The next major attempt at revitalizing the classic monsters was Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957 with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, which of course spawned a whole new era in horror. But that is a different story.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON begins in the Amazon jungle with a scientist, who unearths the fossilized hand of what appears to be an aquatic man, complete with webbing between the fingers. He immediately rushes off to the Aquatic Institute on the coast to share his discovery. Conveniently enough, while he is gone, the living version of the Creature appears at his camp to kill the native men he has left behind. Jeepers! Back at the Institute, they decide to mount an expedition to find the rest of the fossilized man. When they arrive, they discover the destroyed camp and murdered natives, but despite weeks of back-breaking work are unable to find anything. They decide that the rest of the fossil must have washed downstream to an area called the Black Lagoon, a mysterious place that has only one entrance, and from which no one has ever returned. Sound ominous? It's supposed to. It isn't long, however, before they meet up with the "living Devonian fossil" that calls the Black Lagoon its home, and the intrepid scientists determine to catch the Creature to take it back to civilization, dead or alive. But who will be the predator and who will be the prey?

What Works

The Creature costume is one of the best monster costumes to come out of the 50s. It's much more believable and realistic looking than the "Thing" from Howard Hawks THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD or even the excellent demon from Jacques Tourneur's CURSE OF THE DEMON. I think the reason it's better is because of its subtlety. Yes, the shape is human, but it's supposed to be humanoid; that's part of the story, but it also looks very fish like. The aquatic features aren't overdone either. It's only monstrous because of it's similarity to human kind, not because it has horribly exaggerated fish features.

The underwater cinematography is excellent. In one scene, the camera shows the requisite female character swimming from below while the Creature watches beneath her. I swear Steven Spielberg stole this for JAWS. The similarity is just too great. And if he did, I can understand why—it is extremely effective. There is something that makes you feel very vulnerable when you are in the water, not knowing what might be beneath you. The cinematographer also manages to communicate the claustrophobic feeling you sometimes get when you are under water, and the silence. Plus a few of the scenes towards the end are extremely well done—when they are swimming at night, and the surface of the water looks perfectly black. You really wonder what might be lurking just below the surface.

What Doesn't Work

The Creature doesn't seem like a real living animal throughout the movie, even though they have set it up that way. For one thing, he is impossibly hard to kill, and never seems to be bothered much by injury. He is shot twice with a gas-powered spear gun, set on fire with an oil lamp, and shot repeatedly. Yet he keeps on going. He is the Energizer bunny of monsters. This is never explained. Either he is armor-plated and none of this never really affects him, or he has some sort of supernatural regenerative power. Or they are actually fighting several Creatures (and killing them one by one), and they just don't ever realize it. I don't normally let this sort of thing bother me in a monster movie, but they set it up as a science-based movie, so I approached it in those terms.

On the same "science" note, where is the Creature's family? I very much doubt that a single Creature could survive from the Devonian Era (about 3 billion years ago) without having some sort of reproductive cycle. Unless it has supernatural powers again. Yet no one in the expedition ever asks this question. If your main characters are scientists, have them ask the sorts of questions science would ask! Instead, the two main male leads spend most of the time taking off their shirts and strutting around in front of the girl.

And finally, what exactly does the Creature want to do with the girl once he gets her alone in his cave, hmmm? I'm sure the MPAA would have problems with that even by today's standards, so it was probably wise to avoid explaining that one altogether.

Of course all of these objections are purely academic. The movie is a great Monster flick period. The scientific premise is only a way to tap into the science paranoia craze of the 50s. The science is pretty ridiculous, but you have to give them points for trying. It's better than most of what passed for science in the drive-in cinema of the 50s.

The Final Word

If you haven't seen CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, put it on your must-see list. If you have, why not introduce it to a new generation? Get a bunch of kids together, order a pizza and make popcorn, then show them what monster movies used to be.

See also Dave Sindelar's article on THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.



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