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The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

by on 2010/10/31

Even were it not a product of Universal International, I have no doubt that Creature from the Black Lagoon would be considered a member in good standing of the same crowd as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  As much as I admire these peers, however, the Creature’s home studio assures it an especially hallowed place in the history of film, among the last in a lineage which includes such milestones as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Wolf Man (1941).  In any case, it earns our respect not by the company it keeps but with a clear narrative focus, some innovative production, and an unusually nuanced “monster”.

The titular creature is the Gill-man, an amphibious humanoid whose ancestors left their fossilized remains at an Amazonian dig site.  The supervising geologist, Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), recruits an entourage which includes:  former student and marine expert David Reed (Richard Carlson); his profiteering boss, Mark Williams (Richard Denning); Reed’s girlfriend, Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams); and Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the captain of an a river barge.  According to local natives, the group’s journey will end at the fabled Black Lagoon, from which no one has ever returned.

What they find there is, of course, only half the fun.  Here’s a piece with many enjoyable B-movie offerings:  an introductory history of the Earth (complete with Biblical nods), pipe-smoking explorers, and a swooping bat on a wire.  It’s the visual equivalent of Exotica but, for all its cheesy fun, there are genuine points to admire, like the extensive underwater footage, predating Thunderball by a decade.

And it wouldn’t be Fifties Sci-Fi without a (literal) boatload of scientists lecturing each other about history, evolution, and our future in space.  We even get an early form of the “science vs business” conflict which will figure prominently in Aliens a generation later.  Interestingly, as in Them, the archetypes are inverted.  The monster-hunter is the “bad” guy and the preservationist is “good”.

Finally I’d be remiss not to mention the sexism, here so unusually ludicrous it becomes a guilty entertainment.  The sole female character is kept away from the Creature’s victims, discouraged from venturing into unexplored territory, and unable to join the scientists in their work.  Naturally she is more than welcome to don a bathing suit and cavort at length in the Black Lagoon as the Creature (and our underwater camera) observe her . . . uh . . . synchronized swimming.  Though this particular scene never sinks into complete indecency, it does remind me of a similar, notorious Pre-Code scene from Tarzan and His Mate.  We may be titillated by Kay’s dip in the deep, but Gill-man is too, and that kind of anthropomorphism helps to show him in a new light.

So while he may remain alone in a grottoed jungle pond, he’s not without his sympathetic cinematic peers.  Like other icons of the genre, the Creature from the Black Lagoon is hurt, defensive, and somewhat tragic.  Frankenstein’s monster may spring to mind but, for a more accurate sense of the story as a whole, think of The African Queen in search of King Kong (1933), with none of the war, a fraction of faith, and a fish-guy instead of an ape.

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Rated G

80 minutes

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