Today’s guest review comes from Tom, who runs the Lupine Book Club, a site for everyone who likes Lego, toys, and assorted nostalgia. He has elected to discuss the classic Universal monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, from 1954, starring Julie Adams, Richard Carlson, and Richard Denning and directed by Jack Arnold.
Gill-man has become one of the classic Universal Monsters – so today we journey back to the where the legend began with the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON!
Opening with a quotation from the book of Genesis, the film provides a brief overview of earth’s evolutionary history – which cuts to the present day in the Amazon, where Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) has discovered a fossilized amphibian hand.
A team is quickly assembled to investigate the site, including Dr David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), the latter of which you’ll likely recognise from the film’s poster. As you might expect, the crew begin being picked off one by one, and no-one can figure out what’s going on. But if you’ve read the title of the movie, you’ve probably already guessed which sinister (finned) hand lies behind this unfortunate turn of events – the titular CREATURE!
Though the movie touches on some pretty high-minded themes, with discussion about evolution, and scientific discovery vs profit, it’s all pretty standard horror movie stuff from here on in. The dialogue is frequently didactic and awkward (though Richard Carlson gives it a particularly admirable go) and the characters are not particularly well-developed, serving primarily as Creature-fodder.
Nonetheless, it looks like Universal invested a not-inconsiderable sum of money into the film, and this helps it rise above its potential limitations. The budget was well-invested, going towards good cinematography (including some very cool underwater photography), a suspenseful score and most importantly, a good monster in the form of Gill-man, the titular Creature.
Gill-man is a surprisingly frightening creation, particularly given the limitations of the time. His inhuman grunting, inhuman strength and durability, slimy wet skin and mysterious nature all add up to create a surprisingly plausible beast. Before I watched the film earlier this year, I had assumed that the mask would be static, solid plastic, similar to a Metaluna Mutant (This Island Earth). Anyway, it turns out the lips do move – which was pretty impressive in and of itself – but in one particular scene the gills on the side of his neck actually move too, inflating and deflating with every “breath” he takes! This was some amazing practical FX work and a great example of how such small touches can really add to the overall impression that a character makes.
Importantly, he’s also a sympathetic character despite his obvious villainy. He displays intelligence, and is obviously capable of emotion – particularly in relation to Kay. The somewhat pervy sequence where he watches her swim and his later abduction of her indicates that his motives are probably less than noble, but he obviously doesn’t want to cause her direct harm, either. And to be fair, the humans are kind of getting all up in his space – especially Mark (Richard Denning), who just wants to claim him dead or alive, to boost his own reputation.
Individual elements may be lacking, but Creature from the Black Lagoon is a surprisingly classy film when viewed as a whole. Transcending its schlocky origins, it still remains faithful to the expected (and possibly necessary?) tropes of the genre. One of many, many monster films released in the 1950s, most of the titular Creature’s contemporaries have long since slipped into obscurity, but based on this outing, Gill-man rightfully claimed his place in the pantheon of great movie monsters. Now I just need to track down the sequels!
Incidentally – Julie Adams is still alive and well, making regular appearances at conventions throughout the US. You can also purchase autographs from her here.