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31 Days of Horror: ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ should have stayed from whence it came

31 Days of Horror: ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ should have stayed from whence it came

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Directed by Jack Arnold

Written by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross

U.S.A. 1954

The Universal monsters that so many people recognize and accept as iconic and saw the light of day on the cinema screen were products of the 1930s, the two most popular being of course Frankenstein and Dracula, each released as early as 1931. By the 1950s, the studio’s output with regards to ‘classic’ creatures had dwindled considerably, even though science-fiction flicks were tremendously popular by then, with plenty of adventures concerning the invasion of outer-space attackers descending upon our planet. There was one particular outing that would, in fact, have a lasting impact on the collective minds of monster movie fans, that being Creature from the Black Lagoon. Part of the film’s popularity had to do with its presentation in 3D. Yes, studios were testing that technology out even back in 1954, the year the movie under review this week for 31 Days of October came out.

Creature of the Black Lagoon takes viewer deep into the Amazon where, as a strange little opening segment suggests, the evolutionary process had created a monster unlike anything humans have ever seen before. The monster, the titular inhabitant of what the characters in the film baptize the Black Lagoon, has taken refuge away from the civilized world, although its hermit-like lifestyle is soon to be disrupted by the nosy presence of a team of scientists, among them David (Richard Carlson), his fiancée Kay (Julie Adams), Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell) and the man financing the operation, Mark (Richard Denning) who has a thing for Kay. Whereas the biologists and other scientists have ventured into the region for reasons of higher knowledge into understanding the evolutionary process, Mark has fame and fortune on the mind, thus making him the clear cut villain of the piece. The Black Lagoon’s most powerful resident is unwilling to go down in captivity without a proper fight however, and begins picking off the group and the people running their boat one by one. Who will come out on top: man or merman?

After reviewing Dracula and Frankenstein in back to back weeks for this October-only special column, Creature of the Black Lagoon is without a doubt quite a different experience. First and foremost, the two aforementioned classics were inspired by books which themselves are held on the highest of pedestals. Right off the bat, therefore, the films had the privilege of using terrific, terrifying stories as blueprints. To top it off, the casts were stellar and the production designs immaculate. It is small wonder, then, why those films were immediately beloved. Creature from the Black Lagoon sadly does not benefit from the same luxuries. The movie’s genesis, as the story goes, is that the head of the studio at the time was told at a dinner party of a mythical creature, one half-man and one half-fish, which lived in the waters of the Amazonian jungles. Presto, let’s make a movie! Without resorting to too much snark (a quality that preferably should have no place in film criticism), that sounds very much like the old joke about the studio making the poster for the film with a picture of the monster before the start of the actual shoot.

That is a little harsh, admittedly, but the fact of the matter is that Jack Arnold’s picture is not even close to being as memorable as many of the other Universal films it is so frequently bundled alongside with. The story is incredibly simple to the point where its scale feels sadly lacking, the cast is fine if unspectacular and in some cases not very good, and the monster lacks depth. Let the analysis begin!

First, the script is mediocre both in terms of how it sets up the world of the film and how it treats its various characters, with particular missteps and leaps of logic surrounding the character of Mark, the more businessman-like individual who tags along for the expedition. As far as set-up is concerned, many questions linger throughout the picture, with part of the problem stemming from the opening sequence alluded to earlier in the review, in which a narrator explains how the evolutionary process may have created creatures yet unknown to man. Fair enough, but typically such animals whose existence is a mystery to humans are small in scale, creatures that required a great amount of time and maybe even a bit of luck to stumble upon. The Black Lagoon monster is essentially the size of a grown adult human if not larger still, so how is it that no one has ever encountered this monster? For that matter, where are the other members of his kind? Is the viewer to believe only one exists? Is it fair to attack the film with such queries, considering that the intention of the filmmakers is, ultimately, just to provide some simple thrills? That is debatable, although even films such as these need a minimal amount of sensible set-up if the viewer is to be fully engaged. It does not help that the suite itself is lacking in characterization. For a creature that is supposed to have the fluidity and power of a mighty sea dweller, the chief antagonist is oddly static. The detail is in the scales is nice, yet the face looks like a low quality mask. There is little to no expression in the mask, which in some ways might be a good thing given how, if the viewer is unable to read its face, then a sense of mystery surrounding its intentions remains.  Here, it merely looks painfully artificial and not in the good sense. One also gets the sense that the score, a few simple notes but blown powerfully through horns (it sounds like a screech, which is a nice touch), is intended to only be frightful, but enhance creature’s presence, but with such a disappointing monster, the music does nothing and feels out of place, as if it was used in the wrong film.

There plenty of little character moments that are equally irksome, such as the decision to have Mark obsess over the notion of killing and capturing the beast for his own selfish purpose. Curiously enough, when the viewers meets Mark for the first time, he seems enthusiastic about the mission, but with no signs of malicious intent. From one scene to the next, literally in fact, he morphs from helpful and ambitious to stunningly antagonistic. From that point onwards, he is but the formulaic thorn in the side of the heroes, angry monster notwithstanding.  David, the more heroic and noble of the two male leads, is a more compelling character as played by Richard Clarson (dashing, handsome and smart), yet maybe the most interesting of the three central figures is Kay, if only because she is a woman whose opinion and intelligence the other men on the boat respect.  It also helps that she is played by the extremely attractive Julia Adams.

By the end, the film has failed to give rise to a monster we would want to see again or even provide the pre-requisite scares. In fact, the film is mostly a bore, moving along at a rather slow pace, much like the boat floating down the Amazonian stream.  That is definitely not a good sign considering it runs just shy of 90 minutes. This is one monster that never should have been disturbed from its lonely existence  in the first place.

-Edgar Chaput