THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
Errand boys for museum directors sent to collect a fossil go upriver in search of the discovery of the century, and they find it. Then it tries to molest the errand girl that's also come along, because—well, because it is, after all, Universal Horror, so he's got to, whether this makes sense or not. But you don't need me to tell you that everything else Creature offers ranges from the good to the legitimately great.
Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Arthur Ross, Harry Essex, Maurice Zimm, and William Alland
Black Lagoon West: Richard Carlson (Dr. David Reed), Julie Adams (Kay Lawrence), Richard Denning (Mark Williams), Nestor Paiva (Capt. Lucas), Whit Bissell (Dr. Edwin Thompson), and Ben Chapman (The Gill-Man)
Black Lagoon East: Stanley Crew (Dr. David Reed), Ginger Stanley (Kay Lawrence), Jack Bentz (Mark Williams), and Ricou Browning (The Gill-Man)
Spoiler alert: severe
(Both this review and the previous in this series are indebted to historian Tom Weaver, whose film commentaries are a treasure trove of meticulous and firsthand research.)
It's appropriate that a cinematographer came up with with idea for The Creature With the Black Lagoon. The film credits, after all, two cinematographers in their complementary roles: William Snyder, by the customary title, and Scotty Wellbourne, as its special photographer—its underwater photographer—and in fact, because James Havens, the man hired to do the job, refused to go underwater, Wellbourne effectively directed and photographed half the film. Then there's the man beneath all that foam rubber and sucking on an air hose, down there at the bottom of a pond in Florida—that's Ricou Browning. Though a stuntman/actor beginning his career in Creature, he would achieve his own most signal triumph behind an underwater camera, not in front of it. Eleven years later, he'd serve as the assistant director responsible for the mind-meltingly impressive scuba battle in Thunderball.
Creature, too, was a technical pioneer in underwater work, one of the first to use a mobile camera beneath the surface, and the very first to capture the marine realm in 3D. Above the water, Creature remains a passably attractive example of black and white widescreen photography—I do rather like this one long take of the boat passing by—but in those underwater sequences, it is indeed all but perfect, and its flaws are due principally due to the limitations of the biology of humans, as opposed to those of fictional monsters. Everyone involved deserves accolades, of varying intensity, even Havens: Browning counters that he did a pretty good job, for a hydrophobe.
But at the beginning, there was Gabriel Figueroa, the hyper-prolific cinematographer of The Exterminating Angel and hundreds more. He had nothing at all to do with making Creature, but he had about everything to do with its inception.
William Alland is remembered more as a producer than as an actor, but that's where he started, and in his early days he found himself hanging out with his friend, and his director on Citizen Kane, Orson Welles. Dining at stately Xanadu with all manner of characters, Alland happened to make Figueroa's acquaintance. Figueroa regaled him with a tale of the Latin American jungle. There was, he claimed, a half-man-half-fish in that jungle. It would come from the great river once every year to claim a virgin sacrifice, gladly offered by the nearby villages to escape his wrath. Alland laughed, and Figueroa became intense, asking him if he would like proof of his story, a certain photograph...
My God. She's into it.
Alland never did see that photograph, but his mind recorded everything Figueroa had said. 14 years later and wracking his brain for an idea with which to follow up his hit, It Came From Outer Space, he recovered his conversation with the Mexican cinematographer and knew exactly what he must do: rip off King Kong. And it worked. Hell, it sort-of worked twice, but we'll get to that in the next few days.
He assembled his writers, including Harry Essex again, who has, true to his reputation, globbed as much credit for Creature as is humanly possible. However, Alland, inter alia, gives the lion's share of credit to Arthur Ross (incidentally, the father of war criminal Gary Ross). Ross saw Alland's King Kong, and raised him The Phantom of the Opera, recognizing immediately that the only fundamental difference between RKO's giant-sized version of La belle et la bete and Universal's multifarious retellings of the fable was stop-motion animation. Consciously, then, did Universal pursue Creature as a continuation of their classic horror series. The monster, as given shape by female animation trailblazer Millicent Patrick and given life by Ricou Browning in the water and Bud Chapman on land, immediately and irrevocably entered that exclusive pantheon upon the inevitable success of their film.
However, Ben Chapman is most vividly remembered by some for all the time he spent skulking around Universal Studios in the suit, trying to startle people into peeing themselves.
Someone had also realized it wasn't the 1930s anymore, and the Dr. Frankensteins and Dr. Griffins and Dr. Moreaus, villified twenty years earlier, had been overtaken by the new paradigm: that represented by an innocuous, moralizing Richard Carlson. And maybe Essex deserves some credit for this modernization, even if he was essentially cribbing Ray Bradbury again. (Of course, the Carl Denham remains; for Carlson needs someone suitably retrograde to moralize against. He is played with scene-chewing hubris by Richard Denning.)
The story in its final form is well-known enough that a sketch should suffice: their curiosity piqued like nothing else by a strange fossil, paleontologists David Reed, Kay Walker, and Edwin Thompson journey to the Amazon, but what they ultimately discover is no skeleton—it's alive. Their own survival is put in doubt when their fame-obsessed financial backer, Mark Williams, also along for the ride, forces the scientists to help him try to catch the beast, living or dead. David is horrified by either prospect, but he knuckles under halfway, agreeing to a live capture. This puts him in the awkward position of advocating against extermination by way of advocating for enslavement; to his credit, he very clearly realizes it. Of course, the creature they're after has his own plans for survival—and they include Kay. In the end, Mark and a half dozen other men are dead, but Kay is saved from the unimaginable depredations of the atavistic half-human thing that has seized her. Yet David possesses no vendetta to abandon; he is only sickened by the bloodshed—and his own moral compromises—and once the crisis has passed, he stands down. The survivors enjoy their hollow victory as the mysterious merman returns to the water, wounded badly, perhaps even dying, and, for better or worse, left alone.
It's Preps vs. Nerds vs. Monsters on the Amazon!
The idealistic 50s spin on his scientifically-bent nemesis is only one amongst a panoply of reasons why the Gill-Man—a description I strongly prefer to that enigmatic but generic "the Creature"—stands so far apart from the other classic Universal monsters. I don't deny the Gill-Man his place, and the similarities are elementary to pinpoint: a misunderstood being wants to possess a beautiful woman, here rendered by the owner of the fingernail clippings Jennifer Connelly seems to have been cloned from, Julie Adams.
However, what really binds together entities as diverse as the Phantom, Dracula, Frankenstein (yeah, I called him a Frankenstein), the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man is that they were made of human tragedy—and composed of human flesh, twisted by magic or science into something alien, alienated, and altogether macabre. But the Gill-Man simply is. The attempt to graft onto Creature the beauty and the beast themes that powered those tales only succeeds because the craft is sufficient to force you to suspend your disbelief; because the tale is so damned archetypal it almost can't not work; and because, at least in this movie, it's a touch ambiguous and only a subplot anyway.
If you pretend hard enough, you can imagine the Gill-Man is simply faintly nostalgic for a mate that swam something like this bathing beauty; and that his later actions are born from strategic realism, and a working understanding of human group dynamics, as it does indeed separate the most capable of his foes from the rest of the group, in theory rendering him easier to kill.
But if you don't pretend, you will begin to consider the ramifications of his infatuation. The Universal monsters are, conceptually, a collection of baroquely-rendered masculine ids, drunk with newfound power and ancient rage. Other than the Invisible Man, who is far too concerned with dealing death to fools, and perhaps Imhotep, whose paramour's reincarnation renders his situation more morally complex than 73 minutes really had time for, Universal's monsters are all more-or-less palatable metaphors for isolation, and sexual starvation, turned to madness. Later in life, Julie Adams herself put forward the notion more poetically, indeed in some of the most beautiful if obscurantist words I've ever heard: "...there was also a sweetness about it. In the real classics, there always is that feeling of compassion for the monster. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved, and think they really can't ever be loved... that's what Creature From the Black Lagoon did." But, perhaps, this is too dismissive of the nastiness of the Wolf Man and especially Dracula, Universal's barely-veiled sex murderers. Even Kong and Ann Darrow are at least both primates—and anyway, particularly in the most recent remake, that relationship can be seen just as much as a master and pet, and the fact that most of the Universal monsters cannot be seen as anything but predators of varying degrees of depravity may be that key distinction we were searching for. However, in regards to the Gill-Man, it approaches a non sequitur.
For the Gill-Man was never human. Whatever consummation this beast intended with his beauty isn't even rape, as it's typically understood: it's forced bestiality. No one wants to be eaten by Jaws; but no one wants to be fucked to death by him. It's gross, and I mark it as a flaw. The two best things that the perpetually-in-development remake of Creature could possibly do is find a novel way to humanize the Gill Man—and kill Kay Walker the instant she enters the lagoon.
The third best thing would, as implied, would be to lay the hell off Herman Stein's iconic but absurdly overused three note motif. And I don't mean "overused since." It is overused in this movie—nearly to the point of self-parody—before the 45-minute mark. Stein was just one of the composers on Creature, though; and without wishing to diminish his work or that of Hans Salter—or the artists who contributed to the library music that fills out the score—it's Henry Mancini who stands out. Mancini's "The Monster Gets Mark" (I feel it's self-explanatory as to where this fits into the narrative), while heavily reliant on Stein's motif, emerges as one of the decade's most rousing orchestrations. And it doesn't hurt that it's scoring one of the most enjoyable underwater fights of all time, that ends, as the title claims, in quite the edifying manner. (If you look very closely, you can see that the Gill-Man has torn his air supply off with his teeth.)
Motion in the ocean? His air hose broke!
Whenever discussing Creature, all roads eventually lead back to the underwater photography. I was being pretty careful in my words when I described Thunderball's climactic clash of submariners as "impressive"—and for me it really is what elevates a somewhat lackluster Bond film into a movie worth watching more than once (and maybe even just once)—but anonymized men in masks slowwwwwly struggling at the bottom of the ocean is, understandably, not everyone's definition of exciting, no matter how technically impressive—or even visually impressive—it might be. And Browning's sequence in Thunderball is still one of the very best examples of such things. There are many more movies where diving sequences are deployed as nothing more than padding; and not a few movies where it still feels like padding, even when it's two people trying to kill each other.
Creature is an enormous exception to the rule. You'll notice that I've not mentioned Jack Arnold once, even though the whole reason I'm reviewing Creature was that it was a Jack Arnold film. Certainly, Arnold must be praised for whatever control he had over Creature's tight editing, and for harmonizing the two halves of Creature's production, which despite two separate casts and crews, always feels exactly right. Arnold, I think, realized on a deeply intuitive level that Creature's dualistic world could be served best by embracing this very separation, and since it was unavoidable anyway, he went for it with gusto.
Yet whatever spiritual control he exerted from across a continent, he was rarely on location in Florida, and thus can only claim derivative credit for the best stuff in the movie: Browning, Havens, and Wellbourne's literally-breathtaking underwater scenes. It's here, more than above the surface, that Creature fully comes alive. The scariest scene in the film is underwater—and Creature is remarkable that it is actually scary, something only a single one of the other six original Universal Horror features can claim with any serious justification. (Probably obviously, I mean Phantom. And, to be fair, a sequel, Bride of Frankenstein does have its one moment.)
Creature's best moment is also one of the most interesting in horror history, in how it goes about the business of frightening. This, the film's most famous sequence, begins when Kay takes a swim in the Black Lagoon. She moves across its surface, and we watch the Gill-Man watch her, but he remains invisible to her, hidden beneath the motion of the water.
It's done in takes as long as Browning's lungs permitted, and what's so idiosyncratic about it is how present the monster is, drenched in sunlight, completely revealed to the audience. It is not just creepy: we can see his every movement, and with every stroke he takes across the widescreen frame, we're completely aware of the terrible power he has over his oblivious victim. It prefigures the point-of-view shots in any number of horror films—and there are some of those earlier in this very film—in the way it demands identification with the monster, but without the formal bullying point-of-view entails. It is easy to imagine, and relish the prospect, that whenever they do remake Creature, its makers will recapitulate this scene from the viewpoint of the Gill-Man, gazing upward, in a mixture of curiosity and other, baser emotions—but these few minutes in the original will remain one of the most fully unnerving scenes in horror, doing it all without a single trick.
We can relate, then, when Kay—for the moment unmolested by the Gill-Man in any serious way—finds the claw left by the mysterious something that she now realizes had followed her. The look of nausea on Julie Adams' face is her finest moment in a film almost annoyingly content to have her do nothing but scream her damned head off.
But if that's one of the only scary parts (I find there's a certain visceral value to the Gill-Man's very earliest kills, although they take place in those then-innovative, now-conventional scenes of hide-the-monster), creepiness abounds beneath the water. The most coherent connection Creature retains to Universal Horror is the lighting at the bottom of the Lagoon—never as rigorously expressionist in the way James Whale's films were, but full of shadow and obscuring lattices of seaweed, certainly a very creditable effort for evocative lighting and "design" on a technically-groundbreaking underwater shoot at the bottom of a real lake.
And, Alland, in his well-meaning but misplaced zeal, would have preferred a color picture. Can you believe it?
That which is indistinguishible from magic:
- The Devonian Period is referenced three separate times, and there is a strong suggestion that none of the four writers know when it was, given that they also strongly imply some kind of very recent kinship between gill-men and lung-men.
- Sometimes progressivism is just a matter of tone, and the tone of Creature is... high-pitched, when it comes to Kay. Honestly, Ellen probably screams as much or more in It Came From Outer Space, but Kay, despite her advanced education, sometimes barely even seems like a person, as opposed to a shrieking prop. But perhaps I miss the point: after all, Julie Adams', whose legs had been certified by a sculptor to be the most perfect in existence, had had them (in a fit of marketing) insured by Universal for $500,000, so her character is hardly underdefined on its own terms. But Universal got less of their premium's worth than you'd think, given that the leggiest shots of all belong to Ginger Stanley, who played Kay in her balletic underwater frolics.
- If you already have a weak female lead, add in a healthy dose of sexual assault as a sign of affection, and voila! You have yourself a movie from the 1950s.
- ...not that the 1950s are all bad. Thrill! at realistically attainable male physiques in tiny shorts!
- Also on the plus side, Creature makes some kind of stand against cruelty to animals.
- Study of underwater life will help us conquer outer space, for inadequately-elucidated reasons.
- Jack Arnold's said his primarily goal was to entertain, and he achieved it; he also wanted to say something, and in this he was routinely just as successful. In the 1950s, the world had been all but thoroughly explored, but there were still unknown corners and we did not know for sure what inhabitants had made them their home; and the undersea reaches of our planet were less known still. They remain so, to some degree, today. The science fiction poetry of Creature is that we entered one of those unknown corners, found the other, and, ultimately, saw ourselves: a creepy jerk with vaguely-defined positive qualities.