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The Gillman Still Entertains Just Swimmingly
on November 7, 2001
Though it features the weakest of the classic Universal monsters, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is still a first-rate horror film. Two decades before Steven Spielberg's JAWS made us fearful about swimming too far beyond the beach, this classic movie made us believe that something weird and evil could be lurking below the water's surface.
The story revolves around a scientific expedition in the Amazon jungle. Spurred by the recent discovery of a strange fossil, the scientists hope to find evidence of what may be the "missing link" between humans and the first of our ancestors to have crawled up out of the sea. Then, while collecting rocks and fossils from the bottom of a sequestered little lagoon, they unwittingly intrude upon the lair of the titular creature, a fish-like humanoid--or "gillman"--who just might be a living example of the fossils they seek.
Unlike the other rubber-suit monsters in B-grade horror flicks from the 1950s, the eponymous monster in this film does actually look real and frightening. Especially scary are the close-up shots of the creature when he is out of the water. Gasping for air, his mouth opens and closes in short spasms as the fins on his gills gesticulate in a parallel rhythm, and he quite convincingly comes across as a giant mutant fish with nothing but most malevolent of intentions.
Even in black-and-white, the underwater photography in THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is absolutely beautiful, and it is often cited as one of the best aspects of the film. Much of this underwater footage was shot in protected nature reserves in Florida, and though it was not directed by the film's primary director, Jack Arnold, it fits in seamlessly with Arnold's top-notch above-water directing style. Also top-notch are the performances in the film, especially from principals Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julia Adams. Speaking of beautiful film footage, Ms. Adams looks fantastic in a bathing suit, even in the conservative swimwear of the 1950s.
And while we're on the subject of sex, it's been nearly 50 years since THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was released, but some critics and film historians still point to the sexual subtext of the film as the main reason for the its enduring popularity. It is supposedly a classic beauty-and-the-beast story--one of the scriptwriters has even been quoted as saying he was inspired by KING KONG--with Ms. Adams playing the beauty, of course, to the lovesick creature's beast. Though it is true that there are some scenes that are replete with sexual innuendo--the scene with Ms. Adams swimming in the lagoon while the creature lurks in the water just below can easily be read as symbolic of sexual intercourse--the titular creature is simply not a character that evokes sympathy, at least not to a degree that can make this film genuinely play like story of unrequited love. Indeed, the one aspect of creature that makes him rank just below the other classic Universal monsters is his lack of pathos. He's scary, to be sure, but devoid of the range of emotional response that makes it possible for an audience to identify with him in the way that they do with, say, the Frankenstein monster or the Wolfman. In spite of all the hoopla, then, it takes a bit of mental gymnastics to make this a love story. Still, Ms. Adams DOES look stunning in a bathing suit....
In short, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is a genuine classic monster flick, right up there with Universal's best. It has great photography, excellent acting, a bathing beauty, and a realistic and genuinely scary monster. It should be on the must-see list of any true horror fan.
[Note: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was originally filmed in 3-D, and there are some really dynamic shots that are obviously meant to exploit the 3-D technique. Unfortunately, the particular 3-D process originally used on this film only works with a special projection setup, and, consequently, the 3-D version is not available for home video. But don't let that deter you from buying the film for home viewing; it is still an excellent movie even without the 3-D effect. Some art-house theaters do occasionally screen the 3-D version--I happened to see it in 3-D in a Baltimore theater sometime in the early 1990s, and it was a great experience--so if you ever get a chance to see it in that format, DO IT!]