Film Friday: Universal's horror classic 'Creature from the Black Lagoon'

By Daniel S Levine,

We are now at the end of the summer, which means that you might want to take that last second trip to the beach. Perhaps you have decided to do something different and go to the Amazon. Maybe you are thinking about going to a lagoon there. However, that's a terrible, horrible idea. Just look at what happened to those scientists in Universal's 1954 horror schlockfest Creature of the Black Lagoon.

The titular creature – oh, let's call him Gill-Man, because Universal never came up with something better – is a bizarre combination of man-meets-fish. It resides in a hidden Black Lagoon, where visitors go and never come back. But when a scientist finds a hand left from a mysterious creature, he comes up with some convoluted reason why this lagoon is where the rest of the skeleton is. When he and his easily convinced expedition team gets there, they find a living Gill-Man and he's not very happy with his new guests.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was the last time Universal really created something new for its stable of Monsters. The studio was built on the horror characters, just like MGM was built on “more stars in the heaven” and Warner Bros. was built by Little Caesar and Tom Powers. Without Dracula and Frankenstein, both released in 1931, there's a good chance that Universal might not even exist today. But by the late-1940s, the characters became co-stars for Abbott and Costello.

In 1954, producer William Alland came up with the idea of a horror Beauty and the Beast, inspired by a myth about a half-man, half-fish in Brazil. He hired director Jack Arnold, who just had a hit with the 3D movie It Came From Another World. Obviously, the new movie would have to be made in 3D as well, but the new gimmick was that this film would have 3D underwater scenes. Now, all the pieces came together for Creature from the Black Lagoon, a real throwback to those early 1930s hits.

Like Frankenstein and Dracula, Creature isn't as silly or as outright bad as the sequels for the monster movies. Arnold, like James Whale and Tod Browning before him, actually had things to say in his films and wasn't just making them for the paycheck. Creature actually could be seen as a film for environmentalists, as we humans intrude on the Gill-Man's perfect environment. Suddenly, something he has never seen before – Kay (Julia Adams) – sets off a desire he has never felt before. He doesn't know what to do after seeing this new-found beauty, so he lashes out, hoping that the scientists run away.

There's also another element that Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg would bring up in Jurassic Park - the clash between science and business. Dr. Reed (Richard Carlson) is there to learn about the fossil, while Dr. Williams (Richard Denning) is there just to find something that could make money. Their two motives clash throughout the film and one isn't going to make it home.

Of course, there's no question that none of this gets in the way of Arnold and writers Harry Essex, Arthur A. Ross and Maurice Zimm when they get to the real point of the film – to get the audience to scream. Creature is nowhere as dark as those early '30s movies, since the score is as bombastic as you'd expect from a mid-'50s film. And you see Gill-Man a lot, so there's no element of surprise. But the creature is still scary thanks to its ingenious design. It's one of the most iconic creations in film history for good reason. It looks so scary coming out from the shadows.

On Home Video: Back in 2012, Universal released Universal Monsters: The Essential Collection, which has eight of the studio's horror classics. Only one sequel is in the set - Bride of Frankenstein, generally regarded as the best sequel the studio made. Creature's disc includes the 3D version, plus a 40-minute documentary on the film and its sequels. Sadly, we are almost two years away from that original Blu-ray set and Universal shows no sign of releasing the sequels on the format. Yes, those movies aren't very good, but they sure are fun.

Somehow, Creature has lived well beyond its modest beginnings. Universal may have planned it just as a cash-in for the 3D craze at the time, but it does belong in that hall of great monster movies the studio made decades earlier. It's not the cinematic classic that Frankenstein is, but it is one of the best of its genre. Just when you thought it was safe to go in the water... there's Gill-Man!

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