In remembrance of Halloween and in celebration of the recent blu-ray release of the classic and iconic “Universal Monsters” series, I have decided to review each title individually in chronological order, and the final review of the series is for “Creature From The Black Lagoon” that was directed by Jack Arnold and premiered on 5 March, 1954.
So we finally come to the end of my “Universal Monsters” reviews with 1954’s “Creature From The Black Lagoon”, which like “Phantom of the Opera” is also a unique title within the series as it is the only one that was shot in the 1:85 ratio as well as in 3-D. It is interesting watching the entire series within a limited time frame because you notice little things that may not be obvious if watched months apart. All of the films that were made in the 1930’s have a very similar atmosphere to them, while this entry from the 1950’s has a much different feel. Gone is the darkness and grittiness of the earlier films and in its place is a kind of naivety, no doubt due to the Hays Code being in full effect. However as different as the films feel, “Creature From The Black Lagoon” shares a common bond with the earlier films in the fact that this is such an entertaining film to watch and has a truly classic monster at its center.
After a unique fossil is found along the Amazonian riverbank, a scientific expedition is put together to try and find the rest of the remains of this creature. When the group’s initial efforts to find anything prove fruitless, they decide to head further down the river to a black lagoon where they believe the rock that contained the fossil may have broken away from over millions of years. While taking soil samples from the lagoon floor, two divers come face to face with the mysterious creature. Confused by the sudden appearance of these strangers in his home, the creature begins attacking the trespassers, while at the same time finding himself attracted to the lone female of the expedition. Science and infamy clash as the group fights amongst themselves over whether to bring back the creature dead or alive to show the world, or whether to just study it whilst it is living in its natural habitat. Whatever the final decision may end up being, it doesn’t matter because the creature just wants these intruders gone.
While “Creature From The Black Lagoon” may not have the complexities or subtext of the films like “Frankenstein”, it is still a highly entertaining yarn. It is such an easy film to watch and enjoy. It is true that there is very little depth to it, but sometimes just being a good time in the cinema is enough and this film is definitely that. From the look of the film, it is easy to see that this film didn’t have a huge budget, but whatever director Jack Arnold did have, it has ended up on screen because the film looks amazing. The biggest highlight of the film is the creature himself and his make-up design. The detail on the suit is just extraordinary but what I loved about it was that it when it moved, it felt real. Although it is just a man in a rubber suit when the creature opens or closes his hands it feels organic, same when he breathes or when his gills move. It actually feels like it could have been a monster that really existed in the past. What I find most impressive about the design is that it hasn’t just been made to look cool but some thought has gone into the things an amphibious creature like this would need to survive. The webbed feet and hands help him swim, the gills help him breathe and his sharp claws give him an ability to find food. He looks and feels of his environment. The creation of the suit and who the credit belongs to for making it is interesting as everyone now wants to take credit for it. Universal’s head of make-up (after Jack Pierce departed) was Bud Westmore who unlike Pierce before him ran a whole make-up department. Milicent Patrick was the actual designer of the look of the creature coming up with all of the initial drawings for it, so ultimately she should get most of the credit, however Westmore ended up publicly taking the credit for the creature’s creation.
For a film that is almost sixty years old, I am stunned at just how well the look of the creature has held up over time. Personally I think it ranks in the top three best ever creature designs in cinema with Frankenstein’s monster and the xenomorph from “Alien” rounding out the list. The creature looks his best when he is in his natural habitat underwater. During these underwater scenes, a professional diver and swimmer played the role of the creature. Ricou Browning was this man and his performance is just stellar. He gives the creature character and we actually understand what is going on through his head just via his swimming styles. The famous scene of the creature mimicking Kay (played by Julie Adams) and her swimming strokes whilst under her in the lagoon is deserved of its classic status. Playful in nature, the swimming by the creature here is also very obviously alluding to sex. It is in this moment that the creature falls in love with Kay, the first woman he has ever laid eyes on. However in other scenes when he is attacking for instance, he swims in a very aggressive manner in a straight line towards his target, or if he is on the defence, he moves more strategically to outwit his opponent. Browning seriously gives a performance whilst underwater and the suit looks just magnificent when wet too.
When the creature comes up on land (or the boat), the role is played by a stuntman by the name of Ben Chapman. Through no fault of the actor in the suit, I just didn’t feel that the creature had the same impact as he does underwater. This is the only time it feels like it could be a guy in a suit rather than an actual creature. I will say that I loved the way the creature breathed when he was on land; it always looked like he was gasping for air, and that he would need to venture back into the water as soon as possible. What is interesting about the creature is that although he kills a lot of people during the film, I would never call him a monster. He is just an animal protecting his habitat and I am sure that if the expedition crew left him alone, he would never have attacked them in retaliation. I’m sure if you wondered into a lion’s den unannounced and started fiddling with everything the exact same thing could happen.
The other thing that is so prominent when it comes to the creature is the score that accompanies his appearance every time he is on screen. It is over-the-top and melodramatic as all hell, and quite intrusive (subtle wouldn’t be something I would call it either) but it actually becomes quite entertaining and adds to the enjoyment of the film. Da-Daa-Daaaaa!! Actually the whole of the score was done in quite a strange way, no doubt due to the budget, as music from previous Universal films are pilfered and added to scenes, with the rest of the score duties being split between three composers: Henry Mancini, Hans Salter and Herman Stein. To be truthful, I wouldn’t call it very memorable with the exception of the creature’s theme which is bellowed every few seconds. Da-Daa-Daaaaa!!!
As enjoyable as I found “Creature From The Black Lagoon”, it is very repetitive with the characters being on their boat, have to enter the water for a reason, fight the creature underwater, get back on boat, creature boards boat for a scare and then dives back into the lagoon, ready for the cycle to repeat again. The repetition didn’t bother me too much but I found it amusing each time the characters re-entered the water. That said the underwater sequences are brilliantly done with very nice cinematography and I always appreciate a film that can tell its story via visuals more than dialogue which is the case with “Creature From The Black Lagoon”. In regards to story beats, I did like the fight between science and money which is shown throughout the film and in a nice change of pace for a “Universal Monsters” film, the scientist isn’t a madman.
When it comes to the acting in the film, everyone is serviceable but no-one is outstanding. To be honest I had never heard of any of these actors before this film, but I must say that Julie Adams is incredibly fetching to look at (although I did get sick of her monotonous screaming). The person that steals this movie though is Nestor Paiva who plays Lucas, the captain of the steamer that takes the scientists down the Amazon. He is absolutely hilarious throughout the film and fills the screen with charisma. It is a small role but he makes it memorable.
Overall I really loved the “Creature From The Black Lagoon” just for the fact that it was so entertaining. I would love to comment on the 3-D technique that the film was originally shot in but alas I have not seen the film in that format. From all reports though, it added to this already great film. If there is one reason to see this film, it is because of its outstanding make-up design for the creature himself. It is truly one of the greatest of all time and I cannot praise it enough. The film itself is flawed and very repetitive but is such an easy watch, that it is very easy to recommend.