#31DOH Day 27: The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)

You ever drunk Baileys from a shoe?

Words my brain told me The Creature, affectionately known as Gill-Man, whispered into his victims’ ears as he crushed them in his deadly embrace. Try as I might, while I watched last night’s film, I could not shake the disturbing memory of The Mighty Boosh’s Old Gregg and his “mix-up downstairs”. But then, that is not as a result of the Boosh’s skill as gifted comic writers and performers (as good as they are) but more a testament to the influence of the last of Universal’s roster of classic monsters. In his 2014 Movie Guide, film critic Leonard Maltin said: “Archetypal ’50s monster movie has been copied so often that some of the edge is gone, but … is still entertaining”. Gill-Man features on the front cover of Taschen’s Horror Cinema and, as one of the Blu-Ray’s featurettes tells us, he was one of the most reproduced, copied and homaged of all the Universal Monsters.

Coming almost a quarter of a century after Dracula captured the moviegoing public’s imagination, The Creature opened to positive reception from critics and fans alike. And this is where I have a confession to make: Last night’s viewing was the first time I have ever seen it. I know, right? Due to the film’s exposure, I was really quite familiar with the imagery and the basic storyline but no amount of clips and stills could prepare me for what I saw – a masterpiece of horror/sci-fi/fantasy. Putting labels aside, it’s just a masterpiece of cinema.

The Blu-Ray edition made watching Creature a visual pleasure. It’s been cleaned up, much like the Criterion edition of Carnival of Souls (which I reviewed last week), to such an extent, that, visually at least, you could easily mistake it for a modern film. Filming on or underwater is notoriously difficult and costly – just ask Kevin Reynolds about Waterworld (or his namesake Costner if the rumours about who was the true director are to be believed) or Ed Harris, star of 1989’s The Abyss (actually, no, don’t ask him – after his contractually obliged promotion of the film before release, Harris has since refused to discuss the film, such was the traumatic nature of the shoot). And there is a LOT of water in this film – only a handful of scenes are set on solid ground.

Filmed entirely in the US, director Jack Arnold and his team did a good job of making a lake in Florida look like an alien and unexplored world. Before looking it up, I really did think that the on-top-of-the-water scenes must have been filmed in the Amazon basin. But it’s the underwater scenes, filmed in a studio backlot in California, which really stand out. Given that this was filmed in the early 1950s, I was impressed with the clarity and duration – extended scenes of divers exploring the depths were crystal clear. But most impressive of all, probably one of the most famous scenes in the movie, was the “love scene” between the Creature (played during underwater scenes by diver and stuntman Ricou Browning) and marine biologist Kay Lawrence (played by Julie Adams). The choreography of this scene is sumptuously staged and sets up, as with Gill-Man’s studio-mate, Frankenstein’s Monster, and clear influence King Kong, a degree of sympathy for the beast.

The first half of the film is a classic explorer style film, with scenes of our team of scientists looking for their quarry, but the second half is part unrequited love, part siege movie as the creature tries to prevent the object of its affections from leaving the lagoon, while systematically taking out its competition. This shift in focus could have been jarring, but it was handled extremely well. The scientists’ awe at the wonders of nature giving way to terror and a fight for survival put me in mind of another similarly, and far more recent horror-adventure movie and suddenly, as scenes of Dr Alan Grant marvelling at the brachiosaurus came into my mind, I began to realise just how massively influential this film has been over 65 years of cinema.

Some great acting certainly helped to sell the film to me too – given that this was the 50s, I was impressed with Adams’ role as something more than eye-candy to scream at the creature. She presents an intelligent academic on an equal footing with her colleagues, and who freaks out at the creature’s attacks with fewer histrionics than most of the men do! Richard Carlson’s David Reed provides us with a fairly archetypal hero but the equally hunky, and far more duplicitous Mark Williams (Richard Denning), makes for a far more interesting trio of main characters, whose interaction was as fun to watch as the various creature-based antics.

Overall, this is a fun romp which, while diluted by decades of copycats and pale imitations, still entertains and gives an insight into the influences on filmmakers who grew up with it – the influence on some of my favourite films from Aliens to Jurassic Park, Predator to The Shape of Water and beyond are clear, and for that I thank all involved!

Remember to follow the hashtag #31DOH on Twitter and Facebook every day in October to see what other terrifying treats we’ve been watching!

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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