CREATURE CREATURE CREATURE!

 

The Creature …

Webbed fingers. Claws. Gills. A pretty girl swimming. Bubbles rising …

Gotta love it.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon, in my opinion, is the most original and aesthetically pleasing of all American monsters. If you look at the pantheon of Universal monsters, the Creature is the only American invention among them: the Mummy comes from Egyptian history and mythology, the Wolf Man from the werewolf myth-perhaps one of the earliest urban legends, Frankenstein from an English novel (1831), the Hunchback of Notre Dame from a French novel (1831), the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from an English novel (1886), Dracula from an English novel (1897), the Invisible Man from an English novel (1897), and the Phantom of the Opera-from a French novel (1910). Interesting that Frankenstein and the Hunchback came out the same year and later Dracula and the Invisible Man appeared within the same year; competition, influence, a merging of the gods? Maybe. People love monsters. We know that. Perhaps the creepy caricatures of humanity make us feel better existing with the so-called normal problems of simple humans.
All of the above mentioned monsters-or human oddities-appeared in Universal films spanning from 1931's Dracula and Frankenstein films to She-Wolf of London in 1946. But for the 1950s the world would need a new monster.

In walked the Creature!

In 1954 the world was introduced to the Creature From the Black Lagoon-a sort of missing link between our amphibious ancestors and the scale-less creatures we became. He arose from the murky waters of the Amazon with only one agenda: murder the men and grab the girl in the swimsuit! He killed men on sight, with terrible claws and aquatic screams, but the women did something all together different for the Gill Man.
The Creature liked the ladies. And out of all of the classic Universal monster films I think you would be hard pressed to find better looking "B" girls or scream queens. First up, in the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was Julia (Julie) Adams, possibly one of the most attractive women to ever be carried by a monster. My favorite scene with Julia, directed by Jack Arnold, is when she's swimming in the lagoon and you get to watch her from below, underneath the water from the Creature's perspective. It's truly a beautifully shot scene and surely a high inspiration for a young Steven Spielberg shooting Jaws. This sense of wholesome erotica is sorely missing from films today. I keep hearing that films are actually becoming tamer, that PG-13 is the standard for teenagers and R films the exception. However, despite the fact that you might not get as many gratuitous "tit" shots as you did in the 1970s-the average PG-13 movie is filled with idiocy and inappropriate language and behavior. Subtlety is dead in the modern throwaway film. At least with the better classic B movies you get the sense that the filmmakers were still trying to do the best they could with the money given. Roger Corman has long testified that for him the story came first. Give him an interesting story to work with and he'd do the best he could with the aesthetics.

Now, I won't argue that the Creature from the Black Lagoon is a great story; it does contain the provocative premise of the missing link, but it's truly the aesthetics that makes the movie come alive. The Gill Man is the best looking "creature" or "monster" I have ever seen. Why? It's hard to say. Why is Picasso crap for one man and high art to the next? Beauty, as the cliché goes, is in the eye of the beholder, however, I do believe as humans we have a general sense of unity in terms of that which is attractive and that which is repulsive. While one might argue that Picasso's portrayals of humans aren't always attractive in the normal sense of the word-they do illustrate a sense of truth about us. I think it's that subconscious link to the truth that triggers our sense of wonderment and attraction and therefore sense of beauty when we look at Pablo's work. He too, the Creature a.k.a. the Gill Man, has that sense of truth and wonderment about him. He's man-size, but he's powerful, and he goes for the girl, plus he has really cool claws.

The look for the Creature was created by Bud Westmore; he also worked on a whole slew of other creature feature type films, but Bud, if you're listening, for your work on the Creature-you deserved the Oscar, baby. Even the movie posters of the Creature and promo shots are some of the best visuals you could hang up in your home. The above water scenes and all of the publicity photos of the Creature were of Ben Chapman, where as the underwater scenes contained Olympic swimmer Ricou Browning in the Creature suit-which just goes to show you it takes a whole village to raise one good monster.

In the sequels, which are wisely added to the Legacy Collection DVD set, we have new guys in the Creature suit on land: Tom Hennesy in Revenge and Don Megowan in Walks Among Us, but Universal retained Browning for the underwater shots while adding new girlfriends for the Creature to grab onto.

In Revenge of the Creature (1955), again directed by Jack Arnold, you get Lori Nelson, no Julia Adams, but pretty rockin' bait for the Creature. Revenge is really pretty much more of the same, but it's good in the way that it does give you more. You get more scene time with the actual Creature and you get to see what it would be like for the monster to get caged in a Marine World type setting. Your empathy for the Creature increases with the second film. I immediately wanted the body count to go up. It's funny how that works. You get to love the film because you love its monster, and therefore when you see him again, you're on his side. By the third and fourth Jaws movies I was praying he would kill everyone and eat the film as well.

Another fun part of Revenge is you get a glimpse of Clint Eastwood as a Lab Technician. You don't get the sense that he's a badass ready for his role in Dirty Harry or that he's going to go on to become a noteworthy director. He's there to be a pretty boy in a lab coat, but if you're going to go with that sort of thing, you really can't get a better pretty boy than Eastwood.

In the Creature Walks Among Us (1956) new director John Sherwood decided that they needed to experiment with the formula, always a dangerous thing to do when you have a really cool setup that works. Taking the Creature out of water is like having Aquaman not command the fish or have a hook instead of a hand, but don't get me started on that. All in all, Walks Among Us is still a cool film because it's an odd duck, and truly, I would rather have this third film of the Creature-rather than no third film at all. Walks Among Us views best if seen directly or shortly thereafter the first two, because again, it's simply a matter of getting more with a weird mix thrown in for complications.

This time after catching the Creature (all the Creature films start out that way) the scientists find out that the monster is merely a good skin peeling away from being man's best friend. Actually, the Creature gets burned, and sort of goes through an instant evolution of losing its outer skin of aquatic-ness and discovering the human within. They then screw around with his gills and make him an air breather. Because, you know, all good creatures should act and look like decent young Americans. But, the Creature, being the Creature still only has one true agenda: murder and girls in swimsuits.

This time the Gill Man grabs onto Leigh Snowden. Leigh played a dissatisfied, adventurous, woman who married for money. She's young, hot, (still no Julia Adams, but hot enough for the Creature) and unwilling to be controlled. Her husband (the true psychotic monster of the film, thus increasing the empathy for ol' Gilly) is tortured by the affection his wife receives from the other men on boat and later on land. Marcia (her name in the film) is almost raped by one of the boat crew and the Creature gives him a nice backhand. Later, the husband, played by Jeff Morrow, kills the would be rapist-and the Creature of course kills Jeff Morrow's character because he was just as bad as the rapist, and we are left with the Creature pretty much being a good guy but unable to return to his watery domain due to the evils of humanity. Yeah, I think there's a little bit of the Creature in all of us.

Overall, the Creature from the Black Lagoon is my favorite of the Universal films. It has a modern feel and yet holds a classic sense of style, tone, and aesthetic value. If you like monster movies and you haven't seen the Creature, do so, but watch all three. Webbed fingers. Claws. Gills. A pretty girl swimming. Bubbles rising …

Gotta love it.

Bradley Mason Hamlin, missing link reporter, 2005
brad@retrocrush.com

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