In many respects, The Creature From the Black Lagoon feels like a brass band funeral for the golden age of the Universal monster movies. The subgenre would continue ticking over for quite some time. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy would be released the following year, The Creature From the Black Lagoon would spawn two sequels for the two years following, and Universal would try a spate of monster movies up until The Leech Woman in 1960. However, it’s clear that – by 1954 – the golden age of the Universal monster movie was well over.
And I think that part of the reason that The Creature From the Black Lagoon works so well is because it’s almost a mournful eulogy for the genre.
The gothic horror that defined early monster films is almost completely gone. This story doesn’t unfold in Europe, nor does it feature any castles, curses or mysterious fog. It is told mostly in broad daylight along the Amazon river, the new world that has gradually been explored and quantified. With its very clear environmentalist themes, it seems to lament the fact that the world is an increasingly familiar place. The shadows are retreating, leaving less space to hide the monsters we love so dearly.
In its place, there’s a decidedly fifties aesthetic. There are repeated references to the space programme, one of the cornerstones of fifties pop science. David pitches the expedition by making reference to the potential benefits to man’s mission to the star. “Some day space ships will be travelling from earth to other planets,” he explains. “How are human beings going to survive on those planets?” Indeed, the movie itself makes a conscious effort to link inner and outer space.
The story doesn’t just unfold in the Amazon basin, it features the depths of the Amazon river. “We’ve just begun to learn about the water and its secrets,” David suggests. “Just as we’ve only touched on outer space.” Given how little we still know about some of the life at the bottom of the ocean, it makes for an effective mirror to the depths of space, and the potential waiting out there. The notion of a secret hyper-evolved life form existing on our planet is certainly a compelling one.
Even the movie’s monster is explained in terms of science, rather than as a gothic ghost story. Far from the pseudo-science used to animate Frankenstein’s monster (electricity! and coils! and chemicals! and stuff!), the eponymous monster is firmly grounded in what sounds like reasonably scientific theories. The movie even makes reference to the kamongo fish, the lung fish, a then-recent discovery of a fish that could breath oxygen. “What about the kamongo?” we’re asked. “Science hadn’t heard about it until a few years ago. And the kamongo lived way back in the devonian age.”
The creature itself is described as an evolutionary dead-end, a monster left over from an earlier and a simpler time. Like the old monster movies featuring men in silly costumes, there’s a sense that the creature is on the verge of extinction – that there’s no room left for him when even the Black Lagoon itself is trawled by scientists looking for the next academic discovery to catalogue or study. The creature is alone – we see no other member of its species. It’s implied that it’s a single watchful guardian, surveying the surroundings – the groundskeeper in a graveyard for old monsters.
The Amazon setting evokes that feeling – the idea that the cast are venturing into one of the last remaining mysteries on Earth, taking a trip back in time and charting some of the very last uncharted water on the planet. “This is exactly as it was 150 million years ago, when it was part of the devonian era.” This is a land with deadly animals, where danger lurks around every corner, as yet untamed by civilisation. Lucas, the boat owner, advises, “And don’t forget our catfish. They grow to be nine feet… and killers. Like everything in this jungle. All killers.”He almost makes it sounds like some sort of refuge from dangerous creatures.
In Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale seemed to celebrate the birth of a new era of “gods and monsters.” Twenty years later, The Creature From the Black Lagoon closes the cycle. This is the end of such superstitious nonsense, as the genre gives way to science!monsters and other more modern types of movie monster. David’s early conservationism can be read as the nostalgic pleading of a generation that grew up on these sorts of scares.
In Frankenstein, the monster was more sympathetic to us than to the rest of the cast. Here, David speaks for the creature. “Mark, we’re out for photographs for study, not trophies,” David advises his colleague. “This– this thing alive and in its natural habitat is valuable to us.” The monster isn’t to be hunted and killed, it’s to be discovered and celebrated. “No!” David pleads at the climax of the film, as his colleagues hunt and shoot the fleeing creature. “No more! Let him go!” David can’t save the creature, but he can allow it a death with dignity. The closing shot of the film isn’t of Kay and David vanquishing the creature triumphantly. It’s of the limp corpse of the monster floating to the bottom of the lake, as if to lament the loss of something unique and – in its own way – wonderful.
This is the fifties, not the thirties, and the script acknowledges this quite well, by referencing both changing social moors and the tired old plot devices of these sorts of films. Meyers, the oldest member of the time, seems surprised to find Kay and David together. “Are you two married yet?” he asks. The times, they are a-changin’. Kay responds that the pair find that old social norm somewhat redundant in the modern era, where Kay isn’t just a housewife confined to the kitchen or traditional gender roles. “No, no, David says we’re together all the time anyway. Might as well save expenses.”
The movie references the traditional love triangle of these sorts of films, the storyline that would see our heroine forced to choose between one of two suitors. However, in light of both the changing times and the fact that it was a relatively tired formula by this point, Creature From the Black Lagoonseems to subvert that traditional plot element. The love triangle between Kay, David and Mark is mostly pointless. David and Kay are together, Mark just doesn’t realise it.
Mark is like the protagonist of an earlier film. He’s the man with the overtly colonial attitude and the handsome young man who sees it as his job to kill or capture the monster. However, times have changed. That guy isn’t the hero anymore. Indeed, he’s a very different archetype in monster movies, and one that I suspect Mark helped to define. Rather than the handsome white-bread crusader of films like Dracula or The Mummy, Mark is instead a distant descendent of the douchebag yuppie protagonist, obsessed with exploiting a sentient creature for his own end.
Creature of the Black Lagoon makes it pretty explicit that he’s the bad guy (“big game hunter,” David contemptuously describes him), even if his actions would be easy enough to justify in context. “Why’d you shoot first?” David demands at one point. “We weren’t attacked!”You could argue that the creature has already murdered Meyers’ man, and that it is clearly a dangerous animal. Instead, Mark is too busy sexually harassing Kay, who lacks the courage to shoot him down because he’s her boss. The film acknowledges that Mark is perving on his own employee in the creepiest manner possible, which makes him the bad guy almost immediately.
Of course, this raised one of the issues that the film skirts over. The movie wants us to pity the creature – the lonely last of its kind fighting for its small corner of this small globe. However, the monster is pretty kill-happy. It has killed several members of the cast, and David is still trying to find out more about it. It’s only when the creature attacks Thompson, a white member of the crew, that David decides its best to leave – and the film immediately sides with him, by having Mark adopt the opposite position. It feels a little hypocritical that a movie with a clear anti-colonial subtext would be so indifferent to the deaths of the local members of the expedition.
I do like how Richard Denning embraces Mark’s inner douchebag. He knows that he has been cast as the villain of the piece, and he relishes the clichés and the development with considerable enthusiasm. Mark is the kinda guy who would invest everything in Jurassic Park, and then write off the loss of the island on his tax returns. He’s the guy prepping the spear gun and talking in such a way that you can almost see the dollar signs in his eyes. It’s a great performance.
The film is scored by Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein, who do a fantastic job bridging the classic monster movie sound with a more fifties science-fiction score. The creature’s theme occasionally gets just a bit overwhelming, but you can feel the way that the soundtrack influenced a lot of what was to come. In particular, there’s a definite hint of the soundtrack to be heard in Star Trek over a decade later. It feels like a passing of the guard.
The movie also feels like a transitional film in the way it’s shot. The classic monster movies all used sound stages to film, creating this sort of hyper-real setting for the monsters to prowl. Creature From the Black Lagoon was shot both on sound stages and on location in Florida, giving it a slightly more realistic feeling, especially when compared to the staged look of the woods in The Wolf Man or the graveyards in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.
However, the monster itself is a definite throwback to the design of classic movie monsters. It looks like the kind of thing that Jack Pierce could have crafted, looking decidedly hokey, but also strangely evocative. It manages to appear both dangerous and pitiable at the same instant, something that works tremendously well. The creature managed to anchor a three-film franchise, with two sequels released over the following two years, and it’s easy to see why the creature has entered the popular consciousness, despite arriving relatively late to the party.
The underwater sequences are beautifully shot and look absolutely stunning. I think that they work at least as good as the work that would be done on Thunderball a decade later. There’s something quite wonderful about the under water work, and Ricou Browning actually creates a sense that the creature is completely at hom under water, using plants for natural cover while prowling and exploring, not relying on its depth to protect it from the intruders, until it’s sure that they can’t see him. There’s something almost touching about the fact that it it as afraid to touch Kay’s legs as she is of it, reaching out to her several times a pulling back.
Creature From the Black Lagoon is a mournful celebration of the monster movies, and it makes a fitting conclusion for the recent blu ray set. It feels like a fitting end to the golden age of Universal horror. Sure, the monsters would limp on for another a few years, including two sequels to this film, but there’s a definite sad tone to this movie that makes it a fitting note to end on. It appears there’s just no more room for monsters any more.
You might be interested in our other Universal Monster reviews:
- Dracula (1931)
- Frankenstein (1931)
- The Mummy (1932)
- The Invisible Man (1933)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
- The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
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