Not out of breath: A critical review of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954)

After World War II, it seems like the horror market dried up for a while. The popular opinion is that, by the 50s, the public was sick of horrors and looking for something more optimistic. Arguably some film noirs kept the spirit of surreal thrillers alive, but when the atomic bomb came down and all eyes looked up toward the space program, cinema followed.

The Wikipedia page on Universal monster movies only reports Gill Man and Abbot and Costello movies for the 1950s. This blog has its own beef with that page–it doesn’t have the silent “Hunchback of Notre Dame” or James Whale’s “The Old Dark House”?–but the message is clear. It doesn’t take a seasoned cultural critic to recognize that in 1950s western cinema, horror was out and sci fi was in. Traditional vampire and wolf man movies vanished for a while, and even when they came back, they were clumsily crossed with atom age science, as in the howler “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.”

For this reason, it seems like the “Creature” movies, with their ancient, monstrous webbed toes dipped into the pools of paleontology and anthropology, were an effort to view the old Gothic horror formula through the new sci fi filter. How well did that effort work? Let’s dive in.

“The Creature from the Black Lagoon” starts with a grasping claw gaping out of a wall of solid rock (serious question: is “Jurassic Park” modeled on this at all?). This relic of an apparent missing link between man and fish prompts a hastily constructed expedition of scientists with swimmer bods to trek into the Amazonian rain forest to search for more fossils. Once they’re cut off from civilization, and the body count goes up, they find that their quarry is not as extinct as they suspected.

“Creature” is harder to fit into this blog’s reviewing mold of movie-Gothic thriller-horror film because it does not display the obvious Gothic trappings of its predecessors, but we’ll give it a shot. At least the first question is easy to answer. “Creature” is a good movie, well made and entertaining.

Anyone with a knowledge of ecology will note the Amazon looks suspiciously like Florida, but it’s well shot either way. The direction, by (appropriately) sci fi film vet Jack Arnold, is solid. The camera is active, the production is clean, the performances are believable. None of the characters and performances are particularly complex, but standouts include Nestor Paiva as the cigar chomping boat captain and Julie Adams as the team’s only lady scientist. In fact, I might like Adams more than any other Universal horror heroine. I like her big eyebrows, her form-fitting tops and generous bottoms, and her sense of actual agency. It would have been easy enough to make her a prop, but this film made her a character with actions and motivations.

Accordingly, Gill Man’s fascination with her comes across as, maybe not as profound, since I think the creature is just looking for a convenient place to lay his eggs, but at least relatable for an audience. The Universal films always tried to make the audience understand the monster, and “Creature” is no different. The bottom line is I’m attracted to Kay’s character, so it makes sense that both the bickering male leads and Gill Man would be too.

And before anyone gets on me about being sexist, we see plenty of toned, tan male bodies and chest hair too, so everyone has something to look at. Personally I think Mark is cuter than David, but he’s kind of a dick, so I guess it evens out.

The underwater stuff was handled by James Curtis Havens, and special mention must be made of his contribution. Underwater sequences in thrillers can be a bit dry, if you will (if memory serves, “Mystery Science Theater” once referred to underwater chase scenes as the drum solos of movies). You’ll get none of that in “Creature.” The underwater photography is elegant, sometimes strikingly pretty, and often pumps up the thrills with the creature carefully shot through gloomy weeds. Can anyone deny that Adams swimming right side up above Gill Man swimming upside down is an iconic horror image?

While we’re at it, Herman Stein is the uncredited author of Gill Man’s three-note theme riff. Hard to deny that’s iconic too. It’s more bombastic than I normally like, but well timed to the images on screen and never feels out of place.

Much of the film’s success is due to its effectiveness as a thriller. It is perfectly paced for suspense. The story/writing credits are all over the place, but at least one name is Harry Essex, who worked on high concept crime thrillers like “Kansas City Confidential” and thoughtful sci fi flicks like “It Came From Outer Space”; the editing was by Ted Kent, who’d been chopping up Universal monster movies since “Bride of Frankenstein.”

Notably, Gill Man isn’t overexposed–sometimes he’s just a claw at the window or suggested with bubbles–so his menace feels real. He doesn’t mess around either. Gill Man drowns people, claws them in the face, laughs at being set on fire. By the end of the film, he’s killed at least five people and disfigured one, making him one of the most dangerous monsters we’ve watched all month.

It also helps that Gill Man functions like a real creature. He gapes at new sights and gasps for air when he’s out of the water. Little touches like that elevate Gill Man from an animal–or just a guy in a suit–into something believable.

However, in case it wasn’t clear, “Creature” is not a particularly profound movie. It does not mine any Gothic depths or probe any aspect of human psychology. It acts like it’s going for something grand and cosmic, with an introduction sequence that quotes the book of Genesis over images of the big bang, but it never really goes beyond that.

Likewise, you’d think that with its paleontology, missing links and old relationships between team members there would be something about the past’s influence on the present, but that never materializes either.

Whatever. The fact is that more than 20 years out the Universal crew was still making effective monster movies. They didn’t all have to be Abbot and Costello vehicles, and they weren’t just rehashing “Frankestein” and “Dracula” either. They could still do solid thrills. “Creature” proved that, for at least 80 more minutes.

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