Monday, October 20, 2014

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) (8th Monster Movie Review of 8)

        All throughout October, I’ve posted reviews of all the classic Universal Monster movies, ranging from “Dracula”, to “The Mummy”, to “The Wolf Man”, and now where up to the eighth and final film of the series, the 1954 classic titled “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. This movie came out at a time when B Sci-Fi movies dominated the media. However, unlike all the other giant sized monster’s that came out at the time, like “Godzilla” and “Them!”, this creature was still at human height, and became so popular that he’s often regarded as the last of the classic monsters to come from Universal. This film’s very different from the other classic monsters, there isn’t an actor with speaking lines in the role of the monster, and it leans far more on Sci-fi then supernatural horror. You could make the Argument that both “The Invisible Man” and “Frankenstein” had a lot of Sci-Fi elements, but those films still had that same gothic look and feel, along with more traditional setting’s like castles and cemeteries. This movie is located in a swamp, mostly during the day and is set in present times, well, present at the time the movie was released. I honestly think it helps this film stand out, and personally, I think it’s one of the absolute best of the Universal monster movies. In fact, it’s easily my second favorite, next to “The Invisible Man” from back in 1933.  

        This is yet another monster concept that had no literal source material before the movie was released, it was completely original. Here’s the setup, when a group on an expedition in the Amazon discover a fossilized skeleton hand, it gains the attention of aquatic scientists who want to learn more about it, and an aria that locals call “The Black Lagoon”, where the fossil originated from. Soon this small team of explorers find themselves trapped in the lagoon, and at the mercy of a savage monster that’s slowly killing off the group, one person at a time. It’s a classic premise that would become a template for many popular monster movies to come, like “Jaws” and “Predator”. While combating the creature, the team also needs to find a way to work together, because they all have different goals, some members just want to leave the creature and escape, others want revenge on the beast for all the people that it’s killed, and one person wants to capture it and make a fortune on it. It’s a situation that builds at a brisk pace, and the movie has no shortage of exciting encounters with the creature. 

      Now you’d expect this movie to give some kind of scientific explanation regarding the creation of this monster, like it was mutated by nuclear radiation. However, much like most of the monsters I’ve discussed this October, the Creature from the Black Lagoon actually has his own mythos and lore. The fossil’s discovered indicate that this was in fact a species that has been around sense the dawn of man, and according to the ship’s captain, there’s local stories told from villages about people that are half man and half fish. This was a brilliant idea that added a lot more to the novelty and mystic of the creature. It’s not just a mutated apparition, this is a mysterious being that’s lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. The intro sets the tone and mood of the movie perfectly, going into a lot of detail about the creation of life on Earth. The music is also really good, in that campy monster movie style that was so common in the 1950’s. 

     The creature itself is often addressed in pop culture as Gill-Man, even the characters in the movie refer to him by this title. Personally, I prefer to just call him “the Creature”, because while Gill-Man is fitting, it also sounds really silly. The creature also has a great design, and the costume is surprisingly well done. This is the only monster in the Universal Monster collection to have a no big named celebrity in the role, and not just one, but two actors giving life to the monster. On land, the creatures played by Ben Chapman, but the real talent is Ricou Browning, who played the monster under water. His swimming talents are incredible, giving the creature a very alien movement. Plus, he didn’t have any breathing equipment, he actually had to hold his breath for four minutes between takes, and while wearing that heavy monster costume. There’s an especially cool scene when the creature actually gets into an underwater fist fight with a scuba diver, which blows my mind every time I see it. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard that must have been to maintain enough energy, not only getting into an underwater fist fight, but also while holding his breath and wearing that really heavy monster suit. Ricou continued to play the monster in the two following sequels, proving to be a very devoted monster actor.

     The remaining cast isn’t exactly great, but they do their jobs well. Richard Carlson dose a serviceable job as the films lead hero, and is a lot better than most of the generic boy friend characters featured in these Universal monster movies. Julie Adams is our female lead named Kay, and she is the text book definition of a damsel in distress. Thankfully, the actress manages to make her likable enough to care for, and her good looks don’t hurt either. Of cores it’s a tradition for there to be some kind of relation between the monster and the female lead, but this one’s probably the strangest. While the creature doesn’t hesitate to kill anyone else in the film, it takes its sweet time with Kay, studying her, and following her every movement, like some kind of sexual predator. There’s not just one, but three scenes in which the monster tries to kidnap her and take her for himself, which is really disturbing. The movie also makes it very clear that the creature has a high level of intelligence, this is demonstrated when it actually builds a dam to prevent the characters from escaping in their boat. So, there’s no way that his behavior toured our female lead is that of a mindless monster.

      One really big highlight of the film is its incredible cinematography, especially for the underwater scenes. The whole swamp setting just has this strong, other worldly feel, which also helps it feel isolated and eerie. While monsters like this obviously don’t exist, the movie still plays on our fears of being out in the water, with something mysterious and dangerous swimming right beneath your feet. I especially love the buildup surrounding the monster. At first we only get a small glimpse of his hand, then it attacks a tent, but we only see the victims getting killed, and our only clue of the monster are the scary sounds it makes. Then there are lots of nice little details, like the crew discovering strange footprints on their boat, and a fishing net that was torn to ribbons.

      The pacing is also really good, every scene builds on the other, and each encounter with the monster dose something different, but also very exciting. I especially love this one scene in which the monster is actually set of fire, as you’d expect, fire is the creatures one weakness. It all comes to a close with an exciting climax as the monster kidnaps the girl and retreats into its cave, with our hero’s not far behind. A man on monster brawl ensues, and everything gets wrapped up in a nice finale. I do wish that the film had more of an epilog, because there are some topics raised in the film that I feel didn’t get proper closure.     

        There were only two sequels that followed, “Revenge of the Creature” in 1955, and “The Creature Walks Among Us” in 1956, both average sequels by comparison. It’s interesting to note that “Creature from the Black Lagoon” doesn’t have any remakes, although there have been plans for a remake for years. Having said that, the Creature has obviously made other appearances in our pop culture, he was featured in the 1987 Horror comedy “The Monster Squad”, and there was a comedy film in which the monster met Abbott and Costello, proving that he’s still an important and iconic member of Universals movie monsters.    

     Overall, this is still a fun, good old fashioned monster movie. It’s faced paced, has an awesome monster, and it’s still one of my favorites of the Universal Monster collection. It’s the kind of movie that will play differently for different people. If you’re a really hard core monster fan, and love this formula, you couldn’t ask for a better film then this. Well, okay, there are better monster movies out there, but I like to think of this as the one that really started it all. This is where the template was introduce to main stream audiences, and I really believe that modern films ranging from “Alien” to “Anaconda” owe a lot to it. 

                          I give the 1954 “Creature from the Black Lagoon” 4 stars out of five. 

That’s it, my October marathon has concluded, hope you enjoyed it, and as always......

                          Happy Halloween!  


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