Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Sure we all make fun of Universal’s weird attempt at creating a new franchise “universe” to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe (God, I really fucking hate that phrase) and the DC Cinematic Universe. But you know what? Universal actually did have the original multi-film, multi-character, multi-storyline world. It started way back in the 1930s with the rapid-fire release of Universal’s original monster trilogy: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. Many years later, The Wolf Man was added to mix, along with some of the “little brothers” of those historic monsters, including The Invisible Man and the subject of this little review: Creature from the Black Lagoon.
As the opening voiceover informs us, evolution has taken some interesting twists and turns, beginning deep in the ocean and proceeding onto land, as human beings eventually emerged from the primordial ooze. But there might still be things out there that defy evolutionary theory, and it is in the depths of the Amazonian jungle we might find them. The film proper begins with Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovering a fossilized hand in a rock formation somewhere deep in the Amazon. The hand looks almost human, save for webbed fingers and claws, and Maia thinks he may have stumbled upon a missing link – a, uh, missing fish-link, in point of fact. Leaving his native guides to guard the camp, Maia returns to civilization to show off his new find and possibly get together an archaeological team to dig up the rest of the skeleton. He gets his team in the form of ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), his boss Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell), and their “colleague” Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) (I could not quite figure out what it was that Kay did, other than go swimming and scream, but she’s supposed to be a scientist-type of some kind). The team head off down the Amazon aboard a fishing boat run by Lucas (Nestor Paiva).
When the group arrives at camp, they discover that it has been destroyed and the two guides killed. Being brave scientists, they carry on with the excavation, only to have it be a bust: the skeleton is nowhere to be found. On a hunch, they travel further down the river to the Black Lagoon to see if they can find pieces of the skeleton there. That’s how they meet the Creature, an amphibious humanoid who just wants to have a pleasant swim, but instead nearly gets harpooned in his first contact with his distant cousins.
Like many films of the same period, Creature from the Black Lagoon suffers from an overabundance of exposition, as our scientists explain what we’re supposed to feel as we feel it. As with Frankenstein and the Wolf-Man, the Creature’s animalistic nature is far more sympathetic than his human counterparts. He has had his Lagoon invaded and been shot several times, prompting a predictable violent reaction. One wonders just want these scientists want with shooting harpoons at a species that they’re supposed to be studying. Even the conflict between David and Mark over how best to go about dealing with the Creature is just about one form of invasion over another: David desires to poke, prod, and study the Creature, while Mark just wants to hang its head over his mantlepiece.
To its credit, Creature from the Black Lagoon features some truly remarkable underwater photography. The Creature’s movements are beautifully performed and detailed – his natural habitat is the water and he understands and moves with it far more fluidly than the divers outfitted with oxygen tanks and goggles. Out of the water, the Creature looks like a big, walking fish – the use of prosthetics remarkable for the period, and still oddly convincing even now.
While far from a great film, Creature from the Black Lagoon is a rightfully iconic one, an interesting variation on the horror stories of radioactive lizards that were cinema’s response to the Atomic Age. Rather than being created out of modern violence, the Creature comes from an evolutionary past, a connection between the human past and the future. That the response is to shoot and flee from it perhaps says more about humanity than the film ever thought to.