Creature from the Black Lagoon

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/02/05 22:03:06

"Must have seemed relatively reasonable fifty years ago."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED IN ANAGLYPH 3-D: The last gasp of of Universal's monster franchise was "the creature", an amphibious beast from deep within the Amazon basin. It's no match for some of Universal's other monster series, in part because its monster is almost entirely a creation of foam rubber; the twisted humanity that makes Dracula or Frankenstein's monster so compelling is almost missing.

This monster is the apparent last survivor of a species of water-dwelling humanoids native to the Amazon river area. When Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a fossil, he determines to mount an expedition, not realizing that the species isn't extinct - while he's meeting with old students David (Richard Carlson) and Kay (Julie Adams), the creature is busy killing the assistants he left behind at the dig site. Before heading up the river, the three add Mark Williams (Richard Denning) and Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissel) to their party, which will use the vessel "Rita", captained by Lucas (Nestor Paiva). There will be tension in the party, of course, as Dr. Maia and his students mainly want to collect photographs and specimens, while Mark wants a trophy, and the creature is looking to kill the gill-less monsters invading its home.

Except the girl, of course. While he's perfectly happy to kill and maim everybody else he comes in contact with, he's intent to take Kay back to his cave and... Well, who knows? They're clearly not the same species and the never-clothed creature doesn't seem to have any kind of compatible genitalia. If he were some sort of mutated human, I'd understand that, but the fossil Maia found implies that any mutation happened long before humans arrived in South America. Then again, who knows how long it's been since the creature has seen a female of its species? Kay may be close enough to a gill-man in a long enough drought.

Kay, of course, only has interest in David, which is another reason for Mark to clash with him. Whether it's because Mark's attracted to Kay or to David is left as an exercise for the audience; certainly, the tone of some of the guys' comments as they stand on the deck of the ship, dripping wet in their swimsuits after a dive is a potentially rich vein of unintended innuendo. Especially considering Mark's insistence on carrying the harpoon gun. Or maybe I'm just perverse. Another great source of comedy is the boat's captain, Lucas. You can't forget his name, since he's got the habit of saying "I, Lucas" whenever most people would just say "I". He's great, though, thoroughly devil-may-care about the danger they face, a voice of experience if not of caution.

Enough about the humans, though - how's the creature? Not bad at all. It's a nice design, all scales and gills, with especially inhuman-looking hands. A good choice, since they're what we see first, and emphasize the creature's inhuman nature; it makes us think of the Creature as strange even after we see that he's man-sized with a head, two arms and two legs, all in the expected places. One thing that may not be readily apparent is that the creature is portrayed by two different actors in two different suits - as the Coolidge program director Clinton McClurg put it in his introduction, one good at swimming and one good at shuffling. In fact, they did it on two different coasts - Ben Chapman filled one suit in California, for the land-based and shipboard scenes; Ricou Browning wore the other in Florida, doing most of his work underwater. The suits are similar but not identical; the creature has darker scales and visible eyes on land; in the water, he's somewhat pale and has solid black eye sockets.

It strikes me that shooting a monster movie on both sides of the country is somewhat extravagant for 1954, but it does pay off. It's a very nice looking movie (sounds good, too - Henry Mancini is one of several uncredited musicians who worked on the soundtrack), with impressive underwater photography. This may have been the first time that 3-D photography was used underwater, and James C. Havens, who directed the underwater sequences, grasps immediately why the two are a perfect match; having things suspended in the water or floating on the "ceiling" is a great visual. It's unfortunate that Universal only provided a red-blue anaglyph print to the Coolidge; it's not as terrible as it would be for a color movie, but it's still vastly inferior to the original two-projector system.

The film's main director, Jack Arnold, does a pretty fair job, too. He blends the creature into the foliage, and manages the action set-pieces quite well. It's a reasonably effective monster movie, even if the B-movie cast is occasionally not as good as one would hope. A movie like this doesn't need great acting, but a little better certainly wouldn't hurt. Ditto with the script (even in 1954, would a group of scientists fill a lake with chemicals to flush out one creature?).

I'm not sure where "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" fits in among Universal's classic monsters; I'm not enough of a fan to have watched all the sequels and crossovers. It's an adequate, entertaining movie, especially fun in 3-D.

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