The Creature From The Black Lagoon is the last of the major Universal monsters. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was released in 1954, over twenty years after Universal introduced Frankenstein’s Monster, his Bride, the Mummy, the Invisble Man, and Count Dracula, and over ten years later than the Wolf Man (longer if you count the Werewolf Of London). The Creature, or the Gill-man as he’s often called, is the only Universal Monster to have arrived after World War II. As such, he has a much different, maybe weirder thematic significance than any of the others.
Frankenstein is the Promethean myth, about the things man isn’t meant to mess with. The Bride Of Frankenstein is about bad dates. Dracula, like all vampires, is about lust and corruption. The Mummy is about lost love and how creepy it can get. The Invisible Man is absolute power corrupting absolutely. The Wolf Man is about rage. I can keep going with this stuff (and I have). Zombies are about our fear of death. King Kong is about the way that chicks dig jerks. Godzilla is about post-war atomic anxiety. And so on. But back up for a minute — that last one’s gotta be important somehow.
GODZILLA, released in 1954, is widely acknowledged to be a film that reflects a nation’s very understandable reaction to the atomic bomb. GODZILLA is literally about how American nuclear testing created this horrible (eventually lovable) mutant monster. One of Japan’s most iconic film characters was inspired, in a way, by Japan’s greatest tragedy. But check this out: Look at Godzilla.
Now look at the Gill-man.
I’m not saying they’re identical twins or anything, but ya think there’s a distant family relationship there?
Released into theaters the same year. Both reptilian (or amphibious). Both up from out of the aquatic depths. Both angry.
There are as many differences as similarities, but it is interesting to note that the Creature, like Godzilla and unlike most other famous monsters mentioned thus far, has origins more rooted in science than the supernatural. Specifically, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (the movie) begins at the Big Bang! As a narrator intones “In the beginning…” a explosion appears on screen, many times over. This movie is based in science, explaining quite literally that when the earth was created, all sorts of creatures developed — while still allowing for the fact that an earth covered in water surely has some creatures as yet unseen. The humans in this movie are on an ichthyological expedition down the Amazon, searching out rumors of a creature which bridges the evolutionary gap between land and sea. They’re expecting to find fossils, however, not a six-foot-tall Gill-man with a yen for the lead scientist’s girlfriend. Yup, somehow this cold-blooded fish on two legs gets all kinds of warm-blooded when he’s horny, so much so that he’s willing to kill.
The Creature could never be a truly American film legend without violence and awkward sexuality.
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is a fairly direct story, owing more to BEAUTY & THE BEAST or KING KONG than to any ancient legend (a la vampires, werewolves, or zombies). Dr. David Reed brings along his girlfriend Kay, and for the first segment of the movie her main purpose is to smile and look terrific in short shorts and a one-piece. Concurrently, the Gill-man is making the standard monster-movie roll-out — first he appears only as a webbed hand, retracting back into the lagoon. Later, he assaults some local guides in their tent, in a scene which must have been far scarier in 1954 (these guys have comically oversized Prince Valiant hairdos that detract majorly from the suspense). The Gill-man appears in full in a shock cameo, where the two lead male characters first venture into the lagoon. For the first half of the movie though, he’s mainly been observing the expedition from a distance. Things really change once Kay goes for a swim, and this still-remarkable scene happens:
The “underwater ballet” scene is weird, magical, ominous, bizarre, and eerie all at once. It plays like a love scene, even though the Gill-man is essentially an underwater stalker. We have to cut him some slack on his method, though — I mean, this is the first time he’s even seen a woman. And imagine if the first woman you ever saw was Julie Adams!
Julie Adams may never have become a huge movie star, but maybe all some actors and actresses ever get is one iconic movie, and if that’s the case, then she sure shines brightly here. Looking like a 1950s Jennifer Connelly, with an irresistible smile and an expert way with that wardrobe, Julie Adams is the thing most people remember about this movie, directly after the iconic make-up design of the Gill-man. Nearly sixty years later, I guarantee Julie Adams is still inspiring crushes every time a young fella (or gal) sees this movie. I’m not advocating the way the Gill-man chooses to handle his crush, mind you — I’m just saying I can understand.
More back-and-forth ensues between the Gill-man and the expedition, but the movie’s end run begins when the Gill-man abducts Kay, and her human admirers have to rescue her from the deranged beast. Unlike Ann Darrow and King Kong, there isn’t as much romantic chemistry between Kay and the Gill-man. Maybe it’s because the Gill-man isn’t as tall. (Chicks dig a tall guy.) Eventually, of course, the human beings win out, shooting down the Gill-man and leaving him to the depths of the lagoon. Since they never retrieved the body, the door was left wide open for sequels, and those of course happened. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was a huge success, owing much of its appeal to having been released in 3-D. The first sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, is most notable for being the first screen role for one Clinton Eastwood Jr. (I’ve seen the movie but I don’t remember much of it besides Clint’s cameo), and the second sequel (which I haven’t seen) is best known for having the Gill-man wear clothes.
Now I kind of want to see that one!
The Gill-man is actually one of the most influential screen monsters in history, having made semi-official appearances in movies like THE MONSTER SQUAD (where Stan Winston’s make-up design had a bit in common with Winston’s own creation of the Predator), and unofficial appearances in movies like the HELLBOY films. According to Wikipedia, failed remakes have been mounted several times over the last thirty years, including attempts by John Landis, John Carpenter, Ivan Reitman, and Peter Jackson. Newer productions continue to be set up and dismissed all the time — it seems inevitable that it will happen, but personally I’m not clamoring for it. The Gill-man is my favorite old-school monster, next to the Wolf Man, and I kind of like the way he currently wanders the wilderness of all of our imaginations.
I love the Gill-man for all sorts of reasons. I love the look of the character. I love his roots in science, pseudo- as it may be. I love the fact that he’s a horny bastard, and it makes him cranky. And there’s one more thing: If he has atomic origins, in a way he’s a son of Einstein. And between that and the name, I have some hunches about his heritage. I mean, I went to Hebrew school with at least three kids with the surname Gilman. “Gill-man” is less refined, but it still looks mighty Hebraic from where I’m standing. I’m gonna go with it. I mean, there are plenty of Christianity-laden vampires and demons out there for the goyim to enjoy; couldn’t we just have this one monster to share some heritage with us Jewish kids?
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is playing Saturday and Sunday morning at 11am at the Howard Gilman Theater (HA!) at New York City’s Film Society Of Lincoln Center — in 3-D — as part of their program for families. Take the kids!
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