Written by Monster Awareness Month member, Harry Markov
Creature from the Black Lagoon (directed by Jack Arnold) is an exemplary illustration of the 1950s monster horror movies. Since its release the movie has achieved the status of a golden classic in the genre, while its monster, the Gill-man (above), has become an icon recognizable by monster fans even in my small and often isolated country of Bulgaria.
Watching Creature from the Black Lagoon brought great satisfaction to my ‘CGI eyes’ despite the lack of sudden cheap thrills (screams and flash appearances aplenty in modern movies) or the Gill-man’s foam suit. I can list plenty of reasons to explain its rise to horror classic. From the cast (Julie Adams as the Beauty to the beastly Gill-man) to the otherworldly underwater shots (handled by Scotty Wilbur), the intriguing role reversal and the boisterous soundtrack, I loved it all from the get-go.
Creature from the Black Lagoon, while an aquatic horror at first glance, is a science fiction movie at heart (Jack Arnold is also responsible for It Came from Outer Space and The Incredible Shrinking Man). The movie’s opening portrays Earth’s geological history moving to the evolution of life, establishing a serious, almost documentary atmosphere. From then on Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a fossilized hand with webbed fingers, which possibly explains the discovery of the missing link between marine and land life forms, the sci-fi themes increasing in frequency.
During the scene in which Dr. Maia pitches his expedition to the Amazon, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) speaks of spaceship colonization of other planets. The team’s assembled members consists of the ichthyologist Dr. Reed, his girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), Dr. Marcus Williams (Richard Dennings), the expedition’s financial aid, and one Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell). Later on as the team sail on the Rita into the Black Lagoon, a ‘paradise from which no one returns’, Dr. Reed likens the Black Lagoon to another world. With numerous sci-fi tropes present it becomes evident that the marine expedition is more of a metaphor for an outer space voyage; an idea which is further reinforced by the admittance of Dr. Reed that humanity hasn’t even begun to understand the world below the water.
From this point on, the story picks up in pace. After the Gill-man becomes entangled in the ship’s nets, the team quickly realizes that it’s dealing with the real creature rather than just a fossil. The expedition morphs into a hunt, a match between the scientists and the monster with casualties on both sides. Subsequent encounters with the Gill-man claim the lives of two of the ship’s crew as the creature shows enough cunning to freely enter and leave the ship. Eventually it is captured and locked in a cage on board the Rita.
It escapes during the night and attacks Dr. Thompson, who failed to guard the boat carefully enough. Kay hits the beast with a lantern; resulting in the Gill-man’s escape and Dr. Thompson suffering severe burns from the fire. The scientists decide to call off the expedition as they are no match for the Gill-man with their current equipment. However, they find themselves barricaded within the Lagoon along with the Gill-man, bent on seeking its revenge.
Creature from the Black Lagoon impresses with the reversal of the typical genre roles. It is the scientists who are the villains as they invade the Gill-man’s home for selfish reasons (I want to point at Dr. Williams as the chief instigator for the creature’s capture, because of the success and fame it would bring him). It’s the Gill-man who is the victim rather than the monster. His actions are motivated by his instinct to defend his territory rather than intentional malice.
When not threatened the Gill-man is peaceful (best illustrated by the Gill-man’s amorous and almost tender behaviour towards Kay Lawrence) and this introduces the Gill-man’s frightening humanity. Yes, the Creature is a half-fish, half-man. It has never been in contact with humans before and kills to protect his habitat (as all predators), yet the scene when he swims right beneath Kay juxtaposes his freakish appearance with a shy, fearful adoration for the graceful Kay (played by Ginger Stanley during the swimming/underwater shots). It’s evident that the Gill-man is alone and misunderstood, impossibly so.
The soundtrack foreshadows Kay’s demise (evoking Jaws’ score a bit), yet the Gill-man only enjoys stalking her as a sort of primal affection. Later, this affection is a plot device to move forward the story and is the key to the Gill-man’s undoing. In this regard Creature from the Black Lagoon echoes King Kong and the line ‘It was beauty killed the Beast’ is valid for the Gill-man as well.
Jack Arnold polarizes the audience, adding more emotional gravity to his picture. While in the horror genre the monster embodies that which has to be slain and the viewer sides with the survivors, but here it’s not as easily done. On one hand, I knew that the scientists didn’t set out to hunt down the Gill-man (not initially and not unanimously at the very least). On the other, it’s very hard not to sympathize with this lonesome, yearning for contact creature, which has been poisoned, clubbed, burned, blinded, speared and then shot to its supposed death.
On a different note, I find it difficult not to associate the Gill-man with Lovecraft’s The Deep Ones. Creature from the Black Lagoon shares several thematic elements with Lovecraft’s stories. The protagonists are scholars in search for knowledge – forbidden knowledge at that. Their victories (trapping the Gill-man) are temporary and carry a price. The Gill-man and The Deep Ones share similar anatomy, both are amphibian and both are stronger than humans. Perhaps, the only difference is that while The Deep Ones are of extra-terrestrial heritage, the Gill-man is a monster evolution, showing how humans are inferior from a biological standpoint. Whether this is so, is inconsequential to why Creature from the Black Lagoon is memorable.
The reason why this movie has endured in the collective cultural memory and has spawned an impressive legacy, is because people love to see the human spark in their monsters. They want to experience the Beauty and the Beast all over again, knowing that on the outside the monster is hideous, but has redeemable qualities. This is the reason why movies like this one or King Kong continue to fascinate and intrigue us.