Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)
Dir. Jack Arnold
Would you believe I'd never seen this one? I never really made an effort to watch all the classic Universal Monster films, but they tend to be the sort of things you just encounter. Watch DRACULA in a double feature with FREAKS, see WOLF MAN in a film class, check out FRANKENSTEIN on TV while sick from school as a kid, you know. Films with this level of clout just find you. You need to go out of your way a little to see HORROR EXPRESS. THE MUMMY (1932) just comes to you. In my case, I watched it standing in a long line to enter a haunted house one Halloween with my mom. That's what happened to you, too. You never decided it was time to watch it, but at some point you just did. It found you. These films find you, somehow.
Except for some reason, this one didn't. And as of 11:43 PM on Tuesday, May 10 2011, I was done politely waiting for the Gill-Man to make its way to me. I took the fight to it. Just like Gill-Man would do.
Well, I'm glad to have seen it, but this one is definitely in the lower tiers of the loose Universal Monsters series. Filmed in 1954 in 3-D, (apparently only the second Universal film to be released in 3-D) it is also among the last of the series (most of the biggies, such as MUMMY, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE INVISIBLE MAN were released nearly two decades earlier). It has plenty of the cornball qualities you probably expect from this era, but unfortunately lacks a lot of the artistry which pushed most of those films to classic status.
For one thing, it lacks a strong central performance which helped anchor most of the great monsters. Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr. and their ilk were not just beneficiaries of great monster makeup; they were magnetic personalities with classic takes on these characters which redefined them for subsequent generations. They were the charismatic lynchpins upon which the whole film rested. By this time, the formula is well-established and director Arnold clearly understands that the creature is the star. But Gill-Man, despite his cool design, is a bit of a cold fish. Ahem. He's a cipher without much to relate to, character-wise. He's cool and menacing, but he unfortunately doesn't provide much pathos or drama, and without that you're forced to rely on the human characters for some sort of story arc, and you can imagine about how well that works. The characters and their stories are so perfunctory that it honestly isn't even worth explaining the plot and who's involved. They're a couple scientists who end up in the Black Lagoon, and that's the only relevant thing. But since they can't really hang any drama on the creature, we have to endure quite a bit of time with placeholder characters that barely even make an effort.
But the way they prattle on about this and that, you sort of get the idea that the film might just be about something. That the creature has endured this long, and in the lofty company he is associated with, can only be testament to the fact that something about this concept connects with people on a slightly deeper level. The reason these classic movie monsters persist is that they don't merely represent bodily harm. The monsters themselves represent something more psychological deep-rooted fears about our world, and often fears about ourselves. Vampires, of course, represent human sexuality and desire - so much so that they've gradually lost most of what made them monstrous as our society finds itself a little less terrified of human desire (for the record: I'm pro-desire, but if we have to trade Bela Lugosi for TWILIGHT to get a less judgmental society I say it may be time to bring back those stylish scarlet letters). Werewolves represent the frightening and painful bodily and emotional changes undergone in puberty. Zombies (a la their Romero reinvention) represent our insatiable consumer culture. Frankenstein represents our fear of loss of identity and meaning. And so on. Most of the classic monsters could (and do) have whole books written about their symbolic meaning and the way that meaning has become part of our representational culture.
What, then, is our pal Gill-Man telling us about ourselves? I feel that it doesn't read as clearly as the other monsters I mentioned, which is probably a big part of the reason this film feels less effective than some of its predecessors. It doesn't quite go for our subconscious fears with timeless, classic symbolism in the same way. There are no creaking castles or foggy moors in here; it’s a thoroughly modern (1954) movie populated by bold, effective white scientists and simple, colorful locals, and shot mostly in the daytime. I wonder, though, if that isn't sort of the point. These scientists (an ichthyologist, a geologist, a business-scientist and a girlfriend-scientist) are way into talking about the Devonian era, the geologic period during which legs first began to develop and ocean creatures began to venture onto land. Well, you can hardly say "Devonian era!" with a blank face suggesting an unsettling fear that there might be other eras to remember the names of before you start talking about evolution, which is exactly what these scientists do.
Remember, this is 1954, where evolution is not the dry, noncontroversial academic issue which every schoolchild clearly understands that it is today. They don’t talk much about the philosophical implications, but shit, the Scopes trial was in living memory of every one of these characters. And here they are in a black lagoon in the middle of the most unconquered land left in the world, with this weirdly human fish thing which has a suspicious interest in their women. We diverged from this thing as far back as the Devonian era, and yet we have more in common with it than anyone in the film wants to admit (or even monologue about). I suspect that the Creature, if anything, is there to represent the discomfort audiences of the time still felt with the concept that human animals were not quite as different and special as we might like to believe, and that the scary, alien things we see in nature are a far greater part of us and our history than we’re comfortable examining.
Well, like I said, since then we’ve all become completely accustomed to this concept and there’s no debate or discomfort about it at all by anyone anywhere, so the movie doesn’t really work on this level any more. It does, though, perhaps work on a slightly deeper level that the evolution thing only plays at. By being like us without being us, the Gill-Man does indeed represent the things we share with our animal ancestors and our own animal instincts. But unlike the Wolf Man, who also represents our animal urges and desires, Gill-Man represents a different part of our animal brain – the reptilian part, the cold, incomprehensible, instinctual part of us. Gill-Man isn’t warm and furry; he’s alien and unknowable, yet has too much in common with us to dismiss as unrelated to our lives. He’s the nonrational self which we don’t understand and can’t control, too alien to understand but too familiar to ignore. He’s the fear of the unknown self, the part of us deep in the primal psyche (our unconscious black lagoon of primal muck) which is alien to our mammalian emotional and social instincts.
We understand our antisocial impulses; anger, lust, jealousy, hate. We may fear them about ourselves, but at least we can understand them and control them. That’s
. Ahem. Gill-Man is the part of ourselves that’s so ancient and primal we don’t have words for it. He couldn’t tell you what the fuck his deal is, why he keeps killing minor characters and trying to kidnap white women. I mean, what’s he gonna do with her, fuck her? Not unless she lays her eggs first so he can swim over and fertilize them. If he’s angry he doesn’t show it; if he’s horny he doesn’t act like it. And yet, there he is, moving beneath the surface of the water creating powerful drives to action. It appeals to our disgust and repulsion at parts of ourselves, and even our own bodies. There’s nothing sexy about slime and scales (except to an extremely specific demographic of which we won’t speak for fear of attracting spam-bots), or anything that happens behind those weird, unblinking eyes. Nature itself is gross and ugly here; the Amazon is all murky mud and rotting vines, its inhabitants violent and random and covered in spines and slime. And yet, every new connection these scientists draw seems to bring us more and more uncomfortably close to the natural world which so repulses us. It’s in our brains, it’s in our genes, it’s in our souls. That’s the film’s trick, to show ourselves looking back at us from behind the eyes of something we don’t want to recognize. Wolf-Man Territory
On the other hand, the monster is --of course-- the star here, and the film barely tries to conceal its empathy for the poor misunderstood guy. Our nominal hero (the forgettable handsome, modernist-manly Richard Carlson) spends most of the film convincing his colleagues not to kill it, and berating them when they try (he shouldn’t have worried; the thing takes quite a beating and will be back for sequels long after the names of the main characters here have been forgotten). This sense of a frustrated creature driven by unarticulated feeling and desires but rebuffed by society also, whether intentionally or not, speaks to the kind of people who were watching this stuff then and now: nerds.
Like nerds, the creature lives in an isolated, lonely area where he is uniquely suited. Interestingly, the creature is portrayed by two people: Ricou Browning in the water and Ben Chapman on land. This otherwise inexplicable use of different actors (which continues to each sequel as well, although different actors would take over on land) means there’s a stark difference between the graceful, natural swimming and his awkward, alien attempts at moving on land. Like many awkward loners before him, he has felt moved by feelings he cannot quite put into words to venture out of his comfort zone and try to interact with the handsome, athletic scientists of the world and their girlfriends who he doesn’t quite know what to do with but obviously wants something from. And just like every time this happens, a few people end up getting murdered, everyone misunderstands, spear guns enter the picture, escape is prevented, and everyone flees back to their underwater caves.
I find it hard to believe this was completely unintentional. With almost two decades to learn from the success of the previous monster franchises, I suspect the producers of the film understood that there was a certain demographic which would appreciate and empathize with the monster’s isolation, his inability to make sense of his world and his place in it. Hell, the makers of KING KONG (which features a virtually identical story, without the third act back in ‘civilization’ or anything else which makes Kong’s narrative mildly unique and interesting) understood that as far back as 1933. Here, Arnold and writer William Alland even try to milk that same Beauty and the Beast angle, which works considerably less well here because Gill-Man is much less expressive and charismatic than the id-centric Kong.
That it works at all is a testament to the one thing the film really gets right: the creature itself. First and most importantly, it’s a fantastic design which somehow got made into a truly extraordinary costume. The thing looks great, moves extremely naturally (with the slight exception of the clawed hands which look a little like gloves) and holds up immensely well. They wisely reveal the creature early and nearly all the pleasurable moments in the film come from marveling at how cool he looks.
The second thing that works is the way they shoot him. The movie is generally artlessly made (maybe it looked better in 3-D?) and generally devoid of any effective atmosphere, let alone visual poetry. It does have one single trick up its sleeve, however, which elegantly ties up everything creepy and cool about the concept and execution of the film in one shot. Girlfriend-scientist swims along the surface of the water, bathed in sunlight. Underneath, the creature parallels her swimming in his own wriggly style, watching her from below. It’s probably the one legitimately classic thing about the film, and still packs a punch, both poetically and as great horror staging.
The underwater photography is, in general, cooler than anything that happens on the surface, with the camera taking advantage of the greater underwater mobility to get some effective stalking and even action angles. The suit looks even better under water and actor/swimmer Ricou Browning gives our man Gill a unique, twisting swimming style which looks both unique and very natural – sort of the way a human swims, but not quite (probably most like the way a human swims in a bulky rubber suit, but the effect is good).
All things considered, I’m glad to have seen this one as part of my general cultural edification, but it’s not a film I’m likely to revisit all that often. It doesn’t connect on a gut level the way those older, more evocative monster films do, and despite the striking design of the creature the whole thing, even with its lightly implied subtext, feels sleight and padded. Still, I’m curious about the sequels – the first sounds like a rehash but since its Clint Eastwood’s first film (he plays an uncredited lab technician who has a conversation with a cat, apparently) I may have to check it out. The third one sounds a little more interesting, however – THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US finds the creature captured and taken to civilization, where an accident causes him to lose his gills and submit to human clothing and study by more scientists and their girlfriends. That one sounds just crazy enough to be interesting, and also sounds like a logical extension of the subtext from the original, which could open some interesting doors. And with a long-promised remake on the horizon (the writers say they’re re-imagining Gill-Man as a product of Man’s poor treatment of the rainforest, an amusingly ill-conceived take considering that it undermines literally everything about the subtext of the original) it looks like this Gill-Man’s got some life in him yet, even if it looks a little awkward and unfocused to us Lung-Men.