Universal was already famous for iconic "monster" movies. Frankenstein and Dracula became part of the culture. Creature from the Black Lagoon (CBL) is mostly in the same vein of monster-horror flick, but with a little science in its fiction. Unlike magical or demonic monsters, this one is supposedly a "natural" anomaly of evolution. CBL is often classified as sci-fi, so it's worthy of inclusion here.
Budget-wise, CBL is a B movie, but it's a cut above the usual B crowd. The acting was reasonable. The cinematography was impressive. The only "special" effect was the creature's costume. While the Creature is, in many people's mind, THE icon for man-in-rubber-suit monster costumes, something about the creature found resonance in movie-goers. He was strong enough to merit two sequels.
The producers tapped Jack Arnold for director. Arnold, who directed It Came From Outer Space had an excellent eye. His use of many camera locations, angles, framing and cuts, he lets the camera become invisible. Viewers are in the scene, not simply watching it.
The actors didn't get in the way of the story. Richard Carlson was already a big name in the sci-fi movie world. It Came From Outer Space, Magnetic Monster, and Riders to the Stars. Richard Denning was a hunky star of many westerns and detective movies. He would go on to star in a few more sci-fi films. The female lead, Julie Adams was perfect as the beautiful damsel. The supporting cast were a little quirky at times, but not as stiff and wooden as second-teir actors tend to be.
Quick Plot Synopsis
A old archeologist, working in the remote Amazon, finds the fossilized hand -- somewhat humanoid, but obviously aquatic. He shows it to some other scientists who agree to mount an expedition to find the rest of the skeleton. While Dr. Maia was doing all this, a creature with the same kind of hand tears up his camp and kills his two native helpers. The scientists spend many days digging and sifting, but come up empty. They decide to go further upstream to the Black Lagoon to search. There, they encounter the Gill-Man. The two scientists are at odds over what's best -- capture the creature alive, kill it and bring it back, study it and leave, etc. All this debate becomes moot when the creature begins killing off crew members. The creature barricades the entrance to the lagoon so the ship cannot leave. The expedition becomes a battle for survival. They manage to drug and capture the creature, but it escapes its cage-tank. It kills Dr. Williams. It then captures the beautiful woman, taking her to his cave lair. The men follow, find her and the creature. After taking several bullet hits, the creature staggers away and dives into the lagoon. The final image is of the creature floating downwards, limp and lifeless.
Why is this movie fun?
This is one of those cultural icon movies that even non-fans of sci-fi know. In that regard, watching it like seeing a celebrity in person. Arnold does a good job with pacing and keeping tension up. It's interesting that the creature gets his own theme music, of sorts. Arnold that the same ascending three note phrase, "do da DEEEEE!" accompany each appearance. The creature's mixture of vulnerability and apparent invincibility, kept you off guard. Spear gun hits or bullets seemed to almost take him down, but not quite.
Cold War Angle
CBL doesn't have any firm connection to the usual Cold War themes. It's much more about the dangerous bigger-than-man side of nature.
Dueling Scientists -- Dr. Reed (Carlson) represents the "good" side of science. He wants to study the creature, but not interfere or harm anything. He wants to expand the field of knowledge for altruistic reasons. Dr. Williams (Denning) represents the dark side of science. He's focused on the fundraising potential, the economic cost of expeditions. When confronted with the creature, he's all for killing it (not so much for the safety of the others) in order to bring it back for exhibition. This dualism of scientists is somewhat two-dimensional, but works as a sub-theme.
Visible Monster -- Many B-grade sci-fi films show their low-budget monster as little as possible. CBL breaks that rule in a big way. Viewers get several partial views right away (the hand) and not too far into the film, a full view of him. Since the producers didn't cheap out on the gill-man's costume, viewers aren't let down. He looks, moves and acts much one would think a gill-man would.
Beauty and the Beast -- The gill-man is not simply a killing machine type of monster. His curiosity with (attraction to) Kay makes him more complex. In the swimming sequence (a strong foreshadow of the swimming girl scene in Jaws), he swims along with her, unseen, in a sort of parallel dance. He, the ancient, strong and primal male matching moves with the lithe, beautiful, innocent female. Some suggest that the gill-man's popularity was how well he echoed the adolescent male condition: awkward, unattractive, misunderstood, full of rage, attracted to beautiful women, but insecure approaching them. The big scene, in which the gill-man grabs Kay off the boat and swims her down to his cave lair is easily a young male fantasy.
They're After Our Women! -- CBL has the classic they're-after-our-women scene. It lives up to the poster art. The gill-man grabs the woman and runs (swims) off with her. He carries her in his arms toward his lair. Unlike other versions of this classic image, the gill-man appears to actually want the woman.