Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

When you think of the iconic Universal Studios monsters of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, you generally picture three genre-spawning icons – Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man – and one oddball: the lowly Gill Man, a/k/a the creature from Creature from the Black Lagoon. Though it was followed by a pair of fairly successful sequels, the star of Black Lagoon didn’t create anything near the lasting cinematic legacies of his fellow supernatural headliners. Yet somehow there the image of Gill Man still sits, forever enshrined as one of the great monsters of the golden era of motion picture horror. That seems a little strange, doesn’t it?

The story: During a field expedition along the shores of the Amazon, dignified geologist Dr. Carl Maia happens upon a most unusual find: a fossilized, arm-like appendage ending in a set of long, webbed digits. He recruits two marine biologists, one of whom is a serious honey, from a nearby research institute to examine the specimen. With the help of their fame-seeking boss, the two determine that the find must be from the skeleton of a heretofore unknown species, possibly representing an entirely new branch of the evolutionary tree.

After this is over we are gonna have so much sex.

Together they return to the dig site, where they find Dr. Carl’s indigenous assistants torn apart in their tent, in direct violation of his instructions to keep watch over the camp. Luckily local labor is cheap and before long they hire a new crew and head downriver to the likely location of the rest of the fossil. The only problem is that the fossil’s great-great-great-grandfish happens to be very much alive and intent on following the research team to its destination.

Biggest letdown: The monster in this movie, which, thanks to a single, muttered line by one of the characters will forever be known as “Gill Man”, is really pretty novel when you consider the literary adaptations and generic beasts that preceded it. Apparently the film’s producer got the idea from a Mexican cinematographer who described a myth about a race of half-man/half-fish creatures. He must have also mentioned these creatures were racist bastards who tend to eliminate all the Latino characters before turning their attention to the white folks…

Permission to come aboard?

All that novelty is disappointingly bent into a less than original story that very closely follows the first two acts of King Kong. Gill Man (ugh) is a sensitive, misunderstood wild animal, feared for his monstrous appearance more than his actions. Like Kong, he is incited to villainy by the hostile humans who attack him with little provocation. He even falls in monster love with the stunning lady scientist who, in my mind, makes Fay Ray look homely by comparison. The final borrowed piece is the glory hound boss, who unwisely values the creature only for the notoriety it can bring him. Fortunately, any time you abandon good science for easy fame in a horror movie, your ass is forfeit.

Be honest: who has the best hat?

Why you should watch: Despite being basically an underwater King Kong, Black Lagoon is an excellent film and the creature design is nothing short of spectacular. Having waited so long to finally see it, I’m in a position to appreciate how many movies owe huge debts to Gilly’s big screen debut. Remember that scene in Jaws when the shark is dragging the boat around by the dangling underwater cage? That entire sequence, complete with views of the winch boom cracking under the strain, is derived from the moment when Gill Man is first ensnared in the scientists’ nets. And when old Dr. Hammond appears in his bright white outfit to recruit two idealistic paleontologists for a weekend in Jurassic Park? That’s nearly identical to the scene in which Dr. Carl, also dressed entirely in white, recruits his young colleagues for a trip to the Amazon. And of course let’s not forget Hellboy’s amphibious companion, Abe Sapien, who bears more than a passing resemblance to our friend from the ’50s. The list of influences and homages goes on and on, so maybe Black Lagoon‘s legacy isn’t so sparse after all.

Jacques Cousteau can suck it!

Memorable Moment: I wonder exactly what the lady biologist’s contribution to the team was, other than admirably filling out an endless variety of sweater and shorts combos. There is no way that barge was big enough to contain her wardrobe. The rest of the crew members wear the same sweat-stained khakis for the entire movie, but the princess changes clothes once every five minutes.

Nevertheless, I just loved the image of this backstroking angel, frolicking on the surface of the lagoon. The suddenly shy creature follows her from the depths, before tentatively reaching out a webbed hand to touch her ankle. Those synchronized swimming-style back flips had me about ready to take a bite out of her myself.

Show me that other hand, mister.

Runner up moment: the saucy boat captain proudly suggests a local trick for catching fish, which amounts to dumping what appears to be a kilo of heroin into the water to paralyze the poor guy. They call it “Rotanol” but I know a bag of fine China White when I see it.

Choice quote: “We didn’t come here to fight monsters, we’re not equipped for it!”

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5 Responses to “Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)”

  1. […] Creature from the Black Lagoon – You can be my Gill Man anytime. […]

  2. […] Creature from the Black Lagoon – You can be my Gill Man anytime. […]

  3. I met Ginger Stanley a few years back, in Orlando at a 3-D Creature from the BL screening, that did a lot of the underwater scenes for Julie Adams. She was a lot of fun and had some great stories! A class act!

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