Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Halloween Monster Memories: The Creature from the Black Lagoon

It's no secret to long-time readers of the blog that I grew up a Universal Horrors-loving fool. Back in the days before DVD box sets, before VHS rentals and recorders, even before cable and satellite, my older brother and I combed the TV listings a week in advance, searching for monsters. We would take naps on Friday afternoons and binge on sugared, caffeinated sodas in order to give ourselves the stamina to stay up for the Late Late Creature Feature, not knowing whether we'd be discovering a yet-unseen gem of the golden age or a soporific z-grade turkey. We had our share of the latter, but every now and then we'd get lucky, and one of the true Classics would play out before our bleary eyes, making us giddy with joy and prone to junk-food nightmares. Nights like that made it all worthwhile.

You kids today. You don't know how good you've got it.

Every October I regress in age to that wide-eyed, still blessedly un-diabetic boy, with an insatiable craving for peanut-butter taffy and a strong desire to revisit those flicks that made me love horror in the first place. I've watched and re-watched them all over the years, and they never fail to return me to that innocent, enthusiastic place, where everything was yet to be discovered, and nothing--not even black-and-white films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s--was old.

So in honor of every horror geek's favorite month, I thought I'd take a day each week to consider the old school classics. For our inaugural reminiscence I'd like to revisit everyone's favorite amphibian, perhaps the last great Universal Horror icon: the Gillman, or as he's more poetically known, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The Gillman and Julie Adams in a justly famous publicity still.

In his first outing, the Creature was explained as a living fossil, a parallel-evolutionary offshoot from a time when monsters ruled the earth. In almost the same way, as a cinematic entity the Gillman could be seen as the evolutionary link between the atmospheric, gothic horrors of Universal's 30s and 40s output, and the adventure-oriented sci-fi horrors of the following decade. As iconic as the Frankenstein Monster, as sympathetic as the Wolf Man, the Creature was nonetheless clearly a monster of a different stripe than both the vampires and ghouls that preceded him, and the atom-powered Bug-Eyed Monsters that were his successors.

In fact, the classic monster with whom the Gillman shares the most similarities is not a Universal Horror at all, but rather one of the biggest icons of would-be rival studio RKO: the Great Ape himself, King Kong. Beset by modern invaders in his untouched, pristine home jungle, he is hypnotized by the beauty of the lone woman on the offending expedition--a fascination that ultimately proves to be his undoing. It's a tale as old as time (song as old as rhyme): Beauty and the Beast. The two movies also share an emphasis on action and jungle adventure over atmospheric chills, relying instead on the sheer monstrosity of their title creatures to evoke fright.

Well, wouldn't YOU?

But let's back up and give a remedial course in Monsters 101 for those of you who might inexcusably be unfamiliar with the text.* In Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), anthropologists/archaelogists working on the banks of the Amazon discover the fossilized claw of a prehistoric creature previously unknown to science--seemingly a link between land and sea creatures--on the last day of their scheduled dig. When head researcher Dr. Carl Maia brings the fossil back to civilization, he convinces hotshot grant-seeker Dr. Mark Williams to put together an expedition to find rest of the fossil. Williams calls in straight-laced colleague Dr. Mark Reed and his ichthyologist/love interest Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams--a little girl from Little Rock!), hires river rat Lucas and his boat The Rita, and sets off in search of scientific immortality.

*There was a time when I thought you could take it as a given that any person running a horror blog or attending a fright convention would have to be conversant in the Universal Horrors, but hard experience has proved me wrong on more than one occasion. Kids today *grumble mumble*...

Unfortunately for the crew, the fossilized creature is NOT from an extinct species--a living specimen, the Gillman himself, doesn't take kindly to having his habitat disturbed, and starts picking off expendable extras almost from the get-go. I remember as a child being terrified by shots of the Creature's claw reaching slowly out of the black water, barely missing the Julie Andrews' ankle or closing powerfully around the face of a native hired hand. (I was too young to worry about the way the spiny claws bent as they were dragged across the dirt back to the river.) However, presumably never having seen a human female before, the Gillman is fascinated by Kay, leading to the justly famous "water ballet" scene in which the Creature swims mere feet below the oblivious beauty, almost but not quite touching her treading feet--a gesture of curiosity and longing that B-Movie scholar Joe Bob Briggs** reckons every 14-year-old boy in the audience could well relate to.

**In his indispensible book, Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies that Changed History!


In fact there's a strong sexual subtext to much of the flick, whether embodied by the Creature's curiosity or by the tensions between Mark, Kay, and David, the latter of whom is clearly miffed that Kay has spurned his previous advances in favor of Mark's bland heroism. (Nota Bene: sometimes a spear gun is NOT just a spear gun.) I think it's going too far to claim the monster wants Kay for his mate--if there's one thing that's a clear difference between Kong and the Gillman, apart from size, it's that whatever's going on behind those unblinking eyes, he is NOT LIKE US, and is not having mammalian thoughts--but he's clearly not seeing her as food either, and his desire for her can be imprinted upon, if not entirely understood.

I used to feel that the movie was ahead of its time pseudo-science wise, what with all the frank talk about evolution and the possible environmental undertones. (Whether you see Kay's floating cigarette and the poison/pollution trap as a trigger for the Creature's violence or not, they're clearly spoiling an unspoiled land.) Of course maybe I felt this way because I was raised in the American South, where teaching evolution to grade schoolers is still considered "controversial"; or maybe it's just that I was used to these old movies hitting hard on the "things God didn't want man to meddle in" schtick. Still, as pseudo-science goes, I think it holds up pretty well; I never thought for a minute that these people weren't serious scientists looking for serious knowledge, and never felt the tragedy was due so much to a jealous God than to basic human misunderstanding of what they were dealing with.

The Man Behind the Mask: Ricou Browning as the Creature

Two icons came out of the flick. One of course was the Gillman himself, who I believe still holds the title as most-merchandised Universal Monster of all time. Rubber bendy toys, Aurora models, t-shirts, Halloween door-hangings, masks, resin busts, and tattoos--people love the Creature, and want to put him everywhere. The other was of course Julie Adams, whose bullet-bra swimsuit, delicious gams, attractive (and believable!) intelligence, and frankly gorgeous face make such a stunning contrast to the Creature's amphibian visage. (As most everyone knows, that's NOT Adams in the famous water ballet scene, but a body double [and what a body!] who was a stronger swimmer. But that's all her screaming on the posters and draped over the Creature's arms, baby.) Though she didn't do much more horror work after that--making her mark instead in movie and TV westerns--she'll forever be associated with the flick, and rightly so.

The movie was successful, and spawned an almost immediate sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955), helmed like the first one by the revered sci-fi director Jack Arnold. The second movie continues in the King Kong vein, with another expedition going to the Amazon and this time successfully capturing the Gillman and bringing him back to a Seaworld-style aquarium/research center in Florida. The love triangle set-up is used again, this time with Professor Clete Ferguson and shapely ichthyology student Helen Dobson, with Gillman-keeper Joe Hayes as the grumpy third wheel. If you've seen King Kong you know what happens when they bring the monster back to civilization--he breaks free and goes on a rampage! (The Creature's initial escape and menace of the tourist crowds is a real treat.) He also makes off with the girl, and has to be put down at the end.

The Creature takes some Revenge. Note the goggle-eyes added in the second film to aid the swimmer's visibility. Not all scenes feature these "improvements," as some underwater footage was recycled from the first movie.

People often call this the better of the two sequels, and I can understand their point of view, even if I don't entirely agree. There's more monster mayhem here, both in that aforementioned escape and in the scene where the creature nabs Helen out of a seafood restaurant. We get to see some of the Gillman's phenomenal power (shown obliquely in the first film by his ripping a hole in the fishing net and nearly breaking the boom with his swimming strength), and who doesn't love a couple of good rampage scenes? However, I often feel the movie doesn't add much--it picks up, hits its mark, and rushes toward the expected conclusion. It's more of the same--which is not necessarily a bad thing, but seems almost like empty calories.

(I'd be drummed out of horror criticism if I didn't stop here to make the obligatory mention of the Clint Eastwood cameo in Revenge of the Creature--in his first screen appearance, Clint plays a bumbling lab assistant who can't keep track of his white mice. Not exactly Dirty Harry, but all the more entertaining for that.)

"Well gosh, Clint--did you have 6 mice in the cage, or only 5?"

Only one good thing came out of the fiasco that was the big-budget Van Helsing movie, which was that it prompted Universal to release its Legacy DVD box sets, containing all the classic monster romps. In its second iteration, included was the Creature set, which allowed Gillfans to view not only the TV-staple sequel Revenge of the Creature, but also the little-seen third movie, The Creature Walks Among Us. I'm in the minority, I think, when I make the claim that this third film is the superior of the two sequels, if only because it takes things in a slightly skewed direction instead of playing it safe; yes--it makes the age-old mistake of trying something NEW.

Not having been killed at the end of the second film (contrary to all appearances, as usual), the Gillman has taken up residence in the Florida Everglades, which doubtless remind him of his Amazonian home. He is pursued there by scientist/adventurer Dr. William Barton, who manages to capture the Gillman after a fierce swamp battle in which the Creature throws boats around like toys (an exciting scene) and is thereafter set on fire by a kerosene lamp-cum-Maletov Cocktail! Barton has the badly-burned Creature taken back to his palatial estate, where his colleagues discover he has rudimentary lungs as well as his famous gills. A quick operation turns the Creature into a land-dweller; he is given clothes and locked in a cage for further research.

"Walk among me."

The series has always been awash in sexual tension, but here the filmmakers kick it up a notch by constructing a romantic quadrangle. Dr. Barton is married to a free-spirited, recklessly sexual woman named Marcia, of whom he is fiercely jealous. Marcia is wooed by swamp guide Jed Grant, who comes on too strong even for her, and also has her eye on straight-laced Dr. Tom Morgan, one of Barton's hired lab hands. When Barton's paranoia gets the better of him and he kills Jed in a jealous rage (after Jed has tried to force himself on Marcia in a rather icky scene), he decides to put the blame on the Gillman. Realizing her husband is a maniac, Marcia falls into Tom's arms, leading the jealous professor to set his sights on another of his wife's lovers...

What's really interesting to me here is that the Gillman is not really the main threat in the flick; rather, it's the ugliness of people's uncontrolled desires that cause most of the trouble. More than that, the Gillman seems to serve as a kind of externalized representation of the extremely flawed characters' ids. Every time one character gets sexual or violent (or frequently both) with another of the human characters, the Creature bursts free of his bonds and goes on a mini-rampage. Thought it's never made explicit, there is a definite connection between the humans' baser impulses coming to the fore and the Gillman's episodes of violence. Some would argue that monsters are ALWAYS manifestations of our dark, primal fears and desires, but here that metaphor is made absolutely literal. Check it out and see if I'm wrong.


Of course the movie doesn't have the production values nor the directorial skill of the previous two (Jack Arnold didn't return, handing the reins over to journeyman John Sherwood, who directed only one more film as head honcho, 1957's The Monolith Monsters), and the acting is all very broad and melodramatic. The Creature's iconic look is changed as well--his burn scars and shapeless ogre-clothing make him look less like the Gillman than like a noseless bodybuilder. However, the subtext-as-text really makes it work for me, and the final scene--with the air-breathing Gillman wading out into the surf--presumably on his way to an ironic death by drowning--tugs at the ol' heartstrings, I don't mind telling you.

Unlike vampires, werewolves, mummies, invisible men, and Frankenstein's Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon has not been revisited all that much since Universal called it a day on the series. You could see his influence on Corman's Humanoids from the Deep and maybe even CHUD, and he appeared along with everyone else in spoofs/homages like The Monster Squad and Saturday the 14th. But as a monster type, he hasn't recurred in the way those others have. Perhaps it's because, as in his movies, he's a one-of-a-kind specimen, the sole example of a unique class of being.

A big-budget remake has been on the slate for years now, with various directors and stars attached, but so far the surface of the Black Lagoon is still undisturbed by movement below. (Not counting the Universal Studios' theme park show, Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Musical!) And yet no horror fan out there would be at a loss to recognize him at a glance. Again, as in his films, he just won't go extinct.

It gets under your skin.

Final Note: I snagged all these stills off the Google in a bleary-eyed frenzy of image-snatching, and I'm ashamed to say I neglected to note the sources. Mea maxima culpa. :( If you recognize an image that belongs to you, please let me know and I'll gladly affix the appropriate credit, or take it down (if you're gonna be THAT way about it) and replace it with another stolen shot. :P I'm not intentionally being an asshole--it just comes naturally to me. ;)


The Duke of DVD said...

Dearest Vicar, you have outdone yourself with this cornucopia of awesome! Creature remains one of my favorite movies of all time, and you have done it a great service here.

Bravo, sir!

(that tattoo makes me jealous, at least until I remember I have a tattoo of a Frost Giant rogering the Pope on my back)

micha michelle said...

excellent review. i saw CREATURE the first time as a kid, not long after seeing the opening scene of JAWS. let's just say i'm just now getting past my fear of the water.

i watched CREATURE again recently, delighted to discover it was so much more than a simple monster movie. definitely one of the best universal horror films.

Jenn said...

My darling Vicar, you know how I love me some Creature from the Black Lagoon. He's worthy of gracing my flesh for the rest of eternity in tattoo form, he got the Misfits to name their best record after one of his movies, and he even showed up on my Masters' thesis. Truly my most favorite misunderstood monster. The pathos! The sympathy he warrants! And we don't have to listen to him whine like Larry Talbot.

He's also got great theme music (duh duh duhnnnnn) and he's got great taste in women.

Excellent post for an excellent monster!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Duke--Thank you, my friend! I'm glad it passes muster for a Creature-lover such as yourself. ;)

@Micha Michelle--Of course the opening scene in JAWS is clearly an homage on Spielberg's part to this famous scene in Creature from the Black Lagoon, although with much gorier results. :) I often wonder whether, when the big-budget remake finally does lumber to screen, it will feel the need to reference JAWS, thus creating a meta-wormhole and sucking critics into the kind of hyper-wonky debate we so love to engage in. ;)

It *is* definitely more than a simple monster movie; just watch it next to some of the rubber-suit 50s and 60s efforts that came later and the difference is all the more stark.

@Jenn--I do love your St. Gillman tattoo as posted on your site, but I'm afraid the fellow at the end of the review here has you beat for Creature obsession! (Of course there's something to be said for diversification.) I'm glad you dug the write-up.

Rewatching the movie recently I was struck by how ubiquitous that three-note Creature Theme is in the score...they didn't want you to have to guess who was swimming up behind somebody, that's for sure! ;)

However, I must warn you that you're treading on dangerous ground badmouthing my boy Larry. He's a sensitive soul who doesn't want to do bad, but MUST because of bestial forces that reside in his very soul...for some reason, I can really relate! :P

CRwM said...

Thanks for this great look at my favorite of the Universal stable.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

excellent post, nice to see you writing about some of Universal's classic monsters. However, as a Jack Arnold fan, i must point out that it was Robert Wise that directed The Day The Earth Stood Still. Arnold did uncredited reshoots for This Island Earth but main credit for that one goes to Joseph M. Newman. he did Tarantula though, which happens to be my second favorite John Agar film after The Brain From Planet Arous, not that anyone asked...

Anonymous said...

An impressive review, Vicar! Who knew there was such a serious scholar behind your usual (entertaining and informative) shenanigans? Well done!
I too cut my teeth on late night TV screenings of the Universal classics and other less noteworthy B and C chillers. Mine aired Friday nights at 11PM on Indianapolis’ Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater in the early/mid 70s. It was tough commitment to stay up late on Fridays and miss my early Saturday morning cartoons, but in making it I officially became a horror fan.
Last time I saw the original Creature was in the early 80s. A Detroit channel did a Halloween promo tie-in with the local Burger Kings. A designated BK purchase got you a pair of 3D glasses. The film, shot in 3D, aired Halloween night in some sort of 3D for TV process viewable with the glasses. And it worked, once you got kinda used to it -- although I remember a banger of a headache afterwards. Totally worth it, though.
Thanks again for your excellent work.

John W. Morehead said...

The Gillman started my fear and fascination with horror, sci fi, fantasy and all things just plain fantastic when I was a kid. I was hooked when I saw him crawl out of the water. He remains one of my favorite monstrous icons. My one complaint is that while the Universal classics of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy are almost always grouped together as the horror iconic trio, this happens at the expense of what should be a quartet when the Creature from the Black Lagoon is considered. May the Gillman live on.

Tower Farm said...

It took me years to figure out what my brother Billy knew from about the age of eight... THE CREATURE is the best Universal monster!


The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the continued comments everyone! Nice to see you all around here. :)


@prof. grewbeard--how did I fuck that up? I guess I was so bleary from putting this together I forgot Robert Wise directed DTESS, etc. I've corrected it in text, so now my official line is, I have NO IDEA what you're on about! Stop wasting the people's time! ;)

@Geo--I've heard people say that the 3-D effects don't really add much, and just judging from the few obvious shots meant to capitalize on the technology, I agree. Besides, why guild the lily? It's great as it is! Don't even get me started on colorizations...

@John W. Morehead--TRUE FACT: I've always thought of the Universal monsters as having a Big Four, not Three--though I ditch the Mummy for the Wolf Man and add the Creature. TRUE FACT 2--I want a Mt. Rushmore-style print of said monsters at least on my wall, and possibly tattooed on my back. Can you imagine it?

JamiSings said...

As a child we only have on tv in the house and no cable. So I often had to watch whatever my parents wanted to watch. Creature Of The Black Lagoon was one of them. Any time it was on, mom made me watch it with her. Same with Sound Of Music. I can also remember having to watch Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark.

Which probably is one of the reasons I'm so messed up.

I honestly hope there'll never be a remake. They never quite live up to the magic of the original. At least not if the movie is good. Why do they never remake bad movies like Plan 9 and make them good?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Tower Farm--at least you figured it out eventually! It's never too late, folks!

@JamiSings--here here! I was just wondering in that other thread why they don't remake Dawn of the Mummy! ;)

JamiSings said...

Vicar - First off, you can just call me Jami. My user name is JamiSings cause I'm Jami and I sing.

ANYWAY - Some days I feel like pulling a coup on Hollywood. Just take over and force them to make the kind of movies I want to see - original ones, remakes of bad movies that actually had a decent plot idea, just poor execution - and movies with NO Tom Couch Jumpin' Cruise or Mel Anti-Semite Gibson!

I'd also like to bring back better horror movies and leave all this gore-porn behind. Plus ban movies by child molester Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers 1 & 2 and Powder - the man was convicted of molesting boys, he shouldn't be allowed to make movies, especially ones that have young boys in them.)

But I guess I'm just too weird for Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of the Mt. Rushmore of Universal monsters, don't forget the Invisible Man -- he's easily overlooked.
I just happened to have watched the original again last weekend. While it feels like a smaller film than his "Frankenstein" or "Bride of Frankenstein", director James Whale still infuses the goings-on with the trademark Universal atmosphere and his own black humor. And of course, there's Claude Rains (nearly) audio-only star-making turn as the titular "monster". Great stuff all around, and definitely a daddy (one of a handful) to our CftBL.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Geo--Last time I watched Invisible Man, I was shocked to be reminded that Rains really has the highest body count of any of the Universal Monsters, what with the train-wreckage and all. He's a mass murderer!

I'll definitely add Dr. Griffin to my Mt. Rushmore tatt--it won't even cost any extra! ;)


The Creature is one of the great ones and in a crazy way the film straddles the line between old school monster horror and sci fi (Much like the best of Lovecraft's work did)

I am not really sure what could be brought to the table with a remake of this film that hasn't been done elsewhere.

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