Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954):
The Plot: A group of scientists looking for Science in the Amazonian jungle discover a prehistoric Gill-man living in a beautiful and mysterious lagoon. Their efforts to capture and study the creature go about as well as planned. Not well at all.
This is B-movies at their best. Creature from the Black Lagoon is better-made than most other sci-fi movies from the period. Actually, it’s better than most of the other classic Universal monster movies. Monster movies like Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein. With the exception of The Wolf Man, most of those films are pretty much just fun. Dracula, though great because of Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance, suffers from pacing problems. The Mummy is standard B-movie fare, although that’s still one of the best things ever. B-movies are great. Look forward to reading about more of them in October. Or the next time I find an ant in my room.
Creature and The Wolf Man—and let’s not forget Bride of Frankenstein—go further than that. The monsters in those films are misunderstood. The Wolf Man is cursed, victim to an uncontrollable savagery. That film is as much about Larry Talbot trying to stop the beast within as it is everyone else hunting a werewolf. Creature’s Gill-man is more human than you might think. He remembers when he’s been wronged, and reacts to that, seeking out the people who have hurt him. A few errant spear gun shots and a ton of sleeping chemicals may not seem like much, but things can escalate quickly.
But that’s what these movies are about, when they’re at their best. Finding the humanity in the monstrous. The Wolf Man isn’t just about a werewolf terrorizing some peasants; it’s about a good man trying to save the people he loves from this uncontrollable savagery. The scientists in Creature, even the one who kind of instigates everything, have good intentions. The Gill-man is only lashing out against people who have hurt him in the past. Except for the first two or three guys, but that was like a home invasion type thing. How would you like it if people started digging up your lagoon? That sounds like the kind of question that only one man can answer.
It’s not just the decision to portray the monster as more than just a monster that sets this film apart. While most of the characters are standard B-movie fare—heroic men in bathing suits(?), a sweet, innocent woman who is just really attractive to monsters—they’re written with a little more care than you might expect. The leading man (Richard Carlson) and leading lady (Julie Adams) are both dedicated scientists, more interested in studying rocks and plants than taking the prehistoric Gill-man from his home. I guess that’s par for the course as far as scientists go, but it’s refreshing to see movie scientists not being crazy and obsessed. They’re actually decent people, and not even just by 1950s standards, which it is now cool to hate on because of the whole amplified “misogyny” thing. Thanks, Mad Men. No, these scientists are people who would be considered decent even now. People who just don’t want to be dicks to this prehistoric thing whose lagoon they are invading. Now it sounds like they’re hippies. You take that back right now.
But what really makes this film a classic—on top of the misunderstood monster and the not-crazy scientists—is the wonderfully-maintained tension and some kickass underwater photography. Creature from the Black Lagoon is eerie and beautiful. Much like the jungle, or Crispin Glover. Dude what?
This is not a fast-paced movie. It was made in 1954, guys. But it just works. There are few movies that I could watch pretty much any time, and this is one of them. If you’re curious, some of the others are The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Great Mouse Detective, and the episode of The Simpsons with Hank Scorpio (Albert Brooks).
So should you watch this film? Absolutely. Don’t like black and white movies? It’ll broaden your cultural horizons. Don’t like this film? Well, we’re at kind of a weird point in our relationship then.
Anyway, it’s on Netflix Instant. So if you’re ever in the mood for some classic horror/sci-fi, check it out. It’s not so much scary as absolutely one of the best things ever.