Friday, July 3, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) 
Directed by: Jack Arnold.
Written by: Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross and Maurice Zimm. 
Starring: Richard Carlson (David Reed), Julie Adams (Kay Lawrence), Richard Denning (Mark Williams), Antonio Moreno (Carl Maia), Nestor Paiva (Lucas), Whit Bissell (Dr. Thompson), Bernie Gozier (Zee), Henry A. Escalante (Chico), Ricou Browning (The Gill Man - in water), Ben Chapman (The Gill Man - on land), Art Gilmore (Narrator), Perry Lopez (Tomas), Sydney Mason (Dr. Matos), Rodd Redwing (Louis - Expedition Foreman).
There are a few reasons why Creature from the Black Lagoon has survived so many years – and is still watched nearly 70 years after it came out, even as its special effects now look amateurish, and the acting and writing probably always did. The Creature aka Gill Man was the last addition to Universal Monsters – the lineup from the 1930s that including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Invisible Man – coming out decades after those films, which at the time, were being rediscovered by newer audiences on TV. So perhaps, the movie was in part a cynical ploy to cash in on some intellectual property that Universal already owned. But that doesn’t explain why the film continues to be watched – and enjoyed all these years later.
For that, you have to watch the brilliant underwater sequences in the film – which remain stunning all these later. A group of researchers head deeper into the amazon, searching for more fossils of a creature once a fossil of its hands was found – never dreaming that a still living, breathing example was still alive down here. The lone woman in the group – Kay (Julie Adams) decides, stupidly, to go from a swim in the black lagoon. As she glides along the surface, we see the creature swimming beneath her. The camera cuts back and forth between her on the surface, him underneath – and most beautifully, with the two of them swimming together – the creature knowing it, Kay not. It’s a sequence that is incredibly creepy of course – the monster could attack at any moment. But it’s also beautiful – almost serene. You can see how someone like Guillermo Del Toro could watch this movie, and be inspired to make The Shape of Water – essentially turning it into a love story. That underwater sequence is brilliant – and most of the rest of them are as well. They remain stunning to look at all these years later.
The film was directed by Jack Arnold, and in addition to those underwater sequences – the biggest thing the direction does here is slowly increase the tension and sense of dread in the movie. It is a movie that builds slowly for a 78-minute creature feature, but that tension serves the movie well. The creature only gradually reveals himself – and then still moves slowly, deliberately. For a movie about a man in a giant rubber suit, it is amazing how much tension the film generates.
When the movie isn’t underwater, or isn’t deliberately building tension – meaning when it focuses on its human characters, its nowhere near as good. The characters are basically stale archetypes – and even if Julie Adams’ Kay is supposed to be a researcher herself, she is basically spoken to as if she was a child, by everyone on board the ship. The dialogue is wooden and stale – and you really don’t care about the various people other than a Gill Man fodder.
Still, its remarkable how well this film works all these years later. Yes, its easy to snicker at the special effects – or lack thereof – here. But taken on its own terms, the film works remarkably well. It’s still tension filled and beautiful all these years later.

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