The Monster Mash: Creature from the Black Lagoon

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“There are many strange legends in the Amazon.”

The Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is the first new classic Universal monster we’ve discussed since 1941’s The Wolf Man. How does he hold up to the others? Well, the character is impressive. The ultimate movie? Not so much.

Based on a real myth producer William Alland heard during a Citizen Kane (1941) party, Creature follows a group of scientists on an expedition into the Amazon after the fossil of an ancient amphibian’s hand is discovered there. Our hero is Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), whose interests in the pursuit are purely academic. He’s joined by his girlfriend and colleague Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams); his old mentor Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno); his crazed, publicity-hungry boss, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning); and Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the crusty captain of the ship taking the team through the Amazon.

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Reed, Kay, Williams, and One-Scene McGee look at the hand fossil.

After some of Maia’s workers are found dead in their camp, the team soon finds out that a half-man, half-fish creature lives in an Amazon lagoon. The Gill-Man (played by Ben Chapman in above-water scenes and by Ricou Browning in the underwater scenes) has a fascination with Kay but otherwise doesn’t care for interlopers. He begins picking off the crew.

Reed wants to take photos of the creature to take back and show the world. Williams wants to bring the Gill-Man itself back, dead or alive. Obsessed with success, Williams will do anything to have the underwater monster. The team is in the Gill-Man’s domain, though, and it might be too much for any of them to handle.

Confession time: I’ve never been a big fan of Creature from the Black Lagoon. With the exception of Lucas, the characters have always been dry and uninteresting to me. The actors are all trying, but their characterization and line readings leave a lot to be desired.

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This looks impressive but isn’t terribly entertaining.

I should be interested in the expedition because it promises to uncover secrets of a bygone and ancient age. The whole adventure, however, just makes me feel like I’m reading one of those boring academic journals with its endless scientific dialogue. There’s potential for excitement, but Creature has a deliberately slow pace that doesn’t work in its favor. There are, at least, scenes of interest and beauty, like many of the underwater sequences. I can’t call them entertaining -they mainly consist of people slowly swimming around and almost being touched by the Gill-Man – merely impressive.

And I truly mean impressive. Creature has gorgeous mobile underwater camera work during a time when most, if not all, such scenes were shot with a static camera. Not only that, but it was produced during the brief 3D fad of the 1950s. 3D cameras were large and cumbersome. So getting the great footage that they did under these circumstances shouldn’t be underappreciated.

The Gill-Man design, costume, and performances (from both Chapman and Browning) are also impressive, authentic looking, and mesmerizing. The Gill-Man is not the most expressive of costumes, but Chapman and Browning never have a hard time communicating exactly what the creature is thinking and feeling.

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So I guess it comes down to this: I admire Creature, but I don’t like it all that much. It’s slow, dry, and not thrilling enough to sustain my interest. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but after two viewings, it’s the one I can’t help but hold.

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