Creature from the Black Lagoon
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I know I've mentioned in the past that the Universal Monsters films tend to follow a pretty consistent formula: heroes show up somewhere, monster arrives, heroes attack monster (whether provoked or not), monster goes after girl who came along with the heroes, and then the heroes kill the monster, put up "The End". People wanted to be scared by the "other", the monster of these movies, but they didn't want to have their ideas about good and evil, heroes and villains, shaken up too far.
Sometimes that formula works out pretty well -- the Spanish Dràcula was an early work that adapted nicely to the setup, and Frankenstein, by grace of also being an early movie in the whole cycle, managed to cast its "monster" as a tragic figure worth pitying. But as the films went on, and the idea of how a Universal Monsters film was supposed to work, the basic beats of the formula became very entrenched, whether it made for a good movie or not.
Creature from the Black Lagoon was a late entry in the Universal Monsters canon, creating a new monster based on the science of evolution instead of one based on a classic work of myth or fiction, but despite it's different origins this is, at it's core, a bog-standard film from the Universal cycle. It actually hurts the film a lot, though, as viewed through modern eyes the heroes of the film seems rather less than heroic and the monster doesn't really come across as evil, just confused. Audiences at the time seemed to lap it up, but this movie has not aged well, especially when viewed against the whole backdrop of all of these horror films, watched in quick succession. There are pleasures to be had in this film, to be sure, but the movie never breaks out of the mold, even at times where it really needed to.
When scientists find what appears to be the fossil of some new kind of life on a dig, the discovery leads a team of researchers -- Antonio Moreno's Dr. Carl Maia, Richard Denning's Dr. Mark Williams, Richard Carlson's Dr. David Reed along with David's girlfriend and research assistant Julie Adams's Kay Lawrence, and Whit Bissell's Dr. Edwin Thompson -- to head into the Amazon to the dig site to study the fossils and see what other evidence of this new life can be found. When they get to the site, though, they find more than they were expecting.
The fossil isn't the only sign of life at the dig site as, it turns out, there's an actual living version of this creature roaming around. This beast (known as the "Gill-Man" in production materials) looks like an aquatic humanoid, like a merman all covered in scales. The men of the expedition all immediately shoot at the creature the second they see him, fearing what he might be. Only later do they think that maybe they shouldn't kill it but instead capture it for study, but by then the beast is already mad and distrustful of the humans. And then it catches sight of Kate and suddenly the Gil-Man (played by Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning underwater) has a woman to obsess over while the expedition tries to stop the monster from getting the object of his desire.
There are shades of King Kong in Creature from the Black Lagoon -- a monster living out in the middle of nowhere, found by humans who seek to capture and study it, only for the monster fall from the one woman on the expedition -- but where Kong cast it's ape as a tragic figure, one pulled from his own territory, afraid and angry, Creature has none of that same sympathy for its gilled critter. The humans don't think of the Gil-Man as human in any capacity, instead opting to shoot first and maybe think about the consequences later. For scientists they're surprisingly trigger happy which ruins the idea that they're the heroes of the piece.
In fact, of all the characters I found myself siding with the Creature most of the time. These pale, non-scaled creatures come to his lagoon, make a lot of noise, attack him when he gets curious, and then go out of their way to try and kill him over and over again. Meanwhile, the creature seems to have no mate, finds a woman that might tickle his fancy, and uses his guile and dominance to make her his. By the rules he knows, all of this is how it should be. It's not fair that these white men have their own imperialistic views of right and wrong they apply to the Amazon.
Really, I'm just annoyed the movie took a simplistic, black and white view of their creature. The heroes aren't heroic, just greedy and out for fame, and no matter how much the film tries to dress them up as anything else, like giving one of the expedition leaders a sweet girlfriend who plays ride-along with this whole affair, it doesn't really shift the idea that they're macho-male white guys taming the "savage" land. Hell, the fact that the only woman on the expedition isn't even a scientist (when all the other main characters have doctorates), and doesn't get to participate in the actual expedition (remaining simply a damsel in distress) certainly doesn't help the film's dynamics at all.
What makes the film at all watchable, really, is the creature itself, a fantastic costume for the era that really colors the film. The Gil-Man getup is awesome, especially with Chapman in the costume, gasping for air as he stumbles around on land. The Gil-Man is iconic in his own way even if the film really struggles to give him anything to do, and there's a reason this creature went on to have two more films in his series (as well as an Abbott and Costello comedy special) -- there's something fascinating about his look and style.
It would have been nice if the film could have done more with this creature. It's hard to make a beast that can't speak, and looks so alien, into an emotive and compelling creature. Universal was able to do it for Frankenstein's Monster, and for Kong as well, so it's not as if it was beyond the studio to do it here. But the formula wouldn't let them, if the producers were even willing to do so. The Gil-Man can be interesting, even heroic (as The Shape of Water proved decades later), but here, in Creature from the Black Lagoon, the film has too narrow of a focus to pull it off. There's a great creature here but the movie largely squanders it in basic monster fare.