The titular Creature was the last of the iconic Universal Monsters; maybe even the last American horror movie icon until the slashers of the late 70’s. The Universal Monster Industrial Complex had continued to crank out product, but this was the first film since 1941 that did not recycle classic characters, or feature new ones that just did not catch on.
It is also the first big one that feels like it takes place in our world. Although it takes place in the Amazon, the main characters are Americans; it is not tied by setting or myth to Europe; and the technology is state-of-the-art 1954.
It does, however, retain the concept of the sympathetic creature. Even as the creature is menacing Julie Adams, it is tough not to feel for him. We are, after all, on his turf (or, more accurately, surf and turf as he is amphibian). He seems to be alone; a sentient being, a million years out of time. Plus, just so damn ugly. When he is shot with the spear gun, you are really rooting for him.
Carl Maia discovers a fossilized hand sticking out of a cliff wall. Because he is a geologist, Maia consults with his former student David Reed who is an ichthyologist. Although why a fish doctor was trained by a rock doctor is not explained. And why call a fish doctor anyway since I can’t imagine hands being raised much in his class except to go to the restroom. I guess Maia had no anthropology students.
Maia and Reed charter The Rita to investigate the site of the fossil. They are joined by Reed’s boss Mark Williams and his — ahem — Kay Lawrence. It is never clear what Kay’s role is. She is Reed’s girlfriend, but seems to also be a colleague despite making no contribution. But the same could be said of Whit Bissell’s character.
You really want to catch Julie Adams at the right angle. Sometimes she would be fairly plain. Other times, especially when smiling, she could be beautiful. At all times, though, she radiates a tremendously warm, likable aura, and looks very snappy in each of her 15 costume changes; this woman packs more cruise-wear than Ginger Grant. Sadly, Reed and Williams spend more time in shorty-shorts than Kay does; but she does have that iconic white bathing suit. In one scene.
The group discovers what we already witnessed — Maia’s men are dead and the camp has been trashed. Kay waits on the dock where we get our first glance at the monster — or at least one webbed hand. He makes a slow grab for Kay’s well-turned ankle, accompanied by his signature 3-tone brass band stinger.
They find nothing more at the first site and decide to travel up river to the titular Black Lagoon for answers. Reed tells Kay that this area is just as it was 150 million years ago in the Devonian period. Unfortunately, the Devonian period ended 360 million years ago; a buck-fifty only gets you back to the Jurassic. Are we sure this Maia guy is really a teacher?
Meanwhile, back at the lagoon, Williams has brought out a weapon that we know will be used soon due to the rule of Chekhov’s Spear-Gun. He and Reed put on Scuba gear and dive to check out the flora, fauna, rocks and fossils. For a place called Black Lagoon, the water is pretty clear.
Some people seem to have a problem with the amount of swimming in this movie. Maybe it is padding out the time a little, but it really is pretty entrancing. How often do you really see people in this environment, moving gracefully like they are flying? And there are long takes, not a flurry of CGI with .5-second cuts that send you into an epileptic fit. Someone is actually doing this, and you can empathize with them as a human being. The clear water combined with the great B&W cinematography make these scenes hypnotic.
25 minutes into the film, we get our first glimpse of the Creature. He is able to avoid the 2 men, but we get a good sense of what he is.
Not being aware of the Creature below, Kay goes for swim. With all the alligators, leeches, piranhas, and those little fish that crawl up your urinary tract, she is still insane to dive in. Again with the swimming! But with an added attraction this time; actually two attractions. No, not those two.
Kay herself is the first attraction, certainly more-so than the dudes. She even manages to work a few Cirque du Soleil moves into her swim. Secondly, the Creature is not just hiding this time, he is shadowing her, mimicking her moves just below. As she swims on the surface, he swims belly-up just inches beneath her. Again, there is that graceful feeling of flying, in this case like that scene in Top Gun.
As he reaches out for her ankle — for the second time now — the men-folk realize she is 100 yards out and panic. They move the boat toward her and she swims to meet it. She gets safely on board, but the boat is rocked. The Creature is caught in the fishing net, but when it is hauled aboard, it is torn apart with only a Lee Press-On Claw left behind.
The men again take to the water in pursuit; Williams with his spear-gun, and this time Reed takes a camera the size of a Volkswagen. Williams does get a spear into the creature, but it is still able to out-swim them and dive into a crevasse. Back on the boat, Reed is disappointed that he only got one shot and the Creature is not in it.
Of course, the Creature does eventually get his webbed hands on Kay and dives with her down to his grotto. There is more death and destruction, but not enough to preclude 2 sequels.
I appreciated that this film, more than the other Universal Classics, got out of the sound-stage. Despite a few really bad rear-projections, it is obvious that much time was spent on a real boat, and underwater. Overall, a very good watch. The Blu-Ray has a few grainy scenes, but was mostly excellent. I will enjoy watching this again some time without having to take notes.
I rate it 17,000 out of 20,000 leagues under the sea.
- That grotto was strange. The Creature dove 50 feet down to it, but there seemed to be a rear-entrance at ground level. There was even a bat in there. Not impossible, just pretty convenient for the script.
- Also convenient but not impossible: A exposed fossilized hand sticking out of the side of a cliff.
- Julie Adams has a huge resume, but she never appeared on my radar until she showed up in an episode of Lost in 2006.
- We are currently in the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era. Will there ever be a scientist deciding, “That’s it, Quaternary is over. We’re in the [whatever’s next] starting tomorrow.”
- An intricate analysis of why Ginger and the other castaways had so many clothes is at the bottom of this page. And here is a lengthy, persuasive case for Ginger over Mary Anne.
- The Creature was played by one guy on land, and a different guy in the water. I understand maybe the land-guy couldn’t swim, but could the water-guy not walk? Probably a union thing.