Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

creaturecover01The 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.

20140531_155057The 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.

20140531_155446aNot 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.

20140531_160828As 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.

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • 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.

The Wolf Man (1941)

cover01I have been working my way through the Universal Classic Monsters Collection for a while.  All of these characters are iconic, and every American seems to have been born knowing them.  However, I realized that I could not recall seeing a single one of the full movies.

Certainly I’ve had the time — my God, the years, the years!  But also the minutes — so far they are all clocking in at the 70-75 minute mark.

More importantly, they are also similar in that their characters did not ask to be in this position and often command our sympathy.  They aren’t like Hitler waking up in the morning deciding to be evil.  Dracula was bitten by a bat, Franko & wife were sewn together by a mad doctor,  the Mummy was revived by an old old scroll, the Wolf Man was actually trying to save a woman from a wolf, and the Invisible Man . . . well, he worked for a pharmaceutical company, so the hell with him.

It is also surprising how little they are in their own movies.  The Bride only appears in the last couple of minutes, the Mummy loses the famous bandages almost immediately, and Frankenstein and Dracula both drag when their namesakes are too-often MIA.  The Wolf Man is also used sparingly.  In original drafts of the script, he was shown even less, it being left to the viewer whether he even existed. Maybe Universal was on to something, using the less-is-more technique it took Spielberg 20 years to rediscover (in another Universal joint).

Larry Talbott goes back to his family home for the first time in 18 years as his brother has fortuitously died in a hunting accident.  Due to the kind of crazy European thinking that leads Downton Abbey to near-calamity every season, he now stands to inherit the entire estate rather than approximately squat.  Thankfully, he had the good sense to be in America at the time, providing a firm alibi.

talbot01The Universal Monster pictures liked to use the same stock players and directors frequently.  Here we are seeing several actors from Dracula, The Invisible Man and The Mummy again.  No complaint on that except that no one could possibly believe Lon Chaney is the son of Claude Rains.  Was his childhood milkman possibly seven feet tall?

Now that dad acknowledges Larry’s existence again (since the first-born son — the preferred one, the “real” Talbot who should have carried on the family name and fortune — was tragically cut down in his prime) they get along well.  Dad takes him upstairs to the attic where he has installed a large telescope.  It is, apparently, a progenitor of Google Earth as it can also observe from street-level POV despite being in the top of a castle.  After Dad leaves the room, Larry like any good son, points the telescope in some chick’s bedroom window.  What a scamp.

Having been warped by his years in America, he then thinks the reasonable thing to do is to go to the woman’s job.  And tell her he want to buy earrings like the ones on the table in her bedroom.  He ends up buying a silver-handled cane, then commences some of the worst flirting every captured on film.  But it seems to work as he ends up going out with her and her friend Jenny that night.

Jenny has her palm read by a fortune teller played by Bela Lugosi.  Having been typecast as Dracula, he is now reclaiming his identity by playing a character also named Bela.  He sees a pentagram in Jenny’s palm which tells us that 1) she is doomed, and 2) Bela is a werewolf (as they are never called wolf men in the movie).  Bela scares her off, and she goes running into the woods.

Sure enough, Bela turns into a wolf, and pursues Jenny.  Her screams draw Larry who grabs the wolf and wrestles him to the ground.  He then uses the silver-handled can to beat it to death.  But not before he is bitten by the wolf.  It is never explained why Bela turns into a wolf, and Larry turns into a Wolf Man.

Jenny’s body is found, and Bela’s is nearby.  He has no shoes on, but is otherwise clothed.  Sadly we did not get a good enough look at the wolf to see if he was wearing clothes.  Larry’s cane is also found, making him a suspect

Larry sees Gwen and her boyfriend at the travelling show where a woman is dancing for the money they’d throw.  Fortunately the Gypsy dancing was not Maria Ouspenskaya, an ancient Gypsy woman who tells Larry the truth about Bela and himself.  She gives him a charm to stop him from going all wolfy.  Too bad she did not offer this to Bela during their eons together.

wolf01Larry should have hung on to the charm himself as he does turn into the titular Wolf Man that night.  And so the game is afoot.  A pretty hairy foot, as the transformation is shown to start from the toes and go up.

Another good entry from the Universal collection.  For a monster that was not rooted in literature, this movie firmly established the Wolf Man as one of the Mount Rushmore figures of horror.  This title is one of the better quality Blu-Rays in the collection.  Well-shot and atmospheric in its source, it is amazingly clean and grain-free.

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • Yes, I know the monster’s name was not Frankenstein.  Shut up.
  • The constable is played by Ralph Bellamy.  While most of these players never survived (literally) to the color era, he went on to be in many movies including major roles in Trading Places and Pretty Woman.
  • In IMDb, director George Waggner is credited on many projects as george waGGner.
  • The 2010 remake made Wolfman one word.  Who says Hollywood has no new ideas.