DECEMBER 7 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
1954 was a great year for monster movies. The giant bug film was introduced with Them! and the Land of the Rising Sun gave the world an international icon with the film Gojira (aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters). In 1954, Universal studios brought the movie going public Creature from the Black Lagoon. This film was a sensation and put the Gillman alongside Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the Mummy in the pantheon of classic Universal Monsters. The Creature is the greatest monster of a decade filled with monsters. He outshines his irradiated and overgrown brethren because there was the slightest bit of humanity in him. He lusts, he is cunning, and he feels pain. He is an animal on the brink of becoming something more. The Gillman’s story is one of the finest fantasy films ever made. Creature from the Black Lagoon is a true motion picture masterpiece of the monstrous.
In the heart of the Amazonian rain forest, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) uncovers a most unusual fossil. It has five fingers arranged much like a human hand, but it sports webbing and claws that suggest a marine predator. Dr. Maia assembles a team of scientists to journey to the fabled Black Lagoon in search of more fossils. Amongst the team are Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), and Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissel).
Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the captain of the Rita (their chartered riverboat), tells them the story of the aquatic monster that stalks the Black Lagoon. When Dr. Maia returns to his camp he finds that some savage beast has slaughtered his assistants. Later the team discovers that the legend of the half-man half-fish monster is indeed true. The beast stalks the crew of the Rita. The Creature comes aboard the boat and attacks. The ambitious and ruthless Dr. Williams wants to stay in the Black Lagoon to capture the Gillman. Being the levelheaded 1950’s hero that he is, Dr. Reed pleads to leave the lagoon and the Creature. There is much tension between the two young scientists over the love of Kay. The Creature also finds Kay quite the “catch.” The Creature is apprehended through the use of Rotenone (a poison used to catch fish) and is imprisoned.
The cage doesn’t hold the Gillman for long though, he escapes and seriously injures Dr. Thompson. Lucas decides to turn his boat around and leave, but the Creature has blocked the waterway leading into the lagoon with a log. Underwater, Dr. Williams and Dr. Reed attempt to remove the log but the Creature sees them. A fight breaks out and the Creature kills Williams. Using the Rotenone on the beast, David is able to remove the log. That night, the Creature comes aboard the ship and grabs Kay, taking her into his cave. Dr. Reed, Lucas, and Dr. Maia track the Gillman to his subterranean cave. The Creature is shot and stumbles to the water. He sinks into the blackness of the lagoon. The last relic of the Devonian age is dead… or so it would seem.
The Creature would return for two more films, each of declining quality. Revenge of the Creature is a fun atomic age romp with John Agar battling the Gillman who escaped from a Floridian aquarium. The Creature Walks Among Us is a real stinker of a film that has two bonehead scientists turn the Creature into a more human-like monstrosity. Of the two sequels, Revenge of the Creature is most definitely the strongest due in large part to the craftsmanship of returning director Jack Arnold.
Jack Arnold, the James Whale of the 1950s, directed Creature from the Black Lagoon, along with most of Universal International’s best films of the 50’s. This film is Arnold’s Magnum Opus. Arnold gives the story a sense of tension. He shows us the Creatures monstrous claw first; leaving us to imagine what kind of demon is attached to it. The booming score (by Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein) helps flesh out the anxiety of the film. The viewer, like the characters, lies in dread of the Creature’s return. Arnold successfully plays on one of mankind’s greatest collective fears: fear of the unknown. By using an underwater monster he tapped into one of the most common manifestations of this fear, which is fear of the deep. The obsidian waters of the Black Lagoon are the unknown and the Gillman is the horror that springs from it.
Fear of the unknown is a common theme of fantastic films of the decade. Creature from the Black Lagoon is a 50s monster film, yet it also has many qualities that link it to the horror films of earlier decades. As in movies like Dracula and King Kong, the Creature has a strange attraction to the heroine. When the Creature silently stalks Julie Adams as she swims, it is a scene of monochromatic beauty that would seem more at home in a Universal film of the 30s or a Val Lewton film of the 40s. The Creature, unlike many of his Atom Age peers, is not a towering beast. He’s big, but Tokyo need not evacuate. His size distinguishes him from monsters like Godzilla or The Deadly Mantis, but his scales and gills distinguish him from monsters like the Wolf Man or Mr. Hyde. He is a mixture of the more man-like monsters of the thirties and forties and the inhuman beasties of the fifties. Another thing that sets the Gillman apart is his origins. He is not an atomic mutant nor was he awakened by an atomic bomb. Nor is he trying to take over the earth. Like I said earlier the Creature represents fear of the unknown, a much broader fear than bombs or Marxists. America was in a decade of uncertainty. The threat of nuclear war hung over our heads. The United States was afraid of being infiltrated by the seemingly emotionless enemy of international Communism. While the Creature doesn’t openly represent either atomic devastation or the Soviet threat he represents the trepidation that these things brought to us. The world was a mysterious place filled with dangerous new technologies and enemies. Earth had become a “Black Lagoon” filled with monsters that could at any time leap out of the darkness and attack us.
No matter what the symbolic significance of the Gillman is, he will always remain one hell of a monster. Producer William Alland had heard an obscure South American legend about a swamp monster that was often described as an amalgamation of a turtle fish, alligator, and a human. Alland told Bud Westmore, Universal International’s head of make up, that he would deliver a script once the aquatic monster was constructed. The basic design of the monster had its origins in an unlikely place. Jack Arnold was nominated for an Academy Award (1950s Best Documentary, With These Hands) and received a certificate with an Oscar on it. He envisioned what the award would look like with gills, claws, and scales. Westmore, Jack Kevan, Bob Hickman, and Chris Nueller went to work on making the the monster a reality.
The Creature’s facial features were based on a frog’s, complete with pulsating jowl. The monster was given a pair of crustacean-like claws and a large mechanical tail, but these features were deleted because they would have seriously interfered with the underwater scenes. When the make up team had finished, they had produced one of the finest looking monsters in cinematic history. Excellence doesn’t come cheap. The total cost of the Creature was $12,000.
The actors that brought the Creature to life were Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning. Glenn Strange was originally considered because he was the only recognizable horror actor that could play part. He declined because of the intense underwater scenes. Ben Chapman was a tall ex-marine who donned the Gillman suit for the scenes of the Creature above water. Ricou Browning was a professional diver who was to portray the Creature in the underwater scenes. A special underwater suit was made for Browning that was much lighter in coloration than the land suit.
The “human” cast of Creature from the Black Lagoon is top notch as well. Richard Carlson (who also worked with Arnold in It Came From Outer Space) gives the screen one of the best portrayals of a 50’s sci-fi hero. Richard Denning (hero of the big bug classic The Black Scorpion) is the highlight of the cast as the greedy and misguided Dr. Williams. The scenes between Carlson and Denning bring even more tension to a film that is dripping with it. Julie Adams was one of the sexiest “damsels in distress” of the genre. You can see why Dr. Reed, Dr. Williams, and the Creature were all fighting over her. Nestor Paiva (Lucas) was one of the greatest B-movie supporting actors in history. He gave memorable performances in such films as Tarantula, The Mole People, and the infamous They Saved Hitler’s Brain.
The Gillman from Jack Arnold’s masterpiece Creature from the Black Lagoon represents an organism stuck between one form of life and an other. He is mostly a creature of the deep, yet he can freely move on land with two legs. The Creature also represents a being that is trapped between two sub-genres, the classic horror film and the prehistoric monster movie. It could even be argued that the amphibious monstrosity could represent the times that he was born out of. Times where America was in a transitional state between one period of its history and the next. We had left the primordial ooze of global conflict and entered a world that was frightening and alien to us. Like the crew of the Rita we sailed into troubled territory and did not know what would be lurking in the blackness.
Sources: Classic Movie Monsters by Donald F. Glut
The Internet Movie Database- http://www.imdb.com
For whatever ludicrous reason, neither Ricou Browning (underwater) nor Ben Chapman (above water) were credited for their performances as the titular monster.
Browning would have to hold his breath for up to four minutes at a time, as the costume was not built with an air tank.
Chapman insists that he was the real Creature, and that Browning was his underwater stuntman.
DECEMBER 7 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
A Marc Routh production of a Universal Studios Hollywood presentation of a musical in one act with book by Jonathan Tolins, from the motion picture "Creature From the Black Lagoon." Music by Fred Barton. Additional music by Peter Fish. Lyrics by Barton, Fish, Ross Osterman, Gerard Alessandrini. Directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett.
Creature - Matthew Ferrell, James Royce Edwards, Grant Rosen, Todd Fournier Kay - Sandra Del Castillo, Katrina Lenk, Seana Harris, Andi Gibson David - Marc Dugan-Oka Mark - Chad Borden Captina Miranda - Orgena Rose, Marie Kelly, Rende Rae Norman, Maia Rodriquez
Recipe for distilling 1954's 80-minute fishy horror yarn "Creature From the Black Lagoon" into a 30-minute Universal Studios theme park show: Trim off everything but the big action setpieces; liberally douse with spectacle and volume; and marinate thoroughly in great swaths of camp. Step two is the most successful by far -- "Creature" really is an eye- and earful -- while step three is cause for carping as the story slithers into a silly swamp.
The A-list talent team led by designer James Youmans creates a magical, star-filled Amazon environment as the feisty craft Rita skims along and rises with the tide, its doughty scientific team seeking living evidence of a prehistoric missing-link "gill man." Proof isn't long in coming as Gil (Matthew Ferrell at the perf reviewed; most roles are multicast) shows up to sniff around, now bespangled and sporting dreadlocks instead of vines but otherwise the classic marine menace.
Paul Rubin's lyrical re-creation of the underwater pas de deux between Gil and va-va-voom ichthyologist Kay (Sandra Del Castillo) brings out pic's Freudian undertones (all that water and those longing looks), beauty and beast suspended from moving tracks in an eye-popping exhibition of sexy synchronized swimming.
Matters rested there in 1954, but in 2009 things evidently have to get dopey. After initially bleating like a constipated Scooby-Doo, Gil suddenly grabs a mic to blast out heavy metal anthem "Prime Evil." (The heavily miked tunes pulsate, while the lyrics, befitting the pedigree of "Forbidden Broadway's" Gerard Alessandrini and Fred Barton, are clever to those who can make them out.)
Then the "tall, dark and salmon" Gil (to quote one of librettist Jonathan Tolins' better gags) drags Kay down to his undersea grotto for a "Phantom"-like rendezvous.
You can't blame her for accepting, what with nerdy b.f. David (Marc Dugan-Oka) and preening blond rival Mark (Chad Borden) stripping down to hot pants to become screaming Nellies that make Bruno seem butch. Along with Kay's brazen vapidity, this trafficking in stereotypes seems oh-so-retro (dismaying from the progressive author of "Twilight of the Golds"), and while it may rock a liquored-up midnight house, it didn't seem to grab the families at 4 p.m. on a Saturday.
In any event, Gil's encounter with Mark's manhood-enlargement cream wraps things up a la "Little Shop of Horrors," one horror tuner that managed to skirt the boundary of camp without crossing into it.
Helmer-choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett earns kudos for the clever jungle dances and visual ping, while taking the rap for outrageousness run rampant. You don't expect depth, but you'd like to root for those in a pickle, and that's just tough to do.
Sets, James Youmans; costumes, Fabio Toblini; lighting, Tom Ruzika; sound, Philip G. Allen; creature and puppets, Michael Curry; fly sequence, Paul Rubin; projections, Michael Carone, musical director, Michael Kevin Farrell. Opened July 1, 2009; reviewed July 11.
Running time: 30 MIN.
With: Jay Tapaoan, Ray Garcia. Musical Numbers: "Black Lagoon," "Slay Me," "Prime Evil," "Strange New Hunger."
DECEMBER 7 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
Thanks to IMAX, 3-D has returned. Most movies released today will throw-in 3-D effects after the fact just to get a little extra cash. The studios often come off as being opportunistic and do very little with the enhancement.
Christopher Nolan is one movie-maker who illustrates the art that can be made when a creative mind meets the entertainment technology of the 21st Century. But whether or not 3-D has any real staying power remains to be seen. Well-respected movie critic Roger Ebert considers it a "juvenile abomination."
As part of the Buffalo International Film Festival, Saturday night guests of the North Park theater were treated to a special 3-D showing of the Universal-International classic, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This particular monster was the last in a long line of on-screen icons including (but not limited to): Karloff's Frankenstein, Lugosi's Dracula, Rains' Invisible Man, Lanchester's Bride, Cheney Sr.'s Phantom, and Cheney Jr.'s Wolf Man. As with many of the filmsfrom that era, it hasn't aged well but is still entertaining.
The plot of the film centers around an Amazonian expedition in search of pre-historic fossils and rocks. When the hand of an ancient creature is discovered, more scientists are brought in to search the area. During their investigation they are hunted by an mysterious monster. The whole film feels like a South American version of Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World.
As stated earlier, the film hasn't aged well. In design, the Gill-man suit looks amazing in a pre-H.R. Giger fashion. In the underwater shots, it has a majestic nature to it, a credit to Ricou Browning, the actor who played the creature in the underwater segments. Sadly, its overall execution is similar to the many monsters in Roger Corman films. The monster is creepy in shadow, but is not scary in direct light.
As for the 3-D, it was a little irritating. It may have been my personal problem since I was wearing my prescription eyeglasses with the 3-D glasses over them. When there was a reel change two-third's of the way through the film, it was a welcomed break to remove them for a minute. Without the break, I may not have lasted throughout the rest of the showing. However, the effects of the 3-D were amazing. Feeling as though fish were swimming out of the screen or that debris from an explosion was actually flying at you made for great fun with the old school anaglyph 3-D.
This marked my first visit to North Park and it is a truly remarkable theater. Built in the 1920s, it had an old-time feel and viewing an older presentation like Creature from the Black Lagoon felt like a natural fit.
I am particularly interested in the Grindhouse Matinee next week featuring Evil Dead and a reel of trailers by editor Bob Murawski (The Hurt Locker). On a side note, I heard Bob Murawski mentioned as the editor of Evil Dead. I'm sure Murawski was involved with restoration, but it was originally Joel Coen of the Coen Brothers who had edited Evil Dead. I digress.
The turn-out for the showing of Creature at the North Park was very much a success. Some devoted fans came dressed as the Creature and people had fun supporting local mom-and-pop theaters, which was the aim of BIFF. Kudos to the moviegoers.
DECEMBER 7 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
At long last, Universal Studios has sprung its monsters loose with newly released DVD versions. One of the most pleasing is the amphibious Creature from the Black Lagoon of 1953. The plot sounds like many other old monster movie scenarios that come from the basic "beauty and the beast" theme—all tracing their roots directly to the classic 1933 King Kong, where the giant ape first pursued and captured a screaming Fay Wray.
Director Jack Arnold (It Came from Outer Space) even pays subtle homage to the lustful Kong with some underwater fondling of Julie Adams' feet during a classic sequence that includes synchronized swimming (and camera views of kicking legs that look remarkably similar to shots that Spielberg later used in Jaws).
Scientists have run across a new mysterious fossil and hear legends indicating that some Devonian Period monster may still lurk in hidden regions of the Amazon. Early glimpses of the creature's claw confirm the legend, and before long the Gill-man attacks members of the scientific expedition led by David Reed (Richard Carlson). Reed and fiancee Kay (Julie Adams) represent the good scientists, who only seek to discover the mysteries of creation. Contrasted with the pure scientists is Mark Williams (Richard Denning), who only wants to bring back a unique specimen for fame and money. It doesn't matter to him whether the creature is dead or alive.
The humanoid, fishlike creature is remarkably well designed and creepy by 50s standards, made mostly of rubber without the �benefit� of modern CGI and other special effects. Especially amazing are rubber-suited Ricoh Browning's realistic underwater swimming as the monster without the use of aqua lungs (he used a breathing hose). Like Kong, the Gill man manages to gain audience sympathy�after all, he's only defending his turf and falls for the beautiful Kay.
It�s the humans who refuse to act logically. They follow the tributary to the pristine Black Lagoon, from which no man has ever returned, according to legend. Despite stories about man-eating nine-foot-long catfish, the two scientists go diving for specimens. Even more incredulously, Kay later strips down to her bathing suit and jumps in Esther Williams-style, attracting the attention of the creature. So who can blame the gill man for his pursuit?
Originally filmed in 3-D, look for scenes that take advantage of this format to cause audiences to jump, but you'll have to use your imagination since the VHS and DVD releases don�t retain the 3-D feature (and few would want to use those old glasses for a couple of effects).
Unless you�re a child, the monster and his trademark three-note musical theme probably won�t cause any nightmares in light of far bloodier and gorier fare that took off in the 1980s. But this classic still satisfies. Credit director Jack Arnold for adding another excellent project to his resume of strong science fiction/monster films from the 1950s, the best of which is The Incredible Shrinking Man. Even though Creature from the Black Lagoon doesn't explore the same philosophical ground as that classic, instead relying on the standard "beauty and the beast" motif, the film works well and continues to hold up.
For one thing, the 80-minute running time paces the film rapidly enough for modern viewers to avoid tedium. Film geeks will appreciate the pioneering underwater photography, with cinematographer Charles Welbourne getting away from the standard static camera and using a portable moving camera that follows the swimmers wonderfully. Even thought the film is shot in black and white, the artistic use of shadows and light beneath the waters mesmerized.
But the definite highlight remains the amphibious gilled creature itself, remarkably lithe and agile in the water yet slow moving on land, with deadly claws to crush horrified victims yet gentle enough to protect the beautiful woman he desires. Just ask anyone who's seen this early 50s B-grade movie, and they are almost certain to remark, "Cool creature!"
Note: Universal's August, 2001 DVD release contains special features that includes interview footage with the still living major actors and a very detailed commentary by film historian Tom Weaver that contains lots of trivia—he'll note the different shooting locations, an anachronistically placed telephone pole in the Amazon, and tell a few stories that will interest (like how the head make-up guy at Universal took credit for the monster's design when he actually had very little to do with it). Weaver must have thoroughly prepared for his commentary since he talks non-stop throughout the film. Listening to him once will be enough though—I'll just watch the film without his overindulgent fanboy commentary in future viewings.