THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954, dir. Jack Arnold)

(Source: Daily Grindhouse.)
(Source: Daily Grindhouse.)

An attractive woman goes for a swim. She’s a part of a scientific river expedition into the Amazon. And unbeknownst to her, she is being stalked, under the surface, by an amphibious humanoid.

It weird to think that such a scene premise could seem boilerplate. But after decades of sci-fi and horror cinema, it has. In fact, the same basic situation is the famous opening sequence of Jaws. Yet, when I recently saw The Creature From the Black Lagoon in 35mm and anaglyphic 3D at the New Beverly Cinema with a good-sized crowd, the movie’s depiction of the scene felt archetypal and atavistic. It still had an effect.

Granted, the crowd I was with reacted to the beginning of the movie, with its po-faced script and tone, as if they were on a fucking safari for sincerity.[1] It was a case of Condescending Viewership, a practice that I’ve described elsewhere, that I had to grin and bear.

nola.com
The Gill-Man cometh. (Source: Nola.com)

But when the film’s monster, the Gill-Man, appears in the movie, the audience laughed less. Likewise, as the plot proceeded into a situation in which humans are pitted against a super/natural entity in a way that was influential on juiced-up B-movies like Jaws, Alien and Predator, the film commanded almost everyone in the theater. The movie still has green, scale-y legs.

Creature gets around what was labeled in Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value as “The Monster Problem” —that many creature features are stymied when a phony-looking creature shows up– by having a very compelling beast at the center of it. Designed by animator Millicent Patrick—who didn’t receive credit for her work for years due to the behest of makeup artist Bud Westmore (ugh men)—and constructed by Jack Kevan and Chris Mueller Jr., the Gill-Man is my favorite of the Universal Monsters. It rides the line between amphibian and anthropomorphic to such a strange degree that, even if it does look fake, it still has some power over your subconscious. This probably has something to do with how in the recesses of our mind, there has to be a primordial memory of when we humans were like the Gill-Man in all of his missing-link-ness.

Milicent Patrick, whom, appropriately, looks like someone The Gill-Man would lasciviously stalk. (Source: Vintage Horror.com)
Milicent Patrick, whom appropriately looks like someone The Gill-Man would lasciviously stalk. (Source: Vintage Horror.com)

Another reason why the Gill-Man works so well: it’s uncanny when you see him in his element, swimming. First, the underwater photography by James Curtis Havens and Scott Welbourne is superb; the camera follows and frames figures/action in an immediate yet exacting manner despite the difficult conditions. Furthermore, the lighting– something that was a matter of finding an aquatic location that had enough underwater photogenic translucence and controlling natural and/or artificial light above the surface– feels documental yet shimmering and perfect.

Browing with (presumably) Havens and Welbourne.(Source: CinematicThoughts.blogspot.)
Browing with (presumably) Havens and Welbourne.(Source: CinematicThoughts.blogspot.)

And then there’s the sheer athleticism of Ricou Browning, the man who performed as the Gill-Man underwater. (Ben Chapman played him on land.) Browning swam underwater in a full body suit, wearing a mask, holding his breathe for extended periods of time, synchronizing himself with other performers and the cameramen in order to get the blocking right, and behaving/moving in a way that is unusual and specific to The Gill-Man. All things considered, it is a Herculean—or better yet, “Poseidian”—performance feat.

Just consider the scene I referenced at the start (which you can watch above.) It’s a nearly [2] perfect combination of cinematic form and performance, and the effect is transfixing but somewhat perverse. What you are watching is a cryptid stalking a woman, moving with her in tandem, interpreting her swimming to be a mating call.[3] It’s creepy but primal. It’s the Id oozed and visualized.

In an interview with the AV Club, Guillermo Del Toro cited the Gill-Man as one of the two perfect creature suits in the movies (that other being the Xenomorph in Alien) as well as the earliest time he noticed a movie monster. “That shot of the Gill-man swimming under Julie Adams, which was at the same time for a kid my age, mysteriously sexy, because I didn’t know what sexy was,” Del Toro said. “And [it’s] enchanting and magical and powerful in a way that only monster movies can be.”

Nevermind the dated parts. This is a truly mythic movie. [4]


[1] Phrase lifted from a comment I saw Matt Zoller Seitz use on Facebook.

[2] “Nearly” because I’m not sure how indelible that music score is; to be picky, probably something better could be put over the scene.

[3] In an email exchange, friend and filmmaker Patrick Horvath told me his interesting, non-heteronormative interpretation of the sexuality on display in Creature: “I don’t know how many other viewers felt this way, but I always thought of the Creature as being androgynous to a large degree… like it was wanting to identify more with Julie Adams rather than sexually pursue her. Add to that, the men all try to kill the poor thing with these phallic underwater guns that spray white shit everywhere, and brother you’ve got yourself the makings for some subversive cinema!”

[4] Fitting, as, according to the Turner Classic Movies website, the idea for Creature came to producer William Alland when cinematographer Gabriela Figueroa told him about an old legend of half-human, half-fish creatures in the Amazon that he maintained was true. A part of me wishes it to be so.

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