Director: Jack Arnold
Studios: Universal International
Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning
Tagline: Clawing Monster From A Lost Age strikes from the Amazon's forbidden depths!
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Genre: horror, thriller, science fiction, monster, classic, Universal Horror, black and white
Scare score: D
Rating: B/ B-
Plot overview: During a geological excavation in the Amazon, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a unique fossil of a clawed, webbed hand with five fingers. He contacts his friends, the marine biologists Dr. David Reed (Carlson) and his girlfriend Kay (Adams), who agree to come to the Amazon under the financing of money-hungry Dr. Mark Williams (Denning). Together, the group of researchers hope to prove a link in the evolution between sea animals and land animals. Little do they know of the horror that awaits them beneath the murky waters of the Amazon!
This is your pretty standard, iconic horror movie from the golden era of Universal Horror spanning the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s. Like other Universal Monster Movies that I've reviewed (Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera, The Invisible Man), this film - with its very wholesome, American characters and general lack of horror - isn't the scariest thing out there. By a long shot. But that doesn't mean that it isn't enjoyable.
Creature from the Black Lagoon has made the Creature, affectionately called Gill-man (played on land by Ben Chapman and underwater by Ricou Browning), an absolutely iconic monster and image in popular culture. Described as a piscine amphibious humanoid, the Creature is admittedly creepy, especially in underwater shots, and especially when we're shown its face with black holes for eyes. A huge kudos is in order for the makeup department here, specifically Millicent Patrick and Bud Westmore, according to my research. Unfortunately, while Gill-man is a scary looking fish-dude, the scares revolving around it are not nearly as frightening as they could (or should be). But of course, this was 1954.
The monster is first introduced to us about 10 minutes into the movie via a scaly, webbed, and clawed hand reaching out of the river. We will see this same style of 'arm reaching out of water', 'arm reaching into tent', 'arm reaching over edge of boat', 'arm reaching through porthole' - and the list goes on - about a thousand times in the movie, always accompanied by a shrill cacophony of trumpets or other brass instruments that very nearly drove me insane. Honestly, if the audience were subjected to the unholy blast of trumpets one more time, there probably could have been a lawsuit regarding hearing impairment.
I've said it before and I'll say it now - sound is what makes the horror movie. Yes, yes, there are images and ideas we love because they terrify us and stay with us (think the protagonist in the foreground of a shot going about his or her business with the killer in the background, just lurking there - gosh I love shots like that), but I am convinced that if you sat through even the scariest movie with the volume on mute, you would not be scared. Now this probably isn't a revelation for most horror fans, but it's an interesting and important point nonetheless. Nowadays we have beautifully crafted scores and memorable intros, themes, or even sounds that we associate automatically with certain kills, regardless of the merit of the kill(er) itself or the scare factor. When we go back to old-fashioned horror such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, audiences weren't used to the sheer level or ferocity of horror that we know and love today in 2014. Just imagine somebody from 60 years ago sitting through, say, Cabin in the Woods. Needless to say, moral and societal standards have changed, as have scare tactics. Unfortunately for this movie, the scare tactic was to pair a not-quite-scary shot of Gill-man with blasting brass instruments. When this is done about 50 times over, the result may have been shocking in '54, but in '14 it comes off as a little tacky.
This movie, like other Universal Horrors, is too old to be scary. Aside from the repetitive 'hand' bit, and a few scenes of underwater pursuit, there isn't much suspense either. Browning, who spends his screen time swimming around in a very human and not monstrous fashion, didn't have much room to work with in terms of scariness. Chapman, on the other hand, lugs around on land much like Frankenstein (who he cited as an inspiration for his role), whereas I think Gill-man would have been much scarier if he had rapid movements on land. Oh well. Lots of lost potential there.
What this movie does boast and fantastically are its underwater shots. The scenery throughout the whole film is great - I would absolutely love to see this film in color (I'm sure it's on the internet somewhere). Browning, a famous and I think still-active underwater stunt coordinator, along with actors Carlson and Denning deliver really cool scenes in the lagoon, even if they're just splashing around or tying rope around fallen trees. It's very interesting that this was shot and released in 3-D.
As far as plot goes, the movie is all right. It only takes about 4 minutes for the movie to introduce the beautiful Julie Adams, who we know from the movie poster will be our damsel in distress. My big question about this movie is why does Gill-man seemingly fall for her? And what is he planning on doing with her? I guess this questions goes for most classic monster movies.
The other interesting thing about this movie is the ambivalent nature of the Creature. Who strikes first? I mean, sure, if I were in the Amazon and Gilly popped his head into my tent to say hi, I would do everything in my power to frighten him off or kill him. Fight or flight, am I right? So although the two assistants at the beginning only throw small items at Gill-man before he kills them, you could argue that the monster was just reacting with the violence he was shown. Was he going to harm Kay? It doesn't look that way. There's a lot to be said here about the environmental effects of humans in the Amazon, etc, etc. Much like other Universal Monsters when confronted by angry, pitchfork or powered harpoon gun-brandishing humans, who's the real bad guy?
Final critique: This is a fun movie that today falls more under a sci-fi thriller than a horror. Since its debut in 1954, Creature from the Black Lagoon has spawned several sequels as well as countless references and allusions that has secured Gill-man a place in American and global horror culture. This is a fun movie to watch when you're looking for a sort of retro sci-fi. Very few scares, and the ones that are there aren't scary. With a run time of only 79 minutes, why not watch this classic?