The last truly great monster to establish its enduring iconography is undeniably Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Introduced at a time when Universal was once again lagging behind other studios in profits, its commitment to the horror genre all but established and made famous by Universal, signified both a new beginning and a sad last act to Universal’s own profitable cycle in horror. In hindsight The Creature from the Black Lagoon inaugurated the age of the atomic monster; preying upon America’s paranoia over the threat of a nuclear winter. The studio’s faith in the project was so firm that even before the film was released its sequel was already in the works.
The screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross begins with a geology expedition in the Amazon led by Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and funded by Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning). Scientist Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell), Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), an ichthyologist working for an undisclosed marine biology institute, and Reed’s girlfriend, Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams) have also come along. Aboard a steamer captained by crusty but benign codger, Lucas (Nestor Paiva) the crew arrives at a previously established base camp only to discover that all of the inhabitants have been brutally slaughtered.
Lucas suggests a wild animal attack as the probable cause, but actually the murderous assault has been perpetuated by a piscine amphibious humanoid (a gill man played to perfection by Ricou Browning). The doctors and Kay make journey to the Black Lagoon in search of their scientific discovery, unaware that they are being pursued by the creature who has developed a strangely sexual fascination with Kay, suggestively swimming underneath her without her knowledge. The gill man is captured but escapes after attacking Edwin, who is narrowly spared when Kay charges the creature with a lantern.
Lucas suggests that they leave the lagoon post haste, but as he prepares to turn his ship around he discovers that the creature has barricaded the waterway with heavy logs in an attempt to keep them on his turf. As the crew clear away this debris Mark is mauled by the creature who abducts Kay. David, Carl and Lucas follow the creature’s tracks to its boggy lair, riddling the gill man with bullets and rescuing Kay. The creature sinks beneath the murky waters, presumably dead.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is marvelously spooky. William E. Snyder’s evocative and unsettling cinematography makes the most of the obvious back lot sets. In a nonverbal performance, severely restricted by his rubber prosthetics, Ricou Browning manages to imbue the creature with a fascinating sense of cryptic pathos while remaining sinister and menacing. Personally, I’ve always preferred the sequel more than the original and hope that someday Universal will see fit to release Revenge of the Creature in hi-def too.
For its time, the underwater cinematography was cutting edge. It looks a little dated today but not in any way that would damage one’s overall appreciation for the story. I am often inundated with complaints from friends about what they have mis-perceived as gross clichés when viewing classics in the horror genre. The Creature From The Black Lagoon arguably does not live up to one’s expectations for a good scare – but only if one chooses to regard the film from our present cultural disadvantage of having seen just about every ‘gross out’ schlock and nonsense peddled as movie art in between. The point of the exercise, still lost on a good many individuals it seems, is not to make any direct comparison between movies made today and those made more than fifty years ago, but rather to be teleported back to a moment from the past when such oddities as The Creature From the Black Lagoon seemed not only fascinatingly perverse but highly enjoyable for their movie artistry and overall panache.
Personally, I don’t go to the movies for realism. If I want realism I can part the curtains of my front window and look outside. That’s reality! No, for me movies are an escape into fantasy and ones such as The Creature from The Black Lagoon are a rarity in today’s movie culture. What can I say? I regard the art of classic movie-making with more respect than disdain. Today there are templates for virtually every director to crib from. But The Creature from The Black Lagoon was made at a time when no blueprint for its creation existed. That the movie and the creature have both endured this long to be readily resurrected with fond affection in reviews such as this is proof enough that the movie holds up well beyond what some might consider its hokey attributes.
Universal gives us both 2D and 3D versions of The Creature from The Black Lagoon on a single Blu-ray. This is the same disc that was part of the studio’s Classic Monsters box set released last October. The 2D version is quite good; properly framed in 1:78.1 B&W and looking very clean and solid throughout. The image is sharp with fine detail and contrast well represented but without any obvious digital manipulations apparent. Grain also looks quite natural. Now, for the hiccup.
The 3D version doesn’t look nearly as pristine. In fact, it may even be slightly darker and grainier on the whole. At the time I reviewed Universal’s box set I did not have a 3D display so my glowing review of the 2D edition was warranted. It still is. I’m not quite certain what happened in the 3D rendering. Creature was released primarily in 3D theatrically. It’s never seen the light of day in anything except 2D incarnations on home video until now. But I’m not at all certain this is how it is supposed to look in 3D.
The DTS mono audio is very solid on both versions. Extras are limited to an audio commentary – very comprehensive – and a fantastic featurette on the making of the film. I’m going to still recommend this disc in its 2D format – the only one I personally ever saw until last night. On the whole 3D doesn’t excite me all that much because most of the stories told in 3D are in service to that gimmick and not particularly interested in telling a good story without things readily flying into and out of the screen. The Creature from The Black Lagoon isn’t like that. It’s a good story first and a 3D movie almost as an afterthought. As such it continues to hold up even when not projected in 3D. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
2D version – 4
3D version – 3