Monday, September 1, 2014

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: Blu-ray (Universal International 1954) Universal Home Video

The last truly great monster to emerge from Universal’s stable of classic ghouls with an enduring iconography is undeniably, Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Introduced at a time when Universal’s film output and profits were again ebbing behind the other studios; Universal’s commitment to horror once more elevated its reputation for overall quality. Ironically, horror would prove Universal’s undoing as audiences cooled to the supernatural and production costs required to create such lavish escapisms rose throughout the 1950’s; the studio increasingly unable to ‘find itself’ in these changing times and struggling to maintain, as well as grow a new identity. Ultimately, experimentation became the order of the day; Universal focusing on westerns and the occasional well-timed comedy and/or musical, precariously teetering between staying in the black and slipping into the proverbial red.
In retrospect, Creature from The Black Lagoon signified both a new beginning and, alas, a swan song in that profitable horror movie cycle. In some ways it also helped to inaugurate the age of the atomic monster; ironically so, since the ‘gill man’ was represented, not as the unwitting mutant created by the threat of nuclear winter or some experimental misfire from its radioactive fallout, but rather, referenced as a forgotten ‘missing link’ in the evolutionary chain; something of a prehistoric throwback/hybrid to the likes of a King Kong, the Loch Ness monster and the sasquatch. The studio’s faith in the ‘creature’ was so solid, that even before the movie’s release Universal was planning its sequel.
Creature from the Black Lagoon remains a seminal scare-fest. Ricou Browning’s superb underwater pantomime as the creature is thoroughly engrossing and primitive in its allure; a strange empathy brewing for this isolated protoplasmic anomaly. Ultimately, the movie’s success rests on a triage of elements; the aforementioned Browning, director, Jack Arnold’s keen-eyed direction and the newfangled gimmick of 3D. Too few movies made in the stereoscopic process have afforded as much time to character development and plot. But Arnold was determined to make a really good horror movie and a 3D picture besides, instead of the other way around. I can recall being terrorized by Creature back in the early 1980’s on television; of course projected flat. Unaware then of its 3D origins, Creature from the Black Lagoon still worked - even on my small screen, edited for content and time constraints, also, interminably interrupted by commercial breaks. Despite TV’s shortcomings,Creature managed a minor coup: to entertain and provoke some deeper critical thought. How many horror movies can claim as much?
Better still, Creature from the Black Lagoon seems to possess a soul; Arnold able to arouse a genuine sagacity for the poor ole gill man; astutely pointed out by Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). After emerging from the theater with Tom Ewell’s randy husband, Monroe’s ‘girl’ exclaims, “I felt kind’a sorry for the creature. All he really wanted was to be loved.”  It’s a snap and, perhaps, simplistic analysis (as only Monroe in her prime could offer up), but it astutely summarizes director, Arnold’s desire to give us a horror icon on par with Boris Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein (1931); the gill man misunderstood and merely protecting his home (the jungle, swamps and lagoon) from these human invaders. The creature’s attraction to Julie Adams is both understandable (who wouldn’t want to chase after that shapely mermaid?) and yet, sadly misguided. After all, she will never come to regard him as anything more than the hideous ‘other’.   
We must also consider one more aspect about Creature from the Black Lagoon: namely, despite its detailed and deft mixture of plot and characterization, it was considered something of a B-picture – if not for Universal, most definitely when compared and contrasted to the rest of Hollywood’s output. At a time when other studios had become entrenched in productions shot in color – and any number of newly inaugurated widescreen processes – spectacles with a cast of thousands - Universal instead fell back on their time-honored tradition, shooting modestly in B&W and featuring a relatively small ensemble of very solid character actors, with no real stars featured.
Richard Carlson is about the biggest name on the marquee. But even he had come from a second-string main staple of light romantic comedies and Abbott and Costello slapstick adventures. Alas, Carlson has a tangible masculine quality; hardly beefcake, but buoyed by an intuitive sincerity. Julie Adams is our token estrogen in the movie; a sexy young thing meant for the creature to tread water beneath, paw at, but never truly possess. The real star is ‘the creature’; a silent performance (the creature doesn’t even yowl) by Ricou Browning, effectively emoting from beneath his heavy rubber prosthetics. The creature’s body armor, made from a series of rubber appliances fitted together and over a wetsuit, was cumbersome to say the least. But Browning manages a delicious performance despite these pitfalls; his sideways swimming style conjuring an ominously amphibious organism.
The tightly structured screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross begins with a geological expedition up 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) are also along for the tour. The steamer is captained by the crusty but benign codger, Lucas (Nestor Paiva); everyone arriving at a previously established base camp only to discover all the native inhabitants brutally slaughtered. Lucas speculates a wild animal attack as the probable cause. But actually, the murderous assault has been perpetuated by a piscine amphibious humanoid. The doctors and Kay make a journey to the Black Lagoon in search of this rare scientific discovery, unaware they are the ones being pursued by the creature, who has developed a strangely sexual fascination with Kay, suggestively shadowing her swim from underneath without her knowledge. The gill man is captured, anesthetized and netted, but escapes after attacking Edwin, who is narrowly spared certain death when Kay charges the creature with a burning lantern.
Lucas suggests they leave the lagoon post haste. However, as he prepares to turn his ship around, everyone realizes the creature has barricaded the waterway with heavy logs in an attempt to keep them on his turf. As the crew clears away this debris, Mark is mauled by the creature who now abducts Kay, dragging her beneath the waves. David, Carl and Lucas follow the creature’s webbed tracks to a boggy lair where he is guarding his trophy female. In short order, they riddle the gill man with bullets and successfully rescue Kay. The creature sinks beneath the murky waters, presumably dead, though not really. Sequel, anyone?
Creature from the Black Lagoon is marvelously spooky. William E. Snyder’s cinematography captures the humidity of the Florida bogs with thickly redolent ambivalence, making the most of the obvious back lot sets. The film is as much a ‘mood piece’ as it remains a horror classic. Today’s horror-meisters have somehow forgotten true chills are not instilled by graphically illustrating human carnage and its bloody aftermath; rather, by the sustained creation of a looming dread that can infiltrate the human imagination and linger long after the houselights have come up. Creature from the Black Lagoon manages to generate such ill-omened suspense; its first big reveal of the creature’s webbed hand, as example, reaching into the tent of two unsuspecting native guides, still able to elicit gasps from the audience. 
Having seen ‘Creature’ projected in both flat and 3D, I must admit that, arguably, the latter has a greater impact. But director, Jack Arnold has been most circumspect in his handling of the more grandiose stereoscopic moments. Like Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) Arnold gives us story and substance supported by the film’s depth-perceptive style, quietly setting up his fore, middle and backgrounds, and, only occasionally relying on the clichéd dive towards the camera (translated in projection as a leap from the screen) to jolt his audience from their chairs. It still works; but the pauses between these bravura moments are what we remember equally, if not better. And ‘Creature’ really doesn’t need 3D to click with the audience. Again, it’s Ricou Browning who manages to imbue this gill man with a fascinating sense of cryptic pathos, while still remaining sinister and menacing.
Here we go again! Universal Home Video is re-releasing single discs of its Classic Monster box set - yet again. Two years ago, they gave us the set. Then last year, the singles with vintage poster cover art. Now, we get repackaged monsters all over again, in monochromatic slipcases. Boring! Personally, I prefer the sequel to Creature and hope Universal will one day get around to offering fans Revenge of the Creature (1955) in hi-def too. But no - for now, we only have the first movie - again, featured in both 2D and 3D versions. Let’s cut to the chase: this is the same disc/same quality. No need to repurchase if you already own.
The 2D version is quite good; properly framed in 1:78.1 B&W and very clean and solid throughout. The image is sharp with, at times, a startling amount of fine detail. Good solid contrast too and grain looking quite natural. Now, for the hiccup: the 3D version doesn’t look nearly as pristine. In fact, it may even appear 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 still stands. I’m not quite certain what happened in this 3D rendering. Creature was released primarily in 3D theatrically. It’s never seen the light of day in anything except 2D 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 and identical 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. On the whole this 3D presentation doesn’t excite me; ditto for the process itself.  3D is, after all, a gimmick, mostly used to camouflage a lousy story with a stunning array of ‘in your face’ visuals. Thankfully, Creature from The Black Lagoon is a good story first, and a 3D movie almost as an afterthought. As such it continues to hold up extremely well, even when not projected in 3D. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
2D version – 4
3D version – 3


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