Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There Are Many Strange Legends In The Amazon

The Creature From The Black Lagoon(1954)
Director: Jack Arnold
Cast: Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning

Universal's last great monster was the one that came from the upper reaches of the Amazon. With the original gothic horror all but phased out in 1948 with Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, Universal Studios focused on what was current in the 1950s horror and sci-fi scene: aliens, giants and mutants. The Creature from the Black Lagoon would become the studio's biggest monster hit of the decade and ensured the title creature a place among the immortals of the genre, easily becoming the most popular monster of the decade and still one of the most beloved today. Cribbing ideas from both The Lost World(1925) and King Kong(1933). the film also stuck to the spirit that made Universal horror so indelible. This was a story that combined the beauty and the beast theme with touches of pathos in a way that would influence scores of future horror classics to follow. The plot seemed familiar, but provided enough new thrills and top production to enable it to become a classic and the last great Universal horror.

The film opens very dramatically with the creation of the earth with a narrator going on about how we derived from the sea and there are still secrets to be discovered about our origin. In the upper reaches of the Amazon in the present, where Dr. Carl Maia(Antonio Moreno) has discovered the fossilized hand of something that appears to be the cross between a man and a fish. He takes it back to a science institute, where he enlists the help of a former student, Dr. David Reed(Richard Carlson), Kay Lawrence(Julia Adams), Dr. Mark Williams(Richard Denning) and Dr. Edwin Thompson(Whit Bissel). Williams gets the financing for the expedition and they set sail for the upper reaches of the Amazon on a barge drive by Captain Lucas(Nestor Paiva, in the role of his career). Meanwhile, Maia had left behind two other workers and they are attacked one evening by a clawed hand that comes through a tent after them, looking like the one that was dug out of the rock! The expedition finds the camp in disarray and the two men dead. They believe that it was caused by the wild animals in the area.

They go to work on the spot where the fossil was found, but find nothing, hypothesizing that perhaps it may be found in the water, having fallen in centuries before. The team go upsteam into the Black Lagoon and attempt to find something by sending a net over the bottom, while David and Mark dive below. The Creature reveals itself underwater, just observing the men and their actions. As the men are analyzing some rock samples, Kay decides to take a dip in the Black Lagoon. In the film's most famous moment, Kay swims along, clad in a white bathing suit, as the Creature becomes smitten and swims beneath her in what appears to be like an underwater ballet. The scene manages to be both eerily beautiful in a sense and subtly erotic. When Kay is called to come back to the boat, the net is pulled on with such force that it breaks the bough. A large hole is left in the net and a claw is found.

David and Mark decide to find prrof of they're theory and go below, David armed with a camera and the more ruthless Mark, armed with a speargun. They go below and the Creature just swims around them and hides, not minding the intruders, until Mark shoots him with a speargun, causing the Creature to flee. Rushing back to the boat, the men tell of the monster, but there is no proof, as David's camera dosen't show the Creature. However, it gets on board and retaliates from it's unprovoked attack by killing one of Lucas' men, Chico, who is dragged overboard by the Creature. Realizing that they are dealing with a deadly creature, they take precautions and arm themselves. Mark, ever thrill-seeking, wants to capture it. Lucas suggests using a poison he has to catch fish and they drop it into the lagoon. The Creature rises to the surface and shows his displeasure and goes underwater again to his cave, where he is followed by the party. The drugged Creature stumbles onto shore and attacks and kills another man, Zako, and attempts to steal Kay, before collapsing. Mark wants to kill it, but David suggests they bring it back alive and they cage it onboard the boat.

The Creature is guarded by Dr. Thompson and while he is talking to Kay, the Creature escapes and attacks, mauling the Doctor and near killing him, before getting a lantern thrown into it's face. Fearing for their lives, the group decides to get out of the Black Lagoon as quickly as possible, even at Mark's protests that they must stay and kill it. The Creature has other plans and has downed a tree and blocked the entrance into the lagoon and David has to manually try to get a cable around it so it can be winched and pulled aside. Mark and David get into a brief scuffle and David goes into the water. Mark follows and hunts the Creature, who promptly fights and kills him. David is able to get the cable around the tree so the winch will lift it, but as they are doing this, the Creature gets on board and captures Kay and takes her to his cave. David goes after them and follows with a speargun to the cave. He finds Kay and the Creature finds him and they fight. Just as it seems that David is done for, Lucas and Maia arrive with Winchesters and shoot the Creature numerous times, as it stumbles out of it's cave. Riddled with bullets and mortally wounded, the Creature returns to the Lagoon and perishes, sinking below into the dark depths.

The Creature From The Black Lagoon is the quintessential 50s monster movie featuring many of the tropes that would permeate that decade's plots and characters. The monster is a throwback(no pun intended) to previous screen monsters, being both a mixture of pathos and terror. Jack Arnold, who was the prolific of science fiction directors of the decade, adds a professional polish to the film that a host of imitators could scracely hope to match. His revolutionary underwater photography is beautiful and mysterious, becoming as strange and enchanting as the misty forests and decaying castles of old. The photography is made even more impressive when one considers that this was originally released as a 3-D film and made with very cumbersome cameras. It's a hell of an achievement and makes the work involved all that much more extraordinary.

The story is fast-paced and entertaining, offering enough characterization to keep it interesing, but never distracting. While many ideas appear lifted from a few earlier fantastic films, the approach is unique and creates many that, as mentioned before, were imitated many times afterwards. The music by H.J. Salter, who had done many of the 40s horror classics, is just plain iconic and was reused many times afterwards. The film's theme has to be one of the most recognizeable in the genre's history, even if it may appear overused, it is a delight. The cast perform fine as well, acting beyond mere stock characterization. Richard Carlson is a fine hero and cuts a sympathetic and charming figure as the heroic scientist, who does not wish to combat the Creature, but must out of dire neccesity. Considering the sheer amount of military heroes that permeated the decade, Carlson's thinking man portrayal is a welcome relief. Julia Adams is likewise likeable and absolutely gorgeous as Kay, who provides nice chemistry with Carlson, creating a nice screen couple. She acts with intelligence and an easy going nature, even showing light sympathy for the Creature. Plus, she looks fantastic in a bathing suit, and that dosen't hurt, either. Richard Denning seems to be channeling Carl Denham in his portrayal of the fame seeking Mark and his antagonism adds alot of dramatic weight and tension to the script, his ultimate fate at the scaly hands of the Creature, both thrilling and awesome. Antonio Moreno, Whit Bissell and Nestor Paiva all add several layers to their supporting roles, especially Paiva who has many of the film's best lines as the grizzled old sea Captain.

Special mention must go to the two Creatures in the film, portrayed on land by Ben Chapman and in the water by Riccou Browning. Both men add alot of dimension to the part that seems to go far beyond the average man in a rubber suit role. Browning was a navy swimmer and could hold his breath for several minutes and his almost balletic udnerwater work is extraordinary, giving a flawless and distinct approach to the way the Creature swims and moves. Chapman's land monster is very impressive as well, using a walk and movement that makes the Creature appear to be almost human, his hands grasping out for love or in defense. The costume is an incredible feat and probably the best rubber suited monster in Hollywood history. Bud Westmore is often credited with the design but it was actually model and designer, Milicent Patrick, who designed the Creature, though Westmore took all the credit publicly.

The Creature From The Black Lagoon was a massive success and led to two sequels, Revenge of the Creature(1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us(1956), but the first was the best and remains one of the great Hollywood monster movies. The Creature has become a beloved cultural icon and appears to be more popular than ever, spawning all sorts of merchandise over the years, some of which I own myself, because what a wonderful monster our "Gillman" is! With it's lovely photography, brisk pace and timeless story of love and loneliness, this is one beauty and the beast film that will never get old. A remake has been rumored for years, and while it is highly doubtful that anyone will ever approach this classic, maybe we just wish for one, just in the hopes of returning back to the Black Lagoon again and having another visit with our old friend.

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