Originally published October 11th, 2012
Before we get to today’s review I am running a day behind (this review should have gone up yesterday) so I’ll be catching up over the weekend. Sorry about that but hey, it took over a week for me to fall behind so that’s a record in my book.
Today’s film is the classic Universal monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of the few Universal classic horror films I haven’t seen until now. I will say that I don’t think this holds up in comparison to The Wolf Man or the dynamic duo of Dracula and Frankenstein especially because the horror elements are necessarily as strong as the others. I did love the creature design and the underwater photography which is some of the best I’ve seen but the humans definitely complicate things too much. I was surprised to find myself comparing this to It Came From Out Outer Space which I reviewed a month or so ago and that’s not strange considering director Jack Arnold who directed that directed this. While it’s apparent Arnold’s interest when it comes to sci-fi, Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tad clunky and uninteresting. Damn humans!
A group of scientists travel to the Amazon in order to investigate the discover of a mysterious prehistoric creature. When various members of the crew start to die the group discover a prehistoric terror known only as the Gill-Man is hunting them down.
You could easily see the gang of Mystery Science Theater 3000 doing this film because of how campy the story and acting is. The opening narration detailing the creation of the Earth and the introduction of the scientists themselves is fairly clunky and filled with some hilarious dialogue that Tom Servo and crew could have easily lampooned. The entirety of the film is cheese of the funnest kind and I can’t fault it for that. It’s a 1950s sci-fi film so you should expect a hefty amount of “Darn’s” and other moments where the characters seem completely unaffected by events. When the surly sea-captain ominously says that the Black Lagoon is a paradise but “nobody’s come back to prove it” you’d expect the scientists to have a moment where they mention “Hey it’s maybe not a good idea.” Nope, the entire crew is all gung-ho about going! Again, you have to love and expect that type of MST3K quality.
The issue I found myself having with this film, that I seem to be having with several films of late, is the meager story. Aside from the points of traveling to the Black Lagoon there’s nothing else keeping the film afloat (pun not intended) and it doesn’t help that the film is only 80 minutes. I did admit I enjoyed the way the film asks that instead of looking into space we should be looking into the depths of our own planet for unknown life. I also loved the loneliness you’re meant to feel towards the creature. He’s the last of his kind and the way he yearns to connect with the dimwitted Kay (Julie Adams) is subtly beautiful. The scene where he reaches out his hand and pulls it back as she swims conveys the emotion the human cast lacks.
In fact I enjoyed the creature 100 times more than the humans. When you see the Gill-Man for the first time it’s an effective scare because he doesn’t jump out and scare you, he’s simply standing there. Throughout the rest of the film he’s mainly swimming but damn are those underwater scenes shot superbly. I don’t know any underwater sequence, at the time period, that compares but it’s the highlight of the film. The scene where Kay is swimming in backstroke with the Gill-Man underneath her is just an exquisite scene. The way it’s shot shows how separated the Gill-Man is from humans and yet how integrated they are at the same time. You also gain a sense of space with the underwater sequences. I never felt that these scenes were filmed in a tank, and for all I know they could have been, but you see the limitless expanse of water from the top, bottom, and sides. Returning to that scene of the Gill-Man swimming with Kay, they aren’t squished in next to each other because of the constraints, you feel there’s a big gap of space between them. Kudos have to go out to the Gill-Man (in the water) played by Ricou Browning who had to hold his breath every time he got in the water.
Since several scenes take place underwater with no dialogue, and when everyone is on land the dialogue feels stilted out there’s nothing memorable about the human characters. I’m not surprised that regardless of whether you’ve seen this or not you know the Gill-Man and not the humans. The human cast is boring beyond compare in my opinion. We have a brief love triangle between our budding scientists Mark (Richard Denning), David (Richard Carlson) and Kay (Adams). I was unsure how we were meant to take the relationship between Kay and Mark. It’s obvious that Mark is a pompous ass but I didn’t understand why he’d want Kay. Thankfully this triangle is resolved fairly quickly. Denning and Carlson are as good as can be expected for any scientist in the 1950s.
My issue lays firmly with the character of Kay. I can’t fault Julie Adams as an actress because she’s limited in her character, it’s that Kay is so annoying! She offers nothing to the story short of being an object for the Gill-Man to covet. Other than that I wanted her to do something, anything! The entirety of Kay’s being is obsessing over how awesome David is and pining to David about how one day she’s going to do something! Well girl, get off your ass and do something then! Stop waiting for David to do it first. From there she offers zero insight other than coming up with the perfect observation that if the group leaves the creature alone “it won’t bother you.” Thanks for using the spider mentality Kay (whose mother didn’t say if you left the spider alone it won’t bother you?). The last ten minutes are Kay wandering around and screaming people’s names. Women in the 1950s….not a good time.
Creature From the Black Lagoon is good but not compared to the other Universal classics out there. The Gill-Man dominates the story and yet your stuck following around a group of boring humans for the rest of the film. The film is short and the underwater scenes are fantastic so the film is worth watching.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.