Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Jack Arnold, 1954, b/w, USA

The classic Universal man-in-a-suit creature-feature. We are barely five minutes and we get from God creating the Earth and evolution (??) to a monstrous webbed-hand fossil and - shock! - a similar hand rising from the depths to claw the river’s edge. Then there’s early unintentional humour in some of the dated exposition, most of all when our protagonist explains evolution and the purpose of his research into fossils and aquatic life to the very friends and esteemed colleagues who probably have a very good idea already what he is about. 

But then we are in the Amazon jungle, which has to be credited with retaining the film’s eeriness. Our expedition party is in search of the rest of a fossil found earlier, from a type of monster that is still alive which we see surprisingly early on; no long-held suspense and reveal for this monster-suit. And it’s a seminal monster suit, designed by Milicent Patrick* and convincingly swam by Ricou Browning with the creature played by Ben Chapman on land. Certainly the creature is more fluent underwater and a little jerky up above, but its gaping visage is never less than compelling. From out of the depths the creature comes, representing all the carnal jealously, rivalry and violence barely repressed between David Reed (Richard Carlson) and his employer Mark Williams (Richard Denning), both of whom it seems the love interest Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) has a soft spot for. 

The famous girl-and-monster synchronised swim hints at sexual symmetry and it is apt that monster often turns up and breaks out when hot personal topics get discussed. Its subtext isn’t hard to trace. Even early on, drifting down the Amazon and indulging in love talk, David says their romance may take a lifetime and Kay’s response of a kiss is interrupted by a primal jungle growl; and this isn’t the only time flirting causes prominent animal cries on the soundtrack. It’s even a feminine boat “Rita” that takes them to the mysteries of the Black Lagoon. Borowczyk’s ‘The Beast’ takes this sexual tension to its logical, comical and icky conclusion, whereas Del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’ sees it for romance, gliding over the barely repressed violence lurking under this scenario. And then there's Eric Langberg's thorough reading of the creature as a gay icon.

Arnold was exemplary at this, as evidenced by the many genre treasures he directed in the 50s. There are all the joys of period genre hokeyness but his work is never stupid or laughable. They may be B-movies but there is the sense he always had his eye on the big themes. For example, not only is there the Freudian stuff going on, but there are also issues of colonialism and exploitation  - the creature as nature fighting back - at the edges of all this. 

And after defining many genre tropes and highlights, Arnold can be found directing for a lot of famous Sixties and Seventies television series like ‘Rawhide’, ‘The Brady Bunch’, ‘The Bionic Woman’, ‘The Love Boat’, etc. He was a director that went where the work was, but his contribution to smart period science-fiction and horror is incontestable: Arnold is responsible for ‘It Came From Outer Space’ (which Joe Dante notes is one of the few pacifist sci-fi movies of the era, along with Arnold’s ‘The Space Children’), ‘Tarantula’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘The Black Lagoon’ films, which surely makes him genre royalty. 

You probably wouldn’t even call ‘Creature’ Arnold’s best because he delivered so much that was good to consider, but it’s knowing and sly – screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross – and beautifully filmed, even with blunt-force horn blares of creature feature thrills (the first time he appears underwater and we see the face is a sincere jump scare), which of course are all part of what we came for. Quintessential monster movie fun.

* “The designer of the approved Gill-man was Disney animator Milicent Patrick, though her role was deliberately downplayed by make-up artist Bud Westmore, who for half a century would receive sole credit for the creature's conception.”  - Wikipedia  
Milicent Patrick working on The Creature

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