Tuesday, February 24, 2009

February's Cult Movie of the Month - Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)


The Review

The Gill-man is dead.

That's the first thing I learned when I started searching on this film. His name was Ben Chapman and he died a year ago, almost to the day, in Honolulu. He was 79 years old. The image at right is from Mr. Chapman's personal website, The Reel Gill-man (which is now maintained by his family).

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is hands down one of the best sci fi/horror pictures ever made. A good way to judge a picture is by it's timelessness quotient (yes, I just made that up) - film it, wait 40 or 50 years, put it back in front of an audience and see how well it holds up. This one holds up really well.

The plot's nothing new - a spin on 'beauty and the beast'.
An expedition on the Amazon River finds a fossilized hand/claw that may tie marine and land life together - an early amphibian. When the group can't find anything more at the original site, they decide to go downriver to the lagoon the river empties into - see if anything fossil-ish has washed down to the end of the line. What they find is a living breathing version of their original fossil (aka the beast). And things move on from there.
It's got a typical cast of characters - science guy and science gal (aka beauty) who are in LOVE, jerky jealous scientist boss, affable doctor who won't make it to the end credits, swarthy but good natured boat captain/guide and so on. But there are a few things that set this movie apart from the average beauty/beast storyline.

One is the creature itself. The Gill-man is brought to onscreen life amazingly well. There were actually two actors who played the creature. Ben Chapman, mentioned, played the Gill-man on land and was the one who gave the character it's flavor, while olympic swimmer Ricou Browning did the underwater scenes (quite masterfully, I might add).

The Gill-man was brilliantly designed by Millicent Patrick, a Disney animator who also worked for Universal's makeup department. Sadly, department-head Bud Westmore, seeing how favorably the Gill-man was received in early publicity tours, deliberately downplayed Ms. Patrick's role and essentially took credit for her design work. (Dick.) It wasn't until recently she was given proper recognition.

The film also carried a pro-ecology message (before the average person knew the meaning of the word). One of the film's writers was an avant-garde environmentalist and deliberately worked the theme into a couple of scenes: In one a character tosses a cigarette butt from boat-side into the lagoon as the camera pans to the Gill-man, looking up from under the surface as his "air" is fouled by the intruder. Another shows the scientists dumping poison into the lagoon, in hopes of trapping or killing the Gill-man, and hundreds of fish float to the surface belly-up.

The movie was actually the first of a trilogy, being followed by Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. Unlike most "monsters" of the day, all three films portray the creature as victim and mankind as antagonist.

While the first film has men intruding into the Gill-man's habitat and trying to capture him, the second movie follows their success as he is chained, displayed and "conditioned" by withholding food and electrical shock. In the last film his gills are removed so he can no longer breathe under water. After various abuses and incarcerations, the film's final scene shows the Gill-man slowly walking back into his sea home, knowing he'll drown there.

Don't know if you've seen any of the DVD box sets Universal has put out - the Creature set has all three films and a couple of really cool documentaries to boot. Well worth your 20 bucks.

The Trailer

The Details

Director: Jack Arnold

Writers: Harry Essex (screenplay), Arthur A. Ross (screenplay)

Release Date: 5 March 1954 (USA)

Tagline: Not since the beginning of time has the world beheld terror like this!

Richard Carlson ... David Reed
Julie Adams ... Kay Lawrence
Richard Denning ... Mark Williams
Antonio Moreno ... Carl Maia
Nestor Paiva ... Lucas
Whit Bissell ... Dr. Thompson
Bernie Gozier ... Zee
Henry A. Escalante ... Chico

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