This film tends to get classed among the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, but to me it feels like a different beast. It's from a different era, a more simple-minded one. The fifties are weird. It's like the entire western world fell down the stairs in 1945 and became a lobotomised parody of itself, populated by creatures that resembled no human beings before or since. Hmmm. No, that's too sweeping. I should emphasise that I'm talking particularly about America, since I can't speak for most of Europe and that decade in Britain feels more like the last dying gasp of "Queen and Country"ism. We were also freaks from a suffocating and incomprehensible world, but more boringly.
The 1950s had a naive pre-Vietnam sincerity that still honestly believed in the government, doing what you were told and mowing your front lawn. The brutal fact is that the world really did change in 1945, although perhaps the fifties really began in 1949 when the Soviet Union tested their own nuclear weapon. People really thought the world might end and who's to say that they were wrong, with Stalin's hand on the button? It's the time of McCarthyism. As a result the 1950s have become known for childishly simplistic big bug movies and heavy-handed SF allegories, in which scientists were our hope for the future and yet the world was on the point of being overrun with radiation-spawned metaphors. When people really are scared, horror films don't need to get clever.
There will never be a better Invasion of the Body Snatchers film than Don Siegel's from 1956, because that's what the world was like back then. Which brings us to Creature from the Black Lagoon, which feels like a kiddie film compared with Tod Browning or James Whale. That doesn't make it bad, but its plot could hardly get more simplistic. I hear the second of its two sequels managed to weave in a bit more complexity.
Of course it's also a classic of its era and the origin of one of Universal's iconic movie monsters. What it does, it does outstandingly. For starters, it looks wonderful. The only thing which jars to a modern audience is the back-projection when they're sailing down the Amazon and even that's pretty good by its own lights. This film looks absolutely beautiful, not thanks to a clever director but simply because they got a boat and went sailing off into the jungle with cameras. It's like a BBC wildlife documentary. I'd laugh my head off to get a David Attenborough commentary as a DVD extra. Forget the actors, just look at the fish! And the crocodile. And... hey, just the lagoon. What's more, that's without mentioning all the underwater footage. Wow oh wow.
My only visual objection is that getting shot with a harpoon doesn't release blood into the water. I know you can't expect gore in films like these, but it would have looked pretty.
Then there's its science. Happily in this era, science isn't the problem but the solution. The characters are ichthyologists, paleontologists, geologists and so on. These people have jobs I can't even spell. What's more, the film busts its nuts trying to show us the real world of scientists making science. They worry about practical things like needing publicity to get the endowments that fund their research. Divers coming up from the lagoon have to adjust to the pressure difference before they climb out of the water. There's a full-blown lecture on water-based life forms adapting to live on land that even shows us a lungfish in a tank. This film has faith in science. It's addicted to it. It's taking off its clothes, rolling around in lots of squelchy science and giving the audience a hug. This is the kind of film that inspires children to grow up to be scientists. I think it's fantastic and Hollywood couldn't do it like this again today. Not in a movie so perfectly designed to pull in the kiddies.
The acting is perfectly fine without ever being noticeable. Julia Adams isn't just a blonde, but a proper scientist like the boys. I'm also trying to find a nice way of calling her horse-faced while emphasising that she's still attractive and looks good in a white one-piece swimsuit.
However the star of course is the Creature. He looks great and the film knows it. I loved his introduction, which tells us the history of the Earth in a way that makes Darwin sound almost Biblical as we see the passing of uncountable aeons. Eventually we focus on a fossil found in the rock and... oh, you know. I don't need to say more, do I? The film dutifully makes us wait to see more than a claw, but after that there's no stopping them. The Creature's everywhere! It's a good thing the rubber suit's so good. He's the movie's real star, you see, and as much of a character as any of the humans. He's a savage killer, yet also rather sweet in his fascination with Julia Adams.
He's adorable. He's a joy to watch. And best of all, he appears to be a pervert as confused as dogs who hump cushions or parrots who become sexually fixated on their owners. I mean, honestly. He's a fish. A human-shaped fish. At least King Kong never came across as a stalker.
I only have one issue with the Creature's suit design and I'm happy to agree that it's coincidental. The imdb claims that it was based both on one of those Oscar statues, as awarded every year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and on some old seventeenth-century woodcuts of mythical creatures called the Sea Monk and the Sea Bishop. The following is entirely my interpretation... but I think you could read the Creature as being Japanese. The back of its head looks like a samurai helmet, while its face has that Oriental-looking slanting brow. What's more, less than a decade after the end of WWII, we have here a monster movie in which Americans get attacked by a subhuman creature who lurks in the jungle, can't even talk English and wants their women. Compare that with Japan-bashing wartime propaganda, for instance.
The first time I saw the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I was eight and thought it was great. The second time, I couldn't believe how simple-minded it was. This time, I thought it was a beautiful relic of a prehistoric era. Why did the Gill-Man stick his claw through that porthole and just waggle it about until the humans noticed, eh? However it's clearly deliberate that he's not the world's brightest monster. He makes a scary mess of the boat's net, which is fun, but only after taking it upon himself to get caught in it in the first place. It's all part of his childlike charm. In concept Universal probably saw him as an aquatic Frankenstein's monster.
From above, incidentally, he looks like Farscape's Dominar Rygel XVI. Yes, the Muppet.
This is a stylish film that knows exactly what it's doing with its creature. Gill-Man at one point even gets to be the hero, when Asshole Scientist is chasing it with his harpoon. There's only one man we're cheering on in that scene and it's not Mr Aqualung. I was also impressed by the ending. "No, no, no more. Let him go." This despite the fact that bringing back the Creature's dead body would have meant fame, fortune and academic triumph for the expedition. Yes, it's sequel-hunting, but it's also a reminder that sometimes the 1950s rocked too.