Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Gill-Man's Debut

Destined to join Universal's pantheon
of monsters.
Universal Studios was the “Home of Horror” from 1931 to 1946, but its Gothic monsters were relegated strictly to appearances alongside Abbott & Costello by the 1950s. There are many theories for the decline of Universal’s horror movies (e.g., the real-life horrors of World War II, uneven quality, genre fatigue, etc.). Whatever the reason, science fiction cinema had surpassed the horror genre and Universal wanted to recapture its audience. It got off to a good start with It Came from Outer Space (1953), a well-regarded alien creature saga based on a story by Ray Bradbury.

The following year, Universal released Creature from the Black Lagoon and launched the career of its most famous monster since the Wolf-Man. Like It Came from Outer Space, Creature was filmed in 3D and directed by Jack Arnold. However, the idea for a movie about a human-like amphibian creature is attributed to producer William Alland. There are various origin stories, but the most commonly accepted is that Alland heard about the legend of a “man-fish” in the Amazon during a dinner party.

The Creature's hand appears.
His film kicks off with an archaeologist discovering a fossil of a webbed hand in the upper regions of the Amazon. Focusing on the fossil, he fails to see a living webbed hand emerge from the murky water and disappear back into it. (The stinger music that accompanies each appearance of the Creature is very effective, if overused; there is no credited composer.)

Back at the Instituto de Biologia, wealthy Mark Williams (Richard Denning) is impressed enough with this new find to sponsor an expedition to unearth the rest of the skeleton. He takes along Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), a pretty colleague, and her fiance, ichthyologist David Reed (Richard Carlson).

Julie Adams as Kay.
Tracking the fossil remains to a hidden lagoon, the scientists discover the Gill Man and capture him. He soon escapes, though, and the hunters become the quarry when the humans find their exit from the lagoon blocked with a dam. It also becomes apparent that the Creature's main interest in the humans is Kay.

This straightforward plot serves as the framework for one of cinema's more unusual love triangles. Naturally, I'm not talking about the friction between Mark and David over Kay's affections. Though Mark may be interested in her, Kay ignores him. The real triangle is between Kay, David, and the Gill Man. Kay certainly shows no affection for the Gill Man, but he does intrigue her and she is quick to note that he never hurts her. One might call their relationship one of mutual curiosity.

The hand reaches out to touch Kay.
It's an intriguing one, no doubt, fueled by the film's most famous sequence. When Kay makes an ill-advised decision to go for a swim, the Creature spies her submerged form (quite fetching in a one-piece white bathing suit). As Kay swims along the surface, the Creature--his face looking up at her--glides underneath her, mirroring her movements. It's a stunning vision of erotic underwater ballet. This classic scene is only briefly described in the script, so most of the credit belongs to director Jack Arnold, who often infused his films with a stunning visual or two. (Another brilliant scene is a close-up of the Creature's hand as he hesitantly reaches out to touch Kay's foot as she paddles in the water.)

Ben Chapman played the Creature on land with Ricou Browning performing the underwater scenes. Considering he was wearing a molded sponge rubber suit, Browning's Creature is amazingly graceful and expressive. There were two different suits. The one used for the underwater scenes was painted bright yellow to create a contrast against the dark water (the film was shot in black-and-white). Although many people provided input to the design of the Creature suits, most film historians recognize Millicent Patrick's contributions as the most significant. According to Bill Warren in his excellent reference book Keep Watching the Skies!, the Creature's body was inspired by the Oscar statuette and its head was modeled after Anne Sheridan.

The mist gives this shot near the climax a Gothic feel.

By the way, the Creature is never referred as "the Creature" in the film. (Actually, an earlier title for the film was simply The Black Lagoon). It's none other than Whit Bissell--one of Hollywood's busiest supporting actors--who first labels the Creature "the Gill Man." It's a nickname that would stick.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was a huge hit for Universal and inspired two sequels: Revenge of the Creature (1955), which was also shot in 3D, and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). The Creature also made cameo appearances in other films (e.g., Mad Monster Party?) and on television (e.g., Uncle Gilbert in The Munsters) in the ensuing years. There have been numerous plans to mount a big budget remake, including a proposed 2015 reboot with Scarlett Johansson rumored as a cast member (not playing the Creature!).

When we interviewed the luminous Julie Adams at the Cafe in 2013, she noted the enduring popularity of Creature from the Black Lagoon: "The astonishing afterlife of this film never ceases to amaze me. I'm proud that it has entertained so many movie fans for so long."


  1. Another of the movies I introduced my daughter to a little too early. I was so happy to have the kid and thrilled to make her my movie buddy that I went overboard (Ha!) a couple of times with the classics. I'll have her read this before the next time I Shanghai her.

  2. Lovely overview of a great film - it's a visual treat, for sure! I love the tidbit about the water costume being painted bright yellow - I didn't know that.

  3. You're right about Gill-Man being incredible graceful in his underwater scenes, considering the rubber suit he was wearing. And WHO KNEW it was painted bright yellow?

    I would say the relationship between Julie Adams' character and the creature is one of mutual curiosity, like you said. That's a great way of describing it.

  4. Rick, you have written an awesome review of "Creature from the Black Lagoon"! I loved your interview with the lovely Julie Adams and your research on details like using the yellow costume for underwater scenes makes good sense. Great job!

  5. A movie I've always loved. In fact, I own the DVD. There's just something about this film that always lures me in. I like to hiss at Richard Denning's odious character too. But though I'm not a big fan of Richard Carlson (who always talks as if he's giving a speech) I've always liked Julie Adams and never more so than in this monster ditty. And those underwater scenes are SO wonderful.