Halloween Havoc!: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (Universal-International 1954)

By the early 1950’s, the type of Gothic horrors Universal was famous for had become passe. It was The Atomic Age, and science fiction ruled the roost, with invaders from outer space and giant bugs unleashed by radiation were the new norm. But the studio now called Universal-International had one more ace up its collective sleeve: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, last of the iconic Universal Monsters!

Scientist Dr. Maia, exploring “the upper reaches of the Amazon” with his native guides, discovers a fossilized hand that may be the evolutionary “missing link”. Taking his finding to the Institudo de Biologia Martima, he teams with ichthyologist David Reed, David’s pretty assistant/fiancé Kay Lawrence, institute chief Dr. Mark Williams, and fellow scientist Dr. Thompson to form an expedition. They charter the steamer The Rita, skippered by Captain Lucas, and head down the river into the Black Lagoon. Maia’s Indian guides are found slaughtered in their tent, and an animal is suspected. But The Creature is no mere animal: he’s an amphibious half-human terror out of the Devonian Era, the last of his kind and looking for a mate…

I love how the film slowly builds up to the unveiling of The Creature. We first see only a scaly hand clawing its way out of the swamp, then that same hand mauling Maia’s native guides in a tent. Later, as David and Mark are exploring the lagoon in scuba gear, we begin to get glimpses of him. Finally, we see the full Creature in the famous aquatic ballet with Kay, one of the most memorable scenes in horror history. The Creature himself is actually played by two men: Riccou Browning, co-creator of FLIPPER and second unit director for the underwater action scenes in THUNDERBALL , dons the suit beneath the water, while the 6’5″ Ben Chapman takes over on land. The underwater scenes (and others in the film) were meant to take advantage of the 3D process then in vogue, but unlike some 50’s 3D movies seen in 2D today, they don’t distract from the film’s potency.

For years, makeup whiz Bud Westmore received sole credit for The Creature’s creation, but that’s simply not true. Millicent Patrick, the first female animator at Disney Studios, did the original design for The Creature’s features, and Chris Mueller sculpted its head, while Jack Kevan created the body suit. Exactly what Westmore did I’m not really sure, other than the fact he was head of  Universal’s makeup department at the time.

The cast is loaded with genre actors, chief among them Richard Carlson as the empathetic David. His credits include THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE , RIDERS TO THE STARS, TORMENTED, and VALLEY OF GWANGI . Richard Denning plays arrogant jerk Mark; he appeared in UNKNOWN ISLAND, TARGET EARTH, CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, Corman’s THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED, and THE BLACK SCORPION (and was married to Universal’s 40’s Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers ). Julie Adams (Kay) is the object of The Creature’s affections (can’t say that I blame him!), and though she’s noted for her many Western outings, she has been seen on TV’s ONE STEP BEYOND, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, NIGHT GALLERY, and as recently as a 2006 episode of LOST. Whit Bissell (Dr. Thompson) has far too many genre credits to note here; he does get the honor of being the first to dub The Creature “The Gill-Man”. Nestor Paiva (Capt. Lucas) was featured in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, TARANTULA , THE MOLE PEOPLE, and that all-time sci-fi classic THE THREE STOOGES IN ORBIT! Former silent star Antonio Moreno (Maia) doesn’t have any other genre credits, but since he started in movies back in 1912, we’ll cut him a break.

Producer William Alland (who played the reporter in Welles’ CITIZEN KANE) and director Jack Arnold teamed for many Universal horror/sci-fi flicks in the 50’s, but none as iconic as THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. The film, as “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers used to say, has been “often imitated, but never duplicated”. Universal has been threatening to do a remake since at least the early 80’s, but nothing has materialized. Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water” was obviously ‘inspired’ by this film, a loving homage to The Gill-Man. And of course, there were two sequels, the first of which we’ll discuss tomorrow…

 

 

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