August is always a nostalgic, bitter-sweet time; I recall times where the heat was prevalent enough for outdoor activities. However, society insisted on pushing me into a premature fall. As a kid, I specifically remember the looming threat of summer ending and the school year beginning. This time of year brings back memories of days spent in and on the water trying to squeeze every drop out of the season that I could before returning to the halls of knowledge. Not only were these times full of unending elation in terms of water recreation, but also a lasting dread of what was lurking below in the murky depths of the Midwestern lake waters. Perhaps this is why movies such as Jaws, Lake Placid, and Creature from the Black Lagoon appeal so much to me during this time of the season.
Creature from the Black Lagoon came out during the golden age of another summertime staple: the drive-in cinema. These venues were more of a social gathering than the traditional movie theaters of the time. They were a place to show off your hot-rod as well as your date; when the movie starts, you have the added luxury of watching the show from the privacy of your own car. It was during this time that the last of the classic Universal monster movies splashed onto the scene. Creature from the Black Lagoon may have been one of the first movies to introduce folks to the question of what lies beneath; which would pave the way for other noteworthy and outstanding sea monster movies that many reminisce about today, such as Jaws, Piranha and Lake Placid.
Creature begins with a voice-over reminding the viewer that there are many mysteries within the depths of the ocean that we mortals have yet to discover, transitioning us into the tributaries of the Amazon. In this remote part of the world unseen mysteries abound in an equal capacity where creatures from a bygone age may still have the capacity to flourish as they did in the Devonian Era. This is quite a deviated premise for a film that was competing with other monster movies at the time, which mostly dealt with the horrors of nuclear radiation or scientific experiments gone awry. Creature has a simple premise which involves a species that has survived several extinction events due to the environment in which it lives. Through a subtle voice-over, the film is able to establish a believable backstory that would normally fall on the shoulders of five scientists standing around in a lab wasting our time with exposition.
In an isolated corner of the Amazon, a geologist by the name of Dr. Carl Maia comes across a claw that appears to be a hybrid of both man and fish. Believing that he has made a significant scientific discovery, Dr. Maia takes the specimen to the mainland in the hopes of putting together a team of other scientists to aid him in his search for more evidence of this newly discovered species. Garnering the interests of marine biologists David Reed and Mark Williams as well as their mutual love interest Kay, Dr. Maia assembles his team and heads back to the saurian waters of the Amazon.
When Dr. Maia is ashore assembling his crew, the local diggers that were hired to assist him are attacked by a mysterious creature. Here is where the tradition of creating suspense without revealing the monster was created. We know that something inhuman is the culprit due to the reaction of the diggers, but we don’t know what the creature looks like as it is never fully shown. At the risk of drawing parallels to Jaws again, the actual monster is never shown until well into the film in order to create an atmosphere of suspense and mystery as to what it is that we’re dealing with. Just like the shark fin in Jaws, for the entire first half of the movie all we are treated to in terms of the creature is seeing a claw reach out of the water along with an infamous three tone music score.
The scientific team arrives back at the campsite to find it ransacked along with the native workers slain. Assuming that this is simply the work of some Amazonian animal like a jaguar, the team decides to get to work excavating the rest of the skeleton of whatever creature it is that Dr. Maia has discovered. After unearthing nothing of any significance, the team decides to head downstream into an area called the Black Lagoon in the hopes of being able to find something that would make this trip worth their time.
At this point in the film, the audience is introduced to a revolution in film-making: the ability to film scenes underwater. The makers must have thought they had something special on their hands with this discovery, as they savor every opportunity to film a scene within the waters of the Black Lagoon. Just a personal opinion here, but I feel like these scenes drag on for way too long and detract from the overall plot of the film. However, it is during these scenes that we are finally introduced to the titular monster as it lurks within the underwater vegetation and gazes at the human characters as they go about their business of collecting specimens and fighting with each other over Kay. The costume for the monster is very impressive, as it is a unique and original design. Unlike most of the other Universal monsters, the Gill-Man, as he has come to be known, has no source material to draw inspiration on. The costume designer, Milicent Patrick, did a fantastic job in making something solely from imagination. It also must be mentioned that the actor inside the costume would have to hold his breath for up to five minutes at a time in order to film the underwater scenes.
Another element that sets the Gill-Man apart from other movie monsters at the time is the fact that it isn’t just a mindless killing machine; that is until the human characters start messing with him. The Gill-Man is more curious and enamored with Kay than anything else. However, once the men become aware of the creature’s existence and formulate a plan to capture him, the Gill-Man becomes the de facto antagonist of the film and goes so far as to kidnap Kay in the film’s climax. Giving chase the men find Kay within the Gill-Man’s lair that is, in true Universal fashion, filled with fog and an eerie atmosphere in a simple yet natural way. When the Gill-Man attempts to take one final stand against his male counterparts, he is shot with a harpoon gun, seemingly dead as he sinks to the bottom of the Black Lagoon.
Thus ends the swan song of the classic Universal Monsters library. An original film in every way, the Creature from the Black Lagoon set a standard for other summer horror movies who deal with the unknown horrors of what lurks beneath the waves. The film did go on to spawn two sequels that don’t quite do the original one justice, but are enjoyable enough in their own right. While it does drag in some spots of the story, the film is a fun ride that anyone would have enjoyed from the backseat of their car as the smell of freshly made popcorn wafted through the air of a muggy summer night at the drive-in.