Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) * * *

Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) goes to see his friend chief scientist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson ), an ichthyologist who works at a marine biology institute. They plan to re-join a geology expedition to the Amazon where fossilized evidence of a "missing link" between land and sea animals has been discovered in the form of a skeletal hand with webbed fingers, and perhaps "a living amphibious missing link". Dr. Reed persuades the institute's financial backer Mark Williams (Richard Denning ) to fund the expedition to look for the remainder of the skeleton. They travel on a steam boat called the Rita captained by a rude old sailor named Lucas (Nestor Paiva). The expedition consists of David, Maia, Williams, as well as Reed's girlfriend and assistant Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) and another scientist named Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell). When they arrive at Dr. Maia's camp, however, they discover that his entire research team has been killed while he was away. Captain Lucas suggests it was done by a jaguar, but the others are unsure. The audience sees the attack on the camp, which was committed by a living version of the fossil the scientists seek.

Lucas: It is impossible. But I, Lucas, will do it.
David Reed: We didn't come here to fight monsters, we're not equipped for it.
Lucas: There are many strange legends in the Amazon. Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of a man-fish.

An excavation of the area where Maia found the fossil hand turns up nothing. Williams is ready to give up the search, but Dr. Reed suggests that possibly thousands of years ago the rest of the skeleton fell into the water and was washed downriver. Captain Lucas says that the tributary empties into a lagoon known as the "Black Lagoon", a paradise from which no one has ever returned. The scientists decide to risk it, unaware that the amphibious Gill Man that killed Dr. Maia's assistants earlier has been watching them. It notices beautiful Kay and follows the Rita all the way downriver to the Black Lagoon. Once the expedition arrives, Dr. Reed and Mark go diving to collect fossils from the lagoon floor. After they return, Kay goes swimming and is stalked underwater by the creature, which then gets caught in one of the ship's draglines. Although it escapes, it leaves behind a claw in the net that reveals its existence to the scientists.

Lucas: I can tell you something about this place. The boys around here call it "The Black Lagoon", a paradise. Only they say nobody has ever come back to prove it... What kind of fishing is that? Who eats rocks?
Carl Maia: I eat rocks, in a manner of speaking. I crush and look inside them and they tell me things.
Lucas: What do they tell you?
Carl Maia: How old they are.

Kay: Hurry, David.
Dr. Reed: I've almost got it.

More encounters with the Gill Man claim the lives of two of Lucas' crew members, before the Gill Man is captured drugged, and locked in a cage on board the Rita. It escapes during the night and attacks Dr. Thompson, who was guarding it. Kay hits the beast with a lantern to drive it off before it can kill Dr. Thompson. After this, Dr. Reed decides they should return to civilization, but as the Rita tries to leave they find the entrance blocked by fallen logs, done by the escaped Gill Man. As the others try to remove them, Mark is killed trying to capture the creature single-handed underwater. The creature then abducts Kay and takes her to his cavern lair. Dr. Reed, Captain Lucas, and Dr. Maia chase the creature and rescue Kay. The creature is riddled with bullets before it retreats to the lagoon where its body sinks in the watery depths not to be seen again--until the sequel.

Though it features one of the weakest of the classic Universal monsters, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is still a first-rate horror film. Director Jack Arnold makes excellent use of the tropical location, using heavy mists and eerie jungle noises to create an atmosphere of menace. The film's most effective ingredient is the monster itself, with his pulsating gills and webbed talons. It looks real and frightening, especially in the close-up shots of the creature when he is out of the water. Gasping for air, his mouth opens and closes in short spasms as the fins on his gills gesticulate in a parallel rhythm, and he quite convincingly comes across as a giant mutant with nothing but the most malevolent of intentions. The creature was played on land by stuntman Ben Chapman and underwater by champion swimmer Ricou Browning--who was forced to hold his breath during long takes because the suit did not allow room for scuba gear. The end result was certainly worth the effort, proven in the famous scene where the Gill Man swims gracefully beneath his female quarry in an eerie ballet--a scene imitated later by Steven Spielberg in the opening of JAWS (1975).

Not since KING KONG (1933) has the "beauty and the beast" theme been portrayed in such a sexually charged way. Arnold turns a B-movie plot into a moody, stylish, low-budget feature. The jungle exteriors turn from exotic to treacherous when the creature blocks their passage and strands them in the wilds. Much of the film is shot underwater, where the murky dark is animated by shimmering beams of sunlight, creating images both lovely and alien. The studio-built sets of the creature's underground lair are far less naturalistic, but serve their purpose. As with most of Arnold's 1950s genre films, he works with a less than magnetic leading man (Richard Carlson) and a conventional script, but he overcomes these limitations by creating a vivid and sympathetic scaly monster and establishing a thick moody atmosphere. Even in black-and-white, the underwater photography in THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is beautiful, one of the best aspects of the film. Much of this underwater footage was shot in protected nature reserves in Florida, and though it was not directed by the film's primary director, it fits in seamlessly with Arnold's top-notch above-water directing style. The film has great photography, good acting, excellent production values, an intelligent plot, a bathing beauty, and a claustrophobic atmosphere with a realistic genuinely scary monster. Plus Julie Adams looks fantastic in a bathing suit, even in the conservative swimwear of the 1950s.

THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was originally filmed in 3-D requiring polarized glasses, and there are some very dynamic shots that are obviously meant to exploit the 3-D technique. Unfortunately, the 3-D process originally used on this film only works with a special projection setup, so the 3-D version is not available for home video. Some art-house theaters do occasionally screen the 3-D version and its worth watching in that format if you ever have the opportunity.

The cast also includes: Bernie Gozier (Zako), Henry A. Escalante (Chico), Ricou Browning (the Gill Man in water), Ben Chapman (the Gill Man on land), Perry Lopez (Tomas), Sydney Mason (Dr. Matos), and Rodd Redwing (Louis the expedition foreman). Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein composed the original music. Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross wrote the screenplay from a story by Maurice Zimm. Jack Arnold directed.

The film was novelized in 1977 by author Ramsey Campbell under the pseudonym of "Carl Dreadstone" as part of a series of books based on the classic Universal horror films. It gives a completely different origin for the Gill-man, who in this version of the story is gigantic, almost as big as the Rita herself, weighing in at 30 tons. It is both coldblooded and warmblooded, is a hermaphrodite, and also possesses a long whip-like tail. The gigantic creature is dubbed "AA" for "Advanced Amphibian" by the expedition team members. After slaying most of the team, destroying a Sikorsky helicopter, and kidnapping Kay more than once, the creature is killed by the crew of a US Navy torpedo boat.

REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) is the first sequel to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Having survived being riddled with bullets at the end of the first film, the Gill Man is captured and sent by the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida, where he is studied by animal psychologist Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson). Helen and Clete begin to fall in love, much to the chagrin of Joe Hayes (John Bromfield), the Gill Man's keeper. The Gill Man takes an instant liking to Helen, which severely hampers Professor Ferguson's efforts to communicate with him. Eventually the Gill Man escapes from his tank, kills Joe in the process, and flees to the open ocean. Unable to stop thinking about Helen, he soon begins to stalk her and Prof. Ferguson, ultimately abducting Helen from a seaside restaurant where the two are at a party. Prof. Ferguson tries to give chase, but the Gill Man escapes to the water with her. The professor and the local police must now try to track down Helen and her amphibious abductor. Eventually they are located. The police lights anger and confuse the Gill Man so he puts Helen down. A hail of bullets throw him into the water, and he floats away using the exact same film footage from the first movie. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because it is a repetition of the first film and producer William Alland admitted both were modeled on KING KONG.

The film is notable as being the only sequel to a 3-D film shot in 3-D as well. It is also the first screen role for Clint Eastwood, who appears as an uncredited lab technician early in the film. He is shown having a discussion with the professor, accusing a test subject cat of eating a lab rat. However, his character had in fact accidentally put the lab rat in his lab coat pocket. The movie was released May 11, 1955 in the United States. In 1997, it was aired as an episode of the comedy series MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, which mocked the film.

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956) is the final and weakest installment of The Creature horror film series from Universal Pictures. Following the Gill Man's escape from Ocean Harbor, Florida, a team of scientists led by deranged Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) capture him in the Everglades. During the capture, the creature is badly burned in a fire. While bandaging the Gill Man, the doctors notice that it is shedding its gills and even breathing using a kind of lung system. Now that the creature has more human-like skin, it is given clothing. The doctors attempt to get the Gill Man to live among humans. Dr. Barton ruins the plans in a murderous rage when he kills guide Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), who had made romantic advances to his wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden). Realizing what he has done, Barton then tries to put the blame on the Gill Man. The creature witnesses the killing and goes on a rampage. After ripping down the confining electric fence, it kills Barton and then slowly walks back to the sea. It is last seen on a beach, advancing towards the ocean.

That's all there is to this movie, except for an unimportant subplot about a decaying marriage. The dialogue is inflated, awkward, and repetitious. And the pace is slow, especially for a 78 minute movie. The Gill Man is the only good thing about this entry, a melodramatic and unnecessary good-bye, the weakest movie in the trilogy. Underwater scenes were filmed at Wakulla Springs in North Florida, today a state park. Unlike the previous two Creature films, this was not filmed in 3-D.

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