Far before the MCU or DCEU, the original stable of Hollywood giants were the Universal Monsters. Just like any other pantheon, a caste system exists. Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s Monster charged onto the scene in the early 1930s and ’40s and forever cemented horror as an important and dominant genre in Hollywood. As the end of the first monster movie era came to a close, nearly two decades later, Universal defied all odds and put out a crowning achievement, a beautiful swan song to cap off 20 years of making memorable legendary monsters. A primeval and ancient fear was tapped, a fear of the unknown, a story of nature striking back, an aquatic tale of terror, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) swam his way into the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.
Set in the Amazon, The Creature from the Black Lagoon tells the story of a geologic expedition that finds fossils from the Devonian era that distinctly link life in the sea to life on land. As the crew sets to find more evidence, it’s discovered that an existing amphibian humanoid has survived and it’s curiosity piqued, the monster starts following the crew and slowly begins to lust after Kay Lawrence (played by the beautiful Julie Adams).
The success and adoration of the creature dubbed The Gill-Man is really quite astounding. Universal was well removed from the heyday of the monster movie. Dracula and the Wolf Man had conquered the silver screen but as the ’40s gave way to the ’50s, a waning interest in monster movies had slowly been forcing Universal out of the game. Luckily for horror fans, a man named William Alland became obsessed with an idea that he wouldn’t let go of until it came to fruition. At a dinner party hosted by the venerable Orson Welles, a cinematographer told a story of a South American creature that was taking women and dragging them into the waters of the Amazon. The concept struck a chord with Alland, one that would stay with him for years. Years rolled by and Alland now found himself as a successful producer for Universal, finding results in the Western genre. With trends heading towards science fiction, and a classic under his belt with It Came From Outer Space (1953), Alland was reminded of the story he had heard.
Alland, fresh from the success of It Came From Outer Space and his partnership with Hollywood hot shot Jack Arnold, decided to finally tap the idea for a script. Using a basic outline taken from King Kong (1933), Alland’s initial script told the story of a creature discovered by man, introduced to love, before being taken to civilization before running rampant. A series of revisions led Alland to making the decision to keep some of the parallels but pull away from the exact outline of King Kong, instead leaving the creature and the crew to face their perils solely in the Amazon and to leave the ending a bit more ambiguous, as studios were hip to the idea of searching out potential sequels in everything.
The result was a smash. Filmed using the fading 3-D technology, filmgoers took the monster in a way that was unexpected for the times. Made for roughly half a million dollars, the movie became a quick hit, raking in over three million dollars by the end of the year. A number of things really helped distinguish The Creature From The Black Lagoon, individualizing itself from the rest of the Universal Monsters canon. The creature had feelings. It was perhaps the least human looking but had the most human soul. It lusted after a woman, fell in love with her, and it clearly and transparently showed fear, injury and curiosity. Behind Frankenstein, Alland and Arnold created the most sympathetic monster on the Universal roster.
Another spotlight feature was that the monster was very clearly a western relegated creation. No longer were viewers traipsing through the foggy forests and freezing mountainscapes of Easter Europe; instead they were sweating it out deep in the tropical setting of the Amazon. The group of humans were trapped in his element, mostly relegated to a boat quite literally floating in it’s home. It was a decision that made the creature stand out from his beastly cohorts but make it’s lasting power that much more impressive. Using the setting as a subtle nod to Western civilization and its overall effect on the Earth itself, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was not only a humanizing tale but one of the first real nature strikes back movies, a quiet and expertly crafted message of the harmful effects of industrialization.
More than anything, however, the movie stands alone for it’s outstanding practical effects. That suit. The Gill-Man suit, as far as cinematic standards go, is near perfection. A suit that even nearly seventy years later can hold it’s own as one of the most beautifully crafted and excellent portrayed pieces of practical craftsmanship to grace the big screen. Designed by Disney illustrator Millicent Patrick and notoriously and unfairly solely credited to Bud Westmore, the suit was created by a team of special effects artists. Unlike the other Universal Monsters, who were distinctly more human than beast, the creature flipped the norm. Here was a monster that was perhaps humanoid but the least human of all when it came to appearances. Rikou Browning, a professional diver, brought the underwater scenes to life with his eel like mannerisms and fluid swimming choreography. The suit was a character on it’s own, the gills expanding and breathing on their own, it’s sleek and all encompassing design presenting something truly frightening but all too magnificent. Partnered with the underwater photography, the Gill-Man quickly popularized himself with the horror fans of the era and continued to transcend its time as one of the most recognized and celebrated monsters on screen.
The Creature from The Black Lagoon garnered two sequels, as Alland had predicted. Neither of them met the standard set by the original, which is understandable, it is hard to catch lightning in a bottle on more than one occasion. The original reign of the monsters is one that may never be matched again and in the grand scheme of things, The Creature from the Black Lagoon perhaps is one of it’s biggest success stories, overcoming all odds to become the last icon at the end of an era.