Monday, July 6, 2009

The Creature From the Black Lagoon series

[This is a contribution to the Spirit Of Ed Wood Blog-a-Thon currently running at Cinema Styles from July 6 to July 12. Greg at Cinema Styles has opened up this week-long event to posts about legendary B-movie maker Ed Wood, as well as any likeminded examples of low-budget sci-fi and horror filmmaking. I'll be following his lead this week with a series of posts about 50s sci-fi.]

Creature From the Black Lagoon was a late entry in Universal Studios' classic line of horror franchises. Jack Arnold's 1954 original film revived the Universal horror line, coinciding with the re-release of some of the 30s and 40s films in theaters and on TV, and helping ignite the lasting appreciation of these films as horror classics. The Creature, often referred to in the films as the "Gill Man," was the last of the great Universal monsters, a last new addition to the studio's famed line-up of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man. It might be a latecomer, but Arnold's original Creature film is an earnest, well-made thriller. Its effects are rough but surprisingly convincing, even so many years later, and it's unconcerned with deep plotting or characterization. Nevertheless, the film creates an overbearing mood of slowly building dread and horror. There's an awkward poetry to the film, particularly in its eerie underwater sequences (overseen by second unit director James C. Havens). In one of the film's most startling, dazzling sequences, the creature glides along beneath the water as above it, bathing beauty Kay (Julie Adams) swims leisurely along the surface of the lagoon. The perspective continually switches from shots of Kay from above, to point of view shots of the creature watching her, and most potently, haunting underwater images of both swimmers together, the creature's ungainly strokes mirroring the woman's movement along the surface, as though they were swimming in tandem, dancing in the water. When the woman does flips in the water, her lithe body turning in tight circles just below the surface, the creature watches in agape awe, and so do we. It is a wonderful, balletic sequence, both creepy and strangely beautiful, the creature and its prey moving together, she on the surface and it below the water, separated from one another by bare inches, but really in entirely different worlds.

Kay is a member of a research team that heads into the Amazon jungle, along with her boyfriend David (Richard Carlson) and their ambitious boss Mark (Richard Denning). Their expedition intends to find further evidence of a strange fossilized hand discovered by Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), but instead they find a living, breathing incarnation of the creature, not extinct at all but isolated and undiscovered in an Amazonian tributary. The creature thus represents a horror specific to the theory of evolution — a being from an earlier era, one that should have died out long ago but instead has survived into modern times. Arnold opens the film with a striking flashback to the very beginning, not just of this story but of all stories: the creation of the universe itself, represented in abstracted imagery, a glowing ball of light amidst swirling smoke, an explosion that looks like cells splitting apart, dividing and multiplying by mitosis. This scientific horror is a stark contrast to other 50s horror, which usually attributed the monsters that terrorized humanity to the excesses of human invention: the atom bomb or other new technologies. The creature is horrible because it is in fact natural, as natural and normal as a shark or a bear or any other animal. It is dangerous precisely because of this, because it is merely a part of the food chain, acting in its own interests, protecting itself and attacking on reflex.

At the same time, this creature is not without aesthetic sensibilities, and it appreciates the presence of a lovely woman as much as most other movie monsters. Its fascination with Kay is only implied in its repeated attempts to get close to her, and Arnold doesn't make as much of the sexual undercurrents of this fascination as he would in the sequel. But it is nevertheless obvious that the creature is especially stirred by Kay, finally kidnapping her for the taut, suspenseful climax, in which the other researchers chase down the creature as it carries its catch away. Arnold is a fine director of suspense sequences like this, and the film is packed with tense moments as the creature lurks beneath the water, stretching out its clawed hand to scrape a swimmer's leg, its eerie black eye sockets staring out from amid the drifting seaweed at the lagoon's bottom.

Whenever the film diverts from its horror presence it's on much shakier ground. The acting is uniformly stiff and amateurish, with the exception of bombastic boat captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva, lustily playing a stock type), and the clichéd dialogue doesn't help the actors invest their characters with any real depth. Worst of all is the condescending treatment of the pseudo-science surrounding the creature. Kay, ostensibly an accomplished researcher herself, nevertheless asks the most obvious questions and gets everything explained to her as though she was a schoolchild — because she's a woman, of course. Even so, this first Creature film sets the template for the series and makes the Gill Man very much a worthy addition to the Universal canon.

The second film in the Creature series, Revenge of the Creature, reunited director Jack Arnold with the man in the rubber costume (who, incidentally, was played by Ricou Browning for the water scenes in all three films, and various other stunt men for the land sequences). This second film opens with a tribute to the first, another Amazon river sequence, with Nestor Paiva amusingly reprising his role as Captain Lucas, cheerfully leading another group of researchers to look for the fabled creature. This time around, they quickly capture the creature and bring him back to civilization, where he's chained to the bottom of an aquarium tank at a marine park, gawked at by eager tourists and studied by scientists. Among these scientists are, predictably, another romantic couple, biologist Clete Ferguson (B-movie stalwart John Agar) and research student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson). They're studying the creature, tracking its reactions and its ability to learn, and they're astonished to learn that it is more like a human being in its intelligence and its biology than they ever would have expected. This thread develops the evolutionary theme of the first film even further, suggesting that part of the horror is realizing how close we humans are to the "lower" animals — when Clete is first introduced, he's laughingly talking about how close a chimpanzee is to a human child, how hard it is to draw a line between the species.

This line further blurs in this second film's development of the creature's sexual fascination for its female costars. If the first film was marked by its suspense sequences, the scenes of the creature stalking its prey from beneath the water, this second film largely jettisons those scenes, at least for its first half. Here, the creature is in captivity, chained up and unable to get free. But it is able to watch one of its captors, and it seems magnetically drawn to the pretty Helen, swimming up to the windows of its tank whenever she is nearby. Arnold films these sequences from over Helen's shoulder, watching as the creature floats on the other side of the glass, its eerie unseeing eyes staring straight ahead, its webbed and clawed hands flapping in the water, keeping itself level with Helen. It's a haunting image. Later, after the creature predictably makes its escape — don't these movie scientists ever learn what happens when you bring a dangerous monster back to civilization? — it stalks Helen at her hotel. In one of the film's most frankly sexual images, this scaly voyeur stands outside the glass doors of Helen's room, watching as she strips off her bathrobe, standing briefly in her white underwear inside the bathroom door. Arnold watches, a voyeur himself, from behind the creature, creating a striking multi-layered image: the creature outside, the glass door, the room separating him from Helen, the woman standing in the door frame in the distance, her face reflected in the bathroom mirror. It is a telescopic composition, an image of separation and yearning.

Still later, this voyeuristic creature watches from within the reeds at the bottom of a riverbed as Helen and Clete frolic in the water together, in love and sensually enjoying one another's presence. They embrace beneath the water, sinking together, Helen's hair gracefully waving upwards, its strands mirroring the gyrating motion of the seaweed. This scene recalls the underwater ballet between the creature and Julie Adams in the first film; it's another lovely, eerie underwater dance, the two lovers embracing as the creature lurks, unseen, in the darkness. The creature is continually taunted by the image of human love, of physical closeness. After its escape, while hiding in the ocean, it sees a young couple kissing in their car. Arnold cuts to this image abruptly, in a close-up of jarring physicality; the couple's faces are mashed together, as though they were trying to swallow one another's heads. But they drive off before the creature can lumber over to them. In another scene, the creature crawls out of the water just as Helen and Clete are finishing another kiss and walking away. The creature is a sexually frustrated outsider, basically, always looking in at the humans who seem to be having such fun together. No wonder it's so enraged, always kidnapping pretty girls and dragging them away, holding them in its arms as though they were brides being carried across the threshold.

As in the first film, the non-creature material here is pretty weak, the acting only slightly better than in the first and the writing just as hackneyed and stiff. There is an interesting shift in the treatment of the woman scientist, at least: whereas in the first film she was portrayed as a total rube, requiring instruction in the basics of biology, here she's usually the one explaining things for the audience, spitting out whatever watered-down science made it into the script. There's also a strange scene where she and Clete discuss whether she should continue being a scientist or get married and have children instead. "I'm a man, I don't have to choose," says Clete, but she does: "That's just the way it is." It's both a reflection of the time in which the film was made and a roundabout criticism of that time: both Clete and Helen say how unfair it is, how she shouldn't have to choose. Of course, ultimately she does anyway, and you can guess which alternative she opts for. On the whole, Revenge of the Creature doesn't maintain the taut, suspenseful aura of dread that ran all through the first film, and it repeats too many scenes from the first film nearly verbatim. But its second half, with the creature's escape and psychosexual stalking of Helen, is even more engaging and creepy than its predecessor.

For the third and final Creature film, The Creature Walks Among Us, director Jack Arnold was replaced by John Sherwood. This third film is decidedly lower budget than the first two films, and its cheap quickie production shows through in every aspect. The plot diverts from the straightforward monster attack premise of the first two films, and the Gill Man itself does very little here, stepping out of the spotlight in its own movie. The film opens with yet another intrepid scientific expedition out to capture the creature to advance their research. This team is led by the mad William Barton (Jeff Morrow), who is convinced that he can transform the creature through surgery and genetic engineering, making it capable of surviving on land for extended periods of time, bringing it closer to humanity. The rest of his team, including fellow scientist Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason) and guide Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), aren't so sure, and they're skeptical of Barton's eagerness to tamper with nature.

In any event, the creature is caught once again, and through surgery it's transformed from a creature of the sea to an air-breathing land creature — it seems the creature had lungs all along, and all the doctors have to do is switch the internal paths around a bit. This dubious bit of science then, even more improbably, leads to massive mutations of the creature, simplifying its bodily structure towards a more humanoid form: remaking its face, eliminating its dramatic claws, streamlining its form. Most of these mutations, besides being utterly ludicrous (even in a series whose entire premise is kind of silly to begin with), are self-evidently intended not for narrative effect but to explain away the obvious budgetary modifications that have been made to the creature's design by this point. Jack Kevan's creepy, iconic monster design from the first two films has been discarded, other than several shots of the creature swimming that are recycled directly from the other films. This new monster is kind of lame, and looks especially silly once the scientists put clothes on him. He looks like a big hulking guy with a funny face in a prison jumpsuit, no longer the instantly recognizable creature of the first two films.

Once the creature is on land, he's sidelined, given little to do as the plot focuses on the marital drama between Barton and his wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden). Barton is a paranoid, possessive, rabidly jealous man, and his brutal temperament has driven his loyal, patient wife away from him. She still resists the crude come-ons of Grant, but this doesn't stop Barton from berating and mocking her, treating her with cruelty even as she remains loyal to him. The parallels to the horror plot are obvious: whether creatures are inherently brutal and evil or if they only respond to their environments; whether we're evolving as a species, reaching for the stars, or still tied to our roots in the primordial jungle. The scripts for these films haven't gotten any more thematically subtle, but this one actually has the most fleshed-out characters and actors who are up to the task of conveying some emotions other than fear of a monster. The problem is that all this has little to do with the actual monster, who increasingly seems like set decoration, its reaction shots cut into the middle of dramatic scenes as it watches the domestic squabbles of the scientists.

Even so, the film does offer the genuine pleasure of some typically gorgeous underwater photography during the opening scenes, particularly a trippy sequence in which Marcia suffers from pressure sickness, reacting as though drunk while diving with the scientists. She twirls through the water, dancing as she floats, arching her body back, like a graceful ballerina levitating high above her stage. It recalls the haunting underwater choreography of the first two films, and despite the absence of the creature (except in spliced-in B-roll clips) this is probably the best underwater sequence in the whole series, a hallucinogenic depiction of the undersea world, a dance glimpsed through a haze of crystalline air bubbles. That the film's best moments don't feature the titular monster at all, however, says something about how slapdash this production was, a hastily assembled last cash-in on the franchise.


Greg said...

don't these movie scientists ever learn what happens when you bring a dangerous monster back to civilization?

And dangle a pretty lady in front of their eyes. They're always dangling the pretty ladies in front of them. Morons!

This was a great overview Ed. I've never actually seen the third installment, just the first two. I saw the first (probably already mentioned this) for the first time in a theatre with 3-D glasses as it was meant to be seen thanks to a revival theatre that put it on a double bill with It Came From Outer Space.

I'll have to see that third installment one of these days although it does sound pretty dreadful. Still, I can't claim to be a creature completist until I do (not that I ever have claimed that).

Thanks again for this. Look forward to your other posts throughout the week.

Ed Howard said...

Seriously, for scientists they're not too swift. I mean, I can't blame the creature -- they got some especially pretty girls for these films. The poor creature's all confused; dangle a pretty girl in his face and then get all mad at him when he wants to do something about it.

I'd love to see the first Creature in 3D, I bet it's a blast. The third one definitely isn't a blast, except if you want to laugh at how silly it is and how ridiculous the creature looks. Or if you want to admire the actually really beautiful underwater dancing at the beginning.

Sam Juliano said...

Of course, the screen debut of Clint Eastwood is now one of this film's most famous trivia notes, but aside from that you have again captured what I would consider to be this noted Universal monster's most fascinating traits, as a sexually-repressed outsider who is looking in on all the fun. This is the wekest series in the Universal horror pantheon, even falling below the extended Mummy and Invisible Man spin-offs. But that's not because the underwater sequences aren't as impressively choreographed visually, as you rightly contend, but rather because the writing, acting and mise en scene is just so pedestrian (and boring).

But again, as I expressed in my comments under the more recently-posted Arnold piece, these movies get a "free pass" from me, as they define a period in my life that I am simply unwilling to scrutinize. That said, of course I agree that the last film is barely watchable, while the second was only marginally better.

Richard Bellamy said...

"In one of the film's most startling, dazzling sequences, the creature glides along beneath the water as above it, bathing beauty Kay (Julie Adams) swims leisurely along the surface of the lagoon." Spielberg HAD TO BE thinking of this scene when he filmed his opening shark attack.

I saw the original Creature From the Black Lagoon in 3-D at an arthouse. The 3-D does little for the film - and it's funny how you don't remember a film for the 3-D - you remember it for its other qualities - at least that's the way it is for me.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, I forgot to mention Clint, who makes his debut here and also appears as the jet pilot at the end of Tarantula, definitely a funny beginning to his career. I don't know if I agree that these films are so much worse than the Universal series, though. Almost all these films were relatively weak in terms of plotting and non-monster stuff, with interesting scenes scattered throughout. Watching these films now is a process of hunting through the debris looking for the gems. But certainly the gems are often worth the search.

Hokahey, that's a great point about Spielberg. I'm sure he studied that sequence closely.

Rick Olson said...

This is very nice. I particularly like your dissection of the psychosexual stuff, but it's damn fine writing overall.