The creature from the black lagoon is not very frightening. Perhaps sixty years ago it was, but nowadays, it really just looks like a man in a big fish suit creeping around a swamp and lusting after ‘50s pin-up girls masquerading as scientist assistants. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, it’s still a fun movie to watch, but I’d say you’re more likely to laugh than to scream in horror when this creature approaches from the deep, doing its stilted version of the breaststroke (which looks pretty much just like what you’d think it would look like when a stunt man is squeezed into a body suit and told ‘Swim like a lizard, Gerry!’ when its 5AM in 1954).
The creature has it rough in this movie. No sooner is its ancestor’s fossilized arm discovered by an excitable European scientist in the Amazon than a search party begins to look for its like, led by the overly ambitious Mark (an American banker/fundraiser/token greedy heartless bastard) followed by the handsome and openminded anthropologist David and his swooning girlfriend-assistant Kay, along with a charming South American boat captain named Logan, who always seems to awkwardly hold a smile on his cigar-laden face for a beat too long after he’s told someone an interesting tidbit about the Amazonian rainforest. Once this starch-white band of explorers finds the creature in question, Mark leads a nonstop hunt to kill it, bring it to the public, and make “millions”. Of course, the rest of the crew sees the creature in a more scientific, compassionate light, but by the end of the movie, the creature has been harpooned three times, set on fire by having a lantern smashed over its head, chemically poisoned by some strange toxic concoction, caught and trapped in a rope net and beaten with a shovel, although of course it never dies, because there are sequels. Poor Gerry!
It was hard for me not to feel sorry for this amphibious, mysteriously violent creature from the deep. There are a couple scenes where you see its head close up, and it looks just like a bald, wrinkly old man with gills, slowly puffing its lips out and sucking for air like a little fish does, with these big, obviously fake beady eyes that never really look at anything, just seeming generally disoriented. I was constantly worried it was going to bump into something — watch out! Was the director providing a not-so-subtle metaphor for his fear of aging? That may be a stretch, but was this ever really very scary?
A mysterious question raised by this movie (or, perhaps we should say: ignored by this movie) is why does it kill? Is it for fun and sport? The creature doesn’t eat anybody…The first thing it does in the movie, besides providing a nice cliched shot of its clawed, webbed arm reaching out of the swamp and grasping at literally nothing is to senselessly murder two local young men and then run away. Was it just having a really bad morning? We are left to wonder. It certainly has a penchant for young Kay, however, as it is enthralled when it sees her recklessly (but very gracefully) swimming in its swamp. If you took the scene where it approaches her from below and grasps at her bare leg a couple times, only to pull its hand away, tortured by its confounding desire and curiosity and yet driven perhaps by a need to kill, or maybe just to get laid (there aren’t many lady-creatures from the deep that we know of), and put it on stage in a nouveau-art dance piece, you might have a cute little scene about longing and repressed desire and the like. Put it in context, however, and it’s a bit strange, and if we were to assume the director was providing some kind of metaphorical physical expression of longing between his two characters, we would likely be giving him too much credit. The idea is the creature is halfway between man and lizard/fish, and so it’s the man-half part that’s into the girl. She, however, is not so smitten. Once again, it’s hard not to empathize.
Believe it or not, The Creature From the Black Lagoon tries desperately to place its narrative within the sweeping context of evolution, man’s place in the cosmos, and our biological origins as beings who emerged from the watery depths of the sea. The film begins with a serious narration and fuzzy ‘50s visuals depicting the origins of the cosmos, the birth of the world, the expansion of the oceans, and finally pans to a shot of webbed footprints on the earth, symbolizing our journey from the ocean to the land we now live on, and tying our own status as land animals to the mysterious swamp creature we are about to see viciously persecuted for an hour and twenty minutes. The pressing question I want to ask is: why? The answer I’ve come to, after an interesting conversation with my Dad, is that the movie is evidently being pulled in different directions, likely by different creators involved. Why would you frame a creature-feature in such an overwrought evolutionary context, unless it was to try to create a sense of verisimilitude in the same way The Twilight Zone would try to imbue its episodes with the serious tone of a TV series commenting on our actual world? However, if the director was trying to make any serious statement about man’s relationship to his nature by drawing comparisons to the real world, he quickly ceded the investigation when he decided to show absolutely no details surrounding the creature’s origin, its motivations, its natural tendencies, its intelligence, etc. etc., and opted instead to depict it as a randomly violent killer with no further depth to be explored. Perhaps this points to more than one person influencing the movie’s development: maybe the director wanted the tone of realistic science fiction, but the production team needed a senseless horror flick, and decided to cut any sections that brought real sympathy to the creature, because all that would do is make the audience feel something besides fear. Of course, what’s odd about this film as a creature feature is that everyone on the boat besides Mark wants to deal with the creature in a humane way, certainly not kill it — you’d never see that in Anaconda or Alien or Jaws. Sympathizing towards a monster is more like what we read in Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein (but certainly not in the campy movie remake, which is a clear example of a production team pulling sympathy and emotional depth from a story for cheap thrills and shock factor). It seems to me to me that The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a film being pulled haphazardly in a few different directions, and since that makes it lose its focus, it is less successful in actually going somewhere as a film; but the fact that it’s oddly multidimensional makes it an interesting movie to talk about.
As a creature-feature it succeeds in being fun to watch, and whether that was because of intentional choices or just the joy of watching dated horror, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I recommend it to anyone looking for an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours, and for fans of classic creature features. Enjoy!