February 12, 2019
On Its 65th Anniversary, ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ Still Looms Large Over Modern Cinema
(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood or how classic Hollywood continues to influence modern filmmaking.)
In 1954, a little feature called Creature From the Black Lagoon crawled up from the seas of Universal Studios to terrorize audiences. While never taken as seriously as other Universal monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, the Gill-Man has created his own cult-like following that’s kept the film in the public consciousness for the past 65 years. When Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water was released in 2017 with its story about a woman who falls in love with a similar aquatic creature, the director was vocal about the film’s chief influence being the original Creature From the Black Lagoon.
The horror classic premiered 65 years ago today, so it’s worth exploring all three Creature films to examine how they hold up in 2019.
The Creature Versus Man
Books and movies about expeditions to find some form of primitive or extraordinary creature are legion, from Moby Dick to Anaconda. Creature From the Black Lagoon follows a group of explorers hunting in the Amazon for a mysterious half-man/half-fish creature, and like most hunted species throughout popular culture, the Gill-Man is presented as smarter than the men hunting him. Dr. David Reed and Mark Williams (Richard Carlson and Richard Denning) represent physical perfection, as evidenced by their constantly unclothed bodies and perfect hair, but the Gill-Man is smarter in his primitiveness. He’s survived as an anomaly to man, and for all the doctors’ attempts to capture him, the creature eludes them in one way or another (for three movies no less).
Science in cinema throughout the ‘50s was presented as being pretentious and above that of common sense and facts, with the creature bridging both elements. He’s both an example of a primitive species yet is special because of the genetic links he represents. Much of the third film, 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us, concerns turning the Gill-Man into a proper human and thus removing his special qualities (with disastrous results).
Much like The Shape of Water, the sole goal of capturing him is to perform experiments on him and, eventually, kill him entirely. Man in all three films is presented as the enemy, whether it’s to capture the Gill-Man in the first, keep him confined and shown off to the masses in 1955’s Revenge of the Creature, or to finally destroy him for good in The Creature Walks Among Us.
There’s an element of fame inherent in capturing the Gill-Man, much like there is with films like Anaconda. Where the Gill-Man represents both an evolutionary link to our primitive past, he also comes to stand-in for a wealth of minority groups oppressed at the time. When the Gill-Man is captured in Revenge of the Creature, he’s placed in an aquarium, no different than a trained seal, leaving the audience to question the role of colonialism and exploitation of marginalized people like the Native Americans who commonly performed for audiences in places like Disneyland (which, ironically, opened the same year as Revenge of the Creature’s release).
The Creature Versus Changing Femininity
When Guillermo del Toro made The Shape of Water, he mentioned a key moment in his main inspiration was the relationship between the Gill-Man and the beautiful Kay, played the late Julie Adams. Interestingly, all three Creature films have presented femininity in unique and different ways. Kay is not just David’s girlfriend but also his colleague. For the 1950s, she’s educated and not content to stay at home (or out of the water). While David and Mark fight over who’s more masculine, Kay is engaging in her own unconscious flirtation with the Gill-Man. At one point, their swimming in unison emphasizes their compatibility, far more than her performative chemistry with the human man she’s supposed to love. If anything, the Gill-Man’s continued abductions of Kay are meant to liberate her from the staid world of being David’s future housewife.
This need to act as liberator continues with 1955’s Revenge of the Creature, where the Gill-Man becomes little more than an observer to the mating rituals of a pretty student (already demoted in terms of skill level), Helen (Lori Nelson) and the two men who captured and keep the creature confined. All nuance is thrown out the window here as the Gill-Man seems to just be obsessed with Helen because she’s a female – illustrating claims many have laid out that the Creature From the Black Lagoon series perpetuates racial stereotypes regarding a foreign Other lusting after white women.
The Creature Walks Among Us holds the harshest critique against men, the most powerful woman, and the greatest comparison to The Shape of Water. In this final installment paranoid scientist Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) hopes to kill the Gill-Man once and for all. He’s also incredibly wary about his wife, Marcia (Leigh Snowden) falling into the hands of another man. Like Michael Shannon’s Agent Strickland in The Shape of Water, Barton isn’t interested in anything more than his own selfish pride. The Gill-Man holds no scientific promise for Barton, but is an object, no different from the wife he chronically abuses and controls.
More than Kay and Helen, Marcia is the most progressive woman in the Creature universe who doesn’t need any man (or fish/man) at all. She wields a gun with expert precision, and it’s strictly the men who perceive her as a sex object instead of the capable woman she demonstrates herself to be. This film also significantly downplays the romance between Gill-Man and woman, with the monster fleeing human society because he’s about to be blamed for a murder. Because he is being transformed into an actual man, being accused of murder is the final straw for him that compels the creature to return to the sea. Like Marcia, relationships and love aren’t important for the creature. Instead, it is personal autonomy that is paramount.
The Creature From the Black Lagoon and its sequels are hokey, but that camp quality allows strings of subversion regarding gender roles to creep through. The interaction between the monstrous and the feminine converges to great effect in a movie that’s lost none of its entertainment in 65 years.
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