Universal // 1954 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 23rd, 2000
Not since the beginning of time has the world beheld terror like this!
Bridging the gap between the classic Universal horror films of the '30s to the monster pics of the '50s and '60s is Creature of the Black Lagoon, a derivative and formulaic monster flick but has endured in the hearts of fans; reaching the status of cult classic. Still, it has aspects that make it special, such as it having been the first underwater 3d film, and has an environmentalist message for those who care to look for it. Fans of the gill man and classic monster movies in general will be happy with this latest release in the Universal Classic Monster Collection.
Richard Carlson, a staple of '50s monster flicks, plays scientist David Reed, who seeks to better understand the ways in which life moved from the sea to land in the world's beginning. He and his lovely fiancé Kay (Julie Adams) are doing undersea research when they meet a friend and fellow scientist who has made a remarkable discovery. He has unearthed a fossilized hand of a humanoid amphibian in the Amazon, and the scientists, along with department head and financing specialist Mark Williams (Richard Denning) head up the Amazon to see what they can find. What they find is that the creature still exists, and has killed the native helpers left behind at the camp. Following the flow of the stream to where they think the rest of the fossilized remains will be, they enter the Black Lagoon, a paradise that no one has returned from. When Kay decides to take a solitary swim in the lagoon, the creature follows her, and apparently is quite smitten. In scenes that it seems Jaws paid homage to later, we see the creature approaching the beauty from below.
Finally the scientists find the creature, and the debate ensues. Mark would just as soon kill and stuff the creature while David wants to study him in his native habitat. It seems the creature will take that decision out of their hands as he seems only interested in capturing the beautiful Kay and killing anyone else who gets in his way.
Jack Arnold is the king of '50s monster flicks, having directed It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, often considered his best work. Still Creature is perhaps the best known, mostly due to the creature himself. The distinctive look and flexibility of what ultimately was still a man in a rubber suit brought praise from many, and became an instant icon. The fluid grace with which Ricoh Browning moves through the water in the suit gives the gill man a sense of near-realism. He also manages to evince a poignant, yearning quality, and manages to give sympathy to the monster, one of the key aspects of the Universal monster classics. The film makes it apparent that the humans are the interlopers here, and the creature is defending his turf.
The cinematography is striking in it's imagery as well. Pioneering work in underwater photography made it possible to really follow along with the action under the water, and those scenes are particularly beautiful. I can only imagine what it must have been like seeing this in 3d as it was originally photographed. Fortunately Arnold did not attempt to make the 3d be the main selling point and overwhelm the viewer, or else those of us watching it in 2 dimensions later would not have the same affection for it. Filmed in black and white, the use of light and shadow is excellent, belying its humble monster movie roots.
The score is perhaps one of the most recognizable in monster movie history. From the quiet strains of a young Henry Mancini to the jarring sibilant tones whenever the monster makes an appearance, it is a piece of movie history. Many films later would borrow elements from it.
Unlike earlier monster movies, the scientist becomes the hero in the tale. Instead of some megalomaniacal quest for power or prestige he becomes the guardian of the lagoon, wishing only to learn from nature rather than exploit it. This gives the film a refreshing quality, and perhaps is part of why it has become a classic.
The story itself is derivative of two main sources; Burrough's "The Lost World" and King Kong. The best of these classic monster movies used the device of "Beauty and the Beast," and here that story is enacted in a world that time forgot. While it may just be an "undersea King Kong," it still has a charm of its own. Creature From the Black Lagoon is a B-movie classic.
Fans of the Creature will be pleased with the DVD treatment of this classic. The original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is maintained, and while there are some slight evidences of wear and age, they are minimal the image quality is strikingly sharp and clear. In a couple scenes there is a bit of contrast shifting, and there are a few nicks, but overall the quality is excellent, especially considering the age of the film. The sunlight breaking through the water is particularly pleasing, and the shadow detail is terrific, with deep blacks and clear highlights. I found no artifacts to cause any distraction or problem added to the source elements.
The soundtrack is a pleasant 2 channel mono; with a very low noise floor and no noticeable hiss. The score has a great deal of clarity and even the high notes come through, despite the limited fidelity typical of these older mono tracks. Dialogue is always easily understood, without harshness or distortion.
As has become usual for Universal on these monster classics, there is a wealth of extra material. Film historian Tom Weaver (who also did the commentary for The Wolf Man, which I must see) has a feature length commentary track, and never have I heard a track from someone more prepared and full of information. He has to speak fast to get through all the historical information as well as providing scene by scene commentary, and it can be a little difficult to keep up with him, but you will practically get a college course in the film by the time its over. This is what I want in my commentary tracks, so color me pleased. One particular bit of trivia I enjoyed was hearing how Bud Westmore, the head of Universal's makeup department, managed to grab sole credit for the creature's design, when in fact he had very little to do with it. Historian David J. Skal, who has been involved in all the Monster Classics, hosts a documentary "Back to the Black Lagoon" with interview footage of virtually everyone involved with the film who is still alive, including both actors who played the creature (Ricoh Browning in the water, Ben Chapman on land), and Julie Adams. It is a pity that director Jack Arnold died in 1997, and others also died only in the last year or two, but there is still a wealth of information here too. While there is some overlap, the differing perspectives in the documentary make for a fine experience even if you've heard the commentary. A photo gallery comes next, with pictures of lobby cards and posters giving way to publicity shots and production photos, lasting about 10 minutes. Cast and crew information, production notes, and several versions of the movie trailer (all going consecutively in one menu choice) complete the extras package. All told, a fine package for those who want to really learn about this classic film.
While I want to make clear my own affection for the film, and not denigrate it too far, it is still a B-movie done by the Universal movie-mill of the time. The acting ranges from decent to poor, with some characters having nothing to do but scream whenever they see the monster. Some of the dialogue is delivered in a stilted manner, and some of the plot devices a bit forced. Careful viewers will notice other minor flaws, such as when the creature is obviously standing on something rather than pulling himself out of the water, and even a telephone pole passing by in the supposedly virgin jungle of the Amazon. There is a continuity error or two as well, but the viewer is advised to look past all that and just enjoy it for its cheesy fun.
Creature From the Black Lagoon remains a monster movie classic, and deserves every bit of the treatment Universal has given it on this DVD. The film has influenced many that followed in its webbed footsteps, including Jaws. Fans of the film should snap this up, or perhaps the box set at the first opportunity. I'll be reviewing 3 more in this collection in the coming days, and can make a better determination for the box set at that time. So far, everything is looking very good on that score.
Universal, Jack Arnold, and all the rest involved in this film are acquitted, and I am happy to release this disc from my court to the classic horror fans around the world. I'm sure if I hadn't released it the creature would have escaped on his own, anyway.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track
* Photo Gallery
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Info