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Entries in Creature from the Black Lagoon [1954] (1)


Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

20,000 Leagues Above the Rest

Last night, I was privileged to see Creature from the Black Lagoon in a stunning 35 millimeter presentation. Chicago's Patio Theatre hosted a rare 3D screening, and even brought in star Julie Adams to greet fans and talk about her iconic movie. As film historian Foster Hirsch noted in his introduction, we were all about to experience Creature the way audiences did in 1954: in an opulent, single-screen movie palace with red-and-blue cardboard glasses.

He said something else that struck me. Before the advent of multiplexes, home video, and, now streaming media, movies were considered special events. Studios like Universal Pictures took them seriously, because not everyone churned out dozens of disposable features a year. This is precisely why Jack Arnold's tale of scientists encountering an angry, ancient mer-man is so much more than a cheesy monster movie; it's a thought-provoking, beautifully realized piece of art that enlightens as well as entertains.

It seems every thirty years, we're overrun with so-called advances in 3D technology. It Came from Outer Space kicked things off in 1953; Friday the 13th Part 3 resurrected the format nearly three decades later; and nowadays most everything is either shot in 3D or hastily post-converted--not in the name of bringing joy and innovation to ticket-holders, mind you, but to make the weight of those tickets considerably heavier. Modern audiences are especially hard to impress (or all-too-easily impressed, depending on how you look at things) because there's no perceived magic left in filmmaking: every flight of fancy imaginable can now be realized with high-end software; a multi-million-dollar network of render farms; and happy-to-be-employed effects artists working ungodly hours in the service of resumé-building.

Which is why experiencing Creature from the Black Lagoon in the way it was meant to be seen is such a treat. From the dawn-of-the-Earth opening narration to the spectacular underwater fight sequences captured by James Curtis Havens, there's a spirit-lifting sense that everything on-screen is real--or at least involves real people doing real things to realize them. Sure, much of the story takes place on a sound stage, but from a pure filmmaking standpoint, it's impossible not to marvel at Ricou Browning's balletic underwater movements as the mysterious Gill Man; especially considering the fact that he was in an elaborately detailed, visibility-quashing costume, which also concealed an oxygen tank.

Strip away the behind-the-scenes stuff, and you're still left with a really cool adventure. Creature pre-dates Jurassic Park and Alien by a country mile, but sci-fi fans who've not yet given this film a shot will recognize familiar elements from those staples in Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross' screenplay: archaeologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a strange, fossilized hand and forearm in Brazil, and enlists the help of marine biologist couple David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Adams) in helping him learn where the limb might have come from. Reed is beholden to a fame-hungry businessman named Mark Williams (Richard Denning), who agrees to fund the expedition--and winds up placing himself and his crew in danger for the sake of bringing back a saleable specimen.

Soon, the gang are floating down the Amazon on a ship crewed by expendable locals, looking for the legendary "Black Lagoon". They're stalked by the Gill Man, who emerges on land and skulks about the ship, killing those who get too close to the secret caverns he calls home. This being a classic Universal monster movie, the leading lady draws the beast's eye, and is embroiled in a climactic struggle between otherworldly passions and ultra-macho chivalry. Like Frankenstein, however, the "antagonist" is a misunderstood, curious animal who just wants to be left alone. And to the writers' credit, David and Kay are a funny, down-to-earth couple whom we really do want to see succeed (mostly--irony of ironies--against their jerk boss, Mark).

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a science-fiction picture first, and a creature-feature second. Today's so-called sci-fi movies and horror flicks are just excuses to put attractive people in jeopardy while showing off the latest CG-enhanced splatter gags (and, of course, to kickstart/perpetuate a franchise). Creature takes its time, building character motivation and setting up genuinely tricky situations for our heroes to work their way through.

At just eighty minutes long, this is one of the most substantial-feeling films, story-wise, you're likely to see, and not a cheesy jump-scare marathon with things poking out of the screen. If you have a chance to catch this on the big screen, and in 3D, you owe it to yourself to see what the art form looks like when filmmakers care more about depth-of-field in mundane scenes than how many asteroids they can (kindofnotreally) shoot past your head.

If you wonder why I'm harsh on many of today's effects-heavy blockbusters, check out this movie and consider all your questions answered. There's more soul, imagination, and recognizable humanity in Creature from the Black Lagoon than in the last decade's top-grossing movies. Yes, it's black-and-white; yes, the characters speak in a theatrical manner that may put off anyone under twenty-five; but I challenge newcomers to watch this triumph of technology and storytelling and not walk away amazed.