Creature Features

‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (1954): Bathing Beauty and the Beast

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Kay (Julie Adams) over-reacts to the Gill-man’s “embrace” in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Though not part of Universal Picture’s original classic-monster contingent (i.e., Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and others), the titular Creature (aka the “Gill-man,” alternately played on land by six-foot, four-inch Ben Chapman and in the water by champion swimmer Ricou Browning) became part of the 1950s generation of screen demons with this tightly scripted, expertly executed sci-fi shocker.

The story takes place in an uncharted region of the Amazon (near the so-called Black Lagoon), where geologist Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and his assistants, Luis and Tomas, uncover a fossilized hand of something resembling a cross between a man and a sea creature — the missing link perhaps? Who can tell? Dr. Maia takes the object to a marine biology institute in Morajo Bay for further study, leaving his two assistants behind. No sooner has Maia gone, however, when the real-life Creature decides to pay a visit to the camp in order to spread a little panic. How dare these men invade his abode!

Upon his arrival at the institute, Dr. Maia shows his unusual discovery to former student, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), to Reed’s colleague and girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams, billed as “Julia” in the credits), and to their publicity-starved financial backer, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning). Both ichthyologist Reed and sponsor Mark are intrigued by the web-fingered fossil. Why, this could turn out to be the discovery of a lifetime! So where could they find the complete skeleton, they wonder.

David (Richard Carlson), Kay (Julie Adams), Mark (Richard Denning) & Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell) examine the Creature’s fossilized hand

The farsighted scientist in David sees the infinite possibilities of deriving hidden secrets from this incredible find: how humans can adapt to hostile environments, and how they may be able to evolve in highly pressurized worlds dissimilar from our own. On the practical side of things, Mark can only ponder the real-world costs of such an endeavor.

“If I sound more like a banker than a scientist,” Mark relays to the team, “try to remember that it takes money to run an institute like ours.”

With that said, the group prepares to leave the following morning for Manaus, in northern Brazil. They charter a motor-powered boat, the Rita, captained by the gregarious, cigar-chomping Lucas (Nestor Paiva), to sail up the Amazon River. Lucas regales his passengers with tall tales about the local wildlife. “Like everything in this jungle, all killers.”

Arriving at the camp, the scientists, accompanied by Dr. Edward Thompson (Whit Bissell), along with skipper Lucas and his men, find the place deserted and the two assistants dead. “There’s only one explanation,” posits the literal-minded Lucas. “The country is full of wild animals. I think maybe jaguar. Jaguar’s claws, they rip like this.” A comforting thought, indeed.

Nevertheless, the group spends an entire week digging through the side of an embankment, only to come up empty handed. Giving the matter some thought, David reasons that if they sail to the end of the tributary, they might find the skeletal remains of the Creature they’ve been looking for. Mark is all for turning failure into success, without a thought to the dangers inherent in setting foot in unexplored territory — especially with a woman around.

Little do they realize that the Creature they are longing to unearth is very much alive, and has set his sights (and claws) on the luscious Ms. Adams. It’s not quite Beauty and the Beast with a fairy-tale “happy ending,” but this will do for now. The men don their scuba gear (using the term “aqualung”) and go off to explore the area.

While David and Mark search for undersea rock samples, Kay decides to take a dip in the mysterious waters of the Black Lagoon, which becomes a major character in itself. Wearing a stunning white bathing suit no less (with stunt work provided by Ginger Stanley), Kay’s languid swimming strokes are mimicked by the pursuing Gill-man just out of her reach. Their dual motions soon develop into a sinister undersea dance if not a mesmerizing mating ritual.

Kay enjoys a dip in the Black Lagoon, with the Gill-man following underneath

Suddenly, there’s a shout that something has been caught in their fishing net. It’s the Gill-man, who manages to escape detection, but leaves behind one of his claws. The scientists have now been alerted to the Creature’s presence. Immediately, David mounts an effort to photograph the beast in its aquatic environment. However, Mark has other ideas.

“This thing alive and in its natural habitat is valuable to us,” David remarks.

But Mark will have none of it: “Why settle for a photo when we can get the real thing?”

“You don’t sound like a scientist, but like some big-game hunter out for the kill.”

“We may not be back home, David, but you’re still working for me.”

The two men clash over their separate views (the theme of science versus economics) and the efficacy of their respective motives: David wants to study and learn from the Creature, while Mark wants to exploit it for monetary purposes. “We must have the proof,” Mark strongly voices later on. When they resume their underwater exploration, Mark manages to take a pot-shot at the Gill-man with his spear gun, but misses the target.

Undeterred, the men use a native substance derived from plant roots to drug the poor Creature. As the Creature comes up for air, it falls back into the water. David and Mark swim out to where it disappeared to prevent it from drowning. Upon finding the Gill-man prostrate, Mark bashes it with the oar from their boat.

“We got him! We got him!” gloats the money-hungry Mark.

“Don’t kill him!” David shouts, as he stops Mark from further harming the beast. Mark thinks only of bringing back evidence of their discovery, dead or alive (preferably dead). Still, the men agree to house the Creature in a wooden cage onboard ship while keeping the monster alive. But who is the real monster?

That night, Dr. Thompson is on watch. Kay comes out of her room to talk with Thompson. Unseen by either of them, the Gill-man escapes his confines and attacks Dr. Thompson. When Kay throws a lighted lantern at it, the Creature dives back into the water, leaving the terrified Kay and seriously-wounded Thompson behind. David insists that they leave this place, but Mark is dead-set against it. “Without taking what we came for?”

David counters his argument with a reasonable one of his own: “We didn’t come here to fight monsters. We came here to find fossils.”

After extensive back and forth, Captain Lucas makes the decision to depart. But as the Rita tries to pull out of the lagoon, their way is blocked by strategically placed logs (the Gill-man has strong survival instincts as well as rational thought processes), thus preventing the little ship from maneuvering. Suffice it to say that Mark gets his comeuppance. The Creature abducts Kay and brings her to his lair. What its intentions are at this point are never made clear, mostly because David manages to free Kay as the remaining survivors, Lucas and Maia, shoot the Gill-man dead.

In a final burst of compassion, David tells the others to let the Creature go.

Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva), Kay, David, and Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), after plugging the Creature with bullets

Great underwater photography and a terrific (but repetitive) film score by the trio of Henry Mancini, Herman Stein, and Hans J. Salter, who were Universal’s resident composers of science-fiction and horror thrillers, made Creature from the Black Lagoon a box-office hit.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, director Jack Arnold was a stage and screen actor before turning to directing and producing documentaries for the U.S. government and for private industry. His first feature-length documentary was With These Hands (1950) about the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. It was followed by Girls in the Night and his first science-fiction foray, It Came from Outer Space (both 1953) – see the following link for my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/it-came-from-outer-space-1953-strangers-in-a-strange-land/.

With a screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross, the film was produced by William Alland (the reporter Mr. Thompson in Citizen Kane), who credited the original story to Orson Welles. The Creature design and concept art was the handiwork of the uncredited Millicent Patrick, with makeup design by Bud Westmore. And principal photography was provided by William E. Snyder.

Underwater photography was handled by the team of James C. Havens and Scotty Welbourne. Most of the indoor scenes were shot in Hollywood, but many of the outdoor and underwater sequences took place at Wakulla Springs State Park in the Tallahassee, Florida region.

Originally released in simultaneous 3-D and flat versions, this now-classic monster flick was good enough to have spawned two sequels: Revenge of the Creature (1955) also directed by Arnold, with John Agar, Lori Nelson, John Bromfield, the returning Nestor Paiva, and a young Clint Eastwood in the minor role of a lab assistant; and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) under John Sherwood’s direction, starring Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason (both fresh from Universal’s This Island Earth), along with Leigh Snowden and Ricou Browning again (in wet water) and Don Megowan (on dry land) as the Creature.

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) was his modern-day homage to the original. In this fantasy-horror-cum-science fiction romance, the “Asset” (the director’s name for the Creature) is a benign and sympathetic protagonist, while the main female character, Elisa Esposito, acts as its guardian-protector as well as the object of its affection.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘It Came from Outer Space’ (1953): Strangers in a Strange Land

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The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)
The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)

An imaginary Arizona locale and desert town is the eerie setting for science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s story of alien visitors from another world who, on their mission to a different part of the galaxy, accidentally crash land on planet Earth.

Writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson), a recent resident of the aptly named Sand Rock, is sharing a cozy, romantic evening with local girl Ellen Fields (beautiful Barbara Rush), a grade-school teacher by profession. Suddenly, the couple witnesses a fiery meteor (or something close to it) streak across the nighttime sky.

Wasting no time, the curious pair drives out to the nearby crash site. As Putnam approaches what he believes to be a spacecraft of some kind, an unexpected landslide buries the contents within — but not before he (and the viewer, ostensibly) get a glimpse of what lies inside.

Hideous and horrible, the aliens are not your garden variety space invaders, but are instead intelligent and, it is later learned, benign beings with expansive minds and souls of their own. Unfortunately, they also have single bulbous eyes, amorphous, gelatinous bodies and the ability to assume the identity and appearance of the local populace.

Ellen (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) through the looking glass
Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) peer through the looking glass, or telescope in this case

Even worse, not everyone shares Putnam’s interest and curiosity about the alien visitors, especially after several of the town’s citizens mysteriously disappear and the only hardware store in sight is robbed of its electrical supplies. Hmm …? What could those pesky aliens want with electrical supplies? Maybe, repair their damaged ship? Or get going with their interrupted mission?

Fear and paranoia soon grip the dusty abode, which is patrolled by chain-smoking Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake). An old boyfriend of Ellen’s, Matt is overly protective of her and skeptical of Putnam’s crackpot theories about aliens. He’s not too keen on strangers either, benign or otherwise.

“Why don’t they come out into the open?” Matt asks Putnam.

“Because they don’t trust us,” Putnam replies. “Because what we don’t understand we want to destroy.”

“I kill only what tries to kill me,” Matt fires back.

Putnam tries to talk some sense into the highly strung lawman. He points to an approaching arachnid. “That spider. Why are you afraid of it? Because it has eight legs? Because its mouth moves from side to side instead of up and down? If it came at you, what would you do?”

“This,” as the sheriff crushes the spider under his boot. Point taken, point made!

Despite this seeming setback, Putnam is able to convince Matt to give him and the alien visitors more time to repair their ship. The aliens eventually release their captives and, returning to their original disgusting forms, leave the Earth in the same manner in which they approached, spewing forth a fiery trail in the sky.

Alien spacecraft from It Came from Outer Space
Alien spacecraft crashes to the Earth in It Came from Outer Space (1953)

A true classic of the genre, It Came from Outer Space tries to live down that egregious title and live up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the few soberly-minded and intelligently conceived sci-fi flicks of the 1950s.

Originally filmed in the 3-D process (though always shown flat in its television screenings), It Came from Outer Space was Universal-International’s first foray into the science-fiction field. In fact, the 3-D effects are rather subdued and less “in-your-face” than other examples from the period. For pure shock value, a creepy film score (credited to Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, and Herman Stein) penetrates the soundtrack whenever the aliens are caught looming about. You may remember this theme from the old Saturday night Creature Features showcase from the 1960s and ’70s.

One of the unfortunate aspects of this and other similar releases at the time was the studio’s bowing to Fifties convention, whereby the men are given the decisive, upright role as defenders of the realm — true movers and shakers, for good or for bad (see Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World).

This attitude relegated most of the women’s parts to pure window dressing or easily excitable observers. The scene in which Barbara Rush, as Ellen, answers the doorbell and screams her fool head off as she spots a boy decked out in a space invader’s outfit (with toy ray-gun in hand), is a good example of old-fashioned female hysterics.

Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space
Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space

Curiously, in another scene, the behavior of a sobbing Mrs. Frank Daylon (Virginia Mullen), the wife of one of the missing telephone linemen, contrasts sharply with that of the other missing lineman’s floozy girlfriend, Jane Dean (Kathleen Hughes). While Mrs. Daylon expresses spousal concern that Frank (Joe Sawyer) had skipped his meal and hasn’t been “himself” of late, Jane is more flippant about Frank’s partner, George (Russell Johnson): “His landlady told me he skipped dinner. That ain’t like George, not with his appetite.”

I’ll bet!

At 81 minutes, the film is compact and concise. The special effects (done via mirrors, split-screens, double exposures, swirling mists, and such) are state-of-the-art, for the era. And despite the description of the scene with Ellen, the acting is relatively low key. Subtlety and nuance, an inescapable feeling of being watched, and an uneasy atmosphere of impending dread are underscored in the thoughtfully developed dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Harry Essex. The black-and-white cinematography (by Clifford Stine) stresses the silvery noir elements. The picture was partially filmed on location in the surrounding Mojave Desert area of California, which lent a good deal of authenticity.

Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in 3-D
Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in incredible 3-D

The movie also boosted the career of veteran documentary-maker and director Jack Arnold. Arnold went on to lend credibility to the burgeoning sci-fi arena with his subsequent outings, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), with Carlson again in the lead, Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula (both from 1955 and both starring John Agar), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a classic among classics, and the underrated The Space Children (1958).

In many ways, It Came from Outer Space is as rich and timely today as it ever was. Its lessons about reaching out to those in need, who may be as different from us as night is from day; to extend a helping hand and grasp the thing we’re most repelled by — by learning to overcome our basest fears and instinct for survival, while trying to understand the abnormal ways of others — continue to fascinate as well as entertain.

As the bulbous creatures fly off into the night, Putnam looks back at them in wonder and awe: “It wasn’t the right time for us to meet,” he contemplates solemnly. “But there’ll be other nights, other stars to watch. They’ll be back.”

Indeed they will — and quite a different message from the earlier The Thing, where audiences were issued a dire warning to keep watching the skies for trouble, or the one delivered by the cultivated Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, about our bringing violence to other planets: “The Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

We need only examine another “alien invasion” feature in French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Arrival (2016), which starred Amy Adams in a glowing performance as a linguist charged with translating an indecipherable alien language that could save the world from unintended destruction.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes