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Unlike their predecessors, horror films of the fifties often expressed moviegoers' growing fascination and anxiety about nuclear war, atomic radiation and extraterrestrial visitations through films like The Day the World Ended (1956), Them! (1954), and It Came From Outer Space (1953). One notable exception to this trend was Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), a throwback to the Universal creature features of the thirties and forties except that the title monster wasn't created in a mad scientist's laboratory. Instead, he's the last of a prehistoric species - half-man, half-fish - living undetected in a remote part of the Amazon jungle. Though dangerous to men, he poses a greater threat to women, particularly Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), the sole woman in a fossil-hunting expedition exploring the Amazon. A leering, phallic nightmare with a scaly body, webbed feet and claws, the gill man's interest in Kay is distinctly sexual from the moment he spies the heroine swimming above him in the river. Imitating her movements in the water, he performs a lascivious underwater ballet - his mating call - directly beneath her but she's oblivious to his amorous overtures in the murky depths. From this point on, Creature From the Black Lagoon plays like a less innocent version of Beauty and the Beast with the gill man determined to have the shapely Julie Adams, a desire most adolescent boys of that era could identify with. Just as Raquel Welch will be forever linked with her fur bikini outfit from One Million Years B.C. (1966), Ms. Adams will always be fondly remembered as the best bathing suit contestant among all the fifties scream queens.
Originally released in 3-D, Creature From the Black Lagoon would occasionally exploit that unique screen process during the underwater sequences but director Jack Arnold was primarily interested in creating an atmosphere of impending dread. In an interview, the director stated that "It plays upon a basic fear that people have about what might be lurking below the surface of any body of water. You know the feeling when you are swimming and something brushes your legs down there - it scares the hell out of you if you don't know what it is. It's the fear of the unknown. I decided to exploit this fear as much as possible in filming The Creature From the Black Lagoon." Steven Spielberg certainly took a cue from Arnold; his opening shark attack in Jaws (1975) in which we get a tantalizing underwater view of the female swimmer is clearly an homage to Creature From the Black Lagoon.
Interestingly enough, Creature From the Black Lagoon was inspired by a Mexican folk tale. Producer William Alland recalled (in Tom Weaver's collection of interviews, Monsters, Mutants and Heavenly Creatures) a dinner with Orson Welles, Dolores Del Rio and Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa in which the latter described "this creature that lives up in the Amazon...Once a year he comes up and claims a maiden, and after that, he leaves, and the village is then safe for another year...He [Figueroa] said, 'You people think I'm joking, don't you?' and he then insisted that this was absolutely true, that he could produce photos and this and that...!" Fact or fiction, Alland decided to develop the idea into a movie at Universal.
The real challenge of the film was constructing the gill man costume. A first version of the creature was rumored to look like the Oscar statuette and was promptly abandoned. The winning design turned out to be a foam rubber construction with a latex skin but there have been some discrepancies over the years of who was actually inside the suit. It was actually two actors, stuntman Ben Chapman and champion swimmer Ricou Browning. Chapman, in an interview with the internet fan site, The Astounding B Monster, said, "It's very simple. Anything below the surface was Ricou, anything above the surface was me." Both actors had their difficulties manipulating the costume but Browning probably had the more problematic part, sometimes having to hold his breath for up to five minutes during a take. "If I got to where I was really desperate for air," Browning told Tom Weaver (in They Fought in the Creature Features), "I would just stop everything and go limp, and the safety man would swim in to me and give me an air hose...Compared to what they do today as far as makeup and monsters' faces and so forth, the Creature would be considered the Model T. For instance, I had a little squeeze bulb that I held in my hand, and the tube from it ran up my arm. I could squeeze that and make the gills fluctuate in and out. I could move my lips a little by moving my chin, but the eyes I had no control over whatsoever. It was very crude compared to what they do today." In one of the more amusing production anecdotes, Browning recalled having to make an emergency bathroom visit, emerging from the water in full costume near an unsuspecting mother and her small daughter on the nearby shore. "They took off, and that's the last I saw of 'em!"
Chapman, as the upright, dry land version of the Creature, had a slightly easier time of it than Browning but he did recount one near accident (in Attack of the Monster Movie Makers by Mike Weaver) regarding his fight scene with Bernie Gozier: "He was supposed to swing at me with his machete, and I was going to counter by grabbing his hand. We rehearsed it, and I told him he was going to have to help me; with the helmet on, I couldn't see that well. Well, he came down with the machete, I reached up and I missed his hand - and bang, right on top of my head. Of course, the blade was dull and the top of the helmet was quite thick, so there was no damage."
Julie Adams also shared her impressions and some memories of the film's production (in They Fought in the Creature Features), stating "in the real classics, there always is that feeling of compassion for the monster. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved and think they really can't ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us." As for the actual film shoot, Adams recalled that it "was a very, very pleasant movie, and we all laughed a lot" but there was that one day where she had to swim in freezing water (the studio crew forgot to heat the water tank prior to filming). "I was trying not to shiver as I was lying limp in this poor guy's [the Creature's] arms. And he could barely see, so as he carried me, he scraped my head on a plaster rock and skinned my head. It was not the best morning of the picture!"
Producer: William Alland
Director: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Arthur A. Ross, Harry J. Essex, based on a story by Maurice Zimm
Art Direction: Hilyard M. Brown, Bernard Herzbrun
Cinematography: James C. Havens, William Snyder
Editing: Ted Kent
Music: Herman Stein, Hans Salter, Henry Mancini, Joseph E. Gershenson (musical director)
Costume Design: Rosemary Odell
Cast: Richard Carlson (David Reed), Julie Adams (Kay Lawrence), Richard Denning (Mark Williams), Antonio Moreno (Carl Maia), Nestor Paiva (Lucas), Whit Bissell (Edwin Thompson), Gill-Man in water (Ricou Browning), Gill-Man on land (Ben Chapman).
BW-80m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford