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Creature from the Black Lagoon

Creature from the Black Lagoon(1954)

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For decades, Universal was the horror studio. Starting with the success of 1931's Dracula it continued to frighten eager audiences with hugely popular films based on literary sources (Frankenstein's Monster, the Invisible Man), legends (the Wolf Man) and newsworthy concoctions (the Mummy). Eventually, the studio ran short on inspiration and started teaming their stars in increasingly threadbare productions until finally throwing most of their characters into outright comedy with 1948's Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

A few years later, viewer tastes and movies had changed. When Universal decided the time was right for more horror films it left the past alone and went with a new creation, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He's called The Gill Man by characters in the films which is so much less threatening that it's easy to see why the movie bears the more familiar name. Whatever the inspiration, the Creature turned out to be an audience-grabber and after the original 1954 film there were sequels in each of the next two years. Now all three have been collected in Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Legacy Collection. It includes crisp transfers of the films, a historical documentary and commentary on each by noted historian Tom Weaver and on two Bob Burns as well.

The first film, called simply Creature from the Black Lagoon, was one of the era's earliest science fiction monster movies though it now seems fairly typical of the type. Viewers so inclined could point out the hunky hero, his window-dressing girlfriend, the monster that's all too obviously a man in a rubber suit, the Eisenhower-era fascination with and dread of science, the King Kong-derived Beauty and the Beast theme and similar elements. But that's missing the point of what still remains a fairly entertaining film. After all it begins with the Dawn of Creation (explosions, flying rock and a sonorous narrator), tosses in mysterious jungles, a colorful boat captain, pontificating scientists, a babe in a swimsuit and a surprising number of violent deaths. It's odd today to see that though Julia Adams was nominally the cheesecake and attraction for the Creature it's the two scientists (Richard Carlson and Richard Denning) who continually bicker like a stereotypical married couple while frequently clad in nothing but shorts. The battle between the Creature and the scientists trapped in the lagoon is often unpredictable and reasonably tense though the blaring horns whenever the Creature swims near the camera eventually become too grating.

If you're curious about the occasional objects that head straight towards the camera--such as the fossilized hand at the opening--that's because this was originally filmed in 3-D. However anybody who's seen Creature in that format can attest that the filmmakers didn't go wild with the format, though some of the underwater scenes that seem way too long in 2-D actually made more sense in 3-D.

Revenge of the Creature (1955) appeared the next year (also in 3-D) and picks up perhaps that same amount of time after the original film. The boat captain is back, taking more scientists and adventurers (including John Agar) to the lagoon. This time they succeed in capturing the Creature and bring him back to a Sea World-styled aquarium in Florida where in a typical '50s move he's put on public display and also subjected to bizarrely sadistic "scientific" experiments. As you might suspect this can't turn out well.

The sequel received (or suffered depending on your view) the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in 1997 episode of that show and in fact Revenge is a bit more creaky than the first film. The opening sequences are too much a rehash of the lagoon trip while the middle aquarium sequences tend to be both tedious and implausible. The finale, though, is fairly taut monster-movie hide-and-chase though you have to supress any thoughts about how the fresh-water Creature could survive in salt water. Keep an eye out for a very young Clint Eastwood as a scientist.

The series came to a close with 1956's non-3-D The Creature Walks Among Us though in some ways it's not exactly a Creature from the Black Lagoon film. The usual team of scientists head off to a swamp where the Creature has been reported and immediately locate him. However, a fire burns much of the Creature and an experimental medical procedure gives him a lumpish, quasi-human look that only partly resembles the Gill Man we've come to know and love. Possibly this was a budget issue since the make up is significantly reduced (no full-body suit) and there's much less underwater filming. Still, the change does point out his trapped-between-two-worlds alienation since he's no longer able to breathe underwater and makes him a much more clearly sympathetic character than previously. The Creature Walks Among Us benefits from a suprisingly solid secondary plot about an aggressive but lonely wife of the most driven, perhaps even mad, scientist.

This Legacy Collection has strong supplemental material that at times is more interesting than the films. The 40-minute documentary Back to the Black Lagoon effectively describes the making of each film and their cultural place. Far from being a fluff piece there are fascinating accounts of the differences in the Creature costumes, an astutely honest examination of the music (an uncredited Henry Mancini contributed to the first film), the workings of 3-D and even solid textual analysis. For the films, historian Tom Weaver contributes densely detailed audio commentaries that run from crew backgrounds to shooting locations to the production history. Though occasionally it might have been nice if he was a bit more in sync with what is happening on the screen, his commentaries are top-notch efforts that can withstand being heard again, something that can be said of very few DVD commentaries.

For more information about The Creature From the Black Lagoon Legacy Collection, visit Universal Home Video. To order The Creature From the Black Lagoon Legacy Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson