Julien Neaves, Editor
Plot: A geology expedition searching for the other pieces of a rare fossil in the Amazon get more than they bargained for when they encounter the Gillman, a very living fish-like amphibious humanoid.
Context: If someone was to build a Mount Rushmore of classic horror monsters the four heads would be Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man and the Mummy (feel free to fight me on that in the comments). But if you were to twist my arm (please don’t; it hurts) to add another head it would be the Gillman from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Though old fish face doesn’t have the same legacy nor the cultural impact of the big four (it only spawned two sequels, Revenge of the Creature <1955> and The Creature Walks Among Us <1956>, though he did pop up in 1987’s The Monster Squad and there was a spiritual reboot in Best Picture winner The Shape of Water <2017>) he remains an intriguing and unique monster that is beloved by many. So, does the original film hold water more than six and a half decades later? With a lagoon-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s retrospective review this bad boy!
Review: I am very pleased to report that Creature from the Black Lagoon holds up spectacularly. Pretty much everything works here. The design of the Gillman is very detailed and creepy looking, with an almost human-like quality that is quite unnerving. He is played by two actors, Ben Chapman on the land and Ricou Browning in the water (the latter passed away late last month). Chapman invests the Gillman with a power and presence as he menaces the geological expedition on land while Browning gives him a fluidity in the underwater scenes (he reportedly held his breath for up to four minutes at points) that is equal parts beautiful and chilling.
And speaking of the underwater scenes, they are downright gorgeous and William E. Snyder’s cinematography is breathtaking (no pun intended). Watching the Gillman swimming under Julia Adams’ Kay Lawrence is such a wonderful piece of tension-filled cinema. Add to that the creature’s bellowing theme and you have a film that has you on edge constantly. It’s no surprise that the theme is so well done, as the music was done by Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein and legendary composer Henry Mancini, whose long list of credits include The Pink Panther theme and Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The year before the film was released director Jack Arnold dipped his toes into the genre with Sci Fi Horror It Came from Outer Space and would go on to helm Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), the last of which I gave a glowing review a little over a year ago (I’ll link that for you folks at the bottom). With Creature, Arnold keeps the story going at a quick pace and the film never feels like it’s swimming in circles. And it’s a pretty simple story at that — geological expedition goes looking for fossil, Gillman finds them and starts killing them, expedition members fight back. He also falls for the above-mentioned Kay (and she is quite the looker) and kidnaps her. There is a sympathetic quality to him that makes one sad when he is hurt and eventually killed, which makes sense as producer William Alland original story notes were inspired by Beauty and the Beast. When you think about it, the scientists were invading his home and harassing him, so there is a justification to his actions and he’s not just some random rampaging predator.
You may have noticed that I have not spoken much about the characters outside of the Gillman and Kay. Well, the reason for that is they are all kind of forgettable. Richard Carlson’s Dr David Reed is the level-headed protagonist, Richard Denning’s Dr Mark Williams is obsessed with killing the creature and Nestor Paiva’s Captain Lucas is concerned about the safety of his ship and his rapidly diminishing crew. None of them really standout (other than Kay, and that’s just aesthetics) and I could not bring myself to care when they were being offed. That said, the encounters with the Gillman did ramp up the scare factor and were well executed. I can imagine audiences in 1954 watching this is in 3D and jumping out of their seats.
I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Creature from the Black Lagoon and I am inspired both to check out to sequels and Arnold’s other Sci Fi and Horror flicks. And I highly recommend revisiting the film for yourself, especially if you’re a fan of classic monster movies, and showing good old Gillman some love.
Score: 9 out of 10
Are you a fan of Creature from the Black Lagoon? Would you put on a Mount Rushmore of Classic Horror Monsters? And you can check out more classic Sci Fi and Horror content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.