Here’s a rare chance: Asheville Pizza and Brewing has booked 1954 horror classic The Creature From the Black Lagoon — yes, it’s in 3-D, too — for a solid week starting this Friday. Whether you consider the Creature series a death-rattle coda to Universal Pictures’ claim to the title of “The Home of Horror,” or a glorious extension of their high horror batting average, there’s no denying that Blackie Lagoon (as fans call him) is the last notable monster to come from the “Golden Age” of horror. And he’s hands-down the best man-in-a-rubber-suit monster of all time.
Actually, the movie is a post-atomic hybrid of science fiction and horror. And while the premise is more sci-fi, the execution is largely monster-on-the-rampage horror stuff. The story follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River, where the characters (more thoughtfully characterized than in most such movies) run afoul of the big green fellow. In many respects, the Creature is a variant on no less a model than King Kong, since most of what transpires is built around his surprisingly sexualized interspecies attraction to leading lady Julie Adams. (And like the big monkey, it’s rather up in the air as to just exactly how our amphibious lothario plans on consummating his passion.)
Much ink has been spilled over the years on the Creature films, detailing their early ecological concerns, the inherent distrust of science that’s displayed, the idea that the Creature is more human than the humans, the jabs at capitalism, and so on. I am not about to attempt to add to the body of subtextual literature on ol’ Blackie Lagoon — partly because there’s not a lot more to be said on the subject. And while I’d never deny the existence of the movie’s subtexts (I’ve spent most of my professional life mining for subtexts), I find Creature more effective and enjoyable on the simpler level of a fun horror show with a surprising degree of pathos (no mean feat when working with a character that is largely expressionless). The film was after all, designed primarily as that — and as a “stunt” picture in the bargain with its 3-D process approach.
3-D was without question the most artistically suspect of the weapons brought out by Hollywood to attempt to battle television for viewership. It was never perfect. It was often headache-inducing (just proved all over again with Spy Kids 3-D), though it’s more eye-strain friendly in a black-and-white movie like this. 3-D required a specific style of direction that was often quite awkward, in order to get the best out of the “comin’ at ya” effect. At the same time, it was also more fun than the other weapons against TV on its own gimmicky merits. Director Jack Arnold — a pivotal figure in 1950s sci-fi film — makes intelligent use of the format, neither beating the viewer over the head with the oncoming-object approach, nor being so subtle that he takes all the joy out of the 3-D experience.
On any level, the movie has a lot to offer. It’s easy to carp these days at the wholesale use of rear projection as our heroes glide along the Amazon, but that was standard in 1954, and it looks no worse than similar footage in John Huston’s much-heralded The African Queen. As with most horror films, The Creature is a series of set-pieces — the horrific moments being roughly akin to production numbers in a musical — and it offers a couple of genuinely great ones in the balletic sequence where the Gill Man stalks Ms. Adams by swimming below her, and the climactic encounter with the beast set in a strange, misty, primordial cavern. That final encounter will, I promise, make you understand why Marilyn Monroe says she feels sorry for the Creature in the following year’s Billy Wilder comedy, The Seven Year Itch.
Universal horror completists will be delighted to hear a few uncredited outbursts of Hans J. Salter’s 1940s horror-film music on the soundtrack, while less diehard fans will just enjoy a good, fun horror show of a type not seen anymore.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke