by Jeff Meyers
Borrowing much of its plot from King Kong, 1954's The Creature from the Black Lagoon was Universal's last attempt to create a monster as iconic as Frankenstein or the Wolf Man. With an unabashedly B-movie pedigree, it was the postwar era's version of Alien, inspiring a trio of sequels and influencing filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (who paid homage to its camera work in Jaws).
Directed by cult fave Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula), the movie broke new ground in terms of its underwater photography but still suffered from assembly line casting and cheap production values.
The plot is simple enough researchers venture by boat into the Amazon to research a strange fossilized claw only to discover that its sibling is very much alive and none too happy about their meddling. Scientists are picked off one by one until the Gill Man falls for ravishing beauty Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) and kidnaps her to his rocky grotto. Will Kay's environmentally earnest boyfriend David (Richard Carlson) triumph as rescuer? Or will it be blowhard love rival Mark (Richard Denning)?
Creature stood out from other '50s creature features because of the distinctive look and unnervingly natural movement of its monster. Essentially a man in a rubber suit, Ricoh Browning provided the Gill Man with both fluid grace and a poignant sense of longing. (The ability to evince sympathy for its fiends was a Universal monster classics trademark).
Arnold makes particularly good use of his creature's creepy otherworldliness in a scene where it swims beneath the film's heroine, mimicking her stroke. Shot for 3-D, however, there are also blatant (and unintentionally hilarious) "gotcha" moments where objects are hurled at the camera and the monster lurches forward to attack.
But what makes Creature essential viewing is its inadvertent hysterical commentary on sexual politics. Representing the three stages of gender enlightenment, Kay's love rivals are divided into the savage (the Gill Man), the thuggish (macho Mark) and the sensitive (David). Observe how Mark dismisses David's reasoned arguments with his very large spear gun. Viewed through the prism of evolution something the film's eggheads prattle on and on about Kay's choice of a mate provides for some amusing subtext. In the end, metrosexual David may win the girl, but our sympathies lie with the defeated Gill Man as he sinks into the underwater gloom. What does that say about modern male-female relations?
Screens (in 3-D) at midnight on Friday and Saturday, Aug 10-11, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 218-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.