In the wake of the splash made by Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece, The Shape of Water, the time has come to take a journey back to the Black Lagoon that started it all. (I swear that was the only water pun I intend to make today. Please forgive me.) Creature from the Black Lagoon introduced the Gil-man to horror when it first premiered on February 12th, 1954. The monster began his reign as an icon when the film went into wide release on March 5th of that same year.
Happy sort-of birthday Gil-man! The ambiguous release dates sum up the making of the film quite well. Creature From the Black Lagoon was conceived with ambitious ideas that were followed through with varying success. It was originally set to be shot in color, but was finally shot in black and white. And while it was shot in 3D, it was shown in many theaters “flat.”. Regardless, the final film turned out to be one of the most successful, iconic, visually stunning, and unique monster movies ever made.
And when revisited today, it’s easy to see how this Creature from the Black Lagoon planted the seeds for The Shape of Water. The B-Movie plot of the 1954 film is told with haunting beauty and technical daring. It enthralls with dreamy visuals and channels deep seated human fears.
Myths and Monsters
The inspiration for Creature From the Black Lagoon came to producer William Alland during a Hollywood dinner party. Alland joined Orson Welles, Dolores Del Rio, and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa for a night of food, drink, and conversation. During the party, Figueroa shared a legend he’d heard about half human, half fish creatures lurking in the Amazon River. He claimed that these figures would claim a woman from the nearby villages in return for keeping the local people safe for a year.
Alland was entranced by the story and began to develop it into a horror film. He conceived it as a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast, with an aquatic twist.
The film stands out among Universal’s monster movies as one of the most unique creature features to enter the studio’s horror pantheon. Most of Universal’s horror outings fell more within the gothic horror genre, but Creature from the Black Lagoon is firmly that very 50’s genre of sci-fi horror. But unlike the alien invasion/nuclear testing films inspired by Cold War paranoia that dominated the decade, Creature from the Black Lagoon is about a timeless, primal horror.
Journey to the Amazon
Creature from the Black Lagoon tells the story of a group of scientists who embark on a research expedition to the Amazon. Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), a geologist, has uncovered a fossilized hand clearly belonging to a large, amphibious creature. He returns to the site with a team, in hopes of discovering the rest of the fossil.
Marine biologists David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), and their boss, Mark Williams (Richard Denning) make up the expedition, along with another scientist, Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell). The team boards a rusty steamboat, The Rita, captained by the hardy Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva).
Upon arriving, they begin to explore the mysterious Black Lagoon. As time goes on, they realize they are being stalked by a monster who is very much alive, and who has developed an amorous eye for Kay.
“As soon as the camera dives below the depths, the film’s haunting beauty is revealed..”
Terror from the Depths
Creature from the Black Lagoon is very much a typical monster movie whenever the action is above the surface of the water. But as soon as the camera dives below the depths, the film’s haunting beauty is revealed. The film features frequent, extended underwater sequences. These scenes are technically impressive even by today’s standards, and they explain much of the film’s enduring legacy.
Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed in 3D, making the underwater scenes even more technically impressive. Seeing the film in its original polarized light 3D format is sadly impossible today, as all current 3D editions use the inferior anaglyph 3D format. As a result, even 3D re-releases fail to capture the effect that cinematographer William E. Snyder was going for.
Rather than using 3D to make elements in the film “pop out” at the audience, Snyder used the technology to create a greater sense of depth, especially in the underwater scenes. The scenes were filmed to make the viewer feel completely submerged, and unsure of what might be lurking just out of sight, behind the seaweed.
This was all to enhance the fear that director Jack Arnold was looking to tap into. As he explained in an interview:
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.
Even in 2D, the way the underwater sequences play with this fear is extremely effective. And nowhere more so than in the film’s most famous scene.
A Terrifying Beauty
In the sequence, Kay goes for a joyous swim in the Lagoon, overwhelmed with wonder and curiosity. She skims its surface, then does underwater somersaults. Underwater photography intercuts with shots above the water of Kay, emphasizing the depth of unknown blackness below her.
Then the creature appears. It swims below Kay, upside down. It matches her movements in a sort of dance. A courtship ritual. It observes her somersaults, then moves closer as she treads water. The Gil-man reaches out tentatively to touch her foot, finally brushing it with his hand. Kay is startled, and she dives beneath the water to investigate. But the creature hides from sight. Finally, Kay returns to The Rita. After she boards, the boat rocks with a massive force. The crew has something huge in their net, but once they pull it up, the creature has gone, leaving only a claw behind. Kay examines the find with a knowing, frightened, look.
The scene inspired another famous horror masterpiece as well. Jaws pays homage to Creature from the Black Lagoon in its legendary opening. The underwater cinematography and the shot of a female swimmer’s legs from below reference the most famous scene from the 1954 film.
Creature from the Black Lagoon is worthy of a revisit for many reasons. But the success of The Shape of Water calls for a new appreciation of the classic that inspired it. While not quite the bold horror romance Del Toro put together, the 1954 film is one of the best classic monster movies of all time. It breaks out of cliches with technically bold cinematography and effects. And of course the creature design cannot be beat! Do yourself a favor, and take a trip back to the Black Lagoon tonight. You just might find yourself falling in love with a classic movie monster.