It’s been 65 years since The Gill Man first crawled out of the Amazon to terrify scientists and fascinate audiences in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Although considered a Universal Classic Monster, The Gill Man arrived in 1954, years after the majority of his monstrous brethren. The creatures of the night from the 1930s and 40s may have made such music to make our skin crawl, but The Creature stands out from Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and Bride, and their friends in several ways. Follow us into the depths to discover what makes The Gill Man so different…
8. The Creature was Spawned from a Legend
The film’s producer, William Alland, was invited to a dinner party by Orson Welles while filming Citizen Kane. There he met Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (Night of the Iguana) who told the tale of a sort of half-man, half-fish, who lurked in the Amazon. Figueroa said the amphibian man would appear annually to snatch up a maiden, then leave the village safe for another year. He insisted the story was fact, telling his fellow diners that he could produce photos of the creature if they didn’t believe him. While Alland never saw any photos of the lonely fish-man, the legend remained with him for a decade before he wrote it into a short story, The Sea Creature. This would go on to morph into the screenplay for Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was co-written by Harry Essex (It Came From Outer Space), Arthur Ross (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), and Maurice Zimm (Perry Mason).
7. Double the Demons
The Brazilian natives in the film who are assisting Dr. Maia with the original archeological mission refer to the Gill Man as a “demon.” They are especially terrified after it mutilates several people at basecamp and later drowns a man. But that “demon” is actually brought to life by two different actors in two different Creature suits! Ricou Browning, a professional diver and water showman from Florida, was hired to show the filmmakers around Wakulla Springs. He agreed to swim underwater for test shots and was later contacted by director Jack Arnold. According to Browning, Arnold said, “We like the way you swam. How would you like to be the Creature from the Black Lagoon?”
But Browning was one of two actors to fill the gills of The Creature in the same movie. Browning would portray the Gill Man under the water while stuntman Ben Chapman would play The Creature on land. This meant two suits had to be designed and constructed, one for each actor who were different heights. While there were multiple actors who portrayed Universal’s Frankenstein Monster, (Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, and Lon Chaney, Jr.), none of them portrayed the same character in the same film.
6. Suiting Up
Because the gill-men were several inches different in height, (Browning stands just under six feet tall, while Chapman was 6′ 4″), two different suits had to be created. Unlike his monstrous predecessors, The Creature comes to life with the help of a full-bodied monster suit and mask, not just make up and prosthetics. Yes, Wolf Man had his hairy face and our Frankenstein monsters had hours of makeup to endure. But none are quite as immersive as the suit of The Creature. The suit design was created by Millicent Patrick, whose endless talents and achievements included being a concert pianist and the first female animator for Disney, as well as being proficient with sketching concept art, make-up artistry, and acting. (A new book detailing Patrick’s life, The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara, will be hitting bookstore shelves in time for the 65th anniversary of the film).
The finished suits were said to be hot and uncomfortable, leaving the actors unable to sit during their 14 hour work days. Chapman, on set in CA, resorted to floating around the lot’s lake and would asked to be hosed down to stay cool. While noting that filming was jovial overall, both actors reported having challenges while performing in their suits. Browning would have to hold his breath under water for 4 minutes at a time and, in the instances when he needed air, he’d let his body go limp and safety crew would bring him an air hose to breathe through. Meanwhile, Chapman took a dull machete to his Gill Man mask when a stunt went wrong. He simply couldn’t see when the machete was coming at him, despite rehearsing the fight scene over and over again.
5. Now in Glorious Underwater 3D!
In 1954, Creature from the Black Lagoon was not only attempting to revitalize 3D films, but it was also astonishing for the amount of underwater cinematography it used. At the time, it broke several records for the achievement. (If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing the film in 3D on the big screen, you’ve seen first hand why it’s such a big deal). In the pantheon of Universal Monsters, only The Creature had the 3D treatment. This was partly because of the era in which it was released. The 1950s could be considered the Golden Era of 3D movie viewership. However, by the time Revenge of the Creature was released in 3D in 1955, people were enjoying the experience less and less. (It is said that a projectionist worth their salt could make the 3D viewing experience really worthwhile, whereas a sloppier projectionist could ruin the experience altogether).
4. Check Out the Big Brain on Kay!
Another difference between Gill and the gang is in their portrayal of their female characters. The monster movies of the 30s and 40s delivered damsels in distress, worried wives, and one beautiful, bewildered Bride. However, the 1950s gave us a fair share of female scientists, like Dr. Ruth Adams in This Island Earth (1955) and paleontologist Lee Hunter in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Still, I see Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) from Creature from the Black Lagoon as a standout because the film centers around her almost as much as it does around The Gill Man. We see right away that Lawrence is capable and strong in her field as an ichthyologist. She talks openly about her career and her affection for her fiancé, David Reed (Richard Carlson), who is also an ichthyologist aboard Rita. While Lawrence is loyal to her employer, Dr. Mark Williams, she’s also not afraid to speak up and tell him when she thinks his aggression toward The Creature is uncalled for. We also see other scientists aboard the ship tell her how valuable her work is, including Dr. Thompson, who says that Williams owes much of his success to her research.
Beyond just her strengths as a scientist, Lawrence brings a bit of an empathetic feel to the film as well. We have a sort of Beauty and the Beast dynamic between Kay and The Creature. He reaches for her foot the moment she steps off the boat, and again later when she is swimming in the lagoon. Their water ballet sequence is remarkable to watch, and while Julie Adams will be forever associated with her racy-for-the-time white bathing suit, her character never comes off as being only eye-candy. When she feels something touching her feet in the water below her, she doesn’t scream or panic, she looks below and actually goes under the water to figure out what she’s encountering. She’s a brave character who, despite being carried off by a monster at one point, holds her own and is unafraid to do her job and stand up for what she thinks is right.
3. The Creature Had his Own Theme
If you’re a fan of The Creature then the sound of his theme is as iconic to him as the Psycho theme is to Norman Bates or the Jaws theme is to Bruce the shark. That’s because each time The Gill Man appears, this striking song rings out to alarm the viewer. In the documentary Back to the Black Lagoon, film historian David Schecter notes that film execs insisted that the “Creature Theme” is played each and every time we see his clawed hand, leering eyes, or dripping wet feet. While Schecter estimates the theme is sounded around 130 times throughout the trilogy, I counted 27 occurrences of the trilling trumpets in Creature from The Black Lagoon. While more modern horror films use this tactic of association (when you read ch-ch-ch-ah-ah-ah I guarantee you think of Jason Voorhees), the only Universal Classic Monster movie to really use it successfully is our boy Gill. (And I can tell you from first hand experience that his theme makes the BEST ringtone!)
2. Location, Location, Location
Most of our beloved monsters reside in dusty tombs, dank laboratories, dark forests or creepy castles. While these locales can be delightfully moody and frightfully fun, it’s just one more reminder of how our amphibious friend departs from the norm. Our first encounter takes place in a sun-soaked setting with several people around. They don’t see his webbed hand reaching from the water and never notice his claws digging into the earth. But we see him (and hear those trumpets!) and suddenly we realize that even in the sunshiny light of day, we aren’t entirely safe here. He’s in the lagoon one moment and walking on the shore the next, so there’s no real place to hide. Aboard Rita we realize our team of scientists have all manner of nets, ropes, and dinghies The Creature can use to climb aboard.
There’s something almost sinister in the idea that it’s not just nighttime that this monster can grab you, it’s in the middle of paradise in the warm rays of the sun, too. In contrast to the scenic views, the underwater shots of Gill Man lurking just below Kay leaves us with a sensation of dread. He’s lurking just out of sight when David and Mark try to capture him on film, and then skulking about the boat long enough to take someone overboard before anyone can help. It’s a marked difference from our previous gloomy and foreboding settings, giving us audience members a new kind of thrill.
1. Who is the Real Monster?
In the film, The Gill Man is a living, prehistoric creature who is still surviving in the Amazon and minding his own business. Then one day, a group of scientists come along and argue about how much or how little to interfere with this rare species. They’re taking their vessel into the lagoon, smoking, swimming, and even attempting to harpoon it’s inhabitant. When capture seems too difficult, they pollute the pond with a drug in hopes of subduing the Creature. Not once does anyone wonder what kind of effect that could have on the fish or other life in the lagoon. Kay, ever the voice of reason, tells Mark, “Whatever the species might be, if you let it alone it won’t bother you.”
But of course, Mark feels compelled to capture the beast in an effort to prove what they’ve seen to the outside world. When our amphibian friend lashes out and begins attacking the lagoon’s tourists, most of them realize their mistake. In contrast to Mark’s blood-thirst, David thinks they should leave the lagoon behind before anyone else gets hurt. But even as he’s arguing that they should head home, he’s attempting to satiate Mark by saying they could return with better equipment for studying the Gill Man. In reality, The Creature isn’t the real monster in the story, the humans are. They aren’t part of an angry mob with pitchforks and torches, and they aren’t wise and wily hunters of ancient evil. They are like us, trampling on nature and feeling afraid of what they don’t understand. Yes, some of them only want to study the being and not harm it, but even so, it’s can’t be so shocking that it wants to defend his home and tries to flee once injured. While other Universal Monsters are created or unnatural, The Creature is a being that was here before us and that makes him stand out from the rest.
Are there other ways that our guy Gill stands out from the crowd? Do you have that trumpeting theme in your head now? I’d like to think this 65th anniversary editorial has gone over swimmingly, but why don’t you take a dip in the lagoon and let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!