“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and they were without form or void.” This not only the beginning of the book of Genesis and the creation story but also the film Creature from the Black Lagoon. If this sounds like a curious inclusion, it fits the way the story is being established.
What’s immediately evident is that this has to be one of the most geological austere creation stories; it’s a bit like watching a nature newsreel, which folds nicely into the ethos of the movie.
We get our first sense of potential terror when a South American scientist excavates the skeletal hand of some great beast. It intrigues him, and he’s not the only one. Soon he’s reintroduced to some old comrades, who share his life ambition to better understand the world around them and under the sea through scientific means. They are ichthyologists.
It’s here we meet Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) for the first time, perfectly matched in both their work and romantic lives. The movie is quick to set the parameters of the story itself and how it chooses to utilize its greatest asset: the creature. In conservative fashion, The Creature from The Black Lagoon remains in the shadows initially with only two lingering shots of its webbed claw early on.
Director Jack Arnold asserted the movie’s whole premise “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 this regard, it’s an obvious precursor to what Steven Speilberg was looking to accomplish with Jaws, and there’s little doubt he was aware of this Universal production. How could he not be?
Meanwhile, back at the aquarium run by the publicity-minded Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), they have further discussions about the implications of the discovery charting how even their recent studies of lungfish bridge the gap between the fish and the land animal — one of a thousand ways nature tried to get life out of the sea and onto the land.
While it’s true that discussion of the Devonian age and the kamongo (lung fish) might be a giant leap to the Gil-Man, you can at least appreciate the film for expounding on some kind of backstory — a scaffold for the rest of the film to build its credibility off of. Because only then can this great horror of the deep come in and enter into some semblance of our own present reality.
Soon they head off on their expedition set to embark for the Amazon, except it’s not presented in any way we’ve seen before; it’s an ecosystem of monstrosity and we are continually conditioned to understand how such a being could exist. Everything in this jungle is bred to be killers.
Blending a bit of Heart of Darkness and The African Queen on a budget, their Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva), guides them to the black lagoon — the paradise lost — though no one has ever come back to talk about it. Each has their own way of coping. Carlson is generally a monotone albeit principled lead agile with a scuba tank and spear gun. By his side, Adams always has a constant congeniality — there’s a brightness in her eyes making her heroines alive from the inside out.
But she’s also a point of contention between David and Mark, who both hold a claim to her. It’s true Mark is a testy even maniacal ringleader, who garners a bit of a Captain Ahab complex in pursuit of the creature. The details and dialogue are not always polished, but there’s an agreeable atmosphere to the picture as it verges and willfully plunges into the depths of its own camp.
And yet even as it begins to cull the dark unknown depths, not only is there a forum provided for extensive underwater sequences, something curious begins to happen. In some way, we are put into the headspace of the creature. Yes, he has violent tendencies as the scientists look to track him down, and he becomes bolder, even coming aboard their steamer.
But as it progresses, The Creature from the Black Lagoon becomes a kind of underwater King Kong as they try to capture him and bring their findings back to civilization even as he pursues the one thing that can provide him some semblance of love. It cannot bode well…Because even as they drug the water and reel in the creature for good, there is this underlying sense of unease. Sure enough, he is not meant to be held in bondage, and he redoubles his efforts to impede them from leaving the lagoon. Suddenly, he feels less like a mindless animal and evolves more and more into a monstrosity with a mind of his own.
In fact, as the crew pursues this quest for the creature, it winds up saying as much if not more about the state of mankind. Suddenly The Creature from The Black Lagoon isn’t so black…perhaps it’s the people who drive him to such outbursts of violence etc. It’s a weirdly sensitive perspective to come out of a monster movie with.
Julie Adams may have summed it up best when she noted, “There always is that feeling of compassion for the monster. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved and think they really can’t ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us.”
Whether it’s a stretch or not, we too are that creature, unknowable and unlovable on so many accounts, but still searching tirelessly for affection. It starts sounding less like an amphibious King Kong, and more like Frankenstein’s monster — a super creature missing the most important building block of life: reciprocated love. Perhaps they are one and the same.