This is one of my favorite creature features largely because, when I was a kid, this was the movie monster I wanted to be. Not that I had the urge to murder unsuspecting scientists, as happens fairly early on here. But the ability to breathe underwater and live among the reeds of a wild Amazonian inlet? And the chance to watch from below while Julie Adams takes a pleasure swim? Sign me up.
With Adams’ stark white bathing suit casting alluring shimmers in the darkness of the lagoon, it’s no wonder the creature gets carried away. Yet Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t really in the tradition of the misunderstood monster genre, in which a frightening beast falls for a beautiful woman, and we fall for him. This “gill man” remains prehistoric and dangerous, even during those plaintive moments on land when his gaping fish mouth gasps for air. And when he’s underwater – with Ricou Browning wearing the costume – he’s malevolently elegant, gliding about with seaweed trailing him like primordial coattails.
That costume is a wondrous sci-fi invention, from the webbed claws that are our first glimpse of the creature to the frilled scales that offer a sense of depth to the long fin that runs down his back. In so many monster movies, the pieces show. This creature is seamless.
In so many monster movies, the pieces show. This creature is seamless.
The movie? Not so much. As a pair of dueling scientist hunks, Richard Carlson and Richard Denning engage in a lot of lumbering exposition, at least when they aren’t buffoonishly vying for Adams’ attention. And while her Kay Lawrence is a fairly respectable female figure for this genre and era – she’s not only a scientist, we see her doing science! – she also delivers far too many of those painfully pregnant and then awkwardly elongated horror screams.
Still, Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was originally released in 3-D, endures in a way many similar films haven’t largely because of those underwater scenes. (Leonard Maltin credits the aquatic cinematography, done on location in Florida, to James C. Havens and Scotty Welbourne.) That extended sequence of the creature swimming beneath Adams (or perhaps it’s Ginger Stanley, who did the underwater stunts) has an eerie beauty, especially when he spins upside down and begins to mirror her movements. It’s a voyeuristic courtship, with death as the likely outcome, be it his or hers. Never mind Esther Williams. This is my sort of water ballet.