In 1954, the age of the Universal Studios’ classic monsters was coming to an end. In the wake of World War II, the detonation of the atomic bomb, and the Cold War, it became generally accepted that a threat from space was the only thing that might unite the planet… and truly scare us. But there was still one largely untapped frontier to explore, and Universal decided to tap it. The earth is 70% water, and that 70% was just as dark, mysterious, and outright scary as anything the stars had to offer. And it was a lot closer to home.
And so, worlds collided when Universal unveiled the last of their truly classic monsters in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The modern, scientific world opened up vistas that the gothic horrors of yesteryear couldn’t conceive, and since this was the age right before Sputnik, it’s one of those interesting times of transition. Movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and 1953’s The War of the Worlds would give silver screen audiences two very different kinds of monster from the traditional classics, with the common thread of “this is not part of the world as we know it.” The threat from space would take hold of the public imagination once the Sputnik kicked off the space race. The Gill-man would only get two more appearances before Universal drew the curtain and passed the torch to Hammer Studios. Even so, Black Lagoon made a lasting impression that would be revisited from time to time by classics such as Jaws (1975) or lesser-knowns like She-Creature (2001).
The 3D film fad peaked in 1953 and fizzled quickly, so most audiences saw this in “flat” 2D, despite the fact that The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its first sequel were filmed in 3D for use with those goofy red-and-blue lens glasses. I truly hate 3D movies today because my eyes focus at two different speeds, but I really love movies like this. There’s just a sense of fun to them that Hollywood just doesn’t seem to get anymore. I don’t know that they ever did, but it worked at the time. Sort of.
Why did 3D fizzle so fast? The advent of color meant people wanted to actually see the color instead of seeing everything in shades of red and blue with everything else washed out. But since movie theaters needed a gimmick to compete with TV, that’s when they started dressing people up in costume to scare audiences or, in some extreme cases, wiring up the seats to provide a minor electric jolt. Gee, I can’t imagine why that didn’t work out either…
The story of the movie is that a scientist uncovers a fossil of a missing link, what appears to be the claw arm of a creature that evolution long since forgot. In the quest for knowledge meets the quest for funding, a band of adventurers head up the Amazon and down one of its little branches to the Black Lagoon in hopes of finding more clues and possibly a more intact and complete example of this creature’s fossilized remains.
Of course, they find more than they bargained for, and of course, the pretty lady on the quest becomes bait when it’s discovered the Gill-man has a crush on her.
Let’s face it, it’s easy to see why the beauties of the screen were the ones put in danger. Not only did it appeal to the protective instincts of the male audience, but it presumably also made the female audience identify with the threat and jump into the arms of their escorts. That was the logic, at any rate, and by this point it was a time-honored tradition. It wasn’t politically correct, but it was a formula that worked, for better or for worse. When you got a scream queen who actually had a brain in her head and a pleasant personality, you ended up with one who gets remembered for the right reasons. Actress Julie Adams (billed here as Julia Adams) is one of those in that category. There are some monsters who work because their leading ladies help them along. The Gill-man is one of them. As the Phantom of the Opera has Christine, the Gill-man has Kay Lawrence.
The idea for the film actually dates back to a dinner party in 1941 for the release of Citizen Kane. Producer William Alland attended, and it was there he learned of some of the myths and legends of half-fish creatures in and around the Amazon river. 10 years later, he made some notes, using Beauty and the Beast as further inspiration. The rest is, as they say, history.
The Gill-man was portrayed by Ben Chapman on land, and by Ricou Browning in the water shots. Most outside of the cult enthusiasts don’t really know this. They’re not names among names like Lugosi or Karloff. Even so, I can say that through this movie, I have a personal connection to those greats and the legacy of Universal Monsters. I’ve had the good fortune to meet Ben Chapman at one of the final comic cons I attended years ago. Didn’t even know he was there. I didn’t have a clue who he was at the time either, but I jumped at the chance to meet him once I found out. I’ve long since stopped going to conventions since they’ve become something far bigger and more expensive than I can handle on many levels. At any rate, a nicer, more enthusiastic gentleman you will never meet than Mr. Chapman. Listening to him talk about how this movie was made and the impact it had on movie goers… this is a memory I’ll always cherish.
Chapman confirmed many of the stories about how uncomfortable the suit was, and how he couldn’t sit down at all during the 14-hour shooting periods when he was wearing it, and how he couldn’t see in it at all, which caused him to scrape Julie Adams’ head against the set walls in the scene where the Gill-man is carrying her through the grotto. He overheated quickly, and was constantly asking to be hosed down to cool the suit. That’s one of those things that worked out visually because it kept it wet and shiny. The suit itself was designed by Jack Kevan, who made prosthetics for WWII amputees.
This film has been on the Hollywood remake list for a long time. John Landis tried to get it going in 1982. A decade later, John Carpenter was developing it for Universal, and in 1995 Universal offered it to Peter Jackson instead. He opted out so he could do King Kong, which wouldn’t appear for another decade after that. With the success of 1999’s reboot of The Mummy, Universal wanted this pushed to the top of the pile. Gary Ross, son of one of the original writers Arthur A. Ross, was tapped. In 2002, Guillermo del Toro was slated to direct. Breck Eisner was tapped to direct in 2005 when del Toro’s other projects caused him to step down. The writer’s strike of 2007-2008 caused more delays. It was ready again in 2009, scapped again two years later. Another film was revved up in 2012 for release in 2014. We didn’t see that one either. In 2015, Scarlett Johansson was offered the lead role, but again… no movement on this project at all. Universal’s attempting to do a shared universe slate of films for their monsters, with Dracula Untold shoehorned in with a tacked-on ending to modernize the vampire. The Mummy is in the works. If this doesn’t fall apart, we may yet see a rebooted Gill-Man in the next decade, but history just hasn’t been supportive of that idea.
I, for one, am rather grateful of that. The fact that it’s so well-loved but without a bunch of reboots lends it a special place in the annals of monster history. It’ll happen sooner or later, but for now, I’m content to sit back and enjoy this version for what it is.