So Svengoolie last weekend showed Creature from the Black Lagoon (not The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which is how it always fools me, with that initial definite article, like Carpenters, the sister-and-brother act, not The Carpenters), and I watched it for the umpteenth time and enjoyed it just as much this umpteenth time as I ever have, going back to when it was shown on Four O’Clock Showtime on WFMJ, Channel 21, in Youngstown, Ohio, when I was, like, 12.
Every time I watch it, I seem to notice something new or find something new to think about in connection with it. This time, there were a couple of things.
Yes, the blaring horns that announce the appearance of the creature every time it shows up get old real fast, starting with the first time they intrude. Then there is the casual racism regarding the native “boys” who help out on the expedition and are basically food for the creature, but there’s no getting around that sort of stuff in pictures made before…well, before last year, I guess. Maybe the year before.
But one of the things that struck me strongly this time is that Creature from the Black Lagoon is basically a perfect script and, consequently, a perfect little movie. Everything fits together just as it should, with no wasted lines or dead time or empty bits. And part of the reason for that seems to me that, whether intentionally or not, it mimics or echoes King Kong from 20 years earlier. I can’t be the first person to have noticed this, although I’ve never read anyone comment on it before. But that’s a big clue as to why Creature from the Black Lagoon continues to be worth watching after all these years. The story is tight and smart, the ensemble characters work extremely well together, and—most important of all—Creature from the Black Lagoon, like King Kong, starts out being kind of typical or easygoing until it goes back in time and descends into nightmare territory. King Kong still delivers more strongly in this regard because it winds up putting all of its players into the middle of a monstrous madhouse, but Creature from the Black Lagoon nevertheless generally follows the Kong script and thereby delivers the goods. It is something of an anomaly from a stretch during the 1950s when science fiction/monster/horror pictures pretty much followed the template of living atrocities being the result of errant atomic radiation.
The movie opens with a model of the earth in outer space, with voice-over read from the Book of Genesis, and stock footage of volcanic explosions and stormy seas to remind us how unstable creation was, so you never know what Mother Nature is going to cough up from the shadows or from the deeps. Then we get scenes of an expedition deep upriver in the Amazon, an exciting paleontological find, and the ghastly murders of Luis and another “boy” by something with big old claws for hands. That’s all we see so far of the monster.
The picture starts to echo King Kong when we’re introduced to the main characters—the fetching Julia (later Julie) Adams, playing a scientist, Kay; her fiancé, David, played by Richard Carlson, at the time a name actor; and her boss, Mark, played by Richard Denning. Basically, they are Anne Darrow and Jack Driscoll alongside Denning playing the ambitious, unscrupulous asshole, a Carl Denham who this time runs a scientific institute and wants to make his name by claiming whatever it is in the Amazon that left behind the giant fossilized claw hand the older scientist brought to Denning’s institute for examination.
Adams is kept front and center at all times, just as Fay Wray is in King Kong. A beauty contest winner, Adams went to Hollywood following a brief modeling career and quickly landed roles in theatrical movies and television shows. She was a classic mid-century American beauty of Ava Gardner caliber, and her job in the movie is essentially to act as the object of lust for the primitive creature of the title, in the same way that Anne Darrow made King Kong’s top spin, even if he never quite could figure out why. That’s okay. The animal tension is the whole point. They are stand-ins for us, who are stuck in a movie theater auditorium or on our couches at home.
The trip upriver moves at a sufficient pace, and we get the necessary lectures about the Devonian Age and how life moved from the sea to land and who knows what else might be out there, like the lungfish, which is one of God’s mistakes or Nature’s oddities. This the gradual build while we are ourselves basically in the Devonian Age, or at least the actors are.
Now, the build in Kong is so tight that when the nightmare monster appears, the picture takes off at super speed and never quite lets us catch our breath. Creature from the Black Lagoon does not suddenly zip off at super speed; it keeps to a gradually quickening pace and creates its own tension because of that, toying with us and intermittently interrupting the proceedings with that brassy explosion of noise and underwater views of the Gill Man.
The famous scene in Kong in which the fascinated monster rips away Fay Wray’s clothing is paralleled here by the famous underwater ballet scene. When Kay removes her robe at about the half-hour mark and stands there face-front in her tight white bathing suit for all us with glands to admire, we know why we are watching the movie. (Well, for the swimsuit model and the monster.) She dives into the lagoon and for the next four minutes, at least, swims, does backstrokes, and performs her water ballet, while the fascinated Creature watches her, then swims parallel to her underwater as she does on the surface of the lagoon, mimicking her. Finally, he touches one of her feet uncertainly. Kay, of course, will be the undoing of this strange creature just as the beautiful Fay Wray was for King Kong.
When the Creature follows Kay back toward the boat, it becomes trapped in a net but tears free. It is that powerful. The scientists try to anesthetize the Creature and finally succeed. It is captured and held in a cage but again escapes, as it does so ripping apart the face of another of the scientists (the reliable White Bissell). We are now in the last half of the movie in which the stakes, for both scientists and the Creature, are raised and raised again. More “boys” are killed. The Creature traps the boatful of invaders in the lagoon by setting up a deadfall of broken trees in the water. To free the boat, Mark and David must work underwater to undo the Creature’s trap, which leads to the Creature wrestling underwater with both of them and killing Mark. The stakes are as high as ever when the Creature comes aboard the boat, grabs Kay, and dives underwater with her, stealing her away to the grotto that is its home.
We are now in a truly dreamy, atmospheric, even Gothic setting, if the most primeval of situations can be termed Gothic. The grotto is a maze of dripping boulders and pools of water covered in mist. It is a miniature replica of the grotto in King Kong where Jack Driscoll followed the giant ape to its lair. When David swims underground to enter the grotto as the Creature did and try to save Kay, he finds her unconscious, lying on her back on a boulder surrounded by water and mist, as if she were a human sacrifice on a rude altar. David grabs Kay but the Creature is there; David barely escapes alive when the other scientists arrive with firearms. The Creature insists on trying to get to Kay, but the bullets do their work. Unlike Kong, who was captured and brought to civilization to be killed, here civilization murders the Creature in its own home. Wounded, it walks into the water and sinks to the bottom of the lagoon.
The back-and-forth, rising action of the Creature versus the scientists in the last half of the picture is not at all similar to the action in the last half of King Kong, but it follows through logically with a scenario that might have succeeded in King Kong had the adventurers had stayed on the island. The sheer weirdness of the last act of Creature from the Black Lagoon is as thematically satisfying as the brutal urban destruction at the climax of King Kong. Witnessing the scientists fight for their lives against the monster when they themselves have no right to be where they are, intruders as they are, allows us to sympathize with Creature, just as we wind up sympathizing with Kong when that monster is removed from the safety of his home and sacrificed in New York City. Both movies end with the unsettling afterglow of human beings going where they are not wanted or needed and screwing things up, which is what human beings do. It’s not a question of whom to root for. We are, instead, witnesses to a tragedy, unnecessary but which was, in fact, inevitable as soon as the story started.
It is odd to think of both King Kong and Creature from the Black Lagoon as tragedies, but it takes only a moment to see in both the monsters the weakness or fatal flaw that dooms them, and it is something so simple that any of us can relate to it: a love of beauty, a desire for something beautiful in their harsh worlds, and that beauty in the form of something as profound and mysterious as a woman, as Woman.
We have seen Beauty kill the Beast once again.