Back in the late 70s as a twelve-year-old (yes, I am old and fat and bald and weight 300 pounds!) in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, the Fair Lady theatre was on the main drag in Hindley Street (Salman Rushdie once famously quoted Hindley St ran with blood or something and I later lived there in a building where a murder took place) and it had a midnight screening of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954 3D b/w). Luckily, I had parents who allowed me to stay up and watch late night movies as a young child such as The Alligator People (1959 b/w), First Man into Space (also 1959 b/w) and the 1940s film noir series The Falcon starring Tom Conway, to name a few…
Anyway, I admired sci-fi and dark movies and so… I wanted to go.
Good on mum as she took me and a couple of mates and my sister. Excited despite what seemed a long wait till midnight and to cut a long story short, the slide (which is what they had in the olden days instead of video projection), that showed which way to wear the cardboard 3D glasses was around the wrong way. While I picked this, mum didn’t and as a twelve-year-old, my mates and I didn’t sit with her and my younger sister because it was uncool, so I couldn’t tell her.
Despite the poor almost headache-inducing basic 3D print of the movie… it cast a spell. Originally, back in the 50s, there was also another far better process using two projectors on an inward facing angle which merged to produce a much better image (I’m told!), but it was hard to synchronize the projectors and the fad for 3D ended quickly anyway. Even today the fad hasn’t really caught on. It’s unfair also because about ten percent of people don’t register the 3D effect. Pity those that night who had the glasses round the wrong way!
The film tells of an isolated Darwinian Creature whose bachelor pad paradise of the Black Lagoon is suddenly invaded by archaeologists and ichthyologists (had to look that one up!) in a clapped-out boat in search of the perfect fossil. Unfortunately, they didn’t bargain on the real thing!
Creature is basically a love story, and/or lust story. And the centre of this lust is heroine Kay, a beautiful Julia Adams (1926-2019 undisclosed) then in her late 20s. Adams, the last of the cast to pass away aged 93, changed her professional name to Julie as she got older and remained active into her nineties. She appeared in the all-star astral projection horror Psychic Killer (1975) as well as director Burt Kennedy’s (1922-2001 undisclosed) The Killer Inside Me (1976) based on Jim Thompson’s novel and starring Stacy Keach (1941-). That film was remade with Casey Affleck (1975-) in 2010.
So, the rundown boat named the Rita, safely anchored in the lagoon and with all the scientists and crew unaware (They must have been playing poker and looking through microscopes!) – Kay goes swimming. This, despite having spotted several large crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks as the boat made its way to the lagoon! It IS somewhere along the Amazon. And, yes, she cuts a beautiful figure in a swimsuit. Not a care in the world, she does solo synchronized swimming, but little does she know, she is being stalked underwater by the Creature.
The Creature was played by a couple of actors, one on land and one underwater. His costume and make-up were described as “phallus-like” by one straight-faced essayist (see the picture). Anyway, the underwater shot of Kay treading water was famously cribbed by Spielberg for the opening shark attack in Jaws.
The creature watches. It’s love, or lust, at first sight! Obsessive, I’m going to stalk you till I get you, love. What other kind is there? A romance it ain’t! Well, not a conventional one.
Anyway, she doesn’t get eaten by piranhas and later aboard the Rita, pushy and arrogant expedition leader Mark, actor Richard Denning (1914-1998 heart attack), is at odds with scientist David, played by Richard Carlson (1912-1977 cerebral hemorrhage). Upon searching for fossils underwater they see the creature and so the race is on to either capture or kill it.
Denning is an actor with interesting credentials including the atmospheric alien invasion movie Target Earth (1954 b/w), the silly but fun kind-of-zombie flick The Creature with the Atom Brain (1955 b/w) and the giant monster-on-the-loose The Black Scorpion (1957 b/w).
It was actor Carlson who impressed me most as a kid. His character had sympathy for the Creature and wanted to study it objectively. He didn’t just want to kill it as a trophy like Mark for his own career ambition. David also had Kay and to illustrate its modernity – they aren’t married, although they considered it. There is an unresolved sexual tension between Mark and David over Kay. The Creature is the wild card.
Carlson’s intellectual gravitas was cool. The film initiated my life-long semi-obsession with Carlson spurred on by the classic sci-fi films It Came from Outer Space (1953 3D b/w) about aliens whose spaceship breaks down on Earth and The Magnetic Monster (1953 b/w), which is an ingenious low budget end-of-the-world story featuring an unstable microscopic nuclear isotope. There was also Carlson’s penultimate film The Valley of Gwangi (1969), featuring another cool cult favorite of mine James Franciscus and a runaway Tyrannosaurus Rex long before Jurassic Park. I caught up with them within a couple of years of seeing Creature on the family tv. The success of the 3D screenings of Creature at the time led to It Came from Outer Space being shown in cinemas in the same format at midnight screenings also. I saw it twice.
Anyway, Mark angers the Creature by trying to kill it and so begins the creatures rampage as he chews the scenery and knocks off the passengers of the Rita one by one. I guess the Creature is some kind of aquatic serial killer but he really does have a beef with these intruders. He is not necessarily evil. All the Gillman wants as the last of his species is to procreate! He snatches Kay, plunging into the Black Lagoon and takes her to his Creature-cave through the underwater entrance.
This leads to the showdown and, of course, the Creature must die. And, as is not unusual in American films, it’s in a hail of bullets. He is, however, the rebel going down swinging, the eternal adolescent who must suffer the pain of unrequited love and passion alone. He is forever a case of arrested development, the result of failed evolution in that dead end which is the Black Lagoon, somewhere in the upper reaches of the Amazon! Perhaps a candidate for River Monsters!
When the film ended at around 1.30 Saturday morning, my mother was peeved she had been ripped off by the management for not getting the instructions to put on the glasses properly. She demanded her money back, much to our embarrassment, but secured free tickets for the following night. So, bleary-eyed, us kids were taken again at midnight Saturday night to watch Creature again. And you know what? I didn’t care!
The film is in black and white. Originally it was going to be in color but Universal Studios wouldn’t cough up the money. They did so the following year with lush Technicolor (although not 3D) for the sci-fi opus This Island Earth (1955) about a higher intelligence on Earth sharing technology albeit for selfish aims.
And to go on a tangent about our current state of evolution, although Creature does open with the spiel: “In the beginning God created… “. It seems difficult to believe that the body is basically just made of water and bacteria. Yet there is some spark called a soul within. The spark of something within the primordial soup of the oceans which eventually led to thinking beings crawling out on to land, like the Creature, who has an instinctive intelligence, and us. Do bacteria have instinctive intelligence? Certainly, viruses mutate to survive! And they arrive from outer space. Was the planet seeded by an alien intelligence a la Ridley Scott’s (1937-) Prometheus (2012)? Only for us to be abandoned and left to our own devices, usually destructive, on this Earth? And who created them? As my four-year-old baby sister once said sagely: “But who made God?”. However, this could all be rubbish as I begin to sound like the pompous alien Eros in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959 b/w), often considered one of the worst movies ever made, when he explains how humans, if they discover the Solanite bomb, would destroy the universe and all who dwell within it! And to quote Eros directly from the movie before he begins to wax lyrical, humans are nothing more than “Stupid!, Stupid!”. Maybe he had a point.
After that second midnight screening, I knew I could watch Creature again and again and I would love it. Some people grow out of movies but this one has stuck with me.
Guillermo del Toro’s (1964-) Academy Award winning The Shape of Water (2017) is a reimagining of Creature even though he didn’t say so in his speech when he picked up the gong for Best Director. I read a novel released in the 80s which was quite gritty and I hoped the film would be remade with special effects and a big budget by a top director. There was talk over the years but all we got was the slightly sappy and soggy yet artful The Shape of Water. Oh well better than nothing! I missed the Black Lagoon!!
I haven’t even mentioned Jack Arnold who directed the original Creature. He too is a legend for freak-fest Tarantula (1955 b/w), the incredible The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957 b/w) and of course the classic It Came from Outer Space.
The original Creature spawned two sequels. Revenge of the Creature (1955 3D b/w), also Jack Arnold, was about the Creature surviving the first movie somehow only to be captured and dragged off to Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida (like Sea World on the Gold Coast) and put on display. Of course, he escapes and mayhem ensues against a romantic subplot between scientists John Agar (1921-2002 emphysema) and Lori Nelson (1933-). It’s a good follow-up but Universal skimped on the budget and the cheap substitute lagoon is a disappointment in comparison. Arnold ducked the last one, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956 b/w), which was about, oddly, the creature taken from the Everglades to civilization, getting burned and having plastic surgery to look human with hopes he will take his place in human society. As we know – it ain’t gonna happen! Poor Creature! A subplot features possible domestic violence and a murder blamed on the Creature which he didn’t commit. So rather than live with humans who have speared, shot, bashed, electrocuted and drugged him over the years, he decides to head back to the ocean. And fair enough! It’s a pleasing end to the trilogy.
And that’s it. The trilogy is readily available in the US, while Australia will have to make do with the Blu-ray with extras. Check it out. Is it a cult movie?
Fact: There was a semi-remake on a very low budget entitled Octaman (1971) which is an experience and story in itself, written and directed by Harry Essex, who helped write the original Creature screenplay. The monster is considered as cheesy as the movie but the outfit is special effects wiz Rick Baker’s (1950-) debut and he went on to win six Academy Awards including for Ed Wood (1994) and Men in Black (1997)
Fact: Richard Carlson served in the US Navy during World War II becoming an officer. The war scuttled a fading film career and he had to rebuild. It took eight years until the success of It Came from Outer Space in 1953 which was made concurrently with the anti-Communist hit tv series I Led Three Lives (1953-56). Creature is probably the pinnacle of an extremely busy period for him.
Fact: Universal Studios until around 2015 did have the original Black Lagoon on its studio tour but it has now been superseded.
Fact: The Kinks’ Ray Davies mentioned the film in the track The Invaders on his 2017 album Americana.
Fact: Richard Denning finished his acting career with a stint as the governor in the original series of Hawaii Five-0 (1968-80).
Fact: The soundtrack was released on cd in the 90s doubled with They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963, 1968)