Posts Tagged ‘Julie Adams’

If you spend any time at all reading about American SF movies from the 50s, particularly the B movie end of the genre, you will almost certainly find yourself beaten over the head by the assertion that these films were all made as a response to, and are thus in some sense about, one of two things: disquiet over atomic energy, or the threat of Communist takeover, either clandestinely or by an invasion. So, when you come across a film which is quite clearly indifferent to either of these issues you’re almost a little startled by it.


Just such a movie is Jack Arnold’s famous 1954 picture Creature from the Black Lagoon. This was made as a follow-up to It Came From Outer Space with many of the same personnel, and was also designed to capitalise on the 50s fad for 3-D. (The DVD ‘making of’ documentary – made only a few years ago – takes an amused and indulgent ‘ho-ho-ho, isn’t the idea of 3-D movies quaint and cheesy?’ attitude to this, which I suppose just goes to show you never can tell.) On the face of it this is a very straightforward monster movie with no frills (but a few gills) – not that it’s totally lacking in subtext.

‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,’ booms the narrator at the start of the movie. It’s striking how many films of this period contain religious or Biblical references of some kind – I suspect this is largely an exercise in tone-setting, as well as establishing an appropriate moral framework. It would, after all, be very easy for a rubber monster movie to come across as frivolously silly or morally dubious. Anyway this stuff doesn’t last long as the movie quickly moves on to establish that, in the Devonian period, the first large animals ventured out of the sea and onto the land (which is basically true) and that 15 million years later, the human race is studying their fossil remains (which absolutely isn’t: we’re firmly in ‘shaky grasp of science’ territory here, geologically. That said, the ’15 million year’ figure may be a goof as later on the Devonian is described as being ‘150 million years ago’ – this is still about 200 million years out, but a step in the right direction).

Geez, how pedantic… back to the plot. Up the Amazon, a paleontologist discovers a remarkable fossil: the skeletal hand of an amphibious Devonian hominid! He hustles off back to civilisation to show everyone, but while he’s away a living specimen of this gill-man crawls out of the local river and kills both his assistants. (The fossil is a fake McGuffin and plays no real part in the story other than to kick off the plot – as a result it seems a phenomenal coincidence that the creature shows up straight after the bony hand is uncovered.)

The boffin returns with a proper expedition, which includes amongst its members David Reed (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend Kay (Julie Adams). As you would expect, the men are all wearing pith helmets while Adams seems to be dressed for a day at Malibu beach. After a detailed examination of the fossil site (indicated by a montage of the men bashing the cliff-face with pickaxes) produces no results, they realise the rest of the skeleton they’re looking for may have been swept off down river, to a local lagoon of a distinctly murky hue. Where, of course, more than a fossil is waiting for them…

Well, the rest of the plot is driven by the ambitions of certain expedition members to capture or kill the gill-man, and the gill-man’s rather more obscure interest in getting its webbed hands on Adams. (Clearly the creature’s not fazed by the idea of an age-gap relationship – that’s age as in ‘geological age’, obviously.) Carlsen is an oddly nondescript hero and there’s a lot of hokey dialogue. The gill-man suit still looks pretty good given the age of this film – spectacularly so given the number of underwater sequences it appears in – but on the surface this isn’t much more than a cheesy, silly monster movie.

Under the surface, though, there are interesting things going on. Some have argued that this is a film with an environmentalist sensibility: the gill-man isn’t a mutant, but a creature living in his natural habitat, which the humans violate and pollute, and this explains why he’s almost sympathetic. Well, maybe. My own vote goes towards the idea that this movie is more about another issue: the conflict between civilisation and sexual urges!

No, really, come back. The film’s most striking and charged sequence is one in which Adams (or her swimming double) takes a relaxing dip in the lagoon, while the creature (Ricou Browning in all the underwater footage) shadows her from below. There’s something very odd going on here: the camera dwells almost voyeuristically on Adams’ body, silhouetted in the water, and we’re looking through the creature’s eyes for some of this sequence. (I think the influence of Creature from the Black Lagoon on the style and structure of Jaws – which rips this sequence off for its opener – is pretty obvious.) And for the rest of the movie, as I say, the gill-man’s obsessed with getting to grips with her.

Added to this is the general air of sexual tension prevailing within the expedition – Carlsen’s boss has also come along and is clearly jealous of his relationship with Adams. There’s a good deal of alpha-male jockeying between the two, which inevitably gets in the way of a properly detached approach to the various problems they face. The message of the movie is, I think, pretty clear: for the advancement and success of society in general (symbolised by the expedition), brute sexual desire (the creature) must be controlled, or – better yet – banished back to the primeval world which spawned it (the lagoon).

Well, it’s a reading of the movie, which – well-directed though it is – surely wouldn’t have endured as it has if there hadn’t been something more to it than just the surface detail. It’s entirely enjoyable in those terms, of course – the acting is a bit wooden and the script falls down in a couple of places, but it hits all the right monster movie marks. I suppose I have to agree with the consensus that Creature from the Black Lagoon is a classic – I’m just not entirely sure just what it’s a classic example of.

Read Full Post »