February 12, 1954, the war has ended. Which war, you may ask and technically two wars have ended. The Korean War ended the year prior and McCarthyism will end by the end of this year. McCarthyism is the ongoing witch hunt for Communists within the U.S. government and Hollywood entertainers, led by Joseph McCarthy, U.S. Senator for Wisconsin. This doesn’t make Americans any less scared of Communists and possible nuclear warfare. However, another war has begun and it starts with the court ruling in Brown vs the Board of Education. The court rules that separate but equal is inherently unequal when it comes to the public schools and that the segregation of public school violates the 14th Amendment. You may think that it’s a stride in the right direction but it will be an ongoing uphill battle for the African-Americans in this country, especially in the South.
Not only do the 1950’s bring us into the age of Science Fiction movies, but they also give us, what I call, creature features. Usually creature features deal with the idea that, let’s say, a spider touches nuclear waste and it grows to be bigger than skyscrapers and brings havoc into the city or small town. That movie is called Tarantula and it premiered in 1955, a year after Creature from the Black Lagoon. Unlike most creature features, the Creature from the Black Lagoon is not about an animal that finds its way into toxic waste. It is, however, about a creature in the Amazon that is part man, part amphibian living in the Amazon. He is a prehistoric creature but still a good presentation of the creature features of this time.
Producer William Alland was at a dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane (another great movie you should see) when Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about this myth about a half man, half fish creatures in the Amazon River. This would spark Alland to write “The Sea Monster” 10 years later and Maurice Zimm would expand this story, calling it The Black Lagoon. They asked Jack Arnold, who directed the 3D film, House of Wax, the year before, to direct this film. The “Gill-man”, as the creature is referred to, was designed by Disney animator, Millicent Patrick but she would never get the credit she deserves as the creation of the creature was credited to make-up artist Bud Westmore. The Gill-man was played by two men as Ben Chapman couldn’t see very well out of it and had immense trouble with the make-up and suit. The underwater scenes, the Gill-man is Ricou Browning.
Dr. Carl Maia visits his friend and former student, Dr. David Reed and tell shim of a discovering he made in the Amazon: fossilized evidence of a link between land and sea animals, particularly a skeletal hand with webbed fingers. Reed urges his boss, Dr. Mark Williams, to fund a return expedition to the Amazon to look for the remaining skeleton. Maia, Reed, Williams, Reed’s girlfriend, Kay Lawrence, and another scientist, Dr. Edwin Thompson, abroad the tramp steamer, Rita, captained by Lucas. Once they arrived at camp, they discover that Maia’s entire research team has been slaughtered, Lucas suggesting it was a jaguar. However, the audience knows that it was the amphibious humanoid creature they have found evidence of. Maia takes his crew to the excavation site but finds no further evidence. Reed suggests that the water may have taken any evidence downriver and that’s when Lucas reveals that the tributary empties into the “Black Lagoon” which no man has returned from. Scientists decided to risk it, unaware the this “gill-man” has killed Maia’s assistant earlier. As the men dive to the bottom searching for evidence, Kay goes for a swim and is stalked by the gill-man, who gets caught in one of the ship’s lines but escapes, leaving a claw behind. The gill-man kills some of Lucas’ crew before getting captured and locked in a cage on-board. It escapes and blocks the entrance to the lagoon. As the rest of the crew attempts to remove the blockade, Mark takes on the gill-man underwater, single-handedly, but is mauled to death. The gill-man kidnaps Kay and bring her into his cavern but he is being chased by Reed, Lucas, and Maia. Kay is rescued and the gill-man is riddled with bullets and sinks to the bottom of the lagoon.
To be honest, this film scared the crap out of me as a kid. And I can see why it did. The make-up and suit of the Gill-man is stunningly terrifying. The producer, Alland, was inspired by Beauty and the Beast when he wrote this story and I don’t quite see it. I see when when the Gill-man is stalking Kay in the fores and in the lagoon, as he is fascinated with her but she doesn’t like him at all. Unless I have completely misunderstood the common tale of Beauty and the Beast, the beauty eventually falls for the beast. Not in this tale. The beast is taken down by mere bullets. Nevertheless, this is a classic horror film. It’s creepy and the good guys win at the end, kind of. They discovered the gill-man, only to destroy him.
If you would like to watch this movie, I rented it from Amazon.
Next stop, 1958!