It’s easy to dismiss monster movies as cheap and ridiculous, simply there to sell tickets and popcorn. Typically with low budgets, C-list actors, and limited visual effects capability, monster movies were made to entertain but do little else. Truth be told, no matter how many times you watch certain films, that still all there is. But other creature features have a beating heart, and a complicated personality.
Creature from the Black Lagoon is at its most basic level about a bunch of scientists looking for a monster, and finding it. Unlike less thoughtful movies in the genre, Black Lagoon poses deeper philosophical questions and wraps it in a beautifully photographed, if low-budget film.
A group of geologists find a fossilized creature, some sort of half-man, half-fish. Knowing the legends of the animal’s existence are now true, they decide to put together a team of explorers to find a live one. Their search leads them to the Black Lagoon, where they reason there will at least be more fossilized evidence, if not live specimens.
The marine scientist brings his girlfriend Kay (someone needs to wear the bathing suit, after all), but she is not a useless damsel. She brings a human thoughtfulness and patience to the otherwise fame-seeking men.
The plot progresses as one might expect. Kay fearlessly takes a dip in the lagoon, the creature sees her and becomes obsessed with her. And as the scientists close in on capturing the creature, the humans become more obsessed with the “Gill-Man.” In truth, Kay has no fear of Gill-Man (or any other Amazonian creature) until the scientists convince her she should be.
Like King Kong, the creature becomes a sympathetic character as it becomes clear that he is genuinely curious about these new visitors. His violent streak only comes out when the humans frighten or threaten him. Which is ridiculous, as the scientists are the very people who shouldn’t be afraid of Gill-Man. They are the ones who believe he is real and are seeking to learn more about the species.
While the nature of human fear hasn’t changed, this movie differs from its Universal monster predecessors. As a post-WWII flick, the sensibility of this movie reflects a different America. In the 1950s, suburbia exploded and affordable family cars made travel accessible. This prompted the rise of roadside attractions. “World’s Largest” objects were plopped in random towns. Enterprising businesses created tourist traps.
Florida was no different. It attracted curiosity-seekers with the Weeki Wachee Mermaids. The crystal clear natural springs, now part of a state park, provided the perfect viewing aquarium for underwater shows. The ‘mermaids’ would pretend to play football or watch tv submerged, while taking occasional breaths from discreet air hoses. These aquatic ballerinas brought tourists in by the thousands. The dirt roads in the area were soon paved, and lined with motels and shops. Soon, the craze for underwater filming would crown Esther Williams as the queen of synchronized swimming.
Black Lagoon is no crass horror flick as is evidenced by the extreme efforts in the production. Scenes were filmed underwater on location at natural springs in Florida as well as on the studio backlot. Camera crew were outfitted with breathing hoses, diving helmets, flippers, and special equipment. There were even two different actors portraying the underwater aspects of the characters.
Ben Chapman played the creature on land, but the underwater scenes were done by Ricou Browning (who recently died in 2023 at age 93). He was an aquatic stuntman and actor with plenty of underwater performance experience at Weeki Wachee and elsewhere. He was ultimately able to hold his breath for four minutes at a time. “If you’re not doing anything at all, four minutes is possible, but not if you’re moving in the water,” he said. “If you’re swimming fast or fighting, you use up a lot of oxygen, and it cuts it down to, at the most, two minutes.” He also learned how to use the breathing hose that Florida ‘mermaids’ employed in their aquatic shows.
The Gill-Man monster suit itself was another epic production story. The design of the creature was handed over to Milicent Patrick, a talented artist from Disney. She drew Chernabog for Fantasia, among other things before bringing her talent to Universal. The iconic Bud Westmore later downplayed her role in creating the character, but the Gill-Man truly was from Patrick’s imagination. The suit was constructed from an unbreathable rubber, making it incredibly hot to wear, especially for the “land” actor, Chapman. He was also unable to sit in the full-boy suit and would often dunk himself in a backlot lake or ask to be hosed down in order to stay cool.
Browning found the Gill-Man suit easier to swim in than Chapman did to walk in. “Once I got into the movie, I forgot I had it on,’ he recalled. I became the creature.” Similarly, Julie Adams had an aquatic double in Ginger Stanley Hallowell. Like Browning, she was a professional underwater performer at Weeki Wachee when she was cast in Black Lagoon. (Hallowell also recently died in 2023 at 91).
“Deep underwater swimming can be dangerous in itself. If you rise to the surface too fast with too much air in your lungs, you can be in big trouble,” Hallowell said. She and Browning had worked together before and she felt comfortable with him dragging her down more than fifty feet underwater as the monster.
Browning, Hallowell, and the underwater camera crew are responsible for the most mesmerizing scenes in the film. There is tremendous beauty and simplicity in the shot of Kay and Gill-Man swimming together. She doesn’t know what lies just beneath her, but the two perform a sort of aquatic ballet. The cinematography is gorgeous, giving it a diaphanous, dreamy look. Gill-Man is fantasizing about a world in which they both co-exist. She is unaware of the machinations below.
The climax of the film involves an underwater action scene, something Ricou Browning would become famous for in later years. He was the choreographer for the aquatic battles in James Bond movies, and he co-created popular television shows “Flipper” and “Sea Hunt.” The Black Lagoon brawl was a precursor of complex underwater storytelling to come.
Creature from the Black Lagoon tells a simple ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story, giving it room to explore other themes and present innovative cinematic techniques.
Originally written for DVD Netflix