The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

(This review written by Tuna)

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is important and or interesting for so many reasons, I hope I don't forget half of them.

Creature was originally shot and shown in 3-D. This was the first attempt to shoot 3-D under water, and the first attempt to shoot under water with a moving camera. A special two camera system was devised for the underwater work. 3-D got a bad rap because theater goers saw poor quality that often made them dizzy, gave them headaches, or made the nauseous. It was not the fault of the 3-D technique, but of the projectionists in the theaters. The technique is simple to explain. Two nearly identical copies are filmed, but from a few inches apart. The two reels are projected onto the same screen through polarizing filters, one horizontal and the other vertical. Viewers wore cardboard frame glasses with polarizing filters with opposite polarity, so each eye saw only one of the two images, and the mind fused the disparate images into 3-D. The problem arose when the projectionist didn't synch the images. They had to be in synch frame by frame, or the above mentioned ill effects occurred. Universal Studios considered filming in 3-D color, but were reluctant to spend the additional $10 thousand on a project they were not sure of. The film would have been gorgeous in color.

The inspiration for the story came from two places. First, William Allen heard a story at a dinner party at Orson Welles' home about a "fish-man" in the Amazon who came out of the river once a year and abducted a maiden. The story teller swore it was true. The tale stuck with Allen, who proposed the project to Universal. His rough of the screen play (and both sequels) was stolen from King Kong. There were some radical ideas in the final script. First, the scientist was not a "mad scientist," but the hero, who wanted to observe and document nature, not kill and mount it. Second, there was a strong ecology theme, a good 15 years before ecology was popular (even in California). At one point, love interest Julie Adams is sitting on the side of a boat, and tosses a cigarette butt into the water. This would not have seemed unusual in 1954. The monster is watching her from below, and the action is not lost on him. Cut to dead fish floating all around the boat due to a chemical they put into the lagoon to try and render the creature unconscious so he would float to the top. The clear message, especially when seen in today's context, is that it is not acceptable to pollute nature.

Jack Arnold, who had just finished the successful "It Came from Outer Space" the year before, was chosen to direct. In 1954, studio actresses were simply assigned roles, and had little or no say in what they did. Julie was not thrilled to be cast in a monster film (they were considered to be at the bottom of the pecking order) but changed her mind once filming got underway. Universal probably picked her so they could show her legs on film. She was rumored to have the best legs in Hollywood, and Universal had insured them in an oft used publicity stunt for $500 Thousand, but they had never appeared on film. Her bathing suit was custom made, and was very daring for 1954 in that it was cut well up the thigh in front, and emphasized the crotch. Julie, with 126 credits at IMDB, certainly did not suffer from having appeared in this horror film.

The Creature (also known as Gill-man by cast and crew) was half man half amphibian. A team of scientists comes looking for him, pollutes his home (The Black Lagoon), and repeatedly attacks him. What he would like to be doing is making time with Julie (along with every human male in the cast. The villain, who funded the expedition wants to bring the creature back for a big payoff, both financially and to his ego. Julie's boy friend, an ichthyologist, is more interested in studying and documenting him. Probably the best known scene, and certainly the most erotic, occurs when Julie goes swimming. She swims mostly on the surface, while the Creature swims below her in kind of an erotic aquatic Pas de Deux. From the underwater camera, looking up at Julie, who is back-lit from the sun above, Julie looks nude.

The film was shot by two units. Everything above water was shot on the Universal lot, and everything underwater was shot in Florida. As the two units shot at the same time, they had to use stand-ins for everyone who was shot under water, including Julie (doubled by Ginger Stanely). The score was actually done by committee, including Robert Emmett Dolan, Henry Mancini, Milton Rosen, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein. A strident 3-note theme sounded every time the Gill-man is seen, and everyone who scored a section was forced to accommodate the theme.

I think this film still works well today, not as scary horror, but because of some of the advanced themes that were probably not apparent in 1954. This is the sort of innocent "horror" that audiences found frightening before the advent of "gore" and "slasher" exploitation films, and before real life was more frightening than fiction. The "Gill-man" is certainly one of the greatest monsters to emerge from the last half of the 20th century, and deserves a place next to Frankenstein, the Mummy, King Kong, etc.


No nudity, but an illusion as described above, which was pretty racy in 1954.

IMDB summary: 6.3 out of 10. Very high for a 1950's monster flick!

DVD info from Amazon. I would call this DVD a must for anyone serious about film.

  1. Excellent transfer with no graininess, noise or dropouts.
  2. "Making of" featurette
  3. Publicity Photos and ad art
  4. Full length commentary from film historian Tom Weaver
  5. Production Notes
  6. Theatrical Trailers
  7. Cast and Crew Bios

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