Part of my ONGOING SERIES about just what distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other. The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why I think it’s meritorious to discuss this subject. Long story short: in a group of monsters like the kind on the hierarchy, my theory is that they sufficiently fulfill a necessary number of roles in the human consciousness with regards to horror.
This one is about Creatures in the sub-category, “from Lagoons and Such, Black or Otherwise.”
You know, I’ll bet the Creature from the Black Lagoon gets a lot of shit from the other monsters. I bet he’s like the Aquaman of the monster community, with Dracula always giving him lip about, “Oh, yeah, you’re real scary, Goonie [that is what Dracula calls him], I just hope no one stumbles a thousand miles into the Amazon and then goes underwater because then they’d be super-scared.” I’ll bet they only invite him to their monster mash because their moms feel bad for him.
But actually, the 1952 Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t a completely terrible movie. I mean, it’s kind of terrible. It’s amazing to look back at movies like this and realize just how much we, as a species, have learned about making horror movies — how to score them, how to light them, how to frame a shot. Alfred Hitchcock had a lot to do with that, but I think John Carpenter deserves a lot of credit for it, too. I mean, there’s some cool stuff here — the part where Julie Adams is swimming along and the creature is swimming along underneath her, but she can’t see it, that should be a really eerie scene, it’s a great idea anyway. But all of the incidentals (music, lighting, cinematography) rob it of most of its power.
Anyway, Creature from the Black Lagoon has some decently-written dialogue, a kind of a neat theme about how we adapt to our environment (the one scientist has a monologue in the beginning where he talks about what it will be like if humans go into space, and how we’ll basically have to make them into mutants to survive on other planets, and won’t that be awesome?), the creature suit isn’t that bad (everyone says about how you can see the zipper, but I just watched it and I didn’t notice it), and Julie Adams is pretty good looking and wears a swimsuit most of the time. (I guess the dudes are pretty good-looking, too, if that’s your thing.)
It’s actually barely a horror movie, though. At the outside, it looks a little like the standard trapped in a PLACE with a THING story, except for the first half of the movie they aren’t even trapped. Actually, the Creature is trapped in its lagoon, while these crazy scientists chase him around with a harpoon gun, poison the water to get him out, &c. Dracula would be seriously unimpressed.
But there is a pretty neat idea here, that it’s clearly trying to get at, both with that scientist’s idea about humans in space, and with all of these underwater scenes, which were kind of unprecedented at the time.
Life on the Edge
You know, we don’t so much realize it now, but human beings have a pretty precarious spot in the ecosystem. We can thrive these days because we basically reorder everything around us to suit our needs, so we can go to the big city and get cheetohs when we’re hungry or something. I don’t know if you’ve ever been trapped on a deserted island before like I have, but there’s a special kind of terror when you realize that you’re stuck somewhere, right here on earth, and you just don’t know what the hell you’re supposed to do to survive. What are you going to eat? Where will you get water? How will you stay warm?
When scientists go on expeditions into the Amazon, they have to take a little bubble of civilization with them on their boat — they have to carry their food and their water and shelter with them, and even small disruptions to those supplies can be disastrous. Think about it: you go on an expedition, you don’t carry more than you need with you. So, if you’ve got 14 days worth of food, and you get half way in, and then lose the rest of your food…how are you going to get out?
I’ve been having some trouble thinking of other good examples of this, because it’s such a subtly different premise from the regular monster movie, but I think The Abyss is probably one — everything about it hammers home the idea that the monster is less terrifying than the realization as to just how precariously placed we are in our ecosystem, and how the world is actually full of completely hostile environments that we don’t understand.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon plays that up, because it’s not only that the humans are in an alien environment vulnerable to catastrophic disruptions in their ability to survive, but the Creature itself actually IS in its own environment. It can just hop back into the water whenever it wants, you know? And you can come after it with your scuba gear and everything, but I hope you don’t snag that breathing tube on anything…
So there’s a quality to this one that’s a little Man Versus Nature, you know? It’s not a dissimilar movie from Jaws, or The Edge if you think about it, or Anaconda (if you want to think about Anaconda, but don’t think about that movie because it was terrible). Except The Creature from the Black Lagoon has another mechanic that it works with that’s also pretty subtle but I think gives it one up on Anaconda.
Everything We Know Is Wrong
The premise of Creature is that some kind of fishmo sapien has survived in the Amazon since the Devonian Era. In the 50s they were kind of surprised by it, but not TOO surprised, because people in the 50s didn’t know shit about shit. These days, a discovery like that would be insanely mind-blowing, because Waterworld taught us that the fishmo sapiens won’t evolve until AFTER human civilization collapses.
More importantly, though, it opens up this idea to us that science has limits — not coded limits, per se, this isn’t necessarily about us not being ABLE to understand everything in the universe, but it definitely reminds us that we don’t understand everything right now.
That works better with the gill-man than it does with the giant snakes in Anaconda, because when we see a gill-man do weird things, we’re not predisposed to disbelieve them: if we’ve already accepted the existence of a gill-man (conditionally on the grounds that we have to accept it otherwise why are we watching this movie in the first place), we’re basically going to believe anything that you tell us about him. Gill-man has gills and lungs, huh? Okay, sure. And he has poisoned claws, too? Fine. (He doesn’t, I’m just saying that if he did have poisoned claws, you wouldn’t be all, “What? Gill-men don’t have poisoned claws, that is bullshit!”) And he wants to bone Julie Adams? Well…that does seem kind of suspicious, actually, what with him being a completely different fish-looking species than she is, but all in all I can’t really blame him.
Compare that with Anaconda. In fact, anyone who has been to the zoo knows that anacondas exist, and that they are fucking huge. So we don’t need to suspend our disbelief to accept that they exist in the movie — and consequently, there’s no threshold cost. When the anacondas start doing weird things, like eating and then vomiting up Jon Voight, we feel cheated, because there was no implicit agreement here. I agreed to accept the existence of the plainly fictional fishmo sapien in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I did NOT agree to accept a whole bunch of bullshit that you’re making up about anacondas.
So, Where Did We Go Wrong?
The Creatures category, sub-category Lagoons and Such, Black or Otherwise, doesn’t to me seem to be that essential a genre. Typically when you see a movie like this that just isn’t very good (and let’s, for the moment, just imagine a represented class of movies that includes any time someone is in the jungle/desert/ocean/space and being hunted by a tiger/scorpion/gill-man/space-monster) it’s because the focus is entirely on the peril of the characters from the monster. And that’s an okay approach, that’s Trapped in a PLACE with a THING, which is a form exactly as interesting as you can make the PLACE and the THING themselves.
But why are you going to make the PLACE something like the jungle or the Black Lagoon, if you’re not also going to make a point about just how far out of their element the protagonists are? If they’re just going to be hunted down by an invincible murdering monster, that’s just a Michael Meyers movie. And that’s a fine movie, but part of what makes it work is actually the complete inverse of the Creatures (Lagoons and Such, Black or Otherwise) movies. So when this stuff goes wrong, it usually goes wrong because some bright kid with a baseball cap was like, “What if we made Halloween, but set it in some kind of LAGOON, or something?” and then he stops thinking about it.
In conclusion: the gill-man is basically like Aquaman. It’s not that he’s a bad character or a bad story, it’s just that he’s got a particular set of idiosyncratic stories to tell, and if you don’t really specifically want to tell those stories — the ones that are about human beings balanced dangerously on the edge of ignorance and living in a deadly, dangerous world that we’re less-equipped to handle than our adversaries — then you’re going to end up just doing some kind of weird, hobbled, mush of a story where everyone laughs at your creature and doesn’t invite him to the good monster parties.
[TWO IMPORTANT NOTES: First of all, there actually is NO LAGOON in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. That is just a LAKE. Second of all, I don’t think that atoll in Waterworld was actually an atoll, either.]
[UPDATE: I am advised that by sheer coincidence The Generationals (a hippie band that definitely does not sound like they go nuts and trash all their instruments after a set like Pete Townsend did) have posted a video today about this very same creature, and his romantic problems.]
Uh, yeah, I guess you can watch Creature from the Black Lagoon if you want, but it’s streaming on Netflix and I’d say only buy it if you really want a complete set.
You should own The Abyss, though.
And if you want a grosser, gorier version of The Abyss, Leviathan isn’t completely terrible. (It’s even got Peter Weller, the poor man’s Ed Harris.)