Creature from the Black Lagoon
1954. Directed by Jack Arnold.
As the 3D fad of the early 1950’s was dying, studios opted to film Creature from the Black Lagoon in the medium in an effort to draw out its welcome. Despite failing in that endeavor, the film features stunning underwater cinematography that has inspired horror films since its debut. Unable to extricate itself from the romance angle, Creature from the Black Lagoon spends the majority of its time building suspense, presenting the man vs. nature conflict as a forefather of the slasher film.
Scientists searching for the missing link intrude on the lair of an amphibious humanoid holdout from the prehistoric age. The creature begins to stalk its hunters in an effort to defend its home while simultaneously becoming enamored with the expedition’s lone female member. Even for the time, the premise was overdone, but The Creature from the Black Lagoon is not defined by its plot. It is the sum of an engaging fraternity of technical achievements that support one another to cement Creature as a subconscious definition of terror.
William Snyder’s aquatic cinematography is timeless, building off preceding legends to form a sinister foundation for the future. The underwater sequences are terrifyingly evocative, with compositions reminiscent of Night of the Hunter that later would be used by Spielberg in Jaws. The black depths are offset by natural light flittering through the surface to illuminate a world unknown to man and yet essential to mankind’s evolution, symbolizing the dark symmetry of the story.
The creature’s design was conceived by Disney animator Millicent Patrick, though lead makeup artist Bud Westmore claimed credit for several decades. Constructed by prosthetic artists from World War II the creature is an original amalgam of myth and legend that is not text based, another stark difference from the other Universal Monsters. Ben Chapman remained in the body suit for over 10 hours each day. Unable to sit down, he spent down time in a lake near the shooting location in Florida to stay cool, a real life parallel to the primordial onus endured by the beast.
At its core, Creature from the Black Lagoon is an exploration of animalistic survival. There are environmental underpinnings, but the film is best when taken as a horror story about confronting the unknown and the dangers of scientific discovery. Many of the Universal films deal with the pathos of their monstrous leads and Creature side steps this in favor of focusing on the excitement of the reveal. Whether it involves an innocent swim or an ill-advised showdown, Creature aims to unsettle with its simplicity and it mostly succeeds.
Available now for digital rental, Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the greatest horror films ever made, if only for its undeniable influence on the genre and its memorable cinematography. Featuring remarkable costuming and makeup effects, this is the cornerstone of the Universal Monsters and a hallmark of American horror films.
Highly. Highly Recommend.