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01 March, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dear Creature…

Fifty-four years ago this Tuesday, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was released into theaters. With that release, a dedicated subset of Universal Horror fans was conceived, one of the most passionate of a passionate group of fans.

First, let me say that I love the Creature. Though he’s not my favorite of the Universal stable of monsters, he is by far the best of the Man-in-the Rubber-Suit fiends of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and for various reasons, his films have a special place in my heart. However, there are those for whom “the Gill-Man” inspires steadfast devotion and loyalty, almost to the point of fanaticism. Those for whom the phrase “Ben Chapman or Ricou Browning?” will start hour-long discussions, if not outright arguments, a’la “Less Filling’—‘Tastes Great!”

Don’t misunderstand me… a little fanaticism about your favorite films isn’t necessarily a bad thing… says the man who’s attended a STAR TREK con wearing Spock ears. Fanaticism is just another way to say devotion, or dedication, or passion. I’m certainly passionate about my love of the Universal Monsters, and appreciate the same in others.

The mere fact that Universal’s library of Horror films can inspire such a devoted following fifty, sixty, even seventy years after their original runs speaks volumes for the quality, the talent, the pure genius of the studio’s creative team.

As a faithful follower of the High Priests of Karnak, I myself have been guilty of a degree of fanaticism over my favorite monster, the Mummy. (Though the reports of my having injured several people in my zeal to grab the last remaining MUMMY Legacy set off the shelf were greatly exaggerated… one or two persons went down, at most, no matter what the lawyers say.) I know of Frankenstein fans who have built replicas of Kenneth Strickfadden’s laboratory props, and Dracula lovers who sleep in coffins.

These people are devoted to films that, in most cases, were made forty years before they were born… what is it that arouses such an emotional attachment to, of all things, a monster movie??
In the case of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, it’s no different from what stimulates the same level of devotion and commitment that’s displayed by fans of KING KONG. It starts with a story that’s essentially the same in both films, one you could say is as old as Eve and the serpent.

Though I’m the first to say that sometimes (to quote the father of sexual subtext, Sigmund Freud himself…) “A cigar is just a cigar…,” there’s no denying that there is a strong sexual theme to both movies. It may be more pronounced in KING KONG, but its presence is obvious in this film, as well. One of the most iconic images in ‘50’s Horror films is that of the Creature, watching in rapt attention as Kay, (Julie Adams in a career-making role…) white bathing suit shimmering in the sunlight, swims languidly above him. This can easily be compared to Kong’s fascination with Ann Darrow, as he plucked at her clothing, exposing her long white legs and arms. While the parallels may not be exact, they are certainly there; and both films are perfect examples of the “Beauty and the Beast” motif in cinema.

But while that may be why CFTBL, as well as KING KONG, were so successful in their initial runs, that doesn’t explain the continued popularity of the Creature. For that, we have to look at the text, rather than the subtext of the film.

First, you have the best-looking monster in American Horror and Sci-Fi cinema of the 1950’s. Let’s be honest—as much as we love those movies, some of those monster designs inspired far more laughter than fear. The gorilla with a fishbowl on his head from ROBOT MONSTER; “Beulah”, Paul Blaisdell’s creation from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, which looked like a squat cucumber; and the Martian Mutants from INVADERS FROM MARS are certainly representative of the creature creations that populated the matinees and Drive-In’s of the decade.

While Ray Harryhausen was doing spectacular work with stop-action animation on clay miniatures, and Toho would premiere the movie GOJIRA in Japan that same year, with the greatest example of a man-in-a-rubber-suit monster ever conceived, the Creature is hands down the best such American design.

Second, the story is simply one of the best of the decade; perhaps Universal’s best since FRANKENSTEIN twenty-three years before. Simple, stark, with a minimum of extraneous characters and dialogue, it functions beautifully by putting its cast in isolation with an unknown element, similar to THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD or ALIEN. Only this time, we’re the intruders in his environment, and the audience’s sympathies are drawn, quite naturally, to the Creature. He doesn’t attack out of greed, evil intentions, or even hunger. He’s simply fighting back against those who are violating his world, and we find ourselves rooting for him.

Also, the production values far outpace what was being done at most studios in the early fifties. While not approaching the budgetary heights that were lavished upon George Pal’s productions at Paramount, the budget for CFTBL certainly wasn’t small for the time.

Finally, there is the superb cast. Led by Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julie Adams, this stellar group of b-list journeymen turn in a tremendous performance, far exceeding the standard “Monster threatens girl, hero battles monster, hero defeats monster, hero saves girl…” format so prevalent in films of the era. While that is present, it’s much more subdued here. The characters are realistically drawn people, or as realistically drawn as possible given the times.
But I didn’t intend this to be a review of the movie, merely an invitation to a celebration. Fifty-four years ago this week, Universal gave birth to the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and like all great movie monsters, he’s still going strong. I for one just want to say “Happy Birthday, Gill-Man… swim on, dude!”









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