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07 March, 2009

Special Correspondence--Sexes in the Cinema: A Guy, a Gal, a Gill Man

When CreatureScape.com celebrated the 52nd anniversary of the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in the spring of 2006, Elizabeth Haney and John “The Unimonster” Stevenson took a closer look at this landmark film, from their unique perspectives across the aisle. Here’s that conversation, reprinted with gratitude to Elizabeth.

UNI: When you call yourself “Unimonster,” it’s just expected that you have an abiding love of all things Universal, especially one of their greatest creations. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON certainly qualifies as one of their best. One of Universal’s “Big Five”, it has long been one of the most popular of the Universal Franchises. To me, personally, “Creech” has always been the best of a great decade. Though many great horror and sci-fi films came out in the 1950’s, CFTBL was unique. It was a movie that never failed to entertain me as a child, and still entertains me now as a grizzled aging Monsterkid.

EH: Creature from the Black Lagoon ranks as one of my all-time favorite monster movies in part because it's one of my earliest monster movie memories from back in the days when I would sneak back out of bed to watch late-night horror movies on television. The Creature made a tremendous impression on me back then, and my affection for him keeps growing through the years; I feel like every time I watch the movie, I get to know him a little better. And to know a Gill Man is to love him.

One thing that really sets the Gill Man apart from some other monsters is how sympathetic a character he is; you really feel sorry for the guy as you watch what he goes through. This is classic Jack Arnold (the director); he was a master at creating circumstances so we see the events through the eyes of the “monster” and sympathize with that character.

UNI: Well, something that Universal did better than anyone else was to create characters that, while qualifying as “Monsters”, are nonetheless sympathetic, solid, three-dimensional beings. Often evil, always dangerous, but still, they had depth. They had, for want of a better term, soul. Anyone who doubts that needs to re-examine Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster in the original FRANKENSTEIN. The Creature stood apart from the common, ‘50’s B-Monster herd by giving us, not an atomically-mutated insect or invading alien, but a natural beast, at home in his element, posing no threat to anyone who did not threaten him. We transported ourselves into his world; we entered his home; we were, in essence, the invading aliens. He reacted no differently than would we in a similar situation, by fighting back with whatever weapons were at his disposal.

EH: As with other Universal monsters, it’s the look of the Gill Man himself that is a big part of why the movie is so outstanding. The artists who worked on the concept of the Creature and then created such a wonderful costume, along with the work of the actors who portrayed the Creature, help to make us forget there is a human under there. However, the setting makes it very special as well. As a kid I was mesmerized by this small group of people trapped on a boat in an exotic jungle world. This was no rambling Gothic castle or ruined watchtower: these people were stuck on a tiny boat in a hostile jungle on a very big river until they wrangled themselves out of the situation. This was also the first time I saw a woman in an active role in a horror film. Even though it's pretty limited by today's standards, as a little girl it was pretty heady stuff having a character I could project myself into. Kay was there as a researcher, part of the team; she had a reason to be there, and wasn't tagging along as a fiancĂ©e or wife.

UNI: The location shooting (at Florida’s Wakulla Springs State Park, as well as the Universal backlot…) also set this movie apart. It was easy as a young boy to see myself on the Rita, cruising far up the headwaters of the Amazon. While Universal never turned out a totally bad looking piece of film, some photographer’s work was better than others, and William Snyder’s work was some of their best in the ‘50’s. As to Julie Adams’ unusually strong characterization of Kay… though I can now see how groundbreaking the role was, when I first saw her on the screen that was the furthest thing from my mind.

EH: I really envied Kay for her chance to have such an exciting adventure! And even though the Creature was a little scary to me when I was a little (and made a gal think twice about going for a swim), I think on some level I understood that this was a monster who was not going to bother you unless you bothered him. Now, as a grown woman, I get uncomfortable with some of the interpretations of the sexual subtext in the movie. Some people see the story merely as the male creature wanting to possess the female human, the creature being in competition with the human males, which can tweak the story into some kind of racist rape allegory. That is certainly not in keeping with what Jack Arnold strives for in his movies. Why would he create a sympathetic monster that you are supposed to relate to and then give it criminal or ugly motive?

The movie is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. It draws on elements from King Kong, but I think a major difference is in the character of Kay. Kay feels sorry for the Creature and we see and hear her express that clearly, in ways that Ann Darrow never did (or one might argue couldn’t). Kay even defends the Creature to the others and suggests they just leave him alone, and I really admired Kay for that!

To me, the more predatory battle for Kay is between the two human scientists, David and Mark. Their reactions seem so overblown and macho when they are pushed into competing for Kay, either between themselves or with the Creature.
Of course, there are two things that Mark wants and loves more than Kay. One is money and the other is that harpoon of his. And boy, does he love his harpoon. It's quite impressive in 3-D, and the corresponding dialogue when he describes the “positive weapon” is almost funny.
I see the Creature attracted to Kay not just for her beauty but because he sees someone with whom he relates. When David and Mark go diving in the water, it's very bold, and the sexual subtext is clearly there. The men prepare by putting on their scuba gear with grim determination. They penetrate the water, plunge, probe and generally intrude, bringing knives and harpoons no less.

Kay's approach to the water is completely different. She just smiles and slips into the water; no gear, no knives and harpoons, just Kay and her white bathing suit. Kay does not intrude in the Creature's world but flows into it. Kay delights in the beauty of the lagoon, appreciates the feel of the water on her body and her swimming says she is totally comfortable and at home. Small wonder the Creature feels he may have found a kindred spirit here. The Gill Man swims under her and matches her directions and strokes and when curiosity overcomes him he approaches her cautiously, gently, shyly and finally nervously touches her foot. It's almost a water ballet.
Even when the Gill Man pursues Kay in later scenes, I never get the impression he intends to harm her, which Kay also asserts in dialogue. This poor guy is lonely; whether he's been alone since the Devonian age or lost his mate or who knows what, Kay appears to be the first other being he's laid eyes on who understands and appreciates the beauty of his Black Lagoon. And she's not packing a harpoon.

UNI: While I might agree there is some sexual subtext, if not outright suggestiveness, in CFTBL, I don’t think I can agree with you on ALL of your points, Elizabeth. I mean seriously, even Freud might have a problem seeing a sexual context in the simple act of diving into the lagoon. I’ll admit you might have a point (no pun intended…) about Mark’s spear-gun… but sometimes a harpoon is just a harpoon!

Also, I do think there’s a certain sexual side to the Creature’s interest in Kay, just as I do think Kong had more than platonic feelings for Ann. It is a scientific fact that animals are attracted to menstruating women; animals such as chimps, orangutans, and dolphins have become aggressive in their interest for human women at that time. It’s not too hard to see that Creech could have such instinctive reactions. That hardly makes those impulses “criminal”; he is, after all, an animal. His actions, whether violence directed at the males of the expedition, or his interest in Kay, cannot, by definition, be criminal.

But I can’t agree with you enough on your description of how the Creature perceives Kay as she swims in the lagoon. In fact, I don’t think I could describe the scene any better than you did. It’s obvious that the Creature is captivated by Kay, perhaps to the point of obsession. As I watch the movie now, I can recognize the point at which the Creature’s motivation ceases to be the desire to eliminate a threat, to his growing curiosity and fascination with the woman.

Of course, none of this mattered, or even occurred to a nine year-old boy watching this movie for the first time while sitting three feet away from the TV late one Saturday night. I just wanted to see what all the monster-mags stacked in the corner of my bedroom were calling such a great classic. To me, classic meant Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy… maybe the Wolf-Man. Anything with so hokey a name as CREATURE in the title was usually relegated to the “Good, but not great…” pile in my mind. I’m happy to say that the magazines were right, and the Creature did, indeed, exceed my expectations.

EH: During that famous swim scene where the Creature sees Kay in his lagoon, I’ve often wondered about the wonderful white bathing suit and how much of the costuming choice there was deliberate and how much was just good fortune in terms of the effect it created. It’s white, and I’ve wondered if that was to emphasize the purity of Kay’s character, or if it was to create the wonderful image of just her shapely figure when backlit from above and filmed underneath, or perhaps a little of both, which creates some tension for the viewer. Julie Adams said that at the time the suit was almost a little racy, with the higher cut leg openings. My mother, who was a teen and worked in a movie theater when the movie came out, said seeing “Creature” inspired her to go shopping for a white bathing suit that year.

UNI: Kay’s pure white swimsuit is one of the iconic images that you carry with you from this film, and one that serves to illustrate just how powerful and effective Black & White photography could be. The stark contrast between her shimmering figure and the black and gray tones of the lagoon as she swam couldn’t have been just a fortuitous accident; it’s the job of the cinematographer to make such shots happen, and Snyder did that to perfection.

EH: Another scene that always impressed me, even way back, is when the Gill Man observes Kay toss a cigarette overboard. Growing up, my folks emphasized the importance of not littering and with a father who was an avid fisherman I spent a lot of time peering off the sides of boats. The camera captures such a powerful image there, the cigarette butt floating down in the water and the Creature observing this in a very bemused fashion. It seems like that little shot is intended to emphasize what was slowly happening in the lagoon. For me, a shift seems to occur at that point, it ups the ante a bit and his actions (even towards Kay) become more urgent and aggressive. Perhaps the Creature, who thought Kay saw his world the way he did, was disappointed to see her tossing junk in his water.

UNI: While my jerking knee is telling me that that’s a case of overanalyzing the scene, there’s enough documentation to establish that the environmental aspects of it were emphasized, as if the complicated shot set-ups weren’t proof that it was meant to be of some significance. I’m not sure that I see the change in attitude that you refer to, though. While the audience would grasp the significance of Kay’s polluting the pristine lagoon, however symbolically, I would argue that the Creature has no inkling that the item she tosses overboard was anything more than these strange creatures’ waste matter… certainly I would deny that Creech was “anti-smoking.”

EH: It’s fun to revisit this movie and celebrate the special people and circumstances that worked together to create not only a great monster movie, but to give birth to an iconic monster figure. How fortunate we are that “Captain” Jack Arnold and crew sailed down the Amazon and gave us the opportunity to discover, meet and love the Gill Man, and how fortunate we are to have him still with us today!

UNI: I agree completely with that, Elizabeth. You know, it’s been over thirty years since I first saw this film, and since then, I’ve probably sat through a hundred or so viewings of it. I’ve never been bored by it, and frankly, that’s a lot more than I can say for some of today’s films.

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