After discovered a fossilized reptilian claw in the Amazon, geologist Dr Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) puts together an expedition to return and find further evidence of the previously undiscovered species. Along with ichthyologist Dr David Reed (Richard Carlson), the wealthy Dr Mark Williams (Richard Denning) and scientist Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), Dr Maia returns to the jungle – onto to discover that the amphibious reptiles may not be as extinct as he had believed.
Released in 1954, Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon acts as an unusual little coda to the Universal Monsters franchise. By 1950 the original films had all but dried up, spare a few Abbott and Costello parodies. Those earlier films had also been dominated by a common sense of tragedy, whether Imhotep’s desire to reunite with his one love, or Laurence Talbot unwillingly transforming into a werewolf, or Frankenstein’s monster’s futile search for peace and acceptance. By contrast Creature from the Black Lagoon is a straight-up monster movie. Its comparative simplicity is one of its core strengths. Asides from its genre and the studio which made it, it is arguable that the film doesn’t really belong among the Universal Monsters group at all. If anything it is a rather convenient line in the sand, marking the point where the more gothic and atmospheric horror of the 1930s and 1940s gave way to the hideous monsters and mutants of the post-atomic 1950s.
That the film is not only remembered today but actively celebrated comes down in large part to the titular creature. It is a masterpiece of design and special effects: a spiny humanoid fish person, it appears not only on land but underwater too. It is never less than completely effective. The film’s underwater sequences are a particular highlight of the film, as Reed and Williams Scuba-dive around the depths of the lagoon in confrontations with the creature. The creature is unexpectedly elegant in these sequences, and presents a sharp contrast to its more cumbersome and awkward movements when sneaking around above the surface. It never looks anything less than iconic.
In this respect the film foreshadows later monster hits like Alien and Predator, which have both sustained long-running movie franchises based essentially on production design more than anything else. The creature here returned for two sequels, but in all honesty it is bizarre that Universal Pictures have never managed to get a remake out of the gate.
The film does an effective job of pitting Reed and Williams against one another. One wants to capture the creature alive for further study. The other wants to kill it first. At first it is very easy to side with capturing the beast, but as the body count rises killing the creature starts to become a much more understandable option. That is about as complex as the film gets, however, as the characters are broadly drawn and the plot does not extend much beyond the cast travelling to the black lagoon, getting their boat stuck, and fending off the creature’s advances. At 79 minutes it is all kept to a fast pace as well; given the time constraints one would not want a more complicated narrative.
The original theatrical release was in a 3D format, however modern-day releases on DVD and blu-ray stick to a two-dimensional version. More than 60 years after it was made it remains a hugely entertaining monster movie with more than a few moments that really capture the imagination. This is a pulp classic with good reason.