Saturday, October 10, 2015

Stubs - Creature From the Black Lagoon

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) Starring: Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nester Paiva, Whit Bissell Directed by Jack Arnold. Screenplay by Harry Essex, Arthur Ross. Story by: Maurice Zimm. Produced by William Alland. Run Time: 80 minutes. U.S. Black and White, Science Fiction, Horror, 3-D.

Following the success of It Came From Outer Space (1953), the first 3-D science fiction movie, producer William Alland, director Jack Arnold, screenwriter Harry Essex and star Richard Carlson reassembled the following year to make a film, Creature From the Black Lagoon, what would turn out to be the last great Universal monster, the Gill Man.

But the idea goes back more than a decade, to a dinner producer William Alland, then an actor working on Citizen Kane (1941), attended. There he spoke with Gabrial Figueroa, a Mexican cinematographer, who told him about the legend of a half-fish, half-man creature that lived in the Amazon. Inspired by the legend and the story of Beauty and the Beast, Alland wrote notes called “The Sea Monster” a decade later. In December 1952, Maurice Zimm wrote a story based on Alland’s notes and subsequently, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross were hired to turn the story into a screenplay.

The film begins with narration over images of the Earth coming into existence, cooling and the development of life as we know it on this planet.

Fast forward to an archaeological dig on the upper branch of the Amazon in Brazil. Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and his team, Luis (Rodd Redwing), Zee (Bernie Gozier) and Chico (Henry Escalante), discover the fossil of a webbed claw sticking out from a wall of limestone.

Not knowing what he’s found or its significance, Dr. Maia rushes the claw to the Instituto de Biologia Maritima in the hopes of getting the right crew to excavate the rest of the fossil. He leaves Luis in charge of the camp. But even before Dr. Maia’s left camp though, we see a living version of the claw reach out from the river and scratch at the bank.

Out at sea, Kay (Julia Adams) drives Dr. Maia out to the diving platform to retrieve her boyfriend, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), who is diving. David, an ichthyologist (fish scientist), works at an aquarium in California and has been a guest of the marine biology institute in Brazil for over a month. Dr. Maia shows David a photo of his find and the three head back to the Instituto to see it. Not only are David and Kay amazed at the find, so is their boss, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), and Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell). Dr. Williams agrees to fund the expedition and they all leave the next day to head back to camp. Kay, who works as an assistant to Mark, is invited along as well.

Back at the Institute, the team Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), Kay (Julia Adams),
Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) and Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell) examine the talon.

But back at camp, the creature (Ben Chapman) has come on land and is wrecking havoc, killing all those left behind.

The scientists hire a tramp steamer, the Rita, captained by a man named Lucas (Nestor Paiva), to take them back to the camp. When they arrive they find everything torn to pieces. Lucas suggests it was done by a  jaguar, but the others are not so sure. The real culprit, the creature, is not far away and, already fascinated by Kay, reaches out for her, missing only because she walks away to join the others.

Over the next eight days, the group digs through the limestone, but finds nothing. Mark, who is interested in the publicity, worries about wasting time and funds. But David comes up with a theory that perhaps the rest of the fossil might have been washed down the river. Lucas confirms that the river dumps into the Black Lagoon, where legend has it a half-man half-fish creature dwells. It is on board the boat that Mark sees Kay kissing David and is obviously jealous.

The Rita arrives in the Black Lagoon.

When they reach the lagoon, Gill Man (Ricou Browning) watches as David and Mark dive down looking for rocks to test. While Dr. Maia is testing the rocks, discovering they have the same make up as the limestone deposit back up river, Kays goes for a swim in the lagoon. Gill Man is fascinated by her and swims close to her (and even though the water is really clear, she does not see him.) Kay does notice when the creature reaches out and touches her foot. But by that time, Lucas has noticed she’s too far away and started the boat up to get closer.

So close. The Gill Man narrowly misses snagging Kay when she goes for a swim.

The Gill Man follows after her and gets caught up in the boat’s net, which is in the water. The creature struggles to free himself, while the men onboard try to raise the net. The hoist breaks and the creature cuts his way out. When they do get the net on deck, they find one of the creature’s talons.

They find one of the Gill Man's talons on the Rita.

Mark, to David’s dismay, wants to hunt and kill the creature. David urges him to preserve the creature and the two go back into the water; Mark armed with a harpoon gun and David with his camera. The Gill Man attacks them and while David tries to get a photo, Mark shoots the creature in the back with a harpoon. Back on ship, David develops his photograph and finds he only has a picture of seaweed. Mark doesn’t think anyone will believe them if they come back with only a story.

While they argue about how to proceed, the Creature, which no one ever hears come out of the water, attacks Chico and drags him over the bed to his death.

The next day, Mark and David use a drug Lucas has onboard that should sedate the fish, but the Gill Man avoids the drugged waters, despite a second dosage of the drug. Later that night, the Gill Man climbs on board in an effort to grab Kay. Her screams scare the creature back into the still drugged waters. David concerned the Gill Man will suffocate goes in after him and follows him into a grotto. The others follow in a row boat. The Gill Man, meanwhile, circles back and tries to make another grab for Kay. Tomas tries to stop it and is killed. But finally the drugs get to him and the Gill Man collapses.

The Gill Man is relentless in his pursuit of Kay.

Rather than killing him, as Mark wants to do, David convinces him to lock the creature in a water tank on the boat, using rope and bamboo to keep the creature imprisoned. Mark wants to leave the lagoon immediately, but once again he and David disagree. David wants to stay and do more research of the grotto and the water.

While Mark and David are off the boat, Dr. Thompson is left to stand guard over the creature. Through the bamboo the creature waits, biding his time. Dr. Thompson naturally falls asleep, but when you’d expect the creature to attack, it waits. Kay comes deckside and talks with Dr. Thompson, who knows about her love for David. While they are talking, they don’t notice or hear the creature try the bamboo and it escapes. The Gill Man slashes Thompson’s face and is only chased back into the water when Kay throws a lantern at the creature and catches him on fire. Dr. Thompson is bandaged and left to recover below deck.

No bamboo prison is going to hold the Creature for long.

David wants to leave now, saying they cannot risk any more attacks. Always the contrarian, Mark insists that they stay and kill the Gill Man. But Lucas sides with David and even pulls a knife on Mark to show who is in charge. But on their way out of the Lagoon, they find that their way has been blocked with a huge log the Gill Man has planted.

When they can’t pull the log out of the water, and the Creature does its best to stop them, David dives under the boat, followed by Mark, who still wants to kill the creature. The creature attacks and Mark shoots it with a harpoon, but only wounds it. Before David can scare the creature away it has already killed Mark.

Back on the boat, David devises a plan to shoot the rest of the drug directly at the creature, hoping to disable it long enough to allow him to clear the log. Diving back into the water, he surrounds the Gill Man with the drug, but the creature climbs on board and grabs Kay before diving back into the water with her.

David follows after them and the still-groggy creature attacks him. Dr. Maia and Lucas, who have followed in the rowboat, arrive in time to shoot the creature several times with bullets. David stops them, letting the creature escape back into the water, where it bleeds to death and sinks out of sight.

David rescues Kay from the Gill Man's grotto.

Shot in 3-D, the film did not receive a nationwide release as we often associate with major Hollywood films. Instead, it was distributed regionally, opening around the country at different times throughout 1954. By this time, 3-D was already falling out of favor. A lot of factors attributed to its decline including cost to project and exhibit, which led to cheap knockoff technologies. Since two projectors were required, there were issues with keeping them synchronized, which would lead to a dissatisfied audience. When Creature was released, it was primarily seen in smaller towns in flat 2D presentation and in 3-D only at the major theaters, which at the time were usually downtown in major cities.

The film, however, was still a financial success, leading to two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), both produced by William Alland. Revenge of the Creature was shot in 3-D with hopes of reviving the dying format and, having failed, The Creature Walks Among Us was shot in 2D.

The Gill Man, designed by Disney animator Millicent Patrick, was partially based on the Academy Awards’  Oscar statue, though makeup artist Bud Westmore would take sole credit for its design. The character was portrayed by two actors, one when the creature was on land, Ben Chapman, and another when the creature was in the water, Ricou Browning. Ricou would appear as the Creature in the two sequels, again only in the water, while another actor would play the Creature on land.

Ricou Browning played the Gill Man in the water.

While there have been sequels, so far the film has avoided being rebooted, though there has been a lot of talk about doing so. As far back as 1982, John Landis was interested in having Jack Arnold direct a remake and making it in 3-D, but Universal dropped the idea in favor of Jaws 3-D (1983).

In 2001, Gary Ross, the son of screenwriter Arthur Ross, was hired to write and produce the remake. In 2002, Guillermo del Toro was signed to direct, but other commitments caused him to drop out and, for a time, Tedi Sarafian was hired to write the script in 2003.

Ross was still attached to the project and talked in 2007 about changing the Gill Man’s origin story to being the result of pharmaceutical pollution in the Amazon. Since then other directors have been attached including Breck Eisner and Carl Erik Rinsch, but so far nothing has come of the effort. Universal even announced a reboot in 2012 to be released in 2014, but that project, like the others, was cancelled. However a reboot/remake is probably inevitable. Universal has already begun rebooting their classic Monster films, starting with Dracula Untold (2014).

The original film's producer William Alland as mentioned before, began his career as an actor. A part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Playhouse, he appeared on radio in the infamous The War of the Worlds broadcast on October 30, 1938. His first screen appearance was as the investigative reporter Jerry Thompson in Citizen Kane (1941). He would also serve as the voice of “News on the March” in the same movie. He would also appear in Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1947), again as a reporter.

In 1953, Alland would produce It Came From Outer Space. In addition to the trilogy of Creature films, he would also produce the sci-fi classic This Island Earth (1955), which would be skewered in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996).

You didn't go to sci-fi films in the 1950s for the acting and Creature does not disappoint in that regard. Ricou Bowning, as the Gill Man, may have done the best work, which isn't saying much, as he only swims and you never quite forget you're watching a guy in a rubber suit. The land-loving male leads, Richard Carlson and Richard Denning, could have switched roles for all they really mattered.

Julia Adams, a former Miss Little Rock (Arkansas), stands out because she's the only woman and was the eye candy that every male in the movie was after, including doctors Reed and Williams and the Creature. She actually appeared on television before she appeared in films, in Your Show Time (1949), the first network dramatic show shot on film rather than aired live or on kinescope. That same year she would also make her first film appearance in Red, Hot and Blue. She would continue to act on both television and on film, making appearances on episodes of everything from Studio One (1956) to The Andy Griffith Show (1962) to The Big Valley (1967) to The Mod Squad (1973) to The Incredible Hulk (1978) to Beverly Hills, 90210 (1993) to Lost (2006) to CSI New York (2010). Her last appearance, which was as a voice only, was in Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011). But again, her part in Creature could have been played by any sexy starlet of the time.

Julie Adams is the eye candy in the film.

Like Adams, director Jack Arnold worked in both film and television. He learned filmmaking from Robert Flaherty, the documentary filmmaker when he was assigned to the Signal Corps during World War II. He began making documentary shorts like The Valley of Shadow (1947) and The Chicken of Tomorrow (1948). He didn’t direct his first fiction film until Girls in the Night (1953), a crime drama for Universal. He would direct several of the 1950’s best known science fiction films including It Came From Outer Space, This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). In 1959, he directed The Mouse That Roared for Columbia Pictures, a British film starring Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg.

After that he would work almost exclusively in television with only the occasional film. He would direct episodes of Peter Gunn (1959-60), Dr. Kildare (1963), Gilligan’s Island (1964-66), It’s About Time (1966), Love, American Style (1971-72), The Brady Bunch (1970-74) and Love Boat (1977-1984).

The 3-D in the film is really well done almost to the point of distraction. While the film does use 3-D to shoot things off the screen, the technique is used effectively to draw the audience inward, adding layers on the screen rather than outside its confines. It is really quite an effective use of the process.

There were moments that were pretty scary in the movie and they do a pretty good job of building tension, though sometimes it seems like the Creature must have been trained as a ninja, since no one on the boat ever hears him. Over all, I liked The Creature In the Black Lagoon enough to recommend it to anyone who likes classic science fiction. For any director looking for a better way to use 3-D, Creature of the Black Lagoon should be required viewing.

Be sure to check out our other Horror film reviews here.

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