There’s something so terrifying about the water. Not like swimming pools, but lakes and rivers with no clue of what’s below you. 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon captures those fears perfectly as it toys with our emotions. Even when it decides to bring us a sigh of relief, it’s always tagged with a mark of uncertainty–just like the water itself.
Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a fossilized claw with webbed fingers in the Amazon, which suggests evidence that a land-sea animal once existed. He requests the assistance of his friend and former student, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend/colleague Kay (Julie Adams), urging them to go back to the Amazon and help him research the matter further. David persuades his boss, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), to fund their trip, but David doesn’t realize Mark’s presence will ignite more issues than it will solve.
Once the team arrives at their destination, they’re led to a mysterious lagoon, which locals say nobody has ever returned from. Unbeknownst to them, they’re being watched by an amphibious fish humanoid, with claws matching the one Carl found on land. The Gill Man becomes fond of Kay, but poses a threat to the males on board, picking the crew off one by one.
David wants to investigate and research the creature in his natural habitat, while Mark wants to kill it to take it back as a trophy. Even after all the damage the creature has done, the two of them continuously plunge into the water with an unrealistic sense of fearlessness, or lack of second thoughts, at least.
Director Jack Arnold and his team shot this movie in a masterful way, often times making us forget that this is a drive-in creature feature. While providing some great camerawork, they create the maximum amount of suspense as their characters are being stalked. But something tells me they don’t have to try all that hard.
The real star of the movie is the creature, himself, played by Ben Chapman (land) and Ricou Browning (underwater). The Gill Man looks absolutely perfect, and his eerie presence juxtaposed with classic 1950s filmmaking is enough to make us shudder.
The second best part of the film is its musical score, making everything feel ten times bigger. The music, composed by a team consisting of Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein, is an obvious precursor and influence of John Williams’ score for 1975’s Jaws, which evokes the same type of anxiety.
The tight narrative and brisk runtime is still a bit slow by today’s standards, but the movie stretches its thin premise nicely.
Creature from the Black Lagoon is, in the end, a heartbreaking tale about a monster who’s misunderstood, but can’t be given the chance because of how he looks and the inherent nature of man versus beast. It’s the perfect example of a movie that clocks in and gets its job done without trying to do too much with its story. It’s reliable. A face-value movie that never makes an attempt at pretentiousness, providing a simple, yet delicately stated message when given the chance.