Creature From The Black Lagoon: The Gill Man’s Debut

We originally printed this post from guest blogger Rick29 back in February, but we are featuring it again as we celebrate Halloween here on MovieFanFare!:

Universal Studios was the “Home of Horror” from 1931 to 1946, but its Gothic monsters were relegated strictly to appearances alongside Abbott & Costello by the 1950s. There are many theories for the decline of Universal’s horror movies (e.g., the real-life horrors of World War II, uneven quality, genre fatigue, etc.). Whatever the reason, science fiction cinema had surpassed the horror genre and Universal wanted to recapture its audience. It got off to a good start with It Came from Outer Space (1953), a well-regarded alien creature saga based on a story by Ray Bradbury.

The following year, Universal released Creature from the Black Lagoon and launched the career of its most famous monster since the Wolf-Man. Like It Came from Outer Space, Creature was filmed in 3D and directed by Jack Arnold. However, the idea for a movie about a human-like amphibian creature is attributed to producer William Alland. There are various origin stories, but the most commonly accepted is that Alland heard about the legend of a “man-fish” in the Amazon during a dinner party.

His film kicks off with an archaeologist discovering a fossil of a webbed hand in the upper regions of the Amazon. Focusing on the fossil, he fails to see a living webbed hand emerge from the murky water and disappear back into it. (The stinger music that accompanies each appearance of the Creature is very effective, if overused; there is no credited composer.)

Back at the Instituto de Biologia, wealthy Mark Williams (Richard Denning) is impressed enough with this new find to sponsor an expedition to unearth the rest of the skeleton. He takes along Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), a pretty colleague, and her fiance, ichthyologist David Reed (Richard Carlson).

Tracking the fossil remains to a hidden lagoon, the scientists discover the Gill Man and capture him. He soon escapes, though, and the hunters become the quarry when the humans find their exit from the lagoon blocked with a dam. It also becomes apparent that the Creature’s main interest in the humans is Kay.

This straightforward plot serves as the framework for one of cinema’s more unusual love triangles. Naturally, I’m not talking about the friction between Mark and David over Kay’s affections. Though Mark may be interested in her, Kay ignores him. The real triangle is between Kay, David, and the Gill Man. Kay certainly shows no affection for the Gill Man, but he does intrigue her and she is quick to note that he never hurts her. One might call their relationship one of mutual curiosity.

It’s an intriguing one, no doubt, fueled by the film’s most famous sequence. When Kay makes an ill-advised decision to go for a swim, the Creature spies her submerged form (quite fetching in a one-piece white bathing suit). As Kay swims along the surface, the Creature–his face looking up at her–glides underneath her, mirroring her movements. It’s a stunning vision of erotic underwater ballet. This classic scene is only briefly described in the script, so most of the credit belongs to director Jack Arnold, who often infused his films with a stunning visual or two. (Another brilliant scene is a close-up of the Creature’s hand as he hesitantly reaches out to touch Kay’s foot as she paddles in the water.)

Ben Chapman played the Creature on land with Ricou Browning performing the underwater scenes. Considering he was wearing a molded sponge rubber suit, Browning’s Creature is amazingly graceful and expressive. There were two different suits. The one used for the underwater scenes was painted bright yellow to create a contrast against the dark water (the film was shot in black-and-white). Although many people provided input to the design of the Creature suits, most film historians recognize Millicent Patrick’s contributions as the most significant. According to Bill Warren in his excellent reference book Keep Watching the Skies!, the Creature’s body was inspired by the Oscar statuette and its head was modeled after Anne Sheridan.

By the way, the Creature is never referred as “the Creature” in the film. (Actually, an earlier title for the film was simply The Black Lagoon). It’s none other than Whit Bissell–one of Hollywood’s busiest supporting actors–who first labels the Creature “the Gill Man.” It’s a nickname that would stick.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was a huge hit for Universal and inspired two sequels: Revenge of the Creature (1955), which was also shot in 3D, and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). The Creature also made cameo appearances in other films (like Mad Monster Party) and on television (e.g., Uncle Gilbert in The Munsters) in the ensuing years. There have been numerous plans to mount a big budget remake, including a proposed 2015 reboot with Scarlett Johansson rumored as a cast member (not playing the Creature!).

When I interviewed the luminous Julie Adams in 2013, she noted the enduring popularity of Creature from the Black Lagoon: “The astonishing afterlife of this film never ceases to amaze me. I’m proud that it has entertained so many movie fans for so long.”

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!