Wednesday 15 January 2014

Movie Review: Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)

A silly but lovable B-grade monster movie, Creature From The Black Lagoon is a man in a rubber suit, but he's entertaining enough if approached in a spirit of fun.

Deep in the Amazon jungle, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and his archaeological expedition uncover a strange skeletal hand with webbing between the fingers, fossilized in a mountainside. Excited at the discovery, Maia travels back to Brazil and joins forces with a group including fellow scientist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), his girlfriend and researcher Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), and they create a new expedition to find the rest of the skeleton. Meanwhile, back at Maia's base camp, a hideous creature emerges from a nearby lake and kills the two workers assigned to guard the site.

With rustic captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva) at the helm, the expedition travels by boat to the excavation site. There is an undercurrent of friction between David, who cares more about science, and Mark, who is more interested in financial gain and fame. Mark also has his eye on Kay. After failing to find any more pieces of the skeleton, the expedition travels downriver to a lagoon, where they hope to find fossilized deposits. Instead, the half-man, half-fish amphibious and monstrous creature makes its presence known, and a deadly confrontation starts, with the creature trying to kidnap Kay and kill all the men of the expedition.

Creature From The Black Lagoon has limited ambition, and accepted on its own terms as a no-frills monster movie with second tier (at best) talent all around the camera, it delivers campy entertainment.

The film features plenty of impressively clear underwater photography, Universal International and director Jack Arnold eager to show off the emerging capability of filming beneath the waves, as a complement to the original 3-D format of the film. But with the entire movie running for 79 minutes, around 20 of those minutes are invested in mostly languid shots of David, Mark, Kay and the creature swimming in the lagoon, leaving about an hour for the meaningful action. That all the elements of the story fit comfortably within 60 minutes is a good summary of how thin the material is.

The creature outfit has a rather dorky fish head, a scaly body, and an overabundance of rubber. It looks hefty, and more clumsy than scary. Ben Chapman plays the creature, fondly known as Gill-man, on land, where he mostly stumbles around slowly and awkwardly, while Ricou Browning takes over the creature swimming duties, appearing much more lithe and dangerous. By far the best scene in the movie has Kay swimming on the surface and the creature shadowing her from below, parallelling her swim patterns without her knowing, the scene achieving a beauty and the beast balletic elegance.

With the creature itself not too scary, Arnold over-uses to distraction a screechy music score to announce the monster's every intent, in a perfect example of how to reveal desperation in the absence of good new ideas.

The film superficially dabbles in some science versus commerce debates, and more obviously wades into traditional woman-as-the-prize territory as David, Mark and Gill-man form an ungainly triangle of lust around Kay. What exactly the monster would do with Kay should he win her is left to the imagination, but it can't be too good. The sprightly Julie Adams finds every excuse to be in swimsuits or shorts, injecting a healthy promise of sex appeal into the otherwise ominous events at the lagoon.

Part man, part fish, Creature From The Black Lagoon is all kitsch.

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