The whole classic monster movies thing is something that passed me by. Whether it was a generational thing, or a geographical thing, I didn’t grow up watching them on local TV and develop a nostalgic love for them. But it seems Americans my age and older did. They’ve developed such a nostalgic love for them that I feel like that love has infiltrated pop culture for people of a certain age in a way that made me think I was kind of missing out by not getting their references to these movies.
Sure, I’ve seen the old school Dracula and Frankenstein, but they seem like such obvious, easy options. So I thought I should go a little further into the Universal monster roster, with The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
When a large, amphibianly humanoid fossil hand is found in the Amazon, scientist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) decides he needs to investigate in the hopes of discovering a new species. Soon, Reed, his girlfriend (Julie Adams as Kay), and the commercially minded Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) are headed up river on the kind of mission that makes Captain Willard’s search for Colonel Kurtz seem like a delightful pleasure cruise.
While Reed and Kay are all about the scientific significance of their search, Williams is more concerned with capturing the mysterious creature for fame and fortune. And if he can’t capture it, he’ll settle for killing it. Also aboard the ill-fated trip are crusty South American boat captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva), Reed’s college professor and mentor, the old and wise Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), and a few one dimensional members of the boat’s crew. Thus giving us broad character stereotypes to represent the different views of the film’s heavy handed metaphors, and the odd anonymous Redshirts to die in service of the clichéd story.
That may sound harsh, but the characters are broad stereotypes at best, one dimensional and undefinable at worst. The story is clichéd and heavy handed. But that’s OK, because that is what a movie like this is all about. Character, story, logic… These things are secondary to the creature. His name’s in the bloody title, after all.
And the creature lives up to that top billing. For a low budget quickie made six decades ago, the look, design and costume of the creature hold up extremely well. Maybe it benefits from being shot mostly under water, maybe it benefits from the leathery skin of real reptiles, maybe it helps that he’s perpetually wet. But the rubber costume never comes off as a cheap, rubber costume. It looks more real than anything from this era has any right to look.
If (probably more like ‘when’) The Creature from the Black Lagoon is remade, it’ll be a CGI fabrication, or motion capture hybrid. And it won’t be nearly as effective. Seeing a real person doing all of that swimming makes it a more tangible character. And the little moments of fear and vulnerability exhibited as the creature tries to figure out these strange new being he’s encountering simply won’t be as real or effective. Gollum and Rocket Racoon aside, very few CGI characters can convey subtle emotion when added to a real world setting with actual, human actors.
Finally seeing The Creature form the Black Lagoon may not have infused me with that nostalgic love that seems to have enveloped so many people just a little older than myself, but it did make me kind of understand it, at least a little. If I was a kid with three channels to choose from and this kind of thing was on regular rotation, I’m sure I would have grown up loving it too.