As part of my recent pandemic-inspired monster movie binge, I turned to Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy, released between 1954 and 1956. The three movies, all of which feature the titular creature, vary in quality. To get the review portion out of the way right here, the casual viewer is better off sticking with the first one: A film that is beautifully shot, has a spectacular soundtrack, and boasts underwater effects that are still impressive today.
Watching the movies, however, I was struck by how horrifying they are. No, the creature is not particularly scary – nor are the films suspenseful. The horror is all in the writing, and the world in which such films were created.
The Creature as the Hero
The Universal classic monsters are not like many of today’s ghouls. While they are very different from one another on multiple levels, every single monster shares an element of tragedy in at least one movie. That said, most of Universal’s monsters are not misunderstood. They are evil whether through madness or malice or a mixture of the two. The Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, ranks as possibly the least evil a Universal “monster” ever was.
When we first meet the creature, he (I say he but really, who knows?) is living in a remote lagoon in the Amazon, far from people or civilization. So right away, it’s established that he’s not a threat. He does not pillage villages or murder people on a routine basis. Nope, he just chills in his pool with his fish friends.
Does he kill people in the movie? Yes but there is always extenuating circumstances. The creature is portrayed as curious. When scientists camp near his lagoon, he goes to investigate their tent, only attacking after someone hurls a lantern at him. When he next see the creature, he is observing some divers.
Does he swim up and murder them? Nope. He actually starts swimming away! I can’t believe I never noticed this as a kid. The creature watches the newcomers to his home for a while and is like “cool” before trying to peace out to the deeper depths of the lagoon.
What turns him violent, you ask? Well, one of those scuba divers – upon seeing the creature trying to leave – fires a harpoon into his back. From then on, the creature’s good will is used up and it tries to destroy the invaders who came to his home and attacked him.
This formula repeats throughout the series. The creature tries to be left alone – people go to the creature – they deem him dangerous/monstrous – then proceed to try to either capture or kill him. Never once does the creature attack a village or seek out violence. He is always on the defensive.
Man’s Inhumanity to Nature
The Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy is, at its heart, about how men are monsters…and I’m not sure how self-aware it is of this message. In the first film we have two main human “protagonists.” One is depicted as the lesser, more vile man. He cares more about money than the pursuit of knowledge. All he wants to do is kill the creature and collect a profit. The other, the more noble-hearted, wants to capture the creature for study.
And that’s it. If you’re looking for the character who is like “why not just leave him alone?” You won’t find them. No sure person really exists in any of the three films. The idea of leaving this humanoid animal, which often shows remarkable intelligence – not to mention formidable strength and cunning – alone in its natural environment is never once discussed.
Instead, the movies center on a different idea: What can man learn? Really, it’s what can man take? Conservationism, despite existing for several decades prior to the trilogy’s release, is an alien notion. Who cares if this thing is the last of its kind? Is it the last of its kind? Meh, whatever. Get it in a tank or on a slab and let’s start those studies!
Part of this lack of reflection comes from the fact that no human character (save the sloppy caricature Lucas) ever returns for a sequel. We don’t really ever get a “well, that wasn’t a good idea last time” moment. This contrasts greatly with King Kong, the film that Creature from the Black Lagoon owes much of its inspiration to.
Kong, despite coming out some twenty years before, has this reflection in its sequel, Son of Kong. Business hound Carl Denham has learned that some things are better left alone. No scientist or businessman in the Creature trilogy can say the same.
Man’s Inhumanity to Man
But the Creature isn’t the only victim of prejudice here. Oh no, each of these films focuses very much on one specific demographic: white collar white people (usually men). Minorities and people of color are typically shown as uneducated and more often than not end up as creature fodder before any of the “actual characters” die.
Now before some people freak out, no I’m not saying the Creature trilogy is particularly racist. Is it racist – yeah, a bit. It is a film of its time. That doesn’t make it evil, we’ve just moved on.
The bigger point is that, when these people of privilege screw up, it’s usually the working poor who die first. This is especially true in the first film, where the creature kills four locals before exacting vengeance on only the most dick-ish of the white leads.
Are the movies themselves aware of this? Yes and no. The third film, The Creature Walks Among Us, definitely comes the closest. It does actively concern itself with the question of human nature and gives us a main antagonist who is abusive toward his wife due to his own insecurities. That said, it’s still largely a matter of class. The average worker is never really represented in these films – unless it’s to die.
Why The Shape of Water is the 4th Creature Film
The Creature trilogy is a sad story. A remarkable animal, possibly the last of its kind, is hunted and harassed, eventually being horribly disfigured, operated on, and forced into human clothes. We are told that he can no longer even breathe underwater and, in a final gut-wrenching scene, watch as he stares longingly at the ocean.
Does he walk to his death? For all intents and purposes, yes, as there was never a 4th Creature movie made…at least not for several decades. I like to think, however, that he regenerated his gills and went home, finally free of the world of 1950s Hollywood.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy is a series very much of its time. It has aged greatly in some respects as our society has shifted and our views evolved. The same story told today, while similar, would be very different in key aspects.
I know this because we got that retold story in 2017’s The Shape of Water. The film, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is essentially a remake of the trilogy, condensed into one movie. In it, an extraordinary creature is captured and tortured – this time by 1960s science. Yes, a cattle prod is used, and yes there are two high ranking male characters – a scientist and an ambitious, profit-driven business man – who constantly argue over the creature’s fate.
The real change comes in the perspective. This is a story told by several working-class people, mostly janitorial staff, who work at the lab the creature is taken to. It is impossible to watch The Shape of Water after viewing the Creature trilogy and not see a commentary on those three films.
It’s not coincidental. Del Toro is a huge fan of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In fact, he tried to officially remake the film several times, always wanting to give the Gill-Man the happy ending he deserved. I wonder how much Universal are kicking themselves over the decision to let Del Toro get away? Then again, part of the success of The Shape of Water comes from the fact that it is freer to interpret its source material.
The Shape of Water is a powerful lesson for storytellers. No, the films of yesterday should not be dismissed because certain elements are outdated or they lack self-awareness on issues that are now front-and-center. Instead, they should be viewed as opportunities to re-examine those ideas with modern sensibilities.
Del Toro understood that the Creature trilogy was about destruction of the natural world and the greed of mankind, so he retold the story in a way that reflected this. He saw the same horror I did. My only complaint is that his Gill-Man does not look nearly as good as the original design. Other than that, kudos to him for seeing the unconscious terror in these movies and making a film that addressed it.