Recently I re-watched, for the first time in at least 15 years, the classic 1954 Universal horror/monster film Creature From the Black Lagoon. This is one of the most iconic and influential horror films of all time, and the title creature, instantly recognizable by generations of moviegoers, is considered one of the “classic Universal monsters” alongside Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein and Lon Chaney’s Wolfman. Few of the “creature features” that came out of the 1950s and beyond deviated from the basic blueprint that Creature From the Black Lagoon set down. While there’s plenty about the film and its legacy to celebrate, when I watched the film again this past weekend I found myself utterly appalled by its messages, its undertones and its assumptions. I think there’s value in talking about bad movies (or bad television) and understanding precisely why they’re bad.
First, the film. (Spoilers, obviously). Somewhere in the Amazon, scientist Dr. Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a strange fossilized hand, appearing half-human and half-amphibian, sticking out of some rocks. The discovery prompts two other researchers, David (Richard Carlson) and Mark (Richard Denning) to mount an expedition to the Amazon to find the rest of the skeleton. They bring along their research assistant Kay (Julie Adams) who is also David’s girlfriend. Aboard a small steamer called the Rita, the expedition decides the best chance for finding the skeleton is at the bottom of an ancient lagoon off the main channel called the Black Lagoon by natives. In the meantime, unbeknownst to anyone, a hideous monster (Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning) is stalking them. When they finally glimpse the monster, Mark wants to harpoon it while David counsels a less violent approach. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. After mauling and slashing its way through the Rita’s crew, a final showdown occurs in the creature’s underground lair. Ultimately a couple of shotgun blasts send it drifting to the bottom of the lagoon.
As purely popcorn entertainment, Creature From the Black Lagoon is fairly enjoyable. Its photography and makeup effects were quite groundbreaking for 1954, and for a guy in a rubber suit, the creature, usually referred to as Gill-Man, really does look real and menacing. This must have been a fun date movie, especially in a drive-in which were all the rage in the early 1950s; its original presentation was in 3-D, another ’50s fad, and it was probably a perfect choice for that format. The film was a huge hit upon its initial release, grossing $1.3 million, the equivalent of $115 million in 2015 dollars, a huge return on what must have been a fairly small budget. It’s easy to see why Gill-Man was ultimately enshrined as one of Universal’s classic horror icons. The film has also had a long cultural reach, being referenced in everything from video game Fallout 3 to the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. But there are some pretty troubling things about the movie, and not all of them can be chalked up to shrugging that “times have changed” or that it’s unfair to judge a film made 62 years ago by modern societal standards.
The sexism of Black Lagoon is especially egregious–and I think it was so by 1950s standards as well as ours. The film’s treatment of the character of Kay Lawrence has a great deal to answer for, but ironically, there are some signs that director Jack Arnold and screenwriters Harry Essex and Arthur Ross were actually trying to be pretty progressive and broad-minded for the times. Kay is a career woman, a scientific researcher in the same field as Mark and David. In fact, some dialogue establishes that Kay’s contribution to Mark’s marine biology institute has been crucial and that the whole success of the institute is built on it. Portraying a woman scientist as a full colleague was, admittedly, unusual and progressive for 1954, a time when the presence of women in what we now call STEM careers was extremely slender. The script also positions Mark and David as opposites, with Mark being more knee-jerk and rigid, and his attitude toward Kay is part of the contrast between them.
Kay (Julie Adams) is given little to do in Creature From the Black Lagoon other than to look beautiful and serve as bait for the creature, as shown in this scene.
But for all of this, in the final analysis Kay is little more than the typical “damsel in distress” whose main function in the story is to scream whenever the Gill-Man shows up. The male characters treat her with paternalistic condescension, with the usual 1950s SF/horror trope that this activity or that one is “too dangerous” for her (because she’s a woman). Furthermore, the Gill-Man monster seems bizarrely obsessed with her–swiping webby claws in her direction (several times), groaning and lurching toward her whenever possible, and even carrying her away to its hideout at the film’s end. Although the monster kills and mauls several men over the course of the film, the obvious implication is that it has special interest in Kay, suggesting an unusual danger from which the other members of the expedition must protect her. It’s unclear in the film’s climax what the Gill-Man intends to do with her after her abduction. We’re obviously meant to think of rape, thus morally justifying the creature’s destruction at the end. The Kay character is essentially no different than Fay Wray in the hands of King Kong: the gentle white lily flower whose virtue the men must protect from an ugly and potentially racialized monster.
If Black Lagoon’s sexism is terrible enough, its environmental sensibilities are even worse–and here again, I suspect ironically that the film was trying to be somewhat progressive. When they finally realize they’re dealing with an amphibious creature, Mark insists on capturing the creature, alive or dead, while David is content with bringing back photographs and samples. Mark ultimately pays the ultimate price for his aggressiveness, being mauled to death by the Gill-Man underwater. I presume this is to “punish” the aggressive approach in the eyes of the audience, vaunting David as the more reasonable man. But ultimately this isn’t where the film winds up. After the creature kills Mark and abducts Kay, the remaining members of the expedition unrelentingly hunt it down and destroy it. Not a single word is mentioned in the entire film as to whether the creature is intelligent, is part of a community, or even whether there might be others of its kind in the Black Lagoon or elsewhere. The Rita expeditioners are resolutely certain in their judgments: the monster is a primordial leftover from millions of years ago, exists alone in a moral and ecological vacuum, can’t be reasoned with and has no appetite other than for destruction. They’re so certain of these judgments that they aren’t even discussed, even to reject any counter-possibilities. They simply construct what they think the creature is and then act on it.
More damsel-in-distressedness from Julie Adams in Creature From the Black Lagoon. Still, the makeup is pretty amazing.
That’s not even the worst of it. There’s even lazier and more destructive thinking employed when the scientists, at the suggestion of the Rita’s captain, decide to try to kill the creature (this is before the big finale) by dropping tablets of poison into the water–a form of “fishing” that the captain says he employs from time to time. Mark and David don’t even quarrel on this point and are seen happily plunging chunks of poisonous powder into the lagoon all over the place. Later in the film the poison is adapted into a sort of underwater spray gun to use as a weapon against the Gill-Man. This scattershot approach is utterly appalling on a moral and environmental level. If this lagoon is, as the scientists believe, a unique haven for primordial species that have remained undisturbed for millions of years, how much of this ecological balance do they blindly destroy by poisoning the waters indiscriminately? After the poison attempt, the Rita is surrounded by dozens of dead floating fish. (No animals were harmed in the making of this film!) Great environmental stewardship there, guys. Not only is whatever else that might live in the Black Lagoon expendable in the quest to destroy the Gill-Man, but the characters–who are marine biologists–don’t even seem to be aware that there is anything else in the lagoon except their prey.
I can’t accept that these attributes of the film are all just “the way it was” in the 1950s or that criticism of them is anachronistic, based on hindsight from my 2010s “social justice warrior” biases. One curious story from the making of the film concerns the design of the Gill-Man itself. It was designed by Millicent Patrick, an animator who had worked for Disney, but makeup artist Bud Westmore, who applied the creature makeup for filming, deliberately downplayed her role and Patrick never got credit for her creation until decades later. Sexism appears to be an “original sin” baked into Creature From the Black Lagoon. As for environmental consciousness, contrary to popular belief, concern for the environment did not begin in American history in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In fact, environmental degradation, especially as a by-product of the application of force, was front and center in public consciousness in the 1950s as a result of the atom bomb. Not only did one of the horribly wrong-headed and pointless nuclear tests that irradiated Bikini Atoll occur in 1954, the year of the film’s production–a test that was stridently denounced by many scientists at the time–but nuclear weapons and pollution were the central themes of another famous 1954 monster movie, that being the original Godzilla.
The climax of Creature From the Black Lagoon. And these guys are supposed to be marine biologists?
Classic though it is, Creature From the Black Lagoon is transgressive on a number of levels. I suppose we can enjoy the suspense (such as there is any), the excellent makeup, underwater photography and editing, and it’s true that the Gill-Man is as eye-catching a creature as has ever emerged from horror cinema. But let’s be fair: it’s awfully reactionary. We ignore subtexts like these in film at our peril.