FEATURE: Shocktober - Creature from the Black Lagoon

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. All reviews will be spoiler free if without the appropriate level of spoiler warning. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was released in 1954 (in 3D no less, in its first wave of popularity) and has quickly become a favourite instalment in the Universal monster movie canon, inspiring countless imitators since. Dr Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) is a geologist who discovers fossilised evidence of a humanoid amphibian and recruits his former student, Dr David Reed (Richard Carlson), Dr Mark Williams (Richard Denning) and their colleague and Reed's girlfriend, Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) for an expedition to the site to recover the rest of the skeleton. However, once they get there, something or someone has attacked the camp and killed the poor expendable locals. After deciding to follow the tributary down to the black lagoon at its end in the hope of discovering what it was, things go awry. Naturally.

There's something oddly comforting about watching an old Universal monster movie because you know it's going to be well-made and look fantastic. I had no prior reservations going into this film, no doubt that I would come away having not enjoyed it. It's endearingly clunky in places, particularly with the exposition needed to explain the various ongoing scientific shenanigans. There are a few of the now familiar story beats here like the conflict between wanting to study the creature in its own environment, remove it or kill it. It leads to some nice tension, but much of the suspense in the film is actually mined from the environment in both the dialogue and the design.

The preceding scenes to the expedition's arrival into the titular black lagoon are full of foreshadowing; there's crocodiles in the water, animal howls and shrieking in the distance and as the ship's captain helpfully says; 'everything here is designed to kill you'. There's also lots of talk around evolutionary development and the way in which certain creatures have never had to adapt throughout history, perfectly adapted already to survive in their respective conditions. It puts an immediate 'nature red in tooth and claw' side to the proceedings, pitting the humans against a creature that has survived in its form for millions of years. When we finally meet said creature, he's a grim and monstrous reflection to the human species.

The Gill-Man's design in particular, solely credited to Bud Westmore for many years until Disney animator Millicent Patrick was revealed to have had the key role, is rightly iconic. The film understands the power in using the creature sparingly though; there's a glimpse of a hand here, the face there, but the full Gill-Man isn't revealed until half an hour into the film in an elegant swimming sequence with Adams. There are some beautiful underwater sequences, aided by the film being in black and white, like a scene in which a doping drug is dropped into the water to try and subdue the Gill-Man, the white power spiralling down through the darkened depths.

The scenes filmed under the water tap into some very real and deep-seated fears too. I'm particularly nervous if I can't see where I'm going, or more importantly where my feet are. Swimming in something where you can't see beyond the surface of the water is pretty frightening and the moment where the Gill-Man goes to grab Kay's ankles? Stuff of nightmares right there. It helps too that the score is suitably bombastic and dynamic; it shifts from a nice gentle sense of wonderment to 'oh dear God, we're going to die!' at the drop of a hat, collaborating well with the tonal shifts on screen. 

It's these more psychological scares that I have always found more effective, channelling everyday anxieties into something more extreme by throwing a monster into the mix. The Creature from the Black Lagoon may not sustain the atmosphere at the highest level throughout, but it's very entertaining and an excellent way to kick the month off.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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