Wednesday, April 15, 2020

TCM Fest (Home Ed.): The Creature from the Black Lagoon

It is the only classic Universal monster movie set entirely within Brazil—the Amazon to be exact. The Creature would stalk the Everglades during his two subsequent sequels, but an expedition of foolhardy scientists originally came to him. Since then, the Creature has become an icon of 1950s 3D sci-fi horror that even inspired a recent best picture Oscar winner (The Shape of Water was originally developed as a reboot). Grab some coxinha or some popcorn (if that’s the best you can do) and enjoy Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon when it airs as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival 2020 Home Edition (because that’s where we all are).

Brazilian zoologist (or some kind of scientist) Dr. Carl Maia is so amazed by a fossil discovery, he rushes back to the Instituto de Biologia Maritima to secure funding for a proper excavation, leaving behind his two assistants. Make that his late assistants. Of course, the Yankee scientists are blown away by the weird webbed and clawed hand, so they immediately set off with Maia to investigate where it came from.

Dr. David Reed and his colleague Kay Lawrence are all about scientist (and each other), while their boss, Dr. Mark Williams is more interested in publicity. Williams also has a bad case of green-eyed jealousy, but he is nothing compared to the Creature, who becomes obsessed with Lawrence, in a King Kong kind of way. In fact, he might not let the Rita, their rickety hired river steamer, leave his remote inlet.

This is actually an opportune time to revisit the Black Lagoon, given the release of Mallory O’Meara’s book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon, giving Milicent Patrick long overdue credit for her Creature design work. In fact, the Creature still looks pretty darn cool, with his gills, scales, claws, and webbing. He really does look like he should be quick and lethal underwater.

Much like the classic Universal monsters that came before him, the Creature also has similar pathos. You can’t help feeling for the big guy. Admittedly, Black Lagoon is essentially a B-movie, but the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds is surprisingly effective. James C. Havens gets a credit for directing underwater sequences, but there is still a consistency of tone and nice, brisk pacing. Indeed, it might just be time for a Jack Arnold retro, considering it could also include Revenge of the Creature (the one co-starring Clint Eastwood), The Incredible Shrinking Man, the Oscar-nominated documentary short, With These Hands, and two vintage 1970s Fred Williamson films.

As we can tell from the short shorts, Richard Carlson was pretty fit portraying Reed (and presumably his political judgment was sound, since he was also starring in I Led 3 Lives at the time). It is also easy to see why Julia Adams remained a fan favorite scream queen for her turn as Lawrence, who was relatively proactive, at least by the standards of the time. Madrid-born Antonio Moreno, who played Dr. Maia is obviously not Brazilian, but Nestor Paiva, who plays Captain Lucas, was Portuguese-American, which was pretty close for Hollywood.

There are tons of interesting footnotes to Black Lagoon. It was produced by William Alland, who is best known for playing the reporter investigating Orson Welles’s last words in Citizen Kane. The role of the Creature was initially offered to Glenn Strange, who played Frankenstein’s Monster in two of the 1940’s Universal monster team-ups, but he turned it down, because he didn’t think he was a strong enough swimmer. It is too bad because being the Creature too really could have elevated his cult fandom, but he still had a long run on Gunsmoke

Yet, the important thing is the Creature remains a lot of good, clean fun. Highly recommended as a legit classic of the genre, The Creature from the Black Lagoon airs Friday night (4/17) at midnight (technically, that’s Saturday, but it still feels like Friday), with Dennis Miller’s 2018 fest introduction, as part of TCM’s stay-at-home Classic Film Festival.