During the 1930s and ’40s, most of the more familiar movie monsters hailed from musty old Carpathian castles and fog-shrouded European forests. So when Universal Studios ushered in the science fiction boom in the 1950s, the gothic soundstage sets were discarded for more exotic locales, such as steaming jungles, ominous deserts and subterranean temples. The name of one such location would become as iconic as the monster that called it home: the Black Lagoon.
Directed by Jack Arnold, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON transported monster fans to an environment formally reserved for Tarzan-style action flicks. When the fossilized claw of a previously unknown species is discovered in South America, a group of scientists travel to the darkest reaches of the Amazon, hoping to uncover additional pieces of the petrified puzzle. What they encounter there is the opposite of ossified — an angry, amphibious survivor from the Devonian age. The Gill Man, as he would come to be known, is pretty ticked about these invaders on his turf, until he gets a peep at gorgeous Julia Adams and becomes smitten. What transpires is a battle for survival, as the Creature traps the explorers in the lagoon and begins schooling them with, as they say, extreme prejudice.
The script is surprisingly intelligent and way ahead of its time, ecologically speaking. Like all the best monsters, the Creature is a sympathetic character, a victim of both home intruders and his own unrequited love. The “water dance” sequence, in which the Gill Man swims curiously beneath Adams, is one of the most memorable in horror cinema history. The real “monster” of the story is the profit- driven head of the research institute (Richard Denning) whose obsession with capturing the beast puts all of the explorers in grave danger.
The rest of the cast are likable and will be familiar to fans of the genre. Richard Carlson is solid as the sensible hero. Nestor Paiva provides comic relief as the salty boat captain, and the reliable Whit Bissell went on to appear in what seems like every movie ever made. But the real star of the film is the Gill Man. Considered by many to be the greatest practical monster suit of all time, the Creature is a dazzling combination of design and execution that works perfectly both above the water’s surface (played by Ben Chapman) and below (by Ricou Browning). Designers Millicent Patrick, Chris Mueller, Jack Kevan and Tom Case created a character that has become permanently engraved in popular culture. As renowned author and Black Lagoon enthusiast David J. Schow has remarked, “If Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy are The Beatles of classic horror, then the Creature from the Black Lagoon is Elvis.”
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was released in 1954, and was such a box office success that it immediately spawned two lesser but enjoyable sequels. Since that time there have been many failed attempts to revive the franchise, and there is yet another remake currently on Universal’s docket.
In 1997, Columbia Pictures released their own “monster in the Amazon” feature that mirrors many aspects of the original visit to the Black Lagoon. TOP GUN writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. teamed up with action director Luis Llosa to create ANACONDA, which pits a documentary film crew against both a giant reptile and a murderous snake hunter.
Much like CREATURE, the plot involves a National Geographic research team entering a remote region of the Amazon river, in search of an elusive native tribe they intend to photograph. The crew is attractive, if not particularly engaging, and includes Eric Stoltz, Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Owen Wilson and Kari Wuhrer. The film’s slow start gets a cattle prod jolt when the explorers pick up a hitchhiker, Paul Sarone (Jon Voight), who claims to know the location of the tribe they seek. It isn’t long before the crafty Sarone’s real agenda is revealed: to track and capture a giant anaconda. The crew become unwilling accomplices to the poacher’s obsessive scheme, and are killed by either the massive snake or Sarone himself. This leads to a final confrontation between the few surviving heroes and the two monsters.
The anaconda effects are alternately very good animatronic puppets and inferior computer generated animations, which move too fast for a creature of such size and weight. Danny Trejo fans will enjoy watching him pop in for a pre-credit pop off. Like CREATURE, the true villain of the film is not the titular beastie, but the human adversary… and Jon Voight’s performance alone makes this film a joy to behold. It is an unapologetic, scenery-chewing example of a great actor cutting loose and having the time of his life.
ANACONDA may not be in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON’s league as an all-time classic, but both are entertaining voyages worth taking. Make sure and pack some popcorn.