The Creature From the Black Lagoon kicked off one of the most successful trilogies in early horror movie history.

Feature Jim Knipfel

Mar 5, 2018

The poor Gill Man never had a chance. Arriving six years after the golden age of Universal Horror was capped with Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon was never able to clumsily shuffle his way into the expanded universe shared by Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and, if briefly, The Invisible Man.

Of course, given the three-film franchise’s contemporary time frame and American setting, it would’ve been a stretch anyway to find some reason to have him mix it up with the Wolf Man. In that way, the Gill Man was like the Mummy, forced to carry his series alone. Even if this aquatic fish face would go on to become the most iconic and influential cinematic monster of the 1950s, his isolation within the Universal pantheon is somehow fitting, given the storyline that plays out onscreen.

William Alland was a close friend of Orson Welles, a member of the Mercury Theater troupe, and the man who played the faceless reporter in Citizen Kane. In 1941, Alland was at a dinner party at Welles’ home when one of the guests, a South American cinematographer, told the story of an amphibious humanoid creature who emerged from the Amazon once a year, grabbed a young woman from a local village, and then disappeared again. The other guests got a chuckle out of that, but the cinematographer insisted it was absolutely true, even offering to provide photographic evidence. It’s unclear if anyone ever took him up on that.

Still, by the early ’50s Alland had become a producer at Universal. Although he’d mostly worked on Westerns, he developed an interest in the booming popularity of science fiction, and began jotting down story ideas. He came up with the idea (later fleshed out by Ray Bradbury) for It Came from Outer Space, which he produced in 1953 with director Jack Arnold and star Richard Carlson.

But a full decade after first hearing it, that Amazonian fishman story was still sitting there in the back of his head, nagging at him. He whipped up a quick treatment in which he essentially moved King Kong’s storyline into the waters of the Amazon. The Kong influence was clear, as Alland’s original treatment involved the creature falling for a young human woman and getting captured by scientists who drag him back to civilization. Once there, by law, the creature runs amok before being killed.

But even as the first few (of many) drafts of the script were being written and rewritten by a handful of writers, Alland decided to distance himself from the Kong connection by confining the action to the Amazon and leaving the creature’s fate in question at the end, just in case a sequel was called for.

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The final script, which had been reshaped and redirected by Arthur Ross, remained mostly an amalgam of scenes and ideas from earlier films, including Kong, The Lost World, It Came From Outer Space, and The Thing from Another World.

Jack Arnold, who was fast establishing himself as the king of Universal science fiction, was again brought in to direct, and Richard Carlson was again brought in to star as the heroic scientist who doesn’t want to hurt the Gill Man. Richard Denning was cast as the trigger happy heavy who does, Julie Adams came aboard as the Gill Man’s unwitting love interest, and Whit Bissell was there too, if only because he was in everything.

The real star, though, was the Gill Man costume, designed by a massive team of artists and sculptors in the makeup department, though full credit was usually taken by Bud Westmore, who’d inherited Jack Pierce’s mantel but was by most accounts a no talent hack of a fame-whore. But that’s beside the point.

Audiences had never seen a full-body monster costume like that before. With the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, you always knew there was a man back there behind the makeup, but the Gill Man was so elaborate, so detailed and believable, and so utterly alien that it was easy to accept it as it was. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect an evolutionary missing link between man and fish would look like. Even the gills moved when it breathed.

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Filmed for under $500,000 and released in 3D (all that underwater photography made it perhaps the most effective use of 3D picture up to that point), by the end of 1954 the Creature from the Black Lagoon had already grossed over $3 million. Even before the numbers came in, and even before the original started shooting, work on the sequel was immediately underway.

By this time, Universal knew full well the value of a good monster franchise, and what’s more didn’t want to waste that amazing costume on only one film.

Coming up with a script for the sequel was much easier since the first time around Alland had pretty much just chopped his original treatment in half. All the screenwriters had to do now was pick up the Kong thread again, only more directly this time. Arnold was once more brought on to direct, Universal sci-fi standby John Agar replaced Carlson as the well-meaning but misguided scientist, and Lori Nelson replaced Julie Adams as The Girl.

As 1955’s Revenge of the Creature opens, two scientist/big game hunters working for a theme park which bears an uncanny resemblance to Florida’s Marineland travel to the Black Lagoon to check out the stories and, with luck, capture the Gill Man. This they accomplish in the first 10 minutes. The comatose Gill Man is then carted back to the park where he’s turned into a sideshow attraction for the gawking masses. Meanwhile a scientist (Agar) and a cute grad student (Nelson) begin conducting cruel experiments to determine the creature’s intelligence level. The Gill Man, understandably, is displeased with this turn of events and so, again by law, runs amok. Or at least shuffles amok before being presumably but not decisively killed.

The sequel was once again filmed in 3D, but even only a year after the original film’s release, the public’s enthusiasm for the gimmick was starting to wane. Making things worse, the once highly-skilled projectionists that were needed to screen 3D films effectively were getting bored and lazy, so the film was often shown out of synch, leading to endless audience complaints.

As a sidenote, I always found it interesting that over half-a-century before the documentary Black Fish, Revenge of the Creature, if inadvertently, illustrated the kind of treatment that can be expected by intelligent marine mammals who are torn away from their natural environments and dropped into the featureless pools of places like SeaWorld. But that’s just me.

Despite audience annoyance at sloppy projectionists, Revenge still earned enough to warrant a second sequel, so in 1956 the Gill Man returned in his third and final film, The Creature Walks Among Us. The film was directed by the mostly untested John Sherwood, who would later direct The Monolith Monsters from an unused Arnold script. Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason and Leigh Snowden took over the three principle human roles. Although, it could be argued the primary influence here is Frankenstein, it’s nevertheless the point at which the franchise really comes into its own, shows its hand at last, and reveals itself to be the most socially and psychologically complex of all the Universal horror franchises. It’s also when things get deeply strange and tragic.

What was true for the original King Kong, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man, also proved crucial for the entire Black Lagoon franchise: the trick to understanding the films is to watch the story play out from the monster’s perspective. Despite all the standard crowd-pleasing horror trappings (the scaly claw reaching for the bare ankle, etc.), the idea of a sympathetic misunderstood monster was set-up quite intentionally by screenwriter Arthur Ross, who had a major hand in both the original and Walks Among Us.

Okay, so you’re the Gill Man, right? Just swimming around the lagoon not bothering much of anyone save for the occasional villager (but by now they’ve come to expect it, so it’s okay). Then one day along comes a big, loud boat puttering into the lagoon, spewing oil in the water and making a terrible racket. Worse, onboard are a bunch of outsiders and stupid tourists. And what do they do? Throw their cigarette butts in the lagoon, dump chemicals in the water, and just make a damn mess of your home.

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Then they have the gall to jump in the water themselves just to gawk at you while you’re trying to go about your business. Of course, you’re gonna’ get pissed, right? But when you try and let them know they’re being huge pains in the ass and making a mess, what do they do? Being representatives of Western Civilization, they shoot at you, set you on fire, then go away, leaving you to clean up after them.

A year later, you’re pretty much healed up, swimming around your home again, and everything’s cool. Then out of nowhere, here come some more of those human sonsabitches. This time, though, there’s no pussyfooting around. They just dump a bunch of dynamite into the lagoon and set it off, blasting you into a coma. When you wake up, you find you’ve been carried far, far away from your home, dumped in a damn barren cement tank and chained to a pole. Worse, a bunch of stupid tourists gawk at you some more through a window all day long. If that wasn’t bad enough, some of them come into the tank to torture you. They offer food, which is nice, but as soon as you reach for it, they zap you with a cattle prod. I mean, what the hell’s that all about? What did they expect you to do?

Meanwhile, the rest of the park is full of other intelligent non-humans who’ve likewise been dragged away from their homes against their will, tortured, broken, and eventually driven mad, forced to perform stupid tricks for fat tourists all day before being crammed back into featureless cells. I mean, is that what they want you to do, too? Fetch a goddamn ball and do some back flips? Because if so, those bastards have another thing coming! And again, what do these so called scientists do when you start acting naturally? They try and kill you for not being like them! Hell, they probably weren’t even gonna’ give you a cut of all the t-shirts, postcards, and coffee mugs emblazoned with your picture on sale in the gift shop.

Then another year after breaking out of that hellish prison, finally calming down and getting back to the usual happy routine (okay the Everglades aren’t exactly your own lagoon, but it’s still a damn spot better than fucking Marineland), here they come again. Maybe they don’t blast you with dynamite, but they still burn the hell out of you before you can blink. What is it with these people? This time when you wake up, you haven’t simply been abducted from your home again.

Nay, these humans are just plain sadistic. You wouldn’t play ball that last time, so now they’re gonna’ fix you for good. While you were unconscious they brought in goddamn Josef Mengele, who cut off all your protective scales, removed your gills, performed radical surgery to make you—FORCE you—to be as much like them as possible.

What were they thinking? So now you have no choice but to stay out of the water, the one place you were happy and could function with any kind of grace. Suddenly you’re slow and awkward and clumsy, and to their minds you’re still ugly as sin. But they sure are proud of themselves for having excised everything that made you what you were. Looking around this supposed new home with all its pollution and sunlight and noise and cars and concrete, and all these supposed new “friends” who just want to poke and prod and gawk, what choice do you have but suicide? Maybe in those last few moments in the water again you might at least feel a momentary peace.

The overall arc of the franchise seems to arise directly from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Living in a state of nature is great and fun and easy, and, well, natural. You can do what you want when you want and never have to answer to anyone. Problem is, it’s also messy and tough, and sometimes quite brutal. Civilization is so much more convenient. You gather everyone together in one area, build stable homes, create a centralized food supply, a sanitation system, public hygiene, education and transportation, health care, and fire departments. It’s all so much easier than that hunting and gathering business. Trick is, though, that if you want to be a part of it, you have to agree to bury all your natural impulses.

That’s why civilization also needs cops, to take care of those ne’er-do-wells who won’t play ball, ignoring all those rules against killing and stealing, and keeping your pants on when you go outside. If you won’t obey the agreed-upon rules, it’s not like simply making you go far away is an option. No, that would be an admission of defeat. Instead, they’ll lock you up, torture you, pump you full of psychoactive drugs, or do a bit of involuntary brain surgery to make you like one of them. And if all that doesn’t work, then they’ll just kill you so you can’t bother them anymore.

Unthinking angry mobs, stupid violent yahoos, and sinister government forces are standard issue in sci-fi and monster movies. They just want to destroy what they don’t understand, those creatures they find ugly and different, usually despite the best well-meaning efforts of a sensitive scientist or two. What makes the Black Lagoon franchise so interesting and subversive is that it’s not angry mobs or stupid hicks the Gill Man has to worry about; it’s the very foundations of civilization itself.

It’s those same well meaning and rational scientists who put the screws to the Gill Man, trying to force him by whatever means necessary to be more like them. And when he doesn’t comply and won’t play ball, well, out comes the cattle prod and the kerosene. The Gill Man, this deeply tragic and alienated character, the one who remains much more a victim throughout all three films than any of the puny humans he kills, is the one who maintains his dignity to the end, marching into the sea like James Mason in A Star is Born.

In an interesting but irrelevant footnote, in 1982, John Landis was pushing Universal to let him produce a big budget remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon. He already had Rick Baker signed and ready to do the makeup that would have been based almost bump for bump on the original Gill Man design. The great Nigel Kneale had agreed to write the script. There was even talk about bringing Jack Arnold (who was only in his 60s at the time) back to direct. Sure, it all sounded really exciting and classy, but the studio decided to throw all their money behind Jaws 3D instead.

It was an ironic move, considering not only how much the opening scenes of Jaws owed to the original, but also considering how much Jaws 3D itself owed to Revenge of the Creature, from the Marine Park setting to the 3D release. Universal probably would have done better with the Landis reboot.