Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
I wanted to start this year’s #31DaysOfHorror with a classic. I’m trying to watch only films I haven’t seen, with one or two exceptions, and when I sorted my iTunes movie library by release year, Creature From the Black Lagoon was the oldest unwatched horror film I owned.
I knew the Creature was one of the Universal Classic Monsters. I’d heard Guillermo del Toro talk at length about how much he wanted to see the monster get the girl at the end, and how that had fed into him making The Shape of Water. I’d also listened to Mallory O’Meara talk on the Shock Waves podcast about her book on Creature designer, Milicent Patrick. I’d heard lots about the film, but never seen it for myself.
I rarely watch older films. There is so much I haven’t seen from the seventies, eighties and nineties, that I never think to go back further. I mention this because the first thing that struck me about Creature from the Black Lagoon was its gender dynamics. I still can’t decide if they were depressingly old-skool or surprisingly modern. Is Kay passive or is she actually in charge of her male relationships? Kay, her boss David, and his boss Mark, are scientists going up river into the Amazon on a geology expedition. Kay is going out with David, but used to go out with Mark. She wants David to marry her, but he doesn’t see the point. Mark starts to make moves on Kay again, and so we see Kay spend most of her time smartly, but also tragically, trying to keep them both happy. I can’t remember when I last saw two men compete so openly for a woman in a film where it wasn’t a romantic comedy.
Steven Spielberg was clearly inspired by this for Jaws — the camera shots of the woman from below, the duh-dum orchestral score, and the Creature caught in the net bending the boat’s rigging. The shark in Jaws attacks for food, although it could be a metaphor for the nuclear bombs dropped by the United States in Japan, or even the shadow of tourist capitalism in Amity. The Creature from the Black Lagoon attacks because people are afraid and attack him. The Black Lagoon as a metaphor for repressed desire is pretty on the nose.
In a beautiful sequence, Kay, wearing a white costume, swims on the surface, while the shadowy creature mirrors her in the water beneath. He seems enchanted by her. The love triangle between Kay, David and Mark, also has a mirror in the triangle between feminine, masculine and monster. Even though the film focuses on the battle between Mark, David and the Creature, this is Kay’s story, and in seeing both the egotistical Mark and the creature die, she ends the film with the wholesome commitment-phobe David. Like Guillermo del Toro, I wish she could have loved the monster instead.