Gill-Man of Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the most recognizable of the classic monsters, along with being many a fans favorite. UMU takes a look at some of the most endearing qualities of the 1954 creature known as Gill-Man.
Gill-Man of classic Universal Monsters fame has always been my favorite, right alongside The Mummy. He was green, fish like, and just looked very cool. So at an age of around 7 or 8, how could the Creature from the Black Lagoon not be one of my favorite of monster movies? It also starred Julie Adams and we all know her iconic scene from the 1954 film. Over the past few months I’ve encountered many fans of Creature from the Black Lagoon and those that love the Gill-Man just as much as they do the movie (if not even more so!) With us being in the heart of the summer, what better time to re-watch Jack Arnold’s wildly imaginative and smart picture than now, and over the Fourth of July no less.
Creature from the Black Lagoon exists in an interesting time for Universal. Releasing nearly thirteen years after the last original monster, The Wolf Man, this film is a clear representation of the more science-fiction bent films of the time as opposed to the more monster horror of the 30’s and 40’s. With a story by Maurice Zimm and screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross, director Jack Arnold’s take on Creature from the Black Lagoon functioned as both an entertaining monster/sci-fi feature and a much smarter, yet subtle commentary on environmental and social issues. The first time I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon I thought two things: 1) Gill-Man was designed amazingly well and, 2) It was easy to see just why Gill-Man was interested in Julie Adams’ Kay Lawrence – she was beautiful! However, after a few more times watching at a later age, I had begun to see more of what was going on in the film in a way long discussed by many film buffs and Universal Monsters enthusiasts. The Gill-Man/Creature played on land by Ben Chapman and underwater by Ricou Browning was an extremely sympathetic character! Something even Marilyn Monroe took note of in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. Also, man’s relationship to the environment will always be trumped by greed and the unyielding desire to prosper over others.
Creature from the Black Lagoon could primarily be enjoyed as a straight forward and standard adventure story that has themes found across Universal movies like 1999’s The Mummy, 2017’s reboot of The Mummy by Jon Spaihts, and the Jurassic Park film series. A group ventures out to some place exotic, adventure and the unknown is romanticized, and the heroes encounter something dangerous. Creature from the Black Lagoon presents us with a team exploring the Amazon after discovering evidence of land and sea animals that existed during the Devonian Period. While the team initially sets out to research the creature and his habitat, they soon begin to plot and plan his capture, especially at the insistence of Dr. Mark Williams, played by Richard Denning. He’s more or less the villain of the film as he wants to capture the creature while the others vote to leave both the lagoon and creature alone. Yet, they never do leave and after various plots to trap the creature fail and a constant disregard for his habitat, Gill-Man grows angry.
Jack Arnold delivers a terrific movie worthy of its place among the Universal Monsters. It’s undeniable that the film went on to influence Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which was covered in UMU Rob’s “Sunday’s with…” 4th of July special. But while the shark in Jaws could primarily be viewed as a more straight-forward antagonist, it’s hard to view the Gill-Man as the bad guy. It’s the team aboard the Rita that enters his home and disrupts his lagoon. I’ve heard some put it in a way that the Gill-Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon is essentially facing a home invasion and is only reacting as one would under such circumstances. The creature only really attacks when provoked and even at the end, after being shot repeatedly and stabbed, he chooses to flee as opposed to do battle with the adventurers.
Could we also point out the fantastically shot scene that finds Julie Adams’ Kay tossing her cigarette into the lagoon? The camera then tracks the cigarette land in the lagoon, only to follow that Gill-Man is watching. While it works in the sense that he’s probably just watching his crush above land, it could also be his continual disbelief over the lack of regard they all have for the black lagoon. Director Jack Arnold adds quite a few moments that make us wonder just how much respect and love we have for our own homes and others. Instead of presenting just a standard sci-fi monster of the 50’s, Arnold adds these little touches that could arguably be used in a debate stating that he was the James Whale of the 1950’s monster movies.
A leering, phallic nightmare with a scaly body, webbed feet and claws, the gill man’s interest in Kay is distinctly sexual from the moment he spies the heroine swimming above him in the river. Imitating her movements in the water, he performs a lascivious underwater ballet – his mating call – directly beneath her but she’s oblivious to his amorous overtures in the murky depths. From this point on, Creature From the Black Lagoon plays like a less innocent version of Beauty and the Beast with the gill man determined to have the shapely Julie Adams, a desire most adolescent boys of that era could identify with. – Turner Classic Movies
While Kay never returns Gill-Man’s affections, the Creature from the Black Lagoon musical presents otherwise. Kay does fall in love with the Gill-Man and the show ends with the double entendre of him literally eating her. While I did enjoy the movie, I much rather liked seeing Kay return Gill-Man’s feelings and the two ending up together… in the black lagoon!
While Kay didn’t love the Gill-Man, audiences certainly did. He’s a Universal Monster still enjoyed to this day and it’s a mixture of his sympathetic nature (he’s clearly the last of his kind and very lonely) and the amount of love that went into bringing him to life. Be it Jack Arnold, who gave audiences across time a beautifully shot film, or the talent of Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning – Creature from the Black Lagoon is so much fun to watch.
Interested in some trivia? Here’s three aspects about Creature from the Black Lagoon found over at Classic Horror:
- For whatever ludicrous reason, neither Ricou Browning (underwater) nor Ben Chapman (above water) were credited for their performances as the titular monster.
- Browning would have to hold his breath for up to four minutes at a time, as the costume was not built with an air tank.
- Chapman insists that he was the real Creature, and that Browning was his underwater stuntman.
Eddie C. of Ft. Lauderdale, Fl brought up that Gill-Man was originally considered for inclusion in 2004’s Van Helsing. Concept art was released, but Gill-Man was never included, which marks 1987’s Monster Squad as his only unofficial appearance after 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us. With the Creature from the Black Lagoon reboot in the works, audiences are bound to see the Gill-Man back on the big screen. What would you like to see? A film with the same kind of social commentary that the 1954 one had? A straight forward adventure/horror? Or something completely different? Be sure to let us know in the comments below.
(Steven Biscotti – @reggiemantleIII)