Sunday, April 10, 2011

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.6 (Cheesy Sci-Fi: Creature from the Black Lagoon)

Are spoilers really possible at all in this sort of science fiction? Is there one amongst you who does not think that the creature will snuff it in the end? Oh, all right. There are spoilers ahead. Be warned! 

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

The one thing you have to admire with these films, even more so than every other quality we've discussed so far, is their directness. They do not cloak their intent. Take this one. The viewer's left in no doubt that there's one Black Lagoon, containing one Creature, that will be the focus of attention. Compare and contrast this with, say, "Independence Day" (anyone settling into the cushions ready for some good, old-fashioned patriotism is going to have a bit of a jar when the tentacled alien throws Brent Spiner right at the camera), "Armageddon" (no, no, Father Léon Morin, save your cash for the needy; nothing remotely Biblical here), or "2012" (WTF?)

The movie starts with an impressive narrator declaring that in the beginning God created the Earth and the heavens. (Where'd he crash before he did this?) The Earth is now a hot molten mass, but cooling rapidly, he assures us. Clouds form... hardening surface... restless seas rise... life (miracle of) begins... "The record of life is written on the land, where fifteen million years later, in the upper reaches of the Amazon, we're still trying to read it."

The zoom works its way to the Amazon, where, by the banks of a tributary, a geological expedition headed by Dr Maia finds the fossil of a hand (with webbed fingers and nasty claws) sticking out of the rock like a bulb out of a socket. He asks for funding from Dr Williams, the head of a marine-biology institute, for further excavations. Aware of the publicity this could get him, Dr Williams is only too happy to fund. There is a brief interlude while the leading man (introduced below) makes a fine speech on the value of marine research. Apparently, a potentially amphibious creature like this (the gill-man, from now on) could give us clues on how nature booted us out from the seas and onto land. It is speculated that we could use this knowledge to adapt ourselves to alien environs, when the time comes.

Before we know it, Dr Maia, Dr Williams and his star ichthyologist, Dr Reed* (with girlfriend-cum-researcher, Miss Lawrence) find themselves in the Amazon. Dr Maia's camp, they find, is now a mess, his two assistants having been disemboweled by something with nasty claws. "Jaguars," they speculate. The digging for the rest of the fossil is not too successful, but there remains the hope that a part of the bank caved in, and the river carried the remains to the lagoon at the end of it, which, according to local legend, is a paradise - but one that none has ever returned from. On they sail.

At the lagoon, Doctors Reed and Williams dive down to the bed to collect rock samples to verify their theory. While everyone is analysing the samples, Miss Lawrence goes for a swim in her little swimsuit. The gill-man, lurking about under the water, is fascinated by her nifty moves ("a stylized representation of sexual intercourse," says one dude on the DVD extras; "a love dance," chimes in Julie Adams, the actress playing Miss Lawrence, much more succinctly) and develops a crush. That's the one fascinating thing about us that films have explored for long: our attitude to inter-species coupling. We may look askance at a man who has sex with pumpkins... or sheep; or at a woman who does so with turnips... or tadpoles... or is infatuated with the toe of a statue (even if a human statue). But the attractiveness of our women to the most menacing of other species, on the other hand, is a matter of pride to us.

The gill-man, in a careless moment, no doubt blinded by love, gets caught in the scientists' net. He manages to escape, but the scientists are now aware that there is rather more than a fossil to aim for. Dr Williams slowly sets himself up as one of those intense, ambitious types, so badly needed in a movie of this sort, who care more for the money and the fame than the science itself. He intends to take the gill-man back to civilisation. The others don't wholly approve of this, but since he writes the cheques... (In their more charitable moods, they do acknowledge that they wouldn't be able to go on with their digging, if Dr Williams wasn't around to dig up money for them.) One thing leads to another, and Dr Williams fires a harpoon at the gill-man; it's all-out war from now on end.

There are casualties on both sides, with the scientists perhaps suffering more than the gill-man. The gill-man is portrayed rather sympathetically. He has a soulful, fish-like face that makes us feel for him, and, as a crew member points out in the above-mentioned extras, it is the humans, after all, who have barged in on his territory and set about aggravating him: apart from the harpoon firing touched on earlier, the humans display a deplorable inclination towards pouring poison into the waters, throwing cigarette butts into it, etc. (To quote another snippet, the film seems to sympathise with a burgeoning environmentalism. "What're you doing to my world?" is what the interviewee feels the gill-man is thinking, as he watches the heroine throw a cigarette butt into the river.)

Anyway, just when the rest of the crew prevails on Dr Williams that maybe it is time to leave, they find that the gill-man, perhaps for reasons of love or maybe even revenge, has blocked the way out of the lagoon, and the boat is unable to push on through. This provides a platform for a few more diving sequences where the scientists attempt to de-block the river. In one of these, Dr Williams gets his comeuppance from the gill-man, and in another one, the gill-man finally gets a move-on and kidnaps Miss Lawrence. He carries our unconscious heroine into his lair, and proceeds to lay her down on a stone slab. And just as we lean forward with interest, our natural curiosity being whether it is scientific inquisitiveness that drives him, or something rather more Bunuelian, the obligatory rescue scene kicks in, and we lean back in disappointment.

The gill-man is shot full of holes, and sinks soulfully to the bottom of the lagoon. The end credits come up, and we're left with the choice of either moving on with our lives, or writing a review of the movie. As you can see, I've chosen the latter. Overall, not a bad way to spend a slow evening, but if pushed, I'd have to admit that of the four movies reviewed so far, this is perhaps my least favourite. Given the illustrious company, that's by no means an insult; the movie's definitely worth a viewing or two. It (shot in 3-D, by the way) was a huge hit in its time, making the gill-man one of the early successes of the movie-monster genre (and going on to appear in several sequels) - a pioneer in making the waters unsafe for us, two decades before The Shark popped up to carry on his legacy.

*Had you been watching the movie, instead of reading about it here, you would've recognised him as Putnam, from "It Came From Outer Space."

Coming up next: "Tarantula!"


PkS said...

loved it.

the 1930s love making scene was, well, serendipitous. looked like a blooper real.

found the photo of the terrorizing gill man:
gill man

Rohan said...

Ah, that's Bunuel's The Age of Gold. He made it in collaboration with Salvatore Dali, but the latter disassociated himself from it due to a tiff with Bunuel. It's an iconic film - I suppose you'd have to see it whole to appreciate it.

Pretty controversial, too, with its none-too-subtle digs at the church and society in general. There was rioting in the streets of Paris, apparently, on its release.