Deceptive Depths: The Eroticism of ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’

Creature From The Black Lagoon

Director Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is widely regarded as the last entry in Universal Studio’s Classic Monsters series. The cycle had begun in 1931 with Dracula and Frankenstein, but by the late 1940s, it was mired in parody and repetition. With Creature from the Black Lagoon, wily producer William Alland briefly resuscitated the series by abandoning its gothic roots and combining prehistoric menace with contemporary science fiction, topped with a splash of the 3D craze that swept 1950s Hollywood.

70 years on, the titular Creature remains iconic, merchandised in almost every conceivable way. Yet the original film itself is often overlooked or dismissed as mere retro kitsch, perhaps due to its cozy cultural ubiquity. This is arguably unfair. While it aims primarily to entertain, Creature from the Black Lagoon hides many subtle thematic riches in its swirling depths.

The film’s astounding prologue is a perfect microcosm of its brisk but intelligent style. In less than a minute and a half, an offscreen narrator delivers a highly effective explanation of evolution, neatly weaving in a Biblical quotation to placate conservatives without diminishing its scientific emphasis. The thrilling black-and-white photography of William E. Synder ensures that the lecture is never dry: explosions bloom like apocalyptic flowers, and undulating seas and desolate beaches bear witness to the lonely progress of our earliest ancestors.

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The sequence is stunning both for its lofty ambition and its brevity. A lesser film might have slipped into overblown bombast or avoided such dense exposition altogether, but Creature from the Black Lagoon makes its point with economy and style, without a word or frame wasted. It lays the foundations for the supposed origins of the story’s Gill Man, without stretching this admittedly scientifically dubious conceit into pretension.

The prologue also introduces the defining undercurrent of the film—humanity’s uneasy relationship with the natural world, in both ecological and personal terms. It seems telling that the opening quotation from the Book of Genesis finishes long before the ‘creation’ of man. This appears to suggest an understated questioning of man’s traditionally ‘superior’ place on Earth, a query later reinforced by several suggestive lines in the screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross.

If, as the introductory narration would have it, “the record of life is written on the land,” it is debatable how successful the scientists on the expedition to the Black Lagoon are in reading it, let alone understanding it. When Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) explains his experiments on ancient rocks with the words “I crush them and they tell me things”, it suggests brute force and destruction rather than respect for nature.

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Meanwhile, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) views the lagoon as a possession to exploit for personal gain, obsessively hunting the Gill Man and declining less invasive evidence of their find: “Why settle for a photo when we can get the real thing?” Even the nobler ideals of Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) have their limitations: his early speech on the value of scientific knowledge is delivered in front of an aquarium filled with artificially imprisoned marine life. Despite his qualms, he ultimately ends up helping to ‘kill’ the Creature (at least until its resurrection in the sequels).

At times, the choice of shots and cuts made by Arnold and editor Ted J. Kent seem to imply a budding ecological awareness. When Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams) idly throws a cigarette into the lagoon, the camera moves to show a mournful-looking Gill Man watching her actions from the depths, as if ruing the littering of his previously pristine environment by the human intruders. The fact that this happens while Mark and David are out deliberately poisoning the water suggests at least a certain degree of criticism regarding the protagonists’ actions.

Naturally, the film’s ambivalent attitude toward man is most clearly embodied by the Gill Man himself. Thanks to Milicent Patrick’s vivid design, the Creature expresses great menace and pathos. Played on land by Ben Chapman and underwater by Ricou Browning, he generates a remarkable degree of audience empathy as events progress, recalling the titular creation in King Kong (1933) or Boris Karloff’s tragic Universal Monster roles in Frankenstein and The Mummy (1932).

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At first, we see only the Gill Man’s hand reaching from the water, contrasting ominously with the matching fossilized relic excavated by Dr. Maia at the start of the same scene. His claws mark the riverbank, as if challenging the scientists to witness the unique record he has “written on the land” with respect. This warning is made brutally clear when his hand seizes the unfortunate Luis (Rodd Redwing) by the face during his attack on the camp. Once unveiled, his full form reveals a sensuous, scaly beauty, particularly during his tender aquatic duet with the unwitting Kay. His sinuous grace makes it clear that he belongs in the lagoon—it’s the humans who are the outsiders. Whether imprisoned on the boat and staring balefully at his captors, or advancing on Kay, claws akimbo and mouth gaping in silent entreaties, he is arguably the most sympathetic character in the story.

It’s the Gill Man’s longing for Kay that unlocks the film’s murkiest psychological depths, as he reflects and invades the human love triangle around her. From a Freudian point of view, the Creature represents the id rampaging beneath the ‘respectable’ exteriors of David and Mark as they lock horns for Kay’s affections. Indeed, the entire setting lends itself to a psychoanalytical reading: the environment is primal, “exactly as it was 150 million years ago,” with the lagoon concealing an irrational and erotic world beneath its calm surface. As man and Creature move violently between the ‘orderly’ boat and the uncanny depths, their behaviors begin to overlap. Buried impulses surface, and the line between the civilized and the bestial becomes ever more ambiguous.

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Creature from the Black Lagoon subtly undermines the expected divide between animal and man within its first few minutes. The first ‘creature’ we see beneath the waves (aside from a few small fish) is David, his diving goggles and aqualung giving him an appearance more alien than human. Out of the water, Dr. Maia comments on the way David’s brawny physicality contrasts with the cliched image of the cerebral scientist (a stereotype embodied elsewhere in the film by the fatherly, asexual Dr. Thompson, played by Whit Bissell).

Mark meanwhile is first shown in a suit and tie, looking every inch the smooth, successful sophisticate. Yet it is he who will later descend furthest into animalistic aggression, while David at least tries to hold on to reason. Echoing the deceptive appearance of the humans, the Gill Man at first seems a simple source of violence and horror before revealing unexpected depths of intelligence and emotion.

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In one early scene, Mark stares in silent rage before angrily interrupting a tender moment between Kay and David (an action directly recreated by the Creature during the climax, sealing the thematic merging of man and beast). Mark does so while brandishing a highly phallic spear gun, which he later uses to repeatedly injure the Gill Man, emphasizing the sexual frustration and faintly homoerotic rivalry that locks the three male leads into combat. Suggestively, the Creature throws away the spear gun during his final struggle with David, before the bullets of Dr. Maia and Lucas (Nestor Paiva) put an end to him. It is as though this symbol of blunt masculine sexuality has to be struck down before the situation can be resolved. Once this is done, David’s more rational and compassionate side resurfaces, and he implores the others to cease fire and to let his ‘rival’ die with dignity.

Kay’s role lies at the heart of the film’s psychological and sexual politics. Aside from the boat, named ‘Rita,’ she is the only female character in the entire story. Like David, her physical appearance attracts attention. But unlike him, the men around her rarely give her a chance to show her clear intelligence and scientific ability. Mark even steals the credit for her research, exploiting his position as employer to try and assert ownership of her mind, as well as coveting her body. There’s a reserved quality in Adams’ performance that implies a certain weary resignation to her position, warily treading her way between warring male egos. It’s only when she slips away alone into the water that she seems entirely free, showing a distinct reluctance to return to the boat. But even this moment of emancipation becomes an illusion once she attracts the Gill Man’s gaze.

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Despite the crude possessiveness of the Creature’s affection for Kay, there is a certain sense of kinship between them. Both are outsiders, socially confined and hunted by predatory males. Their celebrated swimming duet shows a startling synchronicity, even if Kay is apparently unaware of the Gill Man’s bashful advances. When the Creature inadvertently leaves a claw in the fishing net, the camera lingers on Kay’s face as she touches it, her expression registering more curiosity than fear. She may (understandably) scream every time he advances on her, but she also worries for his welfare.

She urges the others to let him be, eventually prompting a jealous Mark to accuse her of feeling sorry for the monster and is unable to sleep once he is imprisoned. Perhaps she simply recognizes the Gill Man as yet another emotionally stunted suitor, and one more deserving of pity than the ‘civilized’ Mark. Or perhaps on some subliminal level, she feels a connection to him as a fellow captive, and is tempted by the difference between his beautiful, irrational world and the stultifying conformity of her native human society.

In the 70 years since its release, Creature from the Black Lagoon has attracted two sequels and made numerous official and unofficial appearances on TV and in comics. Its influence can be seen almost shot-for-shot in certain sequences from Jaws (1975), while Patrick’s iconic monster design has been echoed by films as diverse as Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Though several proposed remakes have failed to reach fruition, it does have a deliberate spiritual cousin in Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water (2017). However, the original remains a perfect blending of streamlined adventure with provocative undercurrents and deserves to rise to the surface once again for critical reappraisal. 



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