Canonical monster movie Creature From the Black Lagoon premiered today in 1954.
Creature From the Black Lagoon is one of my favorite monster movies ever. When I first saw it, I was struck by its eerie gorgeousness; some of the film’s underwater sequences are strikingly graceful and dreamy. And I found a wonderful through-line connecting this 1950s B movie to a classic European folktale. All told, the whole thing was rather transcendent — and I didn’t even watch it in 3D.
Those who know me know that I am obsessed with water. I’m weirdly obsessed with being a sea captain, Moby-Dick is my favorite book, and I am generally happiest in a pool, ocean, or lake. I think you’re either a water person or you’re not and that, like witches, true water-people recognize each another.
There are two water-people in Creature: the first is, naturally, the lagoon-dwelling Gill Man. The second is scientist and monster-love-interest Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams). Kay proves her aquatic bent after the team of scientists sails into the remote and dangerous lagoon in their search for prehistoric fossils and she jumps right into the water for a swim — something no right-minded person would do. While the men talk amongst themselves on the boat, Kay wriggles and frolics in the silvery water, the sheer joy of movement illuminating her face, a sense of total freedom animating her lovely limbs as they glide through liquid.
Then comes the iconic scene that catapults Creature… into the realm of the sublime.
The creature takes notice of her. Like the viewer, he is captivated by the beautiful motion of the swimming girl. He swims closer to her. As she glides around oblivious on the surface, he mirrors her in the depths below, matching his movement to her’s. His ungainly monster’s body looks almost graceful as they dance together in the water.
It is a gorgeous, heartbreaking scene; poor lonesome monster. This love affair will not end well, my prehistoric holdover. There will be strapping 1950s scientists who will come in with spears and nets and they will try to take you. We know this; but I can tell you that every single person in the audience is rooting for you, mister monster.
Here we can see the similarities between the film and the European folk tales I referenced above. It is tempting to categorize this tale as “Beauty and the Beast in water” (or “King Kong in the Pond”) but I think it hearkens back to a different and much more specific tradition.
Growing up I heard many version of the traditional Czechoslovakian cautionary tale of the Water Man or Vodník. The Water Man lived in rivers, lakes and ponds, and would pull either naughty little children or beautiful ladies down into the depths below for company, depending on which version you were told. The Water Man was green and scary, ancient and sometimes evil, so you’d better not lean too far over into the water.
Nearly every culture contains stories of mermen and maids, and none of them are without danger. Hans Andersen wrote a sorrowful version of the tale; the ancient Greeks lusty and threatening ones. One can obviously see the preventative purposes behind such narratives — they all warn of what can happen when you let yourself enter the mysterious, landless, realms of the deep.
Psychologically, these stories are also fairly obvious but none the less effective. If water represents the unconscious, then the monster is the thing we know least but suspect most about ourselves. And of course, water is supposed to symbolize sexuality as well as oblivion and death. Hence the Water Man and the Creature personify not only our fears but our darkest desires. Naturally Kay cannot admit she’s bored by both her misogynist boss and her dull-macho boyfriend and that she’d much prefer to chuck them both and go off into deeper waters.
So there you have it. I thought Creature From the Black Lagoon was a moving, beautiful romance. Then again, I thought Dead Ringers was a touching tale of brotherly love.
(This post is a reprint from an earlier essay post on my personal blog.)