My article, The Creature from the Black Lagoon Still Holds Us Captive, first appeared in the British magazine We Belong Dead, issue number 13. I highly recommend you pick up a copy. WBD is the best fan written magazine available today covering classic horror. This issue in particular is a tribute to the Creature from the Black Lagoon movie series.
Where is Universal Orlando’s Creature from the Black Lagoon ride?
Since 1954, when Universal Studios grabbed on to the tail-end of the 3-D cinema craze with their tropical-locale beauty and the beast story, and ever since Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch instinctively empathized with the Creature’s need to be loved (or at least not shot at) , and after all these years of fond memories and undying merchandizing for this beloved “beastie” (as director Jack Arnold called the Creature), I want to know why there’s no ride, no tourist attraction to beguile us. Given the best they could do was Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Musical, which played from 2009 to 2010 at the theme park, I’m not that hopeful.
They did a ride for Jaws, loved it, but there’s none for the last great Universal Monster, the one whose box office success leveraged Universal-International’s entry into the 1950s science fiction atomica and alien-invasion cycle, where big and bigger monsters, and they were quite unlovable ones at that, weren’t as mesmerizing as this low budget, process shots galore, jungle adventure set in the mysterious isolated lagoon.
Imagine a boat ride, which would be akin to Disney World’s Jungle Cruise. Wouldn’t you get a thrill standing on the deck of the tramp steamer Rita, helmed by its crusty and resourceful captain, Lucas (Nestor Paiva), as it enters the mysterious lagoon no tourist has set foot in? Wouldn’t you get a chill encountering the Gill Man as his curiosity gets the better of him and he dares to come aboard looking for companionship, for understanding, for a soul mate after all those years of being alone? After all, the Devonian period he hails from goes back a few hundred million years.
With Creature from the Black Lagoon borrowing thematic elements from King Kong and Frankenstein, we already know how well his search for companionship and understanding will go; and that would be not well at all. Like Kong, he becomes infatuated with a woman, and like Frankenstein’s Monster he’s mistreated on sight, making him retaliate in kind. His mistreatment involves fire, too, but unlike the Frankenstein Monster, the Creature has to also dodge harpoons and cope with rotenone, a piscicide--yes, it’s a real chemical used to catch fish. The desperate scientists drop it into the lagoon to knockout the Creature after they’ve riled him up.
Here is where sustained tension and subtextual motivations come into play, making Creature from the Black Lagoon a more intelligent and prescient script than many critics (Bill Warren among them) have given it credit for. While subsequent 1950s science fiction movie fare focused on the more horrific aspects of the aftermath of scientific meddling and hubris (all those big spiders, bugs, and dinosaurs chomping and stomping) the subtleties here center on conservation versus exploitation and research versus trophy-hunting. But the Creature is not the only prize being hunted and that opens another thematic element centered around the prima fascie movie gender roles of the 1950s that dictate male scientists are take-charge characters and decision-makers, and female scientists are always pretty, always think about romance, and always scream a lot when not making coffee or patching up those battered, take-charge males.
The beauty and potential trophy wife role is filled by Kay (Julie Adams), a research scientist who, in turn, draws much studious attention from her pushy boss, Mark (Richard Denning), who thinks he’s a better catch for her than her more reserved but earnest fiancé, David (Richard Carlson). Mogambo-minded Mark, seeing dollar signs and newspaper headlines, finances the expedition to the Amazon when a fossilized hand with webbed fingers is found in a geological dig by Dr. Maia (Antonio Moreno). It takes David’s enthusiastically delivered speech, part science-justification, part science lesson (fashionable for all 1950s science fiction movies) to lend gravitas to the expedition’s intentions. David is, surprisingly, the environmentalist and conservationist. He wants to study nature, not wrap it around his will. It takes Mark’s aggressive posturing directed toward Kay and the Creature to generate the sparks above and below the waterline. The action moves between David, Mark, and the Creature butting heads and gills over Kay and the interplay between them as each asserts his intentions over her and the outcome of the expedition.
It takes Bud Westmore’s makeup team to builld our feelings for the Creature while scaring our wits at the same time with his unique mix of piscine and humanoid features. Fess up now, it’s the Creature Aurora model kit you always preferred to build and paint, right? Commercial artist and part-time actress Milicent Patrick is now credited with designing the Creature’s iconic head, with Chris Mueller doing the sculpting. Jack Kevan created the airtight molded sponge bodysuits worn by Ricou Browning (doing the underwater scenes) and the larger Ben Chapman (doing the above water scenes). The original design called for a less fishy, more Oscar statuette looking Gill Man (a smooth-skinned humanoid) due to one studio executive’s preferences (I wonder if he was related to Irwin Allen?), but that didn’t prove scary enough on camera. More scales and gills were added, giving us the Creature we know and love today. Bud Westmore appeared to have taken offence at Milicent Patrick and her successful publicity touring for the movie, claiming she took too much credit for creating the Creature. He threatened to never use her talents again and followed through on his threat. She was good, having designed the alien in It Came from Outer Space and also that wonderful pants-wearing Metaluna Mutant. The consensus now is that Bud Westmore was the one actually in love with the limelight and taking too much credit in the first place for what his team had accomplished.
Another person who possibly received more credit than he truly earned is the underwater scenes director, James C. Havens. According to Tom Weaver, Havens didn’t bother to don scuba gear to join Ricou Browning, Scotty Welbourne (who worked the 3-D cameras), and the stunt doubles under the water to direct them in situ. Instead, Havens floated on top, looking down from above to direct the action taking place farther below. Quite a trick when you consider a 3-D movie like this relies on key coming-at-you moments and spatial-blocking to sell those three-dimensions within the frame; how could you gauge the effectiveness of these moments when you’re not looking at them the way you intend your audience to see them?
While Havens easily breathed air while directing his scenes, Ricou Browning, who could hold his breath a lot longer than you or I ever could, relied on air hoses kept close, but out of camera range, on either side of him during shooting. He already had experience with how to breathe from an air hose while underwater, and that came in handy when attempts to supply him with a self-contained air supply failed to work as too many bubbles were showing and there wasn't enough room in his suit to accommodate the tanks easily. Although breathing that way may have been second nature to him, the limitations of the Creature’s headpiece made clear sight difficult for both him and Chapman. During the filming of the climactic scene where the Gill Man is carrying an unconscious Kay through his grotto, Chapman guestimated wrongly and bonked her head against one of the grotto’s fake rocky walls. Luckily, Julie Adams was not actually rendered unconscious from that mishap, but the publicity department played up her head scrape for all it was worth, including a snapshot of Adams receiving serious medical attention: a Band-Aid applied by a nurse.
Heavy publicity during production and through the release of the movie was a new marketing slant undertaken by Universal-International Studios. That effort, combined with the use of the Moropticon single-projector 3D system instead of the cumbersome and expensive dual-projector system the majority of theaters still couldn’t afford, made possible the wide-release of Creature in 3-D to more urban theaters than usual, although many smaller neighborhood theaters still showed the movie flat (in 2-D). The Moropticon system allowed a standard 35mm projector to be “converted to 3-D in minutes by attaching the Moropticon prism lens to the front of the unit.” The installation of the system only cost the theater a hundred dollars, provided the theater agreed to purchase twenty-five hundred pairs of viewing glasses per month for twelve months. Then, as is the case today, those glasses generate a lot of money. The underwater scenes take full advantage of 3-D with harpoons whizzing by, retonone fizzing and clouding up the water in our direction, and a shimmering spatial dimensionality enhanced by careful choreography of the action moving toward and away from the viewer.
Jack Arnold, who personally storyboarded his movies, envisioned the most memorable scene, whether viewed in 3-D or flat: the alternatingly sexual and playful swim between Kay, gliding on the surface (not Julie Adams but her stunt double), and the Creature gliding through the water below her, entranced by her leggy aquatic form. He cautiously reaches out to her, draws back, then reaches out again. It’s a beautifully realized interplay that can be interpreted in various ways with varying levels of innocence and maturity, such as Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan's frisky swim in 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate. Here, however, the censors had much less to worry about.
The Creature’s moment of bliss is fleeting. Hunted, captured, shot at, harpooned twice, and made groggy from being doped up repeatedly with retonone, he manages to elude Mark’s best efforts to stuff and mount him and Kay’s best screams to deter his ardor. The final confrontation in the grotto leads to two more sequels and a mystery: just what are those three columns seen in the grotto’s background? Is the implication that the Gill Man’s parentage is not as Devonian as we think but alien? Or was a matte painting from a previous movie not moved in time and to save money they kept on shooting?
Even more problematic: why does Kay, a research scientist who should know better, carelessly throw her cigarette butt into the pristine lagoon she couldn’t wait to swim in? Maybe that’s what really pissed off the Creature?
Note: Sources used in the writing of this article include Tom Weaver’s audio commentary for the disc releases of The Creature from the Black Lagoon; the Wikipedia article on CFTBL; Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1953-1968 by Kevin Heffernan; the documentary Back to the Black Lagoon written and narrated by David J. Skal; and Bill Warren’s love/hate relationship written up as Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. The use of the term “rad,” which is short for “radical,” comes from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No common ancestry between them and the Gill-Man is implied.
Pictures used in this article are from http://www.vintag.es/2013/04/behind-scenes-of-creature-from-black.html.
Not much publicity given in this double-bill pressbook for The Human Duplicators. The poster imagery is attention-getting, but that's about it. My guess is that's where most of this movie's budget went.
A smidgen of whimsy, a modicum of mystical, and a dollop of the cheeky-odd surround Dead Boy Detectives Edwin and Charles as they float--or sqwoosh when they're in a rush, although doing so makes Charles sick--through their meager caseload of mysteries to solve. You may feel a little light-headed meeting this pale duo cold, without a little warming up first by reading their previous adventures, starting with The Sandman #25, but stick to it; the stories are spread along like a taste of marmalade's bitter and sweet on burnt toast. You may find you like it and want more. Or not.
"You do not really mean to say that, do you?" asked Zombos, leaning over my shoulder, studiously reading as I typed.
"Yes, I do, and why not? And stop snooping and come over so I can see you without getting a crick in my neck."
I pushed my chair out a little, waiting for the debate to commence. The day was warmer than I liked, a higher humidity than I cared for, and so, yes, comenzara el debate; I was ready for him and any zingers he could lob my way.
"Oh, well then, carry on," he said, and walked away. I was dumbfounded. I wasn't ready for that at all. I sipped at my iced mocha latte, loudly, in frustration. Now where was I? Oh, yes...I was going to give some background information on Edwin and Charles to help warm you up before you plunge into reading Dead Boy Detectives Volume 1: Schoolboy Terrors.
Edwin Paine died by murder in 1916 at his boarding school, after insufferable fagging by the senior boys, a lousy lot of ruffians who reveled in doling out humiliation. Adding insult to his death, he found himself not only dead as a doorknob but sent off to meander around hell for years, stalked by a nameless terror. Neil Gaiman, Dead Boy Detectives' instigating author, is like that sometimes. Must be a British thing. Charles Rowland died by murder in 1990, same boarding school, Saint Hilarion's School of Impending Doom and Fagging Studies (okay, yes, I made up that last part), although Edwin did try to help Charles avoid the terminus. Death happened along to collect the two, but both boys decided to hang around awhile and go into business doing detective work for fellow spirits and the living. Boning up on their intended trade by watching old detective movies, and eventually acquiring their private detectives certificate from the Apex Novelty College, they split their time between hanging out in their abandoned treehouse and conducting investigations.
In Volume 1, Schoolboy Terrors, the boys first sqwoosh (or squoosh; the spelling depends on which period of comics you're reading) to the Isle of Dogs to find Twinkle the ghostly cat, but a psychopathic schoolmaster who keeps class in session, forever, runs the boys ragged as they try to escape and end the semester for good. Worse things are waiting for them, with one of those being a return to St. Hilarion's, which has gone completely to hell in their absence (or more completely than originally, that is). This time, however, they're accompanied by a breathing, spirited girl named Crystal Palace, who is determined to unravel the mystery of their deaths while trying to avoid her own.
Crystal's parents are two world-trotting performance artists who love their daughter, kind of, and spend much time away from her, mostly, to pursue their artistic endeavors. Her mom even tattooed her at birth in a fit of creative license. It washed off, so not much harm done, but the paparazzi ate it up and it was a publicity success. Their latest performance sends Crystal to the hospital, where her near-death experience hooks her up with the boys. Soon she's off to St.Hilarion's to tangle with the mysteries surrounding the boys' quietuses, play Yonda with a newfound friend, and survive a power struggle between demons. The spirits of the homicidal seniors who made Edwin's life short and unpleasant pepper the heated action with cutlery and evil determination. The finale involves fire, a mirror, philosophizing cats you really shouldn't follow, a touchingly sad predicament that began in 1888 that leads to an uncomfortable and embarrassing position to be stuck in, and many big words Edwin would use more often if Charles could only understand them.
Toby Litt and Mark Buckingham imbue all these weird situations and magical characters with a young-adult-refusing-to-grow-up attitude, and it's a wonder in itself to watch how different finishers (or inkers to the less comic-geeky among you) bring Buckingham's pencils and layouts to life. Victor Santos is all crisp and tart with his ink pen, while Gary Erskine goes lighter with his lines, allowing colors to lighten scenes. Erskine in tandem with Andrew Pepoy maintains the lightness, but with more accentuation in shadowing, making faces especially reflective of their characters' evil or good intentions. And Russ Braun has that DC Comics house style that harkens back to Silver Age, but with a contemporary overtone.
Any way you slice it, though, Dead Boy Detectives Volume 1: Schoolboy Terrors is a filling treat to savor.
A courtesy copy for review was provided by DC Comics.
An accident forces Jughead to resort to witchcraftery, which leads to another bad course of action with dire consequences, which leads to an even worse outcome shaping up to make Riverdale High's Halloween dance really scary with hot-blooded, dead-cold, action the teenagers didn't plan on. This is a more mature Archie's Weird Mysteries for zombie fans. Finally, the undying feud between Betty and Veronica over Archiekins' affection has been given a new direction: concern over who will stay alive with Archie as he takes charge of their safety.
Franceso Francavilla captures the simple, energetic humor of the before Afterlife with Archie comics, sedates it with dark scenes and mature renderings of the gang, and let's the Autumn colors palette do its work across the panels. The intense colors saturate scenes with dramatic flair, fortifying the less detailed features of Francavilla's pencils. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa provides enough setup and chomping in Book One: Escape from Riverdale to make it a good sell for reading the upcoming Book Two.
One bite leads to another, in de rigueur zombie apocalypse fashion, and not even Pop Tate's Diner is safe from the growing horde of deadbeats looking for more than a burger and a malt shake. Situating Riverdale back in its original locale of Massachusetts, a good-intentioned spell goes awry, sparking the supernaturally-charged undead. Is it any surprise, then, that come this October, even Sabrina will be returning to the Archie Comics fold with her own series. One, I'm sure, will be as dark and brooding and dire.
Retreating to the safety of Veronica's stately mansion, her dad takes charge. Zombie fans know what happens when people take charge in zombie movies; a change of plans is soon needed and Archie rises to the occasion. Aguirre-Sacasa adds flashbacks at important moments of conflict: Archie seeing his dog Vegas for the first time contrasted against the last time he sees Vegas; Smithers the butler blended into the background all his life contrasted against Smithers taking the foreground. Each flashback instills maturity and emotion into characters we never expected to see these qualities in. Then, of course, the contagion continues spreading, people get eaten (although the artwork isn't as gory as that sounds), plans are made and hastily remade, and even Reggie Mantle becomes more than Archie's rival for Veronica's affections. Other bumpy relationships do their best to continue through the mayhem, and that's one constant in every zombie scenario: while death clings close at every turn, teens will still be teens and argue or take a refreshing dip in the pool while the hungry undead gather all around.
It's a tough job to take the Archie Andrews universe to a more horrific place given how light-hearted the original series is, but I'm sensing an iZombie vibe here that works well for us even if it may be hell on Archie and his pals.