The 1950s were the decade that was afraid of everything -- of communist infiltrators, of the H-bomb, of mutations caused by radiation, of science and, perhaps most of all, of sex. It's no accident that the 1950s were also the decade of the monster movie.
If the '50s were a repressed decade, horror movies provided an outlet for those fears. And those fears found some of their most interesting expressions in "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," which will be screened with its 1955 sequel, "The Revenge of the Creature," at the Orpheum beginning tomorrow through Aug. 4. These movies, directed by Jack Arnold, were once derided as simple B-movie fare. Now they are regarded as near-masterpieces of their time.
The need to imagine the horrible is as old as recorded history. The novelist Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," for example, is a later version of the Prometheus myth, in which the quest for knowledge is taken to a tragic extreme. But each age gets the monsters it deserves. All the horrors imagined in the 1950s came true -- figuratively if not literally -- in the following decade. Fears about monsters and freaks from other worlds or zombies created by body-snatching infiltrators were realized in the form of the youth of the 1960s, who often looked and behaved as if they
were aliens. Fears of an environment poisoned by radiation were justified when we began to hear more about a word named ecology.
The unspeakable gill-man of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" may seem amusing today: A slimy, upright froglike creature whose leering intentions upon the film's heroine, the dishy Julie Adams, are so obvious that they can make today's modern audiences giggle. But the gill-man spoke powerfully to the era in which he was created -- so powerfully that there were two sequels (Jack Arnold did not direct the inferior third one).
One of the profoundly wonderful things about the movie, however, is that it shows that the menace from without is also a menace from within. In fact, the monster in this evocative and poetic film is almost a subsidiary character. In the movie's simple plot, scientists working in the farthest reaches of the Amazon encounter what one of them calls an "evolutionary dead end" -- a half-man, half-fish with superhuman strength. After the creature kills most of them, they return to civilization without it. But the dynamic that drives the plot is the competition for the beautiful woman scientist, Kay (Adams), between Mark (Richard Denning) and David (Richard Carlson). This is not only a battle between two men but also a battle between two kinds of science. The ambitious Mark wants to capture the gill-man to become famous; the more sensitive David realizes that the creature is only trying to protect himself, and he does not want to destroy it or its habitat.
VJ That this will be a movie about sex (or love) is clear from its title:
Lagoon has romantic associations that lake, pond or inlet -- which are its synonyms -- do not have. Moreover, this is a black lagoon. That, as the photography and the characters' comments about the lagoon make clear, does not mean that it is ugly -- quite the contrary -- only that it is a primeval place where men can closely confront the unconscious drives over which civilization constructs its veneer. The lagoon is photographed in such a way as to make it seem beautiful, warm and inviting. It teems with underwater life. And the psychological, mythical function of the gill-man -- the swimmer in that life-creating fluid -- is made only too clear in the most famous scene of the movie.
As Kay swims in the lagoon -- her body is suggestively photographed from below in a way that was to influence Steven Spielberg when he made "Jaws" -- the creature swims only a few feet beneath her, his body exactly synchronized with hers, looking up at her. This is not underwater ballet of the Esther Williams variety, but one of the most sexually evocative sequences in cinematic history.
That the creature desires Kay is not in itself unusual -- this is a Beauty-and-the-Beast tradition that goes back to King Kong desiring Fay Wray and, before that, to the Phantom of the Opera pining for his beautiful singer. It is what Jack Arnold does with this material that is distinctive. The gill-man -- who, by the way, strikingly resembles Mark and David in their aqualungs -- represents the single-minded erotic force that makes the heroes compete for Kay. Phallic symbols are like pornography -- there's no mistaking them once you see them. The makeup and the costume of the gill-man -- particularly with its projectile-shaped head -- leaves little doubt about what kind of symbol he is.
The "Creature from the Black Lagoon" is an almost Spenserian allegory in which the hero must defeat the dragon before winning the heroine. David doesn't really defeat the gill-man by himself -- he is saved by what is left of the crew -- and his
victory is further qualified by the postscript to the film created by subsequent horror movies.
tTC When we see the gill-man walking with the unconscious Kay in his arms, there are reverberations that recall similar, earlier scenes in the Mummy films or the Frankenstein movies. But David can win Kay because he can defeat -- however tenuously -- the monster, thus saving her from this threat. In the horror films that came in the decade that followed "The Creature," a different kind of sexual evil was imagined.
The horror in such monster films as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist" or "Demon Seed" (in which Julie Christie is raped by a computer and gives birth to its child) is that the maiden has already been possessed and that the devil (or whatever else it is that is evil) is already in command. And in the horror movies that succeeded those of the 1960s and '70s -- such as the "Friday the 13th" or the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films -- the killings by the monsters have become as numerous and as indiscriminate as the sexual couplings of their teen-age victims.
"The Creature from the Black Lagoon" takes us back to a cinematic era that is less explicit, perhaps more poetic, and certainly more subtle in the way it depicts the sources of what it is that scares us.