WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? David Reed is an ichthyologist with a hot tip: the skeleton arm of a heretofore unknown creature from the Devonian age has been unearthed somewhere near the Amazon River. Investigation of the find leads him to the legendary Black Lagoon, where, it turns out, the selfsame Devonian creature still lives. Reed wants to study the creature in its natural environment. He is opposed in this pursuit by fellow scientist Mark Williams, who wants to kill it, haul it back to America and make big bucks. David is either compromised in his pursuit by the presence of winsome Kay Lawrence or encouraged by it, depending on his mood.
WHO IS THE MONSTER? The titular Creature opposes David in his pursuit in the strongest possible terms. On the other hand, it also seems to have the hots for Kay, which compromises its position. In this way, the creature is a dark reflection of David.
WHAT IS THE WARNING? Creatures from the Devonian age are better left in the Devonian age, and we would do well to leave them alone. Take heed, world! On a subtextual level, the warning seems to have more to do with mixing business and pleasure, more on which to come.
First of all, I just want to note that, with a romantic triangle consisting of David Reed, Kay Lawrence and Mark Williams, Creature from the Black Lagoon wins my prize for The Most Generically Waspy Character Names in Movie History. I only mention it because their adventure on the Amazon is afforded them by a whole host of South Americans, including a fellow scientist, a ship's captain and a passel of native spear-carriers. The skeleton arm is discovered by South American scientist Carl Maia, but for some reason Maia isn't the protagonist of the story -- he has to go pouncing off to super-Wasp Reed, who takes Maia's find, blithely assumes the task of discovering the rest of the skeleton, and leads the expedition down the Amazon, taking along arch-rival Williams, girlfriend Kay and pipe-smoking Wasp deadweight Dr. Thompson. Reed and his Wasp buddies act as bickering, entitled tourists on this expedition, but the movie treats them as though they are the only ones who matter. Given a central Wasp romantic triangle and a host of Brazilian laborers, no prizes for guessing who bears the brunt of the eponymous creature's attacks.
The "Footloose Wasps On Vacation To Mysterious Location" plot, with the "Wasp Triangle" plot and the "Desirous, Conflicted Monster" plot all recall, of course, King Kong. Creature is, in many ways, a kind of underwater King Kong -- if you subtract the third act of King Kong and substitute a number of scenes of furrowed-brow Wasps discussing the meaning of things, that's pretty much Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Like The Wolf Man, Creature crams four distinct acts into a reletively brief (80m) running time. Act I gets all the principles together, gets them onto a boat and takes them to the lagoon, Act II presents a series of hit-and-miss encounters with the Creature. In Act III, the Creature goes on the offensive against the boat and its crew, and in Act IV Reed and his team set about figuring out how to get the hell out of the lagoon. The act breaks all fall neatly within their alloted 20-minute intervals.
In spite of its relatively small ambitions (put some people in a boat, have a monster attack) Creature begins with nothing less than an Adaptation-style "history of the universe" prologue, as though we need to be reminded that the earth was formed over billions of years from cosmic dust before we can fully comprehend the import of a guy in a rubber suit staggering around a cave.
What does the Creature want? It seems that the Creature, above all, does not wish to be discovered. His creepy, finned hand makes its first appearance immediately after scientist Maia unearths the identical skeleton hand of another Creature from the side of a hill -- apparently, the Creature has some kind of "discovery" radar that alerts it whenever remains of its ancestors come to light (kind of like Pazuzu in The Exorcist, come to think of it). While Maia is off turning over his research to the Americans, the Creature attacks Maia's camp, killing a couple of locals (one of whom bears an unfortunate resemblance to 80s comic Emo Phillips) -- the brutal, ruthless Creature will kill anyone who tries to discover it, and it will start with the porters!
I know it's a mistake to bring hard science to a 50s monster movie, but the scientists in Creature spend so much time earnestly discussing evolution and missing links and Creatures Of The Devonian Age that I have to ask, what's the deal with the Creature? It's From The Black Lagoon, but it can, apparently, leave the Black Lagoon whenever it wants and swim hundreds of miles upriver to archeological digs where, by sheer coincidence, the skeletal remains of its ancestor have been found. (Let's set aside for the moment that the scientists of Creature are complete babbling idiots who clearly have no idea what "The Devonian Age" refers to.) I have to ask, has the Creature really been living in the Black Lagoon for, ahem, over 400 million years? How? It has no mate (which would at least explain its attraction to Kay -- I guess if I'd gone 400 million years without sex, I'd start looking for love outside my species too). Hell, for all I know, the skeleton dug out of the side of the hill is the Creature's long-lost love, and it was visiting her grave when the story began, maybe all the attacks stem from the Creature's outrage that his beloved's grave has been sullied.
Anyway, Reed and Willams and Thompson, given scant scientific evidence (like, for instance, the fact that the arm found is a skeleton and not a fossil, which should be a tipoff that it could not possibly be from 400 million years ago), talk themselves into setting forth on this expedition (in one of the most "As you know, Bob" of all "As you know, Bob" scenes ever recorded). Clearly these people aren't scientists at all, they're a bunch of wealthy, bored Wasps with nothing better to do, looking for a little fun and excitement.
For a while, I thought Kay was the protagonist of the narrative -- she is, after all, the hypoteneus of the triangle, or rather, the quadrangle, when you figure the Creature into the party. Kay is waiting for David to pop the question, and Mark is, it seems, both Kay's ex and her mentor. She comes along on the expedition seemingly to stay by David's side and to keep Mark from killing David in a fit of jealous rage. (At least, I think Mark is Kay's ex -- the looks he gives David suggest that he might just as well be David's ex.) The expeditionary crew are a simmering stew of professional and sexual jealousy, which Kay brings to a boil by skipping about in virginal white short-shorts and skimpy halter-tops. Before you know it, the men are stripping down to their swim trunks and proving their manhood with aggression and spearguns. Kay may be waiting for David to pop the question, but her insousciant behavior, it seems, provokes something more urgent than a marriage proposal. She brings the creature to the surface by stripping down to her white swimsuit and taking a langorous dip in the lagoon -- "You're too far out!" cries Lucas, meaning that Kay has taken her free, easy sexuality too far and is encouraging the predations of the mysterious deep. Kay is an innocent abroad, completely unaware of the effect her sweet, smiling appeal has on the men and ancient creatures around her.
The Black Lagoon, we are asked to believe, is a virtual Primordial Soup, a fervid turmoil of Life Itself. The three points of our triangle each go swimming in this broth, bringing to surface a Creature that, as we've already learned, would rather not be discovered. Is Creature really just about the dangers of sexual jealousy? It gladly murders those it feels are encroaching on its territory, but flees from the men when they approach with their camera and speargun, and approaches Kay with a goofy, fearful innocence. This is one conflicted beast -- enraged by, shy of and lustful for the humans entering its realm.
Just as Mark channels his stymied sexual aggression into anger against the Creature, the Creature channels his confused lust into attacks on the boat. Similarly, the Creature accomplishes what David seems unable to -- it sweeps Kay off her feet and takes her back to his cave to have its way with her. Only Dr. Thompson seems immune to the sexual tension on the boat, but on the other hand, Dr. Thompson, a cardboard, stay-pressed eunuch, seems to have channelled whatever sexual aggression he possesses into his pipe, which is rarely out of his mouth.
The rivalry between David and Mark is settled when the Creature meets Mark's aggression head-on, mauling him and his spear-gun underwater and drowning him. Unsatisfied, the Creature absconds with Kay, although he is clearly confused about what is to come next. He takes her back to his cave, lays her on a rock and heads back underwater. He is finally dispatched not by David (in his swimtrunks with a prominent knife) but by Maia and Helpful Animal Lucas. Let's face it -- David is a fucked-up protagonist who doesn't know what he wants. He won't propose to Kay, he's reluctant to hunt the Creature, he won't kill it when it threatens and kills his friends and can't even kill it when it tries to strangle him to death. The ultimate fate of the Creature is left in doubt as David finally turns his boat around and leaves the lagoon.
Why is David an unsatisfying protagonist? Monster movies are, at root, a conservative narrative form. Just as conservative politicians use fear as a tool to get votes, monster movies use fear to drive turnstiles. Monster movies tell us, over and over, don't go there, don't do that, watch out, be careful, not so fast. The expedition of Creature gets into all its trouble because David can't make up his mind what he wants, or rather, he wants too much, he wants to gather soil samples, then find the rest of the Creature skeleton, then capture the Creature and study it -- his agenda keeps changing and expanding, he can't stick to a plan, even in the face of the clear and present danger of a fish-man attacking his boat -- a progressive stance if I've ever seen one.
There are exceptions to the conservative monster movie: John Carpenter'sThe Thing and George Romero's zombie movies all suggest that the monsters threatening us are much less frightening than the paranoia and infighting the monster provokes, and Carpenter's They Live upends the convention of the conservative monster movie by having the monsters be the status quo rather than a threat to it. (Although Carpenter's Halloween is a prime example of a conservative narrative: its message is "Have sex and you will die.")
(Two scenes of Creature, involving the unseen, underwater menace manipulating the boat and its equipment, were obvious models for similar scenes in Jaws, which Steven Spielberg once described as "the best episode of Sea Hunt ever.")