What distinguished Jack Arnold’s pictures from mutant spinoffs/knockoffs is even more imperative to sci-fi today than it was in 1954: wonderment. Creature from the Black Lagoon opens with a brief take on the birth of the universe, milky gaseous clouds exploding into one another with a booming “In the beginning…” voiceover so amiably straight-laced it actually seems the opposite of pretentious. Anyone who’s seen Arnold’s masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man, will immediately recognize this tendency toward cosmic philosophizing, less a feature of misanthropy than an atomic-era ginning-up of the audience in advance of something almost secret—something they’ve never seen before.
“The record of life is written on the land.” By introducing the creature as a force of pure nature, Arnold effectively stacks the deck against his human characters before we’ve met any of them. With wailing trumpets we land somewhat bumpily in the Amazon, where a sagacious archaeologist, Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno), digs out a bizarre humanoid reptile claw. He links up with a hunky Speedo-wearing marine biologist, David Reed (Richard Carlson), and his fiancée, Kay (Julie Adams), on an expedition downriver after the full skeleton, the whole trip underwritten by Mark Williams (Richard Denning), a square-shouldered, glory-seeking competitor for Kay’s affections.
By the time they get back to Maia’s camp, his native lackeys have already been torn to shreds. The creature is loose! Arnold cannily withholds a full master shot of the monster for a solid half-hour, emphasizing his scaly legs, his goop-covered feet, and those claws popping out of the water, pawing at quarries and armrests against the same three-note orchestral stinger. Arnold’s angles do their best to get rid of him as quickly as they can, but he always relapses into frame, usually at the most inconvenient time possible. Gawky, somber, the monster’s power comes less from his alien-ness than from his uncanny humanity—and soon enough, the team refers to him as “the gill-man.”
In the lagoon itself, it’s another story. There’s a silent-movie grandeur to the long takes of Reed and Williams in their diving gear, their faces behind glass while the creature smoothly glides between sunspots. In these sequences, the monster suit looks considerably more realistic than it does above land, which most likely explains why they go on for so long—all in the interest of adding to the monster’s mystique. Williams becomes obsessed with bringing its corpse back to the states for gold and glory, while Reed wants to take it alive for research purposes. Harry Essex and Arthur Ross’s screenplay has fun wavering between the two men’s perspectives, Reed looking foolhardy and naïve as the body count goes up, but Williams looking more and more megalomaniacal in light of his jealousy.
A much more antic, exploitative experience than the Frankenstein/Wolfman/Mummy/Dracula pictures it stands alongside, Creature from the Black Lagoon perfectly typifies the transition from older, more European horror styles into bloodthirsty schlock and ever-cheaper thrills. Though the creature will destroy anyone who stands between him and Kay, who he continually sweeps up in his arms to drag off to do God-knows-where, it’s Denning actually forms the movie’s (human) conscience. An aspiring romantic stuck in a chiseled man’s-man persona, he’s all about the kill, as the audience must inevitably be as well. It’s still a man’s world—or is it?