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Why we like the Creature.
Today, "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" is considered a classic. The film itself has become a cliche for the "man-in-a-rubber-suit" monster movie, and the "gillman" is now included in the pantheon of classic movie monsters -along with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.
I was a teenager when I first saw this Sci-Fi/Horror gem on television in 1965--the film was already ten years old by then--and I loved it. Surprisingly--even after a decade of watching technically sophisticated, state-of-the-art, unbelievably realistic prosthetic, animatronic, and computer-generated movie monsters--today's teenagers still love the old "rubber" prototype of all swamp monsters -"The Creature From the Black Lagoon". This is especially true of teenage boys. Why? Perhaps every adolescent male can relate to the film's star: the Creature is horny, inarticulate, moody, misunderstood, not pleasant to look at, and is unbelievably awkward with girls -the ultimate teenage "geek". We all remember this classic scene in the movie: the film's beautiful heroine (Julie Adams) decides to take a dip, unaware that the Creature is swimming below her. The image is archetypal : the powerful "masculine", and the overtly seductive "feminine", beautifully juxtaposed in a stylized sexual union. Then, from the murky bottom of his lagoon, the Creature leeringly watches Adams as she performs an erotic underwater ballet, and he knows that, for the moment, he can only look, not touch. (Is the "scaly one" shy and insecure? Or does he simply have a Catholic upbringing?) Indeed, much of the film's imagery lends itself to Freudian interpretation.
OK, so it's not exactly "Beauty and the Beast" -the Creature's passion is purely primal and elemental. But still, the fact that he restrains himself, satisfying his carnal curiosity with a simple caressing of Julie's ankles, and then retreats back to the gloomy bottom of his underwater sanctum to secretly watch her react in bewilderment, suggests he may be more human than he appears. But, alas, as any good Freudian will tell you, repression often leads to disfunction. And later in the film, in a brief, but beautifully filmed underwater scene, the Creature savagely drags the tantalizing "Playboy centerfold" down into the Freudian depths to his subterranean grotto -perhaps to hide her under his bed...where his mom can't find her. (I apologize for the metaphor. It's getting stale, I know.)
"The Creature From the Black Lagoon" was directed by Jack Arnold ("The Incredible Shrinking Man"), who (from 1952 to 1960) directed a series of fantasy/horror films for Universal Studios, including "Revenge of the Creature" -this film's sequel. Arnold would certainly object to us reading too much symbolism in his gillman, but the Creature may not have achieved such enduring status in monster-mythology if not for the fears and anxieties of the movie-going audience of the '50s. Arnold's dramatic use of the Creature succeeds, of course, by exploiting the human fear of the unseen threat lurking below -a very primal, deeply embedded in the human subconscious, and one that's been ruthlessly exploited by filmmakers in countless horror films. But Arnold's beast may also represent a more intellectualized fear. In the 1950s (and beyond), the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real, and like the creature in Shelly's "Frankenstein", Arnold's lagoon creature represents an elemental force of nature that, once discovered and awakened by science (even well-intentioned science), cannot be controlled -perhaps like the newly tapped, but untamed, power of the atom. Or (and this may sound like apostasy in one of John's pretentious, sophistical, over-intellectualized movie reviews, in which I've constantly and digressively wandered into the Freudian morass) perhaps the Creature is not a mataphor for teenage angst, forbidden knowledge, or cold-war anxiety. Perhaps the Creature is nothing more than a guy in a scary rubber suit chasing a pretty girl around a movie soundstage. But where's the fun in that?
"The Creature From the Black Lagoon" is still fun to watch. Actors Richard Carlson (the sophmoric, but noble-minded paleozoologist) and Richard Denning (the ambitious financier) play off each other well. And Julie Adams is simply gorgeous in her custom-made swimsuit. Also, the beautiful (albeit black & white) underwater photography by James C. Haven is appropriately surreal: as the men begin their search and descend into the black depths of the lagoon, they intermittently twirl and hover amidst penetrating shafts of sunlight from above; and as the camera pans the peaceful bottom-landscape of the lagoon, the gillman suddenly springs from clouds of disturbed sediment, thrashing through curtains of shimmering air bubbles and drifting weeds, determined and unstoppable in his persuit of the human intruders. But one of the best things about the movie is the music. Some of the themes--written by Henry Mancini and Herman Stein--are quite beautiful; for example, as the expedition slowly makes its way up the dark Amazon, an ensemble of gentle woodwinds can be heard -a soft, subliminal prelude that lets us know we are entering another world, a primeval world. And who can forget the Creature's signature theme--the brassy, bombastic, three-note progression of DA DA DAAAAA!--whenever "Creech" appeared on the screen?
Of course, the best thing in the film is...the Creature. Jack Arnold suggested that the design of the gillman suit be based on the graceful form of the Motion Picture Academy's "Oscar" statuette. (Really!) The suit was designed and brilliantly crafted by make-up artist Bud Westmore, and there were two versions -one suit for filming on land, and another for filming underwater. On land, the gillman was played by Ben Chapman. Olympic swimmer Ricou Browning wore the gillman suit in the underwater scenes. The "dry suit" that Chapman wore was beautifully colored with iridescent greens and blues, and mottled with many other marine hues. The "wet suit" worn by Browning was a bright yellow -the marine hues chosen for the "dry suit" photographed too dark when filming underwater.
Yeah, I really love this movie. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's just one geek relating to another. You see, in the final reel, neither of us got the girl.
Final Revision: this essay pertains to both "Rings" films.
The novels I've read in my life are few. When reading fiction, I prefer the short story, having read many -mostly science fiction. So the number of novels I've read is, I think, around fifteen. And along with "Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clark (my life-long favorite), Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece "The Lord of the Rings" left a lasting impression on me when I first read it back in 1972.
Like most fans of fantasy and science-fiction, I first read Tolkien's epic trilogy when I was a teenager. I would never have attempted such a seemingly grueling ordeal if not for the constant badgering of friends; the thought of tackling a literary work which consists of more than fifty pages--and which might take a week or two to finish--made me sweat blood. However, growing tired of being left out of our literary discussion group, which usually met around 2:00am at our favorite Denny's restaurant every Friday night (well...maybe every Friday and Saturday night. OK...maybe every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night -I didn't have much of a life back then, either), I decided to expand my literary horizons. So, one night, after consuming about ten cups of coffee (Denny's coffee), we drove over to my friend Bill's house. Bill told me he had all of Tolkien's published works. I began to cringe as he handed me the trilogy: "The Fellowship of the Ring", "The Two Towers", and "The Return of the King". (Beads of blood appeared on my forehead.)
I dived into the first book while lying on the floor of Bill's bedroom. One of Led Zeplin's early albums ( I can't remember which) was spinning on Bill's stereo system, and the room soon reeked with the smell of pot (Bill was a bit of a stoner). Yeah, that's right: Tolkien, Zeplin, and weed.(Oh, sweet counterculture!) Bill even had the proverbial black light and iridescent posters in his room. Of course, if Bill wanted "iridescence", all he had to do was close his eyes (he was doing more than just smoking grass in those days, if you know what I mean).
"The Lord of the Rings" is about the adventures of a "fellowship": four diminutive, barefoot hobbits, an archetypal wizard, an elf with a longbow, two humans (one being a reluctant king), and a materialistic (but brave and honorable) dwarf, who set out on a mission to destroy a powerful, but corruptive, magical ring -that is, to throw the ring into the volcanic fires of "Mount Doom", in which it was forged. According to the powerful wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), it's the only way to prevent the impending, apocalyptic struggle between the armies of Sauron (the evil guy) and the armies of noble elves and dutifull men, a struggle that will shake the foundations of "Middle Earth" and determine the fate of its inhabitants for millennia to come.
As much as I enjoyed Tolkien's "magnum opus", I never became a Tolkien scholar. In fact, while watching the films, I wasn't sure of the correct sequence of events -I only half-remembered them from the books (it's been 30 years since I've read them). But intermittent tutorials from my buddy sitting next to me (uh...no, not Bill) kept me well informed, kindling my anticipation as the story progressed.
OK, so I'm not a Tolkien scholar, but I am a "film geek" (actually, just a "geek"), and in my "geekish" opinion, the first two installments of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" are absolutely...FANTASTIC! The reason: the movies succeed in the attempt to create an "implicit context" (my own term), which I define as the underlying "reality-framework" of a story. This was fabulously accomplished by the author in the original books. Tolkien's Middle-Earth is awash in romance and lyricism, yet it's a very "causal" world; it's a world born out of vast, convergent histories and darwinian struggles. And even though Tolkien created a totally imaginary realm inhabited by a mythic plethora of fantastical beings, it's a very realistic, heavily textured realm. And as we follow the adventures of Frodo--the key character in the story--as he and his companions penetrate wispy, magical forests, and stumble through dark, foreboding, underground labrynths (wherein "things more foul than orcs dwell"), we totally accept the reality of it all. We suspend our disbelief and totally immerse ouselves in Tolkien's world because he provides us with a wonderfully descriptive context, creating a realm born out of history, a realm inhabited by beings that reflect an evolutionary history, an incredibly "textured" realm, in which Frodo's adventure unfolds.
It takes a talented writer to create "implicit context" in a literary work, especially in the fantasy genre, and it takes equal talent--and even greater reserves of sweat and blood--to create this context in a motion picture. This is not to belittle Tolkien's literary skill; he was certainly a master storyteller who probably pulled out many of his own hairs while writing his trilogy. But the fact is, when making a movie, settings (real physicalities), hardware, and "flesh-and-blood" human beings are required. In these movies, of course, "flesh-and-blood" hobbits, elves, wizards, dwarves, orcs, trolls, and goblin-men are required (not to mention...BALROG!). And making it all appear "believable" can be a daunting task. But these movies succeed in the attempt; for example, the "Shire"--where the hobbits live--with its beautifully photographed pastoral landscapes, seems a very real place with a real history, inhabited by real people (uh...hobbits) who belong to real families that have real lineages. This sense of context pervades both films, imprinting the landscapes of Middle-Earth indelibly on our minds.
But aside from the wonderfully textured environments of Middle-Earth--and its equally textured societies--it's the individual characters that make these films so enjoyable. The plot is certainly character driven, and the elaborate sets and opticals--impressive as they are--diminish into the background as we are entertained by the main characters; we look forward to meeting these quaint hobbits, and to acquaint ourselves with each of their idiosyncratic personalities. We learn to care about them, and to appreciate the dynamics of their relationships (the friendship between Frodo and his loyal friend, Sam Gamgee, is especially heartfelt).
Another example of how intensely both films focus on the characters is the director's extensive use of the most powerful filming technique in cinematic art -the "Close-up". There are many long, screen-filled close-ups of Frodo's face (Elijah Wood)--often without him even speaking--expressing joy, fear, anxiety, and more subtle expressions denotative of innocency and naivete. There are also long, moody close-ups of Gandalf's wizardly countenance as he ponders the looming crisis which threatens Middle Earth. His deeply furrowed brow, vague mumblings, and almost subliminal, yet emotive, facial expressions subtly convey the wizard's intuitive awareness of the imminent clash between the forces of Good and Evil.
And for all you guys out there who drool on your popcorn whenever Liv Tylor is on the screen, well...you won't be seeing Liv (what kind of a name is that, anyway?) on her back in these films. But don't worry, you won't be disappointed; this movie has some nice close-ups of her, too -from the neck up, of course. And believe me, guys, watching Liv's hithering mouth--roughly 6ft across on the theater screen--molding seductive, melodic utterances in "Elvish", will do it for you. But restrain yourselves; her boyfriend, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), wields a pretty mean broadsword.
So, why am I praising both "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers"? Well, I guess it's because I really believed in the characters. They seemed to be as real as the director, screenwriters, and artisans could possibly make them. The now mythic realm of Middle-Earth has been concretized; the imagery in these films is born out of a reality-framework that appears to be long-established and anterior to our present-day world. And after I entered the quaint, little dwelling in the side of the hill, and was introduced to Frodo Baggins, I believed him to be a real person--even if he was only three feet tall with oversized furry feet--and I believed his "hobbitish" sensibilities to be genuine.
Indeed, upon leaving the theater each time, I realized that for three hours...I believed in hobbits.