Thursday, March 28, 2013

Love and Death in the Black Lagoon

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1954...
Creature-blogging, essay 5 on
Creature from the Black Lagoon

Vulnerability in the Lagoon

The horror film goes abstract.  I love this image:

Kay Lawrence in Creature from the Black Lagoon
as seen from the depths.

This is the Creature’s point-of-view.  Kay has entered his habitat for the first time.  She’s something new in his world—beautiful and graceful, her movement defined by the play of light and shadow.

There’s poetry in many of the underwater scenes in Creature from the Black Lagoon, but this one shot stands out in the way it combines abstraction with sexuality and vulnerability.  Dabbed with color, this shot would fit nicely into a James Bond credit sequence—especially with its teasing implication of nudity.  But the black and white cinematography carries a different vibe.  It looks more ethereal than provocative.

The shot suggests extreme vulnerability.  And there’s a potent irony in Kay’s relaxed, confident swimming.  The viewer enjoys the voyeuristic Gill Man point-of-view while simultaneously realizing Kay’s danger.

Steven Spielberg was eight when Creature from the Black Lagoon was released.  He was twenty-nine when he made Jaws, very effectively borrowing that shot for the first scene.

Chrissie in Jaws (1975) as seen from the depths.

All the same visual elements are in play.  Color is kept to a monochrome.  There’s the same irony created by Chrissie’s self-confidence contrasted with our awareness of her vulnerability.  There’s the same teasing quality to the implied nudity—and this time we know that the swimmer really is naked even though we only see a nearly abstract silhouette.  But Jaws lacks the narrative justification for the shot.  In Creature from the Black Lagoon, the viewer shares in the Gill Man’s voyeurism—and this is exactly what makes it such an effective point-of-view shot.  You don’t feel that uneasy identification when the watcher is a sexless killing machine.  Spielberg’s shark point-of-view shot effectively captures the victim’s vulnerability but the sexual element is only present to titillate the viewer.

Later in the movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon employs a similar shot to somewhat different effect.  Mark and David go underwater to clear the logs that block the way out of the lagoon.  David shoots the Gill Man with his spear gun then rushes to the surface. Cut to a shot from deep below, looking up:

Dr. David Reed as seen from the depths.

This shot effectively captures David’s vulnerability, but it’s not a point-of-view shot—a fact that becomes very obvious when the Gill Man suddenly swims into the scene.

Enter screen left:  The Gill Man.

In a brutal battle under the surface, the Gill Man kills David then flees the scene, releasing the body to float to the surface.  The camera lingers on the oddly poetic image of David’s body languidly drifting upward.

The camera slowly tilts upward, following his final ascent.

A year later, Charles Laughton found a similar morbid poetry in death under the water in his classic The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Shelley Winters, dead in the seaweed, in
The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Sexuality in the Lagoon

Julie Adams swims on the surface.  The Gill Man follows her below, gliding belly up for long stretches, matching her strokes.  Many viewers and critics have remarked on the strong sexuality of the scene, particularly the underwater shots where their bodies seem to mirror each other, separated by only a few feet of water.

The classic aquatic pas de deux.

Forever out of reach.
It’s beauty and the beast, of course, but this time the beast appears to be fantasizing more than usual.  There’s almost a gallantry to it.  When the Gill Man reaches out to touch her foot, it’s so tentative.  He’s not acting the monster role.  It’s as if he knows deep down that she’s unattainable.

No wonder the Gill Man appealed to the monster kids of my generation!  He’s the outsider who’ll never get the beautiful girl.  Although we’ve seen there’s beauty in the way they can swim together, she’s still going to scream when she sees his face.

Julie Adams sees a monster.

Reference Sources

Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection) DVD commentary by film historian Tom Weaver
Various discussions on The Classic Horror Film Board (in my opinion, the greatest and most civilized of all film discussion boards.)
Back to the Black Lagoon documentary with film historian David Skal

When processing Creature information, it all boils down to this:  If Tom Weaver says it, I believe it.

Watch Creature from the Black Lagoon...
Purchase a Creature from the Black Lagoon DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Creature from the Black Lagoon at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2013 Lee Price

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