Friday, March 15, 2013

The Discreet Charm of the Black Lagoon

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Creature from the Black Lagoon

The Discreet Charm of the Creature

In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, producer William Alland revealed that the idea for the Creature from the Black Lagoon came from a wild Amazonian man-fish story told by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa to an incredulous Orson Welles during a small house party.  Naturally, this makes me wonder:  What if Figueroa told the story to the director he’s most associated with: the iconoclastic Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel?  Might Buñuel have treated audiences to a surrealist Creature?

So what would a Buñuelian Creature from the Black Lagoon look like?  In my dream Buñuel version…

The end of the bishop.
  • The Creature’s first victim would be a bishop.
  • Kay would be played by two actresses in alternating scenes (plus their doubles for the swimming scenes).
  • Kay would have a dream scene where she carries off the Creature and places him on the altar.  Then she would whip him.
  • Each evening, the Rita would leave the Black Lagoon.  In the morning, the crew would awake to find the ship back in the lagoon.
  • When the crew dumps the chemical Rotenone into the lagoon in order to paralyze the fish, a donkey would float to the surface.
  • In the scene where the Creature places Kay on the altar rock, he would be wearing a cassock.
  • At the end, the characters would walk off the boat and go to a jazz club.  The Creature would go with them.
Gag shot of Ben Chapman as the Creature.

Church of the Creature

It’s a classic M. C. Escher setup.  You dive into the water, swim deep down, disappear into the murky depths, and find a cave filled with air at the bottom of the lagoon.  The cave has a level floor and a rear entrance that opens onto land, sea level.  Apparently, Escher-style, down is up in Creature land and the laws of physics don’t apply.

Baptism at the church of the Creature.
This underground lair is where the infatuated Creature chooses to bring our beautiful heroine Kay for their date night.  He ceremoniously drapes her over a large stone that admirably functions as a crude altar.  The Creature’s den is a place of mystery, bathed in mist.

King Kong (1933) is the obvious reference point.  Creature producer William Alland and others have admitted they had Kong in mind when developing the plot.  The Creature himself neatly reverses Kong’s natural instincts.  When stressed, Kong ascends toward the highest point—Skull Mountain on the island or the Empire State Building in the city.  When stressed, the Creature dives for the lowest point:  his Escher cave lair.

But what does a monster do with its woman?  It’s not a simple question of motion picture codes and what the morals of the time allow.  Aside from the distasteful physical problems, Kong and the Creature are way too sympathetic to even contemplate rape.  Instead, we get adoration—a tender response which increases our sympathies for the monsters.  The rock that Kay is attractively draped across isn’t a sacrificial altar but a place for Creaturely worship.

King Kong opts for a double worship situation, with the natives worshipping Kong as a god and Kong worshipping the beautiful Ann Darrow as his unattainable object of desire.  While the Creature from the Black Lagoon keeps the Amazonian natives off-screen, the ship captain mentions that the local people talk of a man-fish.  This sounds like a reference to the original tale that producer William Alland heard from cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa back in the early 1940s—that there’s a man-fish in the Amazon and the natives must send it a virgin each year to keep it placated (which, by the way, is the same arrangement negotiated by Kong and the Skull Island natives prior to Miss Darrow’s arrival).

All this worshipping leads us naturally to the churches of monsters—Kong’s Skull Island lair, the Beast’s castle, the Creature’s cave.  These are the places where monsters come to worship and where beautiful women are posed as religious icons on the altars.

Julie Adams on the rock.

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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