The Rear-View Mirror: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

What an endearing mess of a movie. Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the oldest movies I’ve seen that starts with the Big Bang, then creation, then Darwinism (leaving out millenium-long chunks of natural history, but never mind), only to violate that premise five minutes later. There are fossilized limbs of a sea creature that very much look like the arm and hand of its descendant, so its physical shape has not changed in the least.

And if you ask yourself what the creature really wants, it’s not so easy to give a definite answer. It wants to steal the only female of the expedition team, Kay (Julie Adams), and terrorize and even kill the others. Does it long for female company? Does it assume that procreation might be an option, or, failing that, cohabitation? Kay only ever screams when face to face with the creature, but it is she who starts using the male pronoun when talking about it. The movie is set in Brazil, but any writing we see is in Spanish. And is it wrong to ask why the creature would hide in a cave when it is so much more at home in the lagoon’s waters? Maybe the answer is that underwater shots were difficult and/or expensive. And maybe the point is that any monster worth its sea salt is a gross anomaly by definition.

Of course I am writing this from a 65-year distance, and since horror movies all have become so hard-boiled and gory, Creature is sort of quaint. I can really only guess how the movie must have scared its early audience witless (the movie was originally in 3D), but there is also the fact that, two years ago, we saw a woman fall in love with a sea creature in The Shape of Water. Granted, the scaly, bug-eyed monster has an aspect of desperate loneliness, and we can almost forgive its clawing at Kay’s shapely ankles. Almost. Today, we really rather watch the movie for its set pieces that are still very much in use today: two men vying for Kay’s attention; the same two men can also be taken to represent money and science, wherein the money man wants to kill the creature and ask questions later, and the scientist wants to capture it with a view to release it afterwards. And Kay is one of the first Scream Queens in movie history, but what sets her apart from so many early damsels in distress is that sometimes, she has her own motives, and her own agency. Julie Adams’ name has survived, the others’ not so much.

The creature comes alive through its suit which, movie lore would have it, was originally a very cool Halloween costume. It does its job – there are only very few facial expressions, but the mask seems to show whatever emotion is called for in a particular scene. That sounds utterly subjective, but on what other level should horror movies work so well than on the subjective one? So is the creature alive or dead in the end?

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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