An expedition heads into the Amazon jungle after the discovery of a skeletal fossil hand that seems to be an example of a missing link between sea and land creatures…
The expedition team, aboard the steamer Rita, speculate that the rest of the fossil skeleton could be located downriver, so they sail along a tributary that leads them to a lagoon…
…the Black Lagoon!
Once they are anchored in this mysterious stretch of water the team go diving and finally realise there is a living, breathing prehistoric, amphibious, humanoid Creature lurking nearby. And now the fun really starts!
Director Jack Arnold’s creature feature has lots of poking-at-the-lens moments that reflect the fact the film was shot in 3D (I once saw a 3D print of the film at a screening at my college and there were lots of shots of spearguns and claws looming at the screen!)
The story is pretty straightforward: scientists go hunting for missing link fossils in the Black Lagoon, the Creature attacks, they capture it, the gill-man escapes and tries to prevent them from leaving by blocking their escape with branches, the heroine gets abducted by the Creature, the rest of the team go to the rescue, etc. The very linear plot is fine, though, because it provides the foundation for a production that gels nicely and is endlessly enjoyable.
To begin with, the film is great to look at: the underwater photography is really well done, the gorgeous Julia Adams is, well, gorgeous, and the gill-man is a brilliant monster suit design.
The way the Creature ‘gulps’ at the air when it is on land is impressive: it looks like a gasping fish, which is such a cool touch for a movie from this period. The ‘underwater ballet’ sequence, where the Creature shadows Julia Adams as she swims in the lagoon, is rightly considered a standout moment and is unlike pretty much anything else seen in similar 50s creature features.
The score is very bombastic which, added to the 3D-inspired photography, makes the film quite an in-your-face experience. Richard Carlson is a dependable leading man and Richard Denning, as Dr. Mark Williams, is a more interesting character, who vacillates between giving up the search early on when nothing is discovered to becoming overly obsessed with capturing or killing the Creature.
The Creature is one of my all-time favourite screen monsters and it was played by Ben Chapman on land and by Ricou Browning for the underwater shots. It really is an amazing man-in-suit creation.
There’s been a lot of recent interest shown in the origin of the design of the gill-man, with much being made of the fact that Milicent Patrick designed the approved Creature look, but her role was then downplayed by lead makeup artist Bud Westmore. This is a shame, though it’s great that Milicent is receiving her due now, thanks to the book ‘The Lady From the Black Lagoon’.
The gill-man went on to appear in two sequels, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), its influence has extended to the likes of Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning homage THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) and it really deserves its place in the line-up of classic Universal monsters.