The restless seas rise, find boundaries, are contained. Now, in their warm depths, the miracle of life begins.– Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Universal’s 1954 film, Creature from the Black Lagoon, is considered by many to be the swan-song of the Universal Monsters. Debuting almost a decade after the final outings of Dracula, the Wolfman and the Frankenstein’s Monster, as well as perennial second-stringers the Mummy and the Invisible Man, the creature is both a final attempt to recapture the glory days of Universal Horror, as well as a change in direction.
Gone are the superstitious villagers, the Balkans-by-way-of-California sound stages and the almost fairy-tale like supernatural elements; in their place, scientists-as-men-of-action, unexplored regions of the Earth and a gritty cosmicism that is almost Lovecraftian in its implications.
While the eponymous creature isn’t a supernatural menace to be dispatched by sword, stake or fire, it is no less horrifying for that. It exists in spite of established dogma, testing the sanity and certainty of its scientific quarry even as it seeks to maul, drown or throttle them. It is a thing which cannot be, to quote the aforementioned Lovecraft.
There is a sense of age to the beast, a miasma of centuries that even Dracula cannot match. The creature–the ‘gill-man’–is the (seeming) end-point of an ancient species, the last atavistic nightmare, trapped in its watery Pandora’s Box until it is disturbed by the men and one woman who quickly become its prey. A fossil brings the latter on the hunt for the answer to an impossible riddle, and the discovery of a living example of said fossil only adds to the mystery. Thus, the gill-man is at once rooted in scientific solidity and cosmic horror.
Heretofore, monsters were aberrations, something from Outside slipping In. Sour blips in reality that, once banished, could be forgotten (until they returned, natch). But what the gill-man represented cannot be forgotten by those who encountered it.
It exposed the lie of an orderly cosmos, and revealed nature for the atavistic Echidna that it truly was. The gill-man and its cinematic descendants were not shamblers from the Outside, but rather Insiders and aggressive competitors for Man’s mastery of his domain.
Like many of Universal’s later films, including 1956’s The Mole People and1957’s The Deadly Mantis, it’s that unspoken implication–that the creature’s existence lends credence to there being some place ‘off the map’, that those regions labelled ‘Here Be Monsters’ are not simply a mapmaker’s fancy but an actual warning – that generates much of the horror.
In the end, the audience is left to wonder whether the creature is merely a degenerate survivor (which is bad enough) or a herald of greater horrors.
After all, who’s to say what lurks beneath the dark surface of the Black Lagoon?
We didn’t come here to fight with monsters. We’re not equipped for it.– David Reed