Universal is remaking many of its classic horror movies, and creating a shared universe in the process: A Dr Jekyll-meets-the-Mummy situation is already underway, with the Bride of Frankenstein and the Invisible Man rumoured to be up next. But there’s one monster the remake machine should absolutely NOT touch.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon was released in 1954; it was a late addition to the Universal Monsters scorecard, coming three decades after Lon Chaney’s iconic turns in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. Audiences had also long since thrilled to Bela Lugosi in Dracula, Boris Karloff in Frankenstein and The Mummy, Claude Rains in The Invisible Man and Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolfman — as well as all the spin-offs and sequels that these titles spawned throughout the 1930s and ’40s.
But by the time the 1950s rolled around, members of Universal’s stable of classic ghoulies were co-starring in slapstick Abbott and Costello comedies — and the studio’s newer introductions leaned heavily into science fiction. Just one year before he made The Creature from the Black Lagoon (and the same year Abbott and Costello met Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), director Jack Arnold released Ray Bradbury adaptation It Came From Outer Space. But it was an earthbound oddity that would become Universal’s standout monster of the decade — and, in my opinion, the studio’s standout monster, period.
The Creature, referred to on-screen as “the Gill-man”, is an ancient evolutionary glitch who’s just minding his own business in a remote corner of the Amazon. Unfortunately for him, a team of nosy American scientists intrude, hot on the trail of a mysterious fossil that leads them right into the Gill-man’s private lagoon.
The Gill-man reacts to their rude arrival with curiosity and violence, not necessarily in that order. But… can you blame him?
More than any other Universal Monster — even Frankenstein’s monster, who would rather have stayed a pile of body parts than be zapped back to life by a mad scientist — the Creature makes the audience question who the “monster” really is. Is it the solitary, scale-covered half-man, half-fish dwelling quietly in his hidey-hole, or is it Dr Mark Williams, who funds the expedition to the Black Lagoon hoping that a big discovery will bring him fame and fortune, even if he has to kill the Creature to do it?
Mark is a jerk with an oversized ego, but his motivation is actually somewhat understandable (those trips to the Amazon can’t be cheap). And the others on the expedition aren’t overtly evil people, either. Sole female member Kay Lawrence, a pert lab assistant who happens to also be romancing resident ichthyologist Dr David Reed, is shown to be intelligent and sensitive, trying to broker peace between the men when they squabble over their methods.
But she also flicks a cigarette into the Black Lagoon, which is a clear violation of the house rules, and decides it’d be a good idea to take a solo dip without letting anyone below deck know about it. The Gill-man takes note of both, though audiences paid more attention to the latter — her ensemble here has become one of horror cinema’s most iconic swimsuits:
Maybe the greatest thing about The Creature From the Black Lagoon is that even with a monster in the mix, there’s no real villain. Mark sucks, and the Gill-man attacks multiple supporting characters, including some Brazilian deckhands who are truly innocent bystanders. But again, he’s just reacting to circumstances the same way he’s presumably been doing for centuries. Who’s good and who’s bad? The answer is as murky as the lagoon’s waters. Would a contemporary remake be able to be so sympathetic to the Gill-man, while also making him as scary as he was in 1954?
A 21st-century Creature would, no doubt, feature some stunning technical upgrades on the original’s many underwater scenes. It might even keep the original’s 3D photography, for maximum “grabby monster hands” thrills. But it’s doubtful any new project would preserve the surprisingly small scale of the first film, which has a tiny cast and mostly takes place in a single setting, aboard the creaky vessel Rita and in the waters around it.
Consider the 1932 version of The Mummy, which looks positively quaint next to the effects-laden 1999 version and its sequels — which, in turn, will probably look dated compared to whatever the Tom Cruise Mummy unleashes in 2017.
No Boris Karloffs were harmed in this scene.
But The Mummy, with its magic scrolls and reanimated dead, lends itself to more lavish visuals. So does a movie like The Invisible Man, because duh. The obvious route for The Creature From the Black Lagoon is to make the Creature a CG character, and that would be terrible. The whole reason he’s so eerie yet intriguing is because he’s so human-like. And maybe it’s just me, but the rubber suit’s face mask is surprisingly expressive, despite not moving much besides those poignant mouth-gulps. If there’s no true human element, what’s the point?
If you need any more convincing that The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a movie that should never be remade, just look at its two sequels, which came out in the two years following its release. Revenge of the Creature is so bad it got a much-deserved (and mighty hilarious) Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode; watch it, and you’ll never hear the monster’s distinctive musical fanfare without singing “Here I ammmm! I’m the Creatureeee!” as the MST3K hecklers do.
The Creature Walks Among Us puts the poor Gill-man in clothes, which doesn’t end well either for the character or the audience.
A Creature remake has been bandied about for years; this unsourced 2015 report suggested it was still in the works, with Scarlett Johansson being eyed to star. But it hasn’t been mentioned in the recent Universal Monsters news that’s cropped up around the new Mummy, which will be out in almost exactly one year.
So perhaps there’s a chance that Creature won’t be remade as its own movie. But leaving the Gill-man out of the new Universal Monsters multiverse entirely would be kind of odd, too. Maybe someone should write a heist comedy where the Wolfman and the Phantom of the Opera travel to South America to meet just the guy they need to help pull that underwater robbery… actually, please don’t. Nobody do that. Leave the Creature in the 1950s, where he belongs. And stay the hell away from his lagoon while you’re at it.