Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Creature From the Black Lagoon: Classic Monster Collection (1954)
Studio Line: Universal Studios - Not since the beginning of time has the world beheld terror like this!

Scientists drug and capture the creature, who becomes enamored with the head scientist's female assistant (Julie Adams). The lonely creature, "a living amphibious missing link," escapes and kidnaps the object of his affection. Chief scientist (Richard Carlson) then launches a crusade to rescue his assistant and cast the ominous creature back to the depths from where he came. Well-acted and directed, and with Bud Westmore's brilliantly designed monster, Creature From The Black Lagoon remains an enduring tribute to the imaginative genius of its Hollywood creators.

Director: Jack Arnold
Cast: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated NR; 80 min.; $29.98; street date 8/29/00.
Supplements: "Back to the Black Lagoon" Featurette; Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver; Production Photographs; Theatrical Trailers; Cast and Filmmakers; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C/B+

Ironically, 1954's The Creature From the Black Lagoon is the only one of Universal's eight "Classic Monster Collection" DVDs to really feature a monster. Granted, this interpretation defends on how one defines the word "monster", but I look at it from this point of view: each of the other seven movies stars a "monster" with human origins.

Most of the are men who have been transformed through various forces into something not human; in this category fall the Mummy, Dracula, and the Wolf Man. We also find men who have been affected by something external that essentially makes them go nuts, and their insanity becomes the villain; the Phantom of the Opera and the Invisible Man fit this bill. Finally, we have the odd cases of both Frankenstein's monster and his Bride. One could call them monsters in the classic sense, but since both were cobbled together from bits and pieces of humans, these creatures were created, not born.

Such is not the case for the titular critter in Creature; he's always been a freaky gill-man and represents an entirely new species, unlike the others in the "Monster" films. I have the feeling this change in focus represented the different societal attitudes in the Fifties; whereas the folks in the Thirties and Forties were more affected by scarring and negative changes to regular citizens, the people of the paranoid Fifties worried about alien threats from organisms not like them.

That's why so many of the era's horror movies went for the outrageous monsters like giant ants or extraterrestrial beings. The Creature in this film fits nicely into that mold, especially because - unlike the monsters of the preceding two decades - he features few sympathetic qualities. Even at their most horrible, the terrors of the other movies remained essentially sad to us, largely because of their human qualities; most had tragic flaws that made us care about them to a degree.

That's not really the case with the Creature; although we probably should sympathize with him - after all, he's the one whose territory has been invaded and who has to fend off unwanted attention - he displays too many unnecessarily violent and aggressive tendencies for the audience to truly care about him. For example, when some scouts are in a camp near the lagoon, he attacks them although they don't seem to have done anything especially intrusive; technically he defends his turf, but he appears awfully aggressive in these actions.

This point is also driven home by the fact he's one of the hornier monsters we've seen; once he gets a look at sexy Kay (Julie Adams), he wants some of that hot young action and he comes after her full force! There's more of your Fifties attitude, in which everyone worried these alien threats would "defile" their women.

The "Gill-Man" doesn't get that lucky, but he does cause a lot of havoc, all of which makes Creature a surprisingly entertaining little movie. Much of the fun stems from the relentless nature of the Creature's attacks. As with the shark in Jaws, this dude just won't quit until he gets what he wants. After a while, it's unclear if he desires a) the death and destruction of these interlopers or b) some of that sweet Kay action or c) both of the above, but it's a lot of fun to watch Gilly go through his motions.

Actually, the comparison to Jaws seems applicable for a number of reasons, as I found the two movies surprisingly similar. No, I don't think Steven Spielberg overtly ripped off Creature, nor do I believe that his classic is a clone of the earlier picture. However, there were a number of moments that gave me serious cases of déjà vu.

Look at these examples. For one, we have some underwater photography that shows Gilly as he swims beneath Kay and stalks her. These shots looked an awful lot like Jaws' opening sequence; I kept waiting to see Kay jerked underwater and start to hyperventilate. A lot of the scenes aboard the boat reminded me of bits from Jaws as well, especially as the ship starts to break down due to Gilly's interventions. Gilly's three-note theme isn't tremendously similar to the shark's, but they both are basic and repeat frequently. (Actually, I swear I heard a "da-dum" motif a lot like that of Jaws at one point, but this could be more hallucinating on my part.)

Frankly, the quality of Creature doesn't compare with that of Jaws; the latter is one of the greatest movies ever made, whereas the former is simply an above-average thriller. However, I did really enjoy Creature, mainly due to the effective "pursuit" scenes. As with Jaws, the hunted becomes the hunter in Creature and Gilly's attacks seem relentless.

It's during those scenes that Creature really comes to life. The movie drags a bit during its first half, mainly because Gilly doesn't do a whole lot; his existence is set up but he takes little action, and the human characters are far too dull and drab to entertain us. But once Gilly gets riled up, the fun begins in earnest and we're treated to a terrific thrill ride. The Creature from the Black Lagoon periodically threatens to become typical Fifties-era horror cheese but it always avoids this fate and remains a very compelling little flick.

The DVD:

The Creature From the Black Lagoon appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the disc clearly shows its age at times, I found the picture to usually seem attractive.

Sharpness varied slightly but mostly appeared clear and reasonably accurate. On occasion I discerned some mild fuzziness and soft qualities, but these were fairly infrequent; most of the time I thought the image seemed well-focused. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no significant concerns.

Print flaws appeared semi-frequently throughout the movie. Grain was the main culprit, as much of Creature shows mild to moderate level of that problem. I also detected some white speckles, a few scratches and a hair or two. For a film from the mid-Fifties, the defects aren't too heavy, though the grain created some concerns.

Black levels appeared reasonably deep and rich, with only a few shots presenting some slight grayness to them. Shadow detail was negatively affected by "day for night" photography on a few occasions; that technique uses filters to create a nighttime impression even though material was shot during daylight, and it often created overly-dark images. These examples are infrequent and I normally could discern the action in low-light situations with difficulty.

Creature used a lot of underwater photography, and most of it looked quite good. The underwater scenes came across as slightly-fuzzy and they also presented less-deep blacks, but they generally appeared nicely clear and detailed; it's a given that these kinds of shots won't look as good as material filmed on land, so within the limitations of the field, I thought those segments presented a quality picture. The same goes for Creature as a whole; it's not a great-looking DVD but it certainly seems pretty good.

Creature offers monaural audio that appears average for the era. Dialogue always sounded intelligible and distinct, but it betrayed a moderately harsh and tinny tone that prevented it from seeming very natural. Effects came across as a little dull and flat, but they were acceptably clear and realistic and displayed few signs of distortion. The score also seemed somewhat too bright and metallic, but it was clean and listenable. The soundtrack featured mild background noise at times. Ultimately, the sound seems typical for the period.

Creature provides a typically-solid complement of supplements, starting with a terrific audio commentary from Tom Weaver. He also did the track for 1941's The Wolf Man. That discussion was excellent, and Weaver's work here is no less entertaining. Weaver offers a rousing track that covers a wide variety of topics, from the film's genesis to its creation with a nice array of facts and anecdotes. Weaver clearly works from neatly-prepared materials but he always makes his statements sound like they are being generated spontaneously. He's also not afraid to crack on the film's problems from time to time, though he never seems disrespectful. All of the Universal Monsters audio commentaries are solid, but Weaver's are easily the best of the bunch.

Another staple of the "Classic Monster Collection" DVDs appears through "Back to the Black Lagoon", a 39-minute and 25-second documentary hosted by David J. Skal. It uses the standard format that intermixes film clips, shots from the set, and contemporary interviews with film experts and participants such as actors Julie Adams, Ben Chapman, Ricou Browning, and Lori Nelson (who appeared in the sequel Revenge of the Creature). The program repeats some of the information heard in Weaver's commentary but it generally provides new details through different perspectives, and it also covers Creature's two sequels (1955's Revenge and 1956's The Creature Walks Among Us). It's yet another entertaining and concise exploration of a monster movie, and I really liked it.

The "Production Photos" area offers a nice collection of publicity materials, promotional photos, candid pictures and shots from the movie that are presented as a running video program. This "films" the images and presents them along with music from Creature. As I've said in the past, I think this is a good way to show the pictures and it works nicely. This set of materials runs for 11 minutes and 25 seconds, which makes it the longest "Production Photos" section of all the "Classic Monster" DVDs.

We discover a few trailers on this DVD. There are two ads for Creature here, and they're both interesting to see. Unfortunately, the presentation isn't very good just because both promos appear in the same chapter. As such, if you want to check out the second trailer, you have to buzz through the first to get to it. No, it's not a huge ordeal, but it seems unnecessarily inconvenient.

Finally, Creature provides a few screens of average text "Production Notes" plus more printed information in the "Cast and Filmmakers" area. The latter includes brief biographies of director Jack Arnold and actors Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning and Antonio Moreno. The DVD concludes with a "Recommendations" section that does nothing except alert us to the existence of the other seven "Classic Monster" DVDs.

The most disappointing aspect of this DVD stems from the version of Creature we discover. As is detailed in the documentary and the commentary, Creature was filmed in 3-D and shown that way theatrically. However, the DVD doesn't include a 3-D edition of the movie. This omission has bothered many fans who reason that if Universal could offer both the English and Spanish versions of Dracula on one DVD, they certainly could pack two editions of Creature in here.

Unfortunately, it seems that this wasn't technically possible. Apparently the 3-D effects of the film can't be adequately reproduced on TV, or at least that's the word I've heard in regard to this DVD. Whether this is true or not I don't know, but since 3-D often doesn't work very well even in modern theatrical presentations, I'm inclined to believe it. Also, since Universal have done such great work on these "Classic Monster" DVDs, I'd tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.

In any case, while it's too bad we can't have the 3-D edition of the film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon still makes for a terrific DVD. The movie differs from the more psychological chills of the earlier stories, but it nonetheless offers a fun tale that's effectively rendered. The DVD offers fairly average but still solid picture and sound plus the usual complement of excellent supplements. Creature will be eagerly enjoyed by fans of classic horror movies.

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