Monday, February 09, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Creature From the Black Lagoon

(or "The Perils Of A Really Good Costume")

Realistically speaking, Universal's "classic" horror/sci-fi movie "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" isn't any better or worse than the dozens of cheap B-movies churned out in the 1950s. In fact, it's awfully difficult to tell it apart from its many competitors--a bunch of scientists go exploring a distant part of the world looking to find the truth behind a mysterious legend, and have interminably long debates over the ethics of their profession while a monster lurks in the background, jumping out whenever a good scare is needed. Eventually, the monster is defeated, and the survivors return to civilization. Back in the days when big movie studios had standing sets and actors under contract, you could whip out two or three of these a week and slap 'em together as drive-in double features. (With a much better "A-movie" as the draw, which is where the term "B-movie" came from, for those of you who didn't know.)

But "Creature" has come to be regarded as a high point of the genre, whereas films like "The Deadly Mantis", "Beginning of the End", and "The Mole People" have not. More germane to this column, it's gotten two sequels ("Revenge of the Creature" and "The Creature Walks Among Us"), while "Them" and "The Thing" did not. Why?

Well, the less-important (but immediately obvious) reason is that Universal is very good at marketing. Instead of showing the films once at the drive-in and then letting them die a quiet death, they re-packaged them dozens of times over the years for revival in theaters and on TV sets. For well over thirty years, right up until the age of home video began, young monster fans thought of the Creature as part of an extended horror family that included Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. (In fact, Remco produced a line of exactly that in the early 1980s, adding in the Phantom of the Opera for good measure.) Nostalgia and the collective appeal of the complete Universal package helped the Creature stick in people's minds long after many of its contemporaries have faded away into the mists of time, remembered only by dedicated horror fans and watchers of "Mystery Science Theater 3000".

But the more important reason was that costume. Bud Westmore's stunning creation still holds up today as one of the best monster costumes ever, a somehow natural-looking mix of fish, lizard and amphibian that looks just as good in the close-ups as it does in the long shots. Ricou Browning's swimming skills make it look fantastic and graceful underwater (to the point where you assume that the Creature's misshapen back must hide a scuba tank under the costume, but in fact Browning was just excellent at holding his breath for the long periods necessary to get the extended takes.) And on land, Ben Chapman (aided by ten-pound weights in his boots) gives the Creature a graceless lumber that makes it really feel like a fish out of water. The mix of stellar acting, swimming, and costuming makes the Creature a spectacular monster, genuinely memorable to the point where a sequel was inevitable.

Which is a huge problem, because there's no storytelling engine there. (See? I do actually remember what these columns are about.) As I said, plot-wise, "Creature From the Black Lagoon" is just your bog-standard 50s monster movie. It's almost a cookie-cutter formula. You could do a sequel that repeats the formula ("Hey, let's go down there and see what those other scientists were talking about!") but that's not a storytelling engine. A storytelling engine is designed to give writers help in coming up with stories that aren't mere repetitions of the previous film (or book, TV episode, comic, or what have you.) A formula reduces every installment to interchangeability.

The series does try, though. "Revenge of the Creature" takes the next logical step, by having the next group of scientists succeed in bringing the Creature (which they call "the Gill Man", but I think that name is too stupid to use more than once) back to civilization. I somehow doubt that the Creature would actually be put on display at Sea World if that were to happen, and I think that John Agar's "Hey, let's see if we can teach the Creature to obey simple commands by giving it powerful electric shocks!" plan would be rejected in favor of actual science, but it is one of the few directions you can go with the story.

The third movie, "The Creature Walks Among Us", shows just how hard it is to come up with any more places to go beyond that, as this one is about scientists who capture the Creature and experiment on him to allow him to breathe air. (In order to prove some point about, you know, evolution and stuff.) Unfortunately, on land and with a radically-altered costume, the Creature loses most of his appeal and the movie peters out, focusing more on a pseudo-love triangle between a jealous scientist and a "dashing" sea captain who's after the scientist's wife.

And then nothing. It's not that the series closes off all opportunities for a sequel in the third movie; it ends with the Creature heading back to the ocean, either to drown with its air-breathing lungs, or to survive with gills that may be healed enough to be useful. The problem is, either way, there are no more stories to be told. The Creature is, fundamentally, an animal. It's not supernatural, it doesn't prey on mankind unless humans intrude on its territory, it just wants to swim and be left alone. There's really only so much you can do with a central figure like that, and the "Creature trilogy" has done it all. And arguably, it only did the last two movies because people really wanted to see more of Ricou Browning swimming around in that costume.


Teebore said...

Love this movie. As a kid, the image of the creature attacking one of the crewmen's face with his hands, leaving horrific marks in the process, always stuck with me.

John Seavey said...

Oh, the hands are some of the best design work on the whole costume (which is, as I say, a genuine masterpiece overall.) The attention paid to how real animals' bodies look makes it look like you could see it in a nature documentary, albeit a Lovecraftian one.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree about the story engine of the Creature series.

The story engine of the movies seems to involve a new lifeform that only wanted to be left alone but had The Great White American encroaching on his territory, kidnapping him and torturing him, and using involuntary surgery to attempt to enforce his conformity with their prevailing paradigm.

When the movies were popular in the 1970s television, all the kids and teens identified with the Creature as a "fellow victim of The Man".

The problem with the third movie is that it treats the exploitation of the Creature as an inevitability without truly condemning it. Whereas the first two are about tragic efforts to avoid the treacheries of "The Man", the third is about the hopelessness of escape.

I think an entire series of seven, eight, perhaps nine films could have been sustained had the films focused more on the Creature's plight and paralleling it with all other victims of exploitation in the United States.

A film in which the Creature discovers others of its kind, all of them enslaved by a U.S. government branch because they have all been defined as beast. A film in which the Creature witnesses its fellow creatures killed off as they fight a U.S. corporation that has found oil to be drilled in the Black Lagoon or some other strategic resource. A film in which the Creature and its fellow survivors are declared a tasty food source and hunted down by armed-to-the-teeth corporate thugs who keep finding evidence of sapience and quietly destroying all such evidence so that the Creature remains classified as a legal quarry. A film in which the Creature is hunted down as an abomination by politicians who belong to a zealous church of religious terrorists who will not tolerate the continued existence of this walking contradiction of their Biblical interpretations. Etc.