Today’s entry is one of the great iconic Universal Studios Monsters – or the “classic monsters” for those horror fans who want to acknowledge that most of the Universal Studios Monsters are public domain characters from 1800’s horror novels that, to be quite frank, are iconic in their own right. The Gill Man, also known as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, is a wholly original creation – at least as far as I know.
Living in the titular black lagoon deep within the Amazon rainforest, the Gill Man has a pretty peaceful life until mankind comes to visit. However, a bunch of scientists essentially break into his house and begin rooting around trying to find him, and the threatened creature does what anyone would do in that situation: he tries to drive them away, even killing them when they fight back. Along the way he also develops something of an infatuation with the sole female member of the expedition, although this plotline isn’t thoroughly explored. Sadly, the poor creature is slain in the end, though in the sequels he manages to survive only to be menaced by humanity again and again.
Figuring out which sub-genre of Horror The Creature of the Black Lagoon film series falls under was difficult. His first movie could be either Gothic or Atomic, depending on how you interpret it. On the one hand, the Creature is talked about being an ancient, primeval creature whose vicious nature is a direct result of his age. He lived in a similarly ancient section of the jungle that is avoided because of its wicked reputation. That suggests that the past is the source of horror in the story, which would make it Gothic. However, the humans in the story only enter the Black Lagoon because they’re on a scientific expedition. They heard about a fossil discovered near the black lagoon and, despite its horrific reputation, decided to force their way into it and explore anyway. No one would be killed had they not foolishly ignored the warnings and went to the Black Lagoon. That places some of the blame for the horror on impetuous, impatient scientific progress, which is very Atomic Horror. It could be Imperial Gothic, which is sort of the bridge between Gothic and Atomic Horror. It’s really hard to place.
Its sequels – Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us – are definitely Atomic Horror, though. Both of these place heavy emphasis on science as the source of the trouble. In Revenge of the Creature, a new scientific expedition goes to the Black Lagoon despite the sizable death toll of the last one, capturing the creature despite being unprepared. They bring it back to a marine animal park, where various scientist try to study its intellectual capacity by shocking it with cattle prods, like ya do. It doesn’t turn out well, with heavy emphasis being placed on the fact that the problem is that the Gill Man shouldn’t be in civilization. He was fine where he was – out of humanity’s way in a place no one visits where he can be free and healthy! But pulling him out of there and forcing him to live among us for the sake of scientific progress brings tragedy – mainly because no one knows anything about what this creature needs. They just plunk him in an aquarium and start shocking him with cattle prods. Then you get The Creature Walks Among Us, where they give the Gill Man plastic surgery to make him more human and… well, it’s kind of a muddled mess, but it’s pure atomic horror.
Revenge of the Creature is a great example of a classic, by the books Atomic Horror story. If you want an example of how to make Atomic Horror without going into its specialized branches – Alien Invasion stories and Kaiju stories – look at this film. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit more muddled genre wise, but it does have a great example of how to write the Prehistoric Monster Archetype without necessarily making a dinosaur (the phrase “prehistoric monster” is even dropped a couple times in the series!). And The Creature Walks Among Us is… interesting.
The Gill Man has not only one of the most iconic monster designs in the history of Atom Age creature features, but is also one of the more undeniably tragic monsters in cinema canon. He really doesn’t mean to do wrong, and no one would have been hurt if humanity had just left him to his black lagoon. While his actions may strike terror, Gill Man is as much a victim as any of the people he kills in his desperate attempt to defend himself from human discovery.