The Outstretched Hand in the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Kay stands alone at the bottom of the ocean. We see her surrounded by fish and she examines each thoughtfully. She is perfectly at ease in this other world, still in her dry clothes, entirely focused. She smiles broadly as the camera pans back to reveal that she is actually on the other side of a glass aquarium. The film’s black and white format makes it appear as though the glass walls are not there, creating this incredible optical illusion. It’s a quick moment in Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it says volumes about Kay and monstrosity. There is something profound about this sequence, as Kay spends multiple scenes in water, but here, she is so encompassed by her studies that her sight and position are the same. She appears underwater just by thinking about the ocean. Her gaze is so intense that she exists both on land- as she is technically behind the glass- and underwater – as the camera collapses her and the aquarium. She is, in that regard, the link between land and ocean, the very thing the scientists in the film are obsessed with.

The film suggests as much later as the Creature recognizes something about Kay, or at least thinks of her differently than the men on the expedition. We could read this two ways, as the Creature either recognizes that she is a woman and is attracted to her, or recognizes some vague similarity between the two, making them comparable. Kay is a unique figure for this film era, as she is not only intelligent, but ambitious. I find this interesting given that the film relies on a dynamic which is often gendered in cinema: the science versus nature dynamic. Nature is often described as a woman, and the study of science is the pursuit, corruption, or desecration of that woman. Victor Frankenstein, for instance, makes repeated references to this gendered dynamic, often describing the moon and earth as women. But something different is happening in Creature from the Black Lagoon, something timely and perceptive.

I could spend a much larger post detailing everything about this film, because it includes such volumes. Everything from fear of touch and sight to capitalist conquest and feminism. It’s a truly incredible film, particularly as it argues that nothing is certain, and that doesn’t change by the end of the film. Most Universal Monster films are caused and concluded by mankind’s immoral behaviour, but that is not the case here. What seems secure is not, leaving every character blind, including the Creature. The film itself is like its Creature, reaching out a hand before seeing what is ahead.

“We didn’t come here to fight monsters…We came here to find fossils.”

The film starts at the beginning of time. Yes, it is that ambitious. It creates this whole origin story for the earth and its Creatures. This introduction argues that the miracle of life creates an infinite and unstable reality, where the earth conceals and even works against humans, merely by operating outside of the human’s gaze. The film also argues that humans have a grandiose ego which prevents us from recognizing that things happen without us all the time. It’s the same ego that poses a question like, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. This film would argue that it does, because the universe does not mold itself to our limited perception and scope. The humans are no more spectacular than any other species. The film makes several references to this perspective using the term ‘prehistoric’, which the characters use throughout. The word implies that there is something beyond our history and records- pre human-, that we can only find evidence of, and even then, we will filter that evidence through a human-centric model. For instance, when the characters first encounter the Creature, they immediately describe it as humanoid, even though it is much older than humans and lives underwater with gills. They later retract that sentiment by just referring to it as a creature or monster, rather than something comparable. That is because the humans eventually realize that the Creature is intelligent and vengeful, like them, while also possessing aquatic skills. To suggest that something so dangerous and skilled is similar is to bring it closer to you. Likewise, to blur what makes humans ‘special’ is to recognize that nature is far more complex than our current (and possibly future) scientific model.

The scientist cannot really distinguish themselves from this conversation, as the film argues that this blur exists. The Creature is often read as a sympathetic figure, who is comparable to figures like Kay and even David. So, the film demonstrates that what humans push away from themselves is still a reflection of themselves, and that the emotions and drive we consider ‘human’ are not singular in nature. These points might seem contradictory, as the Creature is both other and familiar, but the characters indirectly explain it during several conversations about evolution and adaptation. The lungfish is referenced by multiple characters, as it developed lungs, but never left the ocean. It just stopped for no apparent reason. The scientists in the film assume that nature’s intention, that word alone already simplifies things, is to get life out of the sea. Anything that doesn’t get out of the sea is therefore less impressive than the humans, who did evolve beyond it. The team visits the Amazon for that reason, calling it a living relic, where nothing changes and everything is a killer, unlike them. They quickly learn, however, that just because something did not emerge from the water, doesn’t mean it failed. They also learn that they are just as capable of killing and blind violence as any animal in the Amazon, possibly more so.

The scientists’ initial gaze is entirely human-centric, as they are studying the Amazon for two reasons. First, David and Kay want to learn more about where humans come from, and the process of adaptation. They believe that humans will one day have to adapt to an alien planet, just as the sea creatures could adapt to land. This perspective implies that the earth is two planets, land and sea. What Kay and David don’t account for is that the sea, as a planet, already has occupants whose main intention isn’t to leave. These things are also not alien, they have been around just as long, sometimes longer, than the humans. The second reason the scientists visit the Amazon is to make money and become famous, which again, is entirely human-centric. David and Kay have the slightly more noble ambition, as they suggest that science is not fortune telling, as nature isn’t molded to please you. Nothing is certain, and the team realizes that the hard way.

“What’s an expedition without two martyrs at least!”

Creature from the Black Lagoon has an interesting history when it comes to form. The film is shot in black and white, and styled for 3D screenings. It wasn’t the first 3D film, rather one in a string of intruding monster films, which were meant to leer at the audience and threaten to enter their world. We still get that approach in modern 3D movies, where films clearly set up a specific shot just for the 3D effect. That intention is sort of lost when viewing the movie at home, but Creature from the Black Lagoon was never intended to be seen at home. It was a big picture in a very literal sense. The characters, and narrative, was meant to reach for the viewer, who in turn, were meant to draw back suddenly. The film essentially creates a relationship between sight and touch, drawing the two together, suggesting that to see something is to touch it with your eyes. To bring yourself closer to whatever horror you are watching without getting too close. This relationship is certainly present in the film’s 3D format, but also in its narrative. There is this strange fear and obsession around seeing and touching, and the film eventually suggests that seeing is enough. Take David and Mark’s approach to ‘capturing’ the Monster. David wants to take a photo of the Creature in its natural habitat, while Mark wants to shoot the Creature with his speargun and bring it home as a trophy. Both the camera and spear gun are presented as new technology in the film, as the camera is this heavy and innovative instrument, which allows underwater photos. By contrast, there is a scene where Mark shows off his modern gun and the other characters tease him and ask what he plans on shooting. Two kinds of shooting, very different goals. David wants proof that you can see and study later, without disrupting too much. Mark, by contrast, wants to touch and possess the Creature by killing or kidnapping it. David goes along with the plan to kidnap the Creature until it kills multiple crew members, and then he recognizes that the human loss is more substantial than any scientific gain. Mark’s blind determination to exhibit the Creature, regardless of the cost, is indicative of a larger scientific issue.

The film presents David and Mark as two versions of science, and although it obviously sides with David more than Mark, it uses these figures to critique a broader and more troubling capitalist drive in science. The Creature is a metaphor, of sorts, for the ongoing trauma and dismissal done in the name of science and mankind against nature. The film implies that Mark’s behaviour is indicative of real-world environmental and racial problems. I think it’s noteworthy that the first people who die in the film are Carl’s assistants, who are implied to be from the Amazon, yet are dismissed even while on camera. Their deaths are largely excused, and the work continues because it doesn’t directly impact the Americans, which just causes further damage. There is a critique on America here, and of privileged white scientists invading other places in the world, regardless of the violence and broad disruption it will cause. The film might seem timely now, but keep in mind, films were not aware nor discussing issues like global warming in 1954, let alone human’s direct involvement in that catastrophe. It is important to note that the suggestion that nature might fight back isn’t unique, not even for 1954, nor is the suggestion that nature will respond to something mankind does. However, the suggestion that mankind is a violent nuisance, and not responsible for the creation of the Creature, only destruction, is significant. That is different than the other Universal Monster films, which almost exclusively focus on dangerous inventions like Frankenstein’s Creature or an invisibility potion, both of which are destroyed at the end of their respective films. The Creature in Black Lagoon is killed at the end of its film, but what it represents is not.

It’s possible that there are other Creatures, although the film implies that the Creature is the last of its species, because unlike Frankenstein, the scientists are not directly responsible for creating anything. They are totally surprised by the Creature’s existence, and they make repeated arguments that there is still much to be learned about the ocean. They haven’t discovered the secret of life or invisibility, they barely understand what they just encountered, and that is enough. The film praises science while also warning us that we should maintain some distance. That also goes for the human-centric model, as we need to take a step back and stop focusing on ourselves and how we fit in the world to see a broader and more diverse picture. The film demonstrates this in its introduction, as it discusses the beginning of the universe. None of the scientists in the film can see the start of the universe, but they can find the things it touched. The indents and stones that it left. The film argues that we can study these things, measure, and learn from them, but to touch, or more specifically to possess, is to assert yourself with the same importance as the start of the universe which made these marks, and that’s ignorant.

There is a deep existential crisis in this film, as the characters realize that humans are not the only ones capable of feeling and drive, meaning that these traits are not owned by humans. That leads to several troubling questions around the way we treat the world and ourselves. What blindness do we walk with? What do we leave behind? Anytime we see Mark and David in the water, they are followed by a trail of bubbles. Like the two men are signaling where they are, even leaving footprints or casting shadows with oxygen. They can’t breathe underwater without a tool, but the Creature can breathe on land, at least for a time. This means that the Creature chooses to stay underwater, so who is the more evolved?

“Every man his mortal enemy…and a woman’s beauty his prey!”

Whenever the Creature emerges in the film, it does so with an outstretched hand. It’s often the first thing we see, just that hand inching across, feeling for something or someone. Touch without sight, without knowing what is in front. It’s this unsure movement that makes the Creature so sympathetic. Never quite touching but always about to. The film primarily presents this as a threat, both to the Creature and the scientists. The Creature cannot see what it is reaching for, and the crew is threatened by the Creature, and begin screaming anytime they see the hand. We are also shown the hand right before the Creature attacks someone, implying that this is the precursor, the threat of touch before the attack. This begins even as the scientists take the fossilized monster hand back to their lab. But we also see the inverse of this, as the Creature recognizes that the scientists are a threat and is afraid to touch. There is a beautiful dance between Kay and the Creature underwater, where the Creature reaches for her, but never touches. She is swimming near the top, ducking up every so often for breath, while it emerges from the ocean floor, where it was hiding. It’s drawn to Kay, possibly because, as the scientist claim, everything in the Amazon is a killer, which Kay is not.

Innocence is generally the most attractive quality in a Universal Monster film, as the women are always innocent, and the more sympathetic monsters are those who didn’t know what they were doing or were unjustly traumatized by society. That complicated innocence is typically reserved for the Monsters, who are in turn, attracted to other innocent figures, women who are socially acceptable. Kay, however, has a complicated innocence, making her a unique heroine in the Universal cannon. She is ambitious, in fact, the first time we meet her, she is explaining science to Carl, the geologist. We meet her on a dock, as she waits for her boyfriend to emerge from an excavation, which takes time because of changing pressure. She is taking notes during the excavation and making her own points. Both she and her boyfriend David work with Mark, meaning that they are colleagues, and she is not just there because they are dating. This isn’t a holiday, it’s a dangerous study. More importantly, Kay is not just involved with David’s work, he is involved with her work too. They work together, and she isn’t a secretary. I cannot emphasize enough how rare that representation is for a film from 1954. She is the one to note the webbed fingers on the excavated body, and she is the one to drive the boat to the mainland. This makes her an unmarried academic individual, which again, is incredibly rare in film. She also demonstrates this ambition throughout the film, like when David tells her to wait on the ship, and she replies, “I am not afraid David. We have come this far”, because they both have responsibility to their work. Now, the film can’t go too far with her representation without angering someone, so Kay is still given a love interest, and never has dirt on her, versus the men, but still.

There is also a sinister plot underneath the film’s surface, around Mark’s reprehensible version of science. Kay is waiting for a raise from Mark, which both David and Carl note she is more than deserving of. They even joke that David will marry her after she gets the raise, because then she can afford him. It’s a joke, but there is something happening between Mark and Kay, perhaps a reason she hasn’t received a raise. Mark is accused of taking credit for other people’s work, and although the characters don’t name anyone, it’s certainly implied that he has taken credit for Kay’s work. She is busy researching, or doing the work, while he puts his name on it. He takes possession of it, much like his approach to the Creature. There is likewise a weird a tension between Kay, David, and Mark, as the two men seem to hate each other, not just because of their different approaches to science. Mark seems to scoff anytime Kay and David show affection, suggesting that the joke from before, about marrying once she gets a raise, is maybe not that much of a joke. Mark wants her to stay so he can possess her, maybe not in a sexual way, but definitely in an academic sense. Kay, in that regard, is somewhat like the Creature, as she too is capable of thinking and reason, but is separated from men who want to possess her and is not given the same respect or treatment.

Being a woman is inherently monstrous, especially when you don’t follow a socially acceptable model, which Kay does not. Again, she is an unmarried academic studying in the Amazon and is the only woman in the group. She has David as a chaperon of sorts, but she is still determined to experience things herself, hence her jumping into the water when the men go down below. They even tell her that she is “too far out” from the ship, making her is overly ambitious both literally and symbolically. Kay clearly doesn’t agree, but this moment indicates that the men are somewhat uncomfortable with Kay’s confidence. Women are presented as tools in the film, as the ship is called Rita, and nature is referred to using female terms and viewed as something to possess. But by the end of the film, the tools have redefined themselves. The ship is their only salvation and escape, and nature becomes entirely unstable and undefinable. The men are dependent on the whims of what they dismissed as tools, which just leaves Kay. She is kidnapped by the Creature, who finally touches something without killing it, as it does with its other victims. There is even a moment as it carries her away that it begins almost mimicking her name, as David calls it. Kay survives the encounter, but that ambition is still there. Mark is dead, leaving room for her research with Carl and David, hopefully a less intrusive and violent research than what they just experienced.

“In infinite variety, living things appear, and change.”

You might have noticed that I have referred to the Creature as an It rather than a He. I perhaps could have alternatively referenced the Creature as a They, because it is never explicitly gendered in the film. The Creature is most commonly read as a He, mainly because it was played by two male divers and is called the Gill-man in the credits, but that is not confirmed in the narrative, as not even the scientists understand what is going on. We could easily read the Creature as a She or beyond gender, and that would still work with the film. It also offers countless other readings on the Creature, and mankind’s need to project its own constructs, but I think there is something else we could do with this. The Creature’s presence and existence is a threat because it presents an alternative to what seemed certain but has always been there. Actress Julie Adams, who plays Kay, stated as much by noting:

“There always is that feeling of compassion for the monster. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that longs to be loved and think they really can’t ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us”.

I have highlighted all the ‘touch’ terms in this quote, because, as I suggested earlier, the film positions sight as a form of touch, one which is intrusive, but more to person looking than the person being looked at. The Creature brings out something inside us, meaning that people (especially those watching) use it as a metaphor for things about themselves or broader issues in society. I have certainly done some of that here. It’s selfish but useful. It’s still that human-centric gaze, but at least here, it recognizes that there is something we don’t really understand about ourselves, perhaps even something we can’t put to words, but we recognize in ourselves or others. There is a sort of intrinsic fear here, a fear of literal touch and sight, and what either of those will imply. Lucas, the Captain, says something along the lines of “the unknown always seems unbelievable”, but it still exists, regardless of whether one knows about it or believes. There are things beyond us, and we can and should study them, but know that there will always be an unknown quality in some regard. Take the film’s ambiguous ending, where neither the viewer nor the scientists know if the Creature survives its injuries. He has been shot and stabbed multiple times, and kind of freezes in the water as he drifts off, but death is not confirmed. The scientists still don’t understand how the Creature has survived for so long, or what its habits are. There is a chance that it survives, especially as, like the other Universal Monsters, the Creature reappears in later films. We even get a symbolic sequel in Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water (2017), where the Creature does get the girl, and it’s further discussed why the two mirror one another. That uncertainty thus continues after the film ends, as like the Creature’s trembling hand, we don’t know what lies ahead for the characters or ourselves, in a world already governed by an unknown consequence we have yet to perceive.

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