Some movies have every storytelling element clearly present throughout the film. Such is the case with Creature from the Black Lagoon. The film begins by giving us exposition the audience can easily relate to because it is our own history. In this film, no character needs to introduce us to the world. We know from the narrator that we are in the Amazon and that the movie is exploring the missing links of evolution. Particularly, what took us from the water onto the land.
In the film, a geologist finds a mysterious skeletal hand while on an expedition in the Amazon. The hand is like nothing the researchers have seen before. The webbing between its fingers suggests that the animal is aquatic, and the claws suggest it may be dangerous. Shortly after beginning research on the hand, the lead researcher visits one of his former students, David, who studies fish in the Amazon along with his girlfriend, Kay. Dr. Mark leads their exposition, though, according to Kay and David, he is more interested in money and fame than scientific advancement. Though this gives them funding for their research, they feel it harms their academic integrity.
Eventually, the team begins to study the hand and realizes it may be a missing evolutionary link. Wanting to find more, they return to the original site where the hand was found. What the researchers do not know, however, is that this species is not extinct. When they return to the site, they find everyone dead. They suspect it was the work of a jaguar.
Though they don’t find any other remains at the original site, they hypothesize that other skeletons may be found downriver. They then set sail for The Black Lagoon, a place said to be a paradise from which no one has ever returned. Once they get to the lagoon, they find that the monster is very much alive and has become infatuated with Kay. Isolated from the rest of the world, the researchers struggle to both get proof of the monster and to stay alive. Mark demands more and more from the team, putting them all in danger. The team gets increasingly hysterical as the monster attacks them more and more frequently and makes sure they cannot leave the lagoon. Eventually, the monster kills Mark, maimes Edwin, another researcher, and kidnaps Kay. The remaining researchers find the monster and rescue Kay. They shoot the monster to protect themselves and it goes back into the water, where it is implied the monster dies.
The film allows its characters to mirror the monster in the lagoon. They try to trap one another because they are so fascinated by something they have (presumably) never seen before. For the researchers, its the monster: the missing link between man and fish. For the monster, it’s Kay, the beautiful researcher with whom the monster immediately becomes infatuated. In a larger sense as well, their motivations mirror one another. The monster evolved in this way because we wanted a way out of the water. Creatures wanted to emerge to go onto the land. Now that we’re here, however, we want to go back in.
About half of the movie is spent underwater, and this gave the filmmakers opportunities to construct really beautiful shots. The most visually interesting parts of the film show Kay and the monster swimming together. She’s near the surface, keeping her head above water, while he’s deeper under the water, but they’re perfectly in sync. While the costume may be the biggest part of what ages the movie, here it works perfectly. She’s a woman and he’s clearly a man. He wants to get out of the water because that which he desires is above him. She is like him: she swims in the water without the assistance of the SCUBA equipment, unlike the other characters. She also ventures out much farther than anyone else has. She is in his domain, and this gives him the opportunity to show the audience that he is not just a mindless killing machine.
Long before he ever sees Kay, the audience sees the monster leave the water to kill men. But why? Until we see his interactions with Kay, there seems to be no reason for this. Is this failed experiment of evolution simply a killing machine? Does he kill for food? If so, how often do people disappear to become the monster’s next meal? Captain Lucas mentioned that the lagoon is “a paradise from which no one has ever returned.” Wouldn’t this particular area have come to the attention of the numerous researchers much sooner?
The monster is calculating and only attacks when he knows he can win, waiting for others to leave so he can kill his victims in solitude. He follows the same MO with the researchers on the Rita. He separates them from the rest of the Amazon by blocking off the lagoon from the tributary with heavy branches. However, throughout the film, he holds back when it comes to the researchers. The creature is shown to be incredibly strong and has claws that are described as similar to a jaguars. We see his claws cut deep into rocks on more than one occasion. Yet only one of the researchers die when fighting with the monster. Edwin is greatly harmed, and Mark is mutilated, but everyone else survives. This is probably a message about what makes man the most superior being.
David is clearly meant to be the hero of the film. He is smart, strong, and devoted to maintaining the integrity of all creatures of the Amazon, including the monster. If the film were better plotted out, then David and Kay’s desire to protect the creature would be what gets them out of the lagoon. However, this is not the case. Mark died for his desire to take and kill the creature, but there was no further pay-off for this conflict. David’s method of subduing the creature didn’t work. Kay was still captured. And, in the end, rather than using their wits to get them out of the situation, they simply shoot the monster until he leaves.
David’s insistence at the end that they cease shooting the creature leads to a no-payoff ending in what is otherwise a good, if aged, film. If they would have continued shooting the creature until he died, then they would have had a body to continue the research that Carl began when he found the original skeleton. They would have also been able to help the people of the Amazon, who were apparently being regularly eaten by this creature. Alternatively, if they left the creature in its habitat alive, then David’s ultimate goal would have been achieved. However, neither of these things happened. The creature, fatally injured from the multiple gunshot wounds and harpoon punctures it received over the course of the movie, wades into the water and sinks to the bottom, unmoving. There is no movement or even slight fidget to indicate that the monster may still be living.
The audience is clearly supposed to believe that the creature died in the water, but what is the point of this? Are the researchers supposed to come back with a dead body and critically injured cohort and pretend like nothing was ever in the lagoon? David and the others are treating the monster like it was neither a human nor an animal. A human who kidnapped with the intention to rape, maimed, and killed would not get the same respect the monster did to die in its own home. Moreover, the researchers would presumably capture specimens in the water with relative frequency. But Kay and David frequently refer to the creature as human or human-like. They are dealing with the creature as if it is both human and animal. They are giving it the compassion and forgiveness they would give an animal who they know has no empathy, only instinct, but they are also treating it like a human in their language choices as well as their decision to leave it alone.
However, the monster is ultimately an animal. It may be shaped like a human and infatuated with Kay, but its behaviors are meant to instill a primal fear in the audience. In order to do this, the monster cannot be human. We are meant to be scared of him because he is a monster. We aren’t scared of Mark. He attacks David and carries weapons, which are inherently frightening things, but the audience knows what Mark is capable of because Mark is one of them. The same goes for the rest of the characters. And, if the rest of the characters can get eaten by some unknown, ancient monster, then they can as well.
One of the biggest flaws in the film is the lack of follow-up with the changes in pressure in the water. At the beginning of the film, Kay mentions several times how the divers must wait to come up in order to adjust to the change in water pressure. However, after about half way through the film, this is not mentioned again. At first, the creature can easily adjust to the different depths and return to land without issue while the divers cannot, but this is forgotten about by the end of the film. This huge advantage that the monster has is lost. The divers quickly surface and descend with no consequences. Is this meant to show the audience that they are becoming more like the creature in the isolation of the lagoon? If so, then why is there no other evidence of that throughout the film?
Overall, however, the film mostly holds up throughout time. While the costume and special effects may be laughable in 2016, the drama and story remain solid. The audience gets to see countless horror movie tropes in one of their original and most famous forms. Each character, including the monster, has been replicated throughout cinematic history, and the suspense built from the story is really remarkable. The pacing of this film makes the characters quickly go from happy and relaxed to scared and hysterical, but the change never feels forced. Although the movie is really about a team of researchers getting a fish-man hybrid drunk while he steals their obligatory beautiful female scientist away from them, the characters and story suck the audience into the film. It’s clear to see why the film has been watched for over 60 years.