Poor Creature. While Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and Wolf Man adorn all sorts of Universal products, the Gillman is often brushed aside. While the others made their names in the ’30s and ’40s, Creature from Black Lagoon seems like an outlier within the early 1950s, the tail end of the monster epics.
What that gave the Gillman is experience. Watching all of those previous monsters, he gained a knack for knocking off people and carrying away women. No one does it better. Certainly, no one handles the water this well either.
Inside the meticulously crafted suit (under the water at least) is Ricou Browning, a professional diver that gives the monster an inhuman grace in his natural element. Residing in the Amazon, he has wandered around for centuries, one assumes snapping at fish, until a woman comes into his life. Fixated and drawn to her, he begins a small rampage against researchers all for a little primal instinct run amok.
This is the only key Universal Monster that is not directly human. Even with their flaws, the likes of the wrag-wrapped Mummy and pieced together Frankenstein creation still have the basic functions. Creature tosses that out to better manage the growing needs of a creature-obsessed movie decade. Human beasts no longer cut it by then.
Avoiding the growing voice of radiation, Gillman is a missing link. In a way, he does have human characteristics even if his outward appearance is not readily appealing. The location is able to work better without constant fears of technology, while forcing the crew to think outside of the box for survival. They cannot create a super weapon to serve their needs in the middle of nowhere.
Keeping it interesting is David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Mark Williams (Richard Denning), two men in the midst of science for different reasons. David wants out when the Gillman begins to pick away at the crew, and Mark becomes obsessive about publicity. Mark’s work ethic is set to kill him.
Creature from the Black Lagoon is a uniquely small feature in the Monsters canon, devoid of the often glamorous sets that sold the mood of the older films. The jungle is enough to cause chills, and the underwater footage makes the creature out to be a superb trap killer. Hidden in the seaweed, he can leap out, or dodge incoming harpoons.
Shot for 3D, the film does tend to drift a little for the sake of a glasses-wearing audience. Under the lagoon, divers take their time to pan over the camera location, and multiple shots point right at the lens for no purposeful reason. Decades later, that technological decision still weighs on Creature, although not enough to knock him from deserved underdog status.
Creature from the Black Lagoon likes to linger on shots, even those not at their peak for dissolve edits. That means around 40% of the film is noticeably soft with weakened resolution or impact. It is unavoidable, although for the sake of 3D presentation, a lot of those moments look slightly de-grained to avoid noise impeding on the depth. Since the 2D and 3D presentation share the same master, it will affect both editions.
That still leaves half of the film as a great black & white showpiece. Sharpness is substantial, imagery coming through cleanly sans damage. You won’t find any judder or age indicators at the peaks, crisp material able to hold up to scrutiny. The AVC encode pumps out enough data to keep the grain consistent without causing a digital vibe.
Gray scale is also impeccable, arguably the best balanced out of all the Universal Monster features in this box set. Daylight brings an overcast sky with plenty of brightness, and dense interiors are filled with shadow detail preserving black levels. Despite a little give, even the underwater scenes have excellent balance, if not reaching as deep. Cinematography naturally layers the images for depth regardless.
In terms of raw detail, the monster suit has never appeared better. Under his hands lie suction cups which have always been lost. The superior craftsmanship allows for individual scales to be rendered here, and even a flub or two that reveal the rubber nature too cleanly. Technology can also be a curse sometimes. Elsewhere, shots of the lightly rundown ship showcase the jungle as well as chipping paint. Divers come up with glistening beads of water, and clothing is sharply handled.
The kicker of it all? The 3D is often fantastic, maybe too much so. Creature loves placing things in tight to the front of the frame, too close for comfortable viewing. Some strewn objects in the lagoon are pulled so far forward, they naturally double. Some close-ups also have the issue wherein your eyes try to adjust to a rapidly changing zoom. The sheer amount of depth causes night sequences about 50-minutes in to struggle with cross-talk if your equipment is susceptible to it.
Calming down though, as hard as it will be to convince someone with text, Creature can hang with the Avatars of the world. No, really. With all of the footage taken below the surface, the slew of bubbles, exploitative shots of divers poking the camera, and levels of seaweed, this is never boring. Even typical dialogue scenes are happy to oblige, from an aquarium introduction to the fossilized hand sticking out in the beginning, 3D effects are rarely this intense. Even the opening credits are powerful, followed by a cheap explosion that has debris from an early universe flying at the camera. This is a definite surprise.
A trio of composers contributed to the scoring of Creature, the mix always working a balance between screechy highs and creepy lows. At the highest pitch, there is some minimal distortion to be heard. You can pick it out during the opening credits, although overall fidelity is excellent enough not to notice unless you are sensitive.
Music is absolutely critical here, with the underwater scenes lacking sound effects. They are driven completely by the score. The DTS-HD mono affair comes from a great source lacking in age defects, with dialogue reproduction that is wonderfully clear and precise.
Historain Tom Weaver hops onto the disc for a solo commentary track, while David J. Skal hosts Back to the Black Lagoon, a 40-minute look at the series. Eleven minutes of production photos, posters, and more scroll by, followed by trailers for the two sequels. A recurring 100th anniversary feature The Lot is included too.
Note: This review is based on the UK version of the disc. Contents (video, audio, extras) aside from the menus, are identical to the US release.